I Ponder Zen & Motorbikes (Central Highlands, Vietnam)

Zen.

What is Zen?  We use the word constantly in an abstract manner, but do we even know what it is?  We define it more by what it is not, than by what it is – we think Zen is anything that is not stressful.  We name trendy coffee shops Zen This, ambient chill-out music Zen That, Volume CCCCXX, and, most relevant to my situation, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.   But what is it?  I still cannot define Zen, but on Day Four on the Road, I came a little closer.

I found traces of Zen everywhere on Day Four.  Oddly enough, I found Zen amongst the most frustrating circumstances, in the midst of rain, mud, and motor oil.  I found it within the folds of my own mind, using only a few simple alterations of perspective.  It is easy enough to find peace of mind while sipping Singapore Slings on a beach in southern Thailand, but this is simply escapism.

No, the most rewarding tranquility comes when everything around you is going wrong, when your clothes are soaking wet, your bike won’t start, your back hurts, you are stuck in the middle of nowhere in a foreign country and no one speaks enough English to understand your bitching.

It was here, in this situation, that I found Zen.  With no one to complain to, no one to rely upon, and no one to help me, I scrunched up my fists, bit my lip, took a deep breath and then slowly exhaaaaaaalled… Ahhh… everything will be alright.  Deep breaths.

It rained all day.  I woke up early, determined to complete my journey before the afternoon rains started.  But the afternoon rains from the previous day had not yet abated.  I sipped my coffee in silence and looked out into the early morning rain.  Remember the first tenant of Buddhism, I thought, life is suffering; accept your suffering and do not complain about it.  Yes, it would rain all day.

Everything I owned would probably be soaked.  I could not alter my situation, only how I reacted to it.  I wrapped my valuables in a plastic bag, saddled up the bike, and pushed off into the rain.

I pulled out of Dalat and headed to my destination at Dak Lak, 150 km north on Highway 20.  I was wearing a pancho, but it was entirely useless – the rain dampened my shirt, irritated my eyes, soaked my jeans, and ran down my legs and pooled in my shoes and socks.  Within one hour of leaving Dalat,
I was a mess.  And I still had hours to go.

I was uncomfortable, but how could I let that distract me when I was traveling through such a beautiful land, and by motorbike no less???  Dalat had been crowded with tour buses and honeymooning Vietnamese, but only twenty kilometers beyond the city limits and I was alone in the forest.

And then, just as I crested a hill and plunged into a beautiful valley of pine trees and clouds, the rain stopped and the sun warmed my face, dried my hands, and as for my jeans and shoes…well, it didn’t really do anything for them – they were soaked beyond help.  But, oh, how I welcomed the brief hiatus from the miserable rain!  A break in my suffering!

I slipped the bike into neutral, turned off the engine, let go of the handle bars and drifted downhill with my arms raised to my side.  It was completely silent.  I floated through the pine trees, through the wisps of clouds that hung motionless in the folds of the valley, down, down, down, to the streams below.  I felt like I was flying.  I had found the first traces of Zen.

It was a relatively trouble-free day; my entire exhaust pipe detached from the engine and fell onto the highway, but I managed to rejoin it to the bike using only a screwdriver and a wrench.  I thought of that 16-year old boy who knew my bike inside-out, and I smiled at my modest accomplishment.  I still had far to go, but I was learning something about motorcycle maintenance.

The scenery was so beautiful.  I pulled over many times to take photos, and each time my bike stalled and would not restart (so please appreciate the attached photos!).  Normally I would be frustrated by this, fuming about the damn worthless bike, and worrying about being late to my destination.   But I was in no rush, and I enjoyed the opportunity to take in the sights.  The motor was silent and I gazed over the valleys and listened to the sounds of the forest, the hum of the crickets, the gurgling of the mountain streams, and the sound of the wind whispering through the trees.  I breathed the fresh mountain air deep into my lungs, and smiled in appreciation of it all.  It was magical.

The climate had changed again.  The Mekong Delta was the land of rice paddies, the southern Central Highlands around Dalat were covered in lumber farms, and now I was surrounded by coffee farms.  Hill upon hill, from the valley bottoms to the ridgelines above, were blanketed in coffee bushes.   I passed through small villages, honking and waving at villagers and children.  They waved back and smiled at me, the novelty that I was, and I felt more welcome then than I have throughout my time in Asia.

The rain lasted all day, and I had to take shelter from the storm numerous times.  I sipped a warm coffee, fresh from the nearby hills, hopped back on the bike and continued on my journey.
As the sun came down over the mountains to the west, I finally approached the town of Dak Lak.  My clothes were totally soaked, and my jeans were weakened by the rain and had begun to tear at the thighs.  I was a mess, and the villagers all took turns laughing at me.

The village consisted entirely of traditional longhouses where extended families life together under one roof.  Some people started renting out space to tourists, but most of the villagers continue their traditional lives as fishermen and paid little attention to me as I passed through.  But in my opinion, staying in a longhouse is just an expensive way to sleep in a wooden dorm room!

At night I ate dinner at the only restaurant in town, managed by a motherly older woman.  She took one look at me in my soaked clothes, took pity on me, hugged me, showed me to a hot shower, and fed me until I could eat no more.  Then they pulled out a plastic bottle of brown rice whiskey.  Whew!  I had trouble finding my way back home, considering that every single longhouse was identical to the next.  It took me about an hour, but I finally found my spot, curled up in a ball and fell asleep.
The morals of the story?  First, the beauty of life can be found everywhere and at any time, you just have to know where to look.  And secondly, never drink rice whiskey in a village of longhouses – you may never find your way home!

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