The Very Last Ride

Step 1: Repairs

We get back to Sihanoukville at around 1:30 pm. A few of our group ended up on a separate boat, so we sit and order drinks while we wait for them. Soon we are all together, killing time before their bus. I hang around and chat but eventually I need to move. I need to go pick up Jackie, (re)assess the damage and get her into a shop as soon as possible. My hope is that I can get her fixed, spend the night in Sihanoukville and head out as early as possible in the morning. If all goes well, I will be in Phnom Penh by tomorrow night catching up with some of the girls. We say our goodbyes with promises of catch ups in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, and I trudge up the hill to the city.

I check into a hostel, leave my bags and immediately head outside to Jackie. Seeing the twisted front end of the bike brings an immediate knot to my stomach. I feel like my entire body is one long sigh. But I don’t have time to sulk, it’s time to get down to business. The guy at the hostel has given me directions to a mechanic, so I unlock Jackie and start her up. At least… I try. She doesn’t start. I try again, but there is an obvious splutter. I check my gas tank and it’s empty. What the fuck. The tank definitely wasn’t empty when I left her here, and it is a locked tank. Someone must have found a way to jimmy the lock and tap my tank. For fuck’s sake. I ask for directions to a gas station and go on foot. On the way, I look for a shop where I can buy a bottle of water so I can fill it up with gas. I find it next to the station and stand there for a moment while I down the liter of water. Ugh. I fill it up and walk back, all the while marveling at the construction pit that is Sihanoukville. I have heard the stories, of course, but seeing the city is still shocking. I am surrounded by the frames of what will become countless high rise buildings; the only sound I hear is the sound of jackhammers and engines. I sit and think about what Chinese investment has done to this seaside village and its people. I can’t wait to get out of here.

Once back at the hostel, I fill Jackie up, start the engine and begin to maneuver her slowly (very slowly) down the street. The volume of her engine is softer than it’s ever been and it makes a spluttery noise. She does not sound good. She does not feel good, either. She feels as though all the power has gone out of her. I rev and instead of shooting forward as she always has, she whines and splutters. There is also a rattling sound that I do not know the origin of, though I suspect it may be the remaining broken glass in the headlight. We are in a sorry state and I am heartbroken.

I drive myself back towards the gas station. My hostel has recommended a mechanic to me that is on the same road. Afterwards, I will need to fill the rest of my tank up. I arrive at the mechanic and my heart sinks. He is a solitary man on the side of the road with a cart of tools, and maybe he is a miracle worker, but the realistic side of me foresees that he won’t be able to make all the repairs needed. I pull up to his cart and say hello. I point at my bike and make a sad face. He takes one brief look at my lopsided bike and shakes his head, pointing his finger down the road. I need to go somewhere else. Luckily I had also searched up a mechanic on Google Maps. The location is farther than I feel comfortable driving in this state, but it will have to do. I fill up the rest of my tank at the gas station and splutter, whine and rattle onward.

Fifteen minutes later I arrive at the mechanic and present him with my girl. He scratches his head and surveys the bike. He looks at me, then back at the bike, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Please don’t send me away, please don’t send me away. Finally, he nods and picks up a crow bar. He’s going to do it.

I sit on a plastic stool and chain smoke cigarettes. I feel sick as I watch him hook the crowbar into Jackie’s handlebars and pull, trying to straighten her out. He brings a hammer into the mix and I watch as he pulls and pushes and prods and hits and slowly, very slowly, the metal frame is bent back into its original position. Jackie begins to look like herself again.

I sit and smoke for about 20 minutes while he busies himself with the other repairs. I text Paul. I pace. In the end, we aren’t able to fix the dashboard, but that’s really the least of my worries. We stick it together with a bit of tape (the way it always was before I decided to be fancy and get a new one installed) and call it a day. The repairs are done. We rev her engine and the whining noise is gone. I sit on top, feeling her out; the handlebars feel better. Still slightly off center, but 100 times better. The glass of the headlight has been replaced and the rattle is gone. The electrical that was messed up gets completely rewired and things begin to work again. She is not as good as new, but she is good enough. Good enough to ride to Phnom Penh and good enough to sell for a decent price. I pay a few dollars and stammer “orkun chroeun” over and over – Khmer for “many thanks.”

I also ask if he knows of somewhere where I can have my bike washed. I want to treat Jackie right; at the very least she deserves a proper wash. I make the motion of “washing” with my hands, but he either doesn’t understand or does not know. “Orkun chroeun, orkun chroeun,” I say, and Jackie and I ride to the hostel. I park and ask there whether they know of somewhere I can get my bike washed. The men at reception laugh at me, as though the concept of washing a bike is the most absurd thing ever. “Why do you want to wash it?” they ask.

