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Worldwide Ace » Through the Woods

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Through the Woods

25 August, 2008 (23:18) | Travelogue

The mountains above Chiang Mai are lush and beautiful.
For more aerie pictures of Thailand, click here.

I awake to the sound of a rooster signaling sunrise. As I peel my eyes open, there is no difference, the darkness identical beneath my eyelids as outside. I consider getting up to watch the sunrise, but my eyes are still crusty and milky and I have no desire to fumble through the darkness, my torch with Chris on the other side of the longhouse. By the time I’m awake again, people are sitting at the table chatting about their morning constitutionals.

I pull myself into a sitting position, letting my eyes adjust and listening to Matt tell Claudia and Matteo about wandering the rice fields in the early morning light. I’m envious and disappointed in myself for not getting up earlier as well. During his meandering, he ran into a rifle-toting Karen carrying a pair of birds, quail most likely. It’s times like this I wish he were the photographer.

Breakfast is toast and jam and a fried egg over hard. Instant coffee and local tea are the options for beverages. Sam, our guide, has left Mack, his guide-in-training, in charge while he goes to vote at the school. As soon as Sam returns, we’ll be off.

The terrain yesterday was steep and rocky, a series of ups and downs that was difficult and tiring. Today, it’s far less steep, but not nearly as clear, branches and brush reaching out into our path. At the first rest stop, I forget my camera. When I realize it 10 minutes later, we’re in the midst of traversing a slender path of precariously loose dirt at the edge of a swamp. Worst of all, I’m near the front of the pack. Sam sends Mack back for my camera. He’ll take a short cut and meet us further up the trail, Sam tells me. I try to put the thought of my camera being gone out of my head and return to the matter at hand: discussing movies and playing word games with Alice and Harry, a lovely young British couple on their way back from Shanghai where Harry was studying.

Mack catches up with us, my camera in hand, just in time to point out a handful of us had made a wrong turn after falling behind Sam. How far out of the way we would have ended up is unclear, but that’s twice Mack has saved the day.

We break for a lunch of ramen noodles, beside a beautiful sun drenched rice field. A pinwheel spins with the breeze. The dog that’s been following us has already curled up beneath the table, settling down for a midday nap. Sam and Mack soon follow, but in the hut beside us, forgoing the welcoming dirt our canine companion chose. The rest of us pull out a deck of cards to while away the time.

Though the sun’s still shining as we get moving, Sam takes us via a short cut, forgoing the waterfall swim originally planned. I’m disappointed but I soon understand why, clouds and thunder threatening rain. A few drops do nothing to change our pace, though a loud clap of thunder splits the group in two, one half sprinting ahead for shelter, the other sliding on rain gear before continuing their trek. No rain gear in my bag, I stay close on the heels of the sprinting group, surprising myself by keeping up while leaping over trees and rocks.

We only ran about 1/8 of a mile, yet it was a full on down pour by the time we slid under our thatch roofed encampment. Matt dips his head under the water pouring off the roof, cooling his already soaked body. I soon follow suit, the newly fallen moisture crisp as it rolls through my hair. Giovanni, an Italian who joined our group this morning, extending his trek, quickly disrobes down to his speedo and climbs into the pool of water at the base of the small waterfall nearby. Mack, meanwhile, perches beneath the bamboo shower as the rest of us try and stay dry, Matt soon follows his lead.

It’s not long before the group is reunited and the rain lessens. Even though it’s still drizzling, I crawl into my swimsuit and join the Italians in the pool. It’s frigid. I can’t seem to bring myself to allow the water to engulf my privates. Eventually, I give in and throw myself into the water. It only takes a few moments before I crawl out and dry off, praying for warmth.

It’s still early, but the rain has ended our day early. Matt and I teach the gang Up and Down the River, and two games later, it’s dinner time. The food during our travels has been fantastic. Rice, vegetables, and noodles have been staples, with pork curry and spicy tofu stir frys rounding out the mix. Fresh fruit polishes off every meal, so fresh I can’t imagine going back to the horrors of supermarket fruit, unripe and plucked too early.

Mack has a bonfire going in the middle of some benches. The dog has curled up next to it, warming his bones against the chill. I do the same. As others finish, we all congregate around the fire. Sam passes out an old guitar and a drum. The guitar won’t stay in tune. Henry, Chris and I all try to get it to work, but to no avail. For some reason, each string is in tune with it s neighbors, but the high strings and the low strings won’t stay in tune with each other. I suspect it’s the strange warp to the guitar.

There isn’t quite enough light to play cards or write. We sit around and converse instead. Chris has me explain the nuances of photography. We play around with long exposures and using a torch to simulate flash freezing motion in front of a static background. It takes us multiple tries to get a flashlight that works. Mine apparently turned on in my pack and is out of juice. It’s a successful experiment as Chris passes his camera around with a wide grin pasted on his face.

I’m the first one to head off to bed. Before I’m properly situated, the others begin joining me. Team James decides it’s too early to sleep and heads outside to play some cars by candlelight. Some of the others chat quietly in their bunks. I’m hell bent on getting some sleep.

In my time traveling, I’ve slept on many a hard mattress. There have been times when I’ve wondered if the floor would be more comfortable than the beds I’ve rented. In Karen last night, the mattresses weren’t much to look at, but they were soft and comfortable. Tonight, however, our beds are an elevated bamboo floor with scratchy blankets and no pillow.

