Welcome to the Jungle

Let it be known that I tried to avoid the cliché title for this post, but there is some sort of residual magic, some Jedi mind trick attached to the title that pushes all others back into the ether whence they came. So there it is in a reasonable facsimile of black and white: my rationalization for not having a more thoughtful title. I suppose this is the same irritating practice as getting in front of a microphone and apologizing for how bad your poetry is before inflicting it upon a group of people. I’m keeping this pre-digression, though, because people need to know: this is what it looks like in writing. No apologies this time, however; just a hearty, derisive snort, transitioning into the first body paragraph.

Now that I’ve been in country for a month and had time to acclimate, I accepted an invitation to go on a jungle hike with a helicopter pilot and a stay-at-home dad. Let’s call them Erik and Joe, because that’s what everyone else calls them and I don’t want to confuse myself. We arrived at the base of the trail at about 8:30 in the morning. Gee, I thought. That looks steep. And wet from lat night’s rain. Indeed, it was steep and wet, and the best hiking gear I had was jeans, a t-shirt and a pair of Vans, the soles partially worn smooth from the Boston streets. But once I’m committed to something, I have the tendency to stay with it longer than is healthy and long after whatever about it made me happy has worn away.

The first stretch was by far the worst. The last time I’d been hiking, truly hiking, was well over a decade ago, when I was in the Boy Scouts, was swimming competitively, and had the body and energy of an action movie hero. Now, though I have begun swimming in earnest almost daily, I have the body and energy of a pale, effete nerd. As we reached the first plateau, my head swam and my heart drummed in my ears. Erik and Joe stretched as if just getting out of bed–this was just a warmup for them, and as I came straggling up behind them, sucking air, I found that shame is a pretty decent motivator. Even though I was still feeling woozy, or perhaps because I was, I put one foot in front of the other and climbed.

You know what else is a good motivator? Monkeys. Seriously, there is something about seeing your first wild monkey that inspires confidence. Granted, monkeys are also not to be trifled with. Common monkey advice given to newcomers to southeast asia follows: don’t smile at the monkeys; don’t feed the monkeys; don’t stare at the monkeys; don’t touch the monkeys; don’t taunt the monkeys; and whatever you do, never turn your back on the monkeys. Injected with innuendo, this advice matches the sex education I received through my Catholic high school. Luckily, I was already self-taught. Anyway, the monkey was not nearly as impressed with me as I was with it, and after a brief pause it kept swinging through the trees, on its way, I want to believe, to meet its monkey friends to play monkey games.

Climbing the steep ridge, which became increasingly salted with jagged quartz and slick roots, I found myself acting more the monkey and using the trees as leverage. They appear wispy and fragile, and are often growing at some bizarre angle, as if permanently blown sideways by a strong wind, but when I grabbed one, my first thought was that it couldn’t possibly be a coincidence that playground monkey bars were made of steel. Not much more than an inch and a half in diameter, these trees could support the full weight of Joe, our heaviest hiker, bending only slightly.

It is fortunate that they are so solid. As we attempted to descend the other side of the ridge, on a steep path consisting largely of mud and moss-covered rocks, one of the ropes put in place to aid in the descent broke, sending Joe sliding toward the edge, beyond which was empty air and, in the distance, the tops of the trees. He slid in the loose soil, and just as he reached the edge, one of these thin, frail-looking trees stopped him dead, allowing him time to collect himself, dig in, and find a way back up the cliff. It was only when we were drinking beers poolside afterward, that Erik related a story about six bodies that had to be picked up by helicopter at the base of the cliff, not too far from where we had been. Good timing, that.

Well, lessons learned: rotted ropes in the jungle will not hold your weight, though hanging vines will, assuming their bark doesn’t slide off like a snake skin (additional lesson: the bark may slide off a hanging vine if you attempt to swing on it like Tarzan); grabbing a quartz outcropping will shred your hand; monkeys have the potential of being dicks, though they seem largely uninterested in the wild; and drinking beer while floating in a swimming pool after a strenuous hike feels amazing.

Somewhere in this photo is a monkey who doesn't give a crap about you.

Somewhere in this photo is a monkey who doesn’t give a crap about you.

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