“The only impossible journey is the one you never begin”
Those are not my words but they do an exceedingly good job of capturing the essence of our journey that has been this endurance race which finally came to an end yesterday.
As we rolled in from Mandalay to the finish line in Bagan on February 24th, I reflected on the events both on and off the racetrack for the past few weeks. What stood out above all was the improbability of it all.
There were at least a dozen moments during this journey when our race either never started or once started, the car teetered on the edge of disaster and disqualification. As reference, of the 75 cars that entered, 19 dropped out along the way and only 56 made its way to the finish line. We were one of the very few newbie rally racers that made it to the finish line along with the 56 although every nut and bolt and bearing in that poor car was squealing and moaning like a Walrus.
What also stood out was not just the excitement of competing and doing well in the race but also a deep sense of realization that my identity and my experience as an endurance racer and a traveler connected with each other and changed who I am. Have written about this in my previous Day 20 blog: “Discovering Lakes and Longings on The Road to Mandalay”
Finally, what loomed large were the life lessons from this race. A global rally race is very different from the circuit racing I’ve been doing for the past couple of decades. As a circuit racer, I have always been about speed. This race however, taught me not to be just quick and fast but also to have the right skills, equipment, and above all the temperament to endure and persist as we took on some of the toughest terrains and traffic conditions in the world for 24 continuous days over 8,400km.
Specifically the temperament change required us to re-double our belief and re-frame towards setting small daily goals vs getting transfixed on the big one. After we almost failed to make it to the start in Singapore due to the #ratbastard incident, Avi and I broke our goals down into small size manageable chunks and worked on it each day with the focus of a monk. Our goals were small and successive: make it to the start of the race by fixing the rat chewed wiring , get the radiator issues fixed to get us across to Malaysia, Fix the fuel pump/engine/shocks to get to Burma, finish the race one better than the last guy.
In the end what endured was the human spirit backed by the capabilities of an incredible machine called the Datsun 240z. Of course, having a stupid ass budget helped as well. On that note, one of the rally teams had it right when they named their team A.F.R.I.C.A which, we were informed later, stood for “Another F$#@ing Rally I Cannot Afford”. Funny! God willing I will have a few other Africa’s in my future.
It was very apt that the journey ended in the spectacular settings of Bagan — a city known for its parched lands and stunning temple pagodas. Located in central Burma, Bagan is one of the world’s greatest archeological sites, a site to rival Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat but – for the time being at least – without the visitors.
The setting is sublime – a verdant 26 square-mile plain, part-covered in palm and tamarind trees and framed by the hazy silver-grey of distant mountains and the lazy-flowing Irrawaddy river. Rising from the plain’s canopy of green and brown are temples, hundreds of them. Stunning other-worldly silhouettes that were built by the kings of Bagan between 1057 and 1287, when their kingdom was swept away by earthquakes and Kublai Khan and his invading Mongols. Today some 2,230 of an original 4,450 temples survive, a legacy of the Buddhist belief that to build a temple was to earn merit.
Most temples are superbly preserved or have been restored by Unesco, among others, and many contain frescoes and carvings and statues of Buddha, big and small. Only a handful are regularly visited, and by the standards of sites of a similar beauty and stature these temples are a gloriously unsullied destination. To say that there is truly nothing like it in the world would be an understatement. Bagan is the place where travel dreams come true to quote a fellow blogger.
More pictures on the final day and the memorable Balloons over Bagan at:
After an impressive race finale at the Aureum Resort we decided to sign up for the Balloon trip over the temples early the next day. We then got busy with high fiving and hugging each other with the survivors for having “made it”. On a lighter note, I also realized that I had to shift to the European two cheek social kiss with the fairer sex vs the American one cheek version. This led to some rather shall we say, unfulfilled hugs. I picked up on that “miss” quick and order was soon restored to the festivities.
This was soon followed by the racers sharing their version of embellished horror stories of the race interspersed with both boasts and compliments to the opposition for their racing skills and our babies (cars). We got a lot of compliments (Smug, smug!) The two we often heard regularly were ‘Boy you guys sure zoom by us like Road Runner’ and ‘We thought you may never make it to the end given the car troubles’. The group was also generous to follow up their concern with advice, copious amounts of it, about how to ruggedize the car for the next rally race. We already have a list of almost 50 items to upgrade our car around which includes things such as “dual fuel lines, dual ignition coils, dual brake lines, brembo brakes, lighter gearbox, heavier kick-plate, faster transmission etc. etc.
