This weekend some friends and I went to Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica. It is located on the southwestern tip of the Peninsula de Osa and according to National Geographic is “the most biologically intense place on Earth in terms of biodiversity.” It only covers a 424 square kilometers but apparently 2% of the Earth’s species can be found there.
We stayed in a hostel that essentially touched the park. It was so remote that the only way to reach it was through traveling by boat down a river to the mouth of the ocean and then hugging the coast on the open sea.
It wasn’t an island, but it felt like it was. Electricity was solar powered and unreliable. There was no internet. No cell phone service.
Wait that’s a lie. Apparently there was cell phone service if you stood under the coconut tree by the beach. I wouldn’t know, I didn’t try.
The sleeping dorm we stayed in lacked walls or doors but had mosquito nets. The jungle trees almost touched it. I was half worried I might wake up with a monkey going through my backpack.
On our first morning one of my friends and I woke up at 5 to take a guided hike through the park. As we started to walk into the jungle, our hostel owner and guide, Leo, told us about how he inherited the land the hostel is built on from his parents, and how they apparently bought it just before the national park was established. He said its just luck that the government didn’t seize it/hasn’t seized it yet.
He said that he and his four siblings spent their childhood here. I got a strange image of jungle children with mud smeared across their face and twigs stuck in their hair, playing hide and seek in the giant trumpet roots of the trees.
He had blonde hair and blue eyes, but he looked like he grew up here. He looked impossibly comfortable as he walked us through the jungle. Even his clothes radiated his ease, he was wearing swimsuit trunks and hiking boots. Just swimsuit trunks and hiking boots.
“Corcovado,” my friend said to me as he walked in front of us. “Where tie up shoes are required, but a shirt isn’t.”
He told us that his mother was really in to medicinal plants.
That vines called monkey´s ladder, he said it’s used to help with arthritis. And If you rub this sap on your head it prevents and reverses hair loss. And look at the pinchers on these ants, they’re used as sutures.
According to Leo the jungle was a refuge. The jungle helped, the jungle healed.
The jungle was incredible. The jungle was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. The jungle was animals and plants with colors so bright and vibrant it was almost painful to look at. The jungle was trees that walk, moving as much as a meter a year as they shoot their tall gangly roots out towards whatever direction promises them the most water and sunlight. The jungle was eating fresh fruit that the rain knocked down from the giant mango tree. The jungle was a giant hallowed out tree we could stand comfortably inside of. The jungle was hacking a coconut open with a machete and drinking straight from it.
The jungle was monkeys jumping through the canopy above our heads. As I stared at them I started to wonder why we ever left. Why humans ever decided that fruit and trails and trees and natural medicine weren’t enough. Why we retreated from our origins to carve out fields, cultivate farms, build roads, and create synthetic medicines.
Amidst my pondering I stumbled upon thousands of big black ants that were also trying to use the path I was walking on. It was really a spectacular site to see the thousands of ants beneath my feet. I felt very connected to nature.
And then they started to climb up onto me and dig hundreds of pinchers into my feet.
I cussed. I yelled. I ran. I knocked off as many of them as I could. Away from the ant stronghold, I frantically tried to pull off what felt like millions of stinging things.
“Water,” my friend said. And I looked over at fighting her own battle with the insects, pouring her precious water over her feet.
I followed suit. After pulling off a few particularly committed colony defenders, the sharp stinging was gone, but a steady burning still remained.
The jungle is beautiful. The jungle is a refuge. But the jungle also bites.
The jungle bites and stings and trips and poisons and knocks giant coconuts off the trees that you have to be careful not to get hit by. The jungle has monkeys that will chase you if you get too close. The jungle houses jaguars and pumas; but according to Leo the mammals you really have to watch out for are the wild boars–they’re aggressive, they travel in packs, and they will surround you and eat you.
Yeah of course, Leo said. Of course, I’ve seen the boars around here.
Our guide told us a story about one of the tours he gave last month. A girl got stung by a bee and had an allergic reaction, he had to carry her on his back and run to an eco-lodge.
I told him my sister was allergic to bees, but that I’ve never been stung.
Uh oh, he said. That’s exactly what the girl said.
He told me I should really carry an epi-pen, because especially here an allergic reaction could really be life threatening.
And then I realized that I had probably never been surrounded by so many things that could kill me: so many poisonous snakes, plants, and insects; so many aggressive, powerful mammals; so much precarious dense terrain that could trap me for days, weeks, months, or probably years.
I felt anxious. I was only half-way through the hike, but I was ready to be done. The jungle wasn’t a joke. The jungle was army ants who attacked us on a suicide mission so that we would never step on a colony again. The jungle was a fight for survival. And I felt very ill prepared.
Maybe it was because because my ancestors spent so much time evolving outside of the jungle. That somehow my symbolic time away from my origins had caused my genes to completely forget how they managed to survive for all these millions of years. Biologically speaking alone I am ill-equiped for jungle life: I’m too tall and clumsy; I have bad eyes and skin that burns in the sun; plus, according to Leo, apparently I’m allergic to bees.
Or maybe it was because I realized I didn’t understand the jungle. I wasn’t like Leo. I didn´t know what plants I should be wary of, which spiders could kill me, which trees where okay to climb in to and which I should leave to the bats and jungle cats sleeping inside of them.
I grew up in a different kind of jungle. I grew up learning to not put my fingers in electric sockets and to stay away from stove-tops. I grew up wearing my seat belt and not playing outside once the streetlights went out.
I traded my ancestors’ snakes, wild boars, and spiders with kitchen knives, cars, and child molesters. I traded hazardous terrain for bad parts of town and lethal plants for power tools.
I traded natural medicines for lower infant mortality rates and actively fighting for survival for the opportunity to expand and educate my mind.
But I also traded close knit-communities and constant contact with nature for isolation and high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. I’ve traded fresh coconut water for Coco-cola and scaling waterfalls for sitting in front of screens, books, and journals.
As a result (statistically at least) I should live longer and more comfortably. Cutting down trees to build houses and paving over the soil has given me resources to fight most illnesses, access to information from all over the world, and time to do things like sit and write about the differences between being in the jungle and being in society.
But I can’t ignore this thing that’s itching in my mind like the bug bites on my feet—-the incomfortable question of what I’ve lost by everything I’ve gained.