Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Sunday, July 12, 2009
Choose Your Own Adventure: Ecuadorian Rain Forest
You arrive in the surprisingly bustling city of Tena, Ecuador after an incredible week spent in the Galapagos Islands. Tena is the last major outpost before a hundred or so miles of jungle and then Peru. Bisected by rivers, the town hosts five different Adventure Travel Operators offering tours that all seem to be interesting and perfectly fun. You:
A) Sign up for one of these tours.
B) Decide to go a different direction, by renting a bike and trying to find a lagoon along the Rio Anzu recommended by a local, using a map drawn on a napkin.
Interesting choice! From the best you can ascertain using your wobbly Spanish skills, the spot you are looking for is approximately twenty miles away, slightly uphill. You begin your ride at eight in the morning with all of your camping equipment strapped to your back. Speaking of equipment, you:
A) Bring insect repellent and extra batteries for your flashlight.
B) Bring along Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Of course you did! Who needs insect repellent in the Amazon Basin? But at least you're taking a book that you've read seventy times along. You pedal through town and toward your intended destination. When the pavement gives way to rocks and mud you know you're headed in the right direction. While marveling at just how heavy your backpack is you find that there is a screw pointing upwards from the bicycle seat and poking into your tenderest areas. You:
A) Begin to curse the seat, the bike and your backpack for increasing the gravitational force that pulls you into it.
B) Notice an eighty year old woman gathering wood and carrying it in a basket held by a strap across her forehead and decide that you never have the right to complain again. Ever.
Bravo! You were able to do both things simultaneously. Though I don't know if the bike will ever forgive you for the things you said about it. You continue riding and arrive at the place your napkin map indicates as the beginning of a slight incline. You soon realize that you have apparently mistranslated the phrase "slight incline" -- the intended translation should have been "straight uphill for five miles." Finally, by mid-afternoon you arrive at your destination. The lagoon is incredible, a pool carved by a stream and tumbling over a series of cascades into the river. You:
A) Camp here on high, even ground.
B) Set camp another half-mile away, on a patch of sand surrounded by granite boulders on the banks of the big river because it seems more idyllic.
Hmmmm, it's certainly more work, but so be it. No one can deny that the spot you choose is everything you ever imagined a tropical rainforest to be. The jungle trickles right out onto the boulders and the little pool of water next to your camp hosts thousands of tadpoles and baby frogs. In the distance the clouds hang in the trees like long, twisted tendrils of smoke. Almost immediately a brilliant blue butterfly the size of a dinner plate lands next to you. In fact, the area seems absolutely ripe with different butterflies. The number of butterflies and moths that have landed right on you during your lifetime jumps from one to about two dozen within minutes. As you make camp, the sun is beating down and when you need a break you ride some small rapids using a giant plastic jerry-can as a floatation device, a trick learned from the Bujigali Boys in Jinja, Uganda.
Your best guess pegs the time at about four o'clock when you start to gather wood for a fire. You quickly discover that finding dry wood in the rain forest is not the world's easiest task. You resort to burning the blank pages and editorial notes from Huck Finn to get a few fallen leaves dried. These giant leaves, once dry make an excellent fuel but the bigger twigs dry more slowly. It feels a little like starting a fire in early spring on the Necanicum River in Oregon, except for when a spider that looks as if it was specifically engineered to flood your body with deadly venom crawls out of the wood that you have just gathered. Then it becomes all too clear that you are in a foreign land. You struggle for more than two hours to not be bit by such things and get a steady flame going. Near sunset you roast onions, garlic, potatoes and carrots in the coals and heat up a can of lentils. Darkness settles in and you try to keep yourself from feeling a little spooked. Your fire doesn't provide enough light to eat by so you use your flashlight. The batteries burn out by the end of your meal which may be a blessing because (although you start itching for a day or two) the light was attracting sand flies and they were biting you everywhere, even some of the same spots where the bicycle seat was gouging you. You hear heavy thuds off in the jungle-- you recognize the sound as rain just in time to dive for your tent. The rain begins falling in marble sized drops and with force. A flash of lightning makes the whole river visible for just a second before everything goes black and the thunder smashes above you. You:
A) Remember something about Amazon river tributaries being prone to flash flood and move camp now.
B) Keep the thought in mind and bide your time by eating a Nestle Crunch Bar carried along for just such emergencies.
Okay, you've decided to stay put. Every few minutes you reach your hands blindly out of the tent to see how much that innocent looking little tadpole pond has infringed on your spit of sand. You go through alternating moments of panic and relief and decide you will write to the people at REI to thank then for the quality of their tent rain-flies. The storm booms along for hours. It is a long night, filled with worry but you never wake from your fitful naps to find yourself floating down river, which is a good thing. At first light you poke your head out of the tent. Your camp still hasn't been breached. You feel very, very lucky. However it is still raining and considering how little you slept, you decide to laze around in the tent for a little while. You figure this can't keep up much longer. You are:
A) Correct, the storm weakens.
B) A fool, this is the rain forest, it's right there in the name! The rain continues steadily, with a few touches of far off thunder splashed around for effect.
Finally, around noon by your best guess the rain lets up enough to go outside of the tent. You stand and realize just how shockingly, appallingly, mind-numbingly lucky you actually were. The river has risen by four or five feet in some places, at least two in most places. You however were protected on all sides by those granite boulders and your camp site hasn't changed much at all. Don't go patting yourself on the back just yet, Bear Grylls, remember that you chose it because it was "idyllic" not "well protected." Either way, you're not out of the woods. You will have to find a way to get your backpack and bike back above the cascade and onto the path. You spend the day trying to find navigable eddies near the banks of the river where you can wade with your gear to shore and then wind through the jungle back to a rickety bridge over the lagoon. The spot that was so peaceful yesterday is now absolutely raging with whitewater. You work through most of the day, drink the last of your water and use a safety rope tied to a rock so that you can splash around in the lagoon without getting pulled over the falls. Finally, you begin the bike ride back toward civilization trying to get there before darkness falls, racing down hill, knowing that you have to make it back to Quito on a six hour bus that night for your flight to Los Angeles at nine in the morning. With more butterflies fluttering around you, tropical birds calling from somewhere in the distance and the fog wound tightly around the treetops you realize:
A) There are things and places that you will visit that can never live up to the way they were described in the books you read as a boy. The rainforest is not one of them.
B) You will absolutely be back here one day.
C) Both of the above.