4 a.m. always seems to come too fast. It’s not a natural wake-up time, but it is becoming an automatic beginning to our morning routine.
My alarm goes off first. “Two more minutes,” I mumble, knowing that Lluís’ alarm will beep two minutes later. I’m not a morning person, and I’m definitely not a 4 a.m. morning person.
We roll out of bed or off whatever wooden platform we were sleeping on and ut away the few things we took out of our packs the night before. The silk sheet, our sleeping shirts, water bottles, they go back into their daytime spots, a Tetris game of fitting everything just so. We have a bit of breakfast, something like a banana, some crackers, maybe a bit of peanut butter and honey and a few swings of water.
We walk out into the darkness, adjusting our reflective safety vests and headlamps. We wave a thank you to the place we laid our heads and to the people who helped us find a safe place to stay. We head for the paved secondary road we’re following for the day. We’re walking the lucky 3s. For me, the more threes, the better, and on this stretch of Thailand, we have plenty of them. The 309, 311, 3183, 3220, 3319 and 3005 have filled us with hours of blacktop, white lines and countryside, city and village views.
It’s cool today, cool enough to pull out our buffs to keep our ears and heads warm. We put on our windbreakers. This week, we were the beneficiaries of a cold snap. We had a storm one night, and the rains stopped about 4:45 a.m., 15 minutes before we began walking. Throughout the week, overnight temperatures dropped to 15-17 Celsius (the low 60s in Fahrenheit). We had cloud cover and lower humidity much of the week, and afternoon temperatures held to the mid-20s (mid-70s). It was a welcome chill for us and made the daily 20-25 kilometer walk immensely easier than last week’s exhausting and endless humid stickiness. From the way some locals took the cold, you’d think we had stepped into Norway. They donned themselves in ski masks, thick sweatshirts and even long winter coats for the grandma types.
Who let the dogs out?
While we’re fresh, we talk about our upcoming to-dos, verbal reminders of things we will try to do later in the evening or in the next few days.
“Hope we find a map of Myanmar as good as the ones we have for Thailand,” one of us says. We think of the practicalities simultaneously sometimes. In every city we pass through, we pop into a bookstore and check out the maps section. Thailand, Bangkok, Laos, Vietnam and Hong Kong maps appear, but nothing detailed enough for Myanmar, our next country which recently opened up for tourism. Update: Just today we found a good starter map for Myanmar in Nakhon Sawan!
We’re from the days before the Internet, and cherish good paper maps. The ones Lluis’ friend in Bangkok gave us are spectacular and detailed, listing even gas stations along the roads, which we use for restocking snacks and bathroom breaks. Paper maps are our main planning tools, and we complement our route-planning with Google Maps and Google Earth, also great digital additions. In Thailand, we have fast 4G and 3G cellular connectivity everywhere we find ourselves and wifi is a given in almost every guesthouse, hotel and homestay, a nice surprise. That makes Google Maps a good alternative, and especially helpful when we arrive in cities and need to drill down to a street level view. But we’re keen not to make digital tools our only go-to; in many places down the road, connectivity and GPS battery usage will become a problem, so we have a compass and paper maps, and follow the sun. Old school.
Our conversation comes to an abrupt halt. Woof! Woof! Woof! A barking binge begins in a driveway. One dog starts and two others join in the fun.
We knew dogs would be a problem, we just never anticipated that it would be a problem every five minutes during the hours of 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. Literally, every couple hundred meters, particularly right outside cities and towns, there’s a dog party. Sometimes they even run from 25-50 meters down the road and set up a roadblock, uh, I mean a “meet and greet” station to say “hello.” One morning, there were probably about 20 dogs serenading us; we walked a good half kilometer away from them and could still hear their howls.
“Freaking dogs,” I say under my breath. I sigh, put on my happy face and start singing Ganesha Om, Om Namah Shivaya, Here Comes the Sun, or whatever other tune happens to be in my head that particular moment. I play-act like a dog and scratch my head, slightly stretch my arms and yawn, something that comes easy at this hour of the day. We smile and sing them away, making exaggerated kisses and clucking noises. They eventually retreat.
There are a few seconds multiple times each morning when I think it won’t be something big that stops our long trip – not a health thing or a serious family emergency or an accident; it will be the exhausting task of convincing dogs that we are decent people and not worth bothering with.
