It was a big hill. Steep such that the hard rubber tips of our waterproof gortex boots met the little bows tied in our fifteen-dollar laces. The talk of blueberry pie back home in Michigan quieted proportionate to the slope of the hill. We were midway and the breeze, while humid by most standards, met our faces like a simple cracker meets the lips of the starved.
I glanced upwards through the gleam of sweat and dirt and mountains of northern Thailand. The grunting of my kin behind me, along with the crunch of red dirt and the light scattering of pebbles, sounded like the pigs kept underneath the teak houses in the villages. He was there, as he always was, waiting for us at the top of the hill before he’d lead us further through the jungle and to the next village. He was dark, and the skin on his face was tight and worn, like the fields of rice I would harvest later that week.
We had hiked over ten miles that day with forty pound packs. I could see him squatting in his casual Thai posture – feet flat on the ground, almost as though he was sitting, smoking a cigarette while staring off into the green. He was wearing a t-shirt, light fisherman pants, and plastic flip-flops. All cost less than the chapstick stuffed in my two-hundred dollar bag.