In 2007, there was one bus a day from the town of Luang Prabang, in the north of Laos, to the capital city, Vientiane in the south. It left at 7 in the evening.
Officially, the journey took 10 hours, but sometimes it was longer.
On the evening I was on the bus it took 6 hours longer: the problem was, the bus broke down. This happened about three hours after we departed Luang Prabang. By this time we were in wild mountainous country.
There was a piercing shrieking noise. The driver pulled over to the side of the road and we all got out. Twenty metres or so down the road was what looked like a long piece of metal pipe. Closer inspection revealed it was a section of the drive shaft – the shaft running under the bus which transfers the power of the motor at the front to the axle at the back. A section of the drive shaft had snapped off and shot along the road like a bullet and left a deep gouge in the tarmac.
The other westerners on board – some young Americans and Germans and an older Englishman – gathered together in a group. Altogether there were eight of us including my partner and I. We were all in a state of disbelief. And so too, we knew we were in for a long wait. It wasn´t possible to fix this problem up on the spot; it wasn’t like a flat tyre.
The driver stood by the side of the road, waiting for a vehicle to appear so that he could get a ride back into Luang Prabang.
We began chatting and sharing travel experiences.
The night was perfectly still and clear, the sky a blaze of stars. There was no moon.
And there wasn´t much traffic either.
Finally we saw headlights appearing. It was a Hyundai light commercial vehicle heading in the direction of Luang Prabang. Our driver waved it down. Got in and then vanished.
All of us assumed that he would go back to the bus station, get another bus and drive it back. But what if there wasn´t a spare bus at the station?
We might have to wait until the next day.
So there we were, marooned in a remote area of a country at night.
After a while, we also realised: it was cold.
The Laotian passengers got back into the bus, hunkered down and slept. We joined them.
But I couldn’t sleep.
I got out and went for a walk. Within minutes of leaving the bus, the darkness enclosed me. I felt like an astronaut who had left the spaceship behind him and ventured into a fathomless unknown.
It took time for my eyes to adjust. I had a torch with me but I didn’t want to use it. This mysterious night world was to be savoured. On either side of the road was a wall of dense and formidable jungle – a mad tangle of vines and trees and ferns silhouetted under star light.
I walked down the road a kilometre or so, until I saw a small gathering of huts set back from the road in an area hacked out of the jungle.
I walked over there to take a closer look.
The roofs of the huts were made of dried and compacted grass, their walls of bamboo and thatched palm leaves. Around each house was a garden fenced off with split bamboo palings. In the gardens were rows of vegetables.
Pigs, their eyes like luminescent orbs, stared at me.
There was no one to be seen, no lights. Everyone was asleep and no one stirred even after some dogs began barking at my approach. I retreated a way and stood there looking up the sky. The dogs stopped barking. There was silence broken only by the sound of crickets.
I was alone, perfectly alone, in one of the last underpopulated areas of Asia, where people were still living a way of life based upon subsistence agriculture. No doubt their way of life was hard and steeped in tradition; the women were subservient to the men and marriages were arranged and medical help was sporadic at best….sure, you could easily romanticise a ‘natural’ way of life when you didn’t have to live that life yourself, and yet….and yet….
With the image before my mind’s eye of the slums growing exponentially at the perimeter of every big city – and mega city – in Asia, I still had to wonder about the definition of ‘progress’ and whether these people living their simple way of life in the dense forests of the mountains were doing so badly.
Ah, leave the questions out of it!
Enjoy this spectacular night with its clear, star studded sky and this mysterious, all-encompassing jungle and forest, enjoy it before the illegal loggers take out the forests and the stars can no longer be seen because of the pollution……
The driver reappeared after an absence of a couple of hours.
He wasn’t behind the wheel of another bus.
A truck stopped and he jumped out – carrying a huge section of pipe and a bag.
He had gone back to the bus station and somehow, got another drive shaft (no doubt cannibalized from another bus) and was now going to fix the bus himself.
It was midnight and it was cold.
For two hours he was under the rear axle of the bus hammering, bashing, fastening and I don’t know what else. Three of us –from the westerners – took it in turns to leave the bus and go outside and shine a torch under the bus so he could see what he was doing. ‘Torch duty’ lasted for 20 minutes. By that time, whoever it was who was holding the torch, was cold and had to go back inside the bus to get warm, whereupon someone else would take over.
