It took us four hours to get out to Dondet. It’s an island resort for tourists with a sizeable village and loads of Beerlao. From the Kilometer 8 bus station, my friend Saleumsai and I left on a pickup truck stuffed with Lao people trying to get away for the new year. This was a pickup truck on the small side, blue, with a tin roof and three benches set in parallel rows in the truck bed. By the time we pulled out of the bus station, we had 35 breathing passengers, maybe four kids, and the top was loaded down with luggage. Over the course of the journey, I think ten more passengers were added, hanging off the poles on the back of the truck, and dropped off early. Newcomers were given special seating on the top of the roof, with no protection from the 42 C sunlight, though I imagine it was exciting.
What could/should have been an hour and a half trip (100 kilometres, about 50 miles) turned into a four hour study of human emotion. Tranquility gave way to discomfort, discomfort to irritation, to anger, to hatred, to jealousy, to despair, to confusion (where are we even going anyway?) and finally to resignation. I actually attempted to “go to my happy place” and imagine myself flying over the surface of the earth.
Oh, and every other kilometre, we found ourselves bombarded at homemade Pii Mai “checkpoints” where we were doused with water according to the whims of local children. Water balloon, hose, spray gun, bucket: anything goes at Lao New Year.
Believe it or not, I’m not jaded or angry. I knew—I was almost certain—that we’d be soaked, so I ziplocked everything, wore clothes I didn’t mind getting wet, and kept a stiff upper lip. What did grate on me, however, was our pitstops to various villages, sometimes several kilometres off the main road, and the long waits as passengers unloaded, came on board, or the myriad pauses to let the vendors swarm the truck with bagged chicken, sweets, drinks. As the heat thickened, the little boy across from us started to cry and was silenced by his older brother, who wore a cloth over his face to hide his diseased (or defective) eye.
I suppose the sole consolation for me was that, among my fellow passengers, all of whom have been raised in a society that prizes face above all else, I saw the same misery and frustration reflected, at least for brief moments. Misery loves company, eh?