This is not meant to be a complaint in the form of a blog or a story for which I would like pity. None of the stories we put up here should be viewed as such. They are 'learning experiences.' Experiences which 'build character' as Calvin's dad always used to say in the comics. That said...
We are currently in Laos. It is a land of steep mountains, pushed up by some of the strongest plate tectonic movements the world has ever known in its 4.5 billion years floating through space. It is a land cut deep by mighty rivers such as the Mekong and the Nam Juan Piasano. It is a land made foggy by its dense rain forests and chill mountain air. Its people are a people made poor by years and years of war. A people who lack the technological and financial means to wield any real power over Gaia (spirit of the earth). Though these people have little to work with, they have made quite an effort. They have managed to put down a thin strip of asphalt that winds its way along these zig-zaggy rivers and over these steep mountains. They have also located a few of the craziest, ballsiest road warriors this side of the pacific to take on these roads using any vehicle they can find with at least three wheels and a spot that can be spray painted with the word BUS.
Each of our individual rides North was done in a Sangthaw. This is a fancy word for a standard sized pickup truck with a steel cage welded onto its bed. The cages always sport lovely steel decorations to spruce them up. Steel flowers and leaves wind their ways up the metal bars like strings of knives. The whole contraption is then painted rainbow colors, and then 18 people plus luggage are loaded into it. The drivers have no interest in their passengers' safety. They want to get where they are going NOW! They weave and wind up the mountain roads, sliding the trucks around corners, squealing the tires when they slam on the brakes to avoid head-on collisions with other drivers doing the same thing the other way on the one lane roads. They pass on blind curves, throwing the dice and betting on the next bit of road being traffic free.
The Sangthaws we took were often crowded not only with people but an assortment of livestock and produce. On one ride a man's sack of rice burst open and he had us all scoop handfuls of rice from the filthy floor into a new bag. During another ride a woman climbs in and props a woven bamboo basket on my feet which contains two chickens. I am thrilled. It is one of the few topics about which I can really communicate with people in all the countries we have visited. "Jao yaak tow sawng kai!" I say to her with a big smile. "You have two chickens!" A big smile spreads across her face and she launches into a whole speech of which I can only make out the words "two chickens". I stare dumbly at her, still grinning. When she finishes and looks at me expectantly I just shrug. Luckily I have also memorized the phrase, "I don't speak Lao very well". I insert it after my shrug. Other passengers who have been eavesdropping laugh. We all go back to looking at the countryside rushing past through the bars.
Same trip. We stop for another passenger. There is never a question of IF another passenger can fit. The question is WHERE will this passenger fit. This particular man has brought with him a hog. There is no room in the bed of the Sangthaw, so the hog is lashed to the bumper with a rope. It becomes the voice for all the rest of us in the truck. When we hit a bump hard it squeals in terror. When we slide around each blind curve it lets out a shrill whine of panic. It also makes the ride a little less relaxing for the rest of us. And just like us, when the ride is over, it goes about happily searching for grubs in the dirt as soon as its legs are untied. As though nothing has happened at all. (We don't search for grubs, we just go on happily.)
On the way back from the north Mia and I opted for a bus. A REAL bus. We thought this would make the 18 hour ride more bearable. At this point I will give it over to an excerpt from an email Mia wrote to describe climbing onto the bus. Not because I am lazy, but because she is great with descriptions. (and I'm lazy.)
(By Mia) By now wise to exactly what having a ticket does (and doesn't) mean in Laos, we arrived at the station early and were ready to fight our way onto the bus to nab a pair of seats before they were all gone, and we were made to spend the entire journey sitting or standing in the aisle. Joe handled getting the luggage up onto the top of the bus, and I pushed and elbowed and squeezed my way through the door with everyone else doing the same, against the flow of departing passengers struggling equally hard to get off. I laid claim to two seats near the rear, not prime but not the worst, sat myself down and stared defiantly ahead, just waiting for anyone to challenge my right to two whole seats, side by side. By the time they loaded all the bags of rice, sugar, stinky dripping clams, oranges... into the center walkway, I was up to my shoulders in white sacks of varied goods. While it was a bit claustrophobic, especially during the heat of the afternoon when the road was too dusty to let down the windows, a big bag of white sugar does make a nice head rest at night.
