Amanda Jones
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Strangest Place I've Ever Slept

Written by Amanda Jones for

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it was the late '80s in Thailand. I had arrived in Chiang Rai, shuddered at the number of tourists and boarded a bus heading north. "Anywhere," I said, "I don't care, just get me away from electricity." To be honest, I have no idea where I ended up. I changed buses in a place called Fang and headed farther north, toward the Golden Triangle. At that time, Burma was still lobbing the occasional bomb over the border, so I was the sole farangi disembarking in some dusty, dirty village whose name I never knew.

With great luck I met a local woman who spoke wonderful English, mixed a sinister mai tai and convinced me that her men could build a bamboo raft and pole me down the local river tributaries for four days, stopping to sleep in remote hill-tribe villages. And all for some paltry amount of hard currency. Who could refuse such an offer?

Within hours, the raft was lashed together. It had a small thatched roof in the center for shade and a bamboo outhouse perched precariously over the river. Like Cleopatra, I lay in the middle while two silent, shadowy men dipped long bamboo poles in and out of the muddy water.

The first afternoon, we pulled up in the middle of nowhere and hiked up a steep, badly eroded mountainside, arriving at a Lisu hill-tribe village at dusk. The people were beautiful and incredibly welcoming, although not one spoke English. I was to stay with a family of 14 whose teenage son spoke bastardized French, worse still than my own.

Because I was the guest, they ushered me into what was obviously the master suite. Within a tiny cubicle stood a bed with fat pieces of bamboo strapped together to create a platform. On top of this were layers of grass matting intended as a mattress. The room was separated from the rest of the hut by thin rattan curtains that hung from the roof. It looked torturous, but I offered profuse thanks, understanding that the family would be sleeping on the floor next door, all in one room.

I couldn't help but notice that every few seconds a rattling, tearing, agonized sound of coughing issued from a dark recess of the hut. I am deeply ashamed to admit it and I wish I were a better person, but the first thought that came to mind was, Oh God, I'll never sleep with that.

During dinner the disembodied coughing shot through the tiny village like machine gun fire. It was fairly obvious that whoever the unfortunate person was, he had TB or lung cancer or something equally fatal. After I felt the family grow comfortable with me, I asked the boy if they had any medicine for the cough. It was his grandfather, the boy replied, and no, they'd never had any medicine, other than the herbs and opium from the Aka tribeswomen over the hill.

"You have any?" he asked eagerly.

"Why, yes, as a matter of fact, I do," I said, seizing my opportunity for a good night's sleep. And then, with the confident tone of a visiting magician, "Show me to your grandfather."

The old man lay on a mat in the corner of the room. He was a human shell, skeletal and sunken, lips falling away from a toothless mouth, gums stained red from decades of chewing betel nut. He weighed about 90 pounds at best and his clothes hung off him lankly.

"Mmm," I said, producing my medical kit with a flourish. I handed the boy six aspirin, two 10-milligram tablets of Valium and five cough drops containing codeine, instructing him to give his grandfather measured amounts of each for the next 24 hours.

I rejoined the family outside and we drank sweet tea and watched lightning strike over Burma. Not more than five minutes later, silence enveloped the hut. The coughing had abruptly ceased. I looked quizzically at the boy. "You gave him the correct amount?"

The boy looked excited, punctuating his French with mangled English.

"Il mange tout! Grand medicine Américaine fix him righto now!"

I stared at him, realizing my own stupidity. I had killed the family patriarch, all in the interest of my own undisturbed night of sleep. That tiny man had gobbled enough drugs to down an elephant. How would I explain things when they found him stiff and cold on his mat the next morning, doubtless with a euphoric, but still dead, look on his face?

Feeling ill, I retreated to my own bed of honor, listening to the snuffles of multiple generations, longing to hear just one phlegmy hack, one small sign of life from that corner of the room. Nothing.

I don't think I slept at all that night, lying with humped bamboo sticking into my back, straining to hear and frantically devising some way to escape the murder scene before I was implicated. The darkness crept on and on. I knew that if I tried to move or go outside, I would trip over some prone family member and wake the entire village.

Dawn came finally, and I lay there, rigid, not knowing what to do. I heard a shout, and I thought, well, I have lived a too-brief but fascinating life, and then the boy rushed into my room, grabbing my hand and tugging me outside.

There stood the old man, his crusty lips stretched from ear to ear in a grin. He walked over to me and knelt at my feet, bending over clasped hands in what I took for undying (literally) gratitude. He had no idea the gratitude I felt just to see him breathing. He'd had his first good night of sleep in years, the boy explained. The Big American medicine had fixed him. I didn't have the heart to tell him that his symptoms were merely anesthetized.

The old man stumbled into the hut, reappearing with a homemade instrument like a shrunken banjo. The family gasped. It had obviously been a while since grandpa did his thing on the strings. I was seated in the middle of the courtyard and he struck up an atonal tune, singing and dancing slowly around me. Teary-eyed women brought me fruit, grown men looked on in awe, children sat at my feet. Instead of murderess I was suddenly goddess. Bleary-eyed, I smiled benevolently, wondering if I should try this trick in the next village.