After a restless night of tossing and turning, we’re awakened before dawn by squawking roosters. Exhausted, we try to sleep through it but then the hens chime in and daylight floods through the cracks in our wood loft, forcing us up. Our bodies are stiff as we slowly rise and gather onto the lower level. Everyone is itching and we pull up our pant legs to uncover dozens of new red bumps. It can only mean one thing—bed bugs.
We coat our arms and legs in tiger balm to soothe the irritation and liberally apply bug spray, attempting to protect what little unbitten patches of skin we have left.
Chai carries up a bag of bamboo cups and pours the richest, smoothest coffee harvested from a local village. Plates of eggs and toast are passed around as we mentally prepare ourselves for the day.
Peeling back the bandage on my foot to examine my wound, I can’t decide if it’s getting worse or not—clearly there’s no way it can heal while subjected to constant dirty water, mud and pressure. I’m forced to ignore it as we pack up our belongings, thank the tribe for their hospitality and set out on the second leg of our journey.
An hour in we come up to the face of a steep cliff—a small opening at the base of a jagged rock wall. “We go in cave!” Chai announces as we reach for our flashlights.
The narrow entrance widens to a spacious cavern and we shine our lights on the stalactite formations. A tall bamboo stalk rests in the corner and Chai lifts it to the ceiling, pointing at an orange substance clinging to the rocks. He pokes around, stabbing the bamboo into the crevice until a large black fluttering mass appears, shrieking as it fell. Caught off guard, we all scream and jump back—one girl injuring herself on the rock as she fled the cave. The bat lay motionless on the ground and Chai told us not to worry because its’ mother would come rescue it, as he poked the small lifeless body. We felt awful for the poor thing and told Chai we’d had enough of the cave.
A couple hours later we come to a river with no bridge to cross, so we remove our socks and shoes, stepping carefully around the slippery rocks. Just beyond the river is a secluded waterfall so we drop our belongings, tearing off our damp and dirty clothes. The water is freezing but the thought of being clean is all that matters at this point. We swim in the river and sunbathe on the rocks as Chai cuts bamboo trees and rubs them together to start a fire.
Lunch is cooked and served—noodles and veggies in a banana leaf, passion fruit and lychee and instant coffee. I use this time, and any moment of rest I have on this trek to write in my journal while the details are still clear in my mind.
We cross two more rivers on our way back and at this point, cleanliness and comfort are out the window so we wade through the water fully clothed with our shoes and socks on. My foot wound throbbed with each step but I used the pain as fuel to push harder.
We walk alongside a field as a family gathers food in their baskets and waves hello.
“He’s sleepy”, Chai jokes as the massive spider lay still on the ground. “We cook and eat him tonight.” He then grabs the tarantula and cuts off the fangs with his machete, offering to let us hold it now that it can’t kill us. We say thanks but no thanks, and Chai puts it in his pocket as we continue to the village.
This village, while still small, is much larger than yesterday’s but we’re told that we were just passing through and wouldn’t be sleeping there tonight. We rest for a short time and take in the scenery as Chai explains how the tribe migrated here from Tibet. They speak their own version of Thai and I listen to their voices to see if I can pick any of it up.
They stalk us until the road ends and we take a detour through a corn maize.
Chai spots a hole in the dirt, wiggles his walking stick in it and pulls out another tarantula. This one is larger and definitely not sleepy.His fangs are cut and Chai throws it in his basket, keeping it as a gift for our next village, along with wild mushrooms and bamboo stalks he cut from the jungle earlier that day.A short time later we arrive to our homestead for the night and gather around on the floor, resting our achy and itchy bodies. Hot tea is served by our new host family and Chai roasts his tarantula over the fire. We’re grateful to make it through another day in one piece and walk around our new village to explore.
A group of children spot us and run to form a group, laughing as they curiously follow at a safe distance behind. I turn around and walk up to two of the girls as the rest of the children run off. They tell me their names in perfect English and I introduce myself, asking if I can take their photo. They pose and giggle shyly as I play back the photos on my camera screen. The people in these villages are some of the happiest I’ve ever met. Life is simple because having less means less to worry about. They drink and eat well and are grateful, despite being without what we’d consider to be the most basic conveniences like mattresses, chairs and nearly anything requiring electricity. Kids spend their days in nature and you can see the pure joy and love in their eyes. I wonder if it’s too late for my future children to know this feeling—to live this way.
Still in my grimy clothing, I ask permission to rinse off in their “shower”—a faucet behind cement walls. With cold water, I unsuccessfully attempt to scrub my legs which have been stained an orange-brown from the past two days. There are no vacant/occupied signs, or a door for that matter, and I’m walked in on by someone from my host family. Privacy is a luxury of the past these days.
I throw on clothing from yesterday and return to the hut as two men pluck a chicken they’d just killed for tonight’s dinner. It’s almost enough to make me become a vegetarian. (Almost).
Reflecting on our experience so far, we each share our favorite part and agree that we’ve grown stronger, mentally and physically, in just two short days. I felt close to each of them knowing we’d all gone through the same thought process of examining and re-evaluating our lives during the hours spent hiking in silence.Before bed we rub tiger balm on our bites, inspect our blankets for bed bugs and try to ignore the two massive spiders on the wall beside us. I close my eyes quickly fall asleep to the familiar sounds of frogs and crickets.
Day 3 up next…