On the weekend, two friends remarked on how brave I was to go to the Congo. Brave? I was blinded by a passion that didn’t even allow me to consider any ill-fated consequences. I had an opportunity to work with chimpanzees—after hearing that, my mind was already in fast-forward, mentally packing my bag and visualizing my Jane Goodall moment.
When I decided to go to Costa Rica and volunteer for three months at age 20, I was also commended on my bravery. Again, it was a selfish indulgence. Live in a jungle hut and pick bananas off the trees for breakfast? What could possibly go wrong in the jungle? Where do I sign up?
I’ve made a lot of questionable decisions over the years. Again, I blame it on the blinding passion. Like the time I hitchhiked to Clayoquot Sound, BC, to stand on a logging road blocking the path of the trucks ready to level another stand of trees.
My ‘bravery’ can also be blamed for my enthusiasm to have a pint at the most bombed-out bar in all of Europe. Who wouldn’t want to do that? As I sat in the pub across from the Opera House in Belfast, Ireland, I was sure that after 33 bombings, surely a 34th couldn’t happen. Not while I was there. Not on my watch.
In Uganda I stood strong (‘bravely’) as Debby and I had a gun pointed in our direction by a Ugandan Wildlife Authority guard. The guard was ready to shoot Scrappy, one of the dogs from the Jane Goodall office. When Debby remarked on the guard’s ignorance in shooting a dog in front of a young child, the barrel of the gun was suddenly a little too close for comfort. But shoot Scrappy? The guard would definitely have to shoot Debby and I first.
But still, it was ‘bravery’ that made me walk (at incredibly high speeds) away from the corrupt police who wanted to confiscate my camera in Entebbe. They had guns too (sawed-off shotguns in fact), ready to be used if necessary—however, I could barely hear their threats over the THUMPTHUMPTHUMP of my heart. Was it worth being shot in the back over a stupid camera? On that day, yes. I had a really nice sunset shot from Anderita Beach and a cool picture of a Marabou stork in a dumpster.
Steph commented that I was brave to stay three nights in Nairobi by myself after missing my flight to the Congo. To me, there was no other option. I had heard all the horror stories already—the missionary couple who were attacked with machetes, the brutal carjackings and the bombing of the American Embassy. These highlights were pointed out on the Nairobi tour with my hired driver.
When I think back to my time in Costa Rica, it was clear and present danger on a daily basis. Our group was situated near the Panama border and we passed by drug-runners with flour sacs full of marijuana on a daily basis. We avoided eye contact and both went on our merry, separate ways. Except the drug-runners had AK-47’s slung over their shoulders and machetes on their hip. I had a Swiss Army knife that I couldn’t open at the best of times.
Last week when I told my mother that I had booked a trip to Venezuela there was a gasp. Naturally she was nervous that I was taking off on another four month sojourn. When I told her it was just for a week, she resumed breathing and said, “Well, don’t get yourself kidnapped down there because they want gazillions of dollars in ransom.” Nice.
And this is when I had the flashback of the drug-runners and ‘missing persons’ in the jungle. Locals often disappeared and the mighty Water Tiger that lived in the Cuen River was blamed. I’d put my poker chips on the dudes with the flour sacs.
And it all led to this– the night in the jungle that I didn’t feel very brave at all. I was imagining my story as a Reader’s Digest Drama in Real Life feature. Mostly I hoped I would live to tell the story to someone, anybody.
Our volunteer group of 12 lived in a hut with a tree bark floor and palm frond roof. There were no walls. Twelve of us lived in a space the size of a North American living room, with mosquito nets strung about the ‘ceiling’ like a massive spider web. Wild boars lived under the hut and made horrific screaming sounds in the night that sounded like women being murdered.
We had been together since early December, and all threads of patience had been completely frayed. In one exasperated moment, I hid Alex’s drumsticks in the palm fronds because I was visualizing a homicide due to his incessant drumming. Every Sunday we had a meeting to discuss our feelings which basically evolved into a Lord of the Flies-esque scenario. We could barely tolerate each other anymore with such close quarters, paralyzing body odour, Chihuahua-sized mosquitoes and drumming.
