On Spring Pass

I’m at the top of the mountain pass, every metre of the 17 km climb eked out. My skin is hot with the sun, and my hands are so nerve pinched from gripping I can’t hold the knife to spread cheese.

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I’m not elated yet, just spent and soggy, happy to sit for half an hour for a lunch of baguette, cucumber, laughing cow cheese, a hacked off piece of sticky rice in a banana leaf with … meat… in it. We’re at the top of the pulsing vietnamese jungle, at a little table in front of a house where the woman will sell us a pepsi or a red bull, and will make food if we want it. My guide Linh lets the local kids try out his bike, triangles of the bland soft laughing cow cheese. They spit it out. He makes them say thank you in english anyway.

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“Is there a toilet?”

“Go behind the house — in banana leaves. No toilet.” Linh doesn’t want to ask because we haven’t bought anything. I can’t explain my actual needs to this guy who only speaks present tense english, and who is young enough to be my son. And frankly not that interested in me. He was so far ahead of me on the hill he didn’t notice when my chain fell off. I fixed it. My hands are still covered in chain grease.

I greet the skinny cats and slip beside the rough concrete house. Laundry dangles, broken bits of things are everywhere. The metal roof is anchored down with rocks. I am completely visible to the road. I yank open my bike shorts, fiddle about, semi-deftly do tampon exchange without exposing my big white bottom, using the last of the hand wipes and the empty package to deal with the rubbish question.

I gingerly make my way back around the house, hideous package clutched in my hand, my cleats slipping on everything. The woman who lives in the house comes around the corner, asking me something I don’t understand. I’m sure she thinks I’ve been peeing on her house.

I’m actually dehydrated and don’t need to pee at all, but I say toilet, hopefully, and she smiles and leads me through the cement house to the latrine at the back. It’s a ceramic squat latrine, surprisingly clean. “Flushing” happens with a dipper of water from an ominous built-in cement vat. I squat and promptly drop my (expensive, prescription) sunglasses into the latrine. The previous user has not used the dipper of water.

I fish them out, pee, dip, and try to look poised when I exit. There’s a hose running from a hanging bucket. I wash my sunglasses, no soap. Wipe them on my filthy bandana that is tucked at my waist. Hope I don’t get face cholera. Clack my cleats through the house.

“Did we buy anything from this woman?”

“You can buy pepsi.”

“Have we given her any money?”

“You want a pepsi?”

Talking to Linh is sometimes like talking to Siri. It’s in the neighbourhood of shared meaning, but so far away. I give the woman 25,000 dong — the equivalent of 1.5 pepsis — and mime thank you. My mime looks something like a yoga namaste with a muttered, butchered Cam on, thank you. I appreciate her kindness. I get back on my bike for the descent of my life.

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