NIGHT HIKE PART TWO

storm

(photo from Ian)

This post is the next installment in a series about my trip to Thailand to volunteer helping elephants.

In part one of Night Hike: Your intrepid hero (me) waded through the jungle in a heavy storm with his trusty umbrella and four comrades: Gemma, The Base Leader, Doc Mexico and Doc Ohio, two pre-med guys, Connie in her inadequate low-top sneakers, and Root, the guide and village renaissance man. When we last left our heroes, the guys were idling by a river. The women were way behind and Root had charged into the dark to look for them.

As Root ran by us and was swallowed up in the soggy murk, I looked at Doc Mexico and Doc Ohio. Normally, I would have felt self-conscious and un-manly holding my REI .38 Nerd Special umbrella in the thick of the jungle. But right now we were out in the open by the river, and these two guys were wearing little red riding hoodies that were useless against the skull-thumping rain. At a moment like this I looked like the genius and my umbrella was beautiful, sexy, a close-hugging lover shielding me from the rain.

Doc Mexico played it off but I caught Doc Ohio staring up at my umbrella.

I’m down here, buddy, I wanted to say.

Even so, we were all miserable and the rain did all the talking.

Connie finally limped into sight with Root at her side. He was holding her like he was escorting her down the wedding aisle. Connie had twisted her ankle. It wasn’t serious, but it would slow her way down and make things even more difficult for her.

Gemma and Root huddled, then Gemma broke it to announce that because we were now deep into the hike it would probably just be best if we continued. But she left it up to Connie.

Turn back! I screamed silently for Connie. This was all moving beyond discomfort for me. Fear was cutting me down into little boy-sized chunks. Pre-hike information bubbled to the surface of my memory: It was likely, we were told, that we would encounter snakes.

Jungle snakes. Twisty, squeezy snakes. Poisonous snakes.

I saw myself on my back in the mud, rain stinging my eyes, Gemma telling me to hang on, Root sloshing for help. I felt the two angry needle holes in my leg, venom shooting through me like a heat-seeking missile. There was no help to get. The village was miles away from any hospital.

I’m going to die in the jungle.

snake

(photo from Ian)

Back in reality, Connie vowed to press on. I snapped out of it. Good one, brain, I thought.

Thanks, buddy! Don’t worry, there’s more to come!

With Connie giving in to bravery we faced our first river crossing. Root led the way, sloshing to the middle of the river and pointing out a jagged path of rocks that poked their heads out of the water. Jumping from rock to rock would have been completely unnecessary if we had all just worn fishing boots like Root did, making this the first and probably the last time I would curse the fact that I didn’t own a pair of cheap baby blue rubber boots.

But our hopping and stumbling antics were going to be the number one source of Root’s entertainment for the evening—so it was all for a good reason.

Root flashed big teeth and laughed every time someone slipped or fell into the water. A slight spill would get a chuckle, an ankle-deep fall a guffaw, an ass-over-teacups half-drowning was a belly laugh winner. If you just lost your balance and managed to right yourself, Root practically booed you.

Doc Mexico was the first to fall in. The water was only deep enough to soak his boots and thus make the rest of the hike miserable for him, but Root have him an appreciative chuckle.

Root of course did all he could to offer his hand and assist us in crossing, but it was a little unnerving when you knew that if you fell into the water this would amuse him to no end.

I made it past the first river crossing without incident and was savoring my small victory when we were confronted with the river again, and another crossing.

Soon after that there was another one. And another. I was pretty sure we were just going back and forth over the same river. What was going on here?

Each river crossing was increasingly more difficult, the water higher, the path across less sure. And the drenching rain was making the river an angrier beast.

Through the myriad of crossings, everyone succumbed and stumbled into the water—Root chuckling, guffawing, cackling—except for me. So far I had cheated Root out of his laugh.

At the sixth river crossing Connie was too hobbled to make a real effort at avoiding getting wet. She just sploosh-splooshed across, the water soaking her up to her knees. Thankfully, Root never laughed at Connie.

The terrain away from the river banked steeply upward. Connie had to toddle like a baby trying to balance on the ledge of a skyscraper. Each of us guys would take a turn helping her. I put out my hand to her when it was my turn, but her snail pace was red-lining my frustration.

Doc Ohio stopped suddenly. I looked to where he was focusing his flashlight beam: there was a leech hanging off his shoe. It seemed to bend forward and back like an index finger beckoning me.

My mouth went dry and my old leechmares returned: it was like I could suddenly feel them nuzzling my foot inside my shoe. It felt like there were dozens of them, all entwined together like the tentacles of some giant octospider squatting in the deepest, blackest part of the river.

I checked my boots again—nothing—and my brain muttered to me, Really? Nothing there? I could have sworn there was something sucking the life out of you. Well, better check back in three seconds, because there will be a monster in your boot then for sure.

Remember me?

Remember me? (photo used with permission)

I had to do something. I couldn’t sit with my leech thoughts and I couldn’t help Connie any more and I couldn’t see the end of this cursed hike.

I charged up the mountain, not waiting for anyone. This mountain was steep and treacherous and would have been a trial in dry conditions. Within a few steps I was fighting my way up an escalator headed down.

I got halfway up. Far enough that going back would be a problem. Because by that point my boots were caked with mud so thick it was like I was wearing cow pies. Gravity was going to finger flick me off the mountain.

I slipped and skidded backward. The incline was so steep that I could see no way to stop. I clutched at scrub grass and baby saplings—it was like trying to hold onto cooked spaghetti. My umbrella bounced down the mountain with me, and now I felt useless and ashamed holding it again, like it was some blow-up doll handcuffed to me. It looked like me and the blow-up doll were going to get pitched into the river.

I was finally able to dig in and stop—almost all the way back down at the bottom. The rest of the group smiled weakly at me. They had no idea what happened to me—they were still slowly inching their own way up.

Gemma smiled at me. “This is fun, isn’t it?” she said, without a trace of irony.

I stared at her, mouth open. My hair was painted to my head, my sweatshirt hung off my neck like a comatose beaver, my thin cotton trousers stuck to my legs like wet newspaper. Mud spattered me like a Jackson Pollock painting—one that he pissed on and threw into his closet.

It was finally time. Time to give Gemma and everyone a piece of my mind.

That’s right, buddy, my brain said. Let them have it! A man can only take so much! Hold on a minute, I’m working on a really good string of expletives here, I’ll have them for you in a sec…

I kept my mouth shut.

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Doc Mexico shouted out something. He stood next to a tree with bark so thick it appeared to be made of cast iron. His flashlight beam lit up something on the tree.

Someone had finally found a creature on the creature-finding hike.

