Standing once more before the wooden wardrobe of my jungle cabin, I force my tensed heels down to the floor, determined to relax. One by one, I peel off my long pants, long sleeved shirt, tank top and socks.
I am wrapped in nothing but a towel, slipping into my rubber shoes, inching my way toward the dreaded confining shower. As if on cue, a tarantula the size of my hand crawls out from under the vacant bed opposite mine.
If there had been a computer animation of my brain at this moment, I imagine a nearly indiscernible pause in which the system balked, the input hovering unsure at the edge of some synapse. This before exploding into action, bursting simultaneous valves of acceptance, disbelief and alarm, dispersing the veil of manicured lawns, brownstones, storefronts and rows of suburban homes that, until now, had been my fixed universe.
Here is the epitome of a fear I have harbored since childhood. Here, in less than five hours since I arrived in the jungle, is the encounter I’ve been having nightmares about for weeks.
I scream the way I used to scream when I saw a spider in the house as a child, only louder and longer, like the damsel in an old horror movie. Equally shocked, the spider rushes for cover, crawling under my bed.
I jump back into my clothes, bristling with the voltage of what felt like a lifetime of latent adrenaline suddenly released, then rush out the door cursing myself for not having looked up the word for spider in Spanish.
A researcher and two students are running up the path toward the bunkhouse. “Es muy GRANDE!” I let out past my quaking chin, my blue eyes bursting out of a face that can only be sheer porcelain.
The two guys go in, dutiful, casual and amused, and in seconds emerge, having swept the confused spider into a Tupperware canister. They smile at the trembling gringa, and we laugh. I am giddy. Terrified. Incredulous. To find a tarantula indoors is extremely rare, Roxanna, a researcher of ants, assures me. It’s only because there has been no one living in my room. It won’t happen again.
Really? Suddenly I am reeling that my cunning prayers have been answered. At once, the universe seems extremely witty and attentive. Breaking the ice of my fears in a matter of hours, on my first night, at the time when I am least acclimated to my surroundings, and at the very first hint of when I was letting my guard down.
Enter tarantula, like a punchline – here is the answer to my prayers that my fears be dealt with gently. Hilarious. This is extremely rare? Ha.
I’ve heard it’s all downhill from your first encounter, that the ones to follow will be less jarring. And so, mixed with the rush of adrenaline, I feel intense gratitude. Already I have been alleviated of the most debilitating, abstract and anticipatory fear.
Beasts and Feeling Beaten
With all the commotion, a cicada the size of a golf ball has now found its way into my room. Roxanna, my lingering rescuer, and I flinch at the beast, which has flown above my mosquito net. As we stare up at it, a marsupial scurries in on the rafters.
Roxanna laughs at my luck and starts to leave. That means I am just supposed to deal. I refrain from asking her to stay and hold my hand through the night. Instead, I strip back down, grab the towel, and creep into the bathroom next door.
Many ants, a few moths, and endless possibilities are amplified by the claustrophobia of the shower stall. I step in cringing and turn on the water. It’s cold, startling, and refreshing. The ants stream up the wall. I breathe and start reciting the Theodore Roethke poem I memorized in order to distract myself with in moments like these:
I wake to sleep, I take my waking slow, I feel my fate in what I cannot fear, I learn by going where I have to go…
Cleansed of the long, hot, dirty day, which included a five-hour boat ride up the Madre de Dios River to my current, remote-as-hell locale, I tip-toe back to my room. It is nearly 9:30pm, time, I have been warned, for the generator to shut off. I open the wardrobe and frantically scan the shelves, the floor, the shadows, before extracting some clothes to sleep in. I dress and then step warily into the center of the room, haunted.
Bracing myself for the claustrophobia of the mosquito net, I toss some supplies beneath. Then I make myself small and dive under, untucking the smallest amount of net possible, then quickly re-tucking it and letting my eyes fly around the cage in search of critters. I do several perimeter checks, making sure the net is secure at all points, wincing each time I shove my hand beneath the mattress.
I check beneath the covers, inspecting every dark corner with my headlamp. Then I lay down, glasses on, headlamp around my neck, my little pink battery-operated lantern at my side. I stare up at the apex of the white net, assessing the degree of precarious security I feel beneath it.
Down With Defenses
I am here, a writer-in-residence at the Los Amigos Biological research station in the Peruvian Amazon. There is no getting out of this place without shame and disappointment in myself. Will I get used to this? What will happen in the next four weeks looming before me like a blank page?
The lights go out.
I know I am defenseless once I fall asleep. Something could crawl on me. But I’m craving ignorance more than anything. No more consciousness, please. I just want to abandon this fear. The jungle outside the screens is a rhythmic cacophony of frogs, crickets and other things.
I am both inside and outside, with jungle music all around me. I wish I could enjoy it, let the steady collage of noise sing me to sleep. But there are sounds coming from inside, too. The cicada is ricocheting around the room. For awhile it is sitting right next to me, on the other side of the net. The glorious net! Sleep would be inconceivable without it.
There are crawling, bumping and scratching sounds that seem to come from anywhere and everywhere. I fall asleep only to awake in the night to some serious activity that sounds like it’s coming from within the room.
Another marsupial? The high, pitched ceiling and open rafters make it difficult to tell where the sounds are coming from, and in the pitch blackness they might as well be right next to my bed. Please just let me fall asleep, I beg. And eventually, I do.
How have you ridden waves of fear when in a new environment? Share your stories below.