’13, 14, 15, good luck’ I whispered to myself as I turned and tried to catch up to the light that was already out of sight. I was near the back of the group and the ranger just behind me had stopped to take a call on his little red cell phone, by the time I noticed he wasn’t right behind me he was only visible by the glow of his phone’s screen. My tour group had been hurrying to get to that nights camp for an hour, ever since it started to get dark. We were suppose to be at camp before it got dark but plans change and this time it meant that our jungle guide had lost his phones and had to run back to find it, it took him nearly two hours. At the time I didn’t know it would mean we would have to traverse the last hour and a half in darkness. When the ranger stopped behind me I knew that if I waited for him too long I would not be able to find the group, the path we were following was too faint and they were walking at a fast pace. I counted to 15 and went on hoping that the ranger knew what he was doing.
The trail that day was sometimes only a trail after we walked through it, the ranger in front slashed a path and our feet flattened the undergrowth. I was confident that on my own I could not find my way, the guides knew what they were doing but even they occasionally went the wrong way. They would say “Back.” and we’d all turn around until they found the correct way forward. The jungle was thick and even the trails we did find were made for the smaller native people. It had only gotten more difficult when darkness fell, everything seemed to loom closer and it would have been easy to feel claustrophobic. Once I finally saw the headlamp of one of the people in my group bobbing and disappearing behind trees ahead of me I was relieved.
Walking into camp was beautiful, another group had arrived first so there were cooking fires already lighting the circled humans. People were talking and preparing food, it was so familiar. It was like meeting someone I was friends with as a kid but haven’t seen in years. It was such a human feeling to walk in and take a seat by the fire. I usually have some difficulty relaxing in a group of people but I felt at home immediately. It wasn’t long before I found my place gathering some firewood and than hunting frogs. The guides had a fishing net in the stream next to camp and they managed to catch four or five small fish. I was hearing frogs close by so I wanted to try and contribute to dinner. I managed to track three frogs down by their chirps and I caught two. I brought them to the guide to ask if they were good to eat. “Ohh, good job. Yes barbecue”, the guide seemed excited. He immediately killed one frog by hitting its head against a rock and than threw it into the coals where it started jumping around as if it were still alive. Despite catching numerous frogs through my childhood I hadn’t ever eaten a frog, but before they were done the guide pulled them off so the rest of the meal could be cooked.
By the time dinner was ready everyone seemed to be very ready to eat. It felt so satisfying to sit down together after a little bit of shared challenge from the days long hike. I don’t know any better meal than after a long days work, around a fire, and with a good group of people. Rice wine was served in the local custom, using one cup and passing it around the circle. I finished the frogs but I still don’t know what frog tastes like, my taste was numbed by the spicy food and hard alcohol. The texture was about all I could notice.
“My friend, more rice, enjoy.” one of the rangers told me, he seemed to have taken a liking to me. He was very devoted to helping me to eat as much rice as I could possible stomach.
As everyone started to climb into their hammocks the guides and rangers gathered into a circle to eat the fish they had caught, it was only 9pm but it was feeling much later. It was easy to see that they had done this kind of thing many times before, most of them lived in only a few miles away and the majority were from ethnic groups of a thousand individuals or less, people that had a long heritage of jungle living that is still being passed on. It was a pleasure to see them finish cooking the fish and prepare a sauce out of green onions, chili’s and some soy sauce. It was all done like people back home use a microwave or lock the front door.
“Eat rice with me?” one of the rangers asked. It was how they asked if I wanted to eat with them, saying eat rice seemed to be the same as saying eat food. None of them seemed to like wearing pants or shirts when they weren’t trekking and I was still in my underwear from swimming before dinner so we all squatted around the plate of fish, passing rice wine and I listened to them chat in Khmer. I didn’t know what was going on but I felt honored to share the meal with them.
I was starting to yawn after the meal so I said goodnight and found my way to my hammock.I was so thankful for the days events and so excited for the coming day, I heard myself wishing I had more nights like this one. It made me realize that I had no real reason to not spend every night like that.When I curled up in my hammock I was very full, full of gratitude and rice wine, full of questions and of happiness that was so happy it was almost sadness. It was the fullest I’ve felt in a long time.