It was a fat green caterpillar, inching up the tree. Everyone huddled around it, spotlighting it with their flashlights as if it was the lead actor on a Broadway stage. Like many of the bugs in Thailand the caterpillar was a splashy version of its species— it was a plutonium green color and thick as a finger. It had fine rigid hairs that were like baby pine needles and its head bobbed from side to side—as if acknowledging the lights, the star walking the carpet—walking upward, up the tree.

I had no desire to join in the caterpillar adulation. I threw myself at the mountain again. After only a few feet, I stopped. I knew I couldn’t do this alone.

Just above me on the ridge, my flashlight beam caught a rat running by. There was a long list of animals we could potentially encounter on this hike: barking deer, gliding squirrel, giant frog, snake—but “rat” was not on the list. The rat’s coat was like a dirty sponge that couldn’t hold any more water and there was something surreal about the way he scampered from right to left above me: he looked like he was dashing through the rain to catch a bus.

I laughed.

I gave in.

This was fun.

Above me, Root suddenly appeared, his hand out. He had gone ahead and scouted out a way up. He was smiling. He was always smiling. I took his hand.

Root helped me up.

The rain finally stopped right as we reached a shelter that was built for the farmers. A half hour earlier we would have crawled into it like the dying. Now, with the moon grinning down and the stars forming parade columns, we had punched through world-killing fatigue all the way through to exhilaration. Using the shelter at this point would have felt as inappropriate as falling into bed at the finish line of a marathon.

SHELTER SHOT 1

Gemma and Doc Ohio at the shelter. (photo from Doc Mexico)

On the road back Gemma called to me. She had something cupped in her hands. I went to her and she smiled as she opened her hands. A giant frog bounded into my arms. He was the biggest frog I’ve ever seen—almost as big as my hand—and I had him for a fat moment, he was content to sit in the palm of my hand and I could feel the life in him, his warmth and his heartbeat and I felt a flicker of something like ease with me, like trust—before he wriggled away and hopped down the road. He was an escaped Frog Prince for sure.

After a time we were on the bumpy two-lane road that led from civilization into Huay Pakoot. The road that took me into the village for the first time almost a month ago.

Connie limped on the side of the road like a war veteran, Root steadying her. Doc Ohio and Doc Mexico trudged along oblivious to the mosquito bites that would lay them low with Dengue fever in a couple of days.

Night Hike casualty: A volunteer tries Reiki on Doc Mexico, stricken with Dengue fever.

Night Hike casualty: A volunteer tries Reiki on Doc Mexico, stricken with Dengue fever.

The jungle was still, slow to creep back after the bludgeoning of the storm. Little houses leaned out here and there as if testing the air, the porch lights biting gently into the dark and reminding me of my old neighborhood growing up.

There was a game I would play when I was on a street like this, walking alone in the dark in my hometown. The game was about fear and danger and the thrill of being a little boy. When car headlights appeared down the road, I would run off the road and hide… because who or what driving the car—they were looking for me.

They were trying to get me.

I’d hide and hope the car didn’t slow down. I’d hope it went past without spotting me.

Here on a pothole-bombed road in Thailand forty-six years later, car headlights twinkled in the distance. I had trudged ahead of my Night Hike friends, so I was alone on the road.

The headlights became eyeballs, then saucers, then searchlights…

shelter shot 3

(photo from Doc Mexico)

NIGHT HIKE PART ONE

This post is the next installment in a series about my trip to Thailand to volunteer helping elephants.

The South Pole was bitter cold and I endured snow blindness, frostbite, and scurvy. That was all positively dreamy compared to the torments of Night Hike.”

–Sir Ernest Shackleton, famous British explorer

Night Hike? You must be barmy and shite-blighted to even utter those grotty words. Bollocks and meat pies to you and all your kin.”

–Sir Edmund Hillary, famous and more-British explorer

Night Hike is the bane of all explorers everywhere. It will never be conquered. Now if you’ll excuse me, senor, I would like to get back to killing Incas.”

–Francisco Pizarro, famous Spanish explorer, Inca-killer

 

Pizarro: Liked killing Incas. Hated Night Hike.

Pizarro: Liked killing Incas. Hated Night Hike.

I have seen the true face of horror and it’s not, as I once believed, a bulging Marlon Brando rubbing his bald head and muttering “The horror, the horror” in some god-forsaken jungle grotto in Apocalypse Now. Neither is the true face of horror a bleached-white (and even more bulging) Marlon Brando wearing a muumuu and somehow getting out-acted by Val Kilmer on a god-forsaken jungle island in The Island of Dr. Moreau—though that’s getting closer.

The true face of horror is the Brando-less and Kilmer-bare jungle of Night Hike.

Night Hike is a weekly hike for the volunteers of Huay Pakoot, scheduled every Wednesday at eight p.m. after all other daily activities are finished. The reason for a “Night Hike” is that a lot of the denizens of the jungle in Thailand are nocturnal, and so it’s an opportunity to literally bump into some creature you would never normally see during the day: barking deer, gliding squirrels, different types of frogs (many of them giant), civets (a type of small native wild cat), tarantulas (Thai people will fry these up and eat them—I’ll give you a moment to take that in, it took me a moment), river otters, and snakes by the bushel.

I didn’t particularly want to run into a bushel of snakes, but one of the volunteer leaders once saw a male frog trying to mate with another male—and that I did want to see, if only to witness the look of ribbiting embarrassment on the face of a giant buggered frog.

Night Hike had been canceled three times before. Twice because of rain and the third time because our guide had just forgot about it and flaked. I only had one more shot at Night Hike before I left the village.

Don’t worry, the Base Leader Gemma assured me. Next time for sure, rain or shine.

A storm cometh. Who will survive and what will be left of them?

A storm cometh. Who will survive Night Hike and what will be left of them?

Wednesday, June 26th, 2013 started out un-innocently enough when the clouds jumped in and bound and gagged the sun, signaling that today they meant business. Ostensibly rainy season had begun on June 1st, but all that had meant so far was pissing rain contests and most of the time we volunteers had won them—the rain didn’t ever ruin an elephant hike.

I looked up at the sky, dread creeping in, and as the sky darkened so did Gemma’s personality, as she hobbled around on her peg leg and cackled like Captain Bligh about how this time we were going on the hike and nothing was going to stop us. After the Night Hike she insisted that we round the horn of Africa.

By dusk the wind was roughing us up and the thunder was full-throated and barking. I had brought with me to Thailand a rain “poncho”—a heavy blue plastic-vinyl abomination that made me look like a smurf wearing a hoodie—and it worked fine repelling rain, but it also had zero ventilation. The only time I had worn it I had stewed in my own juices, so it was out.

