How do you get to Tiputini Biodiversity Research Station in the Amazon Rainforest? You set an alarm for 3:20 A.M. and take a taxi to a bus to an airplane to a boat to another bus to another boat.
It took maybe ten minutes after moving into our cabin before a spider the size of a thumb darted across the floor. The four of us, clearly, screamed loudly. In an act of self sacrifice I will never forget, one of my friends, while still screaming, grabbed a shoe, chased the spider into the bathroom, was cognizant enough to close the door behind her, and, while still screaming, went to battle.
Everyone else came out of their cabins and peered through our windows, asking what in the devil was going on. “Come on guys,” they pleaded, “catch it and let it outside.” We turned our heads towards the bathroom, where it sounded like someone was fighting an intruder.
“It’s too late,” we said.
When at last she emerged victorious, all that was left was a splatter in the corner that could have belonged to anything.
That’s not actually the story I started out to tell you, but it’s so good I couldn’t skip it.
The story I actually want to tell you began the next morning. Remember how I said I’m always late here? I could write a blog post just on being late in Ecuador. This day was no exception. Gripped by an irrational fear that the others would, as I told Spider Friend, “tar and feather me,” I dashed out of the cabin without some very important things. One of those things was a full bottle of water. The other was my phone, which was all I had for a camera. So I was setting out on my first ever trip into the rainforest with no way to take pictures.
Classic white-girl-on-vacation problem. As John Mayer has so eloquently taught us, maybe traveling is best with no more 3x5s. But what he doesn’t mention is the mental struggle that occurs when you are in a place you will almost definitely never return to and there will be no photographic proof you were there.
So then you say: I’m not here to prove anything to anyone; I’m doing this for myself. But what, honestly, does that mean? I won’t remember everything I saw in Tiputini; I haven’t gained any magic powers. What I have earned is the right to say to someone, I was in the rainforest, and to hope that they ask me to say more. Throughout all my adventures, this one being no exception, I have never been able to shake the feeling that I am doing things to have done them, that the real reward will come when I finally get to go home with all the stories I may or may not ever tell. I am not selfless; I have an ego as hungry as the next person’s. But after all this time I have not figured out what it means to do something for myself alone.
I definitely had photo brain; I kept seeing things in neat little snapshots and thinking, That would make a nice picture. Photo brain isn’t all bad, either, though. It makes you pick out details and arrange them in ways that say something. I was on a hike with someone recently and as the two of us lagged behind the rest of the group she said she didn’t mind. She said, “I like to go slow and take pictures.” What about that? What if you don’t have to be embarrassed about taking pictures? What if it’s really a way of getting the most out of a place? What if it’s the most harmless way to take something from a world we are constantly taking things from?
And you? Would you have had a philosophical crisis in this situation? Are you with me at the back of the group, or up at the front without a thought of cameras? Tell me. Tell me why. Tell me below.
Well, I wasn’t thinking all that. I was thinking up ways to ask my friends to take a choice few pictures for me, because no amount of breathing deeply and staring hard at things to try and be present could shake the urge.
In the attempt to shake my attention from everyone else’s cameras, though, I did notice some things. We were in a canoe going around a lake trying to be quiet enough for the wildlife to come out, and I was looking at the place and trying to adjust to it. I want to think that the rain forest is beautiful, because it almost objectively is, but there’s just so much going on. I remember as a child who didn’t get out much, road trips to Colorado were the most exciting thing because you cross the New Mexico-Colorado border and suddenly there’s green! There’s grass, and trees with leaves, and forests in which I imagined all the characters from my fantasy children’s books lived.
The last time I took a road trip to Colorado, I wanted to stop at Ghost Ranch before we left New Mexico, which is a place that every New Mexican child except me seems to have ended up at during one time or another. My parents weren’t quite sure why I wanted to go since there isn’t really much there except the fact that it was once graced by Georgia O’Keeffe’s presence. They were absolutely right. You drive through some dry deserty landscape until you get to a dry deserty valley which is Ghost Ranch. And it was the practically the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. There was such a softness to the place in the feeble grass and the hills that walked all the way around. The desert looks all brown but if you look hard enough there are colors. If you look hard enough there is every color. I decided afterwards that what I like about a landscape is its subtleties.
When you first get to the rainforest, there are no subtleties. The entire place is screaming with monkeys and birds and insects and frogs, and there are leaves bigger than your entire body and plants growing on plants growing on plants. When you try to peer into the forrest you can’t because your eyes are blocked by the first layer of exorbitant vegetation.
So we were going around the lake and there weren’t very many animals so I tried to find the subtleties, and I decided that everything in the rainforest plays off of light and dark: the parts of the water where the sun hits and the dark water below. The mass of black behind the tree line and the bits of light that shine through. The rotting leaves and the bright new ones coming up underneath. When there is that much life growing, there is an almost equal amount of it dying. The light and the dark. Well, when I finally had my camera for the second half of the day, it could see even less of the forest than I could.
How many times have you actually showed someone the pictures of your trip because they asked to see them with genuine interest? Probably not that often. But if you’re like me, you still take them and horde them and have to scroll through them all to get to that one picture of your cat. Between a photo’s inaccuracy and the lack of interest it generates, it becomes a nonsensical compulsion. But we are also compelled to tell stories, either because we want to feel accomplished or because we want to share, and pictures are one way of doing that. I can’t turn down that chance. And when I don’t have a picture of it, I find another way to tell you about it. It’s not that I don’t think you’ll believe me; I just want you to know. A good story is like an avocado: it’s both shameful and easy to let something so delicious go to waste. So I tell you about uninvited spider guests and their violent demise, because if I didn’t that would be the waste of a good story.
I hope you think it is too.