Project Phongsali: Villagers roam far from home in search of food and happen upon UXO In remote places.

March 1, 2010

Hiking in the rain forest means living with leeches. They start small but swell quickly as they draw blood.

Day 28

The doctor is back from his rounds in the more remote villages and, by rights, we should move out of our room at the hospital. He reassures us that anyone local who needs care will prefer to reside at home; he doubts that there will be an immediate need for the room. On the other hand, he points out, should someone from away from the village show up for care, say a field worker with a machete cut, or a child scalded in a kitchen spill, he’ll have to evict us, in which case we’ll still be welcome to sleep outside under the eves. Since the weather is warm and we have our own mosquito nets we’ll get by just fine.

We had a long, long climb to the top of one of the highest hills surrounding the village. We were rewarded at the top with a perfect Sop Hound trifecta: a panoramic view of the valley below, four bars of cell phone reception, and three cluster bomblets under a mango tree.

This being the dry season, the easiest way up the mountainside was to walk in the stream running down it. The water was less than knee deep and there were steeping stones the entire way. Water swept debris hanging in the branches above suggested that a torrent of water must rush down that path during monsoon rains.

My grandmother used to call an ordinary downpour “raining cats and dogs.” Harder rain than that would be “raining pitchforks and hoe handles.” I doubt she had words to describe the way rain falls here during the monsoon, or for the cascade that would follow. In grandma’s absence I’ll suggest “boulder roller”. As in, “All morning it rained pitch forks and hoe handles. Then, believe it or not, didn’t she pick up and rain even harder! It was a real boulder roller.”

With jungle canopy overhead, our path was a green tunnel twisting up the mountain. With the deep shade surrounding me and the cool water in my boots I never broke a sweat, despite the rigors of the climb. On the downside was the fact that we were intruders in ideal snake habitat. I confess that during the entire hike, the only time I stopped envisioning a Malayan Pit Viper sinking its fangs into my shin, were the moments of distraction when I was picking leeches off my legs.

I’m like the cement worker who likes children in the abstract but not in the concrete. I’ve got nothing against leeches and wish them well in their quest for mammalian blood, as long as it’s not mine. It’s not the stealing of my vital fluids that I resent; it’s the infection that I inevitably get at the spot where they latch on to me. What is it about my immune system? I’m the only guy on the team who burns the leeches off to make certain they don’t leave their head in the wound. I’m the only guy on the team who conscientiously dabs the bite with antiseptic. And, I’m the only guy with leech bites turned to pus-filled boils. Go figure.

Oh yeah! One thing more! Heard the old wives’ tale that a leech will crawl into a body orifice and lodge inside a person’s privates? I laughed that one off until today when I found one inside my underpants attempting to climb still further north. Made a believer out of me!

When the team arrives, we’ll make a second trip up the mountain, this time to demolish those three cluster bomblets and to use detectors to search for a few more that the farmer is certain are under thick brush. Better that we find them this week than have them explode when he burns that field.

It may seem to readers that we’re venturing far from the village in search of ordnance. The truth is, we’re well within the boundaries of the world in which the Lao subsistence farmer lives. The men, women and children of Sop Houn often spend entire days tramping through the dense forest hunting foraging for food. As remote as that mountaintop seemed today, in reality the pinnacle was the villager’s rice field and teak plantation. We owe him a safe place to make his living.

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