It’s always hard coming home from an adventure like the one I just went on to the Pantanal. It’s hard to put the events into words, hard to capture my feelings right away. I feel like this was a trip that deserves a good deal of written reflection, since it was a place very few people get to see, but at the same time, I’m very happy to put it behind me and to return to this life I lead here now.
Don’t get the idea that I didn’t like the Pantanal. I did, immensely. And until yesterday morning, when we were leaving it, I would have written this post with a great deal more enthusiasm, but my final image left me feeling at a loss, a deep loss, and with enormous misunderstanding about human behavior in what people call, “the grand scheme of things.”
I guess I’ll start with what was beautiful about the trip, and it was the only thing that was there really: nature. All kinds of it, in all sizes, and all over the place. Fifteen minutes after our arrival at the lodge, which was 25 hours and two bus rides after leaving Campinas, we found a baby anaconda in one of the lodge rooms. (Not ours; and if it had been in our room, I would have high-tailed it the hell out of there, regardless of how numb my bum would have been after another consecutive 25 hours on a bus.) There were green birds and black birds, and birds with red heads, and bright blue birds and huge tall white birds that could have towered over me. There were fat birds with beaks like hawks, and there were tiny hummingbirds that floated before our eyes. And then there were the insects that were as large as birds, one grasshopper in fact which was so large I refused to believe it was a grasshopper at all. In fact, it may have been a cricket. I still don’t know the difference.
And another thing I didn’t know the difference between, and even though I asked was never properly answered, is an alligator and a crocodile, of which there was one (either one) hunkered down in the water directly in front of our lodge. It spent all day there, either hiding out in the water away from the mosquitoes (themselves almost as large as birds) or on the grass sunbathing, one time with mouth so wide open I could see its huge teeth (“the better to eat you with, my dear!”) and all the way down through its belly to inside the tip of its tail. No, it wasn’t really a hollow alligator/crocodile/jacare/caiman, but I wasn’t about to get close enough to find out for certain. It was smaller than I’d imagined, but on a morning boat tour, we got to see some larger ones and I was in no rush to get close to them either.
We went walking one day through wetland. And I mean “wetland” in the most literal of ways: it was indeed very wet land. Up to my pockets on my jeans wet. I’m not crazy about walking around in puddles, so you can imagine my discomfort at hiking around in warm scummy water up to my pockets, and then getting out onto dry land and shaking off, much like a dog would, only to do it again moments later. This water had the smell of cow dung, or mule dung, and unless it was under the shade of leafy trees, was warm enough to take a bath in. However, in this water there were jacares and anacondas, so you can also imagine my desire to not take my time pondering the meaning of life while standing waist deep in this stuff, feeling my shoelaces catch on the reeds beneath me and imagining a giant slimy thing come up and choke me silently while my hiking partners took pictures of the howler monkeys hooting away up in the trees and pointing to hyacinth macaws. No, I did not feel at home in that water and was glad to be out of it, which happened after a good 3 hours of trudging around in it.
Ugh. I’m sounding unappreciative. That’s now how I mean to sound. I saw magical things there, I really did. I was there in the wet season, at just the right time to make it possible for me still to walk in the wetland instead of take a boat through it or to miss it altogether. I saw things I’ve never seen before, including a huge (foot and a half long maybe? two feet?) seed on a palm tree that, when cut open, and pulled out from its casing, produced the most marvelous white Christmas-tree looking thing I’d ever seen. I drank water from a tree branch: just chopped into the tree, pulled off a branch, held it to my mouth and felt the fresh, clean water drip into my throat. I saw a wasp nest attached to palm fronds. I saw little animals that look like raccoons play hide and seek with us. I saw so many good things.
But part of seeing nature is seeing the difficult parts, too. I saw the evidence of poisonous snakes in the form of scattered cow skeletons. All over the place. They were bleached white from the sun, sucked and scraped dry, and left as trash, the useless remains to the killer and to those who came later to scavenge. We saw vultures. Smelled rotting flesh somewhere off behind the tall marsh grasses.
In the evenings we went tubing down a fast-moving river and I kept my legs crossed and tucked up underneath me for fear of piranhas slicing me to death and of jacare snapping into my femurs. I crawled out of the river near the lodge where the jacare rested with his mouth open and was immediately assaulted by mosquitoes so hungry, so plentiful, it was like they hadn’t seen food since they were born seventeen minutes prior and I was their cornucopia. They were wide and brown and had legs longer than those we have up in the States. They were finer because of those legs, but I felt no shame in killing them as soon as I saw their forms alight from the sky and land upon the backs of my arms. They even pop and squirt blood better than the ones at home who seem to have a thicker, more resilient sac in which to store the blood. I took pleasure, I must admit, in seeing my blood smush across my arm along with their little bits of fine legs and wings.
And nighttime was loud. Above the noise of the fan that whirred and spun over our heads to keep the bugs off, I could still hear the screaming of the monkeys and the birds. In a way, the loud birds reminded me of living here in the city, with Brazilians yelling and singing at all hours of the night. I grew frustrated that first night not because of the noise of the birds but because of the noise of the couple in the room next to me who seemed to be completely oblivious to the fact that the walls were made of wood no thicker than popsicle sticks and therefore I could hear them. All. The. Time. Twice I went over and asked them to be quiet and the next day when I saw them, I apologized for having interrupted their conversation. The guy said, “Yeah, that’s no problem. That’s the first time anyone’s told me to shut the fuck up.” And I thought first, I didn’t tell him to “shut the fuck up,” and second, I wish I had because it sure sounded a lot more fun than saying, “Yeah, excuse me, um, the walls are really thin, and I’m trying to sleep, and I can hear everything, and if you’re going to talk can you please, please, just keep it down? Like, whisper? Thanks.”
