I am grateful for the amazing people who signed up for this trip, possibly after also having too many Beerlao. Besides Charlie, Paul and I, we were now with Paulo, a thirty-six-year-old Italian, Siva, a Malaysian whose age was lost on me, and two fun-loving Swiss girls, Marie and Betty, who were chain-smoking, out of shape nurses in their twenties. You gotta love nurses who smoke. They were hilarious and without them, it would have been a much more dismal experience. Our guide was a fit, outdoorsy twenty-something guy named Kimo who was nice enough on the surface but couldn’t entirely relate to our fears and wasn’t someone we felt a bond or trust with. There seemed to be something lacking in the traits typically associated with a tour guide which was unsettling as we had no choice but to be completely dependent on him for the next few days. Along with our guide were two village women who did all the cooking, and two other men who helped us navigate the terrain by cutting down the jungle with their machetes. Only Kimo spoke English.
The trekking was tough. While in excruciating 35°C heat with cloudless skies and unforgiving sun, we hiked through ridiculously dense and unrelenting jungle, navigating unstable and sometimes invisible footing. I cannot emphasize how lucky we were to not have any rain over the three days as it was hard enough on dry land; a few drops would have definitely resulted in some twisted ankles and broken bones. There was nothing aesthetically pleasing or rewarding when it came to the landscape on this trek. The goal of arriving at a beautiful vista or a refreshing waterfall may have made the ensuing post-traumatic stress a little more worth the effort. The only motivation to keep going was the thought of the truck waiting for us at the end of day three to get us back to town.
Turth time. I’m an outdoorsy girl who loves a physical challenge and has a ridiculous amount of endurance, or a love of torture, or both. While even I could honestly admit that every moment of this experience was delivered straight from hell, I secretly enjoyed parts of it. Perhaps after more than six weeks of not going to the gym, not having any control over my diet and indulging in more and more beer, I was hungry to get myself moving and was craving to push myself; I was ready for a physical challenge. I kept this secret joy quiet, making sure I participated in the right amount of complaining to satisfy my peers. The parts that I didn’t love were genuine complaints. No acting required.
Let’s get to what we’ve all been waiting for, the real meat of this experience. I’m wondering if this is what it feels like to be on Survivor, minus the fifteen minutes of fame and the possibility of adding a few extra zeros to your bank account. After our first day of hard trekking, our respite was a big open hut. No walls, just a bamboo floor and roof. The hut was completely covered with flies. Not just one or two, tons and tons of flies. The outhouse squat toilet was covered with bees. Yep, you guessed it, tons and tons of bees.
Down a path and away from the hut in the thick of the jungle (which was frightening in itself), you could pretend to get clean from the trickle of water coming out of a hollow bamboo pole drawing from a stream. It made those 1980’s Irish Spring commercials look like the actors were showering in a torrential downpour. Unfortunately, Paul and I went to use this meager drip at the same time as the two female cooks. They were not happy to have us standing by waiting as they got clean. The whole encounter was a bit awkward. Stink eye is a universal expression. Apart from that, the women of Laos impressed me once more with their shower rituals, going from a wet sarong to a dry one with nary a flash of their particulars.
After a very good meal of sticky rice, what I think was buffalo, and the dreaded Lao-Lao, yes, that potent rice whiskey that makes you feel instantly flammable, we crawled through the mosquito nets to the well-used mats on the floor, and counted down the hours until it would begin all over again. Paul and Paulo got very sick in the night. These were less than pleasant conditions for loose bowels. Although it was hard to believe one could actually fall asleep in these surroundings, we woke up at 5am to a constant droning, a gradual, almost deafening buzz. An army of bees was doing laps around our flimsy mosquito nets as we lay paralyzed inside them. None of us spoke. I don’t think we wanted to confirm our reality, as we watched the bees through the pathetic gauze separating us from them. Our guides didn’t even flinch. Nor did the two female cooks, however they also did the trek in flip-flops while carrying ridiculously heavy loads of food strapped to their foreheads. It was incredibly eerie, and had Stephen King been serving up sticky rice for breakfast, I would not have been surprised.
After an unpleasant bee-infested breakfast, we were back on the treacherous trail. Not only was the terrain even more challenging than the day before, we were now being attacked by leeches. They were everywhere, crawling up our boots, pants and even walking sticks, accessing us in any way they could to suck our blood. What an ordeal. My good fortune (and overzealous, vigilant monitoring) only allowed for two leeches on my hands which I quickly removed before they clamped down. At one point I fell down and let out a scream that was somewhat foreign to me, but then realized this was not the time or place for my first full blown panic attack. Afraid I would be covered in leeches from head to toe, my cat-like reflexes enabled me to brush them all away as I quickly got back on my feet. Others were not so lucky. Siva had five or six leeches stuck to his calves with big disgusting gobs of blood running down his legs. Marie took off her blood-filled boot where a leech had worked its way into her sock and attached itself to her toe. Betty smoked.
I would like to thank my siblings. As a child, my older brother and sister tormented me repeatedly by screaming, “We’ve come to suck your blood!” This was a routine I very much despised. When suddenly faced with this oddly real reality, my childhood torture kept going through my mind, which kept me on high alert to ensure none of these slippery suckers found their way to my precious bod.