We hit a long stretch of nothingness. No traffic, no dogs, no light. It’s only us and the frogs croaking from the nearby irrigation canals. The early bird chirps a warm hello. A rooster chimes in, and another joins the chorus. This is the moment when the day’s first rays of sun embrace the night’s last moon beams and they do a cosmic dance over green rice paddies that stretch from horizon to horizon.
“How lucky we are to be here, right in this moment. What a life we’re creating!” I say this this morning, Lluís said the same thing yesterday. We repeat this every day. We are grateful for the chance to live this unique moment.
The reverie is interrupted.
Woof! Woof! Woof! Ugh!
The dogs, along with the increasing moped, car and truck traffic, prevent us from lingering too long on any string of thought. We have profound, but brief, observations that must quickly be replaced with total concentration and attention on the next fleeting second. Safety is a top priority, and fool-heartedly falling into a loop of self-storytelling is an unnecessary risk. So we deal with the dogs, and thank the owners, who are awake now, for calling the dogs back (we are never quite sure if the dogs are owned or just hang around enough to consider themselves owned).
Grin and bear it
About 8 a.m., after three hours of walking and with the last 10 kilometers or so in sight, there is one thought that persists and is impossible to resist. The little muscle between my neck and left shoulder bone screams at me.
Fortunately, my feet, legs and lower back have held up much better than expected these weeks. They are stronger than I thought, and the distances we’re covering every day leaves them tired but not terribly sore; we always have some energy at the end of the long walk to stroll around the town we’re in and see what’s there. But, this little muscle can’t seem to deal with the weight of my world, and it disappointingly makes me cringe with a dull, consistent pain.
The same thing happened when we trekked the 600-kilometer GR 92 in 2014, and I was surprised then as I am now that my Achilles’ heel is my shoulder. Back then, it worked itself out after a couple days and with some deep massages. This time, I am doing massages every few hours (Lluís, too, gets his knuckles in there) and have tried to reduce my pack weight, leaving behind a few things I didn’t have the heart to unpack back home but realized during our first few days out here that they were not crucial these next couple of months. Plastic rain pants, a pair of extra socks I didn’t really like, and extra rope made the cut list. I also dropped a 1.5 liter bottle of water. Last week, I was carrying 4.5 liters of water, but because we’re in Thailand where people live along the roads and shops are frequent enough, we can fairly easily find water, and three liters is sufficient for now.
But, still, this muscle hates me. I’m stretching, doing shoulder shrugs and have started up my push ups again. Tiger Balm works its wonders to numb the aching temporarily, but I’ll have to find a longer term solution. Shifting my backpack weight distribution and, ideally, getting rid of the small pack I carry on the front of my body, are things I’m often thinking about.
In these hours, when I begin feeling weak and grumpy, I remember my marathon running strategy: Smile at everyone and anything. It helps put my focus on something other than pain. So I smile at the people on the side of the road selling grilled meat. I flash a grin at the couple on the moped. I wave to the older ladies having coffee at the kiosk covered with posters advertising Carnation’s evaporated milk. I blow a kiss to the beautiful, tall tree just beyond the road’s shoulder, and when I really need it, I go over and hug one. I stop and smell the frangipanis, which puts a skip in my step.
And, since we’re tracking goodness, I pause along the way to appreciate the kind people who keep finding us. Path and Wun, for instance, gave us an energy drink and helped us find a safe place to stay one night between Sapphaya and Chai Nat; they continue to check in on us via email and Facebook. On the busy road leading into Nahkon Sawan city, a man and his daughter, riding in the cart hitched to the front of the moped, pulled over and with a big smile and thumbs up sign gave us a bottle of water. And, cheers to the man in Nakhon Sawan, who realizing we had absolutely no idea which direction he was pointing us in, drove us on his moped the last 500 meters of our walk to a very clean, dorm-like hotel, within our budget and with super-fast wifi.
Online, we got sweet messages and good vibes from @firstleaves, @bonniesees, @brwalks, @zenvadr, @iasacaire, @explorer_sarahmarquis ,@a_selenita, Violet Merengue, Jennifer Longo O’Neill, and many others on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, and @outofedenwalk sent us a digital packet of cookies and shared our website/social media links. Thank you everyone! You give us wings!
For those of you mapping our journey, this past week took us through: Sing Buri, In Buri, Sapphaya, Chai Nat, Wat Sing, Uthai Thani, Krok Phra and Nakhon Sawan. If you want to read the day-by-day details, check out Lluís’ new post here (in Catalan).