Thursday, June 14, 2001

The Pig Truck from Hell (June 13)

Let me preface this story by noting that I'm not exaggerating -- sometimes I do embellish a little for the sake of my own amusement, I admit, but this time it wasn't necessary. Also I should make it clear that both Juliette and I knew the journey would be difficult, and in fact we derive a strange sort of satisfaction from pushing our own limits of comfort and tolerance. With this one truck ride we achieved all of our masochistic goals, raising the bar for all future experiences to qualify as difficult or uncomfortable. More than a few times, in response to tough situations, we've uttered phrases like, "At least it's not as bad as the pig truck."

The pig truck, unlike most of the long flat-bed trucks we'd ridden in thus far, was intended for transporting livestock -- chickens and geese in addition to the swine giving the truck its fearsome title. From the bed rose a lattice of bars, creating a frame over which a thick canvas tarpauline was draped and secured at the base. Inside the tarp, on what might be called the ground floor, was an overcrowded slum of poor, uneducated pigs, destined for Ali's meat market. As the trouble of transporting them alive was merely for the purpose of keeping the meat fresh, no thought was given to their suffering. They were packed as tightly as possible, pork chop to rump roast, and it was impossible to ignore their squeals of pain every time the truck made a violent motion. If I hadn't already become a de-facto vegetarian, this direct experience of suffering would have given me cause to reconsider.

Upstairs, so to speak, was a level devoted to poultry. The chickens and geese were given a little more wing-room than their neighbors below, but they were equally plaintive. Towards the front of the second floor, separated from the star-crossed fowl by a wire cage wall and a layer of cardboard, was an apartment reserved for two natural bed-partners: human beings and petroleum drums; four giant greasy kegs of gasoline lined the sides of the cramped compartment.

Juliette and I squeezed in under the tarp, after climbing over our backpacks which had been strapped to the top of the cab with some other luggage. Finding three Chinese roommates sitting there already surprised us a bit -- we'd expected to have a little more room for the long journey. Apparently they'd expected the same; they didn't go out of our way to welcome us newcomers, and in silence we did our best to settle in on top of the cardboard boxes and plastic jugs that filled the inches between us and the pigs.

The first few hours, though spanning the gamut of discomforts, were uneventful. Through a tear in the canvas we could look out into the blackness or gulp a breath of fresh air, and gradually we became accustomed to the stifling musk of pig and petrol. The dirt road never ceased throwing in surprise potholes if we began to nod off. As we gained altitude, our Chinese friends seemed to become crankier and crankier -- they would push and shove Juliette, who was lying between me and them, although I was pushed against the tarp and halfway outside already. We hadn't learned enough Chinese to explain that we couldn't get any smaller, and none of our phrases seemed to fit -- "Not too spicy" would hardly get the point across.

As we approached Askin Chin, the 5000 meter plateau, the air became steadily thinner and colder. Only when the rain began soaking the canvas tarp did stories begin drifting through my head of hitch-hikers like us dying of hypothermia in the backs of trucks. At the plateau the weather cleared and the road turned to ridges of compacted snow. No longer concerned about freezing to death for the time being, all I could think about with each bump was how badly I had to go to the bathroom. Apparently the driver and all the other passengers had bladders like superbowl fans, so after I'd exhausted all my mental games of focus and distraction I gave up and relieved my anxiety through a hole in the corner. Even this simple act, at such a high altitude, was exhausting. Any movement required an astronomical degree of motivation and left me out of breath for several minutes. My only hope of escape was sleep, which was broken as soon as it began by the angry barking of pigs fighting for space just a few feet below, or a violent lurch of the truck, or the vibrating of a metal petrol barrel against my head because whatever I was using as a cushion fell out of place, or another bout of shoving and hitting from our unreasonable roommates.

The torturous night finally ended when the truck stopped for breakfast. Even now my chest hurts thinking of climbing down from the hell loft for the first time in ten hours. All of us were broken and fatigued, but our bunk mates showed no sign of their previous animosity. Juliette and I were by now used to not understanding anything around us, so we washed our faces with hot water and tried to force down some food. Still on top of the world at the 5000 meter plateau, we were thankful we'd had time to acclimatize slowly. Even so we both felt out of breath and Juliette had a headache -- but these are only mild symptoms when it comes to altitude sickness. The Chinese passengers, who'd presumably come directly from 1300 meters on the same truck, were downing altitude sickness medicine like it was espresso and one even donned an attractive nose-tube for supplemental oxygen.

After breakfast we were in slightly better spirits, the reality of the previous night's extended misery becoming merely a memory to recall at will. Juliette sat in the cab to stare blankly at what would under normal circumstances have been nice scenery, and everyone was cordial in the petrol loft. The road became muddy, and it wasn't long before we got stuck for the first time. I wanted to help somehow, but all I could do was sit and watch, panting from the exertion of climbing down from the truck, my mind in an altitude-induced haze. The boys knew what they were doing, though, and soon we were back in motion.

An hour later we were stuck again, this time deeply. I mustered enough will and energy to gather and carry two stones as my contribution to the freedom effort, then promptly feel asleep on a patch of dry ground. Memories of this time are from brief moments when I woke up from my apathetic slumber, slightly curious whether I'd been abandoned while napping. The first image is of our driver talking to some men in an army caravan. Apparently they offered no assistance, and karmically one of their trucks got stuck a minute later. I nodded off again, and woke to see a flatbed coming to the rescue. After attaching a tow rope, our savior dug itself into the mud while trying to pull our truck out and got stuck fast. Next time I woke, a third truck was on its way. In a valiant attempt to liberate the second truck, this mammoth piece of machinery sped backwards, snapping its tow chain in two. My mind observed all of this without even enough energy for commentary, and I slept again.

I woke to a light snow, and dragged my body up to the shelter of the pig truck's loft. Shelter is perhaps an overstatement -- as the snow collected on the canvas roof, it melted and dripped inside. Juliette and I attempted to use our rainjackets strategically, but ultimately settled for a soggy stupor. We didn't have energy for real conversation at this point, but checked in with each other every once in a while.

It was difficult to keep morbid thoughts at bay even though rationally we were in no danger; our altitude-related problems were minor, and we had a tent and enough food for over a week if necessary. The snow finally let up, and in the drips of our canvas rainforest we chewed spoonfulls of plain rice from our last minute preparations the night before. We were surprised and reassured that we had appetites at all.

After five hours without moving, the truck was finally pulled out of the mud. Even our three Chinese fellow passengers were jovial now, eating peanuts and joking with each other as the truck resumed its erratic bumping and swaying. I tried to forget the row of frozen chicken corpses we'd left behind on the road, and the goose whose head hung limp from the side of the cage -- the weather and altitude had taken a far worse toll on these ill-fated animals than on any of us. The crankiest of the Chinese had been squabbling with a chicken, one shoving and the other pecking, respectively. The chicken finally used her secret weapon, expertly shitting on his hand to win that round.

As day turned to dark, our little cubbyhole degenerated into the same patterns of the night before, with shoving, lurching, squealing, and vibrating. One pothole was so bad that a poorly secured petrol drum toppled over on top of Juliette. Fortunately (or miraculously) it righted itself without even making a bruise. We continued to get stuck in patches of mud interminably, but we were always moving again within a half hour.

The truck finally arrived in Domar at 11:00 that night; nearly 24 hours of suffering had only cost us $37 each. Now back down to 4300 meters, we expressed as much elation as we were able about the end of the pig truck. Our backpacks and everything we owned were soaked through, we'd eaten hardly anything but rice for two days, and we couldn't even stand up without panting, but at that moment our happiness felt boundless.