Later that evening we celebrated the winners and sadly we were not one amongst them. Our penalties for getting into the ditch and fuel pump breakdown added almost an hour to our time which eliminated us from contention and we ended up at 17th position after starting off in the top 10. As context, endurance rallies are scored by each team being given minutes on daily tests as well as for any delays around getting from point A to point B in the allotted time. These totals are then added over the 24 day period to arrive at the winner. This is a very winnable event if you have the skills and very importantly a well-prepared car that can handle the demands of rally racing.
We went to bed relatively early as we had get to the Balloons over Bagan at 5am the next morning. Early next morning we were transported in Canadian built wooden buses that were brought over in World War II for the purposes of transporting troops. At the end of the war, the cost of shipping all the buses back to Canada was prohibitive and so they were left behind. We sat in these surprisingly comfortable buses to the Balloon launching site and drove by villagers huddled by small fire pits making tea with their gaunt faces reflecting the light and their eyes glinting with the anticipation of hot tea on a cold February morning.
The Balloons were all neatly arranged on the ground with the wooden carriages looking like the shell of a moon lander in a Jules Verne novel. The large heater engines periodically shot blasts of fire up like a wyer of dragons announcing their intent to scale the Pagodas and making it a very surreal and a memorable morning. A trip to Bagan should be a must for every traveler to Burma as should the Balloon ride over the temples.
The stunning view of the temples we saw from the Balloons gave a soaring and fitting send off to what was an incredibly well organized rally and one of the most physically and mentally challenging events many of us have ever participated in. The best way to describe our improbable journey is through Ithaka, CP Cavafy’s masterpiece spiritual poem on life.
As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.”
As I head back to Austin, I have already started planning my next Ithakas (and A.F.R.I.C.As). Adios!
After three years of planning and anticipation we finally crossed over into Burma on Day 20. Simply put, Burma is an anthropologist’s heaven. It is a time-trapped cocoon of ancient customs and civilizations. Check out the end of this section for a quick history on the country.
With the recent changes within Myanmar, our event is seen as ground breaking by the Government, bringing rally-drivers from all corners of the globe to their country with a physical crossing of their border in a demonstration of how Myanmar is opening to the rest of the world. Rarely does a car-rally contribute to international relations but we were playing a part in the opening Burma with the rest of the world and that added to the sense of excitement.
We were also bracing ourselves to negotiate a heavily pot-holed road in “no man’s land” between Thailand and Burma, and then negotiate a steep descent down the side of the mountain where two-way traffic is not possible – traffic flow is governed by one day being for driving up, and all traffic at the top waits for the next day, when it’s all traffic driving down. This works, most weeks, until a truck breaks down and then the planning and the calendar is thrown into confusion. A long line of gasoline tankers was lining up at the frontier, but they were going to be sidelined in order to give the rally priority.
A last-minute change of plan by the Burmese authorities allowed us to be the first to use a brand-new tarmac road, which will be the new link to Thailand. The good news was our badly beaten up cars did not have to negotiate large craters and inch our way down a precipitous decline but the bad news was we clearly lost part of the adventure of Burma. All illusions about loss of adventure were put to rest on our drive into Mawlamyine the fourth largest city of Burma and then to Naypyitaw or “new city”, constructed as the seat of government.
Known as Moulmein to the westerners, Mawlamyine is called out by Rudyard Kipling in the first line of his poem “The Road to Mandalay”. It goes “By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea, There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;”. I asked Avi to not take that line seriously about a Burmese girl waiting for him and focus on his navigation and co-driver duties.
The best way to describe Burma is not through words but through a set of vignettes. It is not a country but a time machine that teleports you from place to place as you drive across this scenic nation. Right after we crossed the Thai Border into Burma the Time Machine got to work. We were hit by a cacophony of sounds from tuk-tuks with loudspeakers blaring everything from the latest Buddhist chants to the newest political grievances. I may have even heard the great Poet Britney Spears somewhere in the mix. This was accompanied by loud and frequent motor horns that people here use in tandem with blinkers and brakes to complete the driving ritual.
As we were just getting used to the sounds, we were assaulted by the smells. Aroma of food being sold on the sidewalks along with fermented sugarcane being transported across the border. Soon thereafter we were hit with something very depressing visually. We saw grown ass men wearing ankle length skirts and walking around casually. They seemed to want to compete with the women who, being the more considerate and forgiving of the sexes, were trying to ignore the fashion faux pas. Check out the picture if you don’t believe me.
All of this brought back vague feelings of familiarity and nostalgia until it hit me.. Burma looks like what India might have looked like 50 years ago.. sans the fashion issue although we have been known to hold our “lungis” quite well in the South.
Using this new found insight, we started bragging and giving advice to the rest of the worried contestants on how to survive Burma. Believe me, being Brown skinned, owning a wicked fast car, and speaking with a sense of authority and confidence about foreign things to white people has extreme power. And they ate it up while we cashed in our exalted position as “Burma experts” by having them order us drinks as we regaled them with our tips and tricks.
