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Our last day of the Gibbon Experience

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Trent and I intentionally woke up very early to the sound of the alarm buzzing next to our ears.  Careful not to make too much noise, we shifted ourselves into a position where we could see out into the trees around us, hoping to catch a glance of the black-crested gibbons the Experience is famous for.  The morning was freezing cold, and we hardly wanted to lift up the mosquito nets to look out, but, wrapped up in our blanket and every layer of clothing we owned, we sat in the fog-laden, quiet solitude of the morning and watched and listened intently.  We spent about half an hour as such, hardly moving a muscle, listening to different birds sing their morning songs and hearing the cacophony of the nearby bullfrogs.  As much as we had hoped to see the gibbons (and we’d been told that early morning was the best time to both see and hear them), we were not so lucky.  Although we were disappointed, I cannot say that it detracted from our overall enjoyment of the experience in the least.

Once we heard the others stirring and moving about, we decided to get out from under the covers and brave the cold.  We gathered around our short table and watched as Pia zipped in with a hot kettle for our morning coffee.  Ashley lined up the coffee cups and began filling them with condensed milk as our group talked about cool documentaries to watch and travel plans once the Gibbon Experience was over.  We would be going on to Luang Prabang, as were Ashley and Elle, and the others would be going their separate ways. 

After breakfast, we harnessed up and headed out for our last day of zip lining and hiking through the beautiful forest of Laos.  On this last morning we got to do the longest line once more, treasuring every moment high above the trees.  We zipped but a few times before we gave up our harnesses and began the long hike back to the village where we would be transported back to the Gibbon office in Huay Xia.  This particular hike took us across the river FOUR times.  By then, my feet were tender anyways, and crossing the river several more times on the harsh rocks and uneven ground was not my favorite idea.  Nevertheless, we braved our way across the cold waters and headed up the banks to continue our journey back.  When we finally got out of the mountains and into the plains, we found that the ground was very muddy and that there were several places that were nearly impassable without getting our feet wet (literally).  A few of us tried, unsuccessfully, to do so, but by the end, we were all laughing, soaking wet, and covered in mud.  We were really quite the sight!  Finally, we all decided just to take off our already sopping wet shoes and continue on barefoot or in flip-flops.  I don’t know why we didn’t just do that to begin with! 

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Along the path there were beautiful flowers and plants I had never seen before, along with a cattail-like plant that I had seen in Mexico that was actually pretty soft to the touch.  We could tell we were getting closer to the village when we saw random herds of cows and water buffaloes, pigs with their piglets, and wild chickens and turkeys dotting the landscape.  We also passed by several rice paddies with people working hard harvesting their crop.  We waved our hellos and were particularly smitten with the adorable kids “helping” out. 

Finally we approached the village.  Little kids ran around.  A group of boys armed with slingshots darted in front of us and surrounded a nearby tree.  I’m not sure exactly what they were shooting at, but they sure were fun to watch.  Pia introduced us to his family and we all thanked him profusely for his kindness and generosity in being our group’s leader.  We waited for the other group to return from their treehouse and then we all set back out in the trucks.  Luckily, Trent and I got the front seats again and we enjoyed the scenic trip back.  We stopped for lunch along the way at a little restaurant along the river.  Here they served us rice with a delicious combination of vegetables.   By the time we arrived back, mid-afternoon, we were all exhausted and pretty filthy.  Between the cold and all the activity, Trent and I (and most of the others) never officially bathed while we were on the trip (although we do count our short dip in the frigid river as something), but it kind of added to the whole “one-with-nature” experience.  As soon as we got back, we used the bathroom to wipe ourselves down as best we could before running to the bus station to see if we could get tickets to Luang Prabang for that evening.  We did, and thus began a whole new adventure… (to be continued).

