Published: March 6th 2012February 9th 2012
This incident is one of the reasons why I left Burma earlier than initially intended. It has left its mark on me and I still have nightmares. I have debated furiously with myself as to whether I should write about it but feel it might serve as a way of relieving from heavy shoulders by putting it in to words. I recognise I have many more readers on this blog than ever intended; originally the blog was my lazy way of letting family and friends know what I was up to without having to write the same email to everyone, and this ‘blog’ has become more of a diary for me, one I hope to reflect upon in old age in order to help me relive wonderful experiences. So I write about this incident not because I want to relive it, which is the last thing I want to do, but to remind myself how precious life is and how so easily it can vanish.
In England there are a set number of seats and a certain number of ‘standing’ places although this is rapidly decreasing in recognition of how dangerous it is to stand on a moving
vehicle should said vehicle crash. In Burma there are seats attached to the bus, then there are the plastic seats placed in the middle aisle should people book a ‘seat’, then there is standing, then there is the luggage and the rest of the people on top of the bus. In some cases, I have witnessed the bus driver offer his lap as a seat to a pretty girl and this has been graciously accepted.
We start our bus journey at 4am, again Burma have ridiculous start times and end times which predictably fall in to the middle of the night. Why they do this I have no idea, there does not seem to be an appropriately realistic reason for this. Our seats were at the back, right at the back with the luggage behind our heads and huge heavy sacks of rice underneath our feet. Tired and unhappy about this arrangement on the packed back seat the conductor decided he wants us to move up to allow more people to sit with us. I think he got us on a bad day, we refused to budge. Maybe they were not prepared for the westerner to
say ‘no’ and maybe I have no right to considering it is not my country and I preach in previous blogs how we should be culturally aware, although whether this is a cultural phenomenon to respect is debatable. But what he was proposing was unsafe and put us both at more risk. I didn’t want to be forced on a fifteen hour journey to sit on the floor or take turns since I have paid a stupid amount for a bus ticket seat, double that of the local wanting to squeeze his behind on to the already over-crowded back seat. Needless to say, a plastic stool was pulled out and said local perched there for the ride.
I should have known it was going to be a long journey from the start. In the first eight hours of the journey the bus driver knocked over an old man, we didn’t stop to see if he was OK but from the view I had at the back, he didn’t move as we continued too speedily along the precariously prepared road. Along the route we were forced to slow due to ‘road works’, men and women carrying heavy
platters of rocks on the heads before dropping them on to a levelled surface on the floor which would later have tar poured from drums. The stench of the tar’s smoky fumes and the heavy dust kicked up by the wheels filled the back seats and chocked us as we tried to shut our eyes and imagine ourselves thousands of miles away. I found myself dreaming of home, butterflies filling my stomach when I imagined myself curled up in Carl’s arms or laughing with my brothers and sisters, or talking with my mother and step-father over a cup of steaming tea. I did this a lot in my time here in Burma; I don’t know why. I wasn’t sad or depressed. Maybe I was just unable to deal with Burma; I would love to justify it, because of course that is my way, but I cannot explain my reasons, not yet.
It wasn’t until hour ten that disaster struck. As we climbed steep roads curling their way around the mountains towards Inle Lake the bus suddenly slowed. Looking out of the window I saw what the bus driver saw; but so few people on the bus
witnessed it since their curtains were closed, possibly in pretence the road didn’t just disappear down the side of the mountains far too close to the wheels of the bus. The road we followed made a U –shape in the valley of the mountain giving me clear visuals of where our bus would be in a matter of minute’s time as it would come back on itself but on the other side. Coming in our direction I could see another bus winding its way around roads we would soon tread. It happened in slow motion. The cliff crumbled beneath the wheels, rocks rebounded off the sides of the cliff in to the depths below followed by the bus; it fell off the cliff out of view. This is when the bus driver slowed. He didn’t stop. He just slowed. I could commotion suddenly in the front, men who had mobile phones (only one) fought over it clearly desperately trying to phone someone...maybe the ambulance? Stunned I sat in shock at what I had just seen. The road gave in underneath the weight of the bus, or at least that is what it looked like. I turned towards the
turmoil on the bus at the front, it was only the locals who were sitting in the middle who were aware that something had just happened; it was them who alerted the westerners blockading the closed windows to turn and look out the window; of course there was nothing to see. Not yet.
Motorists had stopped already and were attempting to slide down the mountain sides in to what turned out a pool of shallow water below. The bus fell maybe twenty or so feet, landing on its front window, I could see it the front was completely smashed from the impact and I dreaded to think about the carnage inside the tin vessel below. As I mentioned before, the buses here are typically crammed with as many people as can possibly allow and when the bus fell there were people on top, doors were open as were windows and as I watched the bus fall, so did I watch people fall off the top or fall out of doors and windows.
Our bus still did not stop, it crawled along surveying the damage from a safe distance but close enough for me and
now everyone on the bus, eagerly looking to witness the events below. The waters were shallow, maybe this was a good thing but I will never know. In those waters bodies floated. Along the shore line, visible only because of the shallow waters, people were helping the few survivors who managed to make it out, as were they also helping to pull some of the bodies out of the water. Three women lay on the beach facing the sky, they were already gone.
Kalina by my side asked what was going on. I told her not to look; she didn’t and I envy her ignorance. My head dizzy swam with tears which I desperately tried to hold back, my heart overflowing with pain, my body shaking with shock. I sat suddenly alone, scared, and awake to the horrific possibilities; this could have been us. It could have been me face up on the beach below.
Our bus still didn’t stop, the doors didn’t open, and no one here helped those below. Once satisfied with his view the bus driver sped off towards Inle Lake. My heart no longer in it. I took one
last look at the silent trickling water dispersing between the wreckage and I hated it. I hated that innocent water and everything my mind allowed it to stand for. I hated the water upstream and the people washing in it, ignorant of the events unfolding downstream. I watched men at work and wondered if their wife or child had been on that bus. I saw women chatting together at the side of the road dressed in brilliant colours laughing; I speculated if they would go home to news they had lost a husband or a mother or a father today. Death imposed itself suddenly without warning, but that’s what death does and that’s why we fear it so; that unexpected loss of life as we know it.
I spent the next few nights wrestling with those demons, each time waking up in a sweat so that I would have to shower and shake off the tears. In quiet moments I found myself dwelling upon those unforgiving visions, each time feeling my heart cry out for those lost loved ones.
Two weeks on and I still see it when I shut my eyes, less
so now when they are open, but when I dwell upon it I cry. I hide behind my sunglasses as I write this and pretend I am full of cold, wiping tears from my face, but people here aren’t stupid, they know I am crying. They won’t understand the reasons, they can speculate all they want, but they will never know who these tears are for. Selfishly I think I cry for myself too.
There are more photos below