She’d picked up a new pair of trekking boots after we left Argentina, and now walked in circles in the parking lot of Thailand’s Khao Sok National Park while stealing glances at her fancy footwear as I finished loading up the backpack. Rain jackets, water filter, bug repellent? Check. Bathing suits and water? Check. Canned tuna (curry flavor), rice crackers, bananas? Check.
“I heard they have wild elephants here,” Sheena reported, energetically bouncing around in her boots. “And you know what?” She continued, “I also heard they have rare barking deer!” Her eyes looked like they were about to pop out of her head; if the wild elephants didn’t get me excited, the rare barking deer sure would!
We finished loading up our things and set off across the bridge, leaving our camp behind. The sun was already high overhead, evidence of our perpetual difficulty in getting out of bed on time, and our tendency to lollygag and engage in a lengthy coffee and breakfast routine. It didn’t take long before we found ourselves trudging along through a dense thicket of bamboo.
“How are your new boots feeling?”
Sheena kept the trail in her peripheral vision while scouring the surrounding jungle for any sign of a rare barking deer.
“What was that sound?” She would say.
“It was a bird.”
“How do you know it wasn’t a rare barking deer?”
“Sheena, it was a bird.”
By the time we had reached the first three or four scenic offshoots to the main trail, each leading to a swimming hole or small waterfall, the sun had turned the jungle into a sauna. The temperature soared and the stifling, still air strangled our lungs with every breath. The jungle changed from dense bamboo thickets to a tight tangle of vines and trees. A barking deer? possible. But there was no way that a wild elephant could live in this mess.
Our goal for the day was to reach the end of the trail, which terminated at the seventh waterfall. After the sixth, the trail shot straight up and over a series of steep ridges. We could no longer walk; instead we were forced to scramble by holding onto roots and vines. We climbed on, drenched in sweat, stained by mud, and nauseous from the heat.
“I think we should turn back,” Sheena said as we topped the final ridge. “The trail is too steep – we still have to come back through this.”
Having walked close to five miles through the dank jungle, turning around so close to our destination didn’t seem right. Besides, what if there was a rare barking deer out there somewhere? We reluctantly descended the far side of the ridge on a worsening trail. The sound of the waterfall intermingled with the rumble of thunder from the swelling clouds overhead.
When we finally reached the bottom of the ridge we lowered ourselves off of a tall rock ledge and onto the rocky shore of the river. Before us a waterfall cascaded gracefully into a large pool surrounded by enormous boulders. We spotted a flat rock and made our way out to it for our celebratory lunch of curried tuna and crackers.
Shortly after situating ourselves around our fancy lunch items, we heard a distant hum. Sheena nimbly shoveled scoops of zesty fish into her mouth as I fumbled with the crumbling rice crackers. I had barely gotten my can of curried tuna open when the distant hum grew into a buzz and presented itself to us as a large swarm of angry bees.
“All you have to do is hold still,” Sheena confidently announced. I tried this, but the tickle of tiny wings brushing my face and body got the better of me and I started to freak out.
“God, they’re everywhere!” I shrieked. Sheena sat there, apparently of less interest to the bees. “I need to get in the water!” I said, gasping, and proceeded to hurriedly whip off my clothes and throw them onto the rocks. The bees temporarily followed my clothing, saturated with my apparently tasty perspiration. The bees quickly lost interest in my clothes, and one bolted back at me and stung me on the back. I yelped, and then grabbed my swim trunks from the backpack, threw them on, and leapt from the rock into the chilly water.
I paddled away from the rocks and into the center of the pool. I could see Sheena holding very still on the rock. I paddled over to the waterfall and sat underneath its flow, letting the heavy water massage my shoulders. Everything was going to be okay.
Just then I heard Sheena’s signature squeal, so I looked up. Sheena stood atop the rock, frantically making hand gestures toward me like a Navy Landing Signal Officer. The only difference was that Sheena’s hand signals bore no resemblance to anything remotely comprehensible. She seemed to be making a sock puppet with one hand, while she pinched at the air in random flailing motions with the other hand. I yelled that I didn’t understand, at which she did a great job of signaling that I was a dolt. Next, she raised both arms and did what appeared to be “jazz hands”, and then looked all around and pretended to pick up random scattered objects with chopsticks. I had no idea what she intended to say. Finally she started whipping at the air and ran away into the jungle.
As she disappeared into the trees I heard her scream “BEES! I’ll meet you on the trail!”
A new curtain of fear came over me; the situation had worsened, and I would have to go fill my backpack and put on my boots amid a swarm of killer bees.
I timidly swam toward the rocks, and when I got close I could see a dark cloud of winged bodies around my things. If I was going to get out of here alive, I was going to have to be Indiana Jones about it. I jumped out of the water and ran into the bee cloud, whisking the bees off of my saturated t-shirt. I picked up the shirt and began violently whipping it about like a helicopter blade, or a Ninja Turtle nunchuk. The bees backed away from me, and the ones that didn’t got their asses chopped with my whipping shirt. I could hold them off- for now – but I had to figure out how to accomplish my tasks while my favored hand was being used as an anti-bee weapon.