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(One of many rivers we crossed)

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(Some of the sweet little girls helping with the rice harvest)

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(Water buffaloes)

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(The boys with their slingshots)

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(Pia and his son)

 
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Posted by on February 9, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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The Gibbon Experience- Day 2

We awoke with the sun, early in the morning, despite losing sleep over a late night visit from a massive tree rat who hung out for quite a while right outside where we were sleeping.  (We had to store all the food in a locked box to discourage these nightly visitors).  Pia soon zipped in with a kettle full of hot water for coffee or tea and with our breakfast.  Along with breakfast, he brought news that another treehouse that belongs to the Gibbon Experience burned down in the middle of the night.  The people in that treehouse apparently had been drinking a lot and had left a mosquito coil unattended on the wood table when they fell asleep.  Everyone was able to zip out okay, but it was a reminder how stupid people can be when they’re drinking.  Anyways, after eating, we hung our mosquito nets back up and packed our bags in preparation to zip out.  This would be the beginning of our trek to the waterfall and to the second treehouse we’d be staying in.

Along our hike, we trekked through the river at several different points.  We took off our socks and shoes and gingerly stepped across the rocky undersoil (OUCH) meanwhile trying to maintain our balance as the rapids rushed past our shins and up to our knees.  Once we were across, we walked up the muddy banks to put our socks and shoes right back on and then kept walking.  This did not make our feet very clean… or smell very good by the end of the day (several crossings later).  It also left me with a small leech on my ankle that I didn’t notice until I felt him biting me later on.  Thankfully, I was able to pull him off and get rid of him, but the experience grossed me out and kept me on the lookout for others like him. 

Pia kept the hike interesting, making us hats out of banana leaves, and pointing out and giving us different forest plants to try to eat.  We tried heart of palm, some sour green stick-like plant, and these little seed-looking things with some sort of berry inside.  We also saw the most incredible thing… a butterfly coming out of its cocoon.  At first, it was just something I happened to catch out of the corner of my eye, but what a magnificent thing to have seen.  It was already most of the way out when we saw it, but it was fascinating nonetheless.  We saw all sorts of plants, some bearing millions of long thorns, some enormous, others tiny.  The variety of plant life was intriguing as most of it was far different from Minnesota’s or Texas’ flora and fauna. 

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By lunchtime, we had arrived at the waterfall, but it was still pretty cold outside.  Nevertheless, most of us braved the cold and donned our swimsuits anyways.  After all, this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance.  However, when we touched the water, I’m pretty sure ALL of us reconsidered going in.  One by one, we began the again painful descent into the frigid, uneven, rocky river and back towards the waterfall.  Let me take a moment and interrupt here to say that I grew up in Minnesota, and in that crazy cold place, we have a silly tradition called the “Polar Bear Swim.”  This swim usually takes place in the winter or early spring (still freezing cold) and usually early in the morning when the water is the coldest.  Why we do these things, I don’t know.  But I do know that when you plunge into the water at that temperature, your body immediately feels like it is going into shock.  It knocks the breath right out of you and your limbs can barely move.  As soon as they do react, they take you back out of that water as fast as they possibly can.  Back to the story, we waded in up to our knees and a few brave souls dove in, all exhibiting the same symptoms that I described above.  This was not encouraging to me to say the least, but then we found the zip line that went right into the deep water.  Ashley went first… same reaction, then Trent… same thing, then me…  OH, MY GOODNESS, I couldn’t get out of that water fast enough.  They say that the river’s water is always cold, but it didn’t help that we were there in the dead of their winter and the temperatures had been down to the 40’s (Fahrenheit) at night.  One time was all I needed.  I can say, though, that that made the temperature out of the water much more tolerable.  We didn’t stay too much longer before we all changed back to dry, warm clothes and headed back to continue our hike to the treehouse.

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We hiked and zipped another few hours, encountering several zip lines, one of which is the longest one that they have- over 500 meters long.  Along one of the zip lines, we saw another old treehouse that is no longer in use.  From yet another, we could see the river from high above. 

At around 3:30 in the afternoon we arrived at our second treehouse.  It was situated high above the river and was surrounded by other trees about its same height.  This one, although still being high up, was far less terrifying for me than the first one.  I’m not sure if it was because we had grown accustomed to the height or if it was simply because this one was closer to the ground and the trees around it.  Anyways, Pia brought us a snack of green mango, which is tarter than ripe mango, but in this circumstance it was delicious and everyone scarfed it down.  We still had an hour or so of sunlight left, so Pia told us how we could do a small square of zip lines that would lead us back to our treehouse or a slightly bigger circuit which would allow us to zip along the longest line again, which would also connect back to where we were staying.  So Kitska, Derek, Trent and I went out and zipped about, owning the treetops like we were part of the forest until dusk came upon us.  Back in the treehouse, we ate dinner and got the cards back out, this time Pia played “Crazy Eights” with us.  Again, by 8:30, we were all exhausted and everyone turned in for the night.  Trent and I bundled up, listening to the sound of the bullfrogs in the river below as we looked out at the gazillions of stars shining like diamonds in the sky, not quite ready to say goodbye in the morning.

