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Love And The Tropics

By Sarah Flick

Once upon a time, I went on a birding expedition to a nature reserve
deep in the heart of the Chiapas rainforest, near the Guatemalan border.
My friend Mary invited me, a plant ecologist, to tag along with a group
of wildlife biologists. Everyone but me was on a serious quest to add
exotic species to their birder life-lists.

My motives were different. Of course I yearned to see the birds and
flora of a remote tropical forest but there was also a man I needed to
take a break from, or risk losing my sanity. My boyfriend, James, had
dimples when he smiled that matched the cleft in his chin. His hair was
thick, and black but his clear eyes were the color of a glacial lake,
like Mel Gibson in his glory years. I was addicted to him like crack
cocaine while he remained chronically undecided. It was one of those
unhappy relationships where there’s enough tension and conflict to fuel
wildly intense sex, the kind that feels so crazy good it must be love—except that it’s not. We would slam our bodies together nightly, grappling till our joints creaked, certain that if we just glued together closely enough our connection would be clear—but it wasn’t.

Women, everywhere, loved him. Three other students in my department
alone had sex with him in the year before he met me. When I went to get
my hair cut in a style I thought he would love, I confided the whole
drama to the stylist and it turned that she’d fucked him, too. After
five months of passion and tears he told me he’d been faithful the whole
time— as if five goddamn months of monogamy was something rare and
unusual and exceptionally praiseworthy for a 27-year-old man. As if it
was something he’d never done before and maybe didn’t want to do
anymore. That beautiful smile when he told me made my heart crack.

An exotic birding expedition, far from phones and him, sounded just
right. Maybe he would miss me more than he thought, or maybe I would
meet someone in the middle of the jungle (hope springs eternal!), or
maybe he just wouldn’t seem so important to my travel-dazzled eyes by
the time I returned.

***

We started, about ten of us, by converging on San Antonio to catch a
flight to Mexico City, except that S.A. was blanketed with dense fog.
After many hours, the flight was definitively canceled. This was bad.
We simply had to get to Mexico City by the next morning or miss our
connecting flight to the capital of Chiapas, and hence our rendezvous
with some trucks that would convey us a village where our leader, Bob,
knew some local guides. Their village had no phones. Bob and his
fellow birders frowned, except for Mary who just chattered and grinned.
She had no boyfriend to worry about, the lucky bitch.

Fortunately, I had consumed plenty of Dramamine preparatory to flight so
I was in a tranquil Zen state by the time we crammed ourselves into
mini-vans, butt-cheek to cheek, and headed off to a small border city
that had a functioning airport. “Don’t worry, I can drive!” I recall
announcing as I nodded like a bobble-head doll in the backseat, just
before passing out. I love Dramamine.

We arrived at the commuter airport after midnight, collapsed onto the
smeary carpet of its only waiting area, and slept in our spillage of
mismatched luggage. I woke to sunshine, my cheek resting in a stale
puddle of drool, just as the race really began. Up, up and away in a
small plane that floundered to Mexico City. Land, then run, run, run
with luggage bouncing on shoulders to a gate at the opposite end of one
of the world’s most chaotic airports for our connecting flight.

Safely buckled in and rising up out the brown soup that passes for air
in that mega-metropolis, I felt a surge of something as we passed over
green forests and blue Atlantic. I think it was happiness and it lasted
all the way to Tuxtla Gutierrez, capital of Chiapas, where I discovered,
to my dismay, that their airport has one of the steepest landing
descents in the world. No one had warned me that I would see straight
into apartment windows as we headed down, but we all survived and
deplaned. We stood on the tarmac and sucked up our first tropical air,
that heavy oxygen fecund with rain and rot. I inhaled and knew that
James was far, far away, beyond reach of any desperate, late-night booty
calls. Now I’ve really done it, I thought.


***

Later, we ate stale bread and sweet mangoes on the rickety trucks that
bounced over the single lane, dirt highway. Forests or farms pressed on
either side, except when we passed through towns where men in cowboy
hats sat drinking and ragged children chased our vehicles. The same,
ubiquitous starving dog was in every plaza. In one pass-through zone,
we witnessed two men fighting; one held a broken bottle and both were
bleeding as a crowd of cowboy hats cheered them on. All a glimpse and
then gone.

