Almost nothing in life is as beautiful or as great as we imagine it to be. Until beginning The Gibbon Experience in Bokeo Nature Reserve in Northern Laos, I can say this has always been the case. Now I know somethings are not only as great as our imaginations perceive them, they are better. They are bigger and more magnificent than could ever be imagined. And the hard part becomes remembering that greatness because neither the pictures nor the stories do it justice.
It all began when we met our guide, Mikey-Mike, and our fellow adventurers -- 8 of us total at the The Gibbon Experience's office in Huay Xai. With bright eyes and fresh faces, we climbed into what I would call a luxury tuk-tuk -- a very nice version of the three-wheeled motorized vehicle used as a taxi throughout much of Southeast Asia -- and began a cold and windy drive to Bokeo Nature Reserve.
The trip was long and intimate -- eight people crammed into a small open trailer hitched to a truck -- but the extreme wind made it impossible to talk. The few chances we had were filled with conversations on seeing Gibbons. All of us wanted to see a Gibbon. That was, after all, why we were here. To catch a glimpse of the nearly-extinct black-cheek crested ape.
After three hours, we arrived winded, whip-lashed, and cold.
We exited the tuk-tuk, stocked up on water, and began trekking.
We walked through the jungle on muddy, tiny paths tangled with roots and broken bamboo shoots.
The walk seemed mostly uphill, and it was a bit grueling. I consider myself an active person, but the hike was enough to take the wind out of me and force me to exert myself physically more than I originally expected.
It was good though; pain - be it emotional or physical - is the price we pay for growth. Ten minutes in, I could feel myself growing; I could feel myself learning.
Within the first hour, we were hooking ourselves up to our first zip line. This was to be my first zip line experience ever, and I quickly realized that I would be experiencing this without an overabundance of safety regulations or equipment. I would not be wearing a helmet; no one would be checking my cables; I would be free to independently zip line whenever and where ever I wanted.
The first time was tough. The truth is, zip lining isn't necessary an activity I have ever wanted to do; it all seems just a bit too scary and at the end of the day, just not my thing. I would much prefer to find adventure by summiting a mountain or swimming a far distance. Something that keeps me a bit more grounded and safe. So again, I felt myself growing.
The cable lines throughout the jungle were of varying lengths -- some up to 500 meters long. The first one was so long that I couldn't see where it ended; it just seemed to fade away into a cluster of treetops. My heart beat wildly and my feet began to shake as I stared at the long cable in front of me. I knew this was an experience I couldn't do half-heartedly. There would be no second chances with this trip; no "next time, I'll do it differently." This was it, and as I clipped my carabiner onto my first zip line, I was, maybe for the first time in my life, completely aware of this. So even though my mind was quickly creating a list of all the ways I could possibly die or get injured, I launched myself as hard as I could off that first platform.
The thing about humans is that we either overcome our limitations or we don't. It is always that simple. I'm scared of most things in life especially when it comes to heights, to matters of the heart, and to physical risks. Both emotionally and physically, I tend to take the safest route possible and sometimes, I give up too quickly -- be these flaws or just good sense, I'm not really sure, but my fears are definitely a limitation when it comes to travel. This time, I overcame both, and sailed through the air, screaming a bit, hair flying wildly.
What I noticed first was the vastness of the sky. It goes on and on, forever. The trees far below me barely fill it up. Second, I noticed that I felt like I had wings.
I didn't expect the sort of physical rigor that quality zip lining requires. It begins with the fast and hard jump from the initial platform and continues as participants fly through the air using their abdominal muscles to keep their legs and backs straight. Some wrist and hand strength is required to brace against the wind and ensure you don't turn or spin. If you've done everything right, your physical needs end when your feet meet the platform on the opposite side. Most of us first timers, didn't quite have the form down, requiring us to manually pull ourselves the remaining feet.
We wear gloves, but still our palms become calloused from falling short of the receiving platform time after time. Again, growth.
After the first zip line, it became more familiar but never less thrilling. Besides riding a motorbike, I have never felt more in contact with the world than when flying between trees on a cable. The wind whipped across my face at fierce speeds; the tree tops whizzed by far below my feet, the sun beat down hard and hot on my forehead. From up there, the enormity of the world is understandable and almost tangible. It is clear that my existence in it is only a tiny speck of paint on a very large and beautiful canvas.
At night, we slept in tree houses. Each stood 100 plus meters high and required us to cable glide in
The evenings were spent talking about our lives, our own personal journeys. Eight people with different stories brought together by this one short experience. We weren't all strangers; some of us had come with others, but we all had different goals, stories, and perspectives. Mostly, we would never see each other again, and that was okay. These nights were enough; full contact for three days -- no second chances, so we made the most before it was all over.
In the mornings, we woke to the sound of gibbons singing. I'm not really sure how to describe it except with the phrase, "it was a sound that could only sound like gibbons singing." Because that is it. I will never again hear it, but it was beautiful.
Our food -- local dishes, fresh fruits, heaps of white rice, sticky rice cakes, and coconut flavored jellies wrapped in banana leaves -- was provided to us by our guides and we ate it family-style.
Along the journey we saw monkeys, several birds, different flora and fauna, a few tree rats, and a snake. We never saw a gibbon. They remain an elusive part of this trip. When beginning the experience, a gibbon sighting was top on the list of things I wanted from this journey; now I know that everything else was enough. More than enough.
Travels always change us, but this one transformed me. It made me so aware of the world around me. It made me aware of the beauty of nature and of the fragility of it. It brought me face-to-face with the idea that nothing lasts forever and that in order to become better, we must leave previous notions and fears behind. This was the kind of journey that nourished my soul and allowed me to walk away stronger, better, learned.
Too soon, the week day moved to Wednesday, and our time exploring the 100,000 plus hectares of the Bokeo Nature Reserve came to an end. We packed ourselves -- now dirty and tired and a bit battle wounded -- into our tuk-tuk and headed back to Huay Xai.
Our package was called "Waterfall" and is a three day trekking journey along the Nam Nga River. Meals, equipment, a swim near a waterfall, and sleeping accommodations are included in the 300.00 package. For more information on The Gibbon Experience and their various packages and outreach projects, visit their website.