I watched Khun Yai give herself a bath in the river the next day, wishing I could be an elephant. All power and inch-thick skin and sharp tusks. Maybe my next life. In this life I had to decide where I was going next.
For a half second I wished I had gotten Gabe’s number or email. I wondered where his Heady Bro Gang was off to next. Probably Whore Island. Besides, the point wasn’t to find a rando guy to tag along with. It was to do what I wanted to do.
I found the sanctuary director sipping tea on the deck of the kitchen hut. My bus back to Chiang Mai was leaving in 20 minutes. I read once the director won a Hero of the Year award from Time magazine. I probably should leave her alone and not bug her.
She was really nice and remembered reading my resume. They only needed vets for long-term volunteering though.
“You’re the one with all the hospice experience, yes?
“Hmmm. Wait here.”
She came back with a young Thai man in working khakis. He didn’t look pleased.
“An elephant is being released from labor near Nomtok Mae Surin. This is Daw, one of our vets. He’s going to get him and bring him to safety here. Do you want to go help him?”
“It will not be a tourist trip,” Daw said in perfect English. “It is a two-day trek in the mountain jungle both ways. On the way out it may take longer walking with the elephant.”
“Can’t we ride it back?” I asked. The words came out a second before I remembered the strict No Saddles rule that was a big deal in the Sanctuary.
Daw’s face twisted like he’d taken a big swig of orange juice after brushing his teeth. He turned to go, and the bus driver waved at me to board.
The director grabbed Daw’s hand and gently pulled him back.
“I think you will find her useful. I would like her to go with you.”
“Can you carry a 40-pound pack?” Daw asked. I knew that I was in, pack abilities or not. He clearly followed the director’s orders.
Before dawn the next morning I climbed into the back of an open air truck. Jenny, the youngest female, ambled by and eyed my banana. I held it out and she took it gently. I’m pretty sure she winked at me.
“I’m going to bring you a new friend!”
“Assuming you don’t get bitten by a pit viper. Or stung by a scorpion. Or kidnapped by drug traffickers near the Burma border,” Daw chimed in, tossing gear into the back with me. “Hang on back there, I’d hate for you to bounce out along the way.”
I think he likes me.
I was already sore after three hours of bouncing on a wooden plank. Then Daw added the pack.
“Hooof!” I exhaled as he pulled the chest and waist straps tight.
“I made yours lighter. I’m carrying most of the supplies. You only have the food. It’ll get lighter as we go.” He shouted to the driver in rapid Thai and waved.
All of a sudden it was me and him, and a wall of jungle. What the hell had I been thinking?
I am a concrete jungle animal. I know not to replace a battery right away if yours gets stolen, because the scummer will come back the next night to steal your new battery too. I don’t know shit about vines and…undergrowth and whatnot. I did read once all about the Golden Triangle and how the CIA gave guns to insurgents/opium traffickers in the Triangle in exchange for protection during anti-commie ops in China. Cool story bro, but not helpful right now.
Daw took off at a legit clip. I wouldn’t have spotted the trail entrance in a hundred years. Right away I noticed the sounds. Birds calling, insects humming, wind in the tall trees, random scuttling I didn’t want to think about too hard. I thought of woods as peaceful. This was loud as hell.
I hustled to keep up with Daw’s narrow ass. I wanted to stop and stare at the crazy plants growing on top of other plants, on top of vines, on top of trees. Then I wiped out and learned a quick lesson about keeping my eyes on the rocky, root-covered trail.
Two hours in I was gasping, swatting bugs from my sweaty neck and questioning every decision that brought me to this tropical hell hole. I was incredibly/silently grateful when Daw the Trail Eating Machine stopped at a small river and filled a filter bag for water.
“Take off your pack, this will take a bit,” he said. It was the first thing he’d said to me since the vague death threats that morning.
I felt like I was floating without the pressing weight on my shoulders. Finally being able to look around, I saw tiny purple orchids clinging on to the vines over the river, and a thousand tiny silver fish darting in the water. A bright yellow bird landed on a branch and looked at me sideways. A creeping sense of euphoria grew under my exhaustion. Or I was having a heat stroke.
Daw handed me the first liter of purified water. I chugged it and checked out the front side of the deer-fast guy I’d been following all morning. He was probably in his early 30’s. My first impression last night was a hard face. Watching him relax by the water, I realized it must have been his expression of total disgust at having to take an American tourist with him. He had a boxy jaw, thin nose and big bushy eyebrows over sharp eyes. Shit Daw was kind of cute.
“So you’re a vet?”
“Yes. Large Animal Specialization.”
“What’s the craziest thing that’s ever happened with an animal?
He looked at me strangely.
“Like, tell me about something weird or funny that’s happened while you were treating an animal.”
“Funny? They are very sick when I see them. Or in pain. Not very funny.”
It was going to be a long trek. After he got his liter of water and chugged it too, he waded into the river barefoot.
“One time there was a very rich landowner near the sanctuary. His favorite bull needed to be neutered to extend its life. However, the man was very proud of his bull’s genitalia. He was very torn. Finally I suggested we could cremate the genitalia, and he could keep the ashes. To this day if you visited his house you would see a very beautiful jar on his mantel, brimming with ashes of bull dick.”
I barked out a laugh. Good one Daw, I didn’t think you had it in you.
Once the water containers were filled we headed out again, and didn’t stop until late afternoon. I was dying. I also refused to ask for a break. I was gonna make this guy eat his words and be GLAD he had me along, not pouty.
We finally stopped at an large fall of vines over a large rock. Daw handed me a headlamp.
“There’s still hours of light?”
“Not in there,” he said. WTF? In where?
He pulled back the vines and there was a black hole in the rock, barely taller than me.
“No one said anything about a cave!”
“You’re a lucky girl. The cave trip is usually extra cost on the tour,” he said mockingly. I liked Not Funny Daw better.
All my resolve to be a badass evaporated.
“I don’t like small spaces.”
“The other way around has a large river rapid that has killed many elephants. You want to try that way?”