Hanging out with a peripatetic cyclist-photographer
Special to the Appeal
Editor’s note: Fellow photographer Eric Jarvis, of South Lake Tahoe, met up with former Nevada Appeal photographer Rick Gunn in Laos. Gunn is on a bicycle journey around the world, and sends regular updates, which are published in the Appeal.
From our table on the sidewalk, we could see the bustling night market of Luang Prabang, the cultural capital of Laos. Rick Gunn sat to my left, a Beerlao at his elbow, relaxing as we watched the steady stream of tourists making their way through the colorful crafts Hmong and Akha merchants had on display in the street.
Rick and I had been traveling together through northern Laos for two weeks, and in the morning we would part company. Rick would continue his bicycle odyssey which has taken him half-way around the world in the last 18 months, and I was going to fly down to southern Thailand for a few days of diving before heading back home to Lake Tahoe.
For now, 12 hours ahead of our farewell, we were enjoying a drink at the nicest restaurant we had found in the entire country.
As we chatted about our adventure – including a brush with disaster on the Mekong the day before – a small Lao girl approached our table. She was young, perhaps 6, and carried a box top filled with bracelets, necklaces, wallets and scarves.
“Hello,” she said cheerfully, smiling. “Would you like to buy?”
Even after a short time of traveling in Asia, you quickly grow weary of the seemingly endless stream of vendors trying to hawk their wares. I had my hand halfway up, ready to wave her away, when Rick got this characteristic playful smile on his face. He reached out as she approached and took the box from her hands, setting it in front of him on our table.
“How much for all of it?” He leaned forward across her treasures, as if claiming them for himself. Deadpanning now, he said, “10,000?”
By that he meant 10,000 kip, the official Lao money. Today, that amount is worth about a dollar. We had been joking for weeks that seemingly everything in the country cost 10,000 kip. A beer: 10,000. A four-hour bus ride: 10,000. A plate of noodles with fish: 10,000.
Her composure teetered as she took in this tall, lanky American. “Nooooo, you pay 10,000 for one.” She reached into the box and pulled out a sandalwood bracelet to illustrate her point.
Rick looked across at her, seemingly not hearing her reply, and said, “OK, 5,000 for all of it, but that’s my final offer.”
“Noooooooo,” she said again, but this time it was a delighted shriek as she realized that he was joking with her. A beautiful smile lit up her entire face, and she hopped from foot to foot, excited at the prospect of a sale, but also enraptured by this amusing foreigner.
The smile on Rick’s face matched hers as he took the bracelet from her hand, fished out another that matched, and negotiated a purchase of the two for 10,000.
Watching, it was my turn to appraise Rick, much as the small Lao girl had just done. Though we have known each other for more than 15 years and have been on countless adventures together, I am constantly amazed by his boundless energy, ever-present humor, passion for people.
Before Laos, I had seen Rick in Bordeaux, France, about a year earlier. Like this trip, I brought supplies to help him continue his journey.
Since Bordeaux, he has ridden his bicycle across seven time zones, covering about 5,800 miles. Much of that time was spent alone, for hours on end, as he crossed wide valleys and climbed incredible mountain passes. He has stories enough to fill several books, but he is humble as he shares his experiences with you. Unlike most of us, I detect absolutely no vanity in Rick, despite his accomplishments of this past year or more.
Rick hands me one of the sandalwood bracelets as he slips the other on his wrist. I raise my drink, and wordlessly we toast our Laos adventure that is rapidly coming to a close. We talk about meeting up in New Zealand in eight or 10 months. That will likely be the last rendezvous of this journey, for in a year or so, he will be back in the States, worried about bills and deadlines and the kind of stuff that dominates our ordinary lives.
A day earlier, the 30-foot wooden boat we were riding in from Nong Kiew to Luang Prabang had lost power, crashed into some rocks, and nearly capsized. It was a pretty harrowing experience, but, fortunately, the boat survived the crash, though it was unable to continue the rest of the day-long journey.
An hour later, we were on the side of the road with our fellow travelers, waiting for a bus to take us the rest of the way down to Luang Prabang. While we waited, a German woman asked Rick what had motivated him to ride his bike around the world. Typically, Rick responds to these questions with humor, but this time he was more introspective.
“At first, I wanted to do something great, to achieve something that would stand out; to ride your bike around the world, that’s a great accomplishment, yeah?
“Now, after traveling through 20-something countries and seeing how America is perceived nearly everywhere, trying to convey that to the people back home has become the most important thing. If I could get one or two people who read my journals to do something to help the environment or donate money to fight AIDS or do something to stop the war – that would be enough.”
As I look forward to my next meeting with Rick in Auckland, I think about these words. I think about Rick’s journey as he continues through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and beyond. But mostly I think about small moments of our time in Laos, like the little salesgirl with the sandalwood bracelets, and how he touched her with his humor and kindness.
• Eric Jarvis is a professional photographer based in Stateline. After college, he visited the lake for a short ski trip, and has lived there ever since. Eric and his wife, Beata, have owned a photography studio for more than 12 years. Recently, they released their “Renditions of Lake Tahoe Gallery Collection” of fine-art nature photography.