I spent the day yesterday hiking around Barro Colorado — the Smithsonian Institute’s research island in the middle of the Panama Canal. This was my first rain forest experience, and I’m both glad I went and much more aware of how totally un-equipped I am for tropical living.
To be fair, I’m not genetically designed for the tropics. My 23andMe results make it clear that I consist entirely of Scandinavian and Northern European stock. And not to make any broad, sweeping, stereotypical generalizations or anything, but I’m pretty convinced said heritage is to blame for the way my system basically shuts down when it gets over 80° Fahrenheit (or 27° Celcius, if we’re being worldly).
This trip to Panama is my first venture to anywhere truly tropical. Before this week, the most “tropical” place I’d been was probably Orlando, Florida, which I think we can all agree doesn’t count. So, in spite of living in the American South the past few years, I definitely didn’t have an appropriate appreciation for what “humidity” really means… this week changed that.
I remember being pretty enamored of the rain forest as a kid — in love with all drawings and pictures of exotic animals and plants. But all those lessons and books and TV specials really didn’t convey how freakin’ hot it is in there.
It’s so hot. So, so hot. Like, I kinda wanted to lay down and die hot. That may have been somewhat related to my finishing off my water more than an hour before the hike ended. But still. Jungle warfare is now, truly, my worst nightmare.
Beyond the heat, though, nature has equipped the rain forest with myriad layers of self protection. The on-going refrain of yesterday’s hike was “don’t touch the forest,” because you never know what it might do to you. From the vicious spikes on much of the flora to the mind-boggling number of insects, there are so many small ways for the jungle to kill (or at least maim) you. There are also crocodiles — which, even when viewed behind glass at a zoo we visited last week, inspire a gut-level, reflexive terror in me. And snakes. And big cats. And did I mention the bugs?! (I have been metaphorically mainlining Benadryl all week thanks to the mosquito bites I’ve continued to acquire regardless of how much bug spray I use).
However! As miserable and sweaty and dehydrated as I got, I’m incredibly glad I went. I got to see a new kind of Nature yesterday, and got to be deeply inspired and moved by the magic of the natural world. I still (and always will) prefer the colder nature of more northern climes, but the tropics are damn impressive.
There were monkeys close enough to drop into our arms; birds of all shapes, sizes, and colors calling to each other in the trees; agoutis trotting across the paths like it was no big thing. Butterflies everywhere. Reptiles and amphibians at every turn. And too many shades of green to properly wrap my head around.
In short, my trip to the rainforest was sublime in the Burkean sense: “The passion caused by the great and the sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.”