Noche de la wanta

I was sitting, eyes closed, in the lap of a wide, white tree in the pasture far behind Marco´s house.  The moon, waxing crescent, had just set behind the wall of forest to our backs, and the stars were sparkling bright as fireflies.  In one sense, I was alone with just a backpack and machete.  In every other, I was with multitudinous company: one by one, I tried to hone in on each sound in the darkness.  Though I recognized none, I knew the raucous calls spoke of grasshoppers, frogs, cicadas, and a haunt of nocturnal insects.  There, an owl.  Here, a growing swarm of mosquitos trying to poke its way through the shirt I´d tied around my head.  My breath, finally calm.  Layers upon layers of foreign sound; I could barely hear a thing.  Then, POWWWoooaaaaooo!!!

One single shot.  In the half hour I sat there listening, I had almost forgotten why I was there.  Marco had been sitting silently, as well, just a hundred meters away in the forest, high up on two logs we´d tied around two trees.  From his lookout in the darkness, he was waiting over the feeding grounds of the wanta, a large rodent that only comes out in the darkest hour of night.  Oh yes: it all came back to me before the echo of munitions faded into the animal chants of the night.  Oh yes: we had arrived around sunset to fix the lookout, re-tying and testing the logs, tracking the wantas´ previous feast of forest fruits, calling back and forth to a wakening owl in the distance.  The moon was still high in the sky when darkness set, so we went to fish until the silvery light disappeared.  We dug wriggly worms by the stream nearby, hooking them tightly and letting them sink to the mud under dangling grasses.  We´d caught about six little barbudas, similar to catfish, before Marco went to chase an armadillo that was digging around the hill we faced.  No luck this time...

(...Unlike the time he went wanta hunting last week, when he brought home a fully grown male armadillo in the backpack instead.  I was convinced to de-scale, peel, and clean it that night, concentrating on each square inch of skin or shell in order to ignore the stench.)

I digress.  By the stream, Marco returned as I held the ad hoc fishing pole in the moonlight, waiting for one more nibble.  The night was still young, we already had a bag of fish, and we were still full of energy from the chonta that afternoon (a type of palm fruit that´s orange and savory, boiled and peeled with salt and cup of coffee), so we set off through the jungle to bag more fish in a bigger river.

The sensation of walking at night is dizzying.  I mean, walking even on a sidewalk in pure darkness can be harrowing, ¿no es cierto? And, of course, walking through the forest at Opal Creek at night, hurrying with head lamps to find a campsite, is even more disquieting.  So this night in the selva amazónica-- surrounded by utterly foreign smells and sounds and sensations as I passed through brush and stepped over nurse logs-- was quite possibly the most alien experience of my life.  On the hunt as we were, I tried to stay alert and aware of all the noises around us, but it was nearly impossible for me to differentiate what Marco knew instantly as a grasshopper or bat.  It was all I could do to keep up with him, tread quietly over the sea of leaves and sticks at our feet, and try to not panic as we crossed slippery rivers and searched for wanta along the way.  We stopped to fish at a larger, slow bend in the river, keeping our lights off to not frighten the barbudas.  Marco called to the monkeys in the distance and huffed deeply to communicate to the little jaguar across the way that we were peaceful.  I sat, utterly stupefied, mechanically stashing each fish he caught in a pocket of the backpack.  For all my time and attention here, I realized I knew practically nothing of this forest.

At the next stream we were along the edge of the trees again, and I waited in the pasture for a moment as Marco fished.  Looking uphill at the sparse tree trunks in the last rays of white light, I imagined I was in the oak savannah of the Willamette Valley.  Bald Hill, or Avery Park, or even down around Mount Tamalpais in California.  For a few breaths, I ignored the jungle air and incessant chant, and I felt safer, steadier, sturdier--  like I could teach Marco something, this time around.  Then the aroma of orchids wafted by, I caught a whiff of my jungle sweat, and the vision morphed back.

Marco always tells me, si tienes confianza en la selva, te puede dar tanta energía, tantas cosas.  If you trust the forest, it will give you lots of energy, many gifts.

Just trust it.

The moon was falling fast along the horizon, so we started back the way we came.  The wanta would be coming out soon to search for food underneath Marco´s lookout post.  Along the way we stopped just once as the wavering whistle of nocturnal monkeys approached.  In the trees above, they bounded and leapt loudly, stopping at a safe distance to watch us watching them.  The size of large cats, they shifted curiously as their beady yellow eyes reflected Marco´s torch. Tan bodies into the trees.  The night was full.  We trekked on.

