The guides give a short demonstration of how to harness yourself in-how to clip your safety lines to the green taped cables - and then they say "goodbye." Then the forest, thirty zipline cables, and the network of treehouses is ours to explore for three days. No helmet necessary. No guide at the end or beginnings of the lines. It's just you and the forest, and one morning guided hike to look for gibbons.
Yeah, so, at mealtimes, guides zip into the treehouse with a bucket of sticky rice and multiple round steel containers of food - all stacked together for easy transport. The cooler on the main floor is also stocked with snacks, and the kitchen comes with a sink and a stove and a kettle for coffee or hot Milo (hot chocolate). Of course, there is no electricity, and the bathroom has a squat toilet, a sink and a very cold shower. When we first emerged out of the forest and used a ground toilet again, Katherine mentioned that "it would never ever be fun to use a toilet ever again." There is something quite thrilling about hearing waste drop over thirty meters.
After a whole day of zipping above the mountainous, cloudy forest - sometimes on lines that are more than 500 meters long- the food - which, in any other setting, would be rated "Bedroom with a Hot Shower" food- becomes "Triple Hot Shower" food. Everything about this experience is Triple Hot Shower. The grant for this project was awarded to end slash and burn farming (for rice), to build a sustainable local income and to protect the endangered black gibbon. The conservation group (called Animo) has been up for a Changemaker Award for their concept...and I think that perhaps when it is completely run by Laotians they will be strong contenders to win it.
We didn't see any gibbons, but we did hear them singing in the mornings. I hear that they are very, very shy.
Now for a story:
The first night, the six of us in Treehouse Number One light candles in the lantern and play euchre and tell riddles and stories and read comments left by other TNO guests. Many of them mention the Treehouse Rat. "Name him," they say, "feed him," and "play with him." We all agree that people are perpetuating the rat myth. Rats don't climb trees...do they? So we play and we laugh and we tell more stories and it's time for bed.
The "beds" are mattresses with thick, white "mosquito nets" that you tuck under the mats. K and I lift up our "net" to get ready for bed and what I see on my pillow is horrifying: it's my REI backpack, nibbled through, ripped apart, and the half of the sandwich that I didn't finish during the hike is scattered all over my pillow. Either we interrupted the treehouse rat midmeal, or he thought the sandwich had too much onion in it, too. Or maybe the high quality material of my backpack filled him up. In any case, the rat of TNO is no myth.
The story continues. K and I tuck and tuck and tuck our mosquito net so very tightly under our mats, and I leave my Rat Pack outside of the tent - you can't really get rid of crumbs, you know, and we finally fall asleep. You know how when you're dreaming and something is happening in the real world...how your dream incorporates that reality right into it in some wacky fashion?
Well, I am dreaming that I am in an Easter play and that someone is putting a crown on my head. Someone is Pat-Pat Patting my head, putting the crown on really, really well. (Kathy Clift, read no further).
Yeah, so (everyone but Kathy) pat pat pat pat...pat pat pat - tighten that Easter crown - and then I cross the threshold from the dream. There is no Easter play. There is no crown on my head. Rather, the TNO Rat is pat pat patting my head, through the thick white mosquito net.
I leap up and into Katherine's corner.
"Katherine! A rat was just patting my head!"
Woken out of a deep sleep, K says, "OK."
That's all I get, "OK."
I can assure you that if she or you or anyone else endured this horror and woke me up to tell me about it, I would give you more than "OK." I guarantee you.
Somehow, in my world of horror, I manage to fall back to sleep. Upon waking again and venturing out of the Rat Net, I find that TNO Rat did not get his fill of my REI Rat Pack during Round #1. He has nibbled through another section, and he has nibbled through the strap that attaches the whole pack together. Which was completely unnecessary.
So even if I tried to forget about the rat pat pat patting my head in the night, the crazy way I had to string the Rat Pack together for the rest of the trip reminded me of him every day.
Still, I must give the whole Gibbon Experience a Triple Hot Shower with English TV rating. After all, I was staying in the rat's tree. And the tarantula's tree (which we kept our flashlights on all night - hanging out on the thatched roof, because, what do you do if all of the sudden the tarantula disappears?)
On day three, we descend from our forest into the small village at the base of the preserve. We have come upon the beginning of a five day long New Year's celebration, and the village girls are dressed in their colorful dresses and hats adorned with pom pom balls. They are standing in two opposing lines, playing underhand catch with balls made out of soft material. They invite us to join in as the boys play soccer next to us. We don't take pictures, because "we are not from National Geographic." The handsome Frenchman who overseas the conservation project lounges in his baggy wrap around pants, cooly smoking a cigarette and interacting with the men in Laotian while we all wait for our all-terrain vehicle to take us back to town.
What is not Triple Hot Shower with English TV about that scene?