Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Cat Tien--the edge of reason

Road trips in college always created a euphoric feeling, didn’t they? They implied adventure on a monumental scale for our sad, myopic, pathetic, little lives: staying in hotels shaped like Shake and Bake boxes and castles, drinking copious amounts of wine from a box, singing along to the Spice Girls at the top of your lungs, doing finger puppet theatre in the back-seat for the folks in the car behind you, putting a water-gun under your sweatshirt and holding the tollbooth person at pretend gunpoint (unbeknownst to them of course) just because you forgot small change…

Those were the days. So you can imagine my delight when I heard that my Vietnamese language school program proposed taking a road trip to Cat Tien. I started filling up the water guns immediately, before remembering, sadly, that there are so few toll booths in Vietnam. Hmm, the security checkpoints would have to serve in place of the tollbooths instead, I decided. Where were we headed, you ask? Cat Tien National Park, second only to the Grand Canyon National Park in terms of its grandeur. Actually, not really. I gotta be honest, unless you’re totally into birds, which I am not (come on, they are BIRDS), there is nothing to see. We were promised crocodiles, elephants, Javanese Rhinoceros, frozen cavemen and lepers (just seeing if you’re paying attention), and gaur. What did we see? Rabbits and deer. Not even crazy, three-eyed psychedelic rabbits and deer or something like that, but the normal, healthy kind.

The trip went from bad to worse as soon as we arrived. I was hoping we would be camping, but turns out we had rooms with air conditioning…at least the mattresses were made of foam, so that helped. Then we took a tour of the guesthouse grounds and to our delight found a canteen and a karaoke bar. Peaches and Cream Barbie! There was even a massage parlor, but, given that it had “massage parlor” written on it instead of “spa,” we decided karaoke would be a safer evening activity. While waiting for our jungle safari, some friends and I embarked on a karaoke journey with Madonna, Vanilla Ice, Lionel Richie and so, so many others. With enough Tiger beers, anyone would have loved it.

After we settled in, our first activity was a two-hour trek in the “reserved core area.” We saw dozens of really old trees and learned that leeches don’t actually look like those fat, disgusting buggers in Stand By Me. We discovered that leeches are actually tiny (when not fattened up on obese American blood), wormlike creatures that move like inchworms. Kinda cute, huh? We found a few in our shoes, but since we were constantly checking, none of them had actually attached to our legs, although I did get an untreatable form of Lyme Disease. But that’s about all we learned, besides the fact that when trees die, they die from within, so it’s not always apparent from the outside that a tree is dead. Really, though, don’t we all die a little inside every day?

After dinner and a team quiz with our language teachers on what we had seen that day (was a quick quiz, let me tell you), we divided into two groups for the “two- hour night cruise deep into the jungle by jeep watching wild animals and hearing the calls of rhinocerous.” Now, I’m no Ork, but again, there was disappointment. Because some other couple (rumored to be Brangelina) rented one of the jeeps for their own private “cruise” in the jungle, we had to split up into two groups and do only a one-hour trek deep into the jungle. As I mentioned, we saw deer and rabbits and heard no “calls of rhinocerous,” although luckily, the peyote we had smoked earlier allowed us to see dragons and unicorns—does that count? I even remembered the song from The Last Unicorn—“When the last eagle soars over the last crumbling mountain…” **To spare you, I leave the entire set of lyrics for you at the end of this blogorama of a blog.

That night, I curled into a ball and gently wept on my foam mattress of a bed until morning (my sister said that she falls asleep to the sound of her own screams). The next morning was quite a bit more interesting—we took a one-hour bike ride through the area where we had been the night before in the jeep. We heard dozens of birds (few of which our guide could identify--hey, he’s just a guide, what’s he supposed to know, you know?) and saw nothing, although getting away from the Ho Chi Minh City air out into the cleaner countryside air with an actual blue sky was soooooooooooo nice. Again, we had split up, so half of the group did the bicycle ride, while half did a canoe trip. The “canoe” trip ended up consisting of the group being loaded onto an engine boat with no paddling whatsoever. At least our bike trip had bikes; and we propelled them ourselves as well. Frankly, I don’t know and I don’t care what the boat people did—I’m sure they yachted around on their little corporate yacht drinking Veuve Clicquot and being all corporationy while laughing at how provincial we countryfolk were on our little bikes. I bet they even tried to pretend they were pirates.

After completing our morning chores and activities which were divided along class lines, we loaded up the van and headed back to Ho Chi Minh City, stopping along the way only to dispose of the dead bodies of those who were eaten during the night safari. Would we go back to Cat Tien? Should you go to Cat Tien National Park??? Why the heck not??? I just changed my mind about how I felt when I first started writing this fantastic piece. I’ve decided that you should go, too. You just should.

**The Last Unicorn (damn, I wish I had written this…)

When the last eagle soars over the last crumbling mountain

And the last lion roars at the last dusty fountain

In the shadow of the forest though she may be old and worn

They will stare unbelieving at the last unicorn

When the breath of winter through the flowers is icing

And you look to the north and a pale moon is rising

And it seems like all is dying and would leave the world to mourn

In the distance hear the laughter of the last unicorn

I'm alive, I'm alive

When the last moon is cast over the last star of morning

And the future has passed without even a last desperate warning

Then look to the sky where through the clouds a path is torn

Look and see how she sparkles, it's the last unicorn

I'm alive, I'm alive...

My comment: even if we all die inside a little every day like the trees.


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