That episode when THE MUSE catches a ride with cabbages in Laos and lives to pay the physio…
“What did we do on holiday again?” “Oh yes, nothing.” I know people who see doing nothing as something to flaunt. Like a fake tan in mid-winter. I don’t. I see it as a waste of space on my flashback memory card. Imagine getting to the end of your life and all you see are the same tired images of you sunning yourself on a beach or sipping cocktails in a pool with a floating bar? It would be like tapping into Paris Hilton’s memory bank over and over again. My definition of hell.
I usually pick destinations that are challenging, either mentally, spiritually or physically. The trifecta is the holy grail. The fact that these places are not financially challenging is a bonus, but also a ruse. What they save you in food and accommodation, you will pay back in chiropractic and dentist bills later on. Trust me. I still have a knot in my shoulder the size and shape of a little town in southern Laos that I can’t remember the name of but will forever associate with the smell of burning brakes and fermenting cabbage.
Let me explain. Upfront I have to say that I have a pretty high tolerance for “local” buses (or a-buses as I like to call them). Naturally ventilated? No problem. Cramped? Bring it on. My knees might take a different angle, but then what’s the point of a ball and socket device if you can’t abuse it just a little. You see I can medicate my way through 14 hours of swerving, jerking and breaking. I can even stomach overnight buses, when the darkness closes in so tightly around your imagination that you start seeing death scenarios play out at the hands of your driver, who obviously learnt to drive on Grand Theft Auto II. But’s it the combination of all three that usually adds up to an experience your back will never forget and your memory will file in that great travel folder stuffed with memories of last minute border runs and 36-hour train trips through India.
So I knew the trip from Thakhek to Si Phan Don in southern Laos would be interesting, if not altogether enjoyable. There were signs. The lower deck had been gutted of its seating to serve the dual function of passenger and fresh produce transport. But in that heat, there wasn’t anything fresh about the thousands of cabbages piled roof high. At least it disguised the smell of any human bowel movements from said cabbage diet. The stack of plastic stools was also suspicious. It meant they were planning on setting up aisle seating. It’s kind of like musical chairs that way, except that the music is just your heart beat stopping when you work out there are no chairs left and no-one is getting off the bus anytime soon.
Luckily I was destined for a seat, and in the middle of the bus, so I didn’t suffer the great axel enema, which awaits every passenger in the rear (of the bus). It’s no joke. Laos buses are old, but tough as a Catholic schoolmarm. They start up like a generator and find their groove between first and third gear, if they exist. And still the bus powers on, like a jumbo jet down a runway, midway between gathering speed to take off or gearing down to land, forever accompanied by the suspension of limbs and disbelief.
I’ll be honest. I can’t remember the scenery. Most of the time I was clutching some part of the frayed seat (now I know why) with wild-eyed wonder that bordered on institutional. Why? Because in the great rural tradition of all developing countries the world over, my bus decided to replace its shock absorbers with passengers and give us all a lesson in forced humility – if you don’t bend you’ll break, so rather bow to logic than fall to an ill fate.
Predictably the bus stopped often but not always long enough to go to the toilet in suitable (read western) style. So you all but pee on your slops while squatting in a nearby bush just so you can keep sight of the tail lights, for fear of the bus leaving you behind. (Although at one point I did question if this fate might be viewed as luck in hindsight.) Even more predictably is that, once that engine had stopped shaking (and my hands along with it) I remember uttering the phrase “never again”, but with the conviction of youngster nursing a hangover that would soon be forgotten and repeated. The next weekend. In my case, my next trip. Next month. Anyone got a foolproof cure for a fool?