By the time we walked through a small village (in the true sense of the word, not even close to the size of Dazhai, the place where I live in China) and crossed the Mekong River to get to our hiking trail, it became clear that we were far from everything familiar and comfortable. For some, like me, this realization was a source of endless excitement and wonder. For others, roughing it in the middle of the jungle got old very quickly.
The hike was not for the weak of heart. Colorful spiders bigger than the size of my fist could be seen hanging from the branches of several trees. Our guides were hacking away at the forest underbrush with arm-length machetes, and the dank air swarmed with mosquitoes as we powered through incline after steep incline. At this point, the slower members of our group had already started to lag far behind and complain about the strenuous hike, one girl's legs were so badly covered in bug bites that they had started to swell up. It looked quite painful. I looked down at my own legs and was pleased to find them relatively unscathed. Grateful for my Yeti-like fur, which seemed to have prevented many a mosquito from penetrating all the way to my vulnerable skin, I plowed ahead.
The exertion of our morning ascent left us all starving for lunch. Our guides quickly went about chopping down our table (a man-sized leaf upon which our food was served). Never have eggs, bananas, sticky rice, and small pieces of beef tasted so good. With full bellies and rested legs we set off for our campsite, located somewhere in the middle of the rainforest. On the way there, we crossed over the top of the mountain we were climbing to little fanfare. It was impossible to see over the dense tree-line and enjoy the view, though I closed my eyes and imagined it to be spectacular.
The descent down to the campsite made for the most difficult stretch of hiking. Our footing was so tenuous at times that it took lots of focus and strength just to stay upright and on the "path". Another girl was so traumatized by the treacherousness of the "path" that she spent the last couple of hours crying, convinced of her certain doom. On the other hand, me and the other guys were eating up the adrenaline rush of our rainforest adventure. In a moment of intense hubris, Lucas (a big boy) even jumped onto a vine and swung like Tarzan, though the rest of us couldn't help but observe the look of pure terror and concern that our guide shot his way. Luckily, Lucas survived his momentary lapse of judgment unharmed, and before we knew it, we had made it to our temporary home for the night: a small hut by a trickling stream, with nothing but Mother Nature all around us.
Channeling my inner Adam, I bathed naked in the crystal-clear splashes of the mountain stream. It was cold but infinitely rejuvenating, and I swear I felt happier alone in that idyllic spot than I have been in a long time. After my mini-catharsis by the stream, I pranced jubilantly back to camp to wait for the slow pokes still making their way down the mountain. After nightfall we all huddled around the fire that the locals had expertly conjured up for us. Another simple but delicious meal and a few ghost stories helped all nine of us pass out in one big pile, huddling together for warmth (and maybe stealing blankets from each other when the opportunity presented itself). I woke up several times in the middle of the night to gunfire-like pops, which turned out to be nothing but bamboo cracking under its own weight. I wrestled with a lot in my dreams that night, but I woke up so refreshed the next morning that I could barely remember what was troubling my subconscious so deeply the night before.
After another delicious fire-cooked meal, we hiked back down to the river, cheerfully chatting about anything and everything. We boarded kayaks and started paddling down the Mekong. We stopped for lunch in the middle of a small village, many of us tip-toeing shoeless past local places of Buddhist worship and huts on stilts where these Laotians all happened to live. Small emblems of the familiar global culture we left behind in the rainforest the evening before began to reappear; we chugged coca-colas at lunch, and later, large bottles of Beer Laos to celebrate finally making it to our destination and the end of our mini-camping trip. The rest of the guys and I posed for some fun pictures after we hubristically struggled upstream through Mekong currents and all five of us climbed up on a big, slippery rock.
As we rode back to downtown Luang Namtha in the back of a dirty tuk-tuk, and again several times on the seemingly endless bus rides back to our mundane little corner of rural China, I was struck by the vastness and diversity of South Asia, of which I have still seen so very little. Here's to adventures and living and breathing and eating and drinking and learning! I can't wait for my next vacation.