Jun 2013

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 14 Comments

Born Again Nacho

About a year ago in Colombia, our transmission failed. We had been driving up a dirt road in the middle of the faraway mountains when Nacho voided his bowels, we were towed to a tiny mountain village where a deranged mechanic had his way with our poor Nacho, but then we lurked in and stole Nacho away and deposited him on a farm, cracking my side view mirror in the process, you may recall. You may also recall that we found no favorable, much less legal, options for getting our transmission working, so we flew home, bought a used transmission, cleaned it up so it looked new, packed it into a suitcase and checked it onto a plane, where upon our arrival we were detained by the evil Colombian customs office for three days before being released upon the payment of a hefty tax. After porting the transmission to the farm in the back of a Subaru I spent two weeks fixing Nacho, which involved installing the new transmission with aid of a new jack. Twice. You may recall. And, as you may recall, after all of that pain and suffering and hardship and money, our new transmission leaked. My lips formed into the shape of a sad rainbow, my eyes pinched shut, drool seeped from the corner of my mouth, and I fell to my knees while feebly punching the air before crumpling into the fetal position and sobbing like a pants-wetting kindergartener. The leak persisted for the next ten months through South America, across the Pacific to Malaysia, and into Thailand.

You may also recall that in Argentina Nacho was burglarized by a bad man with a crowbar, and many important things were stolen. He also broke Sheena’s treasured walking stick, recently collected from the shores of Lago Tromen, a lake which will only live on in our minds because the bad man also stole the camera that contained all of the pictures of Lago Tromen. I would be reminded of the bad man every day thereafter, especially the really hot days, because it has been impossible to replace my broken window with the correct window glass, rendering it impossible to roll down my window. This has been especially unappreciated since arriving in southeast Asia, because we don’t have an air conditioner and not being able to roll down my window in the stifling heat and humidity has caused my brain to begin to disintegrate from jungle rot.

When we arrived in Bangkok I declared to Sheena, “All right, I’m putting my foot down!” Sheena knows me well as a maker of frivolous demands and declarations, so she paid no immediate attention. However, my seriousness was hard to ignore when she found herself sitting in the waiting room of a garage in a Bangkok suburb surrounded by water cooled Volkswagen vans, including Nacho. Our VW Club friends in Kuala Lumpur had put us in touch with new VW Club friends in Bangkok, who had put us in touch with the best garage in the country for water cooled Volkswagen vans. Now Sheena knew I was serious. Our Thai friend Gak, who had accompanied us to the garage, also knew I was serious. My foot was down, and it would stay down until I had a non-leaky transmission, a window capable of one dimensional translation, and a usable side view mirror.

Given my deep mistrust of local mechanics, my immediate feeling when turning Nacho over to the hands of others was one of deep nervousness and stomach discomfort. The mechanics were an intrepid team of young Thai men, and they displayed their worthiness by immediately locating a new window and side mirror, and successfully replacing them. Next, Nacho was placed on a lift and made airborne. The intrepid Thai mechanics dispersed and quickly returned with, get this, all of the correct tools. I know, right? They had a triple square bit for my beloved CV bolts, circlip pliers, and even the big cylindrical tool used to remove the drive axle flanges, or whatever they’re called. They deftly removed my axle, noting that both of my CV boots were ripped, which they later replaced, and then removed my drive flange, or whatever it’s called, only to find that the main sealing o-ring was cut in half. And seeing as how the leak began on day one, I surmised that it was cut in half when I bought it, which made me quite angry indeed. But they had the right o-ring on hand to replace it, so my anger was forgotten, and I left for the evening to let the guys finish up.

It was about time. After only sixteen months on the road, we had finally managed to find a shop that used the right tools and knew what the hell they were doing. I also asked them to replace one of Nacho’s upper control arm bushings, which had disintegrated in Ecuador, and had been clanking around ever since. Driving away from the shop was like being born again.

With Nacho in tip top shape, and I use that term loosely, we were free to sit around in Bangkok traffic, meet with our new friends for lunch, sit in Bangkok traffic, hang out with our new friends over long and delicious dinners, sit in Bangkok traffic, and drive to the King Rama V monument to meet all the rest of the water cooled VW vans in Bangkok for an epic photograph depicting all of the vans in a row. Before and after the photo-op we gave tours to the curious of Nacho’s water purification system, hot water generation, interior remodel, and I gave a barely legal demonstration of Nacho’s onboard shower.