Our group was motley—with reps from Costa Rica, Canada and Australia. We had already split into Survivor-type alliances (and this was way before Mark Burnett created the show that would hook millions of viewers all these seasons later). Rachel from Prince Edward Island was my go-to girl, and we often shared our hidden stashes of Oreos, bathtub warm beer and just-discovered orange trees with each other.
But on January 20th? I was looking out for number one.
The Cabecar chief of Alto Cuen had generously offered his own hut to us for the duration of our stay. He also pointed out an abandoned hut a 10 minute walk into the rainforest that we could also use. We decided that one hut would be for cooking and sleeping, and the satellite hut would be a place for reading, writing and siestas. Library voices only. It was a perfect retreat. On the days when the rain pounded down and bounced off the ground, a book, a sleeping bag and some secret chocolate balanced the world.
We were a gruelling 12 km hike from the closest village. The trip involved six tricky river crossings (one of our group members nearly drowned on one occasion when we hiked in with horses. Her backpack caught on the rope that we were using to cross the rapids when one of the horses was startled and moved downstream. Alice was trapped in the current with the weight of the pack on her. But that’s another story). Our trips into ‘town’ were planned for every third week to pickup canned goods, flour, mail and chocolate.
On that January day in 1996, I told Alice I was going to the satellite hut (the “Summer House” as we began to refer to it), with a crappy Costa Rican blueberry chocolate bar stuffed in my bra. I had received some mail from home and was eager to tear into the letters.
The path to the Summer House was like a page out of a fairy tale. Brilliant orchids, butterflies bobbing about in huge clouds of bright yellow and crimson wings, verdant vines snaking up trees, processions of carpenter ants marching along, toucans crash-landing into the palms—the awe of living in a virgin rainforest never escaped me.
I ate my chocolate bar in painfully small rations. Our diet consisted of rice and black beans, oily mackerel, glue-like oatmeal, yucca (which when mashed had the consistency of Vaseline), plantain and bananas. I read my mail, twice probably, licked the chocolate bar foil clean and had a cat nap.
I slept longer than anticipated and awoke with a start at 5:55 pm. I quickly slipped on my rubber boots and turned on my Petzl head lamp and headed off to the main hut. Living on the equator and in a valley, it was completely dark at 6:05. There was no dusk, just day and a very dark night.
(Direct journal entry follows, recounted with a lot of swearing after the ‘event’)
I should have changed the batteries in my Petzl. Oh well, I continued on. And on. And on. Hmmm. Didn’t recall it taking so long to get to the other hut. Hmmm. No orange tape on the tree to signal the turn in the path. Hmmm. Where the FUCK was the path?
I was totally fucking lost. Self-talk: Don’t panic. Going to die, but don’t panic. The roots and vines were closing in on me. I turned off my flashlight to preserve batteries while I contemplated my life so far.
I decided to yell.
“PHIL? ANDREA? TIA? SHAYE? ANYBODY?”
A million deafening crickets. No voices. I was listening so hard I was hallucinating voices.
“PHIL? ANDREA? I’m lost in the woods!”
My voice was getting shakier. My legs? Could I feel them? My heart threatening to have an attack. I had a sudden revelation. Not only was I lost in the woods, I was lost in the JUNGLE. In Costa Rica! In an indigenous village! I was hollering in English and they speak Cabecar and a little Spanish. I was fucked. Think Spanish. Think Spanish. Una cervesa. El gato es en la bano (The cat is in the bathroom—I knew that phrase from Spanish class would come in handy!).
“DESCULPE!” That was it! Help! I remembered how to say ‘help’ in Spanish. I begin yelling desculpe. I developed an instant sore throat from yelling. (*I later learn when recounting my story to the group that ‘desculpe’ means ‘excuse me’ not ‘help me. So, I was in the middle of the $&%* jungle yelling “EXCUSE ME!”)
I looked at my watch. 6:17. Everyone was having dinner, clearly not missing me.
