Sunday, March 22, 2015

Part Two: Rumbling into a Mosquito Forest

By Conor King Devitt

After waiting at the San Cristobal airport for an hour or so, we hopped in a truck taxi and rumbled 45 minutes across a winding dirt road to the center of the island, dense tree foliage and huge, leafy plants lining the edges on either side (if you didn’t guess, that’s foreshadowing). The white truck climbed partway up the slope of San Cristobal’s volcano. It was the heart of the forest.
We were heading to a nonprofit volunteer camp called Jatun Sacha. Its focus was on habitat reforestation. Hardy volunteers and even hardier full-time employees planted constructive vegetation, cut back invasive weeds and lived simply, enjoying time spent not working with hot meals and hammock-based naps.
The volunteers’ primary enemy was a nasty plant known in Spanish as Mora, otherwise referred to as the common blackberry bush. Mora has devastated San Cristobal, destroying habitats and making it difficult for farmers to plant homegrown crops. The camp’s administrator, Lidia, informed us (through a translator) that the bush had covered 70 percent of the island’s landscape less than 20 years ago. Organizations like Jatun Sacha and agencies like the Galapagos National Park have reduced that percentage, but it is still very prevalent.
Jatun Sacha was the end of the road, and its volunteers represented the front lines of attack against Mora on the south central section of the island. Volunteers would often spend their mornings and afternoons hacking at the sharp-needled plant with machetes, mosquito-netted hats protecting their faces from bites and their scalps from the harsh island sun.       
It’s going to be hard to write a story from up here.
The camp consisted of several open-air wooden and bamboo structures. Our lodging was a two-story building with a large second-floor deck and several partitioned rooms, each with a mosquito net-protected bed. That was a necessity. The bugs swarmed with fury.
The deck table’s scribbled graffiti advertised the personalities of previous volunteers.

“Smell bad together…
Become beautiful together.”

“Find your personal legend.”

”Live to Love.”

“Cream Cheese 4 lyfe.”

No work was required of us the first afternoon. One of the regular workers, Chicho, led us on a creek-scaling hike through the forest. He didn’t speak any English and we spoke even less Spanish, but we managed to forge some communication.
Chicho, 26, lives at the camp with his partner, Fernanda, 20, and their giggling 2-year-old child, Mateo. Chicho has lived in the Galapagos his whole life and has worked at Jatun Sacha for two months. He’d been employed in several other hard labor fields previously, and his face and stride portrayed the hard-nosed toughness of a man unafraid to sweat.  
At one point during the hike, Chicho stopped and looked at an overhanging tree. He saw something.
Raising his worn machete, he cut down a small, perched guava. He sliced off the rounded ends and then split it in half, investigating its contents. Not satisfied, he tossed it and cut another, repeating the process. This one seemed to meet his requirements, and he handed the split fruit to Marc and me.
“Guava,” he said.
It tasted amazing. I was snacking on guava probably around 30 steps earlier in the process than I ever had before.
We continued the tiring hike, sweat bleeding through my only set of clothes (I was hopeful my bag would arrive the next morning). First we trekked to a mid-sized waterfall and then a hillside vista, overlooking one corner of the island. Sandwiched between draping clouds and milky blue ocean, the horizon was indistinguishable and captivating.
On the way back Chicho once again paused, eyeing a piece of fruit hanging from a tall tree to the left of the trail. This one was out of reach. He turned to his right and sliced down a long branch from a different tree. After skinning the branch of splintering limbs, he cut it into three sections.
Fwoop! Chicho javelined the first piece of branch towards the fruit, missing but shaking up the branch. Fwoop! The second one made contact, almost severing it from its perch. Fwoop! As if predestined, the third cleanly knocked the fruit from its limb. Satisfied, Chicho wordlessly tromped off the trail and picked up the prize.
“Agua,” he said, pointing at the machete. I dribbled some of the water out of my bottle and he spread it over the blade. Then he quartered the fruit – a rotund, yellowish orange.
Again, he handed the contents to Marc and me. I handed a section back to him.
“Here,” I said, laughing. “You’re the one who actually deserves this.”
Smiling, he took the slice of orange and lifted it appreciatively for a short second. Then he turned and continued hiking down the trail. In an effort to not get left behind, Marc and I inhaled our sections – again, they tasted amazing.

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