The bus was speeding down the road as though creatures from the shadowed pits of hell were nipping at its back bumper. It swerved and dodged the potholes flashing through the headlights. When it missed, the bus jerked and jolted. My body was thrown about as I clung to my backpack and the shred of hope of sleeping through this nightmare.
Curled up in a seat near the back of the bus I glanced to the front where three older middle-aged men—the driver, his assistant and the only other passenger—were huddled together. Yanking my phone from my pocket I jabbed at the key to wake it up. The screen flared to life and displayed 10 p.m.
A brilliant thunderstorm flashed in the distance and I took heart. Jutting my head out of the window I twisted to look up at the night sky. Overhead the stars sparkled. I hadn’t seen them so well in months. Snatching my fluttering, frantic thoughts and stitching my focus to the presence of these two wonders I calmed under their steadfast appearance.
I wasn’t going to be sleeping in a guesthouse at Pakse tonight… It’d been a race from the Plain of Jars in the Xieng Khouang province of Laos to this southern city. I’d had high hopes that I’d be at Pakse by six with plenty of time to find a quest house. But I wasn’t going to make it.
Clutching my phone and bag I slipped back into sleep to chase away the anxiety. When I awoke next we’d stopped. Shoving aside weariness, I glanced out of the windows.
No lights, no houses. It was just an empty lot. My heart pounded as I whipped around. Was the bus station so isolated? Where were we at 11 p.m.?
“Not Pakse,” the driver grumbled as he dropped his head and stomped out of the bus. His assistant lifted a hatch and poured water on the engine. It seems the terrible dash for the town had overheated the engine. Again I dropped into a fitful sleep.
As tense as a wound rubber band I snapped awake when we arrived at the bus station. The surrounding town was silent.
I grabbed my bag and stood.
The driver shook his head and motioned for me to lie down. The seating arrangement of the bus was a two-seat row on the left and a one-seat row on the right of a narrow aisle. A fold-down chair across the aisle made it into a four-seat line across the width of the bus.
It was 1:40 a.m.
The driver folded his hands into a sleeping gesture and again motioned towards the seats.
I was so exhausted and unsure of what to do next that I merely shrugged, threw my bag down and settled to sleep. I’d been traveling with these strangers all day.
Better strangers that I recognize than an environment I’m unfamiliar with my exhausted mind reasoned.
The other passenger pushed past me to lie down in the row of seats in the very back. The driver settled down in the row just ahead of me as his assistant set himself down at the front of the small bus.
Surrounded by unfamiliar men, locked in a bus in a town I’d never been to before I curled up as small as I could. I finally managed to sleep as the snores of the men circled the stuffy interior of my temporary shelter.
My morning alarm was the employees of the bus station and nearby shops clanking through their morning routine. Groggily I assessed my situation. My purse was still in my hands, everything else was in place and it seemed the driver, assistant and passenger were still asleep. I couldn’t get out with them blocking my way so I stayed still, waiting for them to wake up.
Something heavy, and warm, came to rest on my legs.
Someone else’s legs were propped on mine. I was sure of it. I froze and peered over my arm. The driver had put his legs on my own through the aisle gap.
My heart was hammering I thought of what I’d do if something wrong was going to happen.
Scream. There are people around. Scream and knee him in the balls.
I waited. The legs slowly slide off my slanted legs. A minute later they were back and promptly sliding off again. My long black skirt was covering my legs. I had shorts on underneath. My lime green sports jacket was zipped all the way up. Nothing was showing.
Not that, that matters. It NEVER should matter.
“Maybe it was a culture thing. Maybe personal boundaries are different in Laos,” I muttered in my head in an attempt to stave off panic.
The legs fell free again and the driver shuffled upright before heaving to a standing position.
I pretended to keep sleeping as his shuffled steps reached my ears.
Then a hand grasped one of my breasts.
My eyes snapped open in fury and I drove them up. The driver, chuckling, leaned down to brush something off my nose. Astonished by his audacity I yanked my face back and wiped at it. The driver’s soft laughter was joined by the passenger on the opposite side of my line of seats.
They were laughing like I was a child who’d gotten ice cream on my nose. Standing I pulled my glasses from my purse, grabbed my backpack and stared the driver down until he moved away from the door.
I didn’t look back as I descended the steps.
That was too far. Why did he touch me there? My shoulder was free. He could have said something. He could have shaken my legs.
These thoughts followed me as I searched for transportation that could take me to the Thai border.
I’d had enough of Laos. I’d been cheated, my travel plans grossly skewed from my plans and to top it off I’d just been sexually harassed for the first time in my life.
Ladies, I just want to say that during the rest of my trip, for the most part, I was comfortable and free to gleefully gawk at the remnants of ancient civilizations or browse the modern wares or meditate at temples. I’d also travelled through Cambodia, Malaysia and Thailand without hassle.
Travelling alone as a woman does sometimes have its challenges, but they can be overcome with some know-how, guts and faith in yourself.
They are just practical travel tips. Leave the valuables at home. Do some research. Be mindful of culture. Stay calm and assess your situation. Scream bloody murder if anyone tries anything.
I might have been lucky. I might have done everything right.
Either way, all I know for sure is that I’m still happy and still safe.
To be continued… from the delightful beginning