All Shall Be Revealed!

7 Aug

I can’t believe its been over a month since I came back from my “once in a lifetime” rendezvous in Southeast Asia, and I regret to report that I’ve been in overdrive running a million miles. Needless to say that is my life in the “202”, that 68 square mile diamond-shaped swath of land, where my life revolves around all the seemingly irrelevant facts of life – politics, money, power, and a dose of healthy intellectual stimulation every now and then. Basically when I landed at Dulles Airport, I bounced right back into the groove of this rat race almost like I had never left, except for the 200 or so people that were waiting for responses to emails or returned calls. Yikes! No time for reflection.

Letting your mind travel back in time is such a fun escape from the madness. So amidst the organized chaos of my daily life I chose today to get back where I left off… Northern Laos.

I woke up this morning to, what I thought, was some major parade and festival filling the streets with music and people celebrating. All I can hear is a myriad of different instruments and people singing and talking from my second floor hostel room. Its about 6:00am and the sun has just risen, I scurried about the room to get myself together and ran out the door and down the hall to the front balcony of the hostel. There is no parade or festival in the slightest way. Instead a group of 3 Lao men are simply celebrating life. there they are in the front yard area of the little house next to the hostel making music! They are just having a good ol’ time (seemingly sober too) singing, playing guitar, hitting the kong, and playing a few other instruments. And this I suppose is just daily life in Laos being revealed to me in yet another color. At this very moment, I realize that (much like the 20+ hour boat ride) I really had no idea what was ahead of me. Hence the title of this blog – All Shall be Revealed!

After a short 5-10 minute video on “safety” at the headquarters of the Gibbon Experience (but don’t be misguided by the website, be sure to checkout these reviews on Trip Advisor, they are most accurate) I hopped in back of a pick-up truck with my backpack and we were off. We sped through curvy mountain roads along what appeared to be the only paved road around. We passed through beautiful rice patties and terraces, swaths of forest, and occassionally we came to a halting stop for some cows that were basking in the sun in the middle of the road. After about an hour we made a short pit stop at a little road-side hut selling basic provisions, then back in the truck and we were off down a dirt road driving through small rivers and all the rest. We had just picked-up a young man as well (whose name is Yia Lao) who we learn is our “guide” for the our jungle tree house adventure.

After about an hour and a half we arrived at a small village surrounded by astute lush & green mountains. This is where we grab our packs and get with the five or so other travelers in the truck – and we are off by foot following our guide into the thick mysterious jungles of Northern Laos. We walked through some streams, rice paddies, and lots of thick rich mud. We stopped at a little bamboo & wood shelter that is the equivalent of a “base camp”. We drank water, ate a sandwich, and then strapped on a bulky old harness that would become our “life line” as we fly through the tree tops. And there it was, the only “map” we ever saw of the trails and zip lines we would be spending the next several days on. Eventually we entered trails in the forest and that is where the fun began. I wasn’t more than a few hundred feet into the forest when I became lunch for the leeches. With my every step they “jumped aboard” my hiking shoes, some went right through my shoes & socks, and others climbed up my shoes and onto my legs where they latched on for a meal. At any given point I’d have 1-5 of these blood sucking leeches on my legs. Totally gross squirmy parasites! Now I’ve backpacked a lot in many other tropical rainforest in very undeveloped countries but I have NEVER had to deal with this quantity of nasty persistent leeches. And well its fair to say that this was my welcome to the Gibbon Experience…

I continued onwards, leeches and all, hiking up hills in dense bamboo forests. The hiking was beautiful, energizing, and challenging all at the same – I love the feeling of nature testing my limits. The forest was mostly “secondary” forest, meaning that it had once been clear-cut pasture land and natural succession brought forth new forest growth. Most of the trees stood tall and swaths of bamboo bent and swayed with the winds. It was enchanting.

After a few hours of hiking we arrived at the first platform. Yia Lao gave a 30 second refresher on the procedure for “clipping” onto the line & the minimum safety basics on checking your harness and caribeaner. That was the first & last time we even did so much as talk about safety. Its a case of, here you are and here you go. Live it or loose it. Here we gave our harnesses one last blessing and one at a time we clipped the carribeaner to the metal cable waiting for the person ahead of us to reach the next platform, said a prayer, lifted our legs into the air. And vavoom – there I was flying across a valley of dense foliage, some 800+ feet in the air, at a speed of somewhere between 20-30 miles/hour, for nearly an entire kilometer or more. I was careful to keep my legs poised upwards so to keep my body (weighed down with a heavy pack) perfectly postured and balanced with the cable. I did not want to even do so much as risk stopping (or spinning) mid way across the zipline. It was exhilerating… I looked around and all I could see were these vast tropical forested mountains. Below me I could see a small river valley and a herd of water buffalo. Here I am in Northern Laos, flying through the landscape. A reality beyond my wildest dreams.

