I arrived at midday in Luang Namtha in northern Laos with a life-altering mission: to find some bloody friends.
A shower, hair-wash and book-swap was also on the agenda, but after three days on the road, alone, there was nothing more important than bursting my bubble of loneliness and creating a new opportunity for myself.
I saw a fluro green shirt with pink writing and ran for it, knowing that no self-respecting local would be wearing something so ridiculous as a shirt that shouted Full Moon Party to the world, but this was my kinda person. And Tomas insists it was laundry day.
As I approached the French-Canadians in a brimming tuk-tuk, I did not even bother to hide the desperation in my eyes. “Do you mind if I join you,” I panted at them, pining for some company. They tactfully ignored my pleading tone and, thinking that perhaps I’d be so grateful that I’d buy them dinner, they welcomed me into the fold.
At the travel agency I met the Scots and the five of us booked a two-day jungle trek. How’s that for committment, eh.
With a huge sigh of relief I cast aside my solitaire-playing days for a while. Then, the luck tide bought a fresh wave of recruits; five became nine and we set off for the hills.
We’d called ourselves the Awesomes, and I wondered if they’d live up to my lofty expectations after trekking with The Best Group in China. Mostly, I wondered if I’d ever begin to call groups something original.
Our launch point was a picturesque village, complete with a bamboo suspension bridge, leaf-roofed huts, gap-tooth locals and some smiling kids splashing in the river. I wondered what they thought of our bunch, tromping through their space with our colourful backpacks and clumpy shoes. Hopefully, we are not too invasive.
The first hill was always going to be a killer. Pon, our cheeky guide, told us the trek was easy-to-moderate, but if it was raining it malevolently changed to moderate-to-difficult. I reckon it’d be death-defying in the rain, as the mud and leaves were already mincing beneath our steps. Watching the fellow trekkers slip was better than the circus.
We trudged steadily up, brushing vines out of our faces and basking in the tropical scenery. The heat and rampant humidity adds an extra dimension. I have only ever trekked through mountains, and in refreshing altitude climates, but jungle treks, I soon found out, are a different brand of walk. As we huffed and puffed up the hill like a pack of recovering asthmatics, the sweat dripped from my eyebrows. All of our clothes looked as if they’d been taken out of the washing machine long before the spin cycle kicked in.
The scenery made up for it, however, and I had plenty of new mates to grill.
My favourite part of any day, and this is even more profound during a day of walking, is meal time. Banana leaves were fetched from the forest and spread across a rickety bamboo table. Vegetable curries were poured onto the leaves and we received a parcel of sticky rice each. Eating with hands was compulsary. I was in heaven.
But, the peace was short-lived. We encountered our first leeches as we strolled along the ridge, just a stone’s throw from the luchspot. The girls were screaming and desperately trying to pick them off their shoes. I had my first bite from an over-achieving thirsty sucker.
Then, my rampant dysentry reared its runny head.
A few moments after I re-joined the group I was the first to muddy the seat of my pants. I also managed to snag a pretty bruise on my inner arm after I caught a branch when I fell. Soon, we were all hitting the deck like a toddler trying to shuffle a pack of cards.
We stopped briefly at a stream for one of the guides to sharpen his knife on a stone. I’m sure it was just for dinner, but the thought of the local tigers kept my mind amused for a while.
Here is where the real trouble started. Pon, in an innocent-sounding, nonchalant voice tells us that the section ahead has many leeches. We’d been battling the bloodthirsty insects for some time already and were decidedly concerned by this relevation.
The avenue of leeches was torture, that we had paid for.
The slimy suckers littered the ground, as prevalent as the rotting leaves. Their heads reared up like a herd of angry stallions, desperately seeking some sweet, sweet tourist blood. We were constantly bashing them with sticks to get them off our shoes. I prefered a quick flicking action which I perfected as a kid on long school-bus rides with my brother. Back then, we’d flick each other’s foreheads until the other could handle it no longer. I never thought that sadistic game would come in useful, but I never anticipated the Laotian leeches to be so clever.
In fact, it was comical at times. The group would run through the jungle, as quick as possible, and then stop for a brief bashing to get the leeches off the shoes. Estonian, French, Austrian, Spanish and English swear words were flying around the bush like out-of-control frizbees. For almost 40 minutes the scream, run, scream, bash, swear, run, scream, swear, bash, scream, run routine was adhered to with Japanese precision.
Time flew by.
We stopped in the searing sun, in relative safety, to lick our wounds, calm our pulses and check inside our shoes. I screamed like a banshee when I saw two inside my trusty hiking boots; I was so disappointed in my boots.
Later on, as we chuckled about the episode, I felt something biting my inner thigh. Inhibitions were left on the track as I plunged my hand in my pants and pulled on a filthy leech. More screaming ensued as I got the sucker out, but the real trauma was not in the bite, it was the fear of a leech getting any closer to my panty line.
Accordingly, my hand stayed in my pants for the rest of the walk; paranoia, check.
It had been a torturous day, but arriving at a local village five hours from any civilisation put things sharply into perspective.
Pigs, ducks, chickens, dogs and cows of all ages wandered around the thatched huts. It was an idyllic setting by the river. After a quick swim, we played some games with the beautiful kids, a few of the crew pulling out enormous energy to teach the locals stuck in the mud and other running and tagging games. Their smiles were heart-warming, but I was touched by the kids’ threadbare clothes. The village was pleasant in so many ways, subsistence farming and kids seemingly enjoying a childhood, but I could not ignore the poverty, and served mysef a healthy slice of Western guilt.
Dinner was a feast. Tofu and tomato curry, beef curry and pumpkin soup satisfied our hike-induced appetites. I adore the guilt-free eating that comes with hiking.
The local whiskey, Lao Lao, was passed around the table. “Bottoms up,” Pon commanded us. Of course, we obliged.
The laughter at the table soon turned to talk of the stars. We were excited to be in the country with a clear sky and soon made ourselves a nest near the fire to observe the sky.
Our collective quest to spot a shooting star was disrupted by some pesky night-time playthings – the fireflys.
After a flash of light the group would yell out, collectively, in excitement. Moments later the flash would appear a few beats to the left and we’d simultaneously emit a loud sigh before we laughed at the easy error.
“If it changes direction, it’s not a shooting star,” the helpful Scotsman pointed out for the less astronomically-minded in the group.
The fireflys contibued to wink at us as we searched the solar system for movement. A few satellites kept us entertained as the group gradually peeled off to bed.
By 9pm a beautiful Bolivian lady and the fiesty Austrian remained on the blanket with me. We huddled together with a few beers and plenty of tales to share. Finding two solo female travelers provided perfect like-mindedness. Our laughter echoed off the trees as we told tales from home and abroad, still searching for shooting stars.
The fireflys were beautiful and provided endless entertainment for us star-gazers. At one point the Austrian lept onto her elbows, exclaiming “I hate the fucking fireflys. They’re so fucking mean!” And we laughed some more.
I believe we saw one real shooting star that night, but the real joy for me was the sense of community I felt with people I had met just hours before. The Awesomes were vastly different from the Best Group, but they were the balm that shooed my loneliness out the door, replacing it with new mates and memories of a night by a creek, with some insects, a dash of local whiskey and a sky full of stars to wish upon in some little village in northern Laos.