The silent lake does not so much as ripple, though the winds are loud around it. A chorus of trees fills the air–fern fronds flapping the high notes while coco palms play a soft percussive swish. In the background, somewhere behind a bed of clouds, a roar from a source too big to see. Covered in clouds, unseen for days now, the always active volcano is the reason travelers drive arduous hours on pocked and twisted roads, hoping to get a glimpse of its treacherous steam.
Perched on a deck overlooking the lake, with Volcano Arenal to my right, I turn my head for a second and catch a glimpse of its dazzling tip. I dash for the camera, snap click the fuzzy edge just before another cloud comes by. And now I see that the lake has begun to waken, silver ripples are moving to the shape of wind, and a flock of white birds just exploded from a distant tree. In mid-air they stop, turn sharp right, and disappear. The clouds still cannot settle on any direction, they tease and taunt the mountain’s edges, and yes, finally there’s the top–clear and cloudless–volcanic steam spewing wide white trails into the sky. I point and shoot, but there is no more film.
After just a few days in Costa Rica I learned to recognize the Montezuma Oropendula–a medium sized bird with flat broad yellow tail, a splat of brilliant red across its front. Before this trip, I barely knew a robin from a sparrow, but yesterday, I saw a boat-billed heron peering out from a bank of bushes, and then three toucans flew past, landing in unison on a single leafless branch. The birds are everywhere, singing, darting, hiding, surprising. Iridescent iguanas slither out of nowhere and back again. Caymans crocodiles lie in wait on slimy logs, as time continues to pass. It is said they live for eighty years. Motionless.
Distant and not so distant shrieks, rat-a-tats and whistles syncopate the landscape. Just now, the tiniest of birds darts past, singing out a most pretentious screech. Always the possibility of a monkey overhead, or else the poison red dart frog. A single drop of its blood will kill a healthy man. Still I trudge through the muddy thicket, knowing I could surprise one, or worse, have one surprise me. Why do I do this?
Because I am traveling, and traveling causes people to board rickety single engine planes driven by pilots who wear dirty Bermuda shorts and fiddle with headphones instead of looking at the sky. I would never ever fly in a plane so small but here I am, flying in a plane so small. My hands are blue with fear and I close my eyes to let the time pass but the time doesn’t pass, it holds itself heavy and thick over treacherous mountains and green twisting roads, and then quietly stops on a strip of sand.
The rainforest beckons and I follow. Vines wrap themselves around trees, trees stretch and reach beyond the sky. For some blessed reason there are no mosquitoes. Only grasshopper-type things the size of small helicopters that dart in blue and yellow lines and then vanish. Now a shrill blast of unrecognizable timbre. What living thing could make that music?
Trees cling to each other gnarled in deadly tree hugs. Rope limbs hang loose, fall from the sky, connecting themselves to earth with giant claws that grope their way downward. The forest is a clench of knots of trunks of roots so huge they can be walked on. Leaves so big they cover the sky.
I walk through the sludge. Hair curls in the heat and skin sticks to skin. The heat is not so much on me as in me. I sparkle with sweat. I float in it. Overhead is a din, a blinding sound, like the rush of distant waters. A thousand cicadas screech their mating call. They will mate and then they will die.
The air smells, of all things, garlicky. In the distance, chicaw chicaw, thweet a tat a tat thweet a tat, wio wio, shhhhhhhhhh.
Clown-faced monkeys spot me first, make threatening noises, shake tree limbs over my head. I attempt a monkey-like cackle but they are on to me and swing past, convinced of my utter uselessness in the scheme of things.
Soggy with excitement, I trudge on, trails steeper and deeper than anywhere I would ordinarily go. The traveler’s mind is wide and open–allowing me to venture into the deepest of woods. One tree is spiked with spines, and there is the red poison dart frog to watch for. Careful to touch, not to touch, each footstep ends the life of one bug or other. I hear the squish of sweat inside my clothes, or is that another insect calling its last call.
Nothing is familiar, not the trees, not the dirt, not the iridescent lizard who slithers past. I do not recognize the muscles that guide me down and up steep inclines, that keep my heart pumping pumping through the heat, through the overwhelming sense of wonder.
I sit down, slowly, there are ants that carry large tree parts and I do not want to squash them. I sit so that no part of me touches and allow the hot breezes to fan my skin. There is no sound and then at once, every single living thing lets out a crude announcement: I am alive! I put my hands over my head and still, the shrill cry of life echoes in my ears. The rock beneath me quivers, as if to speak. Or maybe it is a bird. Or maybe it is me.
I have been walking longer than I ever walk. That is because I am traveling. More specifically, I am lost. The map given to me at the lodge says there will be a fork, then a tree marked with a yellow string and I should veer left, then down, then on past some sort of meadow (the map is unclear, marked in faint lines and sloppy). The trail is supposed to take one hour max, circling eight hectares of virgin forest.
There is no fork and then there are three forks intertwined, a virtual place setting of confusing directions pointing me nowhere and everywhere at once. There is no tree with yellow string but there are strings of tree limbs and the air is suffocating and I have gone too far in and can’t turn back.
At first a puddle. Then a trickle. There is no mention of water on this crude and fitful map but instinct tells me to follow the flow–water is life after all, and I am hungry for direction.
Foot by foot the trickle turns to stream and round a narrow ledge the opening surprises with more stream, full fledged with pebbles, babbling luscious pebbles licked by the steady clear stream of cold mountain water. Shoes come off, socks, toes swell in the cold rush of water. I sink down on all fours, dissolve my body’s heat into the shallow cold surface. Not surprisingly, the stream is connected to more stream, deeper yet and colder still.
I am not only lost, but also exuberant and scared and hot and hungry and scared a little more, and laughing too. The map floats past me, wet beyond recognition. No matter, because I am cool now. The stream will surely lead me back. It always does.
Home again. I have unpacked and watered the plants and answered a reasonable number of messages. I am fully hooked back in. I wake up with traveler’s mind but my heart has gone slack with the comfort of ordinariness. Try as I may, I cannot picture myself boarding a single engine plane the size of a Volkswagen bug, nor walking in sandals where snakes are said to reside.
I can hear birds outside. There are birds here too of course but I don’t run outside with my binoculars to see if I can identify some wondrous thing about them. I have put my bird books away, reshelved the Costa Rica Guide next to all the other travel books of places seen or still to see.
I did refill the bird feeder. And took a few minutes to watch a family of ants crawl up the lemon tree. My cat has been tracking me ever since I got back. He purrs and slinks against my ankles, as if he senses wildness on me, something under my skin.