All that resemblance to India lasted for about 20 minutes until after we crossed the Thai-Burma border. As we kept driving deeper into Burma, we felt as if we were being teleported through sets of various movies: from Mad Max to Indiana Jones to The Last Emperor. Let me explain.
First up: Mad Max. The cars, trucks and tractors we saw on the road seemed to have been left behind by the film crew of Mad Max: Beyond Thunder Dome. Tina Turner was the only thing that was missing as was the racially sensitive Mel Gibson. We saw trucks with no bumpers or hood but just giant engines and flywheels jutting out and chugging out smoke like some weird steampunk contraption. They were accompanied by open top tractors shells with a wheelbase of 20 feet or more that were bouncing around with people in it. They seemed to float like the podracers from Star Wars. Except the drivers were not as ugly and it was not the Mos Espa circuit on Planet Tatooine in Star Wars.
Next, we passed a mile long Burmese army truck convoy against a backdrop of hundreds of Pagodas which was right out of an Indiana Jones movie. We even had one of our classic cars with a radiator mark that looked like an Axis military emblem run in front of the convoy to complete the shot. This was soon followed by an equally surreal scene of a long line of hundreds of monks walking single file on the side of the road and boarding what seemed like trucks sponsored by the political party. The monks ranged from five year to 80 years in age and had this serene look about them that was rather hypnotic. Given the long history of army and monk confrontations in this country it was hard not to worry a bit about what was likely to unfold.
This convoy of army trucks and the monks led to discussions about “Pagan” and caused a stir with some in our group. As context, the locals call the city of Bagan as “Pagan”. Like with parts of the Middle East, the Burmese have trouble with their Ps and substitute a P with a B. (I still have vivid memories of ordering a “Bepsi with Bizza” while in Dubai many years ago and hoping that I did not rattle off the names of a local Belly Dancer and her Bouncer boyfriend). This Bagan vs Pagan descriptions startled the few Catholics amongst our group who were not interested in visiting Pagan sites. I told them “that’s ok, you don’t have to go. Just know that Pagans have Rites too and they apparently have better sects” That seemed to get everyone on board J We race into Bagan on Day 24 ie. Feb 24 so look for some great pictures then… and a whole lot of happy Catholics.
The last surreal vignette about Burma had to do with the drive to Naypyitaw or “new city”, constructed as the seat of government. After tackling brand new highway at the border the rest of our drive yesterday was on very tough pot hole fileld roads. The route to Naypyitaw however was a complete contrast. It was a deserted concrete “Express Way” with 10 lanes and hardly any traffic.
After almost 300km of the Expressway, we entered a brand new city that can be best described as something a Chinese contractor would deliver if they were asked to build Orlando today. We passed row after row of massive multistory hotels and resorts. The contrast between what we saw in the countryside a few hours earlier and the opulence and scale of these edifices was hard to comprehend and right out of scenes of the forbidden city in The Last Emperor.
We wrapped up the evening with a great outdoor sit-down dinner with senior Burmese ministers in attendance. They gave eloquent speeches about the Burma of the past and the Myanmar of today and how they believe land-based excursions such as this Rally will bring Myanmar closer to the rest of the world. We certainly hope so as this country and its beautiful citizens have much to offer to the rest of the world in terms of culture and heritage.
The Nation we know as Burma was first formed during the 11th century and is now called Myanmar. An important King called Anawratha united Burma under his monarchy. He looks like “The Dude” in The Big Lebowski for his fashion sense of wearing something that looked like a bathrobe (an expensive though). The great King’s belief in Buddhism led him to building the temples and pagodas for which the nation and in particular, the city of Bagan is renowned. More on Bagan in a few.
The vast money and effort poured into pagoda construction by successive kings weakened the kingdom and Kublai Khan and his Mongol hordes swept through Bagan in late 12th century, hastening Myanmar’s decline into the dark ages. Not much is known about the centuries that followed. History picks up again with the arrival of the Europeans – first the Portuguese, in the 16th century, and then the British, who had already colonized India and were looking for more territory in the East.
The British made Burma a province of India in 1886 and brought in Indians to fill government jobs and the business interests of Indians and Chinese in Burma were encouraged, which bred resentment in many Burmese people. The Burmese also resented the Indian accent and the sideway head nods they had to adopt to communicate with their new Indian overlords and many became monks so they did not have to speak/communicate (just kidding!).
Anyways, after WWII, Burma experimented with democracy, then got into some socialist model, and subsequently a left-wing army takeover that led to martial law. In the last few decades the charismatic Aung San Suu Kyi, organized an opposition party, was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize and now a Member of Parliament.
