The Reluctant Adventurer (Part 3): River Rafting
Lunch came out of a Styrofoam box containing rice, one large piece of roast chicken and boiled cabbage leaves. Not exactly a feast fit for a king, but a weary traveler will eat anything (well, just about) to pacify a growling tummy.
As for me, I think I've just spied some bottles of mineral water sitting in a small glass fridge not far from where I'm sitting, and you know what, I'm going to dash over there and grab a couple of bottles before the others wise up to it.
Yes, can you believe it? A fridge running on electricity right here in the middle of nowhere when just a half-hour's hike away, I'd witnessed a house with not a single electrical plug points in its walls!
But, hey, I'm not about to sit there and ponder over the whys and the wherefores. I'm just grateful for this very bottle of cool drinking water that I can gulp down to beat the unbearable heat!!
The day has progressed to an even hotter afternoon as I step cautiously onto one of the many waiting bamboo rafts on the River Ping that the tour guide has promised would transport us to where our bus would be waiting downriver. We are told it would take a little over an hour for us to get there.
Great, now I had imagined these rafts to be a lot hardier than a few bamboo poles strung together into a large flat sheet with three rows of wooden benches for a handful of passengers.
Needless to say, my brain is alive with questions about how this sheet of bamboo with no sides is going to withstand the weight of five grown adults (who have just tucked in a hefty lunch), plus a boatman. But as I peer cautiously into the water, the river appears to be shallow enough that I can see the river bed so I figure we might not necessarily drown after all. That sure is a relief!
We don the flimsy pointed rattan hats that have been placed on the raft to offer some small relief against the merciless sun. Almost immediately, I feel like a Vietnamese refugee in a war movie, huddled beneath that familiar rattan hat in a loose long-sleeved shirt, stealing quietly away down the Mekong with the sounds of distant gunfire fading away behind me.
The boatman stands behind us, similarly attired, and armed with little more than a very long bamboo pole which he uses to push against the river bed to navigate the raft. I am faintly amused at this simple mode of transportation. He'll never have to worry about running out of gas or a flat tire, that's for sure.
Except for a few occasions when we can distinctly feel our raft scrape against the rocks on the river bed, the journey is smooth. The afternoon hangs hot and still, and the gentle lapping of the boatman's bamboo pole against the water has a beautiful lulling effect. The unchanging landscape of parched grass and trees is monotonous as we weave our way downstream...
until someone points out a lone elephant munching on the leaves of a tree that's only almost as tall as the elephant itself. From there on, our ride is punctuated with interesting sights. We glide past elephants and their trainers bathing together in the river. Other elephants with their trainers perched high on their heads trudge through the parched shrubs, their elegant trunks probing the thick foliage for the tastiest stems and leaves.
A few boys clad only in their colorful underpants snorkel for fish in the shallows. A playful baby elephant attempts to explore the river in the shade of a small tree, one leg chained to his mother's.
We drift lazily along at the river's pace. And drifting can be such therapy - in our city lifestyles, we rarely have the opportunity to drift. With crowded minds, we rush through crowded places, one eye on our watch, one ear on our cell phone, and one hand on the steering wheel.
But here I am, sitting on a bamboo raft, my eyes observing forms and details I have rarely seen, my ears listening to the peace and quiet, and my mind wandering free. In fact, I am so utterly entranced in all of this new laid-back experience that I fail to notice a new passenger boarding our bamboo raft...
until the lady in the front row seat jumps to her feet shouting "Snake!!!" Even then, my brain, lately accustomed to the drowsy drift, is slow to register the message. A series of quick whacking sounds jolt me back to reality in a hurry.
The man in the front row is on his feet, pointed Vietnamese straw hat in hand, hitting at the ... oh my God, it's a long luminous green snake, perhaps only the width of my little finger but it is slithering and rearing its triangular head -- too late -- in my direction!
I scream! And I scream -- so loudly everyone up and down that river could hear me (as I am later told). I see the man's pointed rattan hat snap crisply into two right before my very eyes. Oh great!
By now almost everyone on our raft is standing up either moving away or wishing they had more room on the raft to move away. But it seems the snake is most interested in getting to know me - up close and personal. And I can't move, I just can't!!
I remain frozen in my third row seat for fear of overturning the raft. At that moment, all I could think of is "get my Timberlands, get my Timberlands, they're real tasty, not my leg please!" I figure nothing else on me, except my leather shoes, can weather a snake bite.
The boatman mutters something unintelligible in his language which none of us understand. He seems to be indicating not to hit the snake. Oh, come on, you gotta be kidding! I'm thinking.
Now seeing the snake continue to dance towards me, he has no choice. He hits it reluctantly at first with his bamboo pole, but with increasing vigor when it seems clear the snake has no intention of dying. I continue watching in wide-eyed horror until the snake's head slumps down -- lifeless. T-t-that was c-c-close, t-too darned close! In the flick of an eye, the boatman flips the motionless reptile into the water. I can't say I am sorry to see it float away belly-up.
As it turns out, I am none the worst for my adventure. In retrospect, I think I would have missed a most enriching experience if I had allowed myself to chicken out of this excursion earlier. After all, it's not every day that I get to explore the wilds chauffeur-driven on such an exotic mode of transportation as an elephant, the largest land mammal. And to observe firsthand, the sights, sounds and smells of a lifestyle that is so very different from ours - one so peaceful yet so devoid of creature comforts - it's quite an awakening in itself.
As for that brief encounter with the river reptile, you would agree that the ones we encounter daily in the corporate environment could be far more deadly any day! So there you have it, the reluctant adventurer has made it back from the wilderness of Chiang Mai in one piece, and lived to tell the tale. Whew!
* * * * *
Published on 12/8/03