The third day started like any other at Khun Bpang - cold, painful, swollen, warm-ish, in that order. Only this time, my monkish friend and I had hot food together for our first real meal. The sensual pleasure of monk curry has never been so prominent; given the nature of monk curry, this is easily understandable. Monk curry means taking everything in one's almsbowl and mixing it in one big pot with water. Stir, boil, eat. But it was hot and we were cold, and so we enjoyed it mindfully (i.e. we enjoyed it, but pretended to be mindful at the same time). After food, he packed up and continued on his way to Viang Bpa Bpao, a mysterious place the location of which is best described as "over yonder". I bade him well and prepared myself for a little more serious effort at meditation practice.
As I sat down to practice, however, my mind began to wander back over the fact that there were several important businesses that I hadn't yet fully cared for back in the world below, and which the lack of phone reception made impossible to complete in the world up here. As I tried my best to neutralise these thoughts as simply thoughts and return to the present moment, my mind wandered again, this time to the hill behind the monastery which, I reasoned, might very well have at least a small amount of phone reception. This was too much for my poor heart to bear, and I was up and climbing over the barbed wire fence before mindfulness had time to catch up with me.
Nope, no reception. Interestingly, though, I found a few run-down monk's huts in the forest and a well-beaten path through the forest to what appeared to be another hil behind the first, a little higher than the last. This meant two things; first, that the monastery was larger than it had first appeared, and second, that I would have to explore a little further in order to be sure about the phone reception thing.
It turns out that the hills in Khun Bpang had a nasty habit of hiding behind each other so each looked to be the highest in the area until, that is, one reached the top, at which point the next would pop out smugly and just sit there a little higher than the last. This continued on for almost an hour's walk, at which point I was almost out of breath but confident that the trip back would be far easier as it would be completely downhill and the path of course was well-beaten. So, here I was at the highest point in the area, and ... yes, there was phone signal. And ... no, it was not enough to make a proper phone call. Or send an SMS. After spending about a half-hour walking around holding up my mobile phone like some kind of Star Trek lifeform analyzer, I gave up all hope of intelligent life on this planet and began my walk back, thinking if I hurry a little I might make it back to ring the 5 PM chanting bell.
Ringing the 5 PM chanting bell is a way to let the lay people know that there is a monk in the monastery, a way to alert nearby monks that there is a monastery in the area, and a way to remind myself of my schedule and duties as a monk. This made it a reasonable goal to aim for, at least in my mind. It also most likely became the reason for me to make my way back with less mindfulness and care than one would have hoped for, and for this reason I ended up missing a crucial turn in the path and ending up face to face with a bunch of cows on the wrong hill. Either that or one of the hills, in a fit of sinister tectonic humour, up and moved from its proper location (this latter explanation, being the less embarassing for my ego, has not yet been completely discarded).
Cows. I stared at them. They stared at me. I walked towards them in a gesture of peace, trying to pervade them with calm and serenity, hoping this would encourage them to lead me on the right path. They bolted recklessly in all directions down into the valley below, leaving me alone on the wrong hill. I started to backtrack, until it occurred to me that to the best of my bovine-based knowledge, cows always knew the right way to go back to the barn, and must inevitably get cold and make the long trek home (hence, I reckoned, the saying "until the cows come home"). This led me to abandon my high position and follow the herd down into the depths of the jungle and on, more or less chasing them on the path which I assumed was the way back to the village.
This, I admit, was my worst mistake, and the greatest source of amusement for any Thai person I tell this story to. Bush cows (as I know know them to be called), they say, never go home. Their owners just come to check on them periodically, like every couple of months.
After an hour of chasing the cows up and down the hills, through detailed empirical observation, I came to my own conclusions about this particular species of cow, and came up with several potential reasons as to why following the cows home was probably not a good idea, as follows:
- These cows don't go home.
- These cows don't like letting monks know where they live and so refuse to lead them home.
- These cows like seeing monks flail around mindlessly in the jungle.
- These cows are also lost.
You have to understand, all of you know I made it out alive; I had no such reassurance. Potential outcomes in my mind's eye included death by starvation, death by dehydration, death by hypothermia, death by being gored by a cow, death by falling down a ravine, death by falling down a cliff, death by being bitten by a snake, scorpion or centipede, death by bleeding to death, death by pneumonia, death by being shot... wait, that last gunshot was close...
The amazing thing about the whole affair was that every time I sat down to collect my mindfulness, suddenly the way became more or less clear in my mind. If I had taken the time in the beginning to be at least moderately mindful, it is likely the eight-hour fiasco would never have come to be. Anyway, eventually the nearby poacher decided to turn on his flashlight before he had a chance to mistake me for a boar, and I took the opportunity to call out to him. Once I was sure he could tell the difference between the noise I was making and the grunting of a bush pig, I more or less lunged down the ravine up which he was in the process of climbing. It was clear he could hardly contain his enthusiasm upon seeing a monk at this time of night, since it was clearly nonexistent. I, on the other hand, was laughing like a madman and joking with him like a schoolboy as he propped his rifle up against the tree under which I had plunked myself down. He asked me a few questions about my predicament, then opened up his sack and proffered forth a bottle of drinking water, at which point my laughter stopped as I realized I was terribly dehydrated.
After guzzling down his offering, I pressed him for directions on how to get out of this maze of "well-beaten" cow paths. He directed me to the very bottom of the ravine out of which he had climbed and instructed me to follow the stream all the way to its end at the villager's house under my miserably misplaced monastery. This was at 10:30 PM. The trip down into the ravine was the easiest part of the rest of my Odyssey, which is sad considering it was terribly difficult and I managed to twist a knee on a rock and impale a hand on a broken stick (impale = one notch below skewer).
It's important to understand how most of the journey had gone once the sun went down. I had no flashlight, of course, and so my wonderful Nokia N73 again showed its arrogant superiority over my poor humiliated self by acting as substitute. A poor substitute, I might add, which just barely gave less than sufficient light to properly tell which was a cow path and which a muddy stream. My shoes, 1990 baht Walkers sandals, had very early on begun to create blisters on my pinky toes which quickly bloodied up the rest of either foot and prompted me to decide to go barefoot. The funny thing (anything was funny at this point) about this particular forest, though, is the trees were particularily fruitful at this time of year. And their fruit had the cutest little spikes that made them look just like cute little porcupines, and gave me hours of amusement the next day trying to pull them out the cute incisions they made in my feet.
Rather than bore the reader with the gory details of the rest of the trip, lets just end this silly story here and say I made it back in time to celebrate midnight, which I did. By washing some of the blood off my feet and legs and falling promptly asleep. Without enough blankets.
As to how I caught my cold, it was because of a virus in the air. There's the story for you, now, back to my blogging.