Prompt: Forbidden Places | Word Count 1799 | Genre: Memoir
Warning: Potential male violence
If feels like a lifetime ago, but it was just twenty years. I was living in Santa Elena in a cloud forest which was part of the Monteverde Mountains of Costa Rica. It was a magical time of being free in the world. I was living almost alone in the Santa Elena Bosque Nubosa with my only companions, the tour guides and tourists during the day and the night guard in the evenings. A real tropical forest is abundant in life and with the clouds providing moisture the cloud forests have abundant life at every level of the canopy. Frogs live in the epiphytes, solitaire birds sing songs in violin tunes, and Bell Birds punctuate the day with gongs, and every afternoon at 4 o’clock I would walk up to the observation tower and climb the metal rungs to the top where I could survey the forest spreading out in all directions, and listen to the clusters of howler monkeys roaring into the sunset, and as the dark descended the fire from Volcan Arenal would start spurting in the night sky, unless the clouds were low as they often were.
I first met the misnamed howler monkeys when I decided to do a five-day hike through the Corcovado Rain Forest on the Golfito Peninsula. I remember looking at the sign depicting the poisonous snakes of Costa Rica at the start of the hike, and thanking God that the Jumping Hog-nosed Pit Viper was not in that forest. The first day of the hike was 20km and off I went happily strolling along these winding forest walks fascinated by all the sounds around me, until around lunch time, it started drizzling and this terrible roaring noise emanated from the direction in which I was walked, and terrified me. I dropped my backpack and pondered my options. It wasn’t coming closer so I had lunch and thought about all the cats of the Americas as the closest sound I could think was of was the African Lion. As I pondered, I realised it must be the howler monkey which has throat sacs that amplify the sound. They howl every day at daybreak, sunset and as the rains start.
In South Africa I would not have hiked for five days on my own but then I had so many friends that were always ready for adventure. When you are traveling in the world alone, you make choices to experience life at full volume, with its accompanying increased risk levels.
I had just got off a three-yacht journey from Portugal via Madeira, the Canaries and the Caribbean, and the Panama Canal, and by Costa Rica, my tolerance for other people in general and skippers in particular was very low. We had had great storms at sea, and had crested 24 foot waves on a catamaran off Venezuela and had been rescued by tug boats whilst wallowing in amongst ocean liners in the harbour of Las Canarias. I was high adventure and ready for anything when I left the last boat in Golfito, Costa Rica.
I headed for the cloud forest to get away from the relentless itching and scratching of tiny miggy bites that you can’t escape in the rain forest. I was close to the end of my money and needed a volunteer job which would give me lodging, and I found it working for the Bosque Nubosa Santa Elena, which is a cloud forest reserve associated with the Santa Elena High School. I developed tourist material for the reserve and was given my own little cabin room with windows open to the forest. Every morning I would make coffee and sit on the deck looking at the huge leaves of the Sombrilla de Pobre, “the poorman’s umbrella” whilst the hummingbirds would sit on the edge of my red copy hoping for nectar.
The cloud forest was a six kilometre walk up an elevation of 500 metres from the little cowboy town of Santa Elena. It was a hard living with no hot water, and every time I needed food I had to walk six kilometres into town, and the same home again, each time crossing the continental divide. I loved the concept of crossing a continent to buy milk and bread, and as I walked I would note the first river winding its way down to the Caribbean Coast, and the next river heading off to the Pacific. The birds on the road down to the village were different from the birds in the forest itself and I particularly loved the liquid note of a black bird, and sometimes along the forest edge I would see the Resplendent Quetzal flying with his bright red chest and the long emerald green tail feathers streaming behind him. A remarkable bird.