With my left hand I dumped my curried tuna over the edge of the rock, hoping to create a diversion. It had no effect on the bees, so I started clumsily putting my clothes into my backpack while I whipped the air and my body with my sweaty shirt like some kind of masochist.
When at last I had sufficiently repacked my bag I hastily jammed my feet into my heavy trekking boots. I pulled the laces tight, but was unable to tie them, and then lowered my head, upped the tempo of my nunchuking action, and bolted. The bees followed me.
I ran through underbrush and thorny trees, trying to evade the bees, and finally came to the rock ledge that we’d lowered ourselves down earlier. I stopped whipping for a moment and ran at the ledge full speed, somehow making it to the top by imitating a loose approximation of parkour in my unlaced trekking boots. When I hit the trail I bolted uphill as fast as I could scramble over the roots and rocks until I’d reached the top of the ridge.
Sheena was nowhere to be seen. It had been close to fifteen minutes since we were separated.
Maybe she continued down the trail, I thought. But why would she do that? The bees had long since turned around, and there would be no reason for her to go farther. I opted to continue down the other side.
I slipped and clambered my way down the far side of the ridge, and finally reached the bottom, where the next ridge began, but still no Sheena. What the hell? There’s no way she could have hiked so far without me. At that point I could see two possibilities: she had either continued even farther than I had already come, or she had fallen off of the trail while running from the bees. Maybe her parkour skills weren’t as fine tuned as mine and she had fallen into the river while climbing the rock ledge.
I decided the first step would be to yell at the top of my lungs, which I did, for five or ten minutes. I alternated between eardrum-busting whistling and yelling Sheena’s name, but there was no response. “What the hell?” I kept saying aloud. The sun was getting low in the sky and the jungle was becoming dark.
Finally, just as I was about to turn around and scramble back over the ridge to the killer bees to look for her, I heard a familiar sound.
“Tee hee! Here I am, honey!”
“WHAT!? Where have you been? I’ve been worried sick about you! I thought you were unconscious and that the bees got you! What is wrong with you? Didn’t you hear me yelling!?”
“You know,” She said, in a voice that made the situation seem much less serious, “I ran away into the jungle and went really far, and then I waited for you. After ten minutes the bees were still hunting me and I started to get really mad at you for making me wait so long. I was like ‘What? No he DIT-INT’, but then I realized that I didn’t recognize anything. I finally walked back and realized that I wasn’t even on the trail. Woopsies! So then I came this way and here you are!”
I could hardly be mad at her. When you think someone has perished, and then you realize that they actually haven’t, you can really only be relieved. But we weren’t out of the woods yet! Literally, we weren’t out of the woods yet.
The clouds had continued to build overhead, and the thunder was becoming louder. The last thing we needed was to be stuck out here on these slippery mud ridges in a downpour. We swiveled our hips wildly from side to side as we speed walked through the jungle on the trail.
“Sheena, hold up,” I said, “I need to tie my shoes.” The situation had been so tense that I hadn’t realized that my boots were still untied and I wasn’t wearing my shirt. I pulled the soaked t-shirt over my head, retrieved some socks from my bag, and laced up my boots. The speedwalking recommenced.
With about a mile left to go before reaching camp, I looked down at my swim trunks and could hardly believe my eyes. My right leg appeared to have been shot, and my shorts were drenched in blood.
“What the f*@! happened!?” Sheena shrieked.
I shakily slid my pant leg up to reveal two seeping wounds. I wiped the blood away, but the flow immediately resumed. Sheena’s face turned white, but there was nothing we could do. We continued walking.
Finally, at long last we reached the bridge, crossed it, and found Nacho alone in our camp. We started to drop our things on the ground in exhaustion when I looked at Sheena’s shorts. She noticed the disgusted look on my face and looked down. A stream of dried blood was caked on her leg.
“ohmygod…I think I’m going to be sick,” she said. She quickly ran to the bathroom to see what the heck was going on. When she returned several minutes later, she was holding a bloody garment.
“Look what was stuck to my clothes,” she said, holding out her hand. In it, a swollen leach was nestled in the fabric. That explained what had gotten me as well. We retrieved our stainless steel salt grinder filled with pink Peruvian rock salt from the Andes, and proceeded to cover that mo-fo with dash after dash of fine rock salt until it disintegrated into bloody shreds.
We gathered some fresh clothes, a few band-aids, some Benadryl and soap, and made our way to the showers. We could wash off the blood and I could coat my bee sting with antihistamine, but it would be a very long time before we would feel the urge to go jungle trekking again. And the rare barking deer? Those rare barking deer can bite me.