Trapped in the Night

There had been only darkness and the drone of the engine for several hours before the coach suddenly lurched to a halt. A few of the inmates stirred, awakened by the advent of the dim interior lights. Rummaging for shoes in the gloom, they stumbled out onto the dry, packed earth outside a small café. I followed them. It was half-past midnight and above us, the jet black sky was punctuated by the most brilliant, sparkling dots. Between them, the haze of the Milky Way, with its cavernous spaces to which the locals assign names as we do to constellations, mysteriously draped itself. Lurking in the shadows was a giant of a man, his lugubrious face twice the size of mine and his enormous hands clutching an off-white paper package. Inadvertently, I caught his eye and he shuffled further back into the dark. I wondered if he had been on our coach. A lady, bundled up in several layers of cardigans and capacious skirts, sat by the entrance to the café next to a table covered in round, salt cheeses. A few travellers purchased strong, black coffee; some just stared silently at the wide dirt road and simple shacks extending far into the distance.

Continuing on its way, the coach swung and dipped and it soon became evident that we were not re-joining a tarmac road. Hours later, unable to sleep, I was the first to realise that the stop, which I had assumed allowed our young drivers to change places, was showing signs of permanency. I scraped the streaming condensation off the window and peered out into the blackness. Our coach headlights were no longer on, but gradually shapes began to form and I saw the huge lorry blocking our way, tipped to its side and deeply immersed in a water-filled trench, its wheels splayed. The thin beam of a torch revealed men, armed with diminutive crowbars, toiling hopelessly in the voluminous mud beneath the lorry.

The Alto Plano was eerily silent; we waited. Perhaps forty minutes passed before lone headlights appeared over a ridge, their beams swaying wildly over vast distances as the car navigated the potholes and crevasses in its path. Then, it too stopped, trapped by the lorry. After a while, the car reversed a short way before veering sharply to the right and, with its engine screaming, passing to the side of us in a cloud of dust and chaos as it traversed the lunar-like terrain off-piste. More time passed; I began to fear a ten hour return journey to La Paz. But then, the cab door into the coach opened and a driver spoke in Spanish, the tone of his voice somehow conveying that we needed to evacuate the bus. Bemused, everyone slowly came to and spilled out, some with the foresight to gather their valuables, others too confused. We stood shivering in the blackness, our vague silhouettes littered around the bus. Suddenly, our coach headlights pierced the night once more and with the revving of the bus engine, I realised that our drivers too were going to leave the road and endeavour to by-pass the lorry. As the travellers scattered in fright, it looked impossible, but with the body of the vehicle seeming to separate by several feet from the axles, it too violently bounced and roared into the distance. Awake now, everyone scrambled after it, fearful for their possessions and of being permanently engulfed by the unimaginable isolation surrounding us.

L Hughes

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