By Conor King Devitt
I stared through the open gap in the airport wall where pushed luggage was appearing.
“C’mon, they said it would be here. C’mon!”
Suitcases. Beige, black and yellow. Backpacks of all colors. Industrial travel boxes. But no pistachio-colored duffel bag, the receptacle for a borrowed $500 camera and all of my damn clothes.
Sweat from the stress and disappointment greased my already filthy t-shirt and jeans as I watched with sinking dread as more and more bags were shoved around the racetrack.
“It ain’t coming today.”
I had communicated to the people at Jatun Sacha shortly after my arrival on Sunday that I would need to taxi back to town the following morning to reclaim my bag. The airline people had told me it was coming in then, and I was wishfully hopeful they were telling the truth. I had worn the same clothes through five airports, two nations and a sweaty island hike.
At 8 a.m. on Monday morning Marc and I burned another twenty rumbling 45 minutes back to town. I walked up to the airport to check flight times. The day’s flight was landing around 1 pm, so we had a few hours to kill in town.
We taxied to a beach close to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and got our first taste of the islands’ biological idiosyncrasy. Unafraid sea lions lounged on the beach, occasionally dipping into the ocean to cool off and swim. Rigid marine iguanas crawled over the spiky, volcanic rocks. Blue-footed boobies and prominent pelicans scanned the waves, hunting for their next underwater target. Sunbathing travelers hiked around and snapped pictures. Out on one of the beach’s jutting points, a sea lion slept curled-up on the bright red indoor staircase of a retired lighthouse. To the west, the town’s harbor looked jammed with touristy skiffs, luxury cruises and an industrial freighter. As an overall spectacle, it was a bizarre array of ecology, modernity and tourism.
After a few hours, we walked back into town. Marc elected to explore more, eager to harvest some footage. I lumbered back up to the airport for the third time in two days and watched as happy travelers claimed their luggage.
My bag didn’t come.
Angry, I walked back into town. On my way, a tropical rainstorm struck with immediacy, soaking the island and any of its outdoor inhabitants. It felt refreshing to have some of the grime washed from my clothes, but my mood still mirrored the dark clouds trembling over my head.
I walked into the lobby of the mint-green Hotel Northia, a partner of the Jatun Sacha camp. Ruth, a Swiss lady helping out at the hotel, said she would check the airport for me tomorrow so I wouldn’t have to taxi back and forth again.
Ruth turned out to be godsend during our week in the islands. Fluent in several languages, she helped Marc and I navigate several tricky situations made even more difficult due our absent knowledge of basic Spanish (Marc studied the language a few years in high school and could comprehend a few words here and there; I knew little more than “hola,” “gracias” and “buenos.”).
Ruth said one of the locals affiliated with the camp was friends with a fisherman, and that they could try and organize an interview for later in the week. I was extremely thankful – any progress on a potential story was promising, especially considering our remote home location in the forest.
Another truck transported us back to the camp, where we donned mosquito nets and began assisting Chicho with filling up Big Gulp-sized bags of soil. Mateo, his two year-old son, and Ariel, his 12 year-old nephew, also helped with process.
It was fascinating watching little Mateo stumble with a bag of soil the size of his torso over to the area where they were being stockpiled. Chicho didn’t force Mateo to do any work, and he spent a good portion of his time bounding playfully around the area like any giggling toddler should.
However, he already seemed to be instilled with the value to contribute. Everyone was stuffing these little black bags – the two German volunteers, Ariel, Chicho, Marc and I – and Mateo didn’t want to be any different. Watching him, I realized as a young child he would already be well-versed in the ability to work hard – a virtue I wasn’t literate in until my mid-teens.
Lidia, the camp administrator, loaned me some random articles of clothing left behind by previous volunteers. It felt nice to be in a fresh t-shirt and clean jeans, but I was still worried about the camera.
Later that night, while playing cards with the two German gals, a huge crash reverberated throughout the forest. Marc, the two Germans and I ran down to where the sound originated from – the lean-to shed we had sat and filled bags in for several hours earlier in the day. It was leveled to the ground, collapsed under the stormy night wind.
Glad that didn’t happen while we were sitting under it.
The next morning we prepped to continue the war with Mora. Machetes were sharpened, black boots were dusted off, gloves were slid on. As we began to march up the hill to the front lines, the camp’s landline phone rang. Lidia indicated it was for me.
Ruth’s voice crackled through the speaker phone.
“Co-nore, the airline people said your bag will hopefully come in today,” she said. “If it does, I will send it up with a taxi.”
A bit relieved (but far from certain), I caught up to my fellow machete-wielders and began the morning hack. The sun was undiluted and hungry as we cut our way through white, jagged Mora branches dominating the hillside. Our arms bled from a cacophony of small-needled cuts and ripped-open mosquito bites. The work was difficult but also tangibly rewarding. Looking back, you could admire the decapitated path you carved through the pest plant.
After a few hours we retreated for lunch and a break. In the afternoon, Lidia offered us two options – we could begin rebuilding the storm-crushed shed or hike to one of the highest points on the island. Eager to enjoy and film a 360-degree panorama, we all elected for the hike.
Marc hiked with his camera in hand, running back and forth along the trail to get shots of the hikers and the environment. I lugged the tri-pod over my shoulder, hopeful the peak would offer a good landscape for some elegant stand-ups.
It wasn’t any easy jaunt. Pressed against a sharp, often muddy incline, we hiked for well over an hour, at times crouched through cutting, overhead brush. Occasionally, Chicho would hoist Ariel on his shoulders, lifting him above the brush line to ensure we were climbing in the right direction.
As we neared the pinnacle, a thick film of stony clouds rolled in, reducing our view to a few dozen yards. At the top I unslung the tripod and planted myself in the caked dirt, gazing at the mass of grey in every direction.
Marc and I were reduced to laughing. The fog had cemented the idea of a trip that seemed doomed by a string of small, compounding misfortunes. After sitting in the light rain for a few minutes, we deduced the clouds weren’t in the mood to leave anytime soon and decided to walk back down the slope.
Partway down we broke through the cloud layer and smiled at the refreshing view of blue ocean. It wasn’t the peak, but it was something. Marc propped up the tri-pod and snagged of the few shots of the south-central coastline. We took what we could get.
After hiking back through the area we cleared of Mora, we stopped and lounged in the open-air dining hall, tired from the expedition. From the edge of my perspective I witnessed Fernanda coming down the other hill from her living quarters. She was carrying something.
I ran up to her, smiling. She beamed and handed me my duffel bag, camera and all. I hi-fived her and joyously hoisted the bag above my head, exalting in the happiness of one gained comfort.