Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Fleas and Flowers

After my first night tracking poachers, I felt old. Not like an old soul. Just plain old.

I took the 3 a.m. shift with Chau, Corina, Helena, Arella and Kirsten, a young woman from Germany who with a local man oversees the turtle project. I missed high tide, the hardest time to walk (shown to the right), but knew what I was in for. Roxanna, Monica and Tammy had returned several hours earlier from their shift, groaning and sighing that I was "in for a hike."

Things didn't start out well. I awoke to blackness. Groping for something to steady me, I fell from the bunk and landed on my ass. Humiliating and painful, but once I got outside in the damp air and drank a cup of coffee, I felt better.

We walked about 24 kilometers (around 15 miles). Hiking on wet sand takes considerable strength because the moisture seems to suck you into the earth. I wanted to free my feet from the confines of their hiking boots so they could feel the cool abrasiveness of the sand. Instead, I focused on staying upright. After the moon sank below the horizon, we walked under a blanket of darkness, together but apart. My eyeglasses fogged and I struggled to see just a few feet in front of me. I tried to center myself and my thoughts: who I am, where I am, why I am. If nothing else, I thought, I can say I have seen the Pacific Ocean from the shores of Costa Rica.

I felt self-conscious because I had trouble keeping up, but Chau and Corina looped back from time to time to keep me company. We also had a constant companion in Pulga ("Flea" in Spanish), who sometimes walked the beach for all three shifts. Corina and I sat on a huge piece of driftwood as the sun emerged from the clouds, mist smokily rising from the ocean. She told me about her boyfriend in Peru and reassured me I would enjoy the trip even though I don't run marathons or do triathalons, like many of our companions.

Instead of walking back by beach, we took an interior path through the trees and saw white-faced monkeys. We stopped to look until they stared back and we feared they would pelt us with poop. Farther along the path, a sloth with a baby on her belly hung lazily from a tree. Along the way we saw grasshoppers, spiders curled in delicate lace webs and a dragonfly-like insect with luminescent wings. Orange and yellow irises bloomed along the trail, and tiny daisies dotted the forest floor. Near a home I saw a large, bell-shaped plant with tiny hanging red flowers.

By the time we returned to camp, I had forgotten about my fall and the glasses. I sat down to a pancake with honey and fresh pineapple, and then rushed back to our room to write. But just in case, I popped in a couple of Ibuprofen.


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