Roadmonkey and First Descents 2014 Expedition Vietnam

It is a rare and unique experience, “once in a lifetime to risk over-exaggerating”, when you can travel and work together for 10 days, on an adventure-philanthropy expedition, with 18 mostly strangers joined by a common past, in a foreign country, and leave feeling, not exaggerating, like family. From the moment I met the crew I couldn’t help but think of REMs tune “Shiny Happy People.” Few of us had met before, most of us left with moments, memories, friendships, and experiences that will become the basis of our future travel, philanthropy, friendships and our ability to love deeply and generously. Michael Franti says, “if you love somebody you better let them know and if they love you back just give thanks cause you can’t keep love like money in a bank.” I have led multiple Roadmonkey Adventure philanthropy expeditions in the past and travelled many countries with large and small groups and my own family countless times. The energy, excitement, and compassion of this group of First Descent’s has left me dropping tears on my keyboard while I type this still smiling cheek to cheek with my eyes, with visions and flashbacks of pipelines, mountains, campfires, bikes, dance parties, beaches, pho, banh mi, water, kids, elephants, canyons, motor bikes and Catalysts for HOPE.

From the moment the expedition began I could tell “there was something about Mary”, a nick name we adopted for the trips Cameron Diaz doppelganger and one of the sweetest ladies you could wish to travel with. But quickly you could tell it was more than just “something about Mary”. We met the crew as they made their way to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam for what would be a 10 day adventure across the Central Highlands of Vietnam, starting and finishing along the beautiful and relatively pristine Vietnamese coastline. And the crew was full of “Mary’s”, there was something about each one of them. When someone was feeling down there was someone there to pick them up (I cannot count how many people stepped up with comments, quotes and amazing insights, I wish I would have been recording), we overcame injuries with fantastic Vietnamese hospital support, we overcame monsoon like rain storms as we were not afraid to dance in the rain, we overcame bus rides with dance parties and constant karaoke sing a long’s (thank you Beast), when we needed food generator pulled out more twinkees than I thought could fit in a carryon, and apples how did he get those across?, we came in Hot every chance we got (Two clus the Vclub in Dalat and Sky Bar in HoChiMinh were actually filming us, the tourists, as part of, without a doubt, the two best dance parties I have ever partook in, we overcame adversity with campfires and thank you FIRST DESCENTS and Griz for getting “grizzly” and making this happen they quickly became my favourite part of the trip! The list goes on and on and on…

FIRST DESCENTS is an organisation dedicated to bringing outdoor therapy and social networking to young cancer survivors as well as purpose and hope for life after cancer. FIRST DESCENTS stands for First Descents and was started by a famous kayaker who had completed hundreds of first river descents. The organisation now provides young cancer survivors an opportunity to challenge themselves and make social networks and bonds that will help them throughout their lives. I love what FIRST DESCENTS does and I cannot say enough good about the people it brought to this trip.

The idea behind “Roadmonkey” adventure-philanthropy is to combine adventure “pushing your own boundaries”, this aspect included three serious mountain passes and nearly 200 miles of mountain biking across the central highlands of Vietnam during the hottest month of the year, May, which by most local accounts was even hotter than normal by about 10 deg Fahrenheit, bringing the mercury to around 95oF daily…. The second and arguably the real substance to Roadmonkey, the philanthropy aspect, included delivering water infrastructure, 500 meters of pipeline (3/8 mile) (back and forth between metric and imperial for my US and rest of the world friends) and direct plumbing to 16 households in a small ethnic minority, Ragali, community who had been trying to get support (government, financial, and sweat equity) to access a mountain reservoir and bring clean drinking water to their community for 40 years.

The bike ride. Where to start… We got off to a bit of a rocky start, day one is tough, we had a crash which resulted in our first trip to a Vietnamese hospital, where the doctor who was on supper break immediately rushed in to treat what was likely the first foreigner in Boun Ma Thout Hospital that day, if not that year. Every time I get on a bike in Vietnam it comes rushing back, how incredibly beautiful, excruciatingly hot and surprisingly hilly the country is. We should really re-write the guidebook for the trip as many sections describe the terrain as undulating or moderate which turned out to be serious half day mountain passes, I think the guide book was written after a motorbike tour and not a bicycle! If you want to test your biking limits, this ride offers you that and then some. I found myself fighting the girl they call “Beast” on day one, not wanting to be the first to say “uncle”, ie. I give up, you are stronger, I was getting a good understanding of her nick name. Thankfully, we mutually collapsed at the same time on the side of the road a few hundred meters below the leader of the pack “military mike or generator” who was running on jet leg, no sleep, a crazy night one, 2 litres of tap water which you are not supposed to drink but don’t tell generator that, a possibly a few twinkees, after rounding up everyone into the van, we found Generator calmly having a nap on the side of the road.