“Did anyone get a pillow?” I ask.

“Oh, you are such a pussy,” says Giovanni, not even waiting for a real response.

“Just use a blanket,” says Matt helpfully. My temptation to argue with Giovanni is tempered by the fact that he’s a Muay Thai instructor in the UK and could probably kick my ass.

I settle down, the bamboo slats killing my back and neck. The blankets are almost as hard, offering no give against my body. I chose the wrong location as well, my bed being closest to the roar of the river and closest to the voices from the table outside. My damp clothes provide no warmth from the cold either.

After an hour of not falling asleep, I hear Matt’s voice outside. He’s explaining a game called Big 2 to Jay and the Irishmen. I decide if I cannot sleep, I’ll join them. It’s only 10 PM when I wander outside.  They finish their game and I jump in as Brian and Jay head off to try and sleep. I, meanwhile, want nothing to do with those beds.

For a couple hours we kick around cards idly. Eventually, it’s bed time. I stumble back into my hard slat beneath mosquito netting, my feet hanging off the end. It’s suddenly apparent that I need to use the toilet. Without a flashlight, that won’t happen until morning. The sound of the river isn’t helping.

All night, I toss and turn. Giovanni answers my bed shaking movements by rolling over every few moments as well. I can’t decide if his movements are keeping me awake or my movements are keeping him awake. Or maybe it’s both. I stare into a darkness like nothing I’ve seen before, praying for light to break and my bladder to have an opportunity to evacuate its contents. The darkness doesn’t change.

I’m not sure when I finally drifted off to sleep, but my moments of consciousness are brief and come often. My eyes are tearing up every time I strain them against the darkness seeking small tendrils of light. When I was a freshman in high school, my Latin teacher told me about a human experiment on how long people can endure sensory deprivation and solitary confinement that he participated in. He lasted 11 days before they stopped the experiment. He could’ve stayed in longer, but everyone else had given out. He said he spent his time practicing his Latin. Right now, I can’t think of a Latin verb to conjugate that isn’t “uckfay” of Pig Latin.

The roosters begin crowing before dawn once more. The cacophony of the jungle around me isn’t the same soothing sounds of the night before. I lie there, my jaw clenched, tempering my anger by reminding myself how much I’ve enjoyed the rest of the hike outside of my sleeping arrangements tonight. Eventually the light begins to leak from the cracks in the building. I try to quietly crawl outside.

It’s much brighter out than I expected. Sam and Mack are already awake. They’re moving about the other hut brewing tea and hot water for coffee, the radio playing quietly. It’s nearing 7 AM, far later than I expected. The jungle is still dripping and damp. My notebook is curving from the wetness, my camera fogged up inside.

It’s nearly two hours before Claudia and Matteo walk out of the longhouse. They wander down the road. I’m content to just sit there and not be in my bed. A few minutes later Matt comes out. He goes Alpha Boyscout and begins to help Mack rebuild the bonfire. By the time Sam starts yelling for breakfast, I’m on my second glass of instant coffee. I hate coffee, but this isn’t bad.

The last leg of our journey is a two hour hike to the truck, a short ride before lunch, and a raft ride down one of the rivers before driving back to Chiang Mai in the late afternoon. The hike goes quickly, as it’s mostly downhill, the terrain steep, but dry as the sun has come out and the jungle is sparser here.

We pause for a break at another waterfall, Sam saying we can swim if we want. No one does. Instead we take pictures and chat and wash our faces. Everyone is in high spirits.

When we arrive at the hut marking the end of our trek, it has a sign out front that says Jungle 7-Eleven. Mack finds a Takkraw ball and he and Sam start kicking it around. Brian and I soon join him. I’m terrible at this. I kick too hard, the bounciness of the ball unlike the hackeysacks I’m used to. I kick it onto roofs, over huts, and into my nose, a picture Chris captured. It isn’t until we pile into the trucks a few minutes later that I note the huge hole in the crotch of my shorts I’ve now ripped.

Lunch is Pad Thai and pineapple. We play a game of Uno to pass the time, though it’s cut short when we’re pulled off to go rafting.

The rafts are long and thin, divided into two 6 foot by 3 foot rectangles by a cross beam in the middle. Our river guide stands up front while three or four of us pile onto each one. When the guide on the raft behind us begins to try and tip our raft, Matt and Jay focus on pirating them. Soon, several of us are floundering in the shallow river water, Brian and I still safely seated on our rafts.

By the end, everyone seems banged up and soaked. Matt has a huge bruise on his knee, though its size would only get larger as the day went by. Our truck back to Chiang Mai is running late. At first, Chris and I go swim in the river a little, but after getting our fill, we still have plenty of time to waste. I try to teach him Mate, but I’m not the best teacher. Matt helps out, making things much smoother. He also fixes the rules, making things more strategic.

Just as things are getting good, Chris mastering the nuances of the game, the truck pulls up and we pile in. An hour long ride later and our jungle adventure was over. All I can think about is a warm shower and a soft bed, though it’s still early in the day.

“This was part of our trip I’ve enjoyed the most,” Matt remarks.

“Me too,” I agree, smiling at the experience, hard beds and all.