Friday, March 24, 2006

The Wheels on the Bus Went 'Round and 'Round

He was the toughest-looking bloke on the bus. All shaved-head, pierced and tattooed, plus a muscular frame that was nearly double the size of most Asians we see, I noticd him right off and involuntarily felt sympathetic he'd have to squeeze into the Lao bus seats that aren't made for Westerners. As Andy and I boarded the "VIP" bus, which meant we'd paid $7 for our private company ticket and upholstered luxury instead of going public for $3 and metal seats, on our trip through the mountains to Luang Prabang, I surveyed the crowd.~> read more

 Mostly Western/White First Worlders, save for a few Asian girls with white men, and all with backpacks and a sunburn from a day on the river in Vang Vieng.

I wasn't looking forward to this bus ride, not that I'd say we ever look forward to a bus ride on our trip, but we'd been warned about this one in particular. The guidebook read "take Dramamine or other precautions if you experience motion sickness" (we hadn't read this anywhere in Lonely Planet India!) and we'd heard it was worth the extra $4.00 to take a VIP coach instead of a regular bus. So, we did and while I don't usually get car sick, I was anxious. The 44 other travelers looked relatively fine, and the air conditioning was blowing at a slow but somewhat cooling pace, so I settled in and read while the road was still straight. My leg room was a little more cramped than expected because the luggage space had myteriously filled up early on (I don't know if the driver was transporting extra cargo or what, but this has never happened before) so backpacks lined the entire bus aisle and I finally got comfortable by resting my feet atop someone's pack.

About forty minutes into our journey, which was already nearly running an hour late for no reason but that we didn't drive away until 10:48am instead of 10:00am, we pulled over on the dirt road. Primitive palm-frond and wood roadside stands lined the side and eager food sellers greeted us, though in the ever-gentle Lao way. Ladies waved and held up pineapple or baguettes, but no one yelled out to me in a loud, more piercing and atonal than a duck-call whistle voice: "Lay-dee, you want pineapple? Buy from me!" as in Cambodia. I stayed inside, as not to be tempted by the foods and fluids that combat my dehydration strategy for long bus rides and no bathroom usage, but Andy went outside to investigate. Apparently, we had bus trouble and the stop wasn't expected. Andy, ever the mechanic and careful engineer, looked stricken when he returned and I was immediately worried we were stuck.

"I just saw our driver pounding the engine and battery terminal with a rock he picked up from the road!" he cried, sounding appalled and yet wondrous. My eyes got big with shock and a lack of hope in reply, but just then the engine fired up, and they got even bigger with surprise. Andy just sat back in his seat shaking his head, and everyone piled back on with a "hurrah!" and off the coach lumbered, turning and shaking on the dirt road, but still rumbling. Later, Andy confessed to me, that he was nervous for the next hour and expected the battery to fall out of its terminal because there were so many bumps on the road and he didn't know what the driver had managed to do with the rock, but somehow we kept moving and he got distracted by other things.

These other distractions included the fact our paved road often disappeared isntantaneously to become only slippery dirt and gravel, and we started an ascent riddled with blind curves and corners. I put on the Ipod with Liz Phair to get inspired by her honest punk spirit and thought distracting thoughts like "What could I do with Lao silk? Would I ever use a woven textile as wall art? No. Well, there are so many here. What about a sticky rice basket? Is that a good souvenir? No. Too hard to carry; Andy won't like that and I'm not a basket person anyway."

Of course, all of these ridiculous, banal thoughts really meant, "This bus ride sucks! I'm not sure our driver could possibly be going any faster!?! He NEVER brakes! And, why in the hell do people honk before they go around a blind corner and breakneck speed instead of slowing down???!!!"

A reprieve came in the form of a lunch stop, and the bus pulled over to another village of roadside stands and nice ladies with food. Andy was skeptical if the bus would ever start again, and I was skeptical of the food options since everything seemed to have slippery pieces of minced meat floating in sauce. Dammit. To be vegetarian in this country is challenging. All of the other bus riders, including Mr. Tough Looking Guy, looked equally happy to be off the coach and madly smoked cigarettes while ordering up food. I finally found a girl whose glass-cased cart had cooked vegetables without pernicious pieces of uknown flesh and guts.

There were however, many mysterious greens, but beggars can't be choosers, let alone vegetarians here and I ordered away. I later learned that I ate some river greens, jungle vines and morning glory, which isn't the same pretty purple flowers that graces yards and fences in America, but some jungle plant that was bitter with a bit of crunch. Mixed with locally-grown mushrooms, cauliflower and carrots plus sprinkled with healthy doses of soy and fish sauce, it was quite good and took my mind off the fact we had at least 4 hours of the journey left!

Back the herd of pink and white backpackers went on the bus, which thankfully coughed and sputtered with life in the engine, and up we started on a continually blind serpentine road of curves. It got very quiet, very quickly. The blind corners that our bus took at seeming Mach speeds was intense and disconcerting, equalled only by the fact that the driver signalled our presence on the narrow road with village on one side and a 1,000 foot sheer limestone cliff drop on the other with only the horn. No braking, just honking -- our drive was puncuated by the vrrrooooommm of him pushing the gas pedal and the blaring beeeeeeeeeeep of the bus's horn for at least an hour. Vrrrooooomm, beeeeeeepp, vrrroooommm, beeeeeeeeeppp. Then finally, once, a Sssccrreeeeeecchhhh! We slowed down -- for seeming no reason as we were practically on a flat stetch of dirt. Puzzled, I craned my neck awkwardly in the aisle, as did many other tense passengers, and we didn't see any animals or trees blocking our way. Then, out of seeming nowhere, a giant logging truck screamed toward us as the same Mach speed of our coach, on our same dirt road, and whizzed past us with centimeters to spare.