Wasn’t the bus driver cold – he a Laotian, and used to the heat?
None of us could quite believe what we were seeing: single –handed, with a hammer, a spanner, a rock and screwdriver, the bus driver was installing a new drive shaft.
It defied anything we thought possible.
We were tired but we also knew that we were witnessing something which was utterly beyond our frame of reference: the ability to make something out of nothing, to repair the irreparable. What that little man was doing was for us so bizarre, it could have been a midnight ritual performed by a shaman hailing from a long-lost mountain tribe. We came from a materialistic culture where very few products were mechanical. They were systems involving highly complex circuits and concepts; motor cars, mobile phones, tablets, computers, cd and DVD players and so on. When they malfunctioned they were thrown out or placed in the hands of an expert in order to be repaired.
Fix something ourselves?
When the bus driver had finished installing the new rear shaft and got back behind the wheel, I began clapping. I didn’t know what else to do. The other westerners joined in. Then the Laotians woke up and joined us. The bus reverberated to the sound of clapping.
The driver took of his cap and put his hands together in a gesture of obeisance, as if he was offering thanks to an invisible Buddha.
Then he started the motor and continued the long journey to Vientiane.
Everyone went to sleep.
I was running the night’s events through my mind.
The unreality of it all was hard to come to terms with.
That little man had hitched back all the way to Luang Prabang, found a replacement crank shaft – heavy, cumbersome – hitched a ride back and for hours, in the cold and dark, had lain under the bus and slowly and meticulously replaced the shaft.
And after this superhuman exertion, he continued driving all night through the mountains.
Eventually I dozed off. I had strange dreams. In one of them, I was in an ocean surrounded by sharks. The day before, I had visited an old Buddist temple a few kilometres outside of Luang Prabang. Unlike many of the other temples in the area it had not been renovated. It was old and run down. On one of the walls was a faded mural which caught my attention: it showed a ship wreck and sailors in an ocean being attacked by sharks. The scene was meant to symbolise the hell of Samsara, of the mortal life of suffering. But for me, it was remarkable for another reason: the mountains in the north of Laos are a long way from the sea (Laos is a land locked country). It was extremely improbable that the painter of that mural had ever been near the ocean or ever seen a shark, especially considering how old the mural was. It was highly unlikely that he had ever been outside the area of Luang Prabang.
Why had he chosen to paint sharks? How did he even know of their existence? At the very least, his was a remarkable work of imagination as well as a graphic means of portraying Hell.
In my dream or rather, nightmare, I was one of the poor suffering mortals fighting to escape the teeth of Samsara’s hungry sharks.
I awoke in fright.
It was dark. I looked at my watch: 3am.
The bus was moving very slowly. We were still in the mountains. The road was narrow and precarious as ever – only now we were enclosed on all sides by a heavy mist.
Visibility was next to nothing.
Good Heavens! Yet another trial for that long suffering bus driver!
At first light, I awoke with a heavy head. Sun blasted in through the rattling windows. It was hot.
We had left the mountains and were moving slowly along a straight road crammed with a chaos of cars, motor bikes and trucks.
In sweltering heat, we arrived at the bus station in Vientiane.
Everyone filed off the bus, tired and bedraggled. I got up, feeling half dead and took my place in the zombie cue and got down and began walking out of the bus station when it hit me: a troubling sense of injustice.
The memories of the night came back to me hallucinatory in their intensity. What that bus driver had done was remarkable, utterly beyond my frame of reference. Beyond all that however was a brutal reality: I was born a privileged westerner and he, a poor man in a poor country.
I grabbed my wallet and went back to the bus. Waited for the last passengers to straggle out. Then I stepped up and gave the driver the equivalent in local currency of 5 U.S. dollars. It was a small amount for me, a lot for him.
He beamed and looked at me as if I was some kind of deity.
I fled. His gratitude, bordering on obsequiousness, embarrassed me.
I did what was right. I did what I could.
Tired and confused, I made my way down a busy street, looking for a hotel. On the way, I analysed my motives. Perhaps I mused, all I had done was to pay off my guilt. Maybe even give myself the feeling of being a good human being. Stroke my ego, in other words.
Then again, perhaps I was making a small attempt to right the world´s wrongs.
Futile in the larger scheme of things, but precious all the same.