What follows is the introductory chapter to my upcoming book White Jag. Because of copyrighting concerns, only the introduction can be distributed at this time.
My Dearest K.P. -
It was a dream, he said. A vision in the darkened mists. Of an all-white jaguar - Oonshawa . Stalking. Prowling. And twisting its way through the forest's clawing fingers, to the edge of the village clearing. It stood panting in a slow... deep rhythm - its breaths condensing in small puffs. Muscles tightened. Taut. Eyes wide and alert, for the slightest movement. A predator with predator's lines and curves. Its outline standing against the moonlight, in the silence of the night. Casting a pale grey shadow at its muffled feet. Waiting.
The shaman had called me in, to the Stygian darkness of his smoke-filled hut. And sat me down, on a timeworn palm thatch mat. Recounting his tale in intricate detail. In pantomime. And mystical... fathomless words. The fluid motions of his wrinkled hands. Weathered. Following the arc of a full moon. And padding the dust with the jaguar's soundless paws. He drew a claw through the air and his eyes were ablaze. With the passion of life.
I sat mystified, in a dream-world of my own. Watching this man, with age and wisdom so far beyond my own, weave a tale - from fibers in the air. A craftsman. Magician. A spirit with a foothold in the supernatural. And a death-grip on my attention. His long black hair danced with a swooping movement. Mixing with the wisps of rising smoke, stirring the aroma of a foreign essence. I inhaled and drew the fumes in deep. Wrapped around my soul.
The jaguar raised his head and sniffed the stillness of the night's ether. Testing. Lingering. The long, white-velvet tail swayed from side to side. Flicking left, then right. Evidence of the inner drama being played out in its private conversation. Wielding the powers of carnal flesh... and blood. And from deep within, beyond the marrow, beyond the inner roots, a moan - part lion, part tortured cow - rose and filled the empty void of the nighttime's atmosphere. I felt my body shudder.
The prophetic medicine man stopped suddenly - and lowered his outstretched arms, back down to their place, at his sides. His closed eyes focused on the dreams, and the meaning encompassed in its folds. Subtle textures. Celestial flavors. Inextricably entwined with his being, as the darkness closed in around him. From a tanned pouch, he withdrew a paste of ash, black, like pitch - and reached out, through the gloom of the dream. To touch the face. Of the all-white beast.
The jaguar drew back instinctively, then started forward and sauntered into the midst of the village. Eyes peered from the fragile safety of their shelters. Wondering. Praying. Holding their breath for the outcome of his intentions. The lithe cat circled the compound once. Then halted in the center of the clearing. Its eyes grew soft, muscles relaxed. And the beast sat down, peacefully, in the heart of the forest tribe. The shaman slowly opened his eyes to behold the White Jag... with the dull, black streak. Crouched. On the palm mat in front of him.
Peligro was the first Spanish word I ever learned. We had been driving down the Pan-American highway in Costa Rica for several hours and I had seen dozens of bright yellow signs with the word plastered across the face in bold black letters. There seemed to be one every mile or so. Finally, my curiosity got the better of me and I leaned forward to ask the driver what it meant.
"Danger, señor," he replied.
Wonderful. I flopped back in my seat in resigned submission, realizing that I had never fully understood what I was getting myself into with this trip to the tropics. But danger was something altogether different. I peeked out over the open window on my side, and over the edge of the road to the treetops a thousand feet below. The wheels of our car couldn't have been more than six inches from the drop-off and without a guardrail in sight, I was beginning to appreciate the true nuances of the word. We took hairpin turn after hairpin turn, all at speeds that I considered well over the 5 m.p.h. safety velocity and I relaxed my death grip on the seat cover only long enough to check that my seat belt was securely fastened. Not that it would have mattered. As we drove on into the dusk, I began to notice the odd collection of rusted carcasses strewn amongst the vegetation below. Above each of them, there was a small cross or monument placed on the side of the road we were on, in commemoration of the loved ones lost forever to the depths of the ravine. I guess when something like that happens, you gather friends and family at the site where the car went off, stake a little cross into the ground, toss some flowers off the edge, and go on about your business. There certainly isn't any way of bringing the remains back up and since there is only one way down, a small plaque or monument in their honor seems the most appropriate option.
As darkness began to close in around us, we turned off the highway onto a bumpy, dirt side-road and began to climb into the night sky. I felt relieved that I could no longer see what lay below just off the edge of the road or how far down we would plummet if the driver lost his attention for a single, split second. But as I began to pry my fingers from the cheap vinyl and regain some circulation, we climbed through the cloud level and a fog as thick as dense smoke folded in around us and swallowed up the car. Now, not only could I not see the bottom of the gorge that fell to my right, but three feet ahead became just as much a mystery. At times the road seemed to take full U-turns and head back in exactly the same direction from which we had just come. At others, we would creep around a corner, tiptoeing along the edge, as an enormous truck, piled high with massive logs would crowd its way by, thundering down the mountain and oblivious to others' perils. I could never see how the massive sixteen-wheelers could navigate the tortuous curves and narrow roads on their own and the fact that we always managed to sidle by at the same time was a sheer impossibility. By the time we reached our destination, five hours later, I was a frazzled ball of nerves and collapsed in complete exhaustion. Peligro was a word I never had to relearn.