Today we came frighteningly close to losing it all. It was the day that could have ended our run and seen the car on a flatbed truck on its way back to Austin. And it was all because of driver error – an error of emotion and judgment and not just skill.
It all started with a simple review of the race notes for the day outlining the racetrack and timing as we covered 394 km from Mae Hong Son to Mae Sot. As they do with every time trial, they gave this one a name. They called it “Thai Decider” in a reference to the fact that this was going to be our last race in Thailand. This as you will soon find out was the source of my undoing.
Fast forward ~90 minutes and picture us horror struck trying to slow down a racing car with thick green smoke billowing out of the engine and gauges going haywire on the dashboard. We had started the race few minutes earlier when the Race Marshall came up to Avi and took him through the timed route and the condition of the track. I heard him say clearly “track is pretty straight forward but watch out for some very nasty ditches and pot holes here, here and here.” He even made him sign a document like they normally do for tracks with severe care or caution is required (insurance requirement I think).
Avi promptly repeated the conditions back to me, I processed it and said “yep” and we agreed to do a 60% push factor (a reference to our agreement earlier day that we will preserve the car so we can get into Burma and finish the race). I then pulled up to the start line and something strange happened. I morphed. I decided to completely ignore Avi’s instructions, floored the accelerator and took us on a ride from hell going across and over bumps, turns and pot holes that the car was not in any shape to tackle.
After about 4 minutes of taking a heavy beating, we saw dark green smoke pouring out of the engine and nursed the car to the finish line. We examined a completely empty radiator and a red-hot engine that we waited to cool down all the while hoping that the damage was not permanent. As we were waiting I started reflecting on what just happened and why I chose to ignore the warnings. Why did I do this I asked myself? Why did I not honor the race plan and ignore the warnings?
As I dug into my psyche it dawned upon me that it had mostly to do with how I processed the title on the Tulips for the segment of the day: “Thai Decider”. (Tulips by the way are “pace notes” which are read by the co-driver from a book while the two drive as fast as possible through a closed section of road called a “stage.” Get it right and you fly down roads you’ve never seen before. Get it wrong, and not only is your day over, but your car is probably totaled as well).
Being the last race in Thailand, the organizers gave the time trial a clever name. I subliminally had locked on to those two words. Given the setbacks with ditches and broken fuel pumps of the past 15 days, the competitor in me wanted to “dominate” this last race so I can tell myself and show others that “we have the fastest car and the biggest ___”. I was tired of doing well but never winning any segment outright due to various car troubles (in the last 15 days, over 2/3rd of our car has been either fixed, replaced or modified in someway due to the beating it had taken. The door frames were bent, shock absorber broken, exhaust punctured, fuel pump failed, suspension fixed, steering realigned, radiator modified, distributor cap fixed, brakes replaced, gearbox and transmission flushed, fuses blown, lights replaced and on and on.. )
Fortunately we found out after an hour that our issue was that the radiator hoses had broken due to the severe rattling of the engine and the green smoke was a result of the fluids going up in smoke. The engine was damaged no doubt but functional still.
As I heaved a sigh of relief, I reflected on the “lessons” with Avi later in the day, three of them stood out which I wanted to blog about today:
#1. IT’S NOT HOW FAST YOU DRIVE; IT’S ABOUT HOW YOU DRIVE FAST
Races are won not on the straights but on the corners and on the pothole-ridden sections — much like life. Therefore it is important to have a studied plan about the car and the track to skillfully maneuver the twists, turns, and bumps that come your way.
In my rush to win the segment my mind did not “see” the massive potholes and ditches and it did not match the studied judgment of the navigator and race marshal against the battered condition of the car. I willfully ignored to heed to Avi’s instructions on track conditions leading to what could have been a catastrophic failure. Many other cars which were older and driven by relatively less skilled drivers finished the race just fine by skillful handling of the challenging sections. They drove fast the right way.
#2. KNOW YOUR LIMITS BUT DON’T BE LIMITED BY THEM
To achieve anything in racing (and in life) you must be prepared to dabble at the boundary of disaster. However, the boundaries of the car, the driver, and the track need to be first examined carefully and then a proper plan devised to test them and push them.
In my zeal to win the “Thai Decider” and make a statement to the other participants, I decided to treat the limits that were being read out to me as evil and dirty and chose a brute force approach vs one based on studied judgment. Sometimes knowing and navigating the limits and boundaries are actually the key to our success. Nothing limits you like not knowing your limits.
