It was an extraordinary night and it was about to get more extraordinary.
Marooned in the mountains of northern Laos thanks to a bus breaking down and the driver hitching a ride into a large town and with the temperature plummeting, we huddled inside the bus and waited. The hours passed and then the driver appeared with a spare drive shaft and slid under the bus. The Laotians blissfully asleep, the tourists got out and looked under the bus, only half believing what they saw….
This was the idea: you travelled in order to experience other cultures, other ways of life.
Well there it was staring at us in the face only it wasn’t the kind of cultural experience one normally might have associated with travelling. This was someting else again.
What we were witnessing was a resourcefulness which was unique to the underdeveloped nations of the world.
I went back to the bus and grabbed my torch.
Just to add to all the difficulties the bus driver was confronting there was the moonless night.
The least we could do I reasoned was to provide this little man with light to work by.
We took turns to leave the bus and go outside and shine the torch under the bus.
‘Torch duty’ lasted for 20 minutes.
By that time, whoever it was who was holding the torch, got cold and had to go back inside the bus to warm up, whereupon someone else would take over. This went on for almost two hours.
Wasn’t the bus driver cold – freezing – he, a Laotian, and used to the heat?
I’ve got this image of this little man under the bus bashing and wrenching and me watching him and it´s just so hard to come to terms with: single –handed, with a hammer, a spanner, a rock and screwdriver, the bus driver installing a new drive shaft.
It defied anything I thought possible. What that little man was doing was for me so bizarre, it could have been a midnight ritual performed by a shaman hailing from a long-lost mountain tribe.
I 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 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, he got back behind the wheel and was about to start the engine, when the western tourists began clapping. I don’t know who stared but it could have been me. In any case, it proved to be infectious. The tourists began and then the Laotians woke up and joined us.
The bus reverberated to the sound of clapping and cheering.
What a bizarre scene!
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.
And after his superhuman exertions, the bus driver 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 Buddhist temple a few kilometres outside of Luang Prabang. Unlike 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 cast adrift in an ocean being attacked by sharks.
I didn’t know what the meaning of this scene was in the larger philosophical/religious context. Was it meant to symbolise the hell of Samsara, of the mortal life of suffering – or the travails of the trials and tribulations of the afterlife, what the Tibetans call the Bardo?
For me, it was remarkable for another reason: the mountains in the north of Laos were 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.
The terror on the faces of the marooned sailors cast adrift in the ocean and desperate to escape the teeth of the hungry sharks was as graphic a picture of hell as I had ever seen (including the medieval European paintings of Hieronymus Bosch).
I woke up at one point and 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.
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. Because we were so off schedule, we now copped the full brunt of the daylight hours and the choking traffic.
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 but beyond all that was a brutal reality: I was born a privileged westerner and he, a poor man in a poor country.
It didn’t add up, never had, never would.
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 10 U.S. dollars. It was a small amount for me, a hell of lot for him.
He looked at me in a state of shock and gave the note back to me. I handed it back and insisted he take it.
Then I fled. I didn’t want his gratitude. I wanted to do what I thought was right.
I had had a small taste of the reality of the lives of millions of people spread across the developing world where every single day was a struggle and doing the impossible and the unthinkable was normal.
Tired and confused, I made my way down a busy street, looking for a hotel. I felt as if I was suffering from a bad hangover. Weird images of an ocean and shipwrecked sailors and sharks and bits and pieces of flotsam from a wrecked ship appeared before me.
Why was life so hard for so many people?
But then was it really ever easy for anyone, be they rich or poor?
Maybe different kinds of hard.
The bus driver, I reflected, had the consolation of his Lord Buddha.
Pursued by a chaos of discordant images and thoughts, I made for a hotel and the promise of a long sleep.
Only then could the shipwrecked sailors and the sharks be safely relegated to the subconscious.