Sunday, May 17, 2009

Bus Ride for the Books

Our journey began with a long ride into the mountains... instead of the usual vans we traveled via public transportation, which meant a bright orange bus I expected to rattle to pieces as soon as we left the bus station. Imagine embarking on a 7-hour journey into the mountains in what resembled a trolley car from the 50s.

The doors and windows were permanently ajar, and the three monks (appropriately, also dressed in bright orange) sitting on a giant tire in the cargo area in front of me were in grave danger of being flung out into the depths of some steep ravine every time we swerved around a hairpin curve at 5,000 feet above sea level. The cargo area, in addition to the monks and the tire, held a mound of mail bound for a post office along the route. Brown-paper packages and huge bags of rice slid around at our feet, also in danger of an off-road plunge.

The bus had seats for 28, but at one point there were 39 passengers aboard, sitting in doorways and standing in the aisle. Three times during the trip, soldiers or police boarded the bus and asked for identification. They skipped over the farang with hardly a glance and beelined instead to harangue ethnic-looking passengers. IDs and papers were scrutinized, but no one was arrested. We were informed that racial profiling of this sort would occur. Especially in provinces along the Burmese border, the military makes a big show of carting off illegal immigrants and drug mules. The problem with this is that many hill tribe people do not have papers, even though their families may have lived within Thai borders for centuries. And if it's really about the drugs, the farang could be carrying them just as well as the Thais.

After the third or fourth major town, most of the passengers disembarked and we had the cargo area to ourselves. Some of the students were lying there, attempting to nap. The ticket guy, who for several hours had been standing dangerously in the stairwell to the open door, took a seat near us and struck up a conversation. Jeremy and I soon discovered that we could watch the road go by under our feet through holes in the sheet metal floor. I also found that the windowsills weren't exactly attached to the bus after attempting to use them as a brace around a particularly sharp curve.

Just as we were settling in comfortably, the driver brought the bus to a screeching halt in the middle of the road. Packages and rice bags careened forward, wedging under seats and sliding down the aisle. We pressed our noses to the back window, wondering aloud whether we had hit an animal. Cars were coming around the curve, swerving at the last minute to maneuver around our motionless bus. We could not have guessed what would happen next. The driver was talking excitedly to the ticket guy as he put the bus in reverse and screeched backward. We saw a snake, guts spilling out on the pavement, slowly grow clearer through the dusty window. The driver bounded out, bagged up the snake, and deposited it near his seat. We queried the ticket guy--"cow geen dai mai?" Yes, dinner!

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