We picked up the dead cow in the 23rd hour of the 16-hour bus trip.
I had nodded off to sleep, an unbelievable feat for me. At home, I practically needed hermetic seclusion to fall asleep. Partying neighbors, my housemate’s television, or a phone conversation down the hall could all keep me awake and pissed off, rigidly trying to will myself to sleep and wishing harm upon those who dared to have fun when I had to get up early in the morning. I’d never been able to sleep sitting up, either, and long road trips had always been somewhat painful for this reason.
But somehow, traveling in Asia had changed all of this. A few overnight bus trips in Thailand and Laos, and here I was – in a relic of a bus, on a neglected road in the mountains of northeastern Laos, with shrill, electrified Thai folk music blaring on the sound system, surrounded by a group of spitting, card-playing Chinese businessmen – snoozing away, my mouth gaping open, totally oblivious.
This was partly because it had been such a long day. I’d hopped on the bus at 8:00 AM, fresh from visiting the beautiful and eerie Plain of Jars near remote Phonsavanh. I could have flown – it would have cost about thirty dollars and taken less than an hour. But I’ve always been a nervous flyer, and since Lao Aviation is known for flying without radar and crashing into mountaintops, that option was out for me. And anyway, I was excited for adventure, some good old-fashioned intrepid travel. And, of course, some stories to impress my friends. This was a major reason I’d come to Asia, and Laos was proving fruitful for such stories. More so, certainly, than beautiful and charming – but comparitively tame – Thailand. So when I heard about the 16-hour bus trip along a rutted, winding mountain road in an ancient Korean bus, I thought it sounded perfect.
So there I was, sleeping on this bus. Every time we stopped, though, I would jerk awake, worried that we’d reached my destination, Luang Prabang. We were supposed to get there sometime during the night, but we’d already had two flat tires and gotten stuck in the mud twice. I had no idea when we would arrive.
When I woke to find all the Chinese businessmen racing off the bus, I assumed we were in Luang Prabang. I grabbed my bag and ran to the front of the bus.
There was one other English speaker on the bus, an attractive Dutch scuba instructor named Richard, who lived in Thailand. He was sitting in the front to stretch his long, Dutch legs.
“Hey,” he smirked in his Dutch way.
“Are we in Luang Prabang?” I asked, trying to stuff my tattered book-exchange copy of Bastard Out of Carolina into my overloaded daypack.
“Well, I don’t know where we are, but those Chinese guys are getting off because of our new passenger.” He raised one eyebrow and pointed at the seat across the aisle from him.
And there was the dead cow. I stared at it, awe struck. “Wow,” I thought. “I am going to win every weird-travel story contest for years to come.” People at parties would boast of chicken buses in Guatemala or hitchhiking through Europe. I could wait until they finished their story and then pounce. “That’s a great story,” I’d say. “Did I every tell you about the time I was on a bus near the Ho Chi Minh Trail and we loaded a dead cow onto the front seat?” This story would be especially popular with my vegetarian friends.
The bus started up again, minus the Chinese businessmen. By the time it started to get light and we were near Luang Prabang, our new friend was emitting quite a musk. I was relieved when we stopped at the bus driver’s small house about a half hour from Luang Prabang and the cow was unloaded.
Three men from the bus got to work and began skinning the cow with machetes they just happened to have on hand, conveniently enough. They then carved the cow into about 20 pieces. This was fascinating to watch, since these men were masters, meat surgeons: their movements were sure and their demeanors calm. They knew their task was important, but they completed it without fuss. Or mess. When I try to separate the halves of prepackaged chicken breasts, I get chicken juice on my clothes, in my hair and up my nose.
Once the men were done carving, people from the bus began to step up to the pile of meat and select pieces. The first few were hesitant as they inspected the meat, but then gleeful after they’d selected their pieces. One by one, each family from the bus got a hunk of meat. I knew that Lao society was exceptionally communal, but this, in all its surrealness, moved me. In the US, if a Greyhound driver found a dead cow by the side of the road and loaded it onto the bus, well, he’d be fired. But before that, he certainly wouldn’t share it. The bus driver even asked me asked if I’d like a piece too, but I declined. As much as I loved the idea of marching into my guesthouse in Luang Prabagng with a piece of rotting steak in my backpack, it was already full of cotton fisherman’s pants and ceramic elephants.
The bus driver’s cheerful wife brought out a cooler for the people to put their meat in until they got to the final destination, Vientiane. Good idea. There was no ice in the cooler, so it wouldn’t keep the meat fresh, but at least people didn’t have to sit with their free meat in their laps for eight more hours.
The cooler was loaded onto the bus and we got moving again. It only took about twenty minutes to get to Luang Prabang, and by eight I was in bed. Visions of rotten sirloin danced in my head.