"Dude, what happened to your I-phone screen?" "Oh, that. It fell out of a hammock at 35 kilometers an hour..."
This is really not a story about hammocks, or I-phones, although it does mention them. This is a story about an insidious tree called a Mangrove.
I'm not really that interested in either, because I nearly lost my life to a Mangrove forest. That's right; I said the trees were trying to eat me, and I'm about to prove it to you.
It all started innocently enough when I decided to take a 'shortcut' between Buffalo Bay Beach and Ao Yai Beach in Koh Phayam, which is a lovely, almost 90's style undeveloped island looking directly across the border to the Burmese Maiek Archipelago in the Andaman sea (due east of Calcutta).
On the map, these two beaches are separated by a peninsula which juts out less than a kilometer, and I was at the extreme end of Buffalo Bay where it nearly, save this peninsula, stretches out to touch Ao Yai. So on the tourist map there is a little dotted line connecting them, and itself is less than a kilometer.
So I followed the beach path until it sort of petered out; it looked as if a new property owner was setting up his fenceline, judging by all the cement posts in a line, waiting for the rest of the fence. I followed the property line, hoping to catch a glimpse of this legendary trail, about which I had also heard rumors.
At the end of the very last concrete fencepost, I still hadn't located a trail. But I could see very clearly through the mangrove forest which began just at its edge, so I was tempted to just follow a straight path into them using the sun as a compass.
Mangrove forests are very easy to look through, since they have very dense 'knees', or root systems which stick out like flying buttresses from their trunks, but above that, the trunk is branchless for about three or four meters. So if you are in a mangrove forest, at low tide, the knees come up to about waist or chest level.
It was, in fact, low tide, and the trees were spaced about five meters apart, so that when I entered the forest, I was merely winding my way through them, stepping carefully on the oozy mudflats. After about twenty minutes, the trees got more and more dense, so that I had to squeeze between them, and then finally really packed in tightly, so that I had to either duck under the knee roots (for really big trees) or clamber over them (for smaller ones).
It wasn't until I had been making my Indiana Jones adventure style jungle traverse for about an hour before I looked back and realized that I was now completely surrounded by a Mangrove forest; that it was just one species from here as far as I could see. Reasoning that the one kilometer must be at least reduced to two -thirds by now, I continued on.
It was then that I had my first realization about the nature of mangrove forests. They grow along the shore, because they can handle the salt water; and in fact they seem to thrive where lots of streams and tidal cuts run inland from the shore. So it was just such a stream or tidal cut that I encountered in my first hour of what was to later become an ordeal. I decided to take off my money belt, containing cash dollars, Thai baht, my passport and watch, and sling it around my shoulders. I was also carrying a flimsy 3rd world plastic bag into which had been heaped a hammock I just bought, the map, and by now my tank top shirt, for I was sweating from all the knee-clambering already.
This first foray into the water proved to be something of a small disaster. The mudflats gave way to alluvial, two feet thick mud that was unsteady as grounding, so I naturally had to lower myself into the actually quite steep rivulet with the aid of one of the mangrove knees. The water was quite opaque, being brackish and the color of the mud itself. I felt the coolness of the water on my sweaty, greasy skin and it was a relief at first. Then I nearly fell, and grabbed underwater for stability on one of the mangrove roots. When I raised my arm from the water, it was streaming; no- gushing- blood.
I had passed my forearm across a small colony of razor clams, which apparently were attached to the roots of the mangrove below the waterline. I looked at the cuts; only one of which was seriously deep and would need medical attention, possibly stitches...later I realized that it missed a vein by about a centimeter and that is why I am here now to tell this story. The cuts were numerous, however, so it made a much deeper impression on my psyche to see the blood streaming from so many sources. I washed off the wounds by dipping my arm back in the dirty water, at the same time wondering if there were any species here that might see me as prey. As far as I could see, the only moving things I had to worry about were crabs and possibly mosquitoes, which strangely had not been a concern up until this time.
On the other side of the bank I determined to make a very hard push to get to the other side of the mangrove forest, where my bungalow, a fifth of Burmese rum, and sympathetic friends would all be awaiting me. So I ignored the bleeding arm, hoping it would stop soon, and pushed on through the thicket of knees.
Things just got worse. I now realized that not only was this central part of the mangrove forest more thick than the outskirts had been, it was also ten times more difficult to traverse. There was a mix of young, old, dying and half dying trees all side by side, so that now, traversing them meant climbing up on the knees, then reaching out for the trunk of the next tree, and half-leaping across to the rickety knees of that tree. Unfortunately this could be disastrous if the tree was old, half rotten or otherwise dying, since the trunk might be stable enough, but an old half rotten knee would give way and bring me crashing down. More than once I reached out with my leg to test a knee, then hear it crunch and give way, while I pulled my leg back.
I should also mention that I was not at my physical peak. Not only have I gotten older than I can ever remember being, but I also had a sports accident where both biceps tendons were ripped off the bone, and had to be stapled back on with surgery. This was just six months prior, and the doctor had cleared me for 'normal activity ', by which I suppose he meant bathing myself, washing dishes, carrying a backpack with a few books, not lunging through a half rotten murderous mangrove forest, clinging like a monkey to the few good limbs left, my hammock by now suspended doggy style in my mouth, the map long gone, the t-shirt floated away on the stream. No, I didn't suppose that it was normal behavior, but I was quickly approaching the point where this was just survival, to preserve the whole organism I must risk the parts, right?