“I just want to, do you know a place?” I say.

“No, I’ve never heard of that before. Why do you want to wash it?”

I am fuming and I want to give them a speech about how you’ve got to treat your bike right, but I am aware that I will sound like a lunatic and that I will still end up without a wash, so I let it go and go instead to my room where I prepare my things for tomorrow’s ride. That night I fall into a restless sleep as I listen to the sound of the jackhammers.

Step 2: Departure, Frustration and Going a Little Bit Cuckoo

I wake up at 7:15 and hit the road at 8:00. I share my location with Paul and begin to exit Sihanoukville – the long way around the city, not the short way over the fucking-sand-pit-road-that-I-hate. Traffic is, surprise of all surprises, congested. The going is slow at best and I even though I try to be positive, my blood is at a constant simmer, and I am aware that it will not take much for it to boil. I am frustrated and I am at times incredibly angry. The handlebars are better, but they are different to before, so I have to adjust the angle of my arms slightly. The throttle is also looser than usual, and I don’t like the way it feels. It truly isn’t the end of the world, and I wonder why I am letting it get to me this much. At the same time I realize that being on this bike for such a long period of time means we have gotten into certain habits. I know this bike through and through. It is an extension of my self. And to have that extension of the self suddenly begin to feel so foreign under my own fingertips is, quite simply, perturbing.

I stop at several mechanics along the way and ask them to tighten the throttle. For whatever reason, they decline. My frustration rises because I have seen mechanics fix it before and I know it is an easy fix. I wish I knew how to do it my damn self. I ride on. The roads are at times potholed to shit, but at times they are also stunning. Beautiful asphalt stretching on into the horizon. The issue of two lanes, however, persists. Though the road is beautiful, the lack of space on the road means that I am still constantly being run off the road and into the dirt alongside it. Frustration continues to rise.

At this point I am, quite simply, over it. I am riding with an bad attitude. It is a “get the fuck out of my way I need to make it to Phnom Penh and end this” attitude. I am riding angrily. I am riding thinking only of the few people on Facebook who have already expressed an interest in buying Jackie. I think of them because in this moment, I want to get rid of her. One second after I think it, I regret the thought. That’s not your truth, Nicole. My attitude pisses me off and I become even more frustrated with myself. And so I decide to stop for lunch. I can’t deal with myself, with Jackie or with the road right now. Maybe, just maybe, I can deal with a bowl of noodles.

I order food from a nice lady alongside the road. I order a cold tea. I sit and ruminate. My bowl of noodles arrives and so do a few other customers. I begin to eat and the man sitting next to me surveys me quietly. He turns around and looks at Jackie, takes in my backpack, my helmet. He looks back at me and points to me, to the bike, then back to me. He’s asking if she’s mine. I nod and smile. I can’t help it, I always want to smile when I talk about Jackie. Even now. I point at Jackie and I point at myself. Yes, she’s mine. I point in the direction I am riding and I say “Phnom Penh.”

His eyes open wide. “Phnom Penh!” He looks at the woman with him and repeats “Phnom Penh!” and he is gesturing at Jackie, at me and at the road. He is very obviously impressed with me and he repeats “Phnom Penh” again, together with a sound that sounds like “wow.” I smile and nod, saying “chaa Phnom Penh, chaa.” (Chaa = yes). Our interaction is sweet and just the interruption I needed to quash my negative spiral. This man, impressed with my journey, reminds me that there aren’t very many foreigners riding around here, especially not foreign women. I came here for a reason. I came here for an adventure. I came here to do something on my own and to give myself something. And accidents, frustrations, setbacks are all a part of something. They do not take away from the fact that you are doing it. You’re doing the damn thing, Nicole. You’re doing it. Enjoy it, because soon it will be over.

The man leaves and we smile and nod, smile and nod, saying goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.

I get back on Jackie and promise myself that we are going to enjoy this now. Okay, the roads are shitty. We’ll figure it out. Okay, Jackie feels different. That’s okay, you’re probably different too. We’ve got a long way to go. Well let’s take extra breaks. It’s the last ride, I’m sad. Okay, so take a few more.

I take a break shortly after lunch, having decided that more breaks means a longer ride which means more time with Jackie. It’s still early enough for me not to have to worry about it getting dark, so I am going to make this last as long as possible. I drink a can of coke alongside the road and have a chat with the ladies running the shop – our chat is made up entirely of gestures and smiles, of course. I watch the ice delivery man arrive with huge blocks of ice strapped to his motorbike. As he carries a block inside, the dirt around his motorbike turns into mud from the rapidly melting ice. I admire Jackie and just like that, I begin to count all of the things that I have loved.