A dozen or so zips later, each time counting my blessings, and we arrived at our tree house. Yes, a real treehouse perched 600 feet on a beautiful tree in the Bokeo Nature Reserve. Its the kind of tree house I dreamt about as a child. Its incredibly rustic and beautiful. I am in complete awe at my surroundings. So far from anything remotely considered civilization. No cell phone signal, no signs of even a near-by village. Just this group of adventurous spirits, Yia Lao, and the flora & fauna of Bokeo. If you’re having a hard time visualizing it, think of the landscape of Pandora in the movie Avatar. Yup, that is Bokeo, and that is what you come to the Gibbon Experience to feel and be one with.

We laid thin sleeping pads out onto the wooden planked floor of the tree house, chilled out and ate some fresh mango. This is not what you would envision as a “luxury” tree house by any stretch of the imagination. All that separates you from the tree house and falling out is a mediocre wooden guardrail. There is no safety net to catch you if you are careless or a ladder to come down if the metal zip cable breaks from a tree that feel in the night after it was struck by lightening (just think about that for a couple of minutes and you will get what I am insinuating). I eat a piece of juicy mango and pop a lyche fruit into my mouth, Life is Good for now. Then I decided to explore the bathroom. I push back the little curtain and viola – Asian squat toilet, why of course! Only this time its 600 feet up in the air. The best thing of all was taking a shower. Here I was, totally isolated, high in a tree house, surrounded by nature. I reached over the wooden rail to turn the water lever on and glorious rainwater poured over my body. I starred out into the lush hills. I looked down and saw the rainwater sprinkling down into the tree and there were also water buffalo grazing in the valley. This was the best, most cleansing, outdoor shower of my life!

A couple of hours later it was dinner time. Yia Lao graciously zipped into the tree house with a bag carrying our food. A bamboo rice carrier was filled with sticky rice and a stack of 4 metal tins contained our food. Each tin had a different dish. Forest gathered mushrooms stewed in broth & spice, sauteed greens from a local garden, and morsels of succulent pork with chile. It was divine.

As the sun began to go down the clouds rolled in and skies opened-up. Rain poured down all around us. Lightening and thunder also roared in. There were some leaks in the thatched tree house roof but it didn’t matter. The sound of the rain pattering on all of the trees and leaves took over the ambience. It was so peaceful and cleansing. There we were in the clouds as they fed the forest with life energy. We sat around on the wooden tree house floor and played a few games of cards, talked, and drank a cup of funky Lao wine. We then pulled out these large pieces of black fabric and draped them over our sleeping pads, like the kind of tents or shelters you make with blankets & boxes as kids. We each slept below these draped fabrics to keep the mosquitos, spiders, and tree rats out. I slept just a few inches from the edge of the tree house, next to the railing. No rolling over too far, or well, you may just roll out of the tree house. It was just fine. And I slept wondefully listening to the music of the birds and the bees.

I awoke at sunrise, pulled the fabric up, and looked over the railing. There before my eyes was an incredible sunrise. Clouds hung in the trees & valleys below and around me. In the distance the sun slowly revealed her life force to all that remained in Northern Laos. Complete serenity. It was magical.

I don’t really know what to say next. The next several days were filled with much the same. “Same same but different” as they say in Asia. It was breathtaking, spiritual, challenging, fun, uncomfortable, really freaking scary all at the same time. Each moment revealed something new and unexpected. I “graciously” overcame my fear of heights and enjoyed it in the process. I developed a new appreciation for safety and the safety regulations of the “developed” world. I learned that I am no longer the fearless 20 year old I used to be. I am not invincible. I realized that cherish life more now than I used to. I spent time in nature a way I never had before. And well I gave a few ounces of my blood to the leeches of Bokeo Nature Reserve.

Was it worth the long boat ride, tests of patience & sheer discomfort. Absolutely YES. But I am honest in sharing that as glorious as the Gibbon Experience was, I will never do it again. Why? Simply because I know that I am not invincible. And it was NOT safe at all. I take risks all the time. But relying on worn-out harnesses & equipment as your life line to fly through the forest – and a complete lack of basic safety & first aid by your “guide” – made it glaringly obvious that safety was hardly a consideration. So lack of safety revealed, Bokeo was incredible and I am forever changed by all it has taught me.

2 Responses to “All Shall Be Revealed!”

  1. NANNA August 7, 2011 at 7:33 pm #

    What an incredible experience !!!!!!!
    I’m sure it’s one you’ll always remember.
    Happy your back home safe and sound.
    It was interesting reading about your ex-
    perience but, scarry at times.
    Love you Becky,
    Nanna

  2. Dad August 7, 2011 at 8:52 pm #

    Revelations of your journey speak for them selves. Glad your back and safe with your magical memories, and a new found wisdom. Wisdom can only be gained from experience, and it may give you gray hair!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: