Assembling the team

At Ban Kalo we assembled our complete team. The group that had walked in included myself, Kai, and Son—a group that I referred to as the “Rough Hikers,” for no other reason than because I was, at the time, reading a biography of Teddy Roosevelt. He stormed San Juan Hill on a horse, we had stormed the southern Laos highlands on foot. The rest of the team included a WWF employee, Khamhou, who had traveled to the village by a different, northerly route, an Army representative, Sonxay, and five Katu people from Ban Kalo who would serve as our guides. I immediately struck it off with Sonxay. He was medium-height, with a round face, almond-shaped eyes, and a mop of thick black hair that was usually covered in a camo-colored hat. I was struck by the fact that he was always smiling. But, even more than that, I had the impression that he would be smiling even in the thick of it—during the worst that jungle life had to offer. I would later be proven right. His toothy grin and boisterous laugh seemed to strike an odd discord with the battered AK-47 that never left his side. It was the same disharmony I felt when I stumbled across remnants of war in the jungle. It was also a poignant reminder that that area we were working in was more dangerous than the areas in Vietnam where most of my work had occurred. This region of Laos had little influence from the central government. Law and order fell to the local villages, which meant, in reality, that it was scarce, and in some places it seemed almost nonexistent. It could be a bad area.

We spent the afternoon preparing supplies for the trip. As we sat in a circle filling leech tubes with buffer, I could sense the excitement that accompanies the start of a new survey. When we finished it was dark. I found a hammock downstairs and let myself become intoxicated by the night sounds that quivered on the humid-heavy air: Katu mixed with laughter and the burbling of water being drawn through hookah-style pipes, the echoing calls of tree frogs as they sang their otherworldly chorus, the crackling of firewood and the spluttering of oil as vegetables were fried over open flames. I enjoyed these last hours of village life. Tomorrow we would be in the jungle.


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