Those who know me are aware that wilderness is my second home. I love to camp. I love to explore new places and to be immersed in different environments. I love the physical challenge of traveling by foot through untracked landscapes. I am at home in mountains. I enjoy the desert. I thrive in winterscapes. When I teach new students the art of living in the wild I strive to help them realize that they can be totally comfortable living in more simplistic ways, attune to the rhythms of nature. I don’t remember the last time I felt really, profoundly uncomfortable camping out. Of course I remember times when mosquitoes drove me mad, or the weather chilled me to my core, or the wind kept me up all night. However I mean more fundamentally uncomfortable. For as long as I can remember I have felt confident in nature and my ability to cope with the obstacles it presents. Spending a few nights camped out in the tropical jungle has been humbling.
The travel is somewhat different. The landscape is very hilly. We are constantly climbing treacherously steep, muddy slopes, grabbing at anything strong enough to bear weight while your feet slide out, sending mud tumbling far down to the river below. Descents are just as slick, as I swing down I am careful not to hastily grab the wrong vine, some are covered in thorns, others biting ants or worse. In places we must squirm through dense tangles of rattan as its sharp points tear at our flesh. Sometimes we walk in murky rivers. These are delightfully cool, but the bottoms are uneven, slippery and not visible through the silt. The rivers twist, turn and drop off into little waterfalls. It takes some slippery balancing moves to climb the tiers through the flowing current or to edge along the wet, near vertical banks. After just a few minutes of these gymnastic endeavors I am soaked in sweat. After a few more I feel like I have lost half of my bodily fluids. I am convinced that I will never be able to drink enough water to keep up with my perspiration. Hiking through the jungle is very hard work, but that isn’t the reason that I feel so uncomfortable.
In a masochistic way I enjoy the ardors of this landscape. It is great to feel my body working hard, my muscles challenged. But I can’t achieve the same focused mind that I do in other environments when I am pushing myself this hard. I am not afraid of cobras or tigers, I equate those to rattlesnakes and bears, which haven’t bothered me since I was a kid. I am irrationally worried about leeches, water borne parasites, biting centipedes (even my guide, an experienced forest ranger, admits that he is afraid of these 15 cm long poisonous creatures) and giant spiders. More specifically I am worried about these things in my bed at night or somehow getting under my tucked and tied layers of clothes.
At the end of the day we arrive at our campsite. The rangers swiftly clear the brush with their machetes. I pitch my hammock under a tarp and swath it in bug netting. I neurotically inspect all openings in the netting, tying them closed. I tell myself that I am going mad, there is no way that anything can get in. Compulsively I check the netting all over again. As my ranger guides relax, putting on their flip flops and shorts, I stand there uneasily. I am not totally sure what to do. I would really like to take off my wet pants and shoes and change into flip flops and shorts. I wonder if I can do that and still prevent leeches from latching onto my feet, ankles and legs. I decide I should just sit and rest, but where? I don’t want to sit in the leaf litter because that seems like the easiest way to let ants and other crawly things into my clothes. I choose a thick vine that forms a nice swing. I sit there for a while, taking deep breaths and calming down. My momentary mental panic is now subsiding. Then I feel something sting my back, through my shirt. I swat at it, decide it was nothing. It happens again. This time I jump up. I walk a brisk lap of the camp, then go in search of my camera. I will just take some pictures. The problem with this solution is that my lens is badly fogged and it is nearly dark. I want to crawl into my hammock and hide there until morning, but that would require taking off my wet pants and I have already decided that that simply won’t work. I do realize that I need to let my feet dry out, so I change out of my wet shoes and socks into flip flops. Close inspection reveals that today my gaiters kept most invading leeches out. This makes me very happy. I go settle down next to Tomy who is cooking dinner. We sit on a foam sleeping pad beside the camp stove. We talk and it takes my mind off my fears. It is now dark. Idai and Budi, the other two rangers have gone to spear some fish in the river by headlamp. The students have just arrived and they are busy taking machetes to the site where they will erect their massive tarp. I am tremendously relieved that I won’t have to sleep under a tarp with no bug netting.
My mind wanders to images of the hand-sized spider that inhabited my bathroom back at the station (until we chased him out). Its eyes so large that they clearly followed you around the room. It movements so stealthy. It could compress its large body to slide through impossibly small cracks. Now my mind wanders back to my bug netting. Did I tie all the possible entry points tightly enough? I feel a familiar itch on my ankle and shine my headlamp to find a leech trying to suck my blood. I flick it off, accidentally emitting a slight squeal as I do. Tomy notices, he picks up the leech and drops it into the small pool of wax at the tip of a candle. The creature writhes for a moment before mummifying in slow motion. This is a hugely satisfying visual. We eat a feast of rice, fried egg, cucumber and fried fish which Idai has just caught, all with spicy sambal sauce. We spend a while chatting, I flick several more leeches off my feet before deciding that I need to sleep.
It turns out that I am quite exhausted from the day. I get into my dry shorts, then my sleeping bag inside the hammock. I compulsively check every inch of the bug netting for holes one last time and tie it shut under my hammock. Even though rationally I know that nothing can get in I still zip my sleeping bag all the way, pulling the hood over my head and cinching the drawcord. This lasts about ten minutes. The suffocating heat is too much to bear. I am so tired that I begin to forget about the bugs outside. I get rid of the sleeping bag all together. The sounds of the forest quickly melt away to troubled dreams. I struggle to find the best position of comfort in the hammock. I wake several times to find myself squished into a small ball in the center. Despite this it never takes long to fall back asleep. Soon it is morning, birds are out and green light is gingerly filtering down to my resting place. Emerging from the hammock, camp doesn’t look scary at all. Rice is already cooking for breakfast. The students are buzzing around cooking and packing up their shelter. After eating we gear up for the day.
