Zen and the Art of Being a Motorcycle Passenger
My waterproofs were used. They stank with the unmistakeable sour tang of wet and muddy fabric left to stew in its own nasty bacterial heaven like the very worst of festival tents. I slipped the trousers over my legs and held my breath as I pulled the hoody-shaped bag over my head. I suppose I should have asked for a different set but they were getting wet again already and I was only going to have to wear them for the next two whole days.
Any illusion I had that travelling from Hue to Hoi an in central Vietnam by motorbike was going to be a biker chick-cool, wind in my hair, Easy Rider sort of experience was dispelled as I wrapped myself from head to toe in blue plastic and climbed onto the back of a motorbike that was so laden with plastic-wrapped luggage, some mine, some not, that it looked like we were selling something. ‘You look like Rock’, said Top, my driver, pointing at my lip piercing and fooled by my Skid Row t shirt. I shook my head, pulled my hoody up under my helmet to keep my neck warm and settled back against the comfy backrest. Rock. Ha.
We broke free of the city and as the roads became more narrow and more bumpy we picked up the pace, flying up and down twisting mountain roads surrounded by jungle, every now and then slowing to pass through a tiny village.
A man walked by in military uniform wearing a jacket, trousers and a hat but no shirt. A toddler sat in a makeshift crib watching TV as rain water dripped steadily down her back. A dog with three legs chased us.
I had always thought that motorbikes were dangerous and they are but I realised that day that they’re dangerous in an ordinary way, like crossing the road on Grainger Street (one for the Newcastle-dwellers) or eating chicken that you’re not totally sure is cooked all the way through. I am aware that many, many motorbike accidents happen in Vietnam every day but on the back of that bike I felt completely at ease, disappointingly safe.
Until the rain started, that is. Proper Vietnamese jungle rain that sounded like golf balls being bounced off the top of my helmet, causing instant flooding wherever the road dipped or ran alongside a river. We swerved to avoid potholes filled with water that could have been a few centimetres deep or a few metres, you couldn’t judge unless your front wheel went in and then you would know by how far you flew through the air. ‘This rain is crazy!’ shouted Top, swerving and laughing and loving life.
And then there was the wire. In Vietnam electrical wires are above ground and you get used to seeing tangled black spaghetti tethered, web-like, between buildings above your head. But this specific wire was below my head, in fact this wire was at the exact height of my exposed throat as we approach it at around fifty miles an hour. Top saw it first and crouched low in his seat. I copied not knowing why until I felt the wire whip off the top of my helmet, that light contact almost making me lose my balance on the seat. ‘Ha ha ha, CRAZY’, shouted Top and we both laughed, a bit hysterically, at what might have been.
Did you know that material said to be waterproof, even that plasticy stuff they use for waterproof ponchos, is in fact no such thing? Once a certain amount of liquid has been unleashed on these so-called waterproofs they can take no more and become porous and effectively useless. Could the same be said of skin? I did feel, a few hours into this torrential downpour, that some fundamental boundary had been breached. The water had seeped its way inside of me, my flesh felt soggy and my bones were becoming infested with damp.
Time does strange things when you’re on the back of a motorbike. I can’t speak for what happens when you drive one as I have yet to expose myself to that particular calamity but I think this time-contracting and stretching phenomenon is unique to the passenger experience. Just as the bike sped up and slowed down, accelerating and flying through straight open road, breaking sharply to screech around blind corners, time seemed to fly by on fast-forward, then stop and play on slow-motion.
I spent hours looking for shapes and stories in the undulant carpet of trees that covered the mountains while my mind went over the details of every aspect of my life and somehow made complete and perfect sense of it. On the back of that bike I thought about things I hadn’t thought about for a very long time and everything seemed so simple and clear. It was as close as I’ve ever felt to an epiphany.
Day one came to a close when we arrived in the largest town in the area, one street of concrete buildings, and checked into the only hotel of which we were the only guests. We napped, showered, ate dinner and sat out on the street drinking rice wine and watching the residents of the town walking up and down the street because it was warm out and there was nothing else to do.
Still that feeling stayed with me. It stayed with me all through the next day when we rode through more torrential downpours finally making it to Hoi An where it would take me three days to make my neck turn more than five degrees each way and straighten out my now-curved spine. It stayed with me for weeks after that and still comes back to me now when I think about those few days. Perhaps it was the jungle, or the motorbike, or Top, or a combination of all three but something about that trip cleaned out my brain, emptied out all the things that aren’t important and showed me that everything is exactly as it should be.