Saturday, April 3, 2010

Jungle Macho

Through the jungle very softly flits a shadow and a sigh -
he is Fear - o little Hunter - he is Fear
-Rudyard Kipling

After a strange Christmas in the West Bank, it was time to trade Greek lamb on a spit for piranha fishing this Easter. As Bogota shut down to observe the religious holidays, I packed my 99% DEET bug spray and headed for the Amazonian jungle.

One would think that 99% DEET bug spray would burn a hole through one's skin. And it well can. What it apparently cannot do is prevent mosquito bites in the Amazon. On a year when I have lived and worked among insurgents and rebels, drunk questionable tap water and eaten the most ominous looking street food, the greatest threat to my life has come from a surprising source: mosquitoes. Amazonian mosquitoes resemble birds more than insects; some of them deserve their own zip code and should be fought with a bazuka, not a fly swatter. Starting at sunset, a process unfolds that greatly resembles Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' theory on the 5 stages of grief:
1) Denial: "Surely they cannot be as bad as people say they are. People exaggerate all the time! Plus, I have my 99% DEET bug spray, long pants and Tiamina vitamin tablets, so I am prepared." This can also be called delusion.
2) Anger: A heavy dose of indignation plays into this one. "But how could my bug spray not work? How is it possible that they bite through jeans and high socks?" This stage can also lead to theorizing: "Who needs mosquitoes, anyway?", "What function do mosquitoes fulfill?" (if anybody dares tell me that they are food for bats, I will gladly invite said bats to the Amazon and ask them to start feasting.)
3) Bargaining: "Maybe if I eat my dinner standing up and twirling around in circles, they will not be able to bite me." "I think they are attracted to light, so I will go stand in the dark." "Scratch that, Amazonian mosquitoes are apparently attracted to the dark. Back to the candle it is." It is around this time that great creative patents also begin to take form: "Maybe if there were a full body scratcher..." or "What if there were an Amazon suit made of the same material as my galoshes? Then the rest of me would be as bite free as my calves..."
4) Depression: Thoughts of oncoming malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever, typhoid fever, all the fevers surface. The idea that the back of your thighs look like you have developed heavy cellulite from the bumpy bites also settles in.
5) Acceptance: You finally sit down to eat your meal. You realize the DEET will not help, nor will a galoshes suit, or a candle or the lack thereof. You will get bitten, you will get eaten alive, you will scratch despite your best judgment. But you are still in the Amazon, you are breathing more oxygen than your sheesha-suffering lungs have enjoyed in months and you are about to fall asleep in the company of a jaguar.
That last bit about the jaguar is as literal as can be. I am fairly certain my bag of bathroom trash was stolen by a jaguar, panther or other cat-like creature with a penchant for toilet paper. There is no Starwood Platinum Guest way to the Amazon and if there were, it would not be my way. Then again, a year ago, I never would have imagined that 'my way' would have meant a hammock in the woods, so far into the jungle that the dot in Google Earth is simply a spot in a sea of uninhabited green. On my first night, I was warned to always wear my galoshes, lest a poisonous snake emerge. Shine your flashlight at night - red eyes mean snake, white eyes mean spider. If you see a panther, make yourself as large as possible (which is exactly how large for a munchkin-sized woman in the jungle?) And if you see a jaguar... well, never mind. The indigenous say that you see your first and last jaguar at the same time.

For some, this information means they spend their nights lying awake under hammocks attempting to discern tarantulas or hear wolves. For others, it leads to a manifestation of yet another kind of Colombian macho. Introducing the Jungle Macho:
1) Wear cammo. Meryl Streep's all white linen outfits in Out of Africa planted the idea in wealthy Westerners on safari that this should be their default zebra-spotting uniform. Somehow, the Amazon inspires cammo.
2) Adorn yourself with gadgets. Reptile-deflecting rope? Rock-climbing snap hooks? By all means, bring them all. Does it matter that there are no rocks to climb?
3) Reiterate how badly you want to see a snake. The more poisonous the better. Extra points for possible death by asphyxiation. [Equally important: When said snake manifests itself, retreat to the back of the line of hikers, duck behind a small girl and beg for mama.]
4) Discuss the time of your close encounter with *insert giant, deadly jungle cat here*. Of course it did not eat you alive because it saw that you have the "soul of a tiger."
Patting a poisonous snake at the natural reserve - and yes, that is a giant mosquito bite on my forehead.

Modern urban-men-gone-Tarzan may make for as entertaining a sight as all gimmicky, gadget-loving, intensely passionate individuals, but the conservation of the Amazon largely rests on their initiative and commitment to protecting the rainforest. They are the ones who invest the time, energy and funds to lobby officials against deforestation and mining, who build ecotourism lodges to attract travelers to the area and who lead said travelers by hand as they spot their first jungle treasures. And with these people ten hammocks down the line, those of us who suffer Malarone-induced insomnia and count spiders on trees as the new 'counting sheep to sleep' can breathe out and begin to find our own way to love the jungle.

Learning to love the jungle one night in a hammock at a time

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