I’m not fearless, but I wasn’t that worried about camping overnight in the Puerto Rican rainforest in 2007. I am an experienced backpacker and I’m used to camping by myself. But when I entered the Bosque National, the only tropical rainforest in the United States National Park System, it just made sense to ask what hazards I should avoid.
The charming woman at the desk who helped me fill out my camping permit, which was in Spanish. I asked if there were any unusual hazards to avoid. She didn’t even look up. “Don’t pet the mongoose.”
My first thought was that this was a euphemism for something that I wouldn’t want explained in front of my mother. But she was perfectly serious. There are no snakes, no large carnivores to be wary of. Few plants and even fewer animals are poisonous, and those only if you are silly enough to eat them. The problem was mongoose. Mongoose (mongeese? mongui?) are not native to Puerto Rico, which is unfortunate enough, but the population is infected with rabies. Naturally secretive creatures, you usually never know they are around. If I saw one, I was to consider it a sick animal.
Well, I was trying to cut back on mongoose petting anyway.
The other information she gave was that I was the only camper that night in the 28,000 acre forest, which really should have been my first clue that this would go badly. I confess, that I was distracted, because she said that they “closed the rainforest at 6pm” so to make sure I was inside the gates by that time. I had no idea that one could close a rainforest. Do the tree frogs get evenings off? She also mentioned, almost in passing, that I needed to camp 30 feet off the trail.
Since there were absolutely no facilities and the rainforest would be “closed” in about an hour, I quickly bought an assortment of local snack foods and bottled water from the gift shop. I stuffed the white paper bag into my backpack and was off.
The park is known locally as El Bosque, The Forest. It has trails that are marked with the familiar brown park service markers with distances in kilometers. Puerto Rico is near the Equator, so nightfall is around 6pm, regardless of the time of year. It was already past 5pm when I hit the trail and I knew the moonlight might not pierce the canopy. I didn’t have a moment to lose.
My plan was to hike to the first clearing where I could get off the trail and set up camp. Like I said, I am an experienced camper. An experienced deciduous forest camper, I should say. I camp often in North American forests, so I didn’t anticipate any issue with getting 30 feet off the trail. I was wrong. After hiking 5km on a narrow, slippery path, I had not found a single area clear enough of vegetation to even step off the path. As a girl from the Midwest, it is ingrained in me to follow the rules. I felt I had to camp off the trail, but it was getting dark and by now the gates we locked behind my parked car. I picked a relatively clear area and I tried to push my way through the tall grass and vines. Within three yards, my legs were hopelessly tied up in vegetation. When I finally extricated myself I was bloody, my forearms and lower legs a mass of superficial cuts. Those innocent looking grasses were knives. Even the ferns were serrated.
Even without the vegetation, walking off trail was hazardous. I stumbled over tree roots, pot holes and vines. Standing still wasn’t an option either. The ground was such a sponge that if you stood in one place for just a few minutes, you’d be in a puddle. Tent camping was hopeless! If I had brought a tent I would have walked back to my car and slept in the back seat. (Of course I would have lied about it later to make a better story!) Luckily, I had brought a hammock. It had mosquito netting and a tarp I could rig over the hammock for protection from rain. Even though I felt guilty, I slung the hammock diagonally across the trail. I rationalized that since I was the only person camping that night, it wouldn’t inconvenience anyone if I blocked the path.
It was on the dark side of dusk when I finished setting up the hammock. I crawled into the mosquito netting with little white bag of snacks. The first thing I tried looked like a bag of potato chips, but made from plantains, cassava and yucca. There was an overly sweet guava paste and a nut bar with coconut. All were quite good. I shoved what remained back into the bag and placed it in the top of my backpack, which lay beneath me under the tarp.
I was set for the night, except that is was now only 7pm, pitch dark, and I was still wide awake. As I lay listening to the noises of the night, it hit me for the first time that I was completely alone and no one knew where I was camping in this vast forest. The only sound I could identify for sure were the tiny coqui frog, singing koh KEE koh KEE koh KEE from every scrap of vegetation. I’m sure the natives are used to it and think of it as the background noise of the island. I had thought the sound was “cute” at the hotel when I could just hear them between the songs of the band or above the ocean surf. Trapped in the dark with millions of them, it was oppressive.
I tried to relax, but everything was so unfamiliar. I couldn’t see a single star through the forest canopy and there was nothing else to concentrate on but the unfamiliar noises. Nearby was perhaps a bird with a fast coo coo. The wind picked up and the trees creaked and swayed, eerily. Occasionally a limb would fall, crashing through the canopy. At least I hoped that’s what the sound was. There was unfamiliar rustling in the grass, squeaks and squawks in the leaves and the drone of insects.
