Two eyes suddenly brightened in the depths and approached our boat. This was a caiman, a sometimes smaller cousin of the alligator/crocodile, and it was injured, disabled. Its tail was just a stub. These boatmen had fed it, kept it alive, tamed it for just this moment, where tourists gawk and sit amazed. We did and we were. Not two minutes later something began to sting my left eye.Read More
On our last evening, we hiked out to meet the others of our group back down in the valley. We stayed at a mud and concrete farmhouse, with a similar open aesthetic as Asreal's homestead, in that there weren’t any doors in the door frames or windows in the window boxes. As such the evening breeze danced freely through the house when we arrived. The mud and concrete kept it shaded and cool during the sweltering days. It was a solid practical design. Dirt floors allowed rain to splash in without giving it a thought. It was a merry evening. I learned a love song, popular with these mountain farmer folk at the time, “y este par de anillos, con nuestros nombres grabados…", (and this pair of rings, with our names engraved).
In the middle of the night, I woke needing to head to the outhouse. I memorized this bit: walk past the line of sleeping guests, down a step into the central room and across it to the cooking area, make a left, walk outside and up to the right and Bob’s your uncle. Except that when I was just about to step into the kitchen, odd sounds and movement made me stop. The kitchen was wall-less on two sides like a tunnel. The central room walkway entered in perpendicularly. I paused trying to shake awake the problem-solving part of my brain. After a few seconds, I came fully awake realizing that in front of me was a bat superhighway. I shined my flashlight into the darkness and saw what seemed to be many hundreds of bats tearing past. Months later, I would stand on a street corner in Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam hoping to cross a street and remember this moment. There were no crosswalks or streetlights. Cars, trucks, bicycles, scooters, carts, maybe 2-dozen different types and sizes of vehicles all flowing past at the maximum rate traffic would allow. I stood in the dark room as I stood on that street corner, feeling an urgent need to break my paralysis with decision, then action. I chose to trust in the all powerful survival instinct of others (forsaking my own in Vietnam, holy shit!). Raise one foot. Place in front of the other. Repeat at a steady rate. Try not to scream. And with the expertise of thousands of missed and avoided collisions, traffic - both bat and human - flowed around me. Bats whizzed past my head, cars past my body, without slowing, and significantly without a cascade of injury and death. Ok then, I said to myself, I can do this. I took a breath and opened my eyes.
By Darin Wahl
We arrived to the valley late, sweaty, hungry and curious. Our hosts were grouped together chatting casually as neighbors will. We set down our packs somewhere out of the cow shit and went over for handshakes and introductions. Two of us peeled off with Asrael, a young farmer homesteading on the sloped edge of the cloud forest. Asrael led us up and across toward his land about five miles distant. We followed a dirt road, rutted and muddy. Asrael strolled along the mountain roads with familiar ease. He plucked tangerines from branches that hung over the road and tossed us each one. We leaned on the side of the road and tore into the sweet orange flesh, juice making sticky tracks on my already sweat streaked chin. As I hefted my 50lb pack, my boot slipped on a rock. I didn’t fall hard. I caught myself in push-up position. No harm done. Except that both hands plunged foot deep into muddy water. The splash washed my face, head and shirt as thoroughly as if I fell straight in. Asrael was in stomach-clenching hysterics. I laughed too, when I had spit the mud out of my mouth. He climbed into the forest and came back with plate-sized leaves I could wipe myself with. He was still giggling as he handed over nature's towels.
The house wasn’t much of a house. It was more a roofed deck that had four rooms. No doors, no windows, no insulation. We slept on pads on the floor. Over the next few days we helped out as we could, usually doing small tasks around the homestead. His cows mostly looked after themselves. I learned about coffee socks, which are exactly what they sound like: a sock stuffed with coffee and then boiling water is poured through. For a stronger brew let it soak a while. Asreal stirred in a ladle full of sugar and fresh milk from his milk cow. That was good coffee. I learned that tapirs, elusive short-trunked pig-like jungle animals, can be found seemingly easily by unlucky dogs, as one named “Pinky” discovered through a quick mauling. Spiders were ever present. Palm sized (“little fellas”) lived in our room with us. One night Asrael called us out: “You want to see something?”
“Yeah of course we do.”
He waved us over and then shone his flashlight on the biggest spider I had ever seen. It was reddish too, which made it seem a bit extra fierce. “What happens if one of these bites you?”
“Die.” Asrael was not a big storyteller; he got to the point.
“You see it?” he asked us, “You ok?” asking if I had had a good look.
I said, “Yeah. I see it.”
Then he swung his arm back, brought it around and smashed that spider with the hammer I had just realized he was holding. “OOoH” I yelled, jumping back. The spider exploded. The hammer went between two slats of wall and deposited spider detritus in the bedroom and all about us. The next morning a line of ants was making short work of the bits. Five inch legs were being carried off by dozens of workers. Not a bit went to waste.
