I am in the middle of a Puerto Rican rainforest eating a bug sandwich because a tree frog landed on my arm when I was four. We exchanged petrified glances, it leapt away, and I spent the next twenty-plus years of my life believing that the tiny red-eyed amphibian was some manifestation of The Great Cosmos, sent to instill in me an insatiable sense of wonder at the natural world, and bestow upon me my duty and calling in this life: Save the rainforests.
I lived in San Juan, Puerto Rico until I was five and I remember Puerto Rico well; although the memories are distinctly, and unalterably, from the perspective of a child who was too young to be unnerved by giant flying cockroaches, and who was thrilled when the little geckoes scampered off, leaving their tails behind in my hands. The Puerto Rico I knew had a coconut tree, a banana tree, a couple of pet parakeets (all named Charlie), some fireflies, and a tree frog. It also had a tropical rainforest, the place where said tree frog came briefly into my life and unwittingly changed the course of it forever.
Growing up, and continuing into my adult years, I studied plants, biology, and rainforest everything with intense passion and dreamed of returning to the rainforest one day. I also longed to return to Puerto Rico—the Puerto Rico that consisted of a coconut tree, a banana tree, a couple of Charlie’s, some fireflies, and a tree frog.
In December of 2005, I returned to the first place I knew as home. I came to Las Casas de la Selva, the site for the Rainforest Enrichment Project, as a volunteer research assistant with the EarthWatch Institute. I had signed up months in advance and happily maxed out credit cards to purchase plane tickets and requisite jungle gear. “I’m going to be a botanist,” I repeated to myself every time I left the outdoor store with another bag of camping miscellany and truly ugly outdoor clothing, “I’ll need all this stuff.” The opportunity to become actively involved in rainforest conservation was a dream come true, utterly priceless.
After arriving at base camp in the southeastern mountains of Puerto Rico, it took less than two minutes for me to realize that Puerto Rico had changed a lot over the last two decades. Namely, it had a lot more bugs than I remembered, and a lot less indoor plumbing.
I stepped off the bus transporting the volunteers to the site, strolled toward the dining hut, took in the grand sight of fresh salsa and yucca chips, and THWACK! Big, black bug in the eye. It was huge, not your average garden variety fungus gnat. And I have eyeball phobia—I’m afraid of mine and yours. My hands flew up to my face and I blindly asked whoever-was-there-no-one-in-particular where the bathroom was.
I felt less than comfortable in my rainforest surroundings given that I just had to hold my eye open and pull a giant insect out of it, but I had only been there for a couple minutes, and I knew I had a full ten days of dodging insects ahead of me. I figured I’d wash the bug germs off my hands and rejoin the group as if I were a rugged outdoorsy type who was used to this sort of thing.
It’s difficult to get that clean feeling from an icy cold trickle, roughly the diameter of a spaghetti noodle, and a bar of natural soap that, until your unsuspecting hand came upon it, served as an overstuffed sofa for a squishy little lump of baby lizard. Baaadd neeewws, I reflected, I’ll just dry my hands on this old pink towel, carefully avoid the sleeping towel frogs nestled in the folds, and make haste for my hand sanitizer. Now, I realize that facing the prospect of not being able to wash one’s hands for the next ten days may not induce the same hyper-neurotic, paralytic dementia in everyone. It just so happens that if I were asked to describe what I thought hell was like, I would answer that hell is having perpetually dirty hands combined with an eternity of inadequate water pressure.
After the first fairly challenging day, I was able to adjust to my surroundings as well as any plumbing-loving urbanite could reasonably be expected to. I was secretly proud of myself and continued to harbor visions of botanizing in ugly jungle pants. Then I went frogging.
We had been frogging all night in the rain, and when the rain subsided we gathered on the forest floor for a nice packed-lunch dinner of fix-it-yourself sandwiches and granola bars. I was fond of the fix-it-myself sandwich because it meant that I never had to suffer the wretched substance that is mayonnaise. I could skip it and opt for the mustard. I could also forfeit my portions of deli meat and elect to subsist on cheese alone. On this night, we had worked hard and I was extremely hungry—so hungry that I was tempted to barter bandanas and duct tape for crusts and lettuce.
I first noticed the sandwich being eaten by a fellow volunteer sitting across from me. The narrow beam from my headlamp became a spotlight on the grotesque. The sandwich was no longer a sandwich, but rather a veritable menagerie of swarming organisms. I quickly turned the spotlight to the half-eaten sandwich I held in my own hand. It was covered with a thick, dark layer of moving insects. No white bread in sight.
Staring down at the abhorrent spectacle I held in my hand, two opposing forces battled for supremacy: Everything I Believe To Be True and Hunger. EIBTBT declared, “That. Is. Dis. Gus. Ting! Throw it into the trees, now!” But Hunger countered sensibly, “You’re hungry, you’ve already eaten half of it, and it doesn’t seem to be bothering anyone else. So what’s the big deal?” Much to my surprise, I switched off my headlamp and finished eating my bug sandwich.
As we made our way toward base camp that evening, tromping through razor grass on steep, muddy slopes, the rain returned in full tropical force. It cleared the atmosphere of the congested flying insect traffic, and I could finally breathe. I could smell the rainforest smell I remembered from my childhood, there’s nothing like it. Looking out through the rain-induced clarity, I noticed that I could identify plant species even in the dark. I could differentiate between the shapes of leaves in shadows, and between the subtle, myriad shades of green. And amid tumbling gallops through tangled understory, I was struck with that sensation I had upon my first meeting with a tree frog: pure wonder. This forest is home to an inconceivable variety of life. It is extraordinary. And the truth is, it may not survive civilization.
I have yet to reconcile my city-mouse sensibilities with my impassioned devotion to rainforest conservation since, it would seem, to be a good conservationist, I would actually need to spend more time in the rainforest—with the bugs and without plumbing. Could I ever learn to get used to it? Could I go back with an open mind, cast off my preconceived notions of cleanliness and expand my definition of edible for a higher purpose? for justice? for the rainforest? My mother, who has remarked that I could never live in a city that didn’t have a certain famed, ubiquitous coffee shop on EVERY block, thinks this is highly improbable. “You have never liked camping,” she reminds me. And she’s right. Sometime between my first encounter with a tree frog and my last, I developed into an obsessive-compulsive city-girl with eyeball phobia and an incorrigible desire to do something good for my first true love, the natural world.
When asked recently if I would go back, I answered with a hesitant, “Ummm, yeah . . .” Then, suddenly remembering that I’m still paying for the abundant stash of jungle gear at the back of my closet, I added, “of course I would.”
With plenty of bug repellent.