I found myself in a unique situation 8,000 miles away in remote Laos.
After taking a leap of faith, which involved quitting my cushy consultant job here in San Diego, I bought a one-way ticket to fulfill an itch to get lost in other parts of planet Earth for 10 months.
How could I NOT buy that undocumented 100cc Honda Win motorbike from the two German hotties I ran into in Luang Prabang after watching a long line of orange-clad Buddhist monks peacefully receive their daily offerings of rice balls and fruit?
After all, the $330 junker I was about to irrationally purchase put me in the upper echelon of mediocre motorized Laoatian vehicles. Hence, after a brief flashback of The Motorcycle Diaries and an unsuccessful attempt to flirt with one of the Germans, I cringed as I forked over the last of my U.S. dollars, not realizing this would be the best impromptu decision I made while overseas.
The words "Backfire Betty" were sloppily handwritten in white marker above the broken headlight, and a random red-headed doll proudly hung just below. I took one last look at Luang Prabang's beautiful French-influenced streets and, with backpack, map and phrase book in hand, began riding north...wherever that went.
Laos is on a blazing path to becoming the most desirable destination for thrill-seekers willing to go that extra mile in search of unspoiled beauty in S.E. Asia. Villages without electricity and dependency on small-scale farming is still very much a way of life in this nation sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam. Trekking, canyoneering and long-distance motorbike excursions, however, are just as common and appealing to Westerners and Aussies alike.
On one memorable occasion where I was slightly lost and extremely hungry, I stopped on the side of the road to ask for directions (by pointing at my map) and food (by pointing at my mouth.) A man immediately invited me to sit down with the rest of his mates at the makeshift roadside restaurant we were in front of and offers me a small glass of BeerLao.
I accept and, using my phrase book, I start asking basic questions such as "Are you married?" "How many kids do you have?" and "What is your job?" which he responds to by saying "thank you" in English every time, regardless of the question.
With a huge smile, he then hands me a hard-boiled egg, which I anxiously crack. My excitement quickly turns to confusion when liquid cascades out and, to my surprise, I see a tiny chicken embryo inside! My immediate thought was "ha, they boiled the wrong egg." That thought just as quickly went out the window when none of their expressions changed as the embryo juice oozed down my hand.
Even with a beak, eyes, and some semblance of feathers, I am culturally expected to at least try their gracious gift. I had no problem eating the hard yolk around the tiny bird (with a LOT of salt and pepper) and in an attempt to share, I generously offered my host the egg by handing it to him. He would not dare take my last bite and, as I took the little cradle back from his hand, I accidentally dropped it on the ground! It was a total (yet fortunate) accident and I was extremely embarrassed.
Ashamed of having dropped the slimy embryo, I scurried to the hut next door, bought a BeerLao for all to share, and took off on an empty and mildly queasy stomach. I looked back and they still had huge smiles on their faces...
After a few weeks of epic riding in central Laos, I made it to the capital city of Vientiane, where I planned on exploring for a few days before continuing my trek. As I walked aimlessly through Vientiane, sampling the ever-abundant smorgasbord of street food and drinking iced coffee out of plastic bags, I hear someone say to me in a German accent:
"Hey! Didn't you buy that motorbike in Luang Prabang?"
The girl, Martina, who asked me that simple question was an hour or so away from purchasing "Backfire Betty" just a few weeks ago. Lucky for me, I beat her to it.
I could see she was envious of my grand plan, which was to, for better or worse, rumble with "Backfire Betty" all the way through southern Laos, cross into Cambodia and then part with her by overcharging a Westerner or bequeathing her to a humble villager.
After chit-chatting with her for a few more minutes, I blurted out: "I'm kinda thinking of selling the bike." I couldn't believe what I had just said!
Her eyes awoke with hope, and right then and there, in a matter of a nanosecond, I mentally broke up with "Backfire Betty." I figured I'd had a pretty good run exploring the most beautiful part of Laos (north/central Laos). It would be more challenging to sell her in Cambodia, and I was glad she would be going to someone who really wanted her.
In the end I sold "Backfire Betty" to Martina for $350 U.S., and with that money booked a flight to Thailand to train in Muay Thai kickboxing in search of my next adventure.
If old Betty could talk, I bet she’d have plenty of wild stories to tell about all the adventure-seeking riders that took a chance on her and gave her the personality she boasts today. I certainly hope she keeps on charging the road for years to come, and can only image who has her now and where in the world she is…