Lunch on day two was beside a leech-filled creek where our guides spread out more nauseating sticky rice on fly-infested rocks. We were completely covered. Backs, heads, arms…there was hardly a patch of skin, clothing or backpack that wasn’t covered with flies. Although I had avoided any real leech disasters, three bees launched their stingers into my shoulder. Needing to escape the heat, the flies, the bees and our mounting insanity, we took the lesser of two evils which was now the leech-filled creek and jumped in. These were desperate times. And did I mention that through all of this, I had my period?
After a full afternoon of trekking, we made it to our pit stop for the second night. Our accommodation for this night basically made the first night seem like a luxury five-star. No walls, a bamboo slatted floor and roof, both with more holes than bamboo, and more flies. Massive amounts of flies. And leeches. On the plus side, there was a refreshing creek we could swim in. Of course there was the odd leech in there but whatevs. We were dehydrated, delirious, and desperate. And then there was Charlie. Lucky, lucky Charlie. While lying down for a rest, which is a bit of an oxymoron on an expedition like this, a leech crawled into his …. area of exit. Yes, covered in blood, Charlie was violated by a leech in the last place you want that sort of thing to happen. One of the guides bent him over and spread his cheeks with a machete to ensure the leech was no longer. Possibly questionable behavior, this same guide seemed to hold Charlie’s hand whenever possible. We ate dinner standing up, obsessively inspecting ourselves, and constantly brushing things away, completely convinced leeches were crawling on us even when they weren’t. There was some Lao-Lao action and other indulgences that night, especially by Charlie. Nothing bonds you more to a bunch of strangers than your fear of leeches, spiders, snakes, and flies crawling into your nether regions.
And then it was bedtime, or holes-in-bamboo-slat-floor time, which none of us wanted to face. The laughs suddenly dissipated. We were lucky it was another clear night without rain, such a clear night that you could see the stars vividly through the holes in the roof while our bodies sagged through the holes in the floor, fair game to whatever may be crawling on the ground beneath us. In a word, awful. Being exhausted from both the trek and constant paranoia, we were able to sleep. At 3am, my nearly exploding bladder made it clear it could not be ignored. Believe me, I tried. Having to pee in a pitch-black jungle in the middle of the night seemed worse than walking death row. No outhouse, just the call of the wild. I strapped on my headlamp and went for it, my heart pounding madly as to put it mildly, I was beyond petrified. I peed far enough away from our shelter where the others were supposedly sleeping, but not far enough away that they wouldn’t hear me should something decide to drag me off into the night. I prayed through my less than ample headlight that a leech wouldn’t find me. Of course one did but with my maniacal inspection, I caught it before crawling back into my sleeping bag.
The next morning, we again woke to the sound of bees. This time they were three times the size of the morning before and even more aggressive. And then there was Charlie. Lucky, lucky Charlie. Charlie of course, is allergic to bees. He got stung on the chin before he even made it out of his mosquito net. Oh Charlie. First violated up the ass, only to be followed by an allergic reaction in the middle of the Laos jungle. Luckily he is not anaphylactic but it was not pretty, and I have never seen a face more swollen.
Our third and final day of trekking was full of heat and more crazy terrain, but thankfully less leeches. Every step forward was one step closer to getting to the truck. We were completely dehydrated. Although we had been guaranteed there would be enough water, the tour company had only supplied us with three liters each to last three days in excruciating heat and extreme physical exertion. Everyone was losing it. Luckily the terrain became easier and more beautiful in the final few hours with several river crossings and some grassy embankments although we also hiked through some unfortunate slash-and-burn areas which are a bit jarring. Slash-and-burn is common in Laos as good money can be made from logging some of the rare wood found in its beautiful evergreen forests.
We emerged at the ‘finish line’, and were paddled across a river in a canoe by random children who seemed to show up from out of nowhere in some bushes. We just went with it. You don’t question anything on these adventures and we were simply ecstatic that they could get us out of there. The truck was in sight, as promised. Hallelujah. After a plunge in a refreshing leech-filled river, we hauled ourselves into the back of the truck, feeling like we’d finally been rescued. The trip back into town was long, dusty and nauseating due to the winding and hilly rural roads, still showing us no mercy even at the end of these somewhat dangerous past three days. An hour later, we got off the truck covered in red road sand feeling sickly and deranged, but fortunate that we had all come out in one piece. We took much needed showers at our respective guesthouses, rinsing off the layers of dirt and blood, and then eased our sorrows together with spaghetti, burgers and beer. Let’s be clear. A vacation and travelling are not the same.
We said goodbye to our trekking companions who will never be forgotten due to this surreal and somewhat ridiculous experience. Sadly, Charlie is heading in a different direction as I think he is tired of being the third wheel although to be honest, as of late I’ve felt that that third wheel has been me. Our new threesome is Paul, Paulo and I. We miss Charlie. Tomorrow we are heading east to Phonsaven to the Plain of Jars. We have two more weeks left in Laos and will be ending this country in the even hotter south. I am boiling and must go. My fruit shake is calling.