#3. WINNING HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE TECHNICAL PARTS OF RACING
Winning matters. But winning a rally race is less about going fast but has more to do with the struggle and effort and optimism. It is about purpose, focus, and about building resilience to recover from setbacks. It’s not really about the competition. Your biggest challenge in a race, as in life, is yourself.
Many of the winners in this epic race will be folks running an 80 year old Ford Model A with 40HP motor. They may take 4 hours more than my time but they will cross the finish line much like Avi and I will. When I spoke to the veteran competitors and asked them about their “winning strategy” every one of them had a variant of the same advice “It’s a long, long race. The winner isn’t the one with the fastest car, it’s the car that endures and the driver who refuses to lose”. “You gotta be in it to win it so preserve your car” said another.
Good lessons all to learn and to live to fight another day and go for the win. One of my favorite quotes goes “Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in one pretty and well-preserved body…but to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, worn out, and defiantly shouting “wow, what a ride.” This nut behind the wheel learned some significant lessons today in how to skid properly in broadside.
Onwards and upwards on The Road to Mandalay!
“The beatings will continue until the morale improves”… if cars could talk this is how they would describe the day we just completed. Let me explain.
Our drive north and east out of Chiang Mai after a day of rest involved a very technical route to a small city called Mae Hong Son. The 365km route took us through thick forests rich with Elephants and Tigers. Bordering Burma, Mae Hong Son is also called as “The City of Three Mists” and was used historically as a source of wild elephants that could be used in war.
Our first time trial was very aptly named the “Tiger Wood”. It was a mix of tarmac and gravel up and down a winding road on a jungle covered mountainside with sheer drops. Made for a lot of adrenaline rush especially when we missed one turn on a cliff and tested our skills and some other body parts that are best not listed in a family oriented blog.
At the end of the time trial we were rewarded with a visit to a Tiger resort of sorts where Avi and I promptly agreed to get into the enclosure with the biggest Tigers they had. I have been meaning to explain how my venture fund has the Tiger by the Tail and this gave me a photo op to get that point across. It helped assure us greatly when the person handing us the tickets said “oh don’t worry they just had breakfast so they will likely not eat you”. With that reassurance from a 14 year old kid, we stepped into a 100 foot by 200 foot enclosure with 5 of the largest cats I have ever seen.
As I normally do with high-risk settings, I studied the overall situation and two things stood out. One, each of the five tigers had it’s own minder and each had a “personal tree” with a high voltage electric fence wrapped around the tree trunk. It was clear that only the minders, not the tourists, knew how to climb the tree should the tiger have a bad day or wants a change of menu on his breakfast. I decided to keep that little fact from Avi who was merrily studying the angles to take his pictures from. The second interesting fact was that the entire enclosure was in a 10 feet deep moat surrounded by a gift store and cafeteria full of tourists looking down upon us with videos rolling and probably thinking either “and you paid money to get into this???” or just “look at those idiots!”. My mind was having a hard time staying away from parallels to the scene from Gladiator when Christians are fed to lions in the arena. I promptly tuned my mind to visions of a Glade air freshener commercial with kids chasing butterflies bare feet on green grass.. that seemed to alleviate the concern a bit.
The actual experience with the Tigers was not that big a deal. It will just help bore people at parties and irritate a few others on Facebook by putting up pictures (which I shall promptly do this evening). Narcissism thy mantle is Facebook.
Returning from the Tiger Woods, a guy who can be best described as the Thai version of Johnny Depp (check it out yourself) approached me. He was very insistent that I pose for a picture with him in front of a car that was not mine. I tried to mime my way out of the situation but the bugger would not let go. Recognizing that we are now in fairly “wild” country, close to the Burma border and in midst of “tribal” people who carry a machete like we do swiss knives, my self preservation gene kicked in. I gave him his picture and promptly took a picture of him as well in front of a car he still thinks belongs to me.
Post lunch we got on the road to Mae Hong Son which is technically a loop referred to by local bikers as “the road of a thousand hair pin bends”. And the Thai are not kidding when they name it such. In fact, at the end of the 315km drive we even got a certificate indicating we traversed 1,864 bends. Never one to hold on to certificates, I am going to retain this if nothing as an ode to my sore arms and neck. My calf muscles are still throbbing from maneuvering those bends some of which dropped as much as three stories in a single turn.
Needless to say this wrecked havoc on the cars and many were found on the side of the roads being nursed by their worried drivers and navigators. We had a few moments of our own but good old Datsi made it through. We did replace our fuel pump yesterday but found out earlier today that our rear left shock absorber was broken. I tried not to take it personally that the broken shock absorber was on the drivers side and tried to dispel any thoughts about my weight having anything to do with it. Speaking of weight, I must have lost at least 8-10 pounds in the last 16 days. A good thing but a far more expensive option than Jenny Craig.