I went with my “normal” hiking garb instead: long pants, sweatshirt over a T-shirt, a bottle of water, a flashlight, and my secret weapon, which might just save the day for me later…

The hike would be led by Root, the village renaissance man. This guy has done everything: he is a farmer, sometime-mahout, Muay Thai martial arts teacher, hunter, soccer player, builder, and tattoo artist. He drinks like a sailor, smokes like a tire fire, and he can take a beating like a crash test dummy—all the pounding from Muay Thai practice has deadened the nerve endings in his skin. He also has time to raise a family, party with the volunteers, and I’m pretty sure he writes a column for Salon.

Besides Gemma and me, the Night Hike party consisted of two guys who were pre-med students, one from Ohio, the other from Mexico, and Connie, who like me was leery of the impending storm. She stalled about whether she would go or not until the very last minute. Gemma worked on Connie, figuring her for the weak link… but I wasn’t so sure. If Connie had backed out, I might have jumped on the scaredy-cat bandwagon.

She didn’t.

On our first step away from the safety of Base Hut a lightning strike lit up the jungle and I looked around at everyone like, “Helloooo? Did anyone notice that old classic harbinger of doom, ‘the lightning strike just as we are setting out’?”

Maybe if I had boomed out as we were leaving, “Well, at least we’ll all make it back alive and absolutely not die in a hideous fashion!”—and then the lightning struck—maybe then they would have gasped and stopped in their tracks and called the whole thing off, like I wanted them to.

But I didn’t say that as we left. I said, “Wait up, I have to take a whiz first.”

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Dusk in Thailand often fans itself out like peacock feathers, a regal and rich blue, but tonight it was plucked and smothered by the heavy black of the coming storm. Halfway down the road to Root’s house it began drizzling. I risked tipping my hand early and pulled out the secret weapon from my pack.

It was an umbrella. Sleek and blue and loaded, about six deadly inches of compact canvas and steel from REI. I flicked the button and it parachuted open into its glorious protective canopy.

Everyone stopped. Gemma opened her mouth to say something but I guess thought better of it.

As we approached Root’s house it looked dark and deserted. I was hoping he was out composing a symphony and we could all go home. But after a few minutes he emerged wearing what else but a poncho—it was much thinner than my asbestos suit version—and some old rubber fisherman’s boots. I compared his boots to mine—sturdy and expensive hiking boots—and it looked for sure that I had the edge, and then I remembered that you never ever think you have an “edge” on someone who lives in the village, particularly Root, who also brought along a pad of paper to work on his Broadway play while we were on the hike.

Root is on the right. (photo from Ian)

Root is on the right. (photo from Ian)

This was Connie’s last chance to back out. When I say the last chance for her I mean her and me, since I was the undercover chicken here—if she bowed out I was going to bow much lower and out-er.

By this time the rain had picked up and it was sledgehammering down on us. I peered out from underneath my carpet-bombed umbrella and it was clear that the storm was moving in for an extended stay. This was not dampening Gemma’s enthusiasm and “Doc Mexico” also seemed raring to go. “Doc Ohio” seemed to have some reticence but not enough to say anything.

There was no turning back once Connie stepped out, ready to go. She was wearing a pair of low top sneakers, stylish but I wondered if they would cut it. Root—who spoke only a little broken English—cackled at all of us and I noted that this was yet another harbinger of doom—the cackling guide.

Once again, no one else picked up on this. The fools.

For the first part of the hike we skirted the village, shining our flashlights in the trees and the bushes. Besides walking, shining flashlights in the trees was the main activity of Night Hike—in order to catch the reflected “eye shine” of any animals that might be sitting in the trees, laughing down at the idiots tramping around in the rain.

Ten minutes in and the dirt roads of the village were already drowning. The rain had moved in for good, kicked grandma out and stolen her bed. As we moved out of the village, I looked over my shoulder at the lights now winking out in the distance, and wondered if this would be my last forlorn glimpse of hope and of a dry pair of pants. We clomped off the road and into a clearing dotted with red and orange tents.

A few bald heads poked out of the tent flaps. Apparently we had stumbled upon an encampment of Buddhist monks, all huddling in their little four-man tents, trying to stay dry. Gemma exchanged some words of greeting with them, and as we were edging by the camp I tripped on a tent pole. My heart stopped as I saw the tent shake and shudder and I heard a chorus of monks gasping “Ohhhhhh” as their canvas roof started to cave in on them.

Great, I thought. What kind of kharma is kicking over a tent on four old monks going to get me? My next life I would probably be reincarnated as a coal miner of the Northeast, and some clumsy Pennsylvanian monk would come wandering by and trip over some load-bearing timber, and as the cave roof came down on me I’d think, Well yeah, this kind of sucks—but at least I’m not dying because some idiot American kicked over my tent—that would be really embarrassing.

Thankfully, the tent buckled but didn’t cave in on the monks. I spluttered my apologies and did a lot of bowing, and after the monks all cursed me and my family for the next ten generations, we moved on.

Last stop before the jungle swallowed us up we had to scale a gate made of thin tree trunks, and at this point we should’ve all gotten a whiff of doom approaching—with or without Root’s cackle. The ground around the gate was a swamp and it was increasingly difficult to keep our footing and just stay upright—and this was on level ground with most of us wearing hiking boots that had some teeth.

Connie was wearing sneakers. In this weather it was like wearing roller skates.

Clambering over the shoulder-high gate was slippery and the guys managed to get over with bruised legs and knees. Somehow Connie skated over the blockade. It was slow and treacherous and her sneakers were no help at all.

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As we plunged into the jungle Root cackled again. I asked Gemma what was with the cackling and she said, “I don’t think he’s ever seen anybody use an umbrella in the jungle before.”

Oh yeah—that. Well, I knew it was silly, but so far it was actually pretty effective. At first I had folded up the umbrella, with the thought that the “jungle canopy” would protect me, but after ten umbrella-less minutes with the rain pummeling me and my soaked through-and-through sweatshirt begging for mercy, I once again relied on my umbrella friend to get me through this nightmare.

I considered doubling down on my ridiculousness and pulling out a pipe and puffing on it with my free hand, but I thought better of it. Only because I needed that hand to twirl my mustache.

The rain was relentless as Doc Mexico and Doc Ohio and I skidded down to the edge of the river—our first river crossing. Normally this muddy little stripe of water would be nothing but a dreaming-big creek, but the storm had swollen its size to a river and it looked eager to pull us in.