In the book Into the Wild
, Jon Krakauer outlined the story of Christopher McCandless who chose to walk alone into the wilderness of Alaska and died there. Krakauer questions our rights as humans to take risks which can kill us, and he questions what obligations we have to those who love us. Neither question does he answer, as we have to answer it for ourselves. The Aborigines on the other hand, go “walk about” which is a young male’s rite of passage into adulthood. If he fails, he dies. We live with risk, but we seldom choose it. At that time in Costa Rica, I was 33 years old, it was early 1998 and I felt so alive. Everything was different, the language, the people, the landscape, the birds, the mammals, the butterflies with their transparent wings or the large fluorescent blue of morpho butterfly. Everything. I was not going to miss anything if I could help it.
I was invited by a group of young Americans to join them in hiking over the mountain down to Lake Arenal, a large dam shadowed by a live volcano, Volcan Arenal. There was no ways I was going to miss is. That I would walk back alone was incidental.
I said goodbye to the night-guard of the Reserve, and laden with my backpack and tent and headed down the hill to meet the others. The hike was tough as the young Americans were fit and fast, but I kept up and the day was exhilarating as we headed down the hill, through fields and forests, and down a gravel road with stunning views over the lake and volcano, through a river valley and then at the bottom
of the hill we emerged into farm land where we crossed through a scary field of faraway bulls, and into a small lakeside village where we drank cervezas.
Here the Americans left me and I bought a few groceries, and perhaps another cerveza, and found a perfect spot along the lake shores to set up my tent. A few locals came to chat and I told them “Soy Africana”, I am from Africa, not Estadas Unidos.
Por que?, they asked in shock at me being single and travelling along. Why. Travelling alone was one thing, but never marr
Going to sleep next to a live volcano is exciting. Waking up next to a volcano and a lake and drinking coffee in the early morning with the morning mist over the lake and sun just rising is very, very nice. After breakfast at the local tavern, I packed my tent and sleeping back and started heading uphill. It was only then that I really thought about the field of not so faraway scary bulls. Costa Rican bulls seem scarier than other bulls as their heads are scarred from battles and their long hairy testicles sway as they paw the ground snorting.
“Fuck!” I thought to myself, “what now?”
I got rescued by a young Nicaraguan cowboy on a white stallion. He said that all I have to do is walk on the lee side of his horse, and the bulls would ignore me. I was so relieved and grateful and chatted away in my improving Spanish, talking about life in South Africa and life in Nicaragua. He carried on walking with me and when he heard I was planning to camp along the trail, he showed me a perfect spot next to deep pools along the river. We swam together in the little water falls and it was idyllic. After he left, I set up my tent and was all set for a meditative evening.
A little later, I hear
d the sound of hooves. He had come back. It was darker now, and he was different, he had been drinking. I was aware of how alone I now was in a dark forest with a man with a glazed look in his eyes.
“Quiero sexo”, he said repeatedly as he tried to kiss me. I want sex.
“No!” I said. “NO!”
But he doesn’t hear. I say lots of things in Spanish, trying to get his to see me, to hear me and snap out of his glaze but he just repe
ats “Quiero sexo”.
Somehow I evade his arms and get something from my tent. It is the little pepper spray that my sister Moira gave me long ago. I make sure the safety is off, and I keep it hidden in my hand, ready.
It gives me strength.
“Bestante!” Enough. Go away.
He hears this new edge in my voice, the new strength.
Go away I say again in the voice that is harder to disagree with.
He gallops off on his horse.
Immediately I unpeg the tent and threw everything haphazardly into my backpack and head up the trail, shaking with fear and the thought that he could return, son easily catching up with me on horseback.
That night walking up the hill remains a surreal memory of being so alive and so grateful. The moon was full and blazed brightly in the sky as I walk up the gravel trail, with the volcano as a bright companion together with the equatorial stars.
It is hard being a woman and knowing the dangers of freedom and how many places are forbidden to us. How the freedom of the night is forbidden to us, and the risks we take when we refuse to live the safe life.
As the top of the hill approached and I heard the first dog bark, and I thought that I had had enough of the world of man for one day, I left the path and set up my little tent in a grove of trees and went to sleep. Hours later I awoke to the sounds of twittering around me, and poked my head out of the side zip and surrounding me on the branches of the trees was a flock of little green parrots chirping in a new day.
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