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The David B Adair Memorial (Almost Again!) Newsletter
Cave Drowning Edition
October 8, 1991
After I wrote my last letter about Borneo I came across a US $400 round trip air ticket from Singapore to San Francisco, so I took it! I went home for three weeks just to take a break and visit. It was kind of disorienting to be home so suddenly when I hadnít planned on being home for eight more months. It must have been disorienting to my friends that I surprised, as well. I went unannounced to where I used to work and by friend Lyn, who looked like sheíd seen a ghost, said she felt sick to her stomach all day. At least I got a reaction.
I flew back to Singapore and spent a few more days there. Itís a funny city. The government is fanatical about cleanliness. Itís actually a law, and youíll see signs posted to that effect, that if you donít flush the toilet itís a fine of $500 (US$300). And believe it or not, occasionally it does get enforced, probably by the SPP, Singapore Poop Patrol. In a Kentucky Fried Chicken (there are hundreds of them) I saw a hand-washing machine. It was an enclosed box hanging on the wall. You put your hands in and an electric sensor starts it. First, water flows to wet your hands, then a squirt of soap, time to wash, then water to rinse, followed by a blast of air to dry your hands. They just love their high-tech.
I took a train to Penang, Malaysia. I got in late at night and was taken by a bicycle rickshaw to a little hotel. The next morning I find that Iím the only tourist and there are a bunch of Malaysian women sitting around the lobby dressed in tight jeans and wearing lots of makeup. The worse thing about being surrounded by all these prostitutes was that none of them approached me. I found myself kind of flirting and making sure I looked nice when I left my room, but still no reaction. Kind of tough on a guyís ego.
I met a Malaysian man who liked to speak English and was proud of his geography. When I told him where I was from, he said, "Ah, San Francisco, capital of Los Angeles!" Yes, Dr. Science, thatís right. Of course, I have to remember that Iíd already planned my trip and didnít even realize that I had to go through Malaysia to get to Thailand,
I went into Thailand next, where I learned some martial arts. I learned the "Thai Death Grip." Thatís the wristlock that the hookers put on you when you walk past them in a bar. It make me long for my little hotel in Penang. My favorite sport in those bars was trying to spot the men dressed as women, and there were plenty. There is an amazing amount of prostitution in Thailand. In Phuket the hookers far outnumbered the tourists. Are there kids reading this?
After a few beaches in Thailand, which were beautiful, I headed to the far north, to an area called the Golden Triangle. This is where the majority of the worldís opium and heroin come from, and itís where the borders of Thailand, Burma and Laos come together. There is a lot of smuggling over the borders, drugs and guns, and in the past it was a pretty dangerous place, with a lot of armed bandits. I read that only about 15 years ago there would be caravans of 600 mules carrying opium from Burma into Thailand on its way to Western markets. Supported, of course, by plenty of heavily armed guards. Still today, the mountain passes on the border are controlled by non-government armies who collect a 5% tax on all goods smuggled through. Apparently the police take their cut and turn a blind eye.
From the city of Chiang Mai I took a four day jungle trek. After trekking in Borneo I was a little skeptical of what I could expect, but it had itís moments. We had a great group of people: tow Israelis, two English, a Swiss, an Italian and me. We spent the nights in the villages of the hill tribes. On our second day we hiked for seven hours through some beautiful green jungle. I had the opportunity to get reacquainted with my friends, the leaches.
The next day we rode elephants for a couple of hours up a really steep hill. They are terribly uncomfortable and slower then a human walking. The only reason to ride an elephant is so you can tell people you rode an elephant. You just have to work it into the conversation. Suppose youíre at a party. You say, "could you pass me those peanuts? You know, I just love peanuts. Elephants love peanuts, too. Hey, since weíre talking about elephants, did I ever tell you about the time I was in ThailandÖ"
For lunch that day we stopped at a small village where we saw big rhinoceros beetles tied up with string. Theyíre about two inches long and the make has a big horn like a rhinoceros. I asked why they were there, and our guide said they eat them. Before I could stop my lips I heard them say "Iíd like to try that!" I surprised even myself with that one. They are roasted whole over a fire, and to eat them you pull off the head and eat everything else in one or two bites. Boy, are they crunchy. Tastes kind of like a great big insect with a hard shell and soft stuff inside. The flavor is actually quite good if you can get over your initial revulsion.
That evening we had to cross a pretty big river, maybe 30 yards across, that our guide thought would be about up to our waist. As a result of heavy rains the water was up to my chest at the deepest part and really strong. The man had to carry the bags and come back and help the women. It was really a struggle keeping your feet and not getting pushed downstream. When I helped two girls across, I got them to bamboo rafts on the other side, but the current was so strong all they could do was hang on and they couldnít lift themselves out of the water. We almost drowned! OK, we didnít almost drown, but we got really wet! We were supposed to go bamboo rafting the next day but the guides wouldnít go when the water was that fast.