 

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Posted by on February 7, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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The Gibbon Experience- Day 1

We woke up in Huay Xia early in the morning, anxious for what the day would bring.  We headed to the same restaurant we’d eaten in the night before, scarfing down a baguette and eggs, before heading to the Gibbon Experience office.  When we arrived, we found our friends from the night before and began to chat while we waited to begin.  As it turned out, Hazel and Sarah were also teaching in China, but in the city of Suzhou (just north of Shanghai).  Hazel is also the coach of their school’s girls’ basketball team (Trent and I coach the girls’ team at QISS) and we will be meeting again at the Acamis tournament in less than a week.  This is just one of many “small world” experiences we’ve had since moving to China. 

When everyone had finally arrived, we sat down and watched a safety video outlining the zip lining experience and how to ensure safety at all points along the trip.  The video also outlined the Gibbon Experience’s history and mission.  This organization was born in 1996 with a mission of helping local villages and authorities to run self-sufficient forest conservation schemes (there was a lot of poaching, illegal logging, commercial cropping, and excessive slash-and-burn practices that were all too fast eradicating the forest).  Then, in 2003, they evolved to the grown-up treehouse experience that we embarked on.  They began building treehouses in the canopy of the forest to draw attention to the black-crested gibbon’s habitat and to fund their conservation project.  Then, in 2008, the area that they had adopted to protect (136,000 hectares) was officially named the Nam Kan National Park in the Bokeo Province.  They offer three distinct treehouse and zip line experiences: the “Classic,” “Waterfall,” and “Express” programs.  We chose the “Waterfall Experience” because it involved more hiking and cable experiences which took us deeper into the forest (which meant more of a chance of actually seeing the wild gibbons), and also to the waterfall itself.  

After the safety video, the 17 of us departed in 2 white trucks with covered beds.  Trent and I sat squished in the front of the truck (which later proved to be the best possible place we could have been).  When we left, it was early in the morning and still very cold.  The roads were made of dirt and were very dry and dusty.  The combination of the wind and dirt (and later branches and other foliage) made us very thankful to have made it inside the truck with some Russians with whom we made quick friends.  It was nearly a two hour car ride along the windy, rural roads of Laos.  We passed all sorts of small villages built up on stilts and made out of woven straw.  Women and children sat on porches, others carried loads on their backs on the side of the road.  We stopped for a short time for a bathroom break and to buy snacks before we hopped back in the trucks and took off again down a bumpy road that looked like it was heading straight into the river… oh wait, it did go straight into the river.  The truck was nearly up to the windows in water.  I would have paid to see the expressions of the people sitting in the covered beds as we plunged headlong into the frigid water (if it was anything like my own, it was probably pretty priceless).  I’m still not quite sure how they emerged dry and unscathed.  Once we came out on the other side of the river, the roads got really rough.  There was a lot of mud, both wet and dry, that made the roads particularly hard to navigate.  The “road” was also very narrow with lots of vegetation on both sides, which snapped against the windows as we drove (again, I wouldn’t have wanted to be sitting in the open-sided bed of the truck).  The views were incredible along the drive- lush, green mountains sprawled out before us.  After another half hour or so down this road, we arrived at a small village.  Naked children ran around and played in the river while others flocked to the trucks which delivered supplies and food to them every few days.  Chickens and roosters were running around, wild piglets slept in the shade with a misfit cat, and a mule stood there oblivious to all the commotion going on around him.  People were out sitting on their porches, children were playing with each other or watching this strange new group of foreigners file out of the trucks and linger about.  Finally we took our shoes off and crossed the river barefoot as we began our trek to the first treehouse. 

