Thursday, June 14, 2001
The Pig Truck from Hell
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
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.