That is how I came to be sitting, eyes closed, in the lap of a wide, white tree in the night.  After the shot rang the songs of night continued undisturbed, but I was waiting anxiously for Marco to emerge from the forest´s edge.  When he finally did, flashlight bouncing along the tips of pasture grass, I peeked around the smooth leg of tree, squinting into the light, and spotted one delicate paw dangling at his side.  It was a young one, just three months old according to the fat on her belly, soft and warm and heavy.  We were happy, and I congratulated Marco for his long-awaited wanta.  On the long walk home, as we stopped suddenly here and there to listen for armadillos in the brush, I reached behind me to feel the its silky fur sticking through a hole in the bottom of the backpack.  I wished I could have seen it alive, pawing through the forest floor with its little toes, gnawing on pasos or uvas amid the grasshoppers´ crescendo.

But you know, I was also happy to see it scorched and brushed clean the next day.  I was happy to learn how to take its guts out and chop its spine into meaty hunks.  Most of all, I was happy to savor each bite of its fried meat, tender and fatty like prime rib, over a pile of boiled plátano and wash it down with fresh warm milk.

As Marco would say with a thick accent, This is jungle life.

Marco and the wanta.

White lines

Before I get into Ecuador--considering not much has ¨happened¨since I got here, anyway-- I want to acknowledge where I came from.  A few days before I left Corvallis, I hiked to the top of Mary´s Peak with some friends, through snow and dense stands of evergreens.  At the top, we finally felt the warmth of sun (though we were already sweaty from the incline) and sat to eat.  The snow was dazzling, heaping over each tree limb, and I could make out the Cascades from Washington to Rainier.  Yes, Rainier.  Just a few thousand feet above the valley floor, my eyes beheld the faint light reflected from a behemoth on the Puget Sound.  Now I remember why Mary´s Peak is such a symbol of home to me. On my last morning at home, I pulled up the blinds from the panoramic window overlooking the Hammer field and Highway 99, and the world was completely shrouded in frost and fog.  White.  Starlings flocked in the back yard, and the leaves of the front hedge were covered in tiny ice feathers.  They stayed frozen like that, all morning.

 Just south of Houston, there were lines of ships coming in and out of harbor, leaving tiny white flurries in their wake.  Further past shore, dozens of them waited, all crooked and colorful, for their turn to enter the port.  I wondered who was on those ships.  How often did they get to spend time with their families, at home?  How many of them even had a place to call home?  I dozed as they disappeared behind us, and woke just as the sun was cutting golden through the western clouds.  Below me, under a dull purple haze, slid another shoreline thick with low vegetation and barely spotted with lights.  Nicaragua?  The Yucatan?  I had no way to know.

Hours later as we descended into the Andes, the clouds finally gave way to foggy, tungsten streets.  Tiny cars floated amid the skyscrapers and palm trees, still a world away from seat 28A.  The buildings barely disappeared before we hit the ground, and I felt strangely relaxed.  I had no idea what was to come here, no one to turn to, no firm purpose or plan.  Today was difficult.  Tomorrow, I will wake up again in a hectic city, and hopefully head for the hills.

A (nother) beginning

It feels rather silly to be starting a new blog, just in time for a new journey, after reading this introduction to my last online journal: "I left my home when the sky was busting open with cold water and arrived at the "beginning" under a hot setting sun. My goal was to speak Spanish fluently by the time I returned, and my loose plans sent me south. While I wandered through jungles and beaches, fiestas and ruins, though, those plans disintegrated in the humidity and I became plankton, drifting with the wandering currents of America Central. The act of ending my journey is impossible, for what began in my mind as a "trip" has melded seamlessly into life at large. So, when someday you mention my travels as if they're over, I will smile and remind you that the soles of these feet can never be worn through. I figure I might as well use them."

Somehow, this "life at large" has seamlessly eddied into an experience more settled, secure, and in some ways stagnant than any other in my adult life.  Though the soles of my feet constantly tread new ground, it's become harder and harder to appreciate life's fullest possibilities here in my home town.  No, there is no need to travel to find peace or satisfaction.  Yes, wilderness and adventure await in every sidewalk crack to an active, curious mind.  I can be happy and feel at home anywhere, so why not just stay?

I think you already know the answer.

I will never speak English perfectly, and I doubt I'll master Spanish, but immersion is my only hope.  I will not know a place, and its relationship to my homelands, unless I go there.  I cannot know humanity without sharing my life with people vastly different from myself.  Something happens to my brain-- something very exhausting, but very good-- when I plop myself in the unfamiliar.  It flexes and bends with every doubt and insight, reconfiguring itself to be more adaptable and anticipatory.  When I enter new, uncomfortable situations, I am forced to constantly revise my understanding of the world.  I want that revision, now.

What will this corner of the globe have to say about life?  I leave from the Portland airport at 6:25 am on Wednesday, January 5.  I arrive in Quito, Ecuador at 10:12 pm that night, and I have exactly 140 days to attempt an answer to that question.