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Fire Ants and Jungle Rot

By Phil Goldman

April 4, 2008

I was green; a guide with the Thailand Jungle Adventure Tour Company all of two weeks. Maow, the tiny but tough boss of the operation, decided to test me, see if I could keep up with her. She took me to a remote corner of Khao Yai National Park where visitors never go. The jungle here was thick, there were no paths as far as I could tell, but that didn't stop Maow. She grew up in these parts; her family hunted this jungle for generations.

After slogging through some heavy brush, we came to a river, which Maow quickly crossed, bounding from rock to rock. I've never been any good at rock-hopping, so after falling in a few times, I gave up and waded across. As soon as I made it to the other side, Maow took off. My feet were soaked, but there was no time. I left my boots and socks on, figuring that it was hot enough that they would dry on me.

I chased after her, my steps squishing and gurgling, my slimy toes sliding against each other. But I couldnft worry about that; it was all I could do to keep Maow in sight. After about an hour of zigzagging around trees and plowing through muck and razor sharp rattan, I found her at the top of a cliff. By the time I caught enough breath to ask "Now what?" she was already over the edge.

I peered over. She was climbing a lattice of gnarled roots that ran about twenty feet down. From my vantage point, it looked more like fifty.
"Are these strong enough?" I called down.
Maow looked up, shrugged, and kept going.

Being worse with heights than I am with rock-hopping, I crawled over butt-first and tested the top root. Once I decided it could hold my weight, I felt around for the next one, and tested that. The roots weren't laid out evenly or nicely spaced, so I took my time. It wasn't worth risking my neck. Beneath the pounding of my heart, a song from the old Christmas special Santa Claus is Coming to Town played in my head, "Put one foot in front of the other, and soon you'll be walking ecross the floor-or-or" although it didn't technically apply.

The last step was a bit of a jump; I made it with a jolt, but I was down, thank God. Maow wasn't waiting for me. I heard the sound of her scrambling off in the distance, so I ran after her, over fallen trees, through ditches, and up a steep hill.

I maneuvered a narrow ledge along the hillside and made my way around a corner, blindly feeling for something to hold on to. My hand found its way into a nest of something; a burning, biting nest of something. I quickly pulled it back. It was covered with tiny red ants -- Fire Ants! (I don't know if that's what they're actually called, but I liked the sound of it.) I frantically shook and picked them all off, but my hand still burned and began to blister. There was nothing I could do about that now; I was losing track of Maow. I pressed on. I got to the bottom of the hill and saw a nearby river. I ran to it and plunged my hand in the soothing water. In a perfect world, it would have hissed and steamed up like in a cartoon.

My reverie was interrupted by Maow's voice calling me from above.
"Hey! Whatch'you waiting for?" she yelled, leaning off the top of a huge boulder and hanging onto a vine. "Come on!"
She jumped off the boulder, swinging right over my head and across the river.

By this point, my enthusiasm had dampened somewhat. Aside from my blistered hand, I was sticky, sweaty, encrusted in mud, and my feet were starting to itch. Still, I've always been a sucker for a Tarzan vine. I climbed the boulder and Maow flung the vine to me. In a literal leap of faith (Maow was half my weight; I couldn't trust this vine), I swung across the river, instantly forgetting all my pain, my irritation and self-pity. God, I loved the jungle!

The next morning I awoke to find my feet purple and swollen to twice their normal size, Jungle Rot! (I don't know if that's what it's actually called either, but again, I liked the sound of it.) I should have taken my boots and socks off to dry as soon as I got them wet. The hot, dark, damp enclosure of the boots was a perfect breeding ground for fungus. Life doesn't need much of an excuse to thrive in tropical jungle. Now my feet looked like they belonged to the Elephant Man.

No shoes would fit over these monstrosities, so I tried flip-flops. I pried my toes open in order to slip them on; not that it mattered, I couldn't stand anyway. I shouted for Maow. She took one look at my feet and shook her head in disappointment. I knew then that I failed her test. She dragged me to the pickup truck, dumped me into the back, and drove me to the local clinic.

The doctor probed and prodded, then plunged a long needle into the bottom of my very sensitive foot. "If the shot really needed to be in the foot, why only one? Why not both feet?" I thought. But I didn't ask. I didn't want two shots.

The doctor gave me some cream to apply at home and a baggie full of pills (they always give you a baggie full of pills, no matter what you go in for). Three days later, my feet were back to normal. I was walking again and jumping and skipping around. It must have been the pills. I didn't know what they were, I didn't ask about them either. I didn't want to seem ungrateful. They only cost a dollar.

About the Author:
Phil Goldman has, over the years, been a jungle guide, improvisational actor, martial arts instructor, and just missed being a male stripper in Tokyo (too hairy). He recently returned to the United States to bear a rather large burden of familial responsibility. For more of stories of his jungle adventures, check out http://tunafishicecream.blogspot.com/

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