The following morning I tried to make my way behind the hog pen and I couldn’t make a single move without triggering the attention of the crowd of children. I searched for a good spot and everywhere I looked was occupied with pigs, chickens, and children. I finally had to rig up a kind of tent out of sheets.
After a breakfast of 1/5 of a baguette and peanut butter, we went to the village guest house to have coffee and we marveled at the interior kitchen set-up. Michael was quick to point out the kreosote build up that he was tempted to warn them about. We met with the village elders again and presented them most formally with a bottle of Lau Lau and quite a large sum of money for the accommodations and the monthly water collection.
We hiked to the first cave. Steph, Phou, Norseng and the van driver and I continued on to Tham Dook. We were told it was a five minute skip. For Phou, it was a five minute skip. For me, it was a half hour vertical climb up the steepest rock face I’ve ever encountered. I had long ago reached saturation point with adventure and was now dead set on surviving the rest of this journey, snapping some photos and getting back to the safety and comfort of Luang Prabang. Every time we seemed to summit the mountain, it just continued up and up. I had long ago abandoned any efforts to cover up my abject misery because Stephanie was the only who could understand my expletives. I tried to alternate my whining and panting with apologies. When we made it to the top, everyone effortlessly flung themselves over the 10 foot boulder that lead to the entrance. I made six attempts to place my feet in the unforgiving crags to no avail. I gave up. I told Phou, “I’m done. I’m sorry. I’m going to stay here with Skippy.” Phou disappeared and came back with a spear of bamboo and slid it down as a ladder. I shook my head and apologized. “You go. Sorry.”
I perched on the only rock available, shaped like a tear drop, and I was sitting on the pointy part, feeling like I failed my own personal challenge. I made it to the top of the mountain and couldn’t even go the extra few feet to see the cave. I was feeling very self critical until I realized, wait a minute, I never made a personal challenge. I’m not a rock climber and I’m not a caver. I’m just here to take document. And I became perfectly content with my decision to not go into the cave. Later, I was vindicated when Stephanie charging down the path saying, “Snake!” Phou was placing the humidity logger in a hole and the head of a python hissed and snapped at his hand which was only a few inches away from Stephanie’s head. I was glad I was not there to witness that.
Our guides started boiling water over a fire they started with a flick of their fingers for our “Mama” brand Lao cupanoodles. The serene jungle quiet was suddenly interrupted by the desperate and gutteral growling of Michael about half a mile away disgorging himself from the restrictive mouth of Tham Loum: “Oh my God this is AWFUL!” The villagers all looked at each other, shook their heads and laughed.
Soon Michael, Mick, and Kathleen came down the hill with the stalagmite dressed like a scarecrow in one of thier caving jumpers that looked like a mechanic’s cover-all. They were so happy to have made it out of the cave without cracking the thing in half. Even though as soon as it came back to the MMAP office, it broke right in two which might make it easier to ship back to UC Irvine anyway.