What made the day’s journey worthwhile was the excitement that we were approaching Burma and will soon be entering it as the inaugural delegation after the country opened its borders. Kind of like a “modern day Marco polo” is what my inflated sense of self told me. The drive also made for intriguing views as we sped past the lush, jungle covered countryside with people tough as nails.
There were moments Avi and I wondered if Rambo would pop out of the next turn sweaty bandana, bazooka and all and ask us “Is if safe to come back states side? Did Sarah Palin win?” The presence of what seemed like an entire Thai Army platoon guiding traffic and saluting us as we were making the way through villages brought up those Rambo images even more.. or maybe it was the sun and dehydration. We will never know as we complete yet another adventure filled day on The Road to Mandalay.
Day 15 was a day most of us were looking forward to after five grueling days of fairly technical rally racing. It was the promised day in a promised land of Chiang Mai where both sore limbs and sports cars were to be rested and repaired. If there was ever a more aptly named hotel this was it. Hotel Shangri La, Chiang Mai.
We set off on a bright sunny day with a goal to push another 400 km further north and closer to Burma. It was a treat to race today in a cooler environment and on a Sunday where it seemed every villager turned out to clap and cheer us on in this land of smiles. On hindsight, some of these villagers were perhaps laughing at the follies of a bunch of foreigners for building and shipping their cars half way around the world to put on such exotic entertainment.
The day started off with a closed off beautiful flat tarmac that for a car lover was the equivalent of a newly laid cricket green at Eden Garden or a fresh outfield at Yankee Stadium. The black tarmac got the better of our resolution to “nurse the car to Burma” and we upped our “push factor” from 60% to 80%.
When it was our turn to race, I reminded myself of Neil Young’s lines “it’s better to burn out than to fade away” and slammed hard on the accelerator with no intention of lifting my foot off the accelerator (after all our license plate says “NeverLift” I told myself). It was an exhilarating run and I enjoyed smoking through a 6km long section full of bends and esses that really showed what these Datsuns can do.
After a great lunch we set out to Shangri La and were paying close attention to all sounds coming out of the various parts of our car. As we were rolling into Shangri La, I got to think about the journey so far. Beyond the normal stuff such as food, speed and views, three things stood out in terms of their “spectacularness”: One, Avi my brother (the Rock star), second Datsi my car (the Rugged car), and finally, the amazing power of Epsom baths (the Rock salts).
First Avi. Now many of us have seen him grow up this past few decades but you never really know someone until you literally live with him or her for a while. I got to do just that this past 18 days and boy was it an eye opener. His temperament, his talent for navigation, his racing skills, and above all his attitude were all exemplary.
On the core racing stuff Avi demonstrated an exceptional aptitude for navigation and for racing through tricky terrains. As a matter of fact before we left we both took a rally training session and in the words of the instructor Dave, Avi was probably the quickest study and the best navigator he has ever trained. High praise not just for skills but for the fact that he has both our life and limb in his hands (after all you don’t want to get your “Left vs Right” confused when you are racing through plantations with deep ditches, canals, and blind turns at speeds that approach 100kmph.) It also helped that he had a sucky navigator like yours truly to be compared against. Despite spending lot of $$ and time training, I proved once again that treasure does not trump talent.
In addition to navigating/driving, Avi also demonstrated skills that are essential to any good racer: calmness. The car, much like a horse, senses the mood of the driver and responds accordingly. Not the place to be tense or nervous or uncertain. Wish our Dad was alive today to see what a fine young man we have in our midst.
The second spectacular discovery of this trip was this rugged little car.. Datsi as my sister christened her. The race on the flat tarmac today was a reminder of the history of the Datsun cars in America and the reason for their automotive legacy. When the Datsuns landed in the US in the 70s, they were positioned as the first true competitors to Porsche 911s but at one-third the cost of a 911 and with legendary Japanese reliability. Having raced everything from a Lotus Formula 1 car with 850hp to Porsche GT3RS with half the horses, and everything in between, it is hard not to be impressed by these amazingly sure footed cars.
While no ballerina like the Porsche GT3RS or a speed demon like the Radicals or F1, the Datsun 240z consistently turns in an eminently respectable rally performance on the track still today and does so while being blessed with a body style reminiscent of the 1960s Jaguar E-type. It’s like having the body of Hulk Hogan hidden behind a Brioni or a Kiton suit. The car looks sleek on the road and transform into a dirt devil during a rally race. This blend of perfection often leads to Avi and I waxing poetic about Datsi sporting a smile the width of Grand Canyon. On occasions, I have also been spotted by bemused villagers stroking the steering wheel and patting the dashboard after a race which no doubt made some of the villagers say “crazy Indian” in hushed tones.