When we turned onto a rutted track that twisted and bounced straight
into forest there were no more towns, just occasional scrap-metal
shanties. The road ended completely at a larger group of shacks and
that’s where we disembarked, trying to ignore the stares of naked
children with swollen bellies who spilled out of every doorway. Bob
found and greeted the five scrawny men, with mangy pack-horses in tow,
who would lead us into the depths of the cloud forest. I hope he paid
them well.

***

For four days we carried heavy packs and slept paired up in tents,
hiking behind those little horses who carried more. I’m not saying that
I didn’t love it because I did, but in between the hungry guides, tics
and sting-bees, tree frogs and trailing vines and hummingbirds and
orchids, the women still found time to talk about their love lives.
Would we never stop?

My tent-mate Mitzi didn’t want to. Her boyfriend was a hot-looking
charmer who had flirted shamelessly with me the one time I met him. She
gushed on and on. Sample from the first night: “We’ve never lived
together, thank God. Having a little space is good for a relationship,
don’t you think?”

“Hmm.”

“I just know he’s never loved any woman the way he loves me…We have so
much fun together. We both love traveling.”

“Then why didn’t he come on this trip with you?” Meow. I knew I
shouldn’t ask but her story of misplaced devotion felt too much like
mine, and so my claws came out. Automatic reflex.

“Well, we’re taking a little break right now. It’s no big deal; we’ve
always done it. He’s got this new woman, I think, that he’s hanging out
with, but it won’t last.”

“Oh.”

“He always comes back to me.” She rolled over in her sleeping bag with a
snort.

On the second night out I was lying in the tent wondering who James was
fucking in my absence, when I heard a jaguar growl. The sound was
unmistakable, a low rumble from the belly of the world and completely
different than hearing growling in a zoo. The horses whinnied and the
guides came running; I saw the gleam of flashlights. How could I think
of James when I lay in a magical place where jaguars spoke into the
darkness? Why weren’t such miracles enough for me, or for Mitzi?

“Yeah,” she said picking up where she’d left off while the men chased
the big cat away. “He was kind of obnoxious about letting me borrow
this tent for the trip. Well not totally, but like when I came by his
office to pick it up he wasn’t even there. Just left a note. I think
he was away somewhere with HER.”

“Well, I’m sure it’ll turn out okay.”

“It's just that I really wanted to say goodbye before we left.”


***

Although we were all fit and lean, groups of Guatelmalens passed us on
the trail every few hours. They were trekking to coffee plantations
where they could pick beans for a few pesos a day. The men didn’t need
horses because they had their women -- tiny, bird-like creatures in
woven tribal fabrics who carried loads larger than their bodies balanced
on their backs and secured with leather ties around their foreheads.
Those wives and mothers walked at least 10 paces behind their men,
almost doubled over under their burdens, but they never broke. Our
guides hissed and spit whenever a group appeared:

“Guatemalens steal good Mexican jobs at those plantations.”

“They have no right, and their women! Their women are maletas.”
(meaning tough-sided suitcases – not really women at all). The
Americans marveled at those women, the Mexicans snickered at them, and
their own husbands ignored them while they marched on with faces made of
stone.

***

On the third day, we stopped so that the birders could seek out
extra-special species. I stayed behind to look after Bob’s girlfriend,
Deena. She loved birding almost as much as she loved Bob, but she
couldn’t go because of traveler’s dysentery. Bob was unperturbed.
“I’ll be back in two hours. She’ll be fine.”

“He’s not so bad,” said Deena. “You don’t know how sweet he is when
we’re alone.” She worked two, part-time jobs to pay rent on her
one-bedroom apartment yet refused to consider better jobs in other
cities, because of Bob.

“You know,” she said with a grin after he’d been gone three hours, “he
paid for my plane ticket. That’s the first time.” They’d “been
together” as she put it, for four years.

“Wow.”