Across the river Root lit up a cigarette and he looked down and from side to side, his head flashlight beam scouting out a route for us lesser beings to ford across the river. At this point because of her worthless sneakers, Connie had to pick her way carefully. She was trailing us significantly and Gemma had slowed to her pace to help her.

Both of them had fallen behind. They were nowhere in sight.

The river chattered and the jungle’s breath was mossy and heavy. So far we had picked up nothing in our flashlight beams. No animals, anyway. We did pick up several different species of rain, though. Fat rain, thin rain, medium rain… rivulets and sheets and rivers of rain. Deepening, depressing, demoralizing rain. Wet rain.

Minutes ticked away, all of us men staring ahead grimly and not speaking, and still there was no sign of the women.

The skies felt like they had been slashed open and gutted. The downpour was furious, and I felt ashamed that I had not stayed back with the women.

As if reading my thoughts, Root snuffed the cigarette, sloshed through the water, and disappeared into the dark.

BREAKFAST WITH THE CATS

Bandit on the left, Hooper on the right.

Bandit on the left, Hooper on the right.

Recently I found this video that someone sent me a while ago (re-posted below), and it reminded me of my first two cats, Bandit and Hooper, and how they would wake me in the morning.

I adopted both cats in the days when I was drinking a lot. Bandit was part of a litter of black kittens that was thrown into a dumpster. Luckily the dumpster was behind an animal grooming business, so the kittens’ mewling complaints were heard by the right people. Bandit was my first cat.

Hooper I got at a pet store adoption event, but it took two tries. The first try he purred, nuzzled, and licked me when I petted him—and I chose a beautiful gray kitten with blue eyes over him. The gray kitten didn’t give me anything, no affection, he hardly even acknowledged that I existed on the ride home. He was like a beautiful painting of a kitten. But men are like cats in that I went for the shiny sparkly one over the one that was the best for me.

When I got home there was a message on my answering machine—this was in the 90’s—informing me that I had inadvertently kidnapped the gray kitten. He was supposed to be at the pet store for a grooming, and he got mixed up with the adoption cats. I probably could have ransomed him back, he was that beautiful.

When I returned the gray stunner, Hooper jumped into my arms—to make sure I got the message this time.

When I brought Hooper home to meet Bandit, it was the easiest cat introduction I’ve ever had in my life (and I’ve gone through a few by now). They both liked each other almost immediately. They made a good team.

Based on some information I had, it was likely that Bandit was part of a Hispanic family—until they decided to throw him out. Hooper’s origins were a complete mystery, though he had an odd bent tail that I thought might point to a wild and dangerous time out on the streets.

Of the two of them, Bandit was slightly dominant, but he was laid back about it—the cool, behind-the-scenes leader.

I was an erratic father to the two of them because of the drinking. I had a lot of love to give, but it was stuffed under twenty layers of armor. I was a knight stumbling blindly along, always about to teeter over… and land on a yowling cat.

I was terrible about feeding them breakfast on time, especially on the weekends. My hangovers were like bombed-out buildings, and on some weekends you couldn’t dig me out of the rubble before two o’clock.

Feeding time for the cats was at eight in the morning.

I suspect after the first dozen or so times of me feeding them so starvingly late, they figured something had to be done. Here’s how I imagine it might have went down, with my Mexican-American black cat, Bandit, and my streetwise one, Hooper:

BANDIT: Hooper, my compadre. look at eem. He’s not moving.

HOOPER: Yeah, no shit. He drinks like a fish. Stinks like one, too.

BANDIT: Ohh, compadre… don’t say fish. Please, my friend…

HOOPER: Oh, give me a break. I’m fucking famished too. You know, I’ve been thinking… maybe it’s time to do some serious pooping outside the litter box. Send him a message.

BANDIT: Um… do you mean “thinking”? Thinking outside the box?

HOOPER: No, I mean Cheesing the Mousetrap. Down-Periscoping the Submarine. Warming the Porcelain Globe.

Bandit sits on his haunches, blinking at Hooper.

HOOPER: Trumpeting an Elephant? Chumming the Chocolate Water? Dropping the Ring into Mount Doom?

Bandit blinks…

BANDIT: Ohhhh—pooping. You mean literally pooping.

HOOPER: Well shit, yeah. I mean, what the hell, did you go to cat finishing school or something? I’m from the street, my friend. Look at this tail. Of course I’m literal. I could literally eat a fucking dead horse right now.

BANDIT: Yes compadre, me also… but I don’t think Dropping a Doom Ring would do anything except get us sent to the vet…

HOOPER: Hmm, you’re right about that. Don’t you love how he throws a treat into that cat carrier prison when he tries to get us to the vet? Like that’s gonna fool us. Oh yeah—no thanks, dude. I ain’t going to jail for some Fred Flinstone-looking vitamin shit treat. Seriously, who does he think he’s dealing with?

BANDIT: Yes, yes, compadre… But what we need is a plan… okay… here’s what we’re going to do…

Bandit raises a paw to cover his mouth as he leans in to whisper in Hooper’s ear… Hooper’s eyes widen as he listens to the details…

HOOPER: Yeah… uh-huh… okay… meow, that’s interesting…

Plotting.

Plotting.

And after that meeting, when I was in those dozes that were like drowning in my car at the bottom of the Chappaquiddick River, I would feel this wetness on my ear, like the kiss of an angel…

actually, it would be the wet nose of my cat Hooper, as he tried to gently nudge me awake.

I’d swipe at him—not to hit him or anything, but to force him off the bed—and he would jump down.

Bandit would watch from a high place, like a window jamb or the top of a book shelf. He was the general on the mountain top, while Hooper would launch sorties into the lumpy fortress of my hangover. I imagined Hooper was disgruntled and resentful, assigned the dirty work of stirring me from the deep caverns of my boozy sleep… while Bandit would sit up there and egg him on: “You’re doing great, compadre, doing great… just one more time… don’t worry, my friend, I have your back…”

Generally, it would take five to ten tries. Hooper would wet nose-stamp my skin, paw my scalp, lick his lips in my ear, or—my favorite—my eyes would flutter open to witness the Cat Stare, that peeling metal look that cats share with convicts.

If that didn’t work, then Bandit would basically yank the “fire alarm”: he’d jump up on me and march back and forth over my body crying and yowling, the cat version of cursing a blue streak: “What the fucking-fuck?! Seriously, this shit is old! We’re so hungry we’re crapping mouse toys! My food bowl just laughed at me! Get up, you bastard! I mean, god damn it, what the hell does a cat have to do?”

I still say we should start pooping everywhere,” Hooper would add. “Maybe poop on his head.”

Bandit takes a breath before unleashing another string of obscenities at me.

Bandit takes a breath before unleashing another string of obscenities at me.

