The next morning found us speeding along the dirt road, watching the cement houses turn to huts, then suddenly rise above us on stilts. Old men in loincloths plodded along the shoulder, trailing gaunt buffaloes with clonking bells. The women all wore homespun black skirts and shuffled under the weight of smoke-stained rattan baskets filled with roots and weeds. The faces became darker, rounder, and flatter. We were getting close.
Then, abruptly, the road narrowed. We passed two soldiers on a tiny moped and redoubled our speed, hoping they wouldn't follow. We were so preoccupied with the rear-view mirrors that we blundered into a military installation before we registered the distinct white C painted on the rattan fence on one side of the road. A restricted area. Without a word we turned and fled, dashing down the first side trail that presented itself.
It was barely as wide as a set of train tracks and fraught with sand traps and rocky river beds. We lurched and bumped over it for nearly an hour until my body felt like a giant accordion, my ribs slamming against my hips with every sickening drop. At last Jay rolled to a stop and lit a cigarette. The trail in front of us looked exactly like the one behind. Even I no longer believed my confident assertion that every road had a reason and an endpoint. I just couldn't bear the thought of the long drive back to the city for nothing.
Jay's head snapped around in a listening stance and I too, heard the distant buzz of an approaching motorbike. If the soldiers had bothered to follow us this far off the road then we were in serious trouble. There was no place to hide the Beast among the slender saplings. Jay puffed furiously on his cigarette and I squatted down to wait.
A rusty moped puttered into view, heavily burdened with an older man, his wife and child, three chickens and a sack of rice. He stopped in the friendly manner of country folk to ask us our business and offer a hand.
Yes, the path had an end, three or four kilometers further along. It led to a Hmong village, some two hundred people living in raised huts along the river's edge. We were quite welcome to follow him, he would be glad to show us the way.
We accepted with enthusiasm and the ungainly Beast was soon shuddering up the trail after its more fleet-footed cousin. My hoped-for village solidified into lovely raised longhouses with tidy, ten-step ladders and polished bamboo floors. Swayback pigs staggered along the footpath leading to a river, its gentle current eddying around rubber tree roots in lazy brown whorls. Perfect.
The Hmong man motioned us to carry our packs inside against the gathering storm. His wife served us bitter green tea while I made careful inquiries for directions to the headman's hut, to pay our respects and ask permission to look around. The old man grinned toothlessly and pointed at the floor. He was the village elder and we were welcome to stay, he told us, but first he would take us to his friend who spoke both French and English and would make everything clear.
We obligingly climbed back onto our motorcycle and followed him along the grass-lined lane A leathery old man stared down at me from his perch atop a hand-carved elephant saddle. Bent old women flashed blackened teeth and spat streams of blood-red saliva laced with betel.
We passed through a gate strung with the rusty remains of American razor wire and were suddenly staring at a cement building and a drooping Vietnamese flag. Communist headquarters. The gate had already swung shut behind us.
The man in charge was incongruously young, with none of the wrinkles and puckered scars of the village elder who deferred to him. We had disturbed his afternoon nap and he stumbled around with puffy eyes, pushing aside the mosquito net strung over an army cot to make room for us to sit. We stared at each other in silence. He was clearly as unhappy to see us as we were him. The old man whispered into his ear, elaborating on the circumstances of our arrival in unintelligible dialect. The young official nodded unsmilingly and turned back to us. "Your papers," he said and held out a hand.
I took a chance. He spoke neither English nor French, there was no phone in the room, and the capital was several hours away. I played dumb.
For the next hour we stumbled through a series of deliberate misunderstandings. He inquired our nationality and I mumbled a few phrases in French. He demanded our passports and I handed him a pack of Jay's cigarettes. He obviously wanted to escort us back to the station in Buon Ma Thout but was afraid of the Beast's horsepower compared to his little Minsk. I agreed wholeheartedly. "Good bike, vroom vroom!" At the prompting of the old man he asked for my dictionary. I reluctantly pulled it out and he pounced on it, leafing back and forth in search of the word "documents" on a page I had long since torn out. By now he was chain smoking and looking to the elder more and more frequently, his imperious demands long since replaced by what sounded like requests for help.
I played my hand. "We could," I said carefully, "just leave."
His face lit up in a boyish smile and their heads bobbed in unison. They whisked us out the door, offered us cigarettes, a tour of the village, anything short of an invitation to return. In record time we were deposited back on the Beast, our belongings carefully strapped to the rack by a dozen helpful hands. They stood in a long line and waved us off.