The route proves to be more difficult, we are moving over land to the next watershed. This means a zillion ups and downs as we cross over the countless hills trying to take the most direct route. The humidity doesn’t seem as thick today. While I am still sweating and working hard, I am beginning to get the hang of traveling in this terrain. I even stay calm when I discover that two leeches have made the journey under my gaiter and into my sock, despite my tucked in pants. I catch them a bit late and they can’t be flicked off, a drop of hand sanitizer on their heads does the trick though. Without even taking off my backpack I have remedied the problem and we keep moving while my sock absorbs the blood from my latest leech bites.
By late afternoon we still have a kilometer to camp. It will be dark in an hour. It has taken us all day to travel less than three kilometers. I begin to doubt that we will make it during daylight hours. I keep these concerns to myself as we stop for yet another drawn out cigarette and snack break. My rangers are so relaxed, they must know something that I don’t. Once we start moving again we hit an old trail. We reach our campsite blissfully fast. I am thrilled to arrive and even more thrilled to sit down in the river while I do a thorough leech check and removal. Today dozens are hiding under my gaiters and in my shoes. None are attached to flesh though. This task complete I decide to take a quick bird bath in the river. Leeches seem to be falling from the trees and I flick many off my shoulders and back while trying to get clean. I do manage to finish my wash up with only a minimum of silent freak out. Feeling very refreshed and much more adept I don my shorts and a cleanish t-shirt and march back to camp in my flip flops. My new found comfort has made me much more excited to be out here. After setting up my hammock I diligently tie all the netting shut, but don’t bother to double or triple check it. I hang out in the kitchen area for a long time talking with the rangers and joking around. Then it comes time for bed. I lie in my hammock listening to some music on my ipod, feeling proud that I am getting over my fears of the forest.
I begin to get cold. My stomach rumbles a bit. I pull up my sleeping bag but the cold only gets worse. Soon I am shaking. My stomach is wracked with shooting pains. Cold sweats begin. I feel as though I am going to vomit at any moment. I work up the determination to lift my head and see that all is dark and quiet in camp. I know that I have a fever, I want to take some acetaminophen but don’t want to move to get it. After some interminable period of time I untie the net and lurch out of my hammock. I find the pills and some water and hastily swallow them. Without my sleeping bag I am unbearably cold and convulsing so much that my teeth are smashing together. My stomach is in such pain that I can’t hold myself upright. I stumble back over the chopped up vines and shrubs that were cleared to make way for my bed and lean against the hammock. As I lift myself up, tucking the edge of the fabric under my butt I sit back and wait to fall into the hammock. Instead I flip backwards over it and nearly tumble down the bank into the river. A slew of expletives explode from my mouth before I get up, check myself for leeches with my head lamp and try again, this time more cautiously. When I am finally back in my sleeping bag I feel terrible. I spend the night floating in and out of lucidity and pain.
In the morning the fever is held at bay by the second dose of pills I have taken but my stomach and the nausea are getting worse. The rangers insist that I eat, so I slowly choke down a few spoonfuls of rice. They will be spending one more night in the forest. Luckily Tomy must go back to camp for a meeting and he suggests that I go with him. This is a relief and a let down. I am just getting comfortable in the forest and I don’t want to give up. Although I have no idea what illness I have, whether it will go away or get worse. I do know that the jungle is certainly not the best place to find out. Furthermore, a bug free bed and a toilet are too much to resist. We hike out on the trail. It is four kilometers to camp and we make very fast time. We stop once for Tomy to make some phone calls. Stopping is much worse than moving. The nausea swells when we stop. My head swirls. I am acutely aware of every ache in my body and my immense fatigue from a sleepless night. On the move I can focus on my movements, where I put my feet, and how I dodge overgrown branches. With every step I suppress the urge to ask how much farther.
Mercifully I begin to recognize aspects of the trail. A familiar junction, a downed tree used as a bench during jungle school. We are very close. We arrive at Danau Alo before noon. I shower quickly, then collapse on my bed. The hike has been much more draining than I realized. I sleep all day. When I wake up I check my temperature. I still have a mild fever but I feel better than the night before. My stomach is still in rough shape, but luckily I now have a bathroom in the room so that is no big problem. I fall back asleep. After 24 hours in bed my condition has much improved. I venture out to find some plain rice to eat. I drink lots of tea. Soon the rangers return with tales of their final day of adventure. Danau Alo is transformed again to a boisterous jungle outpost.
With reflection I realize just how intriguing and wonderful the jungle is. I am keen to go camping again. The most fearsome threats are in my mind. I am still not fond of creepy and crawly things and certainly don’t want them in my bed, but this is both preventable and non-life threatening. I am excited to spend more time in the forests of Sumatra. I am also grateful for this out-of-my-comfort-zone experience. This is how many of my students must feel during the early days of an expedition. It can sometimes be difficult for me to genuinely empathize with them. It has been so long since I have felt uncomfortable and even scared in nature. I am grateful for this humbling reminder that nature is not always upfront with its marvels. Sometimes it takes a bit of determination to get past our fears when confronted with new and unknown wilderness. This is a lesson that I will carry with me.