On one of our very last days in Bangkok I found myself sitting in Bangkok traffic. It was another marathon jam, and I hadn’t moved more than a few feet in the last 45 minutes, when who should I see but a traffic cop approaching on foot. The cop approached my window, which I had proudly rolled down, and I attempted small talk before realizing that he spoke no English. After some polite smiles and hand waving, he began to insist that I had made some kind of traffic violation. He seemed to be saying that I had run a red light.

“But I’ve been sitting here for 45 minutes,” I said, which didn’t matter since he spoke no English.

“Kai jai tai doo mai wai kai!” he insisted.

He pointed to a picture of a driver’s license, so I reached for the ash tray where I keep one of my many “extra” drivers licenses, but to my shock and horror it was missing. I made a mental note to reprimand Sheena for moving my unlawful decoy license, and I regretfully pulled my real international driving permit out from under the dash mat. He placed it in his ticket book and pointed to his clipboard, which contained several lines of cryptic Thai script. He read it to me, slowly and loudly.

“RAI MAI JAI…KWAI MOO GAI…” he went on for an eternity, and finally pointed to where it said “1,000”. I deduced that he was going to write me a ticket for 1,000 Baht, or around $35.

“But sir,” I said, uselessly, “I haven’t done anything wrong. I literally haven’t moved in 45 minutes!” It went back and forth like this for at least fifteen or twenty minutes, and at every opportunity I attempted to convince him to give me my license. Finally, through much frustration, charades, and incomprehensible jibber jabber, I convinced him to trade my license for a 1,000 Baht bill, which I was pretty sure he promised to hold onto while I followed him to the police station. He walked to his motorcycle and made a tunnel through the traffic, through which I followed him.

Several minutes later, after a number of close calls and nearly losing him in traffic, he stopped at a main intersection and got off his bike to stop traffic so that I could pull out. As I pulled into traffic, he signaled that he’d catch up. It should have come as no surprise that I never saw him or my 1,000 Baht ever again.

It is true that I was duped by a Bangkok motorcycle cop, and in doing so I have shamed my family and lost my reputation for being a stone cold cop tricker. But at the end of the day Nacho’s transmission doesn’t leak, I can see out of my side mirror, I can hang my arm out the window, and our front suspension probably won’t fall off. In the grand scheme of things we’d won. And besides, I had a really long and really delicious dinner with our new friends to attend to.

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Jun 2013

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 16 Comments

The Resilience of a Mother

My mom and brother had arrived some time before Christmas in 2003, and we loaded their belongings in the trunk of our tiny red Kia. Our first visitors during our year living abroad. We would make it to our first stop at Stonehenge, but only barely, after having driven through England’s winding back roads at night in the freezing fog with iced-over headlights. The ensuing two weeks are best remembered as a string of days in which my poor mother endured pure torture as a passenger on a 2,000 mile Winter road trip through Europe with three juvenile ruffians.

Against her better judgment, my mom again stepped from the tarmac and into our road tripping machine. It’s ten years later, it’s one o’clock in the morning, and Bangkok’s lingering night time heat threatens to melt the soles off of our shoes as we walk from the terminal to the parking lot where Nacho awaits. My mom is a smart lady, yet so soon she forgets her hard-learned lessons.

We walk from our guesthouse along Samsen Road, past the frippery shops and t-shirt hawkers on Khao San Road, past the row of meat-on-a-stick vendors. Sidewalks in Bangkok are generally used for motorcycle parking, store displays, storage, food preparation, and public urination, so we walk in the blistering sun on the side of the blistering hot roadway. By now, having been in southeast Asia for a considerable amount of time, Sheena and I have grown somewhat accustomed to the heat and humidity. I turn to look at my mom and realize that she’s nearly dead, just prior to the point of her red blood cells turning into lifeless bits of sand.

“Oh…look…” she faintly whispers, “there’s a…7-Eleven…Let’s…cool off…”

Bangkok is home to roughly 3,500 7-Eleven franchises, each of them spewing unregulated cold air into their clean interiors like little oases of freshness. Without these, my mom would be dead.

