According to the advertisements, Malaysia has the oldest rainforest in the world, so we couldn’t refuse the opportunity to go jungle trekking, as the locals call it.
We excitedly follow our guide deep into the jungle, where wild elephants and tigers still roam free. We hike up a muddy hill, the sweat drips from our bodies, but our efforts pay off. We come upon a huge flower that blossoms for only seven days, once every 14 months. Later on, we discover elephant tracks. My twelve-year-old Jemma sticks her foot inside the colossal print, and we all feel small.
Our guide stops beside a lake; he grabs some leaves and tells us about the soap bush, a natural antiseptic that produces suds when the leaves are rubbed together with water. We are all amazed as soap bubbles magically appear on our hands. Not too long after that, he stops us on the trail. A serious look forms on his face.
He says in his thick Mayla accent. At first, we don’t understand what he is saying. So by way of illustration, he lifts his foot so we can all see blood dripping from his big toe. He points to a worm-type thing casually easing its way off his sandal.
He says again, and dread begins to take hold of us.
“Don’t worry, no problem, they take out only bad blood. When they take blood, don’t pull on them.”
He stops to make an aggressive pulling gesture and then wags his finger.
“This a no-no.”
Then he pauses as he mulls over his next English word.
“Teeth!” He blurts out.
“If you pull, teeth stay in, cause big trouble.”
Looks of terror transform the smiling wonderment that had been a fixture on the faces of my wife and children. In seconds we’ve gone from adventurous jungle trekking to horror film. My traumatized children look at me for guidance.
“Keep your feet moving” is all I can think to say.
Instantaneously the Wilkinson family starts marching. We don’t stop marching even when the guide stops. Up and down, our feet go as we stand in place. The guide teaches us about a tree that has blood-red sap. The word blood triggers us, and we all wonder how much of it is exiting our bodies at that moment. Fortunately, land leeches are very humane. The holes they carve out of our toes and feet don’t hurt. If we can avoid looking down, we won’t even notice them doing their vampire work until we feel the slosh of blood on our sandals, and by then, they are long gone.
Finally, mercifully, the trek ends, but before we leave the jungle, we fan out in all directions, searching for that bush with the antiseptic soap leaves. Even though we did no pulling while the land leaches lunched on us, we can’t help but think a good cleaning is in order — Jungle style!