However, to listen to her breathe laboriously these days after the fuel pump issue and struggle with the bent drive shaft and frame is quite painful. It is what jockeys must feel like when they listen and watch their prize winning Kentucky Derby thoroughbred labor through morning drills.
Finally, a word on the spectacularness of Epsom salt (Magnesium Sulfate). Epsom salt baths have been used for centuries all around the world. However, I feel they are often overlooked and underrated. They are the easiest present you can give your body because they quickly draw out painful lactic acid build-up in the muscles. Good Epsom salts contain anti-allergens and anti-oxidants, and promote cell renewal. I strongly recommend you carry a box with you.
After we reached Chiang Mai, I promptly ran a hot bath, dunked a cup full of Epsom salt, and entered the world of Epsom salt magic while listening to one of my favorite Diana Krall songs “I got you under my skin”. The song and its title felt very appropriate. We then headed over to the Sunday Walking Market in Chiang Mai which turned out to be one of the best decisions of the trip. The market was a fascinating place with sights, sounds, and smells that seem to have come right out of the stage of Star Wars set on Planet Tatooine. See pictures attached of the various wares for sale in this jam packed market — food, clothes, trinkets, and roadside chair massages.
Having taken care of mind and body, I am now looking forward to sleeping in late tomorrow in Chiang Mai, ‘The Rose of the South”.
Kanchanaburi to Phetchabun. 525 kms
Is there such a thing as developing resistance to Imodium? We know people develop antibiotic resistance but diaherral medicine?. I suspect Avi and I may be on the verge of it. More on that in a few but first a few words on the race and on the state of the machine.
Day 13 was yet another bruiser. It’s almost as if the race organizers decided to take off their gloves and throw everything at us to see how many more fall off the grid. And I mean everything. It included high speed races on long country dirt road full of giant potholes and deep ruts, racing instructions for blind turns in regularity sections that had to be correct to 5 meters, and killer average speed on dirt roads. All of this created a virtual mutiny by some of the older vintage car drivers who just gave up midway after seeing their cars get battered. In apparently a first, the organizers apologized to the drivers for adding such a demanding section.
The serious one we are worried about is a suspected bent trans-axle and a warped frame that makes her vibrate violently at high speeds and prevents the doors from opening respectively. Some of the vile potholes may have taken a revenge and warped the car’s frame when we hit it too hard. As a result, Avi may soon be entering the navigator side through the window just like they do in NASCAR. smile emoticon
In addition, her exhaust developed a hole the size of a baseball due to rock puncture. This led to an evil sounding car that would have made fans of Tokyo Drift go wild but on the down side fills the insides with carbon monoxide on occasions. Not a good thing as you chemistry majors would know. Finally, our wheel bearings got loose and the wheel calipers were bent resulting in extreme brake squeal that sounded like Yoko Ono singing karaoke to one of Axl Rose’s songs.. nasty stuff.
The wobbly axle that shakes the car at high speeds and during a race makes our internal organs feel like they are being blended in a Cuisinart. We can take the beating and muscle soreness if it were not for a horrible side effect. You see all the movement stirs up the many parasites, yeasts, and bacteria that have made our gut home thanks to the past 12 days of gorging on local food stalls, road side restaurants, and farmers markets. Put another way, if there was ever a UN of International stomach bugs, our stomachs would be its headquarters.
The results are worrisome to say the least.. Avi and I have over the past two days noticed an increased amount of rumblings and resistance to doses of Imodium. In the past the routine was simple.. Step 1: eat a questionable food (partly cooked meat, questionable origin meat, unwashed fruit, open container drink etc) Step 2: pop in an Imodium and Step 3: watch results within minutes and say thank you to modern medicine and over $400B of US Western Pharmaceutical R&D budgets.
This pattern is beginning to change ever so slowly. We are now having to double the dose and give each other that “are you ok to keep driving or do you need a pit stop?” question at a greater frequency.
We now have two choices: a) give the car a break and not push it harder so we get to finish the race in Burma and in turn get the tummy to settle a bit or b) it DEPENDS. I literally mean it Depends.. as in the adult diapers. There is no shame in discussing the real option of continuing to drive fast like a Banshee but put on Depends incontinence diapers so we don’t lose time in pit stops. After all Astronauts do it, Le Mans Drivers do it.. so why not a couple of crazy Texenas (Saxenas from Texas)? Avi and I discussed that topic for a few minutes today but decided to punt it for tomorrow.. Valentine’s Day.
