Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A wheelie good adventure.

                A great English philosopher once said ‘Life is about discovering our passion, only then can we find a way to make that passion profitable’ A great guide to pursuing happiness but everything is up to interpretation. What I did manage to do however was combine my passion for travel with a passion (borderline obsession) of motorcycles and spend money doing it. But hey, another great inspiration Chris Guillebeau who just finished visiting every country in the world by his 35th birthday also says ‘If you have air miles, or money, or the most valuable asset of all -- time -- put it to good use. Spend it!’ and that’s exactly what happened. Motorcycling around Vietnam / the world has been a dream of mine ever since I bought my first motorcycle at sixteen years old. It may not be the most challenging or heroic adventure I’ve ever done but it was definitely one of the coolest things I’ve ever accomplished. Never the less it was a dream of mine that started out like any other, a crazy idea that grew into something possible. 3 months, 3 accidents, 3500 kilometres later, here I am writing about a journey once only dreamt, now accomplished.
                Before beginning to explain the adventures and obstacles overcome in the past few months there are a few things readers need to know about Vietnam and especially motorcycles in Vietnam. First of all there are no rules or laws. Red lights are decoration only. Yellow lines are for seeing how many times you can cross them. Driving on the designated side of the road is for the suckers getting home later than you. Driving is a massive game of mechanical frogger. The only rule being the bigger car wins. Bicycles yield to motorbikes, motorbikes yield to cars, cars yield to trucks, and for the love of god everything yields to the kamikaze bus drivers. Incredibly though it all seems to work, the tangle of cars, bikes, motorbikes, donkey driven karts, buses, trucks, and trains weave into a massive brawl of methodical madness. It defies all logic and physics but it simply works. As if driving isn’t dangerous enough on its own, despite the 100,000 motorcycle deaths annually, my driver’s license is void in Vietnam. It’s illegal for me to drive a motorcycle because I don’t hold a Vietnamese license ‘which are nearly impossible to acquire’. Not only can I be arrested, thrown in jail, and have my motorbike confiscated, doing something illegal also means that in the case of an accident my health insurance is void. So I’m in a third world country, participating in the most dangerous and fatal means of transportation, doing it illegally, and doing it with no insurance. If I were to hit my head the bandages will only wrap my head as far as my wallet will allow. Where do we draw the line between crazy and stupidity? In Vietnam, is the reward worth the risk?
                Meeting my brother was huge incentive to get over to Vietnam and despite the fact we fight like cats and dogs and generally despise each others presence, I love that guy to death. It’s always a great feeling reuniting with a family member and my dear brother sacrifices a month of his life and responsibilities once a year to meet me in some exotic country to tear up the turf on dirt bikes. Privileged lifestyle I admit but I spend enough time living in the jungle, sleeping in the dirt, and starving myself to death so I can treat myself once in a while to something luxurious. Being both more than experienced capable motorcyclists mixed with older brother competition, this meant many more self-inflicted near death instances occurred than required. Despite the dangers and consequences if a bad accident did happen, we still drove our little motorbikes at top speed around mountain top roads as if it was the Vietnam Moto GP Championship tempting fate around every corner and spitting in the face of danger while the cocky invincible young man exposed himself. As the saying goes, if you play with fire, you will get burnt and burnt I got.
At first sight in the mayhem of Vietnam’s capital city Hanoi, it seems impossible not to get in an accident. In fact, it seems impossible to even cross the street as motorbikes wiz from left and right, some of them blaring their horn at you to move while they bust it down the sidewalk to avoid a slow labor driven rubbish kart being handled by an old crippled woman. Nobody stops to help, nobody slows down to make her life easier, the horn is held on until the opposite side of the red light is reached. This certainly isn’t Kansas anymore and if I want to survive I must adapt. Close your eyes and step into the street. It takes the same amount of confidence to step off a bridge while bungee jumping. You’re going to be alright, in theory, but everything our lives have taught us up to this moment tell us not to do it. Close your eyes and walk as the horns blare loudly into both side of your face, flashes of light illuminate the dull pink of the backside of the eyelid. The smell of petrol, boiled bone marrow and rotting fish waft into your nose with every gust of air that’s broken from the motorcycle zooming past you, so close you can feel their loose clothing brushing against your own. Be confident and be predictable. Never stop and don’t run. You will be safe. This is how to cross a street in Vietnam, if you can cross a Vietnamese street, you can drive to every corner of the country if you want, and I did.

