My Ecuadorian housemate back in Minnesota and I had numerous discussions about the Amazon jungle and what to expect when I went to live there for six weeks.
“There are bugs, Christine,” she told me one night as we were snacking on popcorn in the kitchen. “And they will bite you. All over.”
I remember scoffing playfully. “Yes, there are spiders, scorpions, tailless whip scorpions, moths, butterflies, and other insects in the jungles, but they don’t have clouds of mosquitoes and flies like here in Minnesota.” I was thinking of my time in the coastal jungles of Costa Rica, where bugs were like large animals to watch and enjoy rather than swat away.
My roommate Chela has lived in jungles for extended periods of time. She listened, and then responded, somewhat gravely: “Yes, but there are tiny bugs that bite and sometimes carry parasites that get into the skin. You must wear repellent, and you should ask before you go if they have this parasite in the community. You will need to use good netting at night.”
“Chagas?” I asked. The travel doctor had told me not to Google that one, so I didn’t. (Still have not).
“Yes, that, but also Leishmaniasis,” she said.
Leishmaniasis. The open ulcer on the arm of an American woman I met years ago came to mind immediately. She lived in the green jeweled Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, where she and her husband cultivated cacao, and made delicious chocolate. She’d called it “jungle disease.”
We talked into the night, back and forth, about what to expect in the Amazon. About bugs and parasites. I felt fine with all of them, knowing if I ended up contracting a parasite I could get treatment afterward. We only stopped when the subject broached snakes, and especially, the fer-de-lans, or, in Spanish, the equis.
“Well,” I sighed. “Let’s not talk about that one.” The ultimate pit viper, they call it.
“You’ll wear rubber boots,” she said.
The snake arrived the third night in my thatched roof hut. I was just stepping into my hut after using my latrine, still pondering the tailless whip scorpions that lived on its inner wall, an arachnid couple with sizeable but harmless pedipalps and thread like front legs that float and taste the air around them for prey.
Two moving orbs near the front of my hut, in the roof, reflecting my headlamp’s weak beam, caught my attention. I turned on the lightbulb (yes, I had a light bulb hanging in my hut!) and to my alarm, beheld a moderately-sized snake steadily coiling about one of the log beams holding up the roof.
I stared at it for several minutes, and once it noticed me, it created a “U” shape on the beam and rested its head in it, and observed me in return.
I didn’t know whether it was venomous, but its head did look somewhat bulgy on either side, which indicated it might be a viper. Two options came to mind: a) I could leave it be, get into my tent, and hope it went on its way, or b) I could pick up the machete sitting on the table next to me, swing and chop it half.
My adrenaline prompted me to grab the machete, but my brain said: But Cici, you don’t know how snakes react. What if it lunges at your face?
Though it was very late, I walked down the path to my neighbor’s house and, regrettably, woke him up. He came back with me, groggy, but aware that a foreigner like me needed assistance with such things as snake visitors in the night.
“Did you kill it?” he asked me.
“No, no,” I said. “I don’t have much experience with snakes, and I didn’t know how it would react if I approached it.”
We went inside and he walked calmly up to the snake. “It’s a boa.” He turned, relaxed.
“Ah!” I cried in relief. “A pet, then.”
He chuckled and left, and I went to bed.
Sr. Boa killed all the bats, one by one, every other night between 9:00 and 10:00pm. I would be sitting at my table, reading, preparing English lessons, and glance up to see him sitting there patiently in a spring-form “S” shape just outside of the noisy bats’ nest. Quite frankly, when I saw him strangling his first victim, I was glad. While I don’t mind bats, and appreciate the fact they eat insects, I didn’t like them living in my hut—they pooped on my things and screeched nonstop sometimes, disrupting my ability to sleep, read, and think.
And when the bats were gone, I never saw Sr. Boa again.
Living in Mashien, Ecuador, was a fully-rounded experience, challenging but rare. I will always be grateful to the community for inviting me in and sharing their way of life with me. If you are interested in learning about volunteering in this community, please contact Napo Mashian at firstname.lastname@example.org. The community hosts volunteer English teachers and those who have skills and interest in developing ecotourism projects.
In next week’s post, I’ll share more experiences of the jungle in the form of disparate scenes, without explanation, to give you a sense of what I experienced—the rugged adventure, the flora and fauna, and some of the discomfort that comes with being in a new place and culture.