Day two was a day made for biking, we enjoyed coconut water in hammocks mid-ride and arrived at the hidden and fading former Russian resort Dak Lak , set in one of the most picturesque scenes in Vietnam, including rice fields, mountain valley walls and a beautiful lake. We were so lucky to be invited to a friend of Quyet’s for the evening, Mr Kien’s, where we communicated in broken Viet-English but mostly sign language and dance, using Vodka and beer as a common link, exchanging heartfelt smiles and embraces and dining on by my accounts the best soup in the entire country of Vietnam! Thank you Mr Kien.

On day three there’s Something About Mary woo’ed a local into giving us the tour of his place where we shared a glass of water three ways and I still have absolutely no idea what he was trying to tell us, probably wondering if Red really was Cameron Diaz… . I bet he told the whole neighbourhood that night… Day three finished with an incredible up and down trade-offs into a rapidly approaching darkness and the only thing that saved Braveheart from killing me on the hills was the fact she was just too nice at the top, letting me catch up, and that we ran out of daylight to keep going. This was my favourite stretch of the ride, particularly as we were wizzing up and down actual modulating hills, through beautiful little villages with almost no traffic, the temperature had dropped to something manageable and Braveheart humming there is no place I would rather be in the world right now. “We shared a moment that will last til the end.” The old adage big days lead to big nights held true and before long we were having a Karaoke dance party in the small community of lam ha, entertaining a few locals with our voices, dances, and a party trick of Generators called beer wolf!

The final days ride, sad just typing this. After disagreeing about a closed route with Quyet at least ten times, I stuck to my instinct and we took the closed road. Absolutely beautiful! The traffic disappeared immediately and we were cruising through rice fields and coffee plants with kids everywhere cheering us on, “hello hello” in perfect English, it’s like they had been waiting on the doorstep all day for the Tour de France to pass by so they could cheer us on, however we hadn’t passed by in three years since the last Roadmonkey trip… the only time I will feel like I’m in the Tour I am sure. The perfect ride, we won’t talk about my misdirection missing the 10 story waterfall and leading half the crew up a 1 mile climb only to turn around and come back down to the waterfall, the perfect ride, cumulated with a cool but rain free 15 km climb into Dalat where we shared tears of joy upon completion of an epic four day adventure across the central highlands of Vietnam, which I am sure not many will ever forget.
We learned a lot about cycling mainly though it can be summarised here:
“don’t look the cows in the eyes”
“biking across a mountain filled country in excruciating heat is hard work”
“the hospitals are great, but we should still try and avoid them”
“we can pay full price for breakfast Quyet, you don’t have to get us a deal, it’s not worth it ”
“Beer Wolf is funny in any language”
The project/community/Ragali/accomplishments/kids/stats
The take away. I used to naively think that the projects we do at Roadmonkey really do change the world for a community in need, I still think this but I have come to realise it is more than that. We are not only changing the world for 70 families in need of clean drinking water and saving them by our account a hellish uphill walk every day or two to gather water, BUT, we are actually changing our own world in the process. I can never leave Vietnam and look at my own life the same way. I leave with questions of purpose, plan de vida and existential something or other. Am I being the positive change or Catalyst for Hope in my daily life, am I offering smiles and support like I see and receive every day while in Vietnam, am I quick to give friendship, energy and love which my FIRST DESCENTS friends have shown and given to me in spades in just ten days, am I living the adventure I want to be living. My sister has a quote at the bottom of her email which goes something like, “what will you do with your one simple precious life?” Vietnam, Roadmonkey, First Descents, Catalyst have these and other questions digesting inside my head and heart like the many bowls of breakfast Pho in my belly. While I don’t have all the answers, I am thankful for the experience and opportunity to share inspiration, laughs, smiles and a few tears with so many wonderful people. From the moment I met you (FIRST DESCENTS) I could sense a genuine and unique energy, and it turned into more than I could ever imagine. Thank you I am grateful for our time together, the project, the time in the saddle, our beautiful journey together and our “one simple and precious life.”

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