One morning he asked us if we wanted to come with him to get lunch. We donned our rubber boots and followed him off the cow pasture into the surrounding trees. Vines that hung 60 feet from the tops of trees were swung upon. Tangerines were eaten. Ways were macheteed through the brush. Mud climbed up boots then legs. “Aha,” he said slapping a tree with the flat of his blade, “this one.” It was a large mature palm tree. One with thousands of two inch black spines that made it look like a humongous overly aggressive cactus. Asrael hacked it down with several expert swings of his machete. He walked up to the crown and sliced off the top 6 or 7 feet. After removing palm leaves, he split open the trunk. He peeled away layers until he exposed the white core, which he removed with a few more well-placed hacks. The final product was about three feet long and three inches thick. He slung this over his shoulder and walked off toward the house. After a moment, we turned to follow. The rest of the tree lay forsaken where it fell. That was lunch. Heart of palm.
By Darin Wahl
Drive east from Santa Cruz in central Bolivia, past the long chain of farming equipment and machinery shops, past the small towns, then villages that give way to vast stretches of farms and you'll eventually butt up against the Amazon rainforest. Santa Cruz is easily Bolivia’s most modern and affluent city. Starred restaurants, neon lit clubs, and shopping strips litter downtown where the young and hip flock. It is also fraught with modern dangers. One of our group was roofied at a club, but was lucky enough to have friends near at hand.
We headed out to a medical clinic on the frontier where med and nursing students volunteered. This clinic served the surrounding villages and villagers came in daily with a variety of issues. On rare occasions clinic personnel would make house calls, sometimes on horseback. A big worry in this part of the world is Chagas disease. Chagas is spread by a blood-sucking insect that often lives in the roofs of rural homes. The insect will defecate on the skin very near to where it bites. An inadvertent or intentional slap, scratch, or brush will rub the feces onto the bite, giving the Chagas parasite (waiting hopeful and expectant in the poo) access to the bloodstream. The insect is also known to crap in the eyes or mouths of sleeping victims, which, for the parasite, is just as good.
The rainforest’s edge was across the road from the clinic. It is difficult to imagine how incredible the Amazon is, especially from where it abruptly and unceremoniously ends, as it turns (or burns) into pasture. I stood under the wide blue on a sun baked red earth road with fences, farms, and homes behind me, and 5 steps later I was under the canopy of the rainforest. It reminded me of stepping out of the C train on Eastern Parkway and Kingston Avenue in Brooklyn. Look one direction and you'll see an orthodox Jewish neighborhood. Look the other direction and you'll see a West Indian neighborhood with Eastern Parkway smack in the middle. It disturbs me. This felt like that.
One day, as we drove back from a supply run at a nearby town we noticed a significant change. The rainforest was cut back more than 10 meters from the road. We drove alongside this new edge for kilometers, until we passed the work crew, which consisted of two construction strength back-hoes. That’s all it took. A couple of machines and acre upon acre of rainforest was gone. The last part of our ride was silent. We stared at, or away from, the destruction. Amazed. Terrified.
The next day, in the afternoon, after a not very refreshing rain shower, one of the clinic’s two horses suddenly went a bit mad. The horse was caught and calmed, and before long the caretakers realized the horse had been bit in the face by a snake. Likely, a very poisonous one. The horse was unsteady, bleeding, and foaming at the mouth. It was drenched in sweat. Did the clinic have any anti-venom? Did anyone know how to treat a horse? Did we even know what kind of snake it might have been? No, no, and no. The horse died in the night. I knew that first thing, because I awoke, looked out my window and saw the caretakers digging a grave on edge of the field. A damn big grave, in rooty sandy clay soil. The snake, you see, had been chased out of the forest by the destruction. Traumatized, lost, and afraid, it fled into our field. Where the grazing horse came upon it. Face first.
By Darin Wahl
Sweat ran down my forehead and into my eyes mixing with the tears already forming. I tried wiping away the dust and wind blown grit. The sun was blindingly bright, reflecting off the grey concrete that covered this city like volcano ash, like dirty snow. I looked up into the glare of that unblinking eye through the haze that trapped heat like a blanket. I looked down and my own shadow was weak, wilting. And where was everyone? A city housing millions and I'm alone on the streets. Even the ubiquitous blaring of car horns and lines of traffic were absent. I pulled my map from my back pocket. There should be a park somewhere near here. Two more blocks. Perfect, I thought, I could use a sit-down.
I turned out from behind another anonymous concrete and glass rectangle, and saw the "park" across from me. I smiled ironically. I should have known. Funny how hope can obscure the path to deduction. I had traveled in enough of China’s cities to know that the parks were often like this. Wide open flats of concrete. Like parking lots without the arrow-feather stripes. I should come back in the morning, I thought, when hundreds of people would fill this square. The old practicing tai chi and kung fu with swords, fans, and spears; the middle-aged ballroom dancing dressed in suits and dresses. China’s “parks” come alive with activity at 6am. Under the noon sun, this park was nearly abandoned. I spotted a tree. I made for it, eager for shade. A solitary man sat near the trunk on a ledge. He was smoking, no surprise there. I leaned over my pack to extract my water bottle. I wanted to rinse the lightly bitter taste of smog out of my mouth. I looked up at the tree. What is this, some kind of oak? One lonely tree in a concrete square. Silent. No birds. No squirrels. There was something different about this tree. I’m no botanist. But, the leaves looked odd. For that matter so did the branches. And the trunk. It took a long minute for the truth of it to sink in. This was not a tree. This was painted concrete and metal with plastic fluttering in the paltry breeze. I nodded taking long gulps water, still grateful for the shade. I patted the unforgiving "bark", and looked out from under the "leaves" through the "park" to the city beyond and sadly, it somehow made sense.