In 2014 I had just packed my bags and moved to Sweden. Technically, I was still waiting for my residency permit so I wasn't able to stay long. The bureaucrats informed me that I could wait up to 11 months for my paperwork to go thorough, so Christine and I decided we might as well spend that time traveling. Naturally, we grabbed our packs and flew to Asia. Four months later I received an email stating I was officially allowed to live in Sweden. We wrapped up our adventure along the banana pancake trail in Thailand...but not before almost watching someone die.
Our bus broke down. It shouldn't have been a surprise, considering its dilapidated exterior, the pockmarked roads, and the questionably sober drivers. And I say drivers because we seemed to have two, even though the duration of our trip was only a few hours. Both were pushing the boundaries of middle age, wrinkled and grey, but nevertheless dubiously committed to having a few cold beers before we departed the open-air station. Some folks seem to perform better with a bit of booze in their system, and as I boarded I held a hope that these gents were those those kind of folks.
We were on our way north to Bangkok after soaking up the sun on Koh Tao and Koh Samui, having diligently dodged the inebriated ridiculousness of the Full-Moon Party. Our fellow backpacking busmates, clad in vibrant muscle shirts and airy elephant pants, were notably less diligent. About an hour or two into our ride the bus came to a rolling stop along a busy highway in southern Thailand. With no air conditioning to keep us from boiling (though we were of course told the bus would have AC) everyone piled out, mingling along the side of the highway whilst snapping updates for their Instagram. It goes without saying that snarky complaints highlighted the process. I simply took a piss in the bushes.
The two wheelmen nonchalantly decided they could not only find the problem, but fix it – whatever it was – and so they grabbed a rusty toolbox, opened up the trunk, and began to examine their project (yeah, the engine was in the trunk. Whatever). Now, I know nothing about engines so I can't begin to fathom what was wrong but from the looks of things something needed to be replaced or maybe just tightened. At least that's what I gathered from their pointing, humming and hawing. That something, however, was located at the rear of the engine. It was, much to their sweaty chagrin, more or less unreachable. Someone would have to climb onto the steaming engine, crawl into the belly of the beast, hang themselves upside down with their feet dangling out of the vehicle to tickle the humid Thai air, and go to work. Obviously, it would require someone nimble and thin. For whatever reason the noticeably larger of the two men decided he would be the one to fix it. He grabbed a tool far too rusty to identify, sucked in his gut and tightened his belt, and slide up and over the engine, disappearing into the semi-dark of the cavernous bus-trunk-engine-place. I stood around watching him as the rest of the young adults relived their recent Koh Whatever glory days.
After a few minutes of tinkering the mechanic/driver seemed to have gotten things working. He shouted a muffled order to his co-driver ambled back to the front of the bus and started the engine. Voila! He was able to MacGyver whatever it was that needed MacGyvering and got that shit fixed. To be honest, I was both surprised and impressed. If it were me, I would have just walked the 150m to the fatefully-located car garage that we had serendipitously broken down near and asked them to deal with it. So kudos to the drivers for their initiative/frugalness.
With the engine coughing back to life, everyone began to eagerly pile back on the bus. I lingered near the rear just to make sure the engine didn't crap out before I got back to my sweaty, AC-deprived seat. In part, I didn't want to clamber back on only to have to clamber back off should their tinkering be found lacking...but I was also kind of concerned for the guy still half buried in the engine. Fortunately, the engine didn't quit. Unfortunately, something worse happened.
With the sputtering motor having been on for a few moments the dark soot that was pouring from the tailpipe transformed into a softer shade of grey, leaking its familiar petrol perfume into the breezeless air. The engine chugged an uneven tune as it heated back up, the rotund man pinned upon that engine struggling to wiggle himself backward out of the motor-trunk. The problem was – and he didn't know this at the time – there was a conveyer belt (seriously, there was just some kind of exposed conveyer belt propelling this machine, I guess?) spinning rapidly beneath his bare and calloused feet. Those very feet, had he continued to lower them, would have become a mangled mess of broken toes and shredded muscle; no amount of callouses or leathered skin would have saved him from that outcome. But he didn't know that. He was just starting to freak out because he was stuck on a burning hot motor and couldn't wiggle himself free as he started to cook himself alive in the engine-oven. I'd be flipping my shit, too.
He started screaming in Thai, a language incomprehensible to me. Screaming in terror, however, is sort of a universal language in and of itself so I caught on quick. I rushed forward before his toes nicked the belt, another young backpacker doing the same. We grabbed the man's legs, supporting his ample weight as he wiggled himself toward us. His legs almost propped up on my shoulders, I could smell the stale sweat and warm beer that oozed from his greasy, sooty pores. His legs flailed as he shimmied toward us, his knees catching me in the chin and chest as we worked to lower him toward the ground. We struggled to pull him loose as he in turn pushed himself free, our arms wrapped tightly around his legs and waist as we strained to keep him – and ourselves – from dipping toward the spinning belt. It didn't take long before he was out, which was fortunate because neither of us could have supported his ample weight for much longer.
Back on solid ground, he looked terribly relieved. Surprised, but relieved. I don't remember the word for “thank you” in Thai but he said it half a dozen times as he struggled to catch his breath, repeatedly pushing back a thin lank of dirty grey hair that clung to his pale, sweaty face as he braced himself on his knees. After a moment he stalked up to the front of the bus to fill in his clueless fellow driver on what the fuck had just happened. His shirt was stained bloody and black from a few cuts and a whole lot of engine grease. Of course, I happened to be wearing the only shirt I owned that cost more than $30, and it too had become stained with his blood and grime. But I guess $30 is a fair price to pay for helping someone not die.