An abrupt ending

“Water! Water!” I heard screaming. A lightning strike illuminated the camp. Phosphorescent figures flickered before me. What was happening? Instinctively I glanced down at my watch. It was almost 2:00 am. “Water!” said Thien. I looked down and saw six inches of water flowing beneath my hammock. More disturbing: I could actually see it rising before my eyes. I jolted awake. How much time did I have? 30 seconds? 60? Thien grabbed my arm. “Hurry!” he said. And then he was gone.

I leaped out of my hammock, snatched my backpack, and scurried up the mountain, banging barefoot into rocks and trees along the way. The only thing that mattered now was to get to higher ground. After climbing fifty feet I fished my headlight out of my backpack and I looked back at our campsite. It had been swallowed in seething whitewater waves. We had made it out just in time. The heavy rains made it difficult to see anything even with a headlamp but I eventually managed to locate Thien. I collapsed next to him. There was a slurping sound as I sank into the mud. There was only one thing on my mind. “Did you get the leech samples?” I asked. He nodded. I was relieved. We sat silently in the downpour. I thought about making a joke. During hard fieldwork Thien would sometimes playfully ask me how I liked ecotourism in Vietnam. Now I thought about saying to him: “I didn’t know you were going to put whitewater rafting into this adventure!” But I couldn’t bring myself to make the effort. I was too tired. Too cold. Too miserable. We both were. “Yes,” I said finally, “I think we will head back tomorrow . . .”

After two hours the water subsided. We went back to the camp and tried to sleep. One of the Forest Guards volunteered to stay awake to monitor the river level. I trusted him completely but I still couldn’t sleep that night. The adrenaline was coursing through my body. My mind was buzzing: I was worried. I thought about the difficulties of conducting work in these jungles. I had never worked here during the rainy season and I was quickly realizing that this jungle was a different beast at this time of the year. Would I have the strength to continue this fieldwork? Would this unforgiving jungle wear me down before I could complete my task? And why weren’t we getting leeches on this second part of the trip? Would this be a recurring pattern? If I couldn’t get enough leeches where was I going to get data? Daylight came. We couldn’t make a fire because the wood was too wet. We each had a handful of cold clumpy rice and then broke camp. We left at 6:30 am that day and got back to the headquarters at 8:30 pm. It was the longest and hardest day of my life. We couldn’t travel by the river so we had to slog through thick jungles and wade chest deep through streams. Often we had to brace together to avoid being swept away in the current. One thought kept me going: That we were going back to civilization. I I felt like the jungle that I loved so well had beaten me—for this round. But I would be back. In fact, I’m leaving today.

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