This week has been filled with coding — a lot of internal progress, but not much fun to show you guys. Rather than bore you with minutiae, my friend and great writer Lauren Pollini offered to do a guest post this week. She recently visited us in Thailand and took a rafting trip with Amanda. Enjoy her wonderfully Thai experience, I’ll see y’all next week!
The whitecaps ahead jumped and dazzled with promise. Maybe this time, I could tell everyone on the boat was thinking, some actual rapid activity! The sturdy rubber craft, which so far had been meandering down the river at the pace of a distracted toddler, began to pick up speed. The current pulled us along until sharp rocks loomed within arms reach. The sound of roaring water in our ears as we caught the edge of a wave, thrillingly tipped, arched, and… came to a grinding halt against the rock below. We must have looked ludicrous — five adults in overly tight life jackets and helmets tilted ninety-degrees, slapping our paddles uselessly against the rocks while our guide Pu sighed and waded into the knee-deep water to push us forward, again. A few minutes later, we got caught on a sandbar, and the entire process repeated.
I tried some motivational self-pep talk. It’s not that bad. You probably have only two more hours of this before you finally get to the jungle camp. And then just six more hours tomorrow…
A few weeks before I arrived in Thailand, Amanda suggested this overnight rafting adventure as a unique way of getting from the backpacker-mecca Pai to Mae Hong Son. I’d never rafted before, but my internal logic went something like this: I like water-based activities, I’m in reasonably good shape, I want to have new experiences and try pushing my boundaries in Thailand. What more could there be to think about? Even when the company owner, a congenial French ex-pat, went out of his way to inform us that December is dry season, so the ride would be more “relaxing” than “high energy,” I figured, “Probably great for a first timer! Let’s do this!”
The journey started off pleasantly enough. Amanda, myself, and the other two trekkers, a young French couple from Cannes, were introduced to Pu and the camp-man we were ferrying back to the jungle camp where we’d spend the night. We loaded tons of food and supplies into the small raft, donned our helmets and jackets, and pushed off. Despite everyone reminding us it was winter, we were warm enough in shorts and bathing suits, drifting down a very lazy river. The jungle loomed around us, dramatic, green, and dark. The Pai river winds through a protected nature preserve, so we were entirely in the wild: no signs of human activity, no sounds of traffic, not even a single plane flying overhead. Within the first hour we saw a snake propel itself from the water up a vertical cliff-face, disappearing among the trees. Electric blue kingfishers dove and fluttered just ahead of our boat. It felt like we were embarking on an action-packed thrill ride that would only be interrupted for National Geographic-esque wildlife sightings.
Hours later, that snake was still the only wildlife we’d seen and the main action we’d experienced was pushing our bloated boat off multiple exposed rock faces and out of shallow water. Worse still, for me at least, was that the dark and green jungle which looked so mysterious and alluring, had after four hours become a mind-numbingly repetitious landscape. Pocahontas wondered what was “just around the riverbend?” I could have saved her time: just more of the same green trees and languorous water. I had no idea when I agreed to this rafting trek I actually needed to be in better mental shape than physical. My thoughts, mirroring the landscape, were running in circles. Like our overly-burdened raft, my mind was getting stuck on the same thoughts over and over. My mental rocks were specific people and situations from home that I’d hoped to leave behind while in Thailand, which only frustrated me further.
Just when I thought my brain might actually break, we arrived at our camp. Now all those people telling us it was winter suddenly seemed very prescient. The mountains of the Mae Hong Son province get downright chilly in the evening — and we were all drenched! Shivering, we swapped wet shorts and tank tops for sweatshirts, thick socks, and double layers of pants. The camp had no electricity and the only “running” water was cold fresh water carried in bamboo tubes from a stream up the hill into a bucket. Showers were for the bold, or Pu, who proved he could meditate/will himself dry in minutes. Still, it was a relief to do something other than paddle, and focusing on setting up my sleeping bag and mosquito net in the growing darkness was the perfect distraction for my stir-crazed mind.
The camp-men prepared us a delicious Thai dinner, and we ate by candlelight; flicking jungle ants out of our green curry soup and watching moths get drawn in by the flames. When dinner was over, Pu directed us to the firepit a few meters away. Stepping away from the candlelight, I suddenly realized how profoundly dark it was. Two seconds later, Amanda and I both pulled up short, simultaneously uttering “Wow!” and “Holy shit!” (I take responsibility for all profanity). The sight of thousands of stars, densely packed and glowing brighter than I’d ever seen them, left us gobsmacked.
We stared for minutes, gazing out at a galaxy that really looked like it stretched infinitely. My mind clicked off, and a feeling of contentment unfurled like a wave inside. I took a deep breath and let the day, my frustrations, my impatience and anxieties, all go. I know I’m not covering new territory here, but it’s true: it’s hard to feel anything in our tiny lives is terribly significant when faced with the impossible magnitude of the universe. That perspective is hard to come by when you live, like many of us do, in cities where light blots out the stars.
The next day our boat, lightened from having no supplies and one fewer person (we left the camp-man at camp), skimmed easily along the surface of the water. We got some excellent rapid action, and while we never saw any wildlife more exciting than the occasional kingfisher, the jungle was loud with the calls of birds and cobras (Pu told us that cobras make noise, I swear). Though the river felt similar to the previous day, somehow everything felt different. When we finally docked just outside Mae Hong Son around 5 pm, I was already telling myself I couldn’t wait until my next rafting adventure… only I’ll probably go during wet season.