We eventually arrive at the Grand Palace and are turned away by angry security guards. They bite their thumbs at our tastelessness; both my mom and I are exposing our knees, which is an unspeakable atrocity inside the walls of a tourist attraction of such grandeur. We retreat to the sidewalk where innumerable fly-by-night vendors rent cheap elephant-covered gypsy pants to us foreign heathens. I school my mom in the art of negotiation.

“Four dollars!?” I rant, “I shan’t pay a farthing more than three dollars! Mom, walk away…they have to see you walking away…”

We procure some ugly rented pants at the aggressively negotiated rate, and we enter.

Having long since suffered from a condition that I call “wat burnout”, I walk around the complex looking at the painted gold buildings with a sense of boredom. My mom looks enthused, but after a few minutes I realize that she may have reached “wat burnout” stage far sooner than anticipated, undoubtedly fueled by the setting in of her heat stroke. We look at statues of Buddhas, admire the gold trim adorning the buildings, and take lots of photos, despite our condition.

Back on the street I return my rented pants, while my mom decides to keep hers and forfeit her deposit. “These will make great pajamas,” she says. After over an hour without air conditioning her tongue is beginning to swell up and become rigid. Later, while eating lunch in an outdoor, non-air-conditioned establishment, I tell her she needs to stay out of air conditioning if she ever wants to adapt. She doesn’t complain. Sheena spies a splash of heat rash on my mom’s leg, which my mom dismisses with a smile, and says “It’s nothing!” I come to the realization that I’m torturing my mother.

I’m eager to show Mom the Thai countryside, so we hit the road to Kanchanaburi – the one of World War II fame where prison camp labor was used to build a railroad bridge over the Kwai River on its trajectory to Burma. She had seen the film Bridge on the River Kwai when she was eight years old, and was stoked to see it in the flesh. The very bridge!

After two hours of driving out of Bangkok, it seems we’re still in Bangkok. The countryside never materializes, and instead we drive the two hours through industrial sprawl. We reach Kanchanaburi as I try to reassure my mom that yes, in fact, there are undeveloped parts of Thailand. We are spared, as Kanchanaburi maintains its small town charm, despite being attached to Bangkok by a gray industrial umbilical cord.

For two days my mom tries to remember the whistling song from the River Kwai movie. We walk, she tries to remember.

“I think it’s twéet tw?et, twéet twuh twéet…, no, that’s not right…”

Each day seems hotter than the last, but we ignore it to the best of our abilities. We find the bridge, we walk across it, we visit the museum, and as night falls we all enjoy the miracle of the $5 hour-long Thai massage. The three of us change into the provided comfy pants and shirts, lie down on the floor mats, and proceed to take severe punishment from the muscular Thai Army girls masquerading as massage therapists. My girl also happens to be a sumo wrestler. She wrenches on me so hard that she grunts, and on two occasions elicits whimpering cries of pain and I tap out.

We finally find a copy of the film and watch it. Of course! It’s twéet tw?et… tw?et twéet twÉet twÉÉt twÉÉt twéet… We’re so pumped about it that we actually book seats on the train, now affectionately known as the Thai-Burma Death Railway, and spend the next day snaking into the hills, and then slowly snaking back out of them.

We take a day to drive into the mountains, proving to mom that the Thai countryside isn’t a piece of propaganda that I dreamed up, and we visit a waterfall. In true southeast Asian fashion, the waterfall is marked by a ten acre parking lot lined with food hawkers and souvenir shops, from which a paved path leads to several pools and waterfalls. For some reason the place is full up with Russian tourists, but we shake most of them by walking to the farthest waterfall from the parking lot, perhaps two miles away.

The swimming is beautiful, our feet and legs are tickled (chomped) by flesh-cleaning (carnivorous) fish, and we have a nice time experiencing Thailand’s natural side. To our delight, we return to Nacho without having contracted any leeches.

When I was a kid, I remember sitting in the passenger seat of my mom’s Camry as we drove up the new overpass linking the Loop 202 to Interstate 17 in Phoenix. Just as we reached the zenith of the overpass my mom cracked. She ducked her head below the level of the windshield, clasped the steering wheel in a death grip, and started yelling “Oh my GOD! Oh my GOD!” This was the day we came to fully appreciate – and believe in – my mom’s fear of heights. By this year I had forgotten all about it.

