The depths of the Amazon rainforest sound like a magical place and I dreamed of exploring its canopies and every inch below, but after spending four days there, I don’t think I will ever again lie awake at night preoccupied with forest fantasies. If anything, I will be plagued with nightmares of those towering trees in Ecuador.
I spent spring semester sophomore year as a student in The Traveling School, an all-girls school that runs trips to Asia, South America, New Zealand and Africa. There was no location offered that excited me more than a jungle adventure.
I woke up with my face planted in the mosquito net and flailed, trying to untangle myself from its handcuffs of mesh. Once free, I reached for my headlamp and took careful steps toward the door. Outside, a medley of insects played their well-rehearsed tune, amplified with my acute consciousness of the night in the frightening Amazon. I darted for the bathroom, unreasonably fearing a jaguar in the shaded trees, or worse, a sneak attack by a monkey.
During the previous week, all eight of us students had developed a fear of the animals we used to find cute and cuddly. The monkey became a disgusting creature after I watched it pee on the coffee mugs at breakfast and do things I never wanted to see monkeys do. Monkeys in the Amazon entertain themselves by jumping on your back, pulling your hair, stealing your glasses, and then trying to mate with the nearest inanimate object. One girl, Meg, had warned us of the horror of monkeys after having a dream where she was hacked to death by a machete-carrying primate. We laughed at her until we became objects of desire for the furry little perverts.
Once I made it to the bathroom, I shined my light in all the corners, illuminating a three-inch cockroach scrambling across the floor and occasionally running into the wall. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, did what I needed to do with the door left open out of fear, and ran back to my bed.
Back in my imprisoning net, I lay awake for an hour anticipating the next day. It had been described as “the longest day of your life,” but I couldn’t imagine that. This was the rainforest, not the 16,000-foot Andes Mountains I was going to be well acquainted with by the end of my trip. Little did I know, when I packed my bag filled with bug spray, a sandwich, and two Nalgene bottles of orange iodine water, that two hours later I would desperately wish to be curled up on the bathroom floor coordinating my own drunken cockroach circus.
Dressed in unseasonably warm clothing to protect us from the sun and insects, we were led into the thick forest by a tricky man, Jerson, famous for his convincing lies and ability to freak out girls from Montana. And yet despite this, all 12 of us, including the teachers, were burning with passion in our corazones for him. None of us could resist his rippling muscles that could climb a smooth tree in flip flops, build a raft from five logs with no more than a piece of string and his hands, and throw around a machete like none other. If he were four inches taller, I am positive someone would have kidnapped him and smuggled him to the States.
“Solo cuatro horas,” Jerson said, and, of course, I believed him.
The first three hours were easy, nothing worse than a few encounters with el congo, an ant that can induce vomiting for a week with just one bite. So far the day was an “Amazon Adventure,” one you might see advertised in a brochure. We swung from vines, occasionally hitting an unsuspecting tree; snacked on live ants that tasted remarkably like lime juice; and learned to climb trees without branches.
Things took a turn for the worse when we abandoned our well-defined path for a Quichua hunting trail. “Trail” would actually not be the correct word to describe our direction. Our path was defined by the footprints of Jerson, often in places that appeared never to have been touched before. I couldn’t stop hitting my head on branches and tripping over vegetation-covered roots. My body was growing tired, bathed in sweat from the humid heat engulfing us. I could not chug enough water to replenish the sweat dripping down my back and into my eyes. The combination of dehydration and squinting at the sun was creating a dull but persistent headache. I was getting crabby and, according to my watch, this amusing adventure should have been over 20 minutes before.
Then we entered what I refer to as the Water Labyrinth of Perpetual Hell. Our trail became a series of streams with random, undetectable holes just waiting for your foot to fall into so they could flood your Wellington boots. The Water Labyrinth of Perpetual Hell is especially famous for its walls of spider webs decorated with spiders as large as my hand. James Bond-style, we ducked through the webs, contorting our bodies as if bending around laser beams. Jerson had no moral issue with ruthlessly hacking down tree branches with his machete, but not even a group of girls crying in panic could convince him to whack at the webs. I believe he enjoyed my pain.
An hour of spider dodging turned into an eternity. I was sure that at any moment a spider would dive bomb my head and eat my face. It sounds unreasonable now, but at the time it seemed a realistic end to my short life.
At about hour six we exited The Water Labyrinth of Perpetual Hell and entered the Endless Amazon Obstacle Course. The ideal body structure to be successful in this course would be a combination of giant and gymnast. Being neither, with my short legs and the flexibility of a crocodile, I found the series of dead fallen trees more than a challenge. Halfway over one of the gigantic trunks, I looked at Meg as she simultaneously pulled her arm back. My face hit perfectly with her fist full of apple core. I immediately began to bawl, clinging to the tree like a toddler to her mother.
“This has to be over,” I repeated to myself, trying to find comfort in my despair. And then, a miracle - over a slight hill flowed the Napo River! Once in sight, I regained all the energy I had sweated out in fear during the past seven hours. We all sprinted to the river and jumped in, still dressed.
Later that night, I fell into bed and was instantly asleep, too tired even to adjust the mosquito net. When I woke up three hours later to go to the bathroom, I had no fears. After what I had done that day, I knew I could take on a cockroach.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.