Monday, January 7, 2013

Memoirs of the Jungle

I remember getting on a boat, after a plane and a bus, then a truck, then walking and finally stepping on-  in the midst of Asian houses standing on stilts in the water. I remember thinking I was in a movie, I wasn't sure what kind, but the lighting was so ominous over the mysterious waters we were slowly moving on- I can't really describe it except it felt like the edge of the world, where you leave civilization and move into a different realm that is not earth. Had my camera not broken, these would have been the best photographs I'd taken.

I had traveled, coming from living in Australia, moving through the Island of Borneo to the edge of Sabah- in Malaysia. It was an American some Norwegians, Malaysians and a sometimes-armed South African. We were on a mission- not entirely sure what, but we were going into the jungle... deep and far away, with only what we carried on our backs. I slept with no pillow, only a small mat and a piece of fabric and several sets of clothes compressed and folded into small plastic baggies. I was always awake long after everyone was sleeping. 

One thing tropical remote life will teach you is that in the depths of the earth, furthest from familiar, hidden in mystic- you can reach the edge but you can't run from yourself. Everything you feel, everything you are, the story you carry is the same- a million miles away, you will always be you.

We were there three months, but most my memories were the moments in between. Life is slow in the jungle, and now with blogging and i-phones, I'm not sure many of us would make it out there again. Between the balance of long hikes and very uncomfortable adventures I remember writing lists to keep myself occupied. After our daily rations of rice three times and an occasional "milo-ping" I daydreamed of Bojangles chicken biscuits and computers.

I learned to play the guitar, hunt for jungle greens and river snails, a delicacy when you're only eating rice, skin a coconut with a machete and drink it's fresh water and silky white meat- like you've never tasted before, and speak a little Norwegian, thanks to Joakim & Martin- fresh out of the Nordic army full of stories and life. I learned about "hell week"and Santa Lucia and practiced talking in the rhythm of a song. Jeg heta Ana And every night, to keep ourselves occupied, or to keep from insanity, we laid on our mats and recited things we were grateful from earlier in the day. 

We did things with the natives, but mostly I felt useless... as their tribal language needed several interpreters and by then- I wasn't sure anyone knew what we were saying. I remember children's faces- their perfectly browned skin and beautiful dark eyes. I even gave up my shoes, after the straps broke, and decided to walk on foot for weeks- as they did. We did what I thought was incredible things, but I wish I could return with the skill and wisdom of being 30 but the adventure and bravery of 18.

I became ill and delusional once, proclaiming rooster men were coming to take us away, and Joakim fed me garlic potions that were used for all our ailments. There was garlic in our ears, and down our sore throats - I can only imagine the stench we carried walking through the green. 

I was carried through crocodile infested waters, and witnessed tribal witches who worshipped salt that their beheaded ancestors laid upon. long story- I also, experienced night terrors and cold sweats and midnight revelations. I saw a Komodo Dragon swimming in the water and I believed in dinosaurs again.

When we were finished with our voyage, we arrived in Brunei by invitation of the Sultan, so I was told and stayed at a hotel across from a solid gold temple, that had a story of being torn down and rebuilt several times because a shadow of a cross kept appearing on the wall. It was the cleanest, wealthiest and smallest country I've ever been to. 

We joined the modern world again and I felt out of place, belonging nowhere. Joakim became my safety in a strange world but instantaneously didn't fit into my real life with amenities. I got off the plane after now being 7 months away. I was a know-it-all, and lost. I went on a small circuit sharing my stories with different groups of young people... but shortly after, no one cared about my stories, and no one could relate to my feelings- and the only people that did- were spread out on different continents. 

Joakim & Martin came to North Carolina to visit months later and it was too strange to mix urban life with the two Viking men who carried me on their shoulders and told stories of the army, crawling through mud and learning to live on no sleep, which this adventure was the closest to being in the army I may experience. In the jungle, we were close, most of them felt like family. Carla, from England, felt like a sister. But at home we were strangers... and continued to be.

I rarely think of those times. The times I was brave (naive). When I didn't know about trafficking, or didn't worry incessantly about my little girl, or all the reasons I should not be wandering in head-hunting country or sleeping where mountain creatures could tear us apart at night. 

But sometimes I miss the ignorance, before I really knew the weight of life and lived more like a dare than a task. Sometimes I miss the journey of strangers who became family, and late night conversations beside the never-ending sky and the mystery of tomorrow. And in all those daydreams, I never thought life would be like this. And sometimes I wish I was brave again.


Jessica said...

This is AMAZING. I wish I would've traveled like this when I was's true the weight of life and the irrational fear that creeps in as you become older is so stifling. I, too, wish I could go back to my ignorant times where I would walk around downtown not worried about someone trying to "get" me.

Thank you for YOUR stories, Anna.

jessie said...

this memoir is so epic, haunting and beautiful. i wish i knew you then. we would've gotten into so much trouble together. your last sentence has a typo in it, Anna - you ARE brave, darling. so so brave. xo

Jessica said...

you should write a book

JasonBethMicah said...

This is so beautiful! Thanks for sharing Anna. I love reading what you write.