In Ayutthaya, our final stop on mom’s Thailand visit, I have the great idea of taking my mom on a tour of the old city. Not on an air-conditioned bus, or even in Nacho, but on bicycles. And not on nice bicycles, but on bicycles that are so rickety and in disrepair as to be free of charge.

Sheena leads the way, heading west, and then curving north to follow the river bank. It quickly becomes evident that to cross the river we’ll have to temporarily cut onto the freeway and take the bridge. I look at my mom, her shirt soaking wet and her skin flushed from heat stroke.

We cut right, wait for a break in the heavy freeway traffic, and then precariously join the narrow lane for our trip across the high bridge. Sheena continues to lead the way, followed by Mom, and I bring up the rear. My mom’s seat has slipped down and her derailleur is stuck in a hard gear, making her pedal stroke slow, shaky, and powerless. As we reach the zenith of the bridge I notice that her head is ducked down, her arms are tense. Passing cars whiz by, heat radiates from the pavement, and my mom fights through the heat stroke and acrophobia while piloting, with quivering hands, the scrap heap of a bike I’ve placed her on.

Amid this calamity, a crystal clear thought enters my mind: Brad, you’re a bad person and if there is a hell you’re probably going to end up there. But she should have known better.

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Jun 2013

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 15 Comments


Shopping Shenanigans

“Don’t you ever get tired of going to markets? It’s soooo boring. It’s like going to a grocery store. You know they are all the same, right?” I have heard this from Brad on a weekly basis.

Well, to answer that first question, no, not really. How I ever enjoy markets, and if the past tells anything, I will never tire from them. I usually go through the motions of writing a “grocery list” for Brad’s sake, but in reality I’m just using it as my admission ticket, showing the “need” to go. Lists are useless anyways. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a market that had everything I was looking for, or that didn’t have something that I’d never seen before. As frustrating as it may be sometimes, that is the beauty of them. They are regional and seasonal, with a continuously changing mix of produce, flavors, spices, textiles and faces. I always have the overwhelming desire to go to every stall, upturn every bag of unknown, unwrap every banana leaf to reveal its hidden contents, and sample every fruit and vegetable. My senses are overwhelmed and I can only image that this is what it’s like for a child going to Disneyland for the first time. Even if I have nothing to buy, I still want to go merely for the visual exploration. It is for many, the closest they will get to interacting with the locals while watching their daily routine and way of life.

It should come as no surprise then that given my absolute love for these places, I often plan a particular route to coincide with them. This is usually my little secret until we arrive within vicinity, leaving Brad little chance to devise some sort of “emergency” Nacho maintenance project that takes precedence.

It just so happened that we were to arrive in Bangkok on a Saturday, and it just so happened to be the same day in which a number of weekend floating markets were taking place. We stopped at Bang Noi, which for more than 100 years, was the gathering place for locals on the 3rd, 8th, and 13th day of the waxing and waning moons of the lunar calendar [Brad note: do you understand that my wife is insane?] With the building of roads, the market nearly died off but was recently revived by the government, keen on holding onto tradition.

Upon entering the shop houses, local women sat on the sidewalk with their blankets laid out, proudly displaying their produce for the day. This was the most authentic part of the market, with true commerce occurring from one local to another. As we walked to the water’s edge I braced myself, expecting to see something extraordinary, like a swarm of colorful boats, women with cone hats, and maybe a pig or two being transferred from one boat to another. I wanted to see that, yet all I saw was the murky brown water of the canal and bunches of hyacinth floating by. These hyacinths are actually a huge problem, growing so quickly that they clog the canals and impede the flow of water. It’s actually some people’s job to remove the hyacinth from the waters, cutting them at their roots and leaving them to float on elsewhere. Nowadays, much of it is collected, dried and made into the latest and greatest in new trendy woven furniture.

Instead of a true floating market, we had come upon a simple marketplace on the river, and lining the canal were old wooden shop houses filled with cute cafes and restaurants, souvenir shops, handicraft stores and vendor stands. It was really nice despite the inaccuracy of what the name implied. We entered and split up quickly. Brad was drawn to a small café where a man played his guitar and I continued on, strangely overwhelmed by the uncanny peacefulness in the air.

