“What the hell was that noise?” -the foggy thought my brain conjures up after being jarred awake inside a cramped net hammock suspended 30” above the jungle floor. It’s not the screeching, hacking, screaming sounds emitted by myriad birds high in the canopy that worries me, nor is it the incessant hum from the cloud of malaria vectors bouncing off the netting, inches from my skin. The sound that wakes me so abruptly is the soft crunching of jungle duff very near my humble shelter site. Horrific images of man-eating jungle cats stalk through my psyche. I am forced to recall a lesson learned earlier in the day: Everything in the jungle is trying to kill you… Luckily, my imagination is much more active than the jungle cat on this night. I am relieved as one of my comrades mumbles something through my bug net as he stumbles back from nature’s call. Needless to say, my first night in the jungle is not a restful one.
I had listened to past instructors and mentors reminisce of this place on more than one occasion. To my peers and me it was merely a storybook tale, barely a tangible reality for our new breed. It really had its glory days during the Vietnam conflict, but their colorful tales made me jump at the opportunity to attend the Jungle Environmental Survival Training.
A bit of salesmanship, plenty of seemingly meaningless paperwork, and I will be on my way to Subic Bay, Philippines. Now I just have to figure out how to get there. Flying military air in the Southeast Pacific is about the closest thing you can get to hitchhiking on aircraft. It can be a daunting task trying to get where you need to be, but will generally save a lot of time and money compared to a commercial carrier. The key is to seek out a crusty (see: wise) enlisted man who has probably been in the region a bit too long. One with long, wispy, receding hair tucked behind his cartoon ears, and a red face with happy eyes. This is the man who will put you there. For me, this man is the affectionately dubbed “Patch.” Few have seen him in regulation uniform; fewer still really know what it is that he does, but everyone respects and depends on the ties that he had built over the years.
Patch puts me in contact with some gentlemen who are flying into Clark Airbase. I arrive early in the morning and board the small, nondescript transport plane. The cush leather seats inside make me feel like quite the VIP. One tired looking soldier joins me in the passenger cabin, and we enjoy a quiet ride towards the equator. A smiling middle aged Philipino by the name of Ernie meets me at the terminal to drive me from the airbase to the school’s location in Subic Bay. His amiable personality reminds me of an uncle you have known all your life.
Our first stop is to the money exchange. This is my first taste of the unadvertised side of the Philipino culture. The bustling market street seems to freeze in their tracks as they stare at this young white kid pulling up to the money exchange in his private taxi. The nervous expression on my face must be pretty blatant. Ernie calmly offers to show me the ropes. Dollars are now peso, we are on the move.
Ernie drops me at the front of my hotel, and I wander inside to procure a room to dump the enormous pack I am lugging around. I’ve finally arrived. My overloaded pack makes a thud as it hits the ground. My head makes a similar sound as it hits the pillow. I pass out almost immediately.
The sun is setting as I awake in my dimly lit room. I am wide awake. Despite my best intentions to get one up on jetlag, I think I have been counterproductive this time. The remainder of the night is spent sorting gear, sharpening tools, and thinking about the coming days.
In the morning I meet the rest of the attendees and our coordinator Jarod briefs an overview of the jungle environment. We then load up and travel to the JEST Camp. After wandering aimlessly for a few minutes our group spots a few men sauntering out of the jungle. Their slight frames are loaded down with lengths of giant bamboo that are longer than the three of them together. Jarod recognizes the third man as Eduardo or Ed for short. Ed is a wiry man with chiseled Philippino features and dark eyes. He has a sheathed machete or “bolo” swinging from a piece of cord around his waist that seems to be an extension of his body.
Ed unloads his burden and comes over to greet us. He takes us on a quick tour of the compound then shows us to a small hut where we should purchase our own bolos for the trip. We are excited and hurry to choose the perfect tool. The bolos are handmade from old Jeep leaf springs and finished with a water buffalo horn handle. The sheaths are wooden, and some have intricate carvings. Looking for function, I pick up a plain looking blade with a perfect handle. Ed jars our attention from ogling each others selections, “So you want to be John Rambo?” He smiles wryly and leads us to a small clearing for some demonstrations. We listen attentively as he describes the history of the school and some of the common plants. We watch in awe as Ed shows us how to make a bamboo fire saw. It is almost magical to watch him work so meticulously, until flames begin to lick up through the small bundle of shavings.
Still bewildered at the work of the master woodsman in front of us, we say our goodbyes and hash out plans for the morning. It will be a very early show, and a long trek through the jungle to reach our camp site…
Hope you enjoyed the tale so far. What do you want to know about THRIVING in the JUNGLE?? Use the comment box below to ask!
UPDATE, 8 Jan 2012: “So You Want to be John Rambo, Part II.” Is ready for consumption! You won’t be disappointed…
Check out RogueImages for available prints from this and other adventures!