Whoa! I and every other person was fully awake now as the bus shook, and then the vrroooom, beeeeeeep routine resumed and we continued climbing. Andy and I could only surmise that our driver had gotten some metaphysical signal from the environment and by knowing the jungle dirt roads so well, that he sensed and knew the truck was coming and slowed to let it pass. I looked around at the quiet group of 44 travelers and noticed all were awake, and many were unconsciously holding the tiny handle glued pathetically in the middle of the seat backs, almost more as decoration than safety. My palms glistened with a sheen of sweat, and for once, I knew it wasn't from the Asian heat.

Sitting on that bus, feeling it wind up and around the hills, hearing it blare and rattle through the moutain curves was unnerving. Andy saw some signs and deciphered that we were zooming up and down some 13%+ grades, which made Vail Pass look dull! Finally, the bus plateaued and pulled over to a clearing at the seeming summit with a lovely green view of limestone cliffs, lush foliage and misty clouds. Travelers piled off the bus with zeal and relief, tripping over the backpacks in the aisle in their haste to get out, smoke cigarettes and pee in the trees. Fortunately, my dehydration strategy was working like a charm, so I stayed inside and watched people from at least 15 countries relieve themselves in the tall green grasses of Laos' jungle-forest. I noticed Mr. Tough Guy and some others chainsmoking and shaking their heads outside my window, and I knew I was not alone in my riding unease.

Five minutes later a downhill version of the vrrrrooooooooommm and beeeeeeeeeeeep strategy resumed, as our bus barreled down toward the valley housing Luang Prabang. Soon the honks were abandoned in favor of sheer speed and the smell of burning brakes, which didn't settle well with me, my palms, or anyone else for that matter, especially when the driver turned off the air conditioning and windows were opened wide for comfort...and yet discomfort. Burning rubber just isn't what you want to smell on a mountain descent! Every passenger was alert and quiet, yet jerking left and right against their will with the dramatic curves. Suddenly, the driver hit the brakes and they worked -- impossibly, thankfully -- and we slowed to let another log truck whip by the bus. Dust, dirt, gravel and brake rubber flew in the open windows of our now un-air-conditioned bus, choking the already strained breathing of its nervous passengers.

As the bus of us tilted further down the mountain of blind corners and dusty curves, the horn and brakes gave it their all. And the Tough Guy's nerves gave out. All of a suddent, out of the uncomfortable silence of 44 passengers came this growling, savage plea with Australian flair: "Could you slow it down a little, use the brakes a bit, for fuck's sake!!! SLOW DOWN!"

No one said a word -- not the driver, not the 43 other passengers, especially not me, who was pleased to decipher he was an Aussie as no one else in the world uses that crazy curse phrase. Vrrrroooooooooommmmmmmmm, beeeeeeeeeeeeppp, vvvrooooooommmmm, beeeeeeeeeep. The bus continued swirling down the hilly curves, the brakes continued to make their presence known through a hot rubber smell, and no one said a thing. Andy and I didn't even know if the driver spoke English and understood what the Australian bloak had yelled out, as certainly no one had translated it into Lao and repeated. I looked around and everyone just sat as still and quiet as was possible with the winds, bends and down, down, downs of the road, hanging onto the helpless, decorative "safety" handle and waiting for the ride to be over.

Two hours and 187 kilometers later, the bus rolled into Luang Prabang and lurched to a final stop. Westerners and backpacks spilled out of the bus immediately, almost before the wheels stopped rolling forward agaist the cement of the station's curb. Cigarettes lit up left and right, hotel touts tried eagerly to grab the attention and dollars of the bus passengers and puffy exhale clouds of relief floated up above the scene. I was damn glad to be off the bus, and my palms were still a touch sweaty as I grabbed my pack out of the storage compartment. I noticed the tough, shaved and tattooed Aussie grabbing his backpack with little effort, and then I felt myself smirking. One bus ride through the mountains and jungles of Laos was all it took to crumble that mantle of pierced pluck. Guess he wasn't quite so tough after all! Looks really can be deceiving.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, that was one crazy bus ride! I am so glad you both are safe and made it ok. Those logging trucks from no where were amazing.
Love, Wendy

1:50 PM  
Anonymous Mommy Moore said...

My word, I can't decide if I'm "bus sick" after reading this story or not! I feel like I should rub my sweaty palms against my jeans after living through your harrowing trip. I think I can smell that icky burned-rubber smell even though I'm in my aired office here in Oregon.

I'm glad I didn't read this story earlier when we (in the USA) had just heard that 12 Americans died going over a cliff in a bus in South America. (They were taking a shore excursion from their cruise ship.) Be careful if you can!!!

3:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi ##name##, I'm trying to learn about lawncaregrass as spring is approaching. this year I plan on having the best yard in the neighborhood.

7:26 AM  

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