The Trek, Day One: Up, up, up

The morning of our first day of hiking, we were up and back in the trucks heading towards the mountains early. Another perfect sunny day in Thai winter. At lunchtime we stopped at a national park, hiked a half an hour up above a waterfall, had lunch and went swimming. By about two we were at the entrance to the trail we were going to be on for the next three days pulling out backpacks and congratulating each other excitedly on the beauty of the day and how great an idea this was.

Our water bearers met us at the mouth of the trail for the first time. There were two of them that day when usually there was only one. Short to middle height, slim and darker than the Thai, they were both Karen men, ethnically and culturally separate from the Thai people. The Burmese drove them out of Myanmar (Burma at the time) more than a hundred years ago and they began migrant farming in the mountains along the Thai border. They would slash and burn the jungle, build a village, plant a crop or two and move again as soon as someone died believing that the the souls of the dead would haunt the place. Needless to say this is pretty destructive and the Thai government put a stop to it about 50 years ago. It was Karen villages we wanted to visit, and the water bearers live up there. Sensible that they should help the tourists and earn a little money that way. I don’t remember the name of the fellow who was with us only one day, but the other man was nicknamed Superman.

So we started walking. Our packs were not heavy, but we were not used to them, and it was the heat of the day. While it may not seem like a big deal to hike uphill for fifteen minutes. Try two hours of it. Try three. Try four. You rest occaisionally, and you go downhill occaisionally, but the truth of the matter is that you’re mostly going up hill and you’re NOT used to it. Then consider you’re going to do it for three days. Then suck it up, because there’s no backing out of it now. So there we were hiking, sweating and wondering what the f*ck we’ve gotten ourselves into while the Karen water bearers hauled all of our water for 3 days on their backs and maintained a stance and bearing as though this was nothing. Our bearer’s nickname was Superman for a reason.

The day progressed, and we stopped. We had a water break and I ate my first tamarind. You might have seen tamarind paste in the grocery store, a jellied block the color of lager or cloudy honey. The fruit bears exactly no resemblance to the paste. It’s a rough brown husked beanpod filled with fibrous strands of pith and seeds and incidentally the yummy fruity paste that gets made into those blocks in the store clings to the pith strands. The pith to fruit ratio is not in the fruit’s favor. We saved our husks for Superman. He used them to roll his tobacco. And it was time to walk some more.

I think we walked later that day than we did either of the other two days. I remember the walk as a blur of heat and muscle burn, but I remember its end vividly. We came across a rice straw covered field striped with low dry dikes, up yet another set of hills and at dusk, kissed by a soft rosy glow, the thatches rose above the bushes in our sightline. You never saw the whole village until you were upon it. The dozen or so huts were scattered down an unlevel clearing with jungle and rough mountain rising on all sides. Beneath the first hut we came to an old woman smoking a pipe was attempting to both beat and feed a pig at the same time. We passed her and went to the top of the hill where we dropped our shoes at the base of a hut ladder and carried our bags up to where we would sleep for the night. We then had to choose between exploring the village with the last of the daylight and washing right away. Most of us bathed in the dark.

I was shy in this village. I wish I hadn’t been. It was hard to invade peoples lives and take their pictures when you couldn’t talk to them. The town was not a human zoo and I didn’t know how to be. Oii helped a bit though. After dinner she brought the village’s kids over to the hut to play Uno (a truly international game, I guess) and we played and asked them questions in English and in really awful Karen (We had a phrase guide). Kids are kids and if you’ll play with them they will be happy. I didn’t take any pictures in the first village, a pity since it was the more beautiful of the two and the less tourist ridden as well. But playing chess and uno and rattling on about nothing in particular was good. We went to bed early.

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