About two years ago I wrote about what a week of adventure in my backpack might look like, “a small series of events that found its charm in its simplicity, its representativeness of the daily life”. A daily travel life full of unexpected, tainted by this unprecedented freedom that could never be summarized in a short text or a single story.
Today, I want to immortalize another fragment of it. Maybe shorter, but still faithful to the vagaries of the unknown, as a portrait of the travel life. Nothing more.
So I’m a little late when I leave Chiang Mai that day, walking on the paved road under a sun at its zenith. My goal is simple: hitchhike to Pai in an afternoon – a village about 3:30 from Chiang Mai – in order to do some trekking in the next days.
About twenty minutes later an Irishman stops his scooter and I get on the back. He is unfortunately not going to Pai, but he agrees to do a long way with me: he had nothing to do with his afternoon. We even took the time to stop for a beer… twice! Did I tell you he was Irish?
It’s a tough life in Thailand!
A bit later, we stop at a red light at the junction of two highways and chatted a little. But when the scooter restarts, I all of a sudden feel pulled back… The scooter being rather small, my backpack is hanging at the end of the seat and the first second of acceleration is enough to make me lose my balance. I try as much as possible to stabilize myself and stay on the scooter by grabbing the bench, but to no avail: my feet slowly rise up while my weight inevitably carries me backwards. My driver has only moved a few meters when-
Alex has become a turtle. I lie on my back on the asphalt of a Thai highway, before the eyes of all the other drivers and passengers who were waiting – and are still waiting, thanks god – behind us.
Did I tell you that Thailand is nicknamed the “Land of Smiles”? Well it’s true. Especially when there is a clumsy tourist making a fool of himself on the highway.
Having left the Irishman, I get in a truck with two Thais that will take me through the endless curves and mountains until Pai. Two quiet hours, if not for this extract of reality that burns our eyes when, in a tight curve of the road, a scooter appears lying in the middle of it. A woman, also. I’ll spare you the details, but a glance was enough for me to understand that she was looking way too far over her shoulder. Her eyes would never reopen anymore.
I recall a friend who recently wrote to me about death. I think of all these people – friends, relatives and acquaintances – that could close their eyes before… before what? Before I come back? Before “too early” I guess.
Before me, too.
And then I tell myself that it is I who is getting on scooters with other people (and with my backpack) on the dangerous roads of northern Thailand. If it can happen to anyone to close their eyes, it could very well happen to me too. Anytime.
I finally arrived in Pai in the late afternoon, extremely happy and aware of this incredible opportunity I have to see all these places of our planet. I wander in the few busy streets, eat a bit and head out of the village to find a spot to sleep. I end up in a quiet place on the other bank of the river and appreciate the return to the solitude of the trapper.
Except… I’m not a trapper. Or any kind of man who grew up surviving in the woods, eating live squirrels while riding a moose (Canadians are not like that anymore, sorry).
I am a Westerner, born in a small town of a rich country, raised to fulfill promptly and creatively all my secondary needs. What about my primary needs? I do not even remember how many there are!
Breathing, drinking, eating, dressing, seeing the Montreal Canadiens in the playoffs… That must be it.
Oh no, I forgot: having a roof.
A big detour to tell you that in the northern mountains, at night, it’s bloody cold. And that without a small insulation mattress in my hammock (which I stupidly forgot to order – I knew I would need it), wearing my thermal underwear and my down coat in my sleeping bag was of no help. Niet.
“Newbie! ” would say Michael Paré-Chabot, without even knowing what a hammock is.
But when you choose to sleep outside, having the necessary equipment is not the only criterion for a successful experience. There is also location.
I was half sleeping under the first sunrays when a crackling woke me up. An increasingly strong smell of smoke… I look through the screen of my hammock and what do I see in the jungle? A fire!
I forgot that in several places in Southeast Asia people regularly, for various reasons, light controlled “forest fires” (or bush fires).
And basically, there is one about thirty meters from my hammock. Oops.
But just before sliding out of my hammock (which opens from below), four abandoned/wild dogs run out of the forest. They notice my equipment and naturally start to sniff around my backpack and my hinding place.
Until I move. Immediately, the one who perceived the movement in that big green cocoon starts barking furiously. The others join him and at about a meter of my buttocks, deploy all their aggressiveness.
Shit… I usually always sleep with my knife, but I lost it in Chiang Mai. That makes my huge book on diplomacy (irony, anyone?) the best weapon I have in hand.
I am frozen. An eye on their teeth, the other on the immense flames among the trees, I’m holding my breath.
I wait, motionless, for the dogs to get tired. My wish is fulfilled five minutes later as they find a small cloth bag that I had forgotten on the ground. I get out as quickly as possible and grab the big stick that I placed under my hammock before going to sleep, just in case.
I unleash the gorilla in to scare them – a few times, because they will not give up – while I quickly pack my equipment and run away to find a hostel in the village.
An hour later, I find a dormitory for less than three US dollars. On top of that: there is a shower. And hot water! This will be my first hot shower in 2016.
Actually, no. This will be my first hot shower for four months. Four bloody months.
Well, let me tell you it’s not easy to travel alone, but I once again survived to twenty-four hours straight!