It’s a funny phenomenon, the thing that happens to my human mind when I know that an ending is near. In particular when I know that the ending of something especially extraordinary is near. My brain goes into overdrive, trying to catalog it all. The organized person in me is working overtime, desperately trying to file away every single detail that is so precious. The smells, the sights, the sounds, the temperature. The smiles, the gestures, the sound of a foreign language in the air. I have discovered over the course of this year that I have a tremendous fear of forgetting the things that I have loved in my lifetime. Some people fear being forgotten, I fear forgetting. It is the reason I take photos, I suppose. Most importantly, however, it is the reason that I write. Even now, nine months later, I am throwing myself into the preservation of these memories with the precision and dedication of an anthropologist; historian; paleontologist. I am listening to voice memos I have made whilst riding my motorcycle, I am writing out notes I have jotted down in my phone, turning them into coherent sentences. I want to remember. And perhaps there will come a day that the memories will become blurry; where the faces, sounds and smells will become soft around the edges. And perhaps I will be okay with that. But until that time, I’ll do a little bit of cataloging. Just in case.

So I take a photo of the ice delivery man’s bike, and I type out a note in my phone.

Step 3: Just Love

I take more breaks than I cover kilometers, or at least that’s how it feels. The day stretches on and I sit on one plastic stool after the other, lounge in hammocks here, there and there. I stop to take photos of Jackie. Jackie at a temple, Jackie looking lush between the palm trees, Jackie beside a dirt road. As I ride, my left hand at times rests on the gas tank in front of me. I give her little pats from time to time. It’s a habit we’ve picked up.

I am cataloging but more than that, I am enjoying. I am having fun. I am loving myself and my bike and I am loving them hard. After all, for as much as Cambodia has put me to the test, I love this bike. I do. And I have loved this trip so much. I am riding to Phnom Penh but in my mind I am doing so much more. I am riding through memories for the hundredth time.

I am riding out of Hanoi for the first time. I am breaking down and freaking out. I am riding into the hills of Trang An with Paul, whooping and hollering. He’s revving his engine in a tunnel and I am ecstatic. I am dancing in the middle of a highway. I am having midnight drunken conversations with Paul, Maeve and Clay. I am finding shapes in rocks in underground caves. I am chatting with Phyllis and Michael over a bowl of noodles. I am making bonfires with Michael and fishing from the rocks. We are downing beers and eating dried pigeon. I am smashing bananas onto the pavement with him, cursing a mechanic. I am flying a kite with Paul and Michael and there are sunsets, oh so many sunsets. I am on an elevated highway in Ho Chi Minh City, we are breaking down at the Cu Chi Tunnels and we are oh so incredible alive. I am on this stretch of road in Cambodia and I am in a hundred other memories at once. And I am happy again.

I am making decent progress towards Phnom Penh and I decide to stop for gas. Better safe than sorry. I pull into a gas station and there is a group of five teenage Khmer boys filling up three bikes. They all look up as I come driving in. They point at my backpack and begin to chatter excitedly. It’s silly, but their excitement makes me happy and proud. I pull up alongside them and take off my helmet and jacket – it’s getting too hot. I happen to make eye contact with one of the boys when I do so, and his mouth drops open. He is still staring at me as he taps his friend on the hand, then taps him again twice – c’mon dude, look! The friend turns, and his mouth drops open in shock as well. Soon enough they are all staring at me and chatting in rapid fire Khmer to one another. They are happy and excited and it’s infectious and I’m not sure what’s going on exactly, but I think they hadn’t expected me to be a girl. Two of the boys give me a thumbs up and they all pile onto their bikes. As they ride out of the gas station, a few of them still look back a few times and smile.

Soon enough it is time for my final stop; I am almost in Phnom Penh. I don’t want the trip to end, but it is getting towards sundown. I pick a roadside stop that has hammocks. I buy a can of soda and some tamarind fruit. I eat the tamarind and it is a taste of home, a taste of my childhood. I sit on the ground, I lie in a hammock. I take photos of absolutely everything.

Then Jackie and I finish the ride. Traffic gets tighter as the highways come together and we all make our way into the city. I weave in and out of traffic, a process I have gotten so incredibly used to. I follow the prompts that Google Maps gives me and am secretly thrilled when I see that it takes me towards an elevated highway. There is something special about soaring over the city on my motorbike. As I make my way up the highway, I am grinning from ear to ear. A guy pulls up next to me, giving me yet another thumbs up. Why does this keep happening to me? I nod at him and give a thumbs up back.

