About an hour before dawn, howler monkeys woke with grumbles and grunts that eventually gathered enough volume and resonance to become full-blown roars. From my narrow bed in the second-story dormitory room, I heard the entire chorus but since this was my first night in the rain forest, I had no idea what I was listening to. I thought that someone downstairs was suffering from a really bad case of indigestion.
I hadn't closed my eyes all night. The sky was moonlit, glowing; the jungle alive with insect chirps and frog songs while my mind burned with images from the day before. This whole visit to the rain forest had been an expected gift: the original itinerary called for a brief drive-through but the road was so bad that the vehicles couldn't make it all the way to the coast. This rough jungle lodge on the crest of the Continental Divide had been a hasty improvisation.
The others -- ten middle-aged, first world women -- were being good sports: they'd squealed at the mud and loudly admired the six-foot, blood-red inflorescence of the heliconias, but I had a feeling that their enchantment would be considerably diminished after a night on a hard bed and a morning with no running water.
As for me, I was having a devil of a time keeping my body quiet and in bed. The scents that wafted through the open windows were like fingers beckoning me outward. I watched the shadows shift and dance on the split-bamboo floor and it was all that I could do to not drift out on the path of the moonlight, float across the clearing and down the slope to the mirador to watch the moon glisten on the pulsing tide of the Caribbean and on the glossy, wind-shuddered leaves of the canopy trees downslope.
At the first sign of daylight, I bolted. Above the valley, the swallow-tail kites, white and as graceful as angels, were already riding the thermal air currents. I'd seen swallow-tail kites once before, from a cliff above the Mississippi River, but somehow these birds seemed more spectacular, larger than life or memory.
Everything that I'd seen in the past two days was like those kites: at once familiar but somehow more defined, more precise, more elemental than what I had known in the US. Nighthawks, bats, frogs, flowers: all were at once familiar and yet strangely distorted until the world around me seemed almost surreal.
While the others breakfasted, I cornered the guide and begged her -- I nearly got down on my knees -- for permission to go off on my own for a while. "Maybe this afternoon. We're going to hike to a waterfall this morning and I'm going to need you to help me get all of the women down the trail. Most of them don't even have the right shoes for hiking."
I bit my tongue -- I wanted to protest that I was paying for this too so why did I have to work like a guide -- but I realized that whining wouldn't get me any closer to my goal. So on that hike I help: I coaxed and cheer-led and coddled and pointed out footholds and gave my hand and a boost to everyone that needed it. We got those ten women down the slippery, steep slope to the waterfall pool where they oohed and aahed and gushed and swam, and then we got them back up the hill where they loudly proclaimed both victory and exhaustion.
Back at the lodge while the others lunched, again I pleaded my case. The guide, grudging, relishing her power over me: "If you can get one of those guys" -- she pointed to the two native caretakers, standing apart, casting sidelong, rather nervous glances at the mass of large, eating American women -- "to take you, go ahead. But be back by three."
"They speak Spanish?"
The guide grinned and I realized how little I liked her. "More or less."
The native men were Kuna -- short, wiry, and athletic. They'd noticed me on the hike: one in particular had been catching my eye and grinning whenever he saw me shepherding another woman on the trail. The friendly Kuna man was maybe 25 or 30 but his smile made him appear younger, like a mischievous adolecent.
I approached him and in halting Spanish asked if he would take me on the trails in the jungle.
The man's grin was the exact opposite of the Panamanian guide's: it spread across his face with sincerity and grace. "For you, it would be a pleasure."
Without another word, without glancing backward to see if I followed, he immediately began walking down the trail toward the mirador. The entire time we were out, he led at his own pace, making no concessions for me. At first, stumbling behind him, I wondered what I had gotten myself into: I'd taken off into the unknown jungle with a man about whom I knew absolutely nothing except that he had a nice smile. Naive and probably overconfident of my abilities, I wasn't so much worried about my safety: I was more concerned about the awkwardness of the social situation.
We paused at the mirador and exchanged names: I learned that his was Milton. He told me that we would go to a waterfall: a bigger, nicer one than where we took the women this morning. While he talked I watched the white kites circling on the thermals high above the trees. Milton noticed my distraction.
"The Kunas used to believe that those birds bring the wind with them when they return this time of year. Before the white birds come, the jungle is so still that every leaf hangs limp on the trees, but when the birds arrive, the wind follows and the sky clears to blue like it is today."
From the mirador, the trail plunged into the jungle. My main fear about this hike was that Milton would be a talker: after being surrounded by women for the past two days, I wanted to experience the jungle in silence. Milton apparently read this desire in me: he spoke only sparingly.
"The Kuna used to believe that if the leader of a band of wild pigs is killed, the entire group can be tamed and brought into the village to live like dogs." This was at the "bano de cerdos" -- the wallow of wild peccaries.
"The Kunas used to believe that if a man dreams about sewing, he will meet a snake the next day." This as we admired the coiled elegance of a fer-de-lance snake sleeping on the rocks.
"The Kunas used to believe that the wood of this vine will protect a man from evil spirits in the jungle." Milton tugged at the leather strip he wore around his neck to reveal a tiny, carved human figure with elongated, claw-like arms. As we resumed walking, I thought about his standard disclaimer -- "The Kunas used to believe" -- and realized that Milton wasn't being entirely honest with his use of the past tense.
We heard the waterfall before we saw it. The drop was magnificent, the canyon breathtaking. We were both sweaty and hot from the hike but too self-conscious to strip down and jump into the pool. When I checked my watch, I realized that we had to hurry to get back.
We did take time to stop at the mirador for one final look at the jungle. From the overlook, the land sloped sharply downward toward the dancing turquoise water of the Caribbean. Below us was a sea of green: the canopy of the jungle. The leaves of the trees ruffled like ripples in the wind.
"The Kunas used to believe," Milton began.
I tore my eyes away from the view to meet his, and smiled.
He blushed. "The Kunas used to believe that the trees in the jungle are all women. At night, they open the flowers at the tops of their branches and the flowers smell so beautiful that it seduces the spirits that are floating in the sky and all of those spirits come down to earth."
"And what happens then?"
Milton blushed even deeper, and I'll always remember the awkwardness of his reply: "The trees that are women and the spirits from heaven -- at night when they meet, they commence sexual relations."
Causes Louise Young Supports
articulation of indigenous rights (organization: Cultural Survival)
sustainable, renewable, and independent energy sources