I took stock of my situation. I had been slogging through this forest now for about two hours, though my digital watch had taken a soaking and now had this black ooze slowly eating up the time display. My heart, however, was ticking along just fine, in fact I was keenly aware of it, as if it were beating outside of my ribcage, and it was then I realized I had a dangerously high heartbeat, somewhere in the 200 beats/minute region, a speed I had only ever achieved before with adrenaline. I was, I realized, in the state of mind in which people grow confused and make bad decisions leading to their death. In fact, all I needed was to fall through a rotten knee and put my eye out with a broken root, in order to be that much closer to incapacitated and doomed to die in this miserable tree-hell.
I took time to catch my breath and let my heart slow down, trying hard to grab the reins of my runaway paranoia; If I could get control of my mind, I at least had a fighting chance of getting out of this with minor injuries, as I would surely see my still bleeding arm. I looked down at my legs and realized that they had also miraculously escaped a break, sprain or ligamental tear, since every time I stepped on a branch that either wobbled out of the way or came crashing down, my ankles had been subjected to the worst sort of multi-stick squeezing, scraping, and thwacking, and my ankle area was now bleeding and bruised and looked even worse than the razor clam cuts. Worst of all, it was getting dark and I would soon lose the only advantage I had; the sun was both illumination and direction finding for me.
Considering my situation carefully I realized the folly of my original quest; that it was now time for an all-out-push to return to simply the place from which I came. Thinking even more carefully, I realized that it was actually the waterways which presented the easiest way of moving through this impossible pick-up-sticks forest. True, there were the deadly razor clams to contend with, but if I proceeded more slowly and carefully avoided the roots underwater, I could avoid them.
So I realized that probably the most important thing, after my life and well being, was the functioning of my phone, so I took the iphone out, wrapped it in many layers of hammock, and slung the hammock in a high branch well above the high tide line. If I survived this I could at least return at high tide in a boat, and hopefully there wouldn't be other conditions (a torrential rain, a human who could somehow come here to salvage it? no, it seemed impossible) that would ruin it. I found a broken branch about three meters long, broken down to two, made a good stabilization/depth tester for the water which was now well at chest level as I eased myself into the water, hoping that blood-smelling sharks would never dream of coming so far inland...
I headed upstream, since it was back in the general direction of whence I came. After losing my shoes several times to the nearly two feet of soft, oozy mud in some places, I came to another split in the stream, and as it veered off to the left, it looked as if possibly there might be some grass growing between the mangroves, and even enough space to easily get between the trees. I squeezed my way up on the bank, feeling hopeful but not daring to think this was the way out until, about a meter from the bank, I glimpsed what was at the time the most beautiful thing I thought I had ever seen: Human garbage. All in a pile. Think about it....human garbage. Someone had put that there.....and that someone had come by road or trail.....
It was an unusual stroke of luck. I had found the single best, shortest route back to where I had begun this ordeal. I looked at the watch, whose display was now totally eaten up by the black ooze. Useless. I decided I had enough strength and wits to go back for the hammock and iphone, and when I got the iphone back safely on the dry garbage bank, I realized that the whole ordeal had lasted just under four hours, I had probably lost several kilos in sweat alone, and my top speed I modestly estimated at one hundred meters per hour through the forest.
Thinking these things distracted me from all the pain my body was giving me; ankles smarted from all the scratching and beating they had taken in their crashing journey to the mudflats criss crossed with treacherous mangrove roots, alive, dead and half rotten. I was determined not to look at the worst gash until I reached the clinic or hospital of the island, which I prayed would be open and not subject to some perverse siesta hours.
I passed a few foreigners on foot, and too much in shock and dazed, I continued on, thinking that I could return to the last place I had taken a Thai massage a little further on, and seek help there in reaching the clinic. Half an hour later, there was no one there, and it was the victim of a siesta tsunami, since neither were guests visible in the guest houses below. I used the bathroom to wash a few things with slightly cleaner water than the swamp and continued on. Before long I reached a place where a thai man was laying in a hammock while a fire burned nearby. He immediately jumped up and helped me, but said he couldn't take me to the hospital, 'because he was sick' - apparently suffering a bad fever himself, he just gave me a lift to the next house, where he gave orders to take me to the hospital, and somewhat ironically having taken care of me, he ran back to his motorcycle and retreated in the direction of his hammock.
On the road to the hospital, with my new chauffeur, I heard a terrible clattering sound, and as we both looked back, I glimpsed my iphone on the road. I got off, ran back and retrieved it. The plastic screen shield had kept all the glass from falling out and further penetrating the LCD screen, so weirdly, it still worked. Maybe the phone was just being sympathetic; I had also nearly lost my eyes, my life, but for just the kind of luck that prevents a small accident from snowballing and becoming a truly large catastrophe, I had been spared.
The doctors and nurses in the clinic couldn't understand the story I tried to relate to them. They had seen a hundred motorcycle accidents that looked something like I did, maybe if the rider had been catapulted into the bushes, but when I drew very ridiculous and childish drawings of clams, accompanied by probably culturally inappropriate hand motions of clams opening and closing, their eyes just went wider.
To be continued....