The sunsets, the sunrises, all amazing, all bright and yellow and orange and purple. But that’s a cliche now, isn’t it? The other people at the lodge were a mixture of tourists (from Czech Republic, Ireland, England, Paris, Michigan, Argentina, Denmark, Peru) and the people who lived there, the “Indians,” our guide called himself. Our guide: the closest thing I’ve met to real live Dwight Shrute (“The Office” lovers will understand this comparison), complete with army fatigues, a huge knife that he was not afraid to pull out and brag about, and the mind-blowing Brazilian male confidence in flirting with a woman (one of the English girls, arm around her, planning on planting a kiss) while his wife was watching from the next room. (This last characteristic was not Dwight Shrute at all, I know.) He was all talk, all macho, even telling us the night before our wetland walk, “I like to hike hard. I like to hike for hours and sometimes you’re going to step on a jacare, and sometimes you’re going to step on an anaconda. I take you out there and we go hours, three and a half, four hours, no stopping.” And then in the morning, he actually pulled out a whistle and started marching, at 7:30, while I ate breakfast and looked at him through sleep-puffy eyes. I watched him the whole day noticing his seriousness, biting the inside of my cheeks when he turned to that English girl and asked, “What you think of this knife? You like it?” And she, being utterly and completely English, replied, “Why, yes. It seems to be getting the job done,” as politely as possible, perhaps totally unaware that what our guide really meant was, “Look at how much of a man I am. I have a huge knife. I want to mate with you.” Quite fitting, actually, for him to have been so primal about the whole thing, considering the next thing he did (and I can’t even make this up) was to start a fight with a howler monkey up in a tree.
Did I tell you yet that I cantered on a mule? Or, with a mule, I cantered? Or, the mule cantered and I was on the mule? How do I write that sentence? There was a mule that I took riding through the wetland, and he (or maybe a she, I don’t know) cantered. Her (or his?) name was Vinte (“twenty” in Portuguese.) I named it Vinte because it had that number burned onto its skin.
This was the Pantanal, and this is where my misunderstanding, my trouble with out there, with humans, with the meeting of humans and animals in general, begins. How can humans burn animals’ skin? How is it possible to separate oneself from another living being, so much so that one cannot feel bad about inflicting physical pain? This is not the last image I had; it’s not the one that troubled me so much as to almost entirely ruin all four days. What I saw instead is almost too painful for me to write about and it’s something I need a lot of help to figure out.
It turns out there was a cat. It was a little kitten, barely a month old. It was in the lodge, locked in a closet so it wouldn’t escape. I heard it mewing, I bent down to touch its paws as they poked out from beneath the blue wooden door—two little black hands reaching out for something. Apparently it had lost its mother. But why was it in the closet? It mewed through breakfast and I sat at the table closest to the blue door so I could hear it and be concerned about it. Moments later, a man and woman went in with a blue bucket and carried out the kitten in the blue bucket. I asked the woman what she was doing with it and what I understood was that there was no food for the cat there at the lodge, so they were going to let it out in the woods. She pointed to the dark woods nearby and while it was hard for me to swallow, I understood that that was an okay thing to do.
On the forty-minute ride down a dry bumpy dirt road toward the bus that would take us out of the Pantanal, the driver stopped. I looked around and saw on the edges of the road the tall green marsh grasses, remembered the three or four jacare that had crawled from the marsh to die on the road side. I saw the dust from the road hang in the air like a foggy brown sheet. The heat rose from the marsh, from the road, hung down from the sky itself, weighty. And out of the corner of my eye, I saw the blue bucket, the same one I’d seen the kitten carried away in. And I knew then that the little kitten wasn’t in the cool undergrowth of the forest near the lodge. The little thing had been carted away, forty minutes from there, down a bumpy dusty road, stuck in a blue bucket. And the driver opened the blue bucket and dropped the kitten off in the middle of the road to fend for itself. I saw its little black head go tottering off back in the direction from which we’d come. It must have been dizzy from the bumps, it must have not known where to go. I turned around to face forward and, before I could tell myself not to, had shed tears hotter than the air outside. How could that kitten know where to go? How could that kitten survive even one day?
I cried the rest of the car ride; I cried on the first bus, and I cried on the second bus. How could those people be so cruel as to send that little thing out into the wild where it was sure to be eaten by nightfall? Here’s what I wrote in my journal just moments after our driver dropped us off on the side of the road to wait for the bus:
Regardless if it meows or moos, it’s nature, and I should be glad to have seen it, been a part of it. But seeing those little black ears on that tiny black body head back toward home through the dust, I didn’t feel good…I’d like to find the beauty of that offering of the kitten, like with one tiny life in the claws of a vulture or in the jaws of a jacare life will continue and the Pantanal will thrive one day longer. There’s got to be some philosophical beauty, something that will make it seem alright. But there’s no beauty there. To me, there’s just no beauty there.
I imagined the kitten would grow up to be a puma. Even though it was black and looked nothing like a puma, I imagined it would one day be a super puma, one who hides out and stalks prey at night and survives and thrives in the Pantanal. I imagined this kitten hiding out from predators like the jacare and the vultures I’d seen over the days and I saw it grow up to be a lithe and fierce, strong and cunning big cat. It’s what I had to do to stop myself from feeling sad, and you can go ahead and laugh at me, but I tell you the truth.
And so it is, this trip to the Pantanal: it’s over. I can’t say I’m not glad to be back here. I am very, very glad to be back here. Choking back the tears glad.