I shouted some more, not willing to take any more time to think of the complete scariness of my predicament. I was so far from the hut that NO ONE could hear me? Then I remembered the Spanish word for forest—‘bosque.’ I holler “El Lost-ay in the bosque!”
They always say to hug a tree and stay in the same spot when you are lost (THEY were obviously not lost in the jungle in short sleeves with malaria-laden mozzies looking for bare skin landing strips). Blah, blah, blah. I convince myself that I can find my way back to the path. Experiencing extreme denial of not being lost, I walk for a few more minutes. I thought I was lost before? Now I was reallllly lost. In the exact middle of fuck-all Costa Rica. Or Panama for all I knew.
A million eyes were watching me. The whistle that they put on the Suggested Items to Pack list would have come in handy at this precise time.
I went back to yelling desculpe. I yell desculpe until I am hoarse—finally I hear a sound in response. Kind of an “AYE.” I respond with my urgent desculpe and AQUI! (here), hoping I’m not attracting a randy drug runner with gold teeth.
“Excuse me here! I love squash. Do you like green carpet?” Who knows what I was yelling. The voice grew closer. I turned on my headlamp (that I turned off, figuring I might be spending my night in the jungle. Thought I might want some battery power for when the jaguars attacked me). I started walking towards the voice. Did I say walking towards the voice? I was running. Totally bushwhacking. “AQUI! AQUI!”
The voice belonged to a Cabecar man and a woman with a baby in a papoose. I began explaining my Lost-ay in the Bosque story in caveman Spanglish.
I’d been found, but was at a loss. Where did I belong? I pulled a pen and a letter from my pack and began to draw the village church. “Jesu Christo?” I asked. I printed Reto Juvenil (Youth Challenge, the name of the group I was with). No response, they probably couldn’t read. I drew the soccer field. “Octavio?” We’d been working with Octavio, one of the prominent community members on the construction site.
“No se.” (I don’t know).
The woman with the papoose took my letter and walked away. The man followed. (I was definitely not sticking around the jungle by myself!) I followed them, stepping on their heels in fact. “Octavio’s casa aqui?” (Octavio’s house here?). There was a grunt response. I was never good at small talk, but kept trying. “El bosque es mucho neigre a la noche.” (The forest is very black at night). No grunt. Nothing. We walked quietly and quickly in the dark.
We walked and walked (15-20 minutes) into a jungle-y dead end. Excellent, now we were all lost-ay. But I heard voices. We were approaching a hut with glowing lanterns. MY HOUSE!! I could see Phil and Tomas by the fire in the kitchen. “WITABADA!” (‘thank you’ in Cabecar). I said this 10 times and shook the hands of my rescuers a little too firmly (Cabecar handshakes are a mere brushing of the palms).
I can’t even remember what my knight in shining armour looked like. The whole hour of lost-ness was such a frantic blur.
I returned to the hut and there were no excited faces or eager embraces. They hadn’t missed me at all. While I was having the most terrifying moment of my life, a near-death experience if you will, my jungle pals were playing gin rummy, drumming and eating my share of the rice and beans. They figured I was sleeping. They didn’t hear my desperate calls for help. I must have been in Panama for sure–all because I didn’t want to share my chocolate bar and wanted a bit of quiet time and personal space. I almost had all the personal space I wanted!
The following day this quote appears in my journal:
Security is mostly a superstition
It does not exist in nature,
Nor do the children of men as a whole experience it
Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run
Than outright exposure
Life is either a daring adventure
To keep our faces towards change and behave like free spirits
In the presence of fate
Is strength undefeatable.
–Helen Keller (1940)
On February 17th, 1996, our group was evacuated from the jungle by local military and flown to a naval base in Limon. The militia were doing emergency food supply drop-offs in the Astrella Valley due to major flooding of the Cuen River when they discovered us in Alto Cuen. The suspension bridge had been washed out and we had lost radio contact weeks ago.
Let’s just say I’ve had a few experiences that have put my life in an altered perspective. It’s a daring adventure—or nothing. I’m with Helen on this one.