April 18, 2010

My first and second jungle adventures

I spent the Khmer New Year holiday in Mondulkiri province. With night skies so clear you can practically see the answers to life's questions, Mondulkiri is a sanctuary for weary souls and a countryside oasis for Phnom Penhers.

Many other volunteers decided to journey to Mondulkiri, but my core group of like-minded and similarly-scheduled friends (David and Francine) stuck together. It was nice to have a smaller group of people to organize. We stayed at the Nature Lodge (nice pick, David!), a cluster of huts on the outskirts of Sen Monorom town. I've never been anywhere comparable to this place. Even though it's in the middle of rural Cambodia, it has all the comforts of home, plus more adventure and whimsy than any place I've lived. Francine and I split a $10/night hut that gave us just enough outdoorsy feelingwith the right balance of security. The wooden building had a cozy bed, porch with hammock and attached bathroom. My favorite part was the bathroom because I could look at the stars while I was shampooing.

Despite our plan to take the first day easy, we ended up on a foot trek to the K'bal Preah waterfall. The first hour felt good, invigorating even, but as the sun climbed higher, I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into. We followed red dirt roads, we stumbled through tall grass, we scurried over the ash of slashed and burned fields, and then we entered the forest. This wasn't get-out-your-machete rain forest, but it was certainly a hot sticky jungle-type forest with loose soil and tree roots doing their best to topple me.

With legs of jelly, we descended deeper into the forest, following our flip-flop wearing guide to the sound of water. I didn't mind that this one was small by waterfall-viewing standards—I was just happy to finally sit down after such an intense walk. We devoured our small fried rice lunches and rationed our dwindling water, unsure how long the afternoon return trip would take. It took much coaxing, but Francine and I eventually joined the others for a swim in the catch pool. As I scooted reluctantly across the hairy, slimy rocks to the deep water, something changed. I felt the high of adventure instead of the fear of the unknown. Sounds corny, but given my distaste for all standing bodies of water not filled with chlorine, I consider it a big step forward.

Speaking of steps forward, the trek back was a hot mess of steps. Some of our crew trekked on as though it weren't 100 degrees with full sun, but I lagged behind, focusing on putting one foot in front of the other. My usual foot problems were negated by the ripping blisters that come from six hours of trekking on uneven ground. The strange forest party we came upon seemed more a hallucination than an experience, but after I threw back a (very dirty) cup of alcohol at the insistence of the locals, I realized that I was in the middle of nowhere with people who didn't speak my language, sharing a moment of celebration. Only after we finished the trek did I ponder the diseases I was going to get from the dirty liquor. So far, so good.

Back at the lodge, we found ourselves coated in red clay dust. My once white shoes were orange, and my khaki pants were all sorts of jungle colors. It was satisfying to see the dirt as evidence of our work.

To further punish our bodies, the second day was an elephant trek. For just twenty-five dollars, you can hoist yourself into a tiny wooden basket atop a wild elephant for the entire day. It sounds pretty adventuresome, or at least touristy, but the best word to describe it is simply painful. Butt on the wooden board seat, legs stuffed into the basket that wasn't wide enough for size eleven flippers, I held on for dear life as Francine assembled herself on the other side of the basket. The two hour trek to a waterfall even smaller than the day before was a miraculous act of contortionism for the two of us. With each step, I felt less blood flowing between my legs and my body, not to mention the growing pain in my knees. With only a few options for sitting position, Francine and I had to re-situate every few minutes to keep blood circulating properly. My newly achieved appreciation of adventure helped me climb off the elephant with as much grace as a giant lady with no experience de-elephanting can have.

We had a pre-lunch swim and a long post-lunch wait for the elephants to be re-herded for our riding pleasure. Apparently there are rules about how many hours a day these elephants can be held captive, so they get a long lunch in between trips to and fro. Francine and I named our elephant “Randy” because of his affectionate behavior, but we appreciated his discretion when the other elephants were misbehaving in the forest. It's humbling to be at the mercy of an animal that much bigger than yourself.

Randy got us home safely, but not without lots of uncomfortable basket-perching. Bow-legged and nearly broken, we slumped into booths for a well-deserved dinner.