Bandit cursed at me like this whenever it took me really, really long to feed him and also when I played AC/DC on the stereo. Anything by them. The first chords would rumble through the speakers and he’d be in my lap, swearing up and down at me. “This godforsaken head-bashing shit again?! Can you please lighten up? I’d give my left paw for some Julio Iglesias. Seriously—turn that shit off!”—And I would.

One night the cat alert duo was pressed into duty in the middle of the night. I stumbled beer-soaked and blind into the apartment at three in the morning and had a sudden urge for a hard-boiled egg. I threw the egg into a saucepan with a few inches of water, blasted the gas flame…

and passed out.

I dreamed of Redwood trees dancing on hardwood floors… John Wayne Gacy clowns tunneling underneath in the crawlspaces… fires in the middle of forests eating witches… smoke from the fires downing birds and bricking up my lungs…

and cats screaming in my ear.

For real.

I woke up with the apartment filled with smoke. I stumbled into the kitchen. The water in the saucepan had long since burned away. The saucepan—it was metal—had scorched black through and through and cracked open. There was a deep greasy bomb blast scar on the ceiling. The egg had undergone a flash-rotting in the intense heat—it looked like the charred fetus of some hell-bound rodent.

And the fire alarm was shouting the neighborhood awake—but I had slept through that.

It was the cats that woke me up.

2 of them on bed

After that I didn’t swipe at Hooper any more when he tried to nudge me awake. I still was late feeding them a lot of times though.

It would go like this: After a few paw bats, nose kisses, and Cat Stares, Hooper would hang it up, slinking off the bed, and Bandit would descend from his perch to take over. At the instant of the tag-team paw slap—that’s when I would get my ass moving.

Now Bandit and Hooper are gone, and with them the best alarm clock I’ve ever had.

The cats I have now don’t wake me up like this. They don’t need to. I’ve stopped drinking. I’m punctual at their feeding times.

BANDIT: Yes, that’s because of us, dumbass. We taught you, compadre.

HOOPER: Damned straight. And we also noticed that you don’t try to pull that stupid throw-the-treat-into-the-carrier crap any more, either.

BANDIT: A-men.

Direct link to the video on the creator’s website is here. Quality is better I think.

ATTACK OF THE GIANT ZOMBIE LEECHES

attack_of_giant_leeches_lc_01I’m a big fan of rain. Rain, you’re awesome and I would totally hound you for an autograph, write you heart-bursting poetry, take you home to meet the parents if only you would look at me and see how true and deep I am, not like all the others.

I melt with you, rain.

I melt with you, rain.

I love you, rain, in the happy sun shower times. I love you even when you are angry and all hurricane-y. I even think it’s cute when you piss down on everyone, like how you do to the English all the time.

And then dear rain, in Thailand, you turn on me. You bring leeches with you.

Rain in Huay Pakoot.  How could you, rain?

Rain in Huay Pakoot. How could you, rain?

In my second week in Huay Pakoot, the rainy season finally kicks in. Clouds move into the village and start pushing people around. It begins to rain several times during the day. The storms can be as short as ten minutes. Overnight, heavier rains give the jungle a good thrashing.

That means that it’s party time for the leeches.

Leech.  The stuff of nightmares.

Okay, maybe not ‘giant’. But look at it. It’s horrifying.

Bugs I can learn to deal with, leeches just don’t have any good qualities. They’re sticky, slimy, and stubborn. And they turn me off of Italian food. The reason is because they look like cooked spaghetti—sickly gray-black cooked spaghetti that has come to life and wriggled out from the bottom of a trash heap.

Worst of all, their primary trait is a particularly nasty one: blood-sucking. Leeches are the closest real creatures that the jungle has to zombies. Like zombies, they glom on to you as they start sucking out your life force—only they suck out blood instead of brains.

Zombie eating brains.

Zombie eating brains.

While zombies are cool in books and movies, let’s face it, a real-life zombie attack would kind of suck. Leeches in the jungle are a real-life zombie attack. They slither out of the dead leaves and the mud, moaning as they swarm your feet and ankles.

Okay, maybe not moaning, but seriously, they grope for you… I have watched their little wormy torsos feeling for me, twitching and stabbing at the air for just a little piece of me to grab onto.

A groping leech.

A groping leech.

Our first hike with the leeches we have to stop every five or ten minutes, because someone has a leech squirming on them.

Contrary to popular belief, their favorite hangout isn’t water, except for the leech that rose up and took Chuck Norris down in Braddock: Missing in Action 5, The Leechening. They are most commonly creeping around in fresh mud or dead, moldy leaves.

Chuck.

Chuck.

Even leeches can't stop Chuck.  They can only hope to contain him.

Even leeches can’t stop Chuck. They can only hope to contain him.

Their first move is usually to hug the back of your shoe. That’s why on a hike when there are leeches prowling around, everyone looks like they’re checking their feet every minute or so to see if they’ve stepped in dog shit.

From the back of the shoe, leeches can worm in anywhere. Some like to slither into your shoe and go spelunking in there. Others burrow into your ankle—at least you can usually spot them there at some point.

One volunteer comes well-prepared for the leeches: good hiking boots protected by gaiters, which are worn over the lower leg and ankle. They’re usually meant to keep snow out of your boots, but he uses them to keep out the leeches. I think it’s a brilliant plan.

An hour into the hike he stops, unfastens the gaiters and begins to peel them away: three leeches in there. They writhe spastically as their secret hiding place is exposed. I scream. This guy is lost to the zombie leeches. I pull out my gun, before he turns into one of them.

–Okay, I’m getting carried away. But you get the idea what these creatures do to me.

They can be sprayed off with a DEET chemical repellent, kind of like using a flamethrower to remove a mole. This method gives leech and victim instant cancer, but at least the leech curls up and drops off.

The mahouts make a game of leech control, flicking them off with a machete, toying with them for minute like a cat with a mouse, and then severing the little bastards in half.

I laugh and laugh. I guess I’ve found my limit to loving all creatures.

On this first hike with leeches they get all of my fellow hikers. They drop, one by one. Somehow I escape. I slam the door of the Outhouse-Plus, sweaty, tired, and leech-free, with the music on the soundtrack crashing into silence. I am safe.

Now I can celebrate my leeching near-miss by dumping polar ice cap-cold water over my head for a ‘shower’.

I start peeling off my clothes. I notice that my khaki pants have flecks of red in them.

Uh oh. I tug the pants completely off. The ‘flecks’ are actually large red blotches. I rip off the rest of my clothes like I’m on fire.

There he is.

