Bound in a straightjacket of double backpacks, waiting outside my guesthouse for a shuttle to the bus station, I just can't shake the menacing feeling that I’d been forgotten. I watch passing trolleys carrying passengers and with baggage down the main street in Vang Vieng, Laos all heading in the direction of the terminal. I finally inquire about the tardy bus to which I receive the usual no worries speech.
Minutes later, a man pulls up and wordlessly loads my luggage into his personal vehicle. As trained from living in Southeast Asia, I remain silent and allow my fate to rest in the hands of another stranger. The man opens the passenger side and states that the VIP Bus has broken down and the local bus will transport us to Vientiane.
We barrel into the terminal and I scan the lot for my ride, spotting some vans and one massive pile of rusted parts gyrating and secreting sounds of fury in the middle of the lot. I turn to my friend, whose mind is traveling down the same dark path. I transition between suppressing the alarm bells and calculating the logistics behind whatever scientific marvel propels this tin lunchbox. I realize it’s too late to retreat as our things are hauled onto the once-upholstered metal benches.
I march up three steps and back five decades. The local passengers stare back, as bewildered by my presence as I am. The scent of manure and metal rise from every pore of this contraption as the driver shouts something in Lao and we lunge forward, signaling the journey’s beginning. Thankfully there are only six of us and I commandeer my own corroded bench.
With windows and emergency exits ajar, the bus lumbers through back dirt roads while the driver honks erratically, warning villagers interested in taking a terrifying ride through the mountains that we’ve arrived. I discover that this is the kind of bus without tickets or any sort of capacity regulation on the amount of bodies they’ll shove into its quivering exoskeleton. New riders climb aboard clutching sacks of food, buckets wafting fish odors and surgical masks to combat the swells of dusty terrain rhythmically coating our faces.
An hour into this seven-hour trek, passengers are standing and luggage is being precariously tied to the roof. I gaze ahead as a truck spewing a colossal stream of water heads for us. With all of the windows down, the entire left side of the bus is about to take a tidal wave to their faces. Passengers chat, eat or sleep, completely unaware of the impending shower.
Maybe a kinder person would’ve given a heads up; instead I shifted my body for a front row seat. The truck drives past dousing the faces of the entire left side of the bus. I explode in a maniacal howl holding my lunging chest while the damp passengers blankly stare at me with the same look my dog gives when I hose him down out back.
The two Lao men seated behind her catch the chuckle like wildfire and pretty soon everyone is laughing. I’d like to think the laughter tremors broke down some ethnic barrier and for that brief moment, we all spoke the same language—a comical language of circumstantial wetness. The trip continues and I see Laos from a new perspective, an intrusive glance into how the other half travels. The clanging of the ancient, albeit impressive, engine below coupled with the scent of fishcakes give me the strange sensation of comfort inside this shard of shrapnel.
The rattle wagon successfully manages to bob, weave, sling and eek its way up mountains, down hills and around perilously sharp curves teetering above deep jungle gorges. Barefoot village children greet the honking bus, chase us and point at my white face—a novelty sight for them. I smile and give my best pageant wave, my heart warmed by the tiny feet pattering behind.
So if you’re ever given the opportunity to take the local bus: wear your gas mask, pack flame retardant pants and bring your pet chickens because anything goes. But in that metal death trap half a world away, I felt at home in the smell of livestock and decomposition. And as sun dipped below the mountains, a flaming raspberry hanging above the mountains, painting the mountains as pink as those strangely pigmented buffalo littered along road, I was thankful for that rickety bus, potent gas fumes and Laos.