Bathos and floss

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Here's a thing that happened to me once.

I was on a break from university, and I went to Indonesia by myself. Flew into Bangkok, took a train down through Malaysia, and then across to Sumatra, where I spent the rest of my time. Like many before me and since, I meandered between the beautiful lakes and volcanoes via rickety buses and with little purpose. At one point, I found myself in a hostel in a small scrubby town at the end of a bus route, near Aceh province - I forget why I had headed there, probably there was a bat cave or dilapidated temple recommended by some other dirty traveller I met along the way.

There was only one other guest. He was an Italian man of middle age, with limited English. (He wasn't Maurizio.) This chap was a freelance photographer and natural historian - he had written a book about the Birds of the Alps, and was staying at this edge-of-nowhere place I'd ended up in because he was on an assignment for National Geographic, and about to head into the nearby virgin rainforest with a team of porters and guides, in an attempt to find and photograph a rare type of phosphorescent fungi said to be indigenous to that area, and not to many others, anywhere. Naturally we got to talking, and over drinks in the bar - clear, potent local liquor from what we would now call upcycled, unmarked bottles - to the sounds of the rats in the rafters and the hum of the generator - he invited me to go with him on the expedition, and I agreed.

We set off at dawn the next day. It wasn't a question of entering a well-kept national park - there was no gate, we just walked until we reached the edge of the pathless forest, and started hacking. I'd been told not to bring too much stuff - of course the porters were for the photographer's equipment, and tents and supplies for the five-strong team. The expedition was expected to last at least five nights, as we could only make slow progress, behind the machete-wielding guide, who would be cutting a path for us over thickly-foliaged and hilly terrain, and it was the rainy season. It's a shame I'm quite lazy, because there is nothing like silently, doggedly, trekking up and down, up and down, muddy, mosquito-infested, dark and dense jungle for making you really appreciate food. Especially good is food cooked by someone else, over a fire made by someone else, and eaten on your first sit-down of the day, at sundown, knowing there is not another human for miles and miles and miles. What seemed to me deliciously exotic at the time was actually Maggi noodles and river water, but with that genuine hunger and fresh smoky taste added by the situation, and which you can't re-create with a packet of the stuff at home.

By night, we would all of us sit around in the firelight, trying to swap stories but having very little common language, so the gesturing would soon make us tired and we'd go back to our tents and sleep til the sun woke us. On the third night, I woke to unidentifiable but terrifying noises, then panicked voices from the other tents - the guides called out for us to stay put. In the morning I saw the footprints of the elephants who'd been stamping around the campsite which was our base for the last two days. That was near a beautiful pond, overhung by vines, and you could see lots more animal tracks going down the the water's edge. Once I lost interest in peering into rock crevasses to try and spot this dayglo mushroom, I took to spending my time lying on the fallen tree trunk that almost traversed the pond and watching for the little jungle mammals who would visit the waterhole.

That sort of thing that doesn't happen to a person very often - being presented with the opportunity to go where people just don't, to see the jungle so very close up, to have taken part (entirely passively, but still, I was there) in a natural history expedition. It really did happen; I still have somewhere an autographed book about alpine wildlife with an Italian tribute to my eyes hand-written on the inside cover. Anyway, the reason I'm telling you the story is because it is a cautionary tale. If it happens that a chance like this presents itself to you, and, being the spontaneous daredevil you are, you take it, don't make the mistake that I did that could blot your entire memory of the time, and fail to bring any dental floss. The jungle, supposed to be such a wealth of natural resources, offered up no suitable twig. I find it hard to look back on this amazing trip without feeling annoyed that, for four and a half days of it, I had something stuck between my teeth. At one point, a mother monkey with a tiny baby clinging to her came cautiously down from the canopy, while I was cooling off under a waterfall, and I distinctly remember thinking how difficult it is to gasp with delight and awe when you're working your tongue round your lower left molar.







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