A leech is wrapped snugly around a section of my upper thigh, sucking face on my leg. He is glistening and plump, and has grown from a cute little spaghetti into a strapping young penne pasta… because now he’s full of my blood.

I pause for precious blood-siphoning seconds, not because I’m unsure of what to do, but because I am terrified of doing it: touching him. I actually have to touch this slimy baby alien monster if I want to rip him off.

I know—he’s already touching me, because he’s eating my leg for lunch—but at least he’s not moving much. If I try to peel him off, I’m sure he’s going to wriggle around and… here’s where my brain goes: He’ll jump into my mouth. Ahhhhhh!… okay.

I have to do it.

I grab hold of him.

Sure enough, he wriggles and hugs me even tighter. I pry, scrape, fumble, juggle, and flick the fat little bastard from my leg to my finger to my shirt hanging on the wall, back to my finger—before I finally jettison him out of an opening in the Outhouse-Plus.

I take a breath, feeling very Sigourney Weaverish. She kicked an alien off a space ship, I bounced a leech out of an outhouse.

I run my hands all over my body—and I mean all over, dreading the feel of another slimy bloodsucker. When I find no more leeches… I check my body again. Five more times.

A leech eating me.

A leech eating a person.

After this trauma, I feel heavy dread every time it rains. Although to my credit, I never pass on a hike when it’s raining, so I am constantly coming face to face with my bogeyleeches.

I Agent Orange my hiking shoes with DEET before each hike, acquiring instant cancer.–It’s okay, once I get back to L.A. a shot of wheat grass juice will knock that right out.

I wear shorts so I can see the leeches sneaking up my leg. I stop often to carefully examine my boots (dog shit check). And I develop a sixth sense for detecting leeches. I can spot them from yards away and many of them I can avoid, even if it means taking huge circling detours.

Days later I am on another hike, helping a girl perform a health check on an elephant. She is checking off something on a clipboard. Fwop. A leech plops onto the clipboard, practically dotting an I.

She freezes. Looks up.

Shivers run down my spine. Not much I can do when they’re falling out of the sky.

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BUGS!

This is a bug of Thailand.  He's very cuddly.

This is a bug of Thailand. He’s very cuddly.

The bugs are everywhere. They include flying ants, moths, mosquitoes, flies, bees, beetles, centipedes, millipedes, ants, and on and on. Butterflies are easy to get along with, obviously, and thankfully they are common as well. The worst are the flying ants. They come out in swarms at night after a rain, and their huge papery wings have a creepy rustle as they whap into the walls, lights, the mosquito net, and my face. But if I’m going to get along here in Thailand, I just have to let go of my ick factor and accept them as my neighbors. Once I do this, things get a lot easier.

Flying ant.  Each morning I would find my bedroom floor littered with their wings.  I crafted a lovely papyrus stationery out of them.

Flying ant. Each morning I would find my bedroom floor littered with their wings. I crafted a lovely papyrus stationery out of them.

Mosquito net surrounding my bed.  Note the gecko poop on the top.

Mosquito net surrounding my bed. Note the gecko poop on the top. It’s a good thing.

Until I meet the beetle that hisses at me when I try to flick him off my sweatshirt. I flick again, he spits at me and digs his legs defiantly into my shoulder. I wriggle out of the sweatshirt and run away. It’s his now. There’s a USC logo on it, so maybe the other beetles think he went to college. It’s possible–with that hissing he practically talks.

View of the bug entrance to my bedroom.  I would find flying ant wings on the floor each morning.  I made a lovely papyrus stationery out of them.

View of the bug entrance to my bedroom. If I turned the light on, they had a neon sign guiding them, and they could invite all their friends.

In Los Angeles’ more temperate climate, applying the ‘live and let live’ philosophy with bugs is quite a bit easier. A few wayward ants in my office back in Los Angeles and I can rush to the rescue with my sheet of paper, fast-walking the little critters to the other side of the building and the exit outside.

Another bug of Thailand.  Adorable.

Another bug of Thailand. Adorable.

But in Thailand, there are red ants that rather enjoy gnawing on your flesh, so when they do get on you and get busy, it’s hard to resist screaming, “Die, fucker!” as you slap your body like you’re putting out a fire, trying to squash the little bastards.

And there’s the bees. In my experience, if you meet one bee in Thailand it won’t sting you but it won’t leave you alone… ever. You can hike three miles and he’ll still be circling your eardrum, taking off and alighting on your arm. Might as well offer him some lunch, he’s not going anywhere for a while. If you meet more than one—well, I guess they don’t want to look like pussies in front of their friends. So they sting the shit out of you.

After careful observation, and getting zapped myself, I learn that the bees have a thing for rotting logs that are alongside or partially submerged in rivers or streams.

eye butterfly 1

Butterfly. There are many different species in Thailand, and they’re everywhere. They are good bug role models.

During one hike we are walking along a river and I am behind a girl who is heavily fatigued. Her pack hangs low to the ground, unbalanced, and her steps are leaden and clumsy. I spot a fat, moldy log just up ahead of her, half in, half out of the water—potentially a creepy little haunted bee house.

Before I can say anything, this girl tries to scale the log, swinging her leg on top of it, and I hear a loud fwump. The girl’s entire leg sinks into the rotted log, the moldy wood swallowing her up to her waist. I offer my hand to help her out, breaking out in a fresh sweat, as I imagine a cloud of stirred up bees glomming onto her leg, stingers angrily tattooing her flesh.

Nothing happens. I’m thinking, Get her!

–No, not really. I am actually pleasantly surprised that there appears to be no one home.

Slowly she extricates herself from the log. The moldy wood reluctantly gives up her leg with a heavy sucking sound, pieces of rot cracking and falling away.

I look up to see the mahout wildly gesticulating at us.

Come on!” he’s panting, in heavily accented English. “Hurry!”

I’ve watched this scene many times. One or two times I helped to make a scene like this, since I used to be a movie trailer editor. I start running forward—we are all running forward—only I can’t help but stop to look back over my shoulder.

More rotting wood is splintering from the log, and the sizable amount of wood that is falling away–as well as the sizable amount of movie scenes stored in my head–suggest to me that this is a horror way more terrifying than mere bees. That some…thing… has been disturbed… awoken… and it is bursting out of the rotting log… 

My mouth opens.   I’m staring.  My fellow hikers run by me.  I’m that idiot in those horror movies who freezes and is the first to go, staring stupidly up at the huge thing as it springs and devours me.  I’m forgotten a half hour into the movie. 

Alien, I’m thinking.

Nope. Bees.

They stung three people, including the mahout. I was left alone this time. The girl who had served up half her torso for the bees to tenderize when she fell through their roof—she also walked away unscathed.

