Three hours after we departed the popular tourist destination of Luang Prabang in the north of Laos, our bus broke down.
We were on our way to Vientiane and were supposed to arrive early the next morning.
It was at night and we were in wild mountainous country.
The road was completely dark.
On either side was a wall of dense and formidable jungle, a mad tangle of vines and trees and ferns silhouetted under star light. There was no moon.
Suddenly there was a piercing shrieking noise and the bus glided to the side of the road and came to an abrupt stop.
What happened afterwards remains engraved in my memory as a remarkable event but this is doubly so given my present circumstances of being confined to Australia – and wondering whether travel, as I once knew it and took for granted, will ever happen again.
Travel unplanned and full of surprises both enjoyable and far less so……
Our bus suddenly rendered powerless,the driver glided to the side of the road and braked and we all got out.
Most of the passengers were Laotians. The few 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 Anya and I.
Unlike the Laotians, we were all in a state of utter disbelief at what we saw.
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. It had snapped off and shot along the road like a bullet and left a gouge in the tarmac.
The bus was old and it was fair bet that it had never been maintained.
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. We began chatting and sharing travel experiences. Total strangers moments before, we were brought together by this sudden change in our circumstances.
The driver stood by the side of the road, waiting for a vehicle to appear so that he could hitch a ride back into Luang Prabang.
The night was perfectly still and clear, the sky a blaze of stars.
There wasn´t much traffic.
Finally we saw headlights appearing. It was a Hyundai light commercial vehicle heading in the direction of Luang Prabang. Our driver waved it down and got in and 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.
All very amusing in retrospect but at the time, it seemed like some kind of disaster. A rude and unwanted event which had overturned all our plans. The Laotians went back into the bus and hunkered down and slept. They were used to this. We weren’t.
So there we were, marooned in a remote area of a country at night.
After a while, we also realised: it was cold.
The other westerners went back into the bus and joined them.
But I couldn’t sleep.
I 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.
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……
Then 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.
What happened next was a miracle, something beyond my – our – entire western, modern, frame of reference……