Beer, Ballads and a Breakdown
The bus journey to Luang Prabang was uncomfortable and sleep was impossible with the cramped, non-adjustable seats. Squeezed beside me was Ivano, an Italian in his mid-50’s, on his first trip to Laos. He spoke French and we chatted about love and life. Well past midnight we were awakened by a loud grinding noise and then a heavy clunk as something fell from the undercarriage of the bus. For a few scary minutes the driver struggled to keep the vehicle on the road before it came to a halt. Through sleep-filled eyes we watched him and his assistant jump off the bus. After a while we joined them to see what the matter was. The axle had broken and parts of the undercarriage had fallen off. The two men went off with torches searching for the missing parts. They returned lugging something heavy and I saw the driver calling somebody on his mobile. We were told that it would be a couple of hours before help arrived and we settled down for a long wait in the middle of nowhere. Ivano had obviously experienced worse as he seemed unfazed. From his backpack, he pulled out a harmonica and started playing some haunting melodies. Then remembering that he had seen a fellow passenger with a guitar case he asked me to find him. At first Kham, the young Lao man, baulked from shyness or sleep I didn’t know, but I cajoled him into joining Ivano make music. While some of the passengers stayed in the bus, about ten of us sat on the side of the road, flashing torches occasionally to check for oncoming traffic. Somebody opened a crate of beer and another passenger produced a bottle of rice wine. Soon the alcohol, or maybe the darkness, loosened inhibitions and everybody joined in the singing. Many hours later, the relief bus arrived and reluctantly we boarded it for the journey on to Luang Prabang.
By Mickael Novelli
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