Laos: Learning to Fly


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn many Asian cultures the age 25 is an unlucky one…and after a series of rather unfortunate events I was starting to believe it.

As an absent-minded English teacher I forgot my wallet, passport included, on a hook in a Thailand squatty potty over one hundred kilometers from my out-of-country destination. After returning for it, and almost not making it to the border on time, I rushed to Huay Xai, Laos where the rest of my teacher crew were ever so patiently waiting for me. We were all about to fulfill a childhood dream by living in a jungle tree house, zip lining from tree to tree while searching for the endangered black-cheeked gibbon.

We start out with an early rise and cram my seven other friends, two Dutch men, our guides, and all of our belongings, including food for the next four days, into a Land Cruiser. We plow through a river, over a steep muddy hill, slipping and sliding all the way to the village just outside of the nature preserve. My legs are squished and sore but not to worry the eggs are just fine. My friend Esme protected them by putting them under her seat as if she were a mother hen wary of any unwanted visitors. We joyfully spring out of the car, buy a dusty coke from the village shop where nudity, as described by my friend, was in full force and start our uphill journey on foot deep into the jungle.

Exhausted but pumped we reach our first stretch of zip lines. When it is my turn I can hardly contain my enthusiasm. No countdown needed, I make the jump and soar into the best view I have ever encountered. Higher than the tallest trees, this flight gives me a rush and time to look left, right and out of sight. I feel like I am in one of those flying dreams I always hope to achieve at night, except this is real and powerful. After my screams of excitement and kicking feet come to a halt I am faced with an overwhelming sense of tranquility and awe. The breeze seems to play with my loose hair and I begin to let go and be one with the gibbons.

After zipping, hiking, singing and making animal noises, my new friends and I are immediately close. We finally zip into our gigantic tree house with plastered grins and pick out our tents. We duck under our termite ridden branches and gather around on stumps for some dinner. Stories are already filling the air of our newfound hobby of monkeying around. Physically tired yet mentally charged we go to sleep under a blanket of stars as the many noises of the rain forest lull us to sleep.

The next couple of days we play like filthy children in our rain forrest as if it were our own back yards. We hike up and up to get to the best chains of zips with dirty faces and scraped knees. However tired or worn out we are, we never stop. There is no time to waste when adventure awaits us. We impatiently run from one zip to the next as if they will erode into the jungle if we don’t make it on time. At the end of our days we take the most extravagantly basic shower in our family tree. Naked and free we get the opportunity to feel like birds bathing in the rain drops from the overhead leaves. Looking out into the canopy covered with butterflies and exotic birds the cold water feels refreshing to our sweating skin. That sense of tranquility is starting to become exquisitely familiar.

After several failed attempts, we decide to take the final chance of seeing the endangered black-cheeked gibbon on our last morning. We awaken in the dark morning to their calls. This time it’s loud and we’re shocked to find they are outside of our tree. Their long arms gracefully move from branch to branch and their heavy bodies swing with the gravity. Together the family of gibbons travel past us and disappear into the distance. It was a brief but magical moment. As they become faint many things become clear to me. Although, this trip had a rocky start I start to realize I am not unlucky at all. Seeing these endangered animals in their natural habitat is out of this world. I have bonded with seven incredible people in a place that one day may no longer be here. I have pushed myself physically and am inspired to change the way I travel positively. I am appreciative for the generous man at the border who extended his work hours to let me through. I am lucky that my passport was returned and not stolen. In a culture where superstitions are prevalent, I learn it is how you spend your time perceiving situations that make all the difference.

About the Author:  Chelsea Menshek is a backpacking, cartwheeling, English teaching, textile enthusiast with a tendency to obtain bacterial infections from street and/or wild animals. Originally from San Diego, California, she left a life in the entertainment industry to pursue her love of travel and the unknown. While learning to enjoy the beauty of awkward moments, she’ll be the second to jump into any situation but be the first to tell you about it.

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