I had enjoyed learning Indonesian so much that I wanted to learn Thai, but it is so difficult. It is a tonal language, and a wordís meaning is affected by the tone of your voice as you say it. There are five tones: high, medium, low, rising, and falling, so one word can have five meanings. For example, MAI MAI MAI MAI, when spoken correctly, means "new wood burns, doesnít it." You can say a word in Thai to a local, and say it every way you can imagine, and you get this blank stare back. It even happens when you say a place youíre going to, and since their alphabet is also different, you canít write it down for them to read. Iíve had some wildly frustrating bus rides as a result, where I need to change buses and no one has a clue where I want to go.
Even though the vast majority of the population doesnít speak English, they love to put English words and sayings on products. Some of these would-be poets can write things that are pretty nonsensical. On a box of cookies, it said "Beautiful things are beyond time. Womenís history never cease to yearn for beauty." I hope they bake better than they write. On a fan, it said "The Wind of Human Life." Is that anything like "The Fan for Human Wind?" At least that I could understand. My favorite, though, was a shirt hanging in a window in Indonesia. Someone must have said that a popular phrase was "live for the moment." They didnít know how it was spelled, though and it came out "Liver The Moment."
I traveled farther north with an Israeli guy named Assa. We stayed at a place that was near a big cave. A group of us took a hike into this cave with a guide where we had to make a number of river crossings, one that was pretty deep. The river runs through the cave and out the other side. The next day I talked Assa into going inner-tubing through the cave. There was a sign where we stayed saying it was dangerous, but the woman at our place said it wasnít that bad. I should have remembered what my aunt said, "nothing is quite as bad as something thatís not that bad."
We tubed on the river for half an hour before coming to the cave entrance. Once inside, it quickly got so pitch black that our small flashlights were only good for a few feet. In about two minutes Assa and I got separated by going on opposite sides of a rock. We couldnít hear each other over the rushing of the water and it took some time before we got back together. What I hadnít thought of (I donít know why) was how scary it would be to be floating in the dark and not knowing where youíre going. I would think I wasnítí moving, then see a rock as I passed by going pretty fast. The current didnít seem terribly strong, though it could flip your tube pretty easily if you got caught on a branch or a rock.
I could hear water rushing very loudly ahead, and it sounded like a waterfall. I kind of hoped it wasnít. The current carried me to the left of Assa, and I started going under a huge rock overhang, about 30 feet wide and four feet above the water but sloping down. You canít steer much in a tube so I just floated along, thinking it would come out from under the ledge somewhere. The ceiling kept getting lower, and the current faster, until I could touch the ceiling with my feet. When there was only about a foot and a half clearance and the rushing sound was very close, I looked forward to see the rock ceiling going straight into the water, and the water plunging under the rock. The current was really strong here and pushing me into the corner. I flipped off my tube and hugged to the wall where the current wasnít as bad. I could see Assaís flashlight about 40 feet away. He was at the edge of the overhang and there was about a foot of vertical clearance between me and him.
I tried stepping into the current but it was much too strong to fight against. I tested the ceiling and thought maybe I could find handholds and pull myself across while my legs dragged in the water. I decided against that because I couldnít be sure I could find handholds and if I fell Iíd get sucked under the rock. I started getting tired and though Iím really stuck, this isnít good. I pictured Assa having to go get help, but that would mean being there at least an hour waiting and that didnít sound fun. I imagined a newspaper headline "Incredible Stupidity Leads to Drowning of Walnut Creek Man; Family Embarrassed." And of course I could hear my mom, "Honey, youíve got to be more careful."
I told Assa to stay where he was and stay out of the current. He thought at first that I was hurt and when he yelled I couldnít hear him over the water. I decided to work my way back along the wall and hoped to cross elsewhere. I crossed a dead tree and its branches and went as far as I could, which was maybe 30 feet from where I first was. The current still looked strong, but I didnít think I had a choice. I jumped out as far as I could, hoping to get across the current before it pulled me back under. My little heart was beating as I jumped, but it worked, and I got to Assa. We took a little breather and decided maybe this wasnít such a good idea, so we walked out. I donít know how dangerous it really was; but I can tell you itís the most scared Iíve been in a long time. And we were really wet.
I have a flight to Kathmandu, Nepal in just a few minutes. Iím meeting Rick there. Canít wait. CIAO!
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All everything © 1997 by Dave Adair.