It’s hot and humid and I’m struggling to navigate up a path that consists of what looks like at least a foot of reddish-brown mud. The path is narrow. Trees, vines, fungi, and more than I can identify or even discern amongst the cacophony of plant-life line both sides of the path.
I’m doing my best to keep upright while moving forward and keep my rainboots from being sucked into the mud. It was raining when we left the hand-hewn dirt and grass airfield where we were deposited in Achuar territory of the Amazon rainforest. I’m swathed in my rain poncho that covers an unnaturally heavy day pack and my rainhat.
Within minutes I’m sweating from the exertion and a poncho that doesn’t breathe. As I slog along I try to decide whether I’d rather get soaked from the inside out (due to sweat) or remove my poncho and get soaked from the outside in.
I try to avoid the wettest parts of the trail, skirting to the outer edges, but that strategy doesn’t really work. I’m in the rainforest and I’m attempting navigate like I’m avoiding mudpuddles on a sidewalk in the city.
While balancing across a log, I slip and my left foot sinks to the bottom of a swampy area. My boot is now filled with muddy water. A fellow traveler grabs my hand and helps me back up on the log. When I hit the muddy path, I balance against a tree and pour the water out of my boot, while muttering. (You don’t need to know what I muttered.)
At that point I surrendered to the rain, the mud, the squish, squish of my sock as it slipped around inside my boot with each step. I gave up trying to navigate like I would in a city. I discovered that if I aimed for water-filled foot prints, my boots wouldn’t stick in the mud.
I pull off my poncho and rainhat. I was in the rainforest. There was no sense trying to operate like I would at home (avoid mud, try to stay dry and clean). Recognizing that I was behaving inappropriately for this unfamiliar environment, I began to try to follow the rules of the rainforest.
Some of these rules I discovered through trial and error (although I prefer to call it action research), some are the advice of our guide/translator/biologist (and, it seemed at times, therapist).
- Pay attention to the environment you are in and adjust your behavior accordingly.
- Don’t put your hand anywhere without looking first. (e.g. it’s better to fall than get a handful of red ants.) In other words, be observant of your environment, which means you need to be fully present.
- Make sure you don’t lose the person behind you and communicate essential information to them. For example, “the small bridge ahead can only handle two people at a time, and you need to walk in the middle.” Or “don’t touch that tree.” Or “that log bridge is very slippery, shift your feet perpendicular and move sideways.”
- Be quiet. You want to hear the rain forest. (Birds chirping, insects buzzing, the call of a toucan, and the growl of howler monkeys.)
- Even though you use insect repellent, “no-see-em’s” will find you. (Have cortisone with you to reduce the itch.)
- Give a hand to someone who is struggling, because it is very likely you’ll need a hand in the future.
As I was reflecting on these “rules of the rainforest” the next morning over a cup of very strong coffee Ecuadorian coffee, I realized how relevant they are to life in general. Here’s my translation.
- Life is messy, learn to be flexible.
- Get out of your head and be present in the moment.
- If you are part of a group or team, communicate fully to everyone.
- Practice being silent. Explore what you notice externally and internally.
- Something will go wrong, or not work out the way you planned. Adjust or adapt as necessary.
- Help others along the way. Yes, you may need a hand in the future, but it’s also the right thing to do.
We had wonderful adventures, struggled up muddy hillsides, and laughed a lot. I was amazed, humbled, and many evenings fell into my mosquito-netted pallet exhausted.