I’m sitting on a tarp beneath a mosquito net on the western edge of the Peruvian Amazon. A day of waiting for the monkeys to appear – “Bring a book,” Mini suggests, “otherwise you’re likely to fall asleep.” Sitting in my little bug-free cone, I do get drowsy. The muggy air penetrates what mosquitoes, grasshoppers, and startlingly large red ants can only shuiffle around on in search of a good hole (cleverly covered with duct tape). I am embarrassingly ambivalent about the magic of what is going on aroud me. In the bird song and titi calls, I could discover a thousand dramas – instead, I read a dystopic novel. In the interactions of the three different kinds of ant on my net, I could learn brutal military tactics, but I am content to nibble on some chocolate covered saltines (probably the reason they’re drawn here, anyway).
Rustling in the dry leaves below a liana catches my attention in spurts over the course of an hour. I see movement through the mesh, but can’t ascribe it to anything specific. Sure that it’s not a monkey, and reasonably sure it’s not a snake, I let the noise fade into the background until finally – a giant toad hops out slowly and laboriously. Literally the size of a dinner plate, flat and brown with huge unblinking eyes, he sits and catches his beath, making one good hop every five minutes or so until he has passed out of my sight. I’ve seen other toads like him on the path to my cabin. Their eyes glow purple when they catch my headlight, and they freeze when they know they’ve been seen. They don’t seem too concerned with defense mechanisms, apparently trusting camouflage and a definite air of “I will not be very tasty” to protect them from whatever comes calling.
A little while later, I am distracted from my collection of wildlife essays by movement out of the corner of my eye. I watch a quarter-size spider delicately climb up the mosquito net, hooking each leg into a different hole and gliding past eye level. Last night, Marco brought out a tarantula to show to a visiting group of students. Black fur on an impossibly large body and many-segmented legs with pink fuzzy feet (tarantula slippers) moved from his arm to my hand, crawled up to my elbow and back down to settle over my watch, not really interested in leaving. Eventually, Marco coaxed the spider back, leaving my arm with a vague sensation of lingering spider webs and prickly feet.
I have resolved to know more about everything next time I am in a forest. I’m almost three months in the Puervian Amazon and, though I can speak with certainty about monkeys I’ve seen three or four times, I can’t identify the brilliantly colored grasshoppers with wings that scatter every time I take a step. I can pick out titis and emperor tamarins in the early morning choir of animals waking up, but I can only name one or two of the birds I hear every day. Trees my monkeys eat from regularly are identifiable, but what good are Naucleopsis naga and Inga alba in an entire forest? And, while a constant smile and a smattering of regular Spanish verb conjugations are helpful, I get so frustrated when it is HARD to explain that yesterday morning, the monkeys climbed down an embankment and we followed them. Next time, I will be prepared. I will speak the language, I will hear the sounds. When I have the chance to spend a whole morning in the middle of it all without trying to keep up with small, speedy primates and just watch and absorb – I will leave the books behind.