At 8:01 am on February 22, 1971 I was born in Salisbury, Rhodesia. After 1975 this place disappeared from most maps, replaced by Harare, the capitol of the newly independent nation of Zimbabwe. Since then, I have traveled around the sun 42 times. This last birthday found me outside of Mae Hong Son, in the northwestern corner of Thailand, a long way away from almost everyone who knows and loves me. But even with all of those kilometers separating us, the universe found a way to let the birthday love pour down on me.
If you have been following our travels, you might be thinking to yourself, wait a minute, weren't they already in Mae Hong Son? Didn't they leave Mae Hong Son and go to that Cave Lodge place where Fil got all oogy-boogy-touchy-feely about his time in Brasil? If you are thinking that, well first off, thank you for paying such close attention to the chronology of our trip! And secondly, you are absolutely right. We did leave MHS, but we came back because we had to catch our return flight to back Chiang Mai. The alternative to this pair of one-hour flights would have been 20+ hours worth of bus rides through on a road that is renown for its extreme curviness.
We had one last set breakfast at Cave Lodge, said our goodbyes to our kind and generous hosts, and headed towards Pang Mapha on the backs of a pair of motorbike taxis.
The woman driving my motorbike taxi dropped me off, asked me where I was going, and then disappeared into the swarm of vehicles that pass through Pang Mapha like a river of plastic and shiny metal. I found a bit of shade and waited for Tim to show up. Five minutes passed. Seven. Keep in mind that we left The Cave Lodge at exactly the same time. After ten minutes, visions of Tim splayed out on the pavement, helmet-less and unconscious began to play through my mind.
I don't know if you're big into Astrology or know much about cosmic alignments, but one of the things that Tim likes to keep track of is something called Mercury in Retrograde. There's a long complicated explanation that involves the Mercury's apparent movement through the sky which, from time to time, seems to go into reverse. Astrologically, these times are interpreted to mean a disruption of the areas that this tiny, red-hot planet governs: communications, technology, and travel, for example. As I waited there for Tim, with no real way to communicate with him, wondering if the technology behind the motorbike taxi had somehow failed, thereby thwarting our carefully laid travel plans, I couldn't help but remember Tim's recent announcement that Mercury was about to go retrograde.
The first time Tim and I were in Mae Hong Son, we decided to rent a couple of bicycles and go for a ride. The tourist map that we had been given, the one that cheerfully announced that it was not to scale, showed a waterfall south of town and next to that, displayed the universal symbol for swimming. We loaded Tim's backpack with water, hopped on our bikes, and at approximately 2 in the afternoon — the hottest and sweatiest time of the day — started pedaling. The map showed one landmark that would direct us to this waterfall and swimming hole: The Fern Resort. Make a left there and then hike the nearby trail to refreshment!
I'm not sure what Mercury was up to that day, but our travel plans did not go smoothly. One of our rented bikes was a little too small and riding it was a cramped, butt cheek bruising affair. The simple line on our map translated to a 7km uphill slog that left us dripping with sweat and squinting in the afternoon glare. The Fern Resort did not sit neatly on the corner of our turnoff, it was set back an additional 2 uphill kilometers. We pedaled and pumped, sweated and strained; two giant farang in search of a waterfall. Motorbikes and scooters whizzed past us. Children and dogs who lived in the brick and bamboo houses lining the road stared confusedly at us as we inched our way uphill. And of course, once we reached the Fern Resort, there was no sign of a trail, just forest and farm plots, banana trees and dust.
We wandered into the Fern Resort, exhausted travelers entering a pristine oasis. It was green and quiet and in the chaos of rain forest, seemed deliberate and orderly. A friendly young man in a crisp uniform greeted us at the entrance gate. He looked at us and then at our bicycles and just for a second his eyes widened and he gaped.
As the minutes ticked past, waiting for Tim in Pang Mapha, I thought of that day. Even our arrival at The Fern Resort did not end our troubles. Confused by the directions we had been given by the kind employees, Tim and I ended up in our first yelling match of our trip. “I feel like you're not trusting people!” “This isn't about trusting people, this is about having each other's back!” Et cetera. We were overheated, angry, defensive, and resentful. Good times, good times.
Eventually, we found the trail — Tim was right, for those of you keeping track of such trivia — and hiked into the rainforest. The sun slid into the lower quadrant of the sky, taking on the color of a goldfish. Our way was covered in fallen leaves, the result of the dry season, and our crunching footsteps obscured the sounds of birdsong and insect buzz. We hardly spoke to each other, except to note a particularly large tree trunk or a tilting grove of bamboo.
We found the waterfall, of course. The water was cool and clear and it doused our fires, both interna and external. Whatever anger we were clinging to washed away. We exhilarated. We had set out to do something and we had done it, no matter how imperfectly or awkwardly. And although my state of mind had momentarily distracted me from noticing it, we were surrounded by beauty. Again. As we always are.
Tim, of course, eventually showed up. His driver had stopped to put air in her tires and to answer a phone call. That was it. In fact, not only did he show up, he did so just in time for us to catch the minivan heading to Mae Hong Son. The timing was perfect, which was more than we could say for our travel friends, Anna and Zdenka, who were catching the bus to Chiang Mai — the opposite direction. They were delayed at least 4 hours.
And not only did we have exactly zero wait time and zero delays, we also got into Mae Hong Son at the perfect time to catch one of two regularly scheduled shuttles to The Fern Resort. Yup, that's right! We were so charmed by its beauty, friendliness, and location that we decided to splurge a bit in honor of my 42nd birthday! Just a few short hours after leaving Pang Mapha, we found ourselves lounging by a delicious swimming pool and housed in a lovely bungalow set into the edge of terraced rice paddies.
And not only did we find ourselves in this beautiful place — which, incidentally, had also been visited by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie a few years ago — we ended up meeting the owner of the place. And not only that, but in the course of a very sweet and heartfelt conversation with him and another traveler named Ed, we mentioned that we were staying at his ecologically friendly resort to celebrate my birthday. Which he must have mentioned to his staff sometime that evening because the next morning, not only did I enjoy the usual breakfast buffet, complete with fresh fruit, Thai sweet treats, eggs made to order and the best effing fried rice in Thailand, I also got a special birthday surprise. A gigantic banana pancake with a giant birthday candle in it! And not only that, but the birthday song and a birthday hug as well!
If you're wondering why I look so sad in that last picture, its because I was crying like a big sad baby. It's hard to feel worthy of such loving kindness; especially from strangers, especially so far from any place I've ever called home. During these 42 trips around the sun, I've been mean and judgemental and petty; I've held grudges and told lies. I've succumbed to anger and disdain and I've yelled at the person who loves me most. And yet however far afield I have roamed, I have been shown so much love. Whatever I might have done in my life, consciously or unconsciously, it seems unlikely that I deserve such largesse, such a heartfelt embrace.
Perhaps that is why I sometimes feel like something bad is about to happen, why a short 15 minute delay can send my mind into reverse. Mercury, held to the sun's loving bosom, waiting to ignite.
I am infinitely grateful to Khun Tawatchai, to Khun Tsatsa, to Khun Koi, to Khun Oraa, and Khun Oriaa, and everyone else at The Fern Resort for the kindness and love they showed me on my 42nd birthday. May it be returned to you all a thousand-fold. May it appear unexpectedly in the most unlikely of places, and may you wonder at its workings.