Max held me tight to his chest as I sobbed. I couldn't decide if I was sad, scared, or mad, but at this point, it didn't matter. The lateness of the night made hope of a rescue futile. It was obvious we would meet no further travelers on the path until morning at the earliest, and with no gas in our tank, and no end in sight, that left us with one option. We both knew what neither of us was willing to say; we would be spending the night in the jungle.
I listened to the loud buzzing of the insects and started to imagine myself sleeping on the cold, muddy earth, not knowing what kind of animals could be lurking in the blackness of the trees. Just as I was concluding to myself that the best idea would be to sleep with my helmet on, Max noticed a man-made drainage system of sorts. It was the first sign of life we had come across for a long time, and for some reason it gave us hope. I suppose any sign of humans, when you feel like the only humans in the world, will do that to you. We decided to try and start up the bike one more time to see what we could find. We really had nothing to lose.
After a couple tries, the bike started up. I had little faith it would make it around the next bend, but I reluctantly donned the pack that I was beginning to loathe, and hopped on the bike, willing to give it one more try. We backtracked to the fork and took the other path, and in less than 5 minutes we saw it; a glint of light up a little hill. We rode up on what I'm sure was just fumes, and saw the most humble looking gathering of stilted homes I'd ever seen. They were the homes of the tribal Akha people, an indigenous mountain group who live off the land in every sense, hunting and gathering for subsistence and staying virtually untouched and unschooled by the outside world. When we rode in on our motorbike late that night though, they were much more than that.
There was no electricity, but we could see glints of light coming from the fires and candles through the slits of the wooden walls of their homes. Everything was quiet and everyone was tucked inside the safety of their homes for the night and for the first time in my life, I had an overwhelming feeling of envy for a people who, by the world's standard, had way less to be envious about. I envied them because they were warm and had full bellies, but most of all, because they were home. They belonged there and I longed to feel the same.
We approached the first house, a little unsure of how we would be received, especially so late at night, and said one of the few words we knew in Lao, "sabaydee", or "hello". Little did we know, they didn't even speak Lao, but their own tribal language that sounded to me even more foreign and incomprehensible than Lao. We walked around the outside of the home, hearing unsure whisperings from within, until finally a teenaged boy emerged from the front door. Now, I'm not sure how word travels in a town with no cell phones or electricity of any kind, but for some reason the children seem to just know when something exciting or new is going on, and just as in the previous Hmong village, all the sudden we were surrounded by them on all sides. We tried our best to communicate with the teenaged boy that we needed gasoline, but of course he couldn't understand a word that came out of our mouths, or our absolutely ridiculous gestures.
After getting nowhere with words, we decided to take him over to the bike and show him the gas tank. That did it. He recognized our need immediately and walked us into the center of the village to another home, the trail of chattering children still at our heels. A woman opened the door, surprised to see two white people, covered in mud, and looking absolutely out of place and helpless, surrounded by what I'm sure were all the children in the town. He explained to her our situation and she went back in the house to pull out 3 old water bottles filled with bright red fuel, a common and very relieving sight for our sore eyes. We paid her, took the gasoline, and before we left, tried to get directions out of the forest. It's impossible to know how much understanding was going on, but there was a lot of pointing, grunting, and looks of absolute confusion. Eventually we realized they were trying to tell us it was going to be several hours still before we would make it out of the jungle and they gestured that we should just sleep there for the night. My first thought was "absolutely not, I'm getting out of this jungle tonight if it's the last things I do!". And then I remembered the confusing forks in the road, the darkness, the mud, and the rumbling in my tummy. Max and I counseled with each other in a language that obviously intrigued our entourage of staring children and, though leery about the circumstances, finally decided it was probably the best of the bad ideas.
The teenaged boy then took us across to another home that we could only assume was where they put wandering lost guests and gestured for us to take off our shoes before we climbed the stairs to the dwelling. Although it's a tradition in Laos to do so upon entry to homes, and even stores and shops, I was a little taken aback to be asked to remove my shoes to enter a dusty, wooden hut in the middle of the jungle, with pigs and chickens running around underneath and cats, dogs and mice roaming the interior. But of course I didn't want to offend our willing hosts, so I quickly removed my very muddy, very thrashed, favorite pair of boots (of which Max still owes me another pair), and walked up the stairs to our new home for the night.
We entered a large room with nothing but a few bamboo mats to cover the wooden planks of which you could see straight through to the ground beneath. There were obviously people living here with some bedding and a small candle for light still burning, but there were no adults in sight and we had no idea what to do. We must have looked confused, because finally our child host helped us lay out a couple mats in the corner and gave us some blankets to use. After we got "settled", Max went to go move the bike and I was left, alone in the large room, surrounded still by the group of curious children, starring at me with their beautiful brown eyes, waiting for me to do something. The silence was awkward, so I did what I know how to do best and whipped out my iPhone.
We spent the next several minutes listening to Frank Sinatra, and going through all the videos and pictures I had on my phone, and although I loved seeing the smiles on their face as they saw photos of snow for the first time, I was relieved to be out of the spotlight when Max returned and slowly, one by one, they exited the house to calls from their own mothers beckoning them home.
