Sunday, September 11, 2011

HIGH ANXIETY IN THE TROPICAL RAINFOREST

If there ever was a moment when I was certain that there's more to life than this (this being, you know, just living), something bigger than all of us, it happened yesterday. It was about three-quarters into my day-long hike through the tropical island rainforest of Koh Chang, Thailand. Our party of seven (including the guide) had ascended to the top of a waterfall, and I was sitting on a rock with water rushing down behind me, beside me and under me. I gazed out at the torrential downpour (from both the waterfall and from the sky), the trees, and the huge mountain in the near distance whose top was covered with a dense layer of fog.

As the others swam around near the top of the waterfall, I sat on that rock, taking in the view and trying hard to focus on my epiphany. I was awestruck. I was speechless. I was panicking on the inside.

Though I wasn't in any sort of immediate danger, I kept replaying a scene in my mind in which I made one wrong move that sent me plunging down to the depths about 100 meters below. I'm afraid of heights, so getting up there had been challenging enough. I'd hit my head several times on thick, protruding branches (once I literally saw stars!) and had stumbled on slippery rocks twice as many times. For now, though, I was winning the battle with altitude. I was on top. I'd reached the ultimate destination. I was king of the world.

But how the hell was I supposed to get down? I'd already lost my camera -- a casualty of the pond inside my backpack, and the reason why I have no photos to document this crowning rainforest moment -- I didn't want to lose life and/or limbs, too. Thank God, I'm not afraid of spiders -- there were a lot of poisonous ones along the way, including some cranky-looking tarantulas. One phobia was enough for me to tackle.

More than fear of death by plummeting, I didn't want the others to see me sweat -- though the rain was hiding it pretty well. I'd spent the last several hours with them, and since none of them spoke much English, I'd hardly said more than a few sentences to anyone all day. So I wasn't comfortable enough with them not to care what they thought of me.

I was still trying to figure out their stories. Was the Russian pair boyfriend and girlfriend or brother and sister? They looked a little bit alike, but I wasn't sure if it was just another case of a longtime couple merging into the same person. At one point, the woman disappeared with the Thai guide for a long time. I was certain they were off in the bushes somewhere getting it on, and when they finally returned I was sure I noticed them trying not to notice each other. Yes, the Russians had to be siblings.

On second thought, maybe I've just been spending too much time around sex-obsessed gay Thai boys!

Then there were two guys from Israel. Every time they lit another cigarette, I wanted to give them a stern lecture about forest fires and how smoking is hazardous to the health, but the Thai girl who was hanging on to the cute one with amazing teeth kept giving me funny looks. I couldn't understand a word the guys were saying to each other, and it was clear that she couldn't either. I don't think she said anything all day. So I came up with a scenario in my head: She and the cute one had met at some bar in town and hooked up. They had nothing in common, not even a language, but she was good in bed, so he'd invited her along on today's excursion, making his friend the slightly uncomfortable third wheel.

I knew how he felt. I was totally out of place with this group. If I can't risk it all with people I know and love, at least let me endanger my life with folks who can communicate with me in more than a sentence or two at a time. It was the only time in the last two and a half months when I wished I had someone from my own country to share some common ground with me and maybe try to catch me if I started to fall.

I did come close to wiping out several times, but I made it up and down, up and down, across numerous waterfalls, all the way to the final one that separated us from our vehicle. The rain had submerged the foot path completely underwater, and the water rushing downstream only complicated our crossing more. We joined hands and tried walking across once, but the guide quickly made us return to our starting point because it was too dangerous.

He said we'd have to wait an hour or two for the water to go down. An hour?! Two hours?! Ever the pessimist, I started coming up with worst-case scenarios, like having to spend the night there, sleep in the middle of nowhere, and wake up to find that the foot path was still deep underwater. I'd miss my morning transportation back to Pattaya, and worse, I'd have to spend God knows how much longer in the freezing cold with a bunch of people I couldn't even talk to.

I had to get out of there!

An hour later, after hiking through some precarious bush, looking for another out and failing to find one, we finally sucked it up, joined hands and braved the rushing waters to make it across the foot path to the other side. This would not only be a tale I'd live to tell, but it would be one I'd never forget either.

If I could turn back time, would I do it all again? Definitely! Do I ever want to do it all again? Absolutely not! When I close my eyes, I still can see that mountain in the near distance and the rushing water below and feel the panic and fear that always comes with reaching the top -- even those heights from which you don't necessarily want to come down.

How am I supposed to get down from here?

Oh, wait. It's only a dream.
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