After nearly three weeks of driving like a maniac on these suicidal roads it was only a matter of time until the fire burnt the hand playing with the flames. In only three weeks I had seen it all, trucks upside down on a mountainsides, blood stained pavement surrounded by angry bystanders, scooters lying helpless on their sides at the end of long path of fresh scars in the pavement. Avoiding head on collisions, nearly losing control on hairpin dirt roads, it all seemed too surreal and never dampened my need for speed and competitive spirit towards my brother. We had already had an incredible day descending from the tallest mountain in Indo-China when we came across the mightiest traffic jam I have ever seen. Tractor trailers took up both sides of the road for a total of 10 kilometres. Most drivers had already abandoned their vehicles and were cooking dinner and setting up camp for the night as the traffic jam was only getting worse by the minute. It could be hours or even days before this mess would be sorted out and my brother and I only had two hours of sunlight to make it the extra 60 km into town. No explanation needed as my brother saw me click the GoPro Camera stuck on the side of my helmet to record, it was on. First one to the other side wins and the looser suffers a night of shame and harassment for being a pussy. Vietnamese body’s dove to the ground and screamed in horror as they have never in their lives seen a white man on a motorbike drive with such uncontrollable insanity (go pro footage to prove this). I was in the gutter, in between buses and trucks; scratching paint from fenders, forgot the brakes hold on the horn. I drove like my life depended on it and I’m glad I did because I beat my brother to the other side and I would never be able to live with the embarrassment of losing to him.
        The day was wearing on, I had hardly a thing to eat all day, and I was suffering from Asia tummy and a stomach ulcer causing the worst stomach cramps I’ve ever had. I was eager to find a bed before the night was upon us as driving in the night is immediate suicide on these roads. My brother took my eagerness and concern as a good time to start fiddling with rhetorical nuts and bolts on his motorbike at the mechanic shop across the street. In my delusional tired frustration I had no more patients as my head throbbed with pain and pleaded for a pillow. Anger grew inside of me. I hadn’t felt like this in years, I had forgotten what anger felt like and it felt like a poison infecting my judgment and skewing any rational thought. The anger took control of my body and a rage I’ve only felt a few times in my life woke from its awful sleep to control me. I left my brother behind as I rode off alone into the darkening hour of the evening. I rode full throttle in top gear, passing buses and trucks on blind corners not thinking of anything but the hatred inside my head. I was so delusional and mad I couldn’t concentrate on a thing I was doing and drove blindly into the night. As I came around one sharp corner I noticed that an entire dump truck load of dirt had been dropped on the road in the opposing lane. Nothing too ordinary in Vietnam but then again, it was Vietnam after all and for that split second I forgot I wasn’t in a civilized country anymore, I was on a collision course to disaster. A black sedan was approaching the mound of dirt on his side of the road at an equally fast speed. In my blind rage Vietnamese rules were forgotten as the car swerved directly into my lane to avoid the pile of dirt and set a collision course with me. I swerved hard and hit the muddy shoulder of the road giving me one a meter birth between the guard rail and the kamikaze sedan. I hit the soft muddy shoulder at 90km/h, landing me in a deep slippery rut. Riding a rut on a motorbike is like riding a bull in a paddock, do your best to hold on but you’re at the mercy of the beast. I did my best to hang on and managed to slow down a little bit before I hit a rut I couldn’t fight, bucked from my seat, I’ve felt this before, all was black and quiet.
                The time following this accident has been some of the scariest moments of my life. I remember small segments of waking up and not being able to move my body, when I realized I could move my arms, I checked my legs, one of which was pinned under my bike. I pushed myself free and someone was helping me off the ground. I felt fine and everything seemed to be okay but it was only shock and adrenaline setting in. My brother caught up to me and realized I had just been in an accident. He sat me down on set of steps and asked me what happened, I began to explaining the accident but strange enough I couldn’t remember. I felt my memory fading away and looking up into my brother’s eyes like an infant who’s just been slapped and doesn’t understand why. I tried to remember why my head hurt but I couldn’t. I didn’t know where I was or why I was there. I recognized my brother and held his hand and knew I was in trouble ‘whatever happens in the next little while, I want you to help me’ I’ve been in a coma and had concussions before and what I was experiencing was the beginning of a familiar nightmare. I looked down at my body and my arms and legs were covered in blood, the entire right side of my body was streak of mud. Even the shock and adrenaline running through my body wasn’t enough to subdue the panic rising in my chest. There I was at least 2 hours from a basic hospital, at night, with no health insurance. If I had a concussion my brain was already starting to swell and treatment would be limited and very basic granted I would even be able to make it there. Luckily enough the shitty little army helmet I had stopped enough of the impact and as my heart rate slowed, my memory returned. The line between crazy and stupid had been crossed. The decision was made to return to Hanoi and buy real helmets that would actually make a difference in the next accident.
                Other incidences include the time I was t-boned by a young guy on scooter in the middle of the street. He landed pretty hard breaking his cell phone and leaving a wrist to elbow bloody road rash along his arm. He had been driving down the wrong side of the road at high speeds talking on a cell phone with no helmet when he hit me but because its Vietnam and I’m a white guy without a license, it was my fault for simply being there. Doing what’s morally wrong but practically right, I shifted into gear and took off before the angry mob that was circulating got ahold of me or worse, for the police to show up. Police are uneducated and under paid so it’s not surprise to the amount of corruption and bribes that need to be paid. Most of them have orders from their superiors not to bother tourists and that’s got me through over two dozen road blocks without needing to provide documents until the time I tried to drive across a bridge for cars only. Both my brother and I were pulled over by policemen yielding batons clearly cocked back to use them. Honest mistake we tried to turn around and retreat but one insistent officer reached his hand over and turned off both of our bikes instructing us to follow him to his superior where bribes were certainly going to be paid. Playing stupid we pretended to abide to his request before giving him a good baton distances buffer and ride away in a third world getaway.
               Strangely it all added to the adventure and daring circumstances, all until I was the first one to come across a head on collision between a truck and a motorcycle. (read about that bellow – Vietnamese death certificate) I love Asia and I love motorcycles and both need to be respected. I might not have any tattoos on my skin but beneath the surface are scars and memories reminding me of how lucky I am to be alive and how fortunate I am to be wealthy and educated enough to drive motorcycles all around the world. I’ll continue riding for the rest of my life but I feel like it’s time to count my blessing and get back to something less suicidal and reunite with the people in my life who inspire me to live beyond the boundaries and pursue my dreams.

Discover your passion, pursue happiness, and start living your dreams.

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