(See Part I below)
It is raining. Of course. In the front seat of the van, Casey and Karis are white-knuckled as they press their fists to their mouths and then cover their eyes as we speed, skidding, over a slick red-mud road cut through the jungle. The mountainside rises immediately to our right; there is no shoulder to the left between the van and the drop to the river. The van fish-tails, wheels spinning, spewing a slurry of brown slush. “And they were never seen again,” someone intones. It is too easy to imagine that red earth, rain-loosened, sluicing down the slope and sweeping this creaky van with it.
But we make it to the raft loading area – an open-sided, roofed shelter – where we shed our clothes, but for our bathing suits, and don yellow life-vests and helmets. We hear our captains long before they drive into view, hanging off the side of their van, honking, hooting, exploding firecrackers, a wild yowling crew of yahoos eager to have some fun with the tourists. Wonderful.
Actually, we are pleased with the arrogant stance of the young man who props one foot on the raft we are assigned to, a paddle gripped upright by his side like a shepherd’s staff. He is cocky, lithe, and tattooed. He has almond eyes, cocoa skin, and black hair pulled tight into a short ponytail. Captain Don.
Don gives clipped instructions in pidgin English. He shows us how to wedge our feet under the inflated rubber seats of the raft to anchor us, how to paddle forward or backward on command, how to hold the rope and prop the paddle across a thigh when he says “stop.” How to leap to left or right to shift weight so the raft does not flip.
“No flipping!” I say sternly. “I am the mother! Keep us safe!”
“No woman, no cry,” Don says, grinning. Could mean anything.
“Okay! We Off!” Captain Don barks orders and we snap into action, shoving the raft into the tug of the current. We paddle like crazy people, clutching at the safety rope as the raft buckles and twists up and around hidden rocks, folding as it tumbles into troughs. Eyes bulging, mouths agape in screams or laughter, hard to say which, we ride, waves lashing our faces, drenching us. “Great!” Dave hollers. “I brush my teeth with bottled water at Sirilanna, but I’m swallowing gulps from the river of shit!” Oh yes. We’d seen the turds, big as bocci balls, that the elephants dumped in this river.
Don hoots with glee. We laugh – hysterically. Don shouts orders. Dave repeats every one. Casey yells at her father to shut up. “Forward! Stop! Back!” calls Don. “Forward! Stop! Back!” whoops Dave. Casey glares at him. Dave ignores her. The raft zips and careens as we leap to comply to rocket-fire demands. Our captain is amusing himself at our expense; still we dare not disobey.
And then, peace. The rapids are behind us. The water is calm, our paddles at rest across our thighs as instructed. We admire the scenery. And Don tells us to pull over.
Crude rafts of bamboo float along the bank. Don points and we clamber awkwardly out of our rubber craft - which looks pretty luxurious at this point - to crawl on hands and knees in water a foot deep, our fingernails scraping up wads of muck. We jabber about the possibility that resident worms and bacteria have easy orifice access. I assume someone will tell us how to distribute our weight evenly so the raft will float on top of the water as pictured in the brochure, but no. Once all eight of our original Panda Tour crew assembles, we set off, with Karis still on hands and knees, giggling, wide-eyed.
We drift downstream in water up to our waists as a man seated at the rear paddles listlessly. The raft rocks steeply left to right, right to left, left to right: why is it so unsteady? I picture the post-ride gathering of the captains as they exchange tales of idiotic clients and their own cleverness in ordering us about. I glare at the paddler in the back, sure he’s the cause of this shaky ride. He does not return my gaze.
* * *
The ride is blessedly short and when we dock, Ghee and the Panda Tour van wait among a cluster of guides and vehicles parked at a rough encampment. In open-air cinder-block shower stalls, we rinse-off in a warm dribble of water no doubt siphoned from the river, then pull on our damp clothes for the well-earned drive back to Sirilanna.
Except we don’t go back yet. After a brief drive, the van slows and pulls over. “You’re kidding, right?” Casey moans, her eyelids drooping. “What did we sign up for?”
A tour of the Mae Tang-Muang Khaud Area, is what. And today’s trek includes visits to several mountain villages. This one, our third, is surrounded by sweeping hillsides stained with orange, pumpkin orange, orange the color of monks’ robes, a brilliant wash of color in the dusky light. “Marigolds,” Ghee says, “used to make dye.”
Our bedraggled troop trudges down dirt roads, past rude shacks with roofs of corrugated metal, wood, or thatch. Dogs lounge against walls, and bare-chested men squat in doorways or snooze on hammocks suspended beneath platform-porches. The way opens to an area encircled by shelters, floors spread with blue striped cloths piled high with orange mounds. Men, women and children bend to the task of stripping petals from stems; they grin and nod when we hold up our cameras for permission.
I feel sheepish as I point and click, point and click at the marigold-strippers, at ancient women working their embroidery, at small children playing with puppies. What must they think about these sodden white people captivated by work and flowers, by baskets of corn, cooking fires, a cow in a rickety pen? Life here is utterly alien, a life I am grateful to visit, a life I want to capture on film, but a life I wouldn’t want.
On this day, this one day, I have lived many days. I am thrilled to be able to head back to Sirilanna’s Jacuzzi, pool, comfy beds and fresh fruit. But today, with my dear ones, I trod a slick red-mud jungle trail, bathed in a waterfall, and clung to a rope in a raft on a swirling river. Today I rode on an elephant.