Birds began fluttering in the trees overhead. It sounded like one flew right above me. Another landed on the ground nearby. I like birds. The thought of birds flittering about was pleasant and comforting. Well, it was pleasant for about three minutes, which is how long it took me to realize that the sounds couldn’t possibly be birds. Birds simply don’t flutter about at night. That could only be…..
(…If I could invent a gadget to improve the human body it would be an emergency “stop” button for your brain. Generally, the truth is a good thing, but this was one of those times when working out the correct conclusion was not going to improve my situation. Alas, the Brain Emergency Stop has not been perfected yet…)
…Bats! The only thing that flapped and flutters at night were bats. I’m calmer than most women around bats. I’ve encountered them in caves and am not frightened that they will get into my hair. In Wisconsin I learned to love the tiny creatures that ate their weight in mosquitoes. But in my frantic state, I was trying to remember if Puerto Rico had vampire bats? And all bats can carry rabies and other diseases. The more I listened, the larger they seemed. I was defenseless with nothing but a thin piece of nylon hammock between my backside and any of a number of rabid, monster-sized, vampire bats! I was sick to my stomach with fear.
Every few minutes there would be a new sound I couldn’t identify, leaving my heart racing and the metallic taste of adrenaline in my mouth. There was no light. If there had been a moon, it’s light would have been blocked by the leaf canopy. All I had was a small flashlight, whose light didn’t reach far into the darkness. It was too far to walk out safely on the narrow, treacherous path. I knew intellectually that it was safer to stay put, but every muscle in my body wanted to run. Sleep was impossible, but I needed to calm myself before I had a heart attack. Or wet my hammock.
That’s why I was so relieved when the fireflies came out. They gave me something to look at and concentrate on besides “things that go bump in the night”. The Puerto Rican lightening bugs were far more agile than any I’d seen growing up in the Midwest. First one firefly, then another landed on my mosquito netting. How interesting, I thought. I can get a closer look! Two more landed. A dozen. Two dozen. I became concerned. At four dozen, I had visions of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Bird, but with lighted insects. I was Tippi Hedren and I couldn’t remember if she survived the film. Would I? I was trapped. The fireflies continued to gather. Would screaming just bring more? Could they sense fear?
It took a minor lifetime, about 20 minutes, to find the cause: My cell phone! The blinking light on the Blackberry phone was almost the same color they glowed. These were male fireflies who had mistaken the flash for a the call of a female. My cell phone had been accidentally programmed to say, “Hey, Sailor” in Firefly-speek! I turned off the phone and they flew away within 3 minutes. Back on, they returned. I was Dr. Doolittle, even if all I knew how to say was “Come hither” in Firefly-eese. I would have continued it for hours, except the rain chased them off permanently.
My heart rate was back to normal, but I still slept poorly. When I did sleep, I dreamed that people were trying to cross the path that I was blocking. Between my sense of guilt and the unfamiliar sounds, it was a long night. At first light, I stumbled out of the hammock.
After a call of nature, I went for sustenance. I reached for the little white bag at the top of my backpack for water and the last of the snacks. Or at least I tried. The white sack now consisted of the two handles on top, the bottom, and gaping holes where the sides should have been. The culprits were two of the largest snails I had ever seen. Their shells were easily 4 inches in diameter. I could see the slime trail where they had oozed up the side of my backpack in a beeline—or what must serve as a beeline if you are a snail—directly to the bag. Ewwwww. I guess bleached, white paper is junk food for snails? How had they even known it was there? I tossed them outl and reached for the bag again. But the sight of the second largest cockroach I have ever seen (Costa Rica still holds the record!) made me lose my appetite completely. Once your snacks have been slimed by snails and trod on by huge cockroaches, they lose their appeal.
And just to add insult to injury, it started to rain again.
I packed up in the rain and started back to my car. It had been slick hiking in, but with more rain, the trail was perilous. I fell several times adding bruises and mud to my lacerations. Even without a mirror I knew I looked bad. When I reached the parking lot, day trippers shielded their children from me and pushed them down the trail to get away. Stay away from the crazy lady, children.”
Looking like a madwoman has its advantages, though. It gave me enough privacy to change my shirt and clean up a bit before I got into my rental car.
Later that night in a bar, several locals laughed heartedly at my story. They admitted that camping in a tent, 30 feet from the trail in a rainforest is a joke befitting the Puerto Rican sense of humor. Only a gringo from The States would try such a stupid thing. They assured me it was all in fun and congratulated me on lasting the night alone. They even bought me a Medalla, the local beer, to celebrate. To show there was no hard feeling, I bought the next round. After a couple more beers, it did seem funny. Not subtle, but funny.
And like all good jokes, they are better when you pull them on someone else. I wonder if my brothers want to go camping in the rain forest.