This book is a collection of letters, stories, and photos of my explorations of Latin American rain forests and culture over the past several years. It was put together at the request of my students, friends, and family who continually push me to recount, in endless detail, the tales of my work and travel to these strange places. Their fascination with what, at times, I consider rather ordinary, has spurned my efforts to put it all in writing and amass it in one place for all to see. And though I am an ardent storyteller, this collection is to satisfy everyone's curiosity at once. Basically, to shut them up.
These are traveler's tales and, I must admit, like all traveler's tales, are flavored with the spice of time and memory. I have nothing but the best of intentions in recounting these experiences but it is inevitable that the occasional over- or underexaggeration creeps in and somewhat modifies reality. It is something that I have picked up from long exposure to the Latin people. I respect them highly but you quickly learn that their words are not written in stone and therefore evolve with their experiences and are influenced by their culture. What results is a meaning that must be taken in context and judged as such. I am no exception.
I also cannot vouch for the absolute validity of every claim presented in the text. Though I have been as accurate as possible, the source of a great deal of my information is from the Indians that I have lived with over the years. I am a scientist at heart, and where possible, I have verified the claims with accepted scientific fact. More often than not, the original theory propounded by the indigenous people plays out to be absolutely true. But occasionally, very occasionally, their stories are exactly that - stories to explain phenomena they cannot fully understand. Separating myth from fact is a most difficult task, and the lack of scientific investigation into their realm of the forest's flora and fauna, medicines and culture, makes it even harder.
These experiences are a hodgepodge of people and places and I have tried to amalgamate them to the best of my abilities. The list of rain forest countries where I have lived or worked is long and grows longer every year - Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, the Mexican Yucatan, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela. Some I have an intimate knowledge of, others only cursory. I could never claim to understand a single culture completely - that would take the rest of my life. But there is a certain insight one captures by living among the people for extended periods of time. A forest tribe here, a small town there - each expands my vision and molds my perception of the Latin and indigenous worlds.
I have also tried not to embellish or mystify my experiences into tales of excitement or adventures of mythic proportions as others often do. The tropics need no such exaggeration. As the early rain forest explorers like Darwin, Wallace, Spruce, and Bates discovered, the routine in the Amazon and other neotropical forests is often extraordinary enough. To the sheltered North American or European, bird-eating spiders and butterflies the size of outstretched hands are so exotic and unimaginable that they boggle the mind. The commonplace is not so common to cultures that have never seen or experienced such things. I have listened to Indians describing four-day hikes through the forest to collect some fruits or track an animal with nothing but a bow and arrow or blowgun, as if it were nothing more than a Sunday stroll through the park. For them, it is simply their commute to work and deserves no more awe or fascination than any other daily task. Yet we marvel at their courage and incredible undertakings. Turn it around and describe our own thirty-minute ride in a mechanical beast through rush-hour traffic to get to our workplace miles away and you may begin to get a sense of the situational absurdity.
Nonetheless, the neotropics are ripe for exaggeration and the myths we have learned to associate with the "jungle" are often far from the truth. The admonition peligro may accurately reflect the dangers involved in some situations and accompany the real threats posed by guerrilla warfare, poisonous snakes, and treacherous passages, but generally, I find that the warnings are based on ignorance of what really lies out there. The tales of frenzied piranhas stripping a cow to a mere skeleton in minutes, savage Indians hunting for human flesh to fill their pots, and jaguars pouncing on unsuspecting passersby are the larger-than-life creations of people that have never been to the forest. Even the Latin people themselves are guilty of spreading these accounts. The only group that seems to be somewhat immune to this disease are the Indians, the ones who live it every day. In all my travels I have never been mugged or robbed, been bitten by a poisonous snake, seen a jaguar in the wild, been tortured by vicious natives, or been stricken by a debilitating tropical disease. Though each of these may represent an actual risk in the tropics, the chances of one happening are much less than being run over by a bus while crossing the street at home or being struck by lightning while playing a round of golf. We pay little heed to cautions of our own dangers.
For the most part I have found the Latin and indigenous people to be the most gracious and open-hearted souls you could ever hope to meet. I have been taken in by them and accepted without a word on innumerable occasions. These people, sometimes with so very little, go out of their way to share with you and welcome you into their lives. They may only have one piece of bread to their names but insist on giving half to you. I, with so much, can only graciously accept their gift and marvel at their generosity. We would do well to learn from them.
And rain forests, though at times uncomfortable, can be the most incredible places to live. They are beautiful, fascinating, and magical places, wrapped in a shroud of life and diversity beyond comparison. I used to wander around in a daze through the understory, soaking in the smells, sights, and sounds that bombard your senses, afraid that if I stopped it would vanish into the dreamy mists from which it came. I'd like to think heaven is a lot like a rain forest.