While he shared a table with a few locals and enjoyed a beer, I searched for unique foods.

One woman roasted tightly wrapped tubes of banana cakes on her charcoal grill and another sold pairs of neatly arranged fish in bamboo bowls. One Chinese woman pinched off silver dollar sized pieces of rice flour dough, placed them in a pan, patted them down, and gently flipped them until lightly brown. She layered the stretchy pancakes between sheets of plastic wrap until her sister, who worked the second half of the process, topped them generously with crushed peanuts, brown sugar, and sesame seeds. She then rolled them into bite sized burritos and neatly stacked them in pyramids in small origami like banana leaf trays. They were sweet and nutty, perfect alongside the complimentary shot glass of green tea.

I continued walking, eventually crossing over a bridge that led to the other side of the water. The silence in the air was broken up intermittently by young Thai men racing their longtail boats, oblivious to the disruption they were causing. For a moment’s time, the murky water would slosh back and forth between the buildings and the talking amongst people would come to a brief pause; waiting until they could hear their own voices again.

Once I had made the rounds, Brad and I reunited. On our way out we ventured to a stand where a sweet looking couple made ?????????????????, or pork steamed rice parcels. They looked like little wrinkly dumplings and were made using a cooking method I had never seen before. It began with a thin pastry mix poured onto a small round surface and quickly covered with a metal cone-shaped lid. In less than a minute, the dough had turned from transparent to opaque and a dollop of sweet pork filling was added to the center. Using two spatulas the stretchy dough was pulled and twisted over the meat topping. After showing me the technique, they handed me their spatulas. I added a few deformed looking ones to their collection.

Back in Nacho, we headed just a few miles south until we arrived at Amphawa Floating Market. This market was so insanely huge that I couldn’t believe my eyes. There was no way we’d make it through in a few hours as thousands of vendors ran alongside the elevated banks of the canal for half a mile. If that wasn’t overwhelming enough, they also spilled out onto the streets that surrounded the main thoroughfare. This was THE market that local Bangkokians went to for their floating market experience, and surprisingly, out of all the faces, I hardly recall seeing another Westerner. The whole place was quite atmospheric; the steps that led down to the canal were packed like bleachers with Thais eating seafood. All eyes were on the cooks who floated in the boats below, who split their time between prepping and cooking on their grills. We ordered our grilled squid and pad thai and sat there on the banks, just two individuals in a crazy maze of food and people.

Here’s some audio that Brad captured of a local musician while having a drink at the Bang Noi floating market:

[audio:http://www.drivenachodrive.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Floating-Market-Musician-Thailand.mp3|titles=Floating Market Musician Thailand]

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Jun 2013

Asia, Blog



An Hour with Moto Lady

She looked at me worriedly after each move, “you okay?”

I focused on my breathing, attempting to block out the pain, “oh yes, this is goooodReally good”.

“You so strong!  I push so hard and most, they say stop, you stop!  But… you okay?”

I was told by a Thai that a good massage is the right of every Thai person.  It is an essential part of daily life.  We had decided we wanted to give it a try and as we walked down the street we were drawn to a sign that was advertising just that.  It was a cartoon sketch of a woman on her stomach with her back arched painfully high.  Her arms were being pulled backward by a women kneeling behind her with a long sleek pony tail.  It looked painful yet both characters had serene smiles painted on their faces.

Shoot, for $5 an hour, we couldn’t pass it up.  Brad and I both requested traditional Thai massages, less commonly known as Thai Yoga Therapy.

As we stood in the street, a lady in her fifties cheerfully welcomed us in.  She made a quick phone call and by the time my feet had been soaked and scrubbed in water, another woman appeared on a scooter, beads of sweat on her face, eager to get to work.  I followed the motorcycle lady around to the other side of a bookshelf which divided her massage room from the street.  She flipped on two oscillating fans while I lowered myself onto a hard mattress on the floor.  I quickly realized that the Western interpretation of a massage did not translate into the same thing in Thai.  I repeatedly caught myself on the verge of laughing or crying, unable to believe Motorcycle Lady’s power.  She not only used her hands, but the weight of her entire body, alternating between the use of her knees, elbows, feet and toes.

