Falling Down Hills In Vietnam & Valparaiso

A chronicle of two wipeouts, one of which smelled awful

Time To Read: 7 mins | April 27, 2017

For a few more years, until all this over-drinking and not working out catches up to me, I am reasonably athletic. Nothing all that impressive, but I can catch balls and throw stuff and run fast, and do that move with a sauté pan where you flip the food in the air and catch it.

This has paid dividends in a few ways. Being able to tackle other men with crew cuts got me accepted to a college I had no business attending. The ability to run across balance beams and drag overweight sleds while starving earned me a fair amount of money in my mid-20s — though never as much as I insinuated to several dates while the show was still airing.

And there’ve also been countless minor situations where a modicum of athletic ability has aided my life. The following are one and a half instances of that:

I was in Vietnam last summer with an exceptionally loud group of people. Their volume has nothing to do with this story, but it is probably the most unifying personality trait we shared.

During our guided tour of the country, we were one day taken on a hike outside whatever town we were staying in, down some of the mountainside farming terraces. It was as picturesque as it gets; the hills themselves have been carved into oversized stairs over the centuries for farming purposes, and you can’t help but marvel at the amount of effort that must have gone into the terraforming.

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And just for rice. Boring, plain old rice, that doesn’t even get turned into saki all that often.

Anyways, the hike was no joke. It had rained the night before, and seemingly the five thousand nights before that, so the dirt track was more akin to a theme park waterslide. It was the same shade of poo brown as the Lazy River, too.

We were moving slowly on account of some members of the group’s lack of physicality. Which suited me fine – the previous night’s convenience store vodka had lowered my will to live significantly. My Vietnamese is beyond weak, so my theory for the hangover was that I’d misread the label on a bottle of rubbing alcohol.

Due to our slow speed and constant stops, I wasn’t paying as much attention to the trail as I probably should have. So when my right foot shot out from under me, on a critically steep portion of track right on the edge of a cliff, I panicked. Instincts took over – I legitimately don’t think I had a conscious thought for a full second.

In that time, my right hand reached down and planted in the mud, a bit like a skateboarder posting up on a half pipe. Both my legs were now in the air, but I somehow managed to tuck into a ball and land on my feet in a three-point stance, just a foot or so from a 15-foot drop off.

The maneuver initially terrified the group, but afterwards earned a reluctant round of applause. Which is more than I can say about this more recent tale.

Whoever designed Valparaiso deserves an award and a straight jacket. My new Chilean hometown is built on a hill, and not a uniform one – plateaus burst out of the hillside every quarter mile, like the mountain’s fingers are stretching toward the nearby ocean. And these juts aren’t just worked around as a geographic inconvenience; most of the city’s attractions are built on top of them.

Because walking up one of these requires 3 years of cardio training, city planners thought it best to build a series of elevators into hillsides. They are best described as run-down, weather-worn miniature trains climbing 45-degree angles on rusty tracks, operated by men wearing street clothes and scowls. They look exactly as safe as that sounds.

Now, while I’m all for a life-threatening vertical trolley ride, I still walk most everywhere, and the hill issue is exacerbated because my shoes are shit. Which hurts my heart to say. I’m far from the most stylish person on the planet — a rotating cast of ex-girlfriends in the past decade are basically responsible for my entire wardrobe — but I do have decent shoes. I’m the opposite of a sneaker head, and am not claiming to have anything properly high-end, but my feet, when marching on U.S. soil, usually can brag a decent appearance.

Thing is though, suede loafers don’t easily fit into a backpack. So these days I live permanently in flip-flops. And my most recent pair has been on duty for several months, meaning they have roughly as much grip strength as Christopher Reeves. I’ve had a lot of close calls where one of my feet suddenly decides to go somewhere I hadn’t placed it.

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This incident, however, was by far the most dramatic, courtesy of Valparaiso’s bonkers hills and the local dogs.

I was walking downhill to the grocery store, in the aforementioned flip flops while listening to Alessia Cara’s ‘Scars to Your Beautiful’. Which was ironic, considering what was about to happen.

My right foot shot out from under me, exactly like Vietnam. But due to some freakish muscle memory I can take no credit for, my right hand reached down to catch me. And it did; I stuck the landing with both feet under me, exactly as before. This performance earned a strong reaction from a couple sitting on a nearby stoop.

It took half a second to realize they weren’t cheering, as I felt my acrobatics deserved. They were instead laughing. That appalled, shocked kind of laughter you hear when someone watches Borat for the first time, and they see two naked grown men run through a hotel convention.

It didn’t take long to understand why they were cackling. A moment later, I inhaled through my nose and was alerted to the fact that my right shoe and, by happy chance, right hand were now both covered in dog shit.

I went straight home and took a fifteen minute shower, just to be safe.

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photo: bambi saw some shit in prison. street art in valparaiso, chile

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Malcolm Freberg
Malcolm Freberg
American writer living permanently on the road. Believes rye whiskey is superior to bourbon, Belle is the best Disney princess, and that selfie sticks should be snapped in half on sight. Hosted a travel documentary for AOL & played Survivor a few times.
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