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(The trucks we rode in)

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(Some of the sights of rural life along the Laos countryside)

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(Driving through the river)

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(The gorgeous countryside)

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(Some of the kids at the local village)

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(The kitty cat sleeping with the piggies)

Now, I had read in the brochure and on the website that those doing the “waterfall experience” should be in good shape.  I have always considered myself in “good” shape.  I played college soccer, Trent and I have run half marathons, done P90X, done a lot of hiking and biking, and we coach basketball… we are the epitome of good shape, right?  Not for this we weren’t.  In our group we had a yoga teacher with her own yoga studio, an ex-Canadian National Team football player, three basketball coaches, and another couple who does a lot of backpacking and yet, none of us were quite prepared for what we encountered.  Although the hike began easy enough, trekking through rice paddies and along the river, it soon became MUCH more strenuous.  We each had a backpack with three day’s-worth of warm clothes, plenty of water to drink, flashlights, swimsuits and towels, cameras, etc. that we carried for hours along the mountainous terrain.  We went up, up, up and then went down, down, down.  The trips up were enough to make our muscles scream and make us need to stop to catch our breath while going down was steep, hard on the knees, and required a lot of concentration.  As we were all huffing and puffing, our guide Pia, scaled the mountains with ease… IN HIS FLIP FLOPS.  After stopping to eat pre-prepared sandwiches wrapped in banana leaves, we arrived at one of the local camps where they cook the meals that we would be eating for the next two days (which are also delivered by zip line).  The men there were playing a soccer-like game where they have a small wooden ball that they kick back and forth over a volleyball net.  It was very entertaining to watch.  I hung out with a sweet kitty cat that belonged to the villagers while we were given our zip line equipment.  We wore the harnesses for the rest of the hiking until we arrived at our treehouse.  It was also here that Dante, our forest ranger bearing a semi-automatic weapon, joined us.  Not too long after we left the village, we came to our first zip line.  Dante went first, with his gun slung across his chest.  What a sight that was.  But it made us feel safe that he was going ahead of us to make sure there were no poachers or anyone who wasn’t supposed to be there. 

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(The guys playing at the village)

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(Hazel, Sarah, and I getting our zip lining equipment)

Now, Trent and I have never been zip lining before.  I had the opportunity to go when I was in Costa Rica but I had chosen a different activity instead.  So, needless to say, we were a little nervous (Trent more-so than I since he is afraid of heights).  I went first, making extra sure that everything was connected correctly and that all the safety features were in place.  Leaving the platform was an experience in and of itself… a test of trust.  Once your feet leave the ledge, there’s no going back.  It was like nothing I’ve ever done.  You are flying through the air, miles above the ground, above the treetop canopy of the forest.  You can see trees all below and around you, and momentarily, you do feel like a wild gibbon, flying through the tree tops.  It was an exhilarating experience.  Well, several more zip lines and another bit of hiking and we had arrived at our treehouse.  We actually had to zip line INTO the treehouse as this was the only way to get in and out of the houses.  This particular house was the highest one they have built and it was HIGH off the ground.  When we finally got in, I was terrified.  I didn’t expect to feel that way, but we were so high up and literally towered above anything around us.  You could see through the cracks between the floorboards which really tripped me out and gave me butterflies in my stomach.  The toilet was in the floor on the outer edge of the treehouse and, to be honest, I needed Trent to hold my hand when I went pee.  It was terrifying!  It took me a good half an hour or so to get comfortable enough to walk around.  By that time, the sun was setting and Pia was zip lining in with our dinner.  We ate dinner seated on these short little stools around a table maybe two feet off the ground and then set up our beds around the perimeter of the treehouse.  We each had a small mat with sheets and blankets and, for every two people, there was one mosquito net.  When everything was set, we each brought out our snacks to share and began to play “Crazy Eights.”  Even though we probably played cards for an hour or so, by the time it was 8:00, it had already been dark for a few hours and we were all exhausted.  We all turned in for the night to try and rejuvenate our bodies for the trekking to the waterfall the next day.

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(Ready to ride!)

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(Trent ready to zip line)

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(How high up our treehouse was)

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(The toilet at the edge of the treehouse)

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(The table and little stools we ate at and the mosquito nets we slept under)

 
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Posted by on February 6, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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