THE LIFE OF A JUNGLE DWELLER
Nostalgia; it is a feeling like no other. It somehow makes you feel empty with longing and filled with contented warm light simultaneously. How is it possible to have two opposing feelings? You’re glad it happened, yet sad that it is over. Like when you cry tears of joy. Now that my time at Jalova is coming to an end, I have a feeling of nostalgia. But this time nostalgia is slightly different. For a kid from the land-locked mountains of Canada, being a jungle dweller for a month is a pretty exceptional contrast; the crisp smell of pine verses the salty taste on my lips from the sea; at dawn, squirrels and coyotes verses geckos and howler monkeys; seeing my breath escape my mouth at night, versus the humid air that collects on my skin. Down to the soil beneath my feet, nothing is the same. I feel nostalgic because nothing in my 21 years is exactly the same being a jungle dweller.
During the first week my eyes were filled with awe at every new species I saw. In the wee hours of the morning I groggily crawl out of my mosquito net and pull out my head torch to get ready for the forest survey. For breakfast: a bowl of porridge and coffee. Next, I slide into my wellies and jungle attire, ready to hit the trail with my survey team. The first thing I notice isn’t actually what I’m looking at, but what I can hear. A bat speeds past my head squeaking as he goes. Cicada bugs chirp non-stop, as if they were to stop, the silence would be their demise. And in the distance, it could be up to one kilometre away, Mantled Howler Monkeys bark their deep guttery yell; a magnificent sound that makes you shudder when you hear it for the first time. It doesn’t stop there- it’s the birds turn. The Great Tinamou, a pudgy bird, calls out like its lamenting. As if to counter the lament of the tinamous’, a bay wren sings out a cheerful tweet, straight out of a Disney Princess movie.
After a 15 minute walk through the coconut plantation that encompasses base, my survey team reaches the trail head. Each person chooses a place to look; up left, up right, down left, down right. It’s time to test your eyesight and let science begin. On the trail I feel like I am swimming through every hue of green on the colour spectrum. The vegetation is dense, and the biodiversity of the plants is high. From the gigantic trees with buttress roots, to leafy understory, to twisting vines, it is no wonder so much wildlife calls this place home. The structure of this rainforest offers lots of nooks and crannies for all sorts of niches.
No more than 10 metres in, a Central American Agouti (a small creature that almost appears to be a guinea pig with long legs) darts onto the path, pauses to look at us, then disappears back into the green expanse. Energised by our early sighting, the survey moves on with an air of hope. We walk silently and slowly through the jungle, straining to see more wildlife. Not far off, we hear a slow clicking sound, characteristic of a male White-Collared Manakin. Then more of the same sound, we have stumbled onto a lek, where the birds are displaying for courtship. The little white, yellow and black birds hop from branch to branch, to vine, and back to branch again, all the while clapping their wings together to attract females. The moment almost feels spiritual as we look on at their dance, soaking the beauty of such a simple act. But we have to keep moving, in order to keep an accurate time for the survey. Along our way, we rack up sighting after sighting of anole lizards and tree frogs. Although their abundance may make them seam boring, anoles and frogs are the backbones to this ecosystem. They fit into the food web, and feed a great many organisms, like eyelash-palm pit vipers, a variety of birds, and on occasion, a spider. Overhead, branches and leaves rustle, and no its not “just the wind”. A small group of Central American Spider Monkeys are on the move. They are extremely dextrous, with hook-like feet and hands and a prehensile tail, it has a pad of skin on it for gripping tree branches. Their adaptations are put to use as they climb and leap through the canopy with ease. Today we see something I’ve never seen before; a large male holds onto the branch of one tree and swings to latch onto the branch of another. In doing so he has closed the gap between the two trees, turning himself into a make-shift bridge that the smaller female and the juvenile can walk across. I love the teamwork of the monkey bridge, what a fantastic way to end the survey.
Back at base the data from survey is entered. After the work is done, a bucket shower is in order. The term ‘bucket shower’ is just another bit of slang for Jalova jungle dwellers. It essentially consists of pulling out buckets of water from the well, and dumping it over yourself, fully clothed, to get off the layer of dirt and sweat, which you involuntarily acquire over the survey. In fresh clothes everyone on base eats together and swaps survey stories. Conversations go where they will, and I realise that these people have become a sort of surrogate family to me over the past weeks. Without the distractions of technology, we interact with each other as humans should. Looking into people’s eyes and listening to their stories puts a lot into perspective. We all connect, despite being from every corner of the earth. It hit me all of a sudden when I sat down playing cards with an American, Austrian, Brit, Australian, Ecuadorian, Kiwi, Scot, African, Spaniard, German, and a Swede. Here we were, all with different upbringings, and separate cultures, yet we were joking, smiling and having fun like grade-school friends. I hate to use clichés, but sometimes they ring true; it is a small world. Somewhere along the line, we all felt the need to go on an adventure, get away, and test ourselves. Each of us made the decision to volunteer in conservation and destiny brought us together. I’ve learnt a lot from this wild family, and it is comforting to know that I have a sofa to crash on all over the world. So as I sit here in my favourite spot, my hammock by the sea, I feel nostalgic. I feel nostalgic for the porridge by candlelight, for the sounds in the morning, for the shades of green, for the wildlife I see, the refreshing bucket showers, my wild Jalova jungle family and the wellies. Actually, no, I won’t miss the wellies.