Final words on the race. We had a great day today.. had a super section that was semi-graded and we went hard at it. But for one turn where I took a part of the bamboo jungle with me as a hood ornament, we were perfect. Avi is an exceptional navigator and his call outs to me today where he essentially “paints the road ahead in my mind’s eye” were near perfect. He did express his displeasure once when I went too hard in a very diplomatic “Bhaiya, for the record your driving style right now is not consistent with our philosophy of preserving the car”. Ever the smooth talker, he got me to lift off the gas a bit and we made it through without getting into any additional ditches.
The day ended rather nicely with a rather tasty dinner in probably the worst hotel we have stayed at so far (small town and this is the best they can do we were told). The surprise of the day was when all 140 odd race participants started singing “Happy Birthday to you” to me and brought out a cake with 50 candles that I immediately rushed to put out so as to not risk the fire alarms and sprinklers from going off.
It was very touching to see a cake brought out with your name on it. It was also very touching to hear 100+ people from over 30 countries sing Happy Birthday to you and, right on cue, butcher the pronunciation of your name in unison. All in all, Day 13 was yet another good day on The Road to Mandalay.
Today was the toughest race day of them all. It was the most demanding of test for both car and driver. We started off on a rather somber note with a visit to Hellfire Pass Museum a WWII historical site focused on the Japanese attempt at building the railway line from Malaysia to Thailand and on to Burma using POW labor. It was also a good reminder of the senseless brutality of war and how evil we can get towards our fellow human beings.
We then headed out two regularity sections that can best be described as being designed by a sadist and the very reincarnation of one of those prison guards. The roads, if you can call them that, were full of potholes and out cropping the size that would in some cases swallow a tractor tire. We had over 30km of this rough terrain to race through while holding on to our dear lives and ensuring we reached each time control point at the allotted minute so as to avoid hefty penalties to your total time.
We saw four cars breakdown today and was told later there were many more. All victims of one of the worst roads we have ever driven and raced on. Avi did a masterful job of navigation and we once again did very well. However, the car took quite a beating. When we reached the hotel we found that both doors had gotten stuck as the frame of the car got bent while navigating those pothole ridden roads at high speed. The doors still work and it is a reminder to put a sturdier X-frame to brace the car at the bottom as well as a stiffening bar across the hood. Damage apart, it was one of the most exhilarating days of racing and we celebrated it with yet another visit to the food stalls next to the Bridge over River Kwai. One of the highlights of this stop was not just the bridge or the food but my view of a first ever temple of fashion with deities made out of mannequins.. I kid you not.
On the food side of things, we now have a formula in place.. Finish the last race ahead of schedule, race back the hotel to check in and then head back into the town to explore culture and cuisine. The key here is to ensure we only go as far as our bowels would allow us i.e. ensure that once we eat the yummy food, if the tummy gets growling, we should be in a position to pop in an Imodium and then race back to the safety of our luxury hotels and avoid the ignominy of a squatting toilet. You get the picture.
Having finished the longest day of the race to date (558 km) and completing couple of very fast sessions, Avi and I were headed back to the hotel a little past 4pm. Typical to our “Road Runner” mode (nick name given to Team Saxena by the other contestants), we were zipping by other cars when Dionysus smiled on us.
As we made a turn towards Kanchanaburi (of The Bridge Over River Kwai fame), we were mesmerized by the glorious smell of BBQ wafting through the air.. (BBQ smell much like a smile or a wave is a universal expression). It also helps to have lived for 20 years in Texas where BBQ is a religion and Texans think God created fire to help us BBQ.
Realizing we had at least an hour before we need to check in the Master Time Control, we did a quick U-turn and entered into a world of culinary experience unparalleled for my eyes and palette.
Here’s a quick tour visiting and sampling food with the local vendors including drinking coke right out of a plastic bag!! We also had to resort to aggressive miming to identify/verify what we wanted to sample as we didn’t want to get our meats confused… after all dogs, cats and pigs all have four feet.
After tasting a variety of local dishes, we topped if off with what appeared to be something that Lady Gaga’s hairdresser sold off to the Thai. It looked like hair from a tonsured head and was rather colorful green-pink-blonde that I could only picture on top of the great poet Lady Gaga’s head.
Curious brothers that we are, we shelled out 20 Bhats (about 60 cents) and I tore into the plastic bag while fighting visions of licking Lady Gaga’s bald pate. It is safe to say that is is the best damn cotton candy aka Buddi ke Baal I have had in my life. Highly recommend it.. got same back for my room and plan to enjoy it as I soak once again in Epsom salt laced bath water.
A note on hygiene:
To play it safe, we applied Purell Hand Sanitizer on our hands. However Avi pointed out that it was AFTER we ate all that stuff so we promptly squirted a few shots of Purell down our gullets for safe measure. Three hours later I am glad to report all’s good.