Tracks photographed near the river.  Frog... or baby alien?

Tracks photographed near the river. Frog… or baby alien?

THAILAND ELEPHANTS WEEK ONE, PART TWO: BLOW-DRIED CHICKEN

In week one I eat my first meal prepared by the matriarch of my host family, Apah. She is told that I am a vegetarian. No eggs, either. She laughs, and after a translation, I am told she has said in her language: “Then what do you eat?” Throughout my stay she smiles, laughs, and tries to joke with me. Despite the language barrier, I understand her warnings about the low ceilings everywhere in her house.

At six o’clock every day I arrive for dinner, and every day I bonk my head on the low ceiling. Apah rolls out a rug onto a sort of porch area of her house. It begins to sink in that there is no furniture anywhere. People in the village sit on the floor to eat, relax, hang out. There is a lot of squatting. Tigers used to prowl the jungle here fifty years ago. After they were hunted into extinction, it looks like everyone went after the chairs.

My host family's house

My host family’s house

Apah and her daughter, Tee Ta Poh.

Apah and her daughter, Tee Da Poh.

I love Apah’s cooking, and from this vegetarian’s perspective the key to the food is not necessarily what it is, but how it’s flavored and spiced. Some of my favorite dishes are spiced potatoes, spiced pea puree, spiced peppers (perhaps you’re seeing a theme here), and sometimes Apah makes a cold paste out of red chilies that goes well with anything. Occasionally there is fruit, usually mango, pineapple, or watermelon, which is delectable and balances the other dishes well.

I have a striking view of surrounding mountains from where I eat. During this first week, a staff member eats with me and my family. After that I will be on my own, so I can either try to learn some of the language, or go the other way and just get down some really cool blank stares and grinning idiot poses.

The staff member knows a lot of Packinyah, which is the native language spoken by the Karen people that live here. As the staff member and my host family converse in fits and starts, I write down as many words as I can and practice pronouncing them. Packinyah is not a written language, so I write down the words phonetically. It’s hard to figure out grammar rules. A lot of it sounds like some weird version of French, like if Pepe Lepew had invented his own language.

One phrase I manage to get down is ‘Da bleu!’, which is a good all-purpose phrase, since it means hello, goodbye, and thank you. One little wrinkle is if you slightly mispronounce it, if you say ‘Ta bleu!’, you are calling the other person crazy. After a few days I’m da bleuing all over the place.

My view while eating dinner

My view while eating dinner

Apah packs my lunch for the day hikes in a pink Minnie Mouse plastic container. Breaking out a Disney lunch box in the jungle is a bit off (another British expression, I can’t stop myself), like if I clopped into a Disney board meeting with hiking boots and a backpack. (That might be my next trip.) All the other volunteers are jealous of my Minnie Mouse container, and they should be, with their plain no-mouse-eared food containers. I am very proud of it, beaming as I unscrew Minnie’s head. Lunch is eaten cold, either out in the jungle on the hike or at base hut if the hike is shorter. The food is good no matter what, even if you imagine it’s Minnie’s little mouse brains, which I would never do.

Minnie pre-lobotomy

Minnie pre-lobotomy

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And post-lobotomy

The bathroom facilities are in a separate building from my host’s house, in what is for all practical purposes an outhouse with ‘shower’ facilities. So, Outhouse-Plus. Here I am introduced to the squat toilet. This is a happier meeting than I expected–I thought I would be actually crapping down a hole. It is at least a toilet, made of porcelain, and even imprinted with the manufacturer’s name. ‘Otto’ is the manufacturer. Strangely, in the city, the toilets are imprinted with ‘Cotto’. The brothers Otto and Cotto, twin toilet titans of Southeast Asia. The toilet is set into the floor and the squatting takes some getting used to. I consider it a victory that I somehow escape crapping on myself.

The ‘shower’ is a big barrel of ice cold water in the corner across from the squat toilet. A little plastic pot is used to scoop up the water and pour it over myself. I start the week ‘showering’ (you can substitute ‘dump arctic water over my head’ if you like) once in the morning, and once after the hike.

Outhouse-Plus

Outhouse-Plus

By the end of the week I shower only after the hike. Morning showers are bracing but pointless, since I am clean for all of thirty minutes before the hike begins. They do get my attention. I stifle a shout as the poured ice water bashes me like a baseball bat made of ice. This feels great after a hike—or at least less like electroshock therapy–but only if I walk directly from the jungle into the shower without breaking stride. If my body temperature cools down even a little while I’m hunting down soap, towel, fresh clothes, etc.–then I will suffer an ice cold water beating once again.

After all the intense hiking, I am a little concerned about my protein intake. Since all the chickens are free range around here—and I’m serious, they’re walking around everywhere, in and outdoors, pecking, tending to their chicks, bumming cigarettes—I ask the staff to tell Apah that eggs are okay. After I lift the egg embargo my weekly egg intake goes from zero to a metric shit-ton. I get served rice and eggs, vegetables and eggs, egg omelets, fried eggs, hard and soft boiled eggs, eggs with a side of eggs.

Clockwise: rice, egg omelet, soup with egg, spiced pea puree

Clockwise: rice, egg omelet, soup with egg, spiced pea puree

There are a lot of other animals around here. All the village families seem to have chickens and pigs. Some families also have buffaloes, which look and behave roughly like cows. And there are stray dogs and cats everywhere. Or, sort of stray—it’s unclear. Many of them are fed to a degree and hang around certain houses, but when I stop to pet a dog or cat, invariably the animal’s initial reaction is to go stiff, as if unsure of what to expect from my contact. It’s clear that they don’t get much affection, especially the cats. The dogs are all of similar breed and on the small side. The cats are shockingly small, about a third the size of one of my cats. The pigs are confined in tiny cages or tied to stakes and are barely allowed to move.

Buffaloes often just lounge under the houses

Buffaloes often just lounge under the houses

Piglets at least have some freedom

Piglets at least have some freedom

I have to bite my tongue on this stuff, obviously I can’t be Mr. Animal Crusader around here. On the plus side, I am told that the people in the village don’t eat their pigs (they get pork elsewhere). I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I like to think it is.

There’s one famous chicken in the village. His feathers have grown out in a strange, almost afro-like fashion. He is dubbed ‘Blow-Dried Chicken’. When I first encounter him, he gives me a suspicious, sidelong stare and a wide berth, like a movie star avoiding the paparazzi.

Da bleu!” I bellow cheerfully at Blow-Dried Chicken, testing out my Packinyah on every soul I meet.

He waddles away, clucking imperiously at me.