“I just told him, ‘Bob, I can’t afford to go on this one.’ And then he
waited a week or two but I wore him down until he gave me the ticket.
I’ve been spending more nights at his house, too.” Bob was a tenured
professor who lived in a hilltop home with a great view.

“Deena,” I asked after two more hours passed. “How many years are you
going to wait for him to marry you?” She was older than me, with crows’
feet showing at the corners of her eyes.

“He’s so amazing. He’s just scared because of his divorce so it’s
taking him a long time to know what he wants – but he will. He asked me
to be patient. Lots of people have problems with commitment.”

I was tempted to ask if Bob thought that lack of commitment was as much
of a problem as Deena did, but I held back for once. She was pretty
sick all day. Bob returned at sunset and stopped in at the mess tent
before he checked on her.

***

The only truly happy people in our group, besides Mary, were the married
couple, John and Terry. Blonde and good-looking in a surfer way, they
had paid for this trip by selling one of their pairs of binoculars,
because neither would have ever considered coming without the other. He
sometimes draped his arm around her shoulders when they sat together in
a gesture that was both casually protective, and faintly erotic.
Sometimes they would look at each other and giggle, or share a smile
that was so private I felt embarrassed for glimpsing it. The other
women and I all marveled: “They’re so in love.” And that’s all we
could think of to say. Their brand of tenderness was too far beyond our
experiences for us to envy; we were simply curious.

***

On the fourth day we started climbing seriously. The air was hot and
tempers grew short. One of the hardcore birder guys had a tantrum and
screamed at me: “You bitch! You ruined my picture!” because I’d
inadvertently blocked his view of a blue-crowned motmot, a dainty bird
with an elegant tail. After much heated discussion he agreed to
apologize. “Okay, I’m sorry. I forgive you. I guess I’ll see another
mot-mot.” His smile was saintly; I wanted to slap it.

Anyway. I loitered behind and loyal Mitzi, Mary, and Deena loitered
with me among the creaking vines when we heard rustling in the canopy
above. We stopped and looked just in time to see furious, black furry
faces glaring down at us. We stared back in a brief standoff until the
spider monkeys shrieked and pelted us with twigs, dirt clods, and fruit.

“Awesome.” They shook branches and made faces while we laughed at them and took pictures until I noticed an odor.

“Hey, this isn’t dirt. They’re throwing shit!” We gave up and ran,
covering our expensive lenses. The monkeys chased us for a while but we
left them behind and caught up with our group.

“Of course they threw shit,” explained Bob. “The males patrol for
invaders and they probably recognized you as competing primates. They
chased you out of their territory—it’s only natural. The males don’t
share.” Indeed.

In the afternoon we climbed out of the tropics entirely and found
ourselves in tidy meadows sprinkled with pine trees and rocks, but Bob
assured us that it was only temporary. “Do you see up ahead?” pointing
to a ridgeline obscured with clouds. “The clouds can’t get over the
pass but once we climb over it we’ll be out of these pines and into true
cloud forest. No logging, no more people, no more roads. It’s the top
of the range.”

The others stopped to observe hummingbirds but Mary, Mitzi, Deena, and I
aimed for the top. Huffing and puffing, I reached the crest first and
discovered that it was a plateau, about 200 feet across. The side I had
ascended dropped away into the meadows and pine forest with sun
splitting the sky, but at the lip on the other side was the beginning of
dense jungle Bob had promised, leafy trees that hid in misty clouds.

I stood in the middle of the ridgeline straddling two worlds at once—
one dry and pine-fresh, the other wet and wild. I was so small in that
unpopulated vastness I barely existed, yet so big that when I laughed I
knew all the creatures of the forest must have heard me. “Stand in the
middle! Stand in the middle!” I yelled to my friends as they staggered
up to join me and dropped their packs. And we did. We lined up in a
row with heads thrown back and legs and arms spread wide. Our left
hands felt dryness while our right hands were damp. We touched those
dual skies and howled with pleasure. For one perfect moment, we carried
no burdens on our backs.

 

Sarah Flick needs to resend a bio.

Photo "Peacocks 3" courtesy of Claudia Meyer, St. Germain En Laye, France.


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