(Ok. I'm back.)
Picture an old, run down school bus. Fill it with children who are the size of adults. (Or adults who act like children. Whichever you prefer.) Really pack it tight, fill the aisles with them. Now give them each a brand new cell phone with all the features. MP3 players, speakerphones, walkie talkie capabilities, long lasting batteries. Everyone here has had technology dumped into their laps in the last couple of years without any of the slow buildup that we have had in Western countries. The instruction manuals tell them how to play the ring tones on full volume but they do not teach proper cell phone etiquette. This means that every single person in the bus is trying to show each other up with blasting songs and screaming over their speaker phones the whole ride. All night long. They cuddle up in their seats and in the aisles, clutching their phones to their chests like a toddler who refuses to go to bed without their brand new toy. They also fuss with them, constantly switching to a new song before the old one is complete. The other passengers also nose pick, spit and puke like children. They are, however, intensely offended by feet. If you point at them with your foot they react as though they were hosting a fancy dinner party and they are watching you poop on their dining room table.
Two hours into our trip the bus breaks down. It is getting dark and the driver pulls open the engine cover and goes to work. We are on the top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere. We sit there for 8 hours in the cold. People build a fire outside. People blast their phones. A few hours into the repairs the I stand up and crane my neck to see if there is any progress being made. The men who were working on the engine are now sitting around it having dinner. An hour later I am looking forlornly out the window and I see a truck drive by with our driver in it. He doesn't return. No more work is being done on the bus. We can't find out what is going on because our command of the language isn't at that level yet. I try once to ask but fail.
Mia and I are the only white people in the bus. Every time I try to get off to pee or walk around like everyone else is doing I hear sentences muttered containing the word "Falang" and am not let by. Just glared at. Falang is the Asian equivalent of 'Cracker'. The cramped seats and dusty air are tough to take, especially for someone as big as me. The leg room is not designed to comfortably accommodate a 6 foot tall man. Finally, at 2 am another bus arrives. Everything must be unloaded and re-loaded. The buses are pulled along side each other and successfully block the entire road for a good hour while this takes place. Huge 80 pound sacks of rice, clams and textiles are passed through the windows. I stand up and start helping. Suddenly I am getting smiles from the other passengers. They are saying Kop Jai (thank you) with each sack I help with. One of them shows me how to stack the bags next to my seat to make a nice leaning area and helps me do it. After this everyone is friendly to me. They smile at me. I offer them some pizza flavored Pringles. They accept. For the rest of the trip I do not hear the word Falang. With the bus loaded, it is time to get back on the road.
If the passengers are children in adult bodies the bus driver is a 16 year old with a brand new licence. As we board the second bus I see a 1200 watt amplifier has been duct taped to the dashboard. I can't see the speakers, but I know they are around. A dark leather cowboy hat hangs from the rear view mirror. Once everything is loaded into the new bus our driver steps in. He pauses to survey the passengers. Like a conductor looking over his orchestra before the first note. He sits down. Takes a moment to position his hat on his head. A calm before the storm. He reaches over to fiddle with something on the dash and the fastest most throbbingest techno I have ever heard starts pounding through the speakers. He guns the engine. Yanks on the oversized stick shift lever. Metal crunches as gears strike each other and fail to catch. Again. And then suddenly we are lurching forward through the dust and the fog. Faster and faster. We rush through a tree lined corridor at the end of which will suddenly appear a home or a cliff or a seeming dead end. I watch through the cracked and filthy windshield as it comes impossibly close. Like a fun house ride. And at the last second he swerves the bus around a curve and everything is a momentary blur before again we are rushing into the corridor. The music pounds. It tries but cannot drown out the sound of the cell phones which are turned up in a seeming competition with the driver's stereo system. He slides the bus around corners. THE BUS! The smell of burnt rubber filters in the the windows with the frigid mountain air. To my right a man sits with a stack of letters. He holds them like they are million dollar bills. Looks through them over and over. As we pass through towns he opens his window and flings them from the moving bus out into the street. He is, I realise after some time, the mailman.
Our 18 hour bus ride ended up being a 30 hour bus ride. It was a good experience and it built character. After a good night sleep we are about to board what promises to be at least a 10 hour bus ride south.