Max and I didn't speak as we laid down to "bed" that night, but held each other to stay warm and tried not to think about the mice scurrying around us...or our still-empty bellies. I was so grateful to have a roof over my head, but I couldn't wait for daylight when the sun would warm the earth once again and light our path out of the jungle. It wouldn't be long now.
Daylight did come, but verrrry slowly, and at 6am I couldn't sleep through the cold anymore. The village was already a buzz, people preparing for the day, getting ready to go back out to the fields just as the sun rose. Max had already been up, watching the villagers go about their morning duties and helping the woman we would discover was our real hostess feed the animals.
It felt so strange to be there. We got a sense that we weren't quite welcome by the adults, and later recognized that it was probably because they just didn't know what to think about us. I was so grateful that I didn't have to sleep in the mud with the tigers, but I still couldn't wait to get out of there.
We filled up the tank with gas, and as we were about to head out, our hostess gestured us to come eat with her. Although I was a little leery about what would be on the menu, my stomach couldn't resist, and it turned out to be one of the best meals we had on our trip--exaggerated only slightly because of how starving we were. She made a deliciously seasoned rice porridge, steamed greens right out of the jungle, and an amazing "salsa"-ish dip. And of course, the Lao staple…sticky rice. We sat around a short table, on tiny wooden stools, our knees at our chests, and ate with our hands, trying our best to communicate our gratitude. We paid her what was probably more than she made in a week (about 5 dollars), and were off.
Though the daylight made finding our way a little less daunting (and less scary), the trail itself didn't get any easier. The mud was just as thick and deep and the bike still couldn't make it up most of the hills. There were places where the prickly vines would start to creep in over the road and grab at our clothes, trying to tear them from our bodies. One such incident left me with half a fingernail, and more upset than ever. The scenery was magnificent, but I couldn't let myself appreciate it. We had taken this adventure way too far and it wasn't over yet.
By about noon, I started to notice the road widening, more people working in the fields and a few houses here and there. We were getting closer to civilization! I started to regain hope, but unfortunately, once again, it was premature. We came across a stream over the road that was a little deeper than expected and as we tried to ride through it, the loose chain got caught and broke. We were sitting ducks. I didn't freak out. I didn't start crying. I just got off the bike, waded through the water and sat myself with the pack on the other side. I couldn't be surprised anymore and anything short of the tiger I feared, jumping out and eating me, was not going to set me off.
A kind boy, also crossing the river on his bike, tried helping Max find the missing link in the stream, but it was fruitless. They, too, eventually crossed the river and after looking around for something to fix it with, realized it couldn't be done without finding a new part. That meant getting into town. Max would have to borrow a motorbike from a young boy whose house was just across the stream and ride the last 20 kilometers out of the jungle into town to get the piece. I would stay with the broken bike...as collateral.
The first 4 hours at the stream were actually quite peaceful. The day had gotten warm, and I took off my wet, muddy jeans so they could dry in the sun, and wore just a t-shirt and the shorts I had on underneath. I laid down by the water in the shade and watched the local kids swim naked in the water, having the time of their lives, while I listened to every podcast I could before my phone died. I had a lot of time to think about the situation, and once again, I envied the carefree way the children played in the stream, so at home with this place. I wished the situation was different and that I could just jump in the water and play with them, with no worries, and no hesitation.
Then I started to get antsy. Max had been gone for about 5 hours when I had figured out that it shouldn't have taken more than 3, tops. My mind started to race as I thought of all the things that could have happened to him and how helpless I was stranded in the jungle by myself. I packed up all my stuff in the backpack and started to walk down the road toward the town because I couldn't sit any longer. I quickly turned around when I remembered I had no water and walking in the hot sun was probably not a good idea. I sat by the water again for a few minutes and again got up to walk down the road, worried that anything could have happened to Max by now. I did this back and forth a few times before, during one of my attempts, a group of boys in a truck offered to give me a ride into town. I had no idea how I would find Max once I got there, but I had to do something. They looked innocent enough, so I got in the truck and started down the road. About 15 minutes into the drive I saw him, 6 hours after he had left, he was coming back down the road, on the bike, with the missing piece for the chain and a carton full of Lao noodles. I yelled for the boys to stop and jumped out of the truck, relieved to see my sunburned husband, but furious all the same.
We rode back to the bike, and with the help of the local men, Max went to work trying to fix the chain. I quickly devoured the noodles, and then watched in anticipation as they fiddled for about 20 minutes before the piece broke and we were back to square one. As I was contemplating the thought of having to stay another night in the jungle, the men offered to throw the bike in the back of their truck and take us out of the jungle. I couldn't have been happier at the suggestion. So, as the sun was starting to set again, we loaded up in the truck (5 of us in the cab and Max holding on to the bike in the bed), and rode the rest of the way out of the jungle on that muddy, treacherous road that I never wanted to see again in my life.
Getting back to the guesthouse that night was one of the best things that has ever happened to me. I stood in the (almost) warm shower, washing the jungle from my sweat-stained body, my open nail-bed stinging with every drop of water, and couldn't think of a time I had felt more at ease. I realized that night for the first time that home is a state of mind. This was the feeling I was envying of those people in the jungle; it was safety, security, and a sense of belonging. And that night, there in that guesthouse in a tiny town in northern Laos, I was finally home.