I was twisted into pretzel shapes, bounced on top of, and my fingers and toes were pulled until they snapped with the sound of popped bubble gum.  Sometimes Motorcycle Lady would sit in front of me, and using one leg as an anchor, would press her toes into my upper hamstrings.  She would then dig her heel deep into the crevice of my inner thigh and crotch, each time pushing a little harder and a little longer.  While a foot to the groin may sound pleasant, it mostly just hurt.  Finally I was able to lay my head on a pillow which rested on her lap.  I thought this  sounded quite pleasant as well, yet what this position allowed her to do was dig deeper into her briefcase of pain.  She sought out and found each knot in my back, twanging on them like guitar strings.  It was intense.

Like every good massage however, it ended nicely.  My temples and eyebrows were rubbed and my head was tenderly scratched.  The whole experience was absolutely fantastic in the strangest sort of way.

This glorious massage went down in a town called Prachup Khiri Khan.  It’s the town that sits at the county’s narrowest point, where there are only 8.1 miles from the Burmese border to Thailand’s coast.  We arrived via a busy road filled with tiny trucks and their tremendous loads of produce.

In the back of one of these trucks a net covered an exploding pile of coconuts.  Nestled atop were two workers and a gnarly looking monkey, trained in the fine art of pulling coconuts.  He looked bored and tired, uninterested by the commanding view from atop.  Farther up the road, we stopped to buy banana chips and a full tank of gas, only to realize that we were short on cash by nearly the entire sum of the bill.  No problem – a cheerful gas attendant ported Brad down the street on his motorbike to a nearby ATM.  I was held as collateral, anxiously awaiting Brad’s return.

Once in Prachuap, a leisurely walk down the beach made it evident that this village was far more focused on fishing than tourism.  It was unpretentious and intriguing and historically interesting: it was location of the first invasion by Japanese troops along the Gulf Coast during World War II.  The bay was picturesque with tropical blue water and bobbing wooden trawler boats.

Boats congregated and fisherman busily waded waist deep in the water, carrying seemingly endless bins of fat juicy fish.  We watched a local man purchase a bin of fish, and then it was the job of a little boy to find and pull out the fish that were damaged and unsellable.   The remaining bins were moved from the beach to the road by an assembly line of workers.   The workers shielded their bodies from the sun fully covering their arms, legs, and faces.  They wore long sleeves and pants and wide brimmed hats with a flap of extended fabric reaching down and around the neck and tied under the chin.

At midday, instead of people on the boardwalk, trays and trays of framed metal fencing rested against the cement wall.  Atop were neat rows of squid and bits of fish left to dry in the sun. Across the street residents napped through the hottest hours of the day.  They snoozed the hours away on raised platforms with thatched roofs, essentially the Asian equivalent to the Western patio, less the lawn chairs, table and umbrella.  Napping in Thailand (and through much of the non-Western world) is a common sight.  It is just what they do during the warmest hours of the day.

In the evening, we wandered into a busy restaurant.  Being so close to Burma, there was plenty of Burmese influence within the town.   In fact, the girls running the restaurant were Burmese, as evidenced by the thanakha cream smeared on their cheeks.  After much hand signaling and giggling from our waitress, we ordered a few random dishes: spicy seafood salad and deep fried silver whiting fish with a green mango salsa.  The spicy seafood salad, or yam ta-lair was exceptionally delicious- a perfect balance of sweet and spicy, made of a mix of shrimp, squid, octopus, and mussels, mixed with green onion, coriander, and celery leaves and soaked in a spicy lime sauce.  As for the deep fried silver whiting, that came out as quite a surprise: a plate of a few dozen bite sized fish, butterflied and fried, with ribs and spine intact and irremovable.  I quickly decided that this was going to be a throw away dish, way too much work for such little meat.  The thought of sorting out needle sized fish bones in my mouth was also quite unappealing.  I stared at the dish in frustration, but Brad went for it, dipping the little fish bodies in the mango salsa and popping them in his mouth whole.  I eventually did the same, and then, like the Thai massage poster from earlier in the day, we melted into our chairs, serene smiles painted on our faces.

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Jun 2013

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 21 Comments

The Ill-Fated Jungle Trek

“Jungle trekking, yeah!” Sheena was visibly excited on the morning that we awoke for our ill-fated day of jungle trekking.

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.

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