With my left hand I give Jackie a pat on the gas tank. Then I hold my clutch in and I rev my engine. I do it again, because I am giddy and I am obnoxious and I feel oh so damn alive.

Step 4: Sold

I arrive at the hostel and check in. I have received a message from one of the people interested in buying my bike, asking when I would like to meet. I am feeling a sense of completion and a part of me wants to ride this wave and continue to get things done. I tell him I will meet him at his hostel in an hour.

I take to the streets to find someone who can wash Jackie. At this point she is covered in a layer of red dust, and I would like to sell her in the best possible condition. I ride in circles and am unable to find anyone. I accept defeat and take her instead to a mechanic to get the loose throttle tightened up and to recalibrate the exhaust – she’s got a little backfire going again.

I drive to the hostel and the guy that comes out to meet me is a smiling Frenchman. He seems kind. I offer him the keys so he can take her for a test ride but he confesses that he doesn’t know how to ride a manual motorbike yet. “No worries, it’s pretty easy,” I say. “I can teach you.” A distant Nicole in my brain smiles a wry smile. Oh, how far we’ve come. We go around the corner to a slightly quieter street and on the way he tells me that he plans to ride around Cambodia for a while and then into Vietnam. For that reason he is happy to have found someone selling a Vietnamese bike. This feels good.

 Once in the street, I show him the different parts of the bike. I show him how to start her up, how to shift the gears, I give him tips. I explain her strengths, I also describe her weaknesses. I want to be honest with him. I feel confident, strong, at ease, and that same little part of my brain is secretly proud. “Your turn,” I say, parking the bike and getting off. He gets on and has a few false starts before he’s able to get her moving. I speak words of encouragement as he sets off, wobbling from side to side. I walk alongside of him for a few meters and then let him go. He rides to the end of the road and makes a wide turn back to me. It’s not perfect, but he will figure it out. I was in much worse shape when I started.

“Okay, I’ll take it,” he says happily.

For a moment, I’m stunned. That almost seems too easy. “Are you sure? Don’t you want to ride her a bit more?”

“No, I know enough. I’ll take it.”

“Okay, then she’s all yours. I’ll park her at your hostel, do you want to have a beer after? This is something to celebrate.”

I ride Jackie to his hostel and park her there. I give her one last pat on the gas tank. I touch the seat. And I walk away. Just like that.

I buy us some beers at a convenience store and we make the exchange. I hand over Jackie’s registration and helmet, he hands me the money. $240, the same price I paid for her. We have broken even. We talk more about travel plans, I tell him some stories from the road. I tell him he is going to have a good time. “The bike’s name is Jackie, right?” he asks.

“Yea,” I say smiling. “I can understand if you want to change it, though.” I try to keep up the smile.

“No, I like it. I’m going to keep it. I can see that you and Jackie had a good time together.” I don’t think this man has any idea how happy he has just made me. This guy understands.

After our beers, I walk back to my hostel in a daze. It’s over. It’s really over. I am happy, I am relieved, but I am suddenly also desperately sad. This is, for lack of a better expression, the end of an era. I have ridden 2,570 kilometers in Vietnam and 529 in Cambodia. That’s 3,099 kilometers in total. 2,785 kilometers is the distance from Maine to Miami. I have ridden the length of the entire east coast of the United States of America, and then some. 3,072 kilometers is the distance from Lisbon to Budapest. I have ridden the length of that. Just like that. To think it, even now, is surreal.

I walk back and to be quite honest there are no words to describe how I feel. It is complex, it is overwhelming and it is a million things at once. And so I do the only thing I can do to ground myself and make myself feel normal again. I message Paul, Michael and Clay, and as we chat I buy myself a beer and whisper to myself: “cheers, we did not die today.”

Step 5: Fin

So that’s it, then. My motorbike trip done and dusted. It has taken me some time to write it all out. There are different reasons why, I suppose. Such as wanting to be present with the incredible souls I have met along the way, instead of spending hours behind a laptop.

Or maybe it is that processing something like this takes time – at least for me. Maybe it’s that the longer it takes me to write, the longer I get to visit and revisit my days. The longer it takes, the longer they live on.

Whatever the reasons may be, I wanted to write it all out. I wanted to write, as I’ve said, so I can remember. I write so I can suspend my joys, my fears, my excitement, in time. I write in the hope that when the memories eventually fade, the words I have written from my heart to this page will somehow bring them back to life.

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