Blow-dried chicken ducking the media

Blow-Dried Chicken ducking the media

Blow-dried chicken escapes after pecking attack on paparazzi

Blow-Dried Chicken escapes after pecking attack on paparazzi

LAND OF A THOUSAND SMILES

I have returned from my trip to Thailand with the elephants. A lot has happened and there was a lot to absorb. I’ll be blogging about my week to week experiences in Thailand in the days to come.

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THAILAND ELEPHANTS WEEK ONE, PART ONE

I realize that I am part of something special the Wednesday of my first week in Thailand. A heavy tropical storm has just struck, shooting bullets out of the sky, and I am kneeling on the floor, helping to chop lettuce for a girl cooking dinner for me and three other ‘gollas’, or foreigners. I look out the window to see a baby elephant munching on sugar cane leaves and scratching himself. He lifts one hind leg to scratch the other, almost human-like, snorting in the cool air, his muddy gray skin darkening to a dark chocolate brown in the downpour.

It hits me. I’m eating dinner with an elephant in the backyard.

Five days earlier:

I arrive in Chiang Mai, Thailand, after 22 hours on a plane. I check into the hotel and I walk around in a daze. Part of it is jet lag, part of it is culture shock, part of it is I see no one who looks like me in the first hours at the hotel. The white people are all twenty-plus years younger. High school and college kids mostly, an endless gabbing, hard-bodied, partying parade of them. At breakfast I see a guy in his mid-thirties. We share the look of the damned. The old and the damned.

I conquer my fear of eating at a restaurant where no English is spoken nor found on the menu. The owner and I grunt, smile, and gesture at each other until somehow there’s some pad thai in front of me, and it’s delicious.

I meet other people in the volunteer program, run by GVI, Global Vision International. We’re all here to help elephants. I have signed on for a month with these strangers. I’ll be sharing meals, hiking with them, hanging out with them. They are from New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, Denmark, Australia, Switzerland, and there’s a person from California, like me. The British contingent outnumbers all other nationalities, probably because GVI is based in the United Kingdom.

I arrive at Huay Pakoot, a tiny village in the mountains of northwest Thailand. It’s 3300 feet up, and there’s no flat land anywhere. This would be a good retirement community for mountain climbers. On my casual walks around, casually gasping for breath and casually waiting to hear the snap of a leg tendon, I get lost four times. I get lost looking for my family’s house, finding Base Hut (where the volunteers hang out), looking for the road that climbs up to the school. I get lost after a hike, which means I have another hike after the hike.

Huay Pakoot

Huay Pakoot

The blessing ceremony

The blessing ceremony

There is a dinner welcoming ceremony, where a few members of the village come to base hut to welcome new people and give blessings. The ceremony involves blessing a bowl of rice and going around a circle of us volunteers, tying strings around our wrists as a symbol of blessing and protection. I stare admiringly at the little twine ball around my wrist like it’s a Rolex. I do feel blessed and honored to be here. And I’m excited by string. My cats would be so pleased.

Base Hut

Base Hut

I meet my host family and they show me to my room. It has a thin not-quite-a-mattress on a floor, and a sleeping bag for a blanket. The key feature is the mosquito net surrounding the mattress and blanket. There are no such things as screens on the windows, so the mosquito net is my only sanctuary from the myriad of insects that swarm my room every night. Geckos prowl the walls and ceiling, announcing themselves with one of two strange calls. They sound either like an overstimulated squirrel or a frog that has taken voice lessons. They snap up some of the bugs but there are just too many of them.

By the end of the first week, with all the Brits around, I am helpless against the tendency to start spouting British expressions. I say things I would be shot for in America, like ‘sort out’, ‘have a go’, and ‘Hey gov, your googlies are well tarrowed in the henpot’. That last one I made up, but hearing the Brits speak I feel like they just make up words and expressions anyway.

After a few hikes, which I handle okay, and better than many of the younger people, the age gap fear fades. Does this mean that I’m okay to hang with younger people only if I can hike mountains?

Hiking in the clouds

Hiking in the clouds

Still, I am uneasy around the new volunteers and terrified of the veterans, some of whom are here for six month marathons. I am eager to score even minor social points with my fellows, so I accept an offering of some sticky toffee and chocolate candy that I have never heard of. Most likely it’s British. Here’s how that goes, roughly: “Hey Mike, want a barmy whompun-pat*?”

(*Not the name, but it could be. I’m telling you, they make this shit up.)

Does an elephant shit in the woods?” I quip smartly, and with a self-satisfied flourish, pop the unknown candy into my mouth. In my eagerness to impress, somehow I’ve forgotten that my teeth, through a combination of genetics and bad living in my twenties, have had to be systematically repaired and replaced over the last two decades, so that now they are like rows of pearly white condominium facades. They look pretty good, but one touch and everything collapses in a dusty cloud of porcelain veneer. The candy feels like a small rock liberally coated with Krazy Glue, and on chew number two I spit out the candy, and one of my dental crowns with it.

So I have to go to the dentist. The procedure should be simple. The crown is still intact, it just needs to be cemented back into place. Simple maybe, but this is the point I realize just where we are and how hard it is to accomplish certain things. There is a dentist in a little town about an hour’s drive away. The villagers are asked their opinion of this dentist.

Some of these villagers, incidentally, chew betel nut. Chewing betel nut looks roughly like chewing tobacco while wearing lipstick as your gums bleed. The locals also smoke thin, foul-smelling cigars, and have more than a few early check-outs from the Hotel Pearly White. They give this guy a thumbs-down. He must be a medieval torturer.

Next plan is another town where there is a small hospital. There is also a dental clinic there. Apparently for this dentist the whole dental gig is just for fun though, since the clinic is open only one day a week. Maybe.

So eventually I am shipped back to Chiang Mai. The clinic there caters to western ex-pats, in fact all the people I see in the waiting room are white. After a short wait I am called in and the procedure is simple, it takes about ten minutes. Total bill: $13.20. My dentist in L.A. would charge me thirteen bucks just for reading a magazine in his waiting room.

The ride back to the village is my first ride in a Sung Tao, probably the most common mode of transport in Thailand. A Sung Tao is a truck enclosed on the top and sides, with the back open. Benches line the two side walls, and there are railings attached to the ceiling. The railings are extremely effective in pretending that I have a sense of safety and control as I am spun, yanked, and thrashed around in the back of this truck on winding mountain roads. Lovely greenery shoots by in an acid-strobing blur, the tailpipe pumps in exhaust fumes unfettered by oxygen, and driving over gaping potholes allows my face to eat generous helpings of my knees.

I never thought I would rate a trip to the dentist higher than a scenic ride through the country, but I’m learning a lot about myself here.

View from Base Hut

View from Base Hut