A Grievous Misinterpretation While Hiking in the Colombian Jungle

[Not so informative yet charming personal essay]

When I look back at the pictures I always marvel at the natural beauty of this place, a jungle-y type of forest in the Colombian highlands, near a resort that is famous for its natural hot springs and woodsy summer cabin aesthetic. I spent a weekend there with my friend Pam and her mother when I went to visit them in the summer of 2007.

Pam and I had one very charming thing in common at the time, if I may say so myself. We were both terrified (and I mean shaking in our little space boots and peeing our pants as we run away, terrified) of sketchy men following us around, laying eyes on us, attempting to talk to us, and generally just existing around us. Now that we are both in our twenties this quirk has improved, but still persists to a degree that I can only call helpful and conducive to increased personal safety. It used to be what I can only call schizophrenically paranoid.

At what was the shining zenith of this schizophrenic paranoia, I visited Pam in Colombia, and we decided to go on a five-hour nature hike in the jungle-y forest surrounding the idyllic summery cabin hotel that I mentioned above. We had no idea when we signed up for it that we would be led into the jungle woods alone, by a man possibly in his thirties who worked for the hotel. We assumed it was a group expedition and that a lot of other people, maybe even an annoying amount of people, would be joining us. We decked ourselves out in pants, tennis shoes, baggy ironic t-shirts, and other totally inappropriate outerwear for the hours-long hike, and arrived in the lobby smiling and excited. When the concierge introduced us to the man who would lead the hike, we saw nothing that sketchy in him at first, and set out on the adventure, waving goodbye to her mother excitedly, chins up, peppy spirits at full throttle, and probably in our minds trailed by your typical camping-movie flute music.

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We began the hike by going uphill through ravines and gorges covered in mud, and were immediately dumbstruck by the sheer beauty of it all; the all-encompassing lushness of the greenery, the enormity of the trees, the fullness of the swollen green vines that hung heavily from everything and were thick enough to swing from, and then, after about twenty minutes, by the unforgivable stupidity of walking into the woods alone with some strange man. Pam was struck first with awareness of our miscalculated move, and as the guide proceeded to chirpily climb up some rocks and explain nature stuff, she pulled me aside and said something along the lines of, “I have just become aware of the unforgivable stupidity we are guilty of by walking into the woods alone with some strange man.” I am paraphrasing her. And I replied wide-eyed, something along the lines of “Fuck chield (a nickname for each other that is a mispronounced version of child, with a Latin inflexion), this situation is kind of uncool.” Again, I paraphrase, and also make myself sound cooler. After this realization, we essentially fantasized, whispering and horrified, about all the different types of ways in which he could kill or rape us and dispose of our bodies in these beautiful surroundings exploding with natural wonder for about 4 minutes, as we rigidly walked a couple of meters behind him, occasionally bumping into a vine.

We actually talked about canceling the hike and going back to the hotel, but then Pam, always more of a voice of reason, rationalized that he was after all hired by the hotel, and had probably done this a couple of times without being responsible for anybody’s disappearance in a provable way, so we decided to stay. Also, her mom had already paid for the hike and of course it was rude and crazy to run back after only thirty minutes, before the guy had actually wielded any sort of axe or machete (the death scenario we were looking out for as we had deemed it the most probable).

After a while of hiking, we arrived at the mouth of a river, and followed it until we came upon an enclosure full of shinning black rocks, crowned by an enormous and incredible waterfall, gushing through huge slabs of stone and mud that sprouted long tropical leaves and ferns from their watery walls.

After climbing across the rocks we took off our inappropriate outerwear and swam in the pond fed by the waterfall, in water so cool and fresh to the touch that I couldn’t help drinking it, reservations about water hygiene be damned. We swam and floated in that cool pond for a while, looking upwards towards the foamy sky. The circle of blueness mirrored the shape of the pond, since the trees growing around it drew an outline in multicolored leaves against the sun, breaking only for the rocky wall and rushing water.  I felt like this must be my second happy place and even forgot all about the threat of dying as I languidly looked up at the sky and our own personal waterfall, feeling all sorts of epic and happy. We even got the guy to take some pictures of us attempting to climb the waterfall, so mesmerized by this place that we forgot how scared we were of strange men taking pictures of us in bikinis, even if it was with our own cameras. After floating for a good long while, and splashing and swimming around like joyful fairies as one does in the Colombian jungle woods, the guide showed us that the bubbly mud gathering at the edge of the pond could be used as mud to cover our skin with and naturally, a mud fight ensued. When we emerged from the pond, much less paranoid than before, we started putting on our clothes and once dressed, followed him into another clearing, maintaining the uphill direction of the hike. I arrived at the clearing a bit before Pam and as I remarked on some cool-looking plant growing out of a log, the guide told me something about its genus and then distinctively winked at me, with cold, hard, undeniable precision, my schitzo paranoia notwithstanding.

“Pame, Pame!” I whispered, ten minutes later, after he had proceeded to wink at me for a second time. “I think this dude is hitting on me!

Unlike people who revel when their paranoia and craziness becomes justified by events, no matter how coincidental or unlikely, the justification of our worries gave us absolutely no pleasure of any kind. It filled us with panic, and I could feel my stomach slushing with dread as we walked along through the barely discernible trail along the river.

I think it was actually worse for us that our worries were becoming true, since we had no plan for what to do when some creepy dude actually started hitting on us and we couldn’t run away. Perhaps if this had been a situation where we could have said, “Aha! Our worries have materialized, good thing we are prepared for this situation and haven’t just wasted our energy by stressing over this without ever actually saving the phone number for the police or anything that might help us. Now, let’s disarm and immobilize him, as we had planned, and took that very helpful online course for.”  

In reality we hiked, and hiked, and hiked, following him while clutching at each other occasionally, half really into the nature and half ready to stab him with a stick insect or choke him with a vine, which seemed really impractical but represented the only potential weapons available at the time.

As we continued hiking, our faces now somewhat covered in mud, I realized my ill-advised choice of pants were beginning to betray me. They were black, stretchy and wide, hanging from my hips by only a flimsy elastic, and had once belonged to my mother, in fact, I probably borrowed them without her permission, on account of how comfortable the flowy fabric that did not cling to anything felt against my skin. After swimming in the pond enclosure we had simply put our clothes back on, on top of our wet swimsuits, or at least I did, I cannot vouch for Pam who packs and prepares so much better than me (see future trip to Berlin). Soon after the guide winked at me a second time, I was thoroughly in deep shit in terms of my pants situation, which had become soaked through with mud and water and were now hanging heavily and uncomfortably from my thighs. The water had also expanded the fabric, so that the elongated bottom of the pants caught beneath the bottoms of my shoes, making me trip and stumble, a noticeable hazard in case of any axe or machete murdering attempt on the part of the guy who was now winking at me and sure to be kidnapping us soon, and making us join an evil cult while locked in an underground bunker.

“Pame, Pame,” I probably called out again, “dude what do I do? My pants are totally messing me up,  I keep tripping on them.”

“That’s not good,” she said, as she shook her head from side to side, “how are we gonna run away if he tries anything?”

“Shit, I don’t know,” I said, “does this sweatshirt cover my butt?” I asked, while swerving around to let her admire my impeccable derrière (French: classy).  

“Yeah, it’s super long,” she confirmed.  

“Aha,” I thought as I took my pants off. It’s really a testament to how uncomfortable I was that I walked around behind an alleged machete murderer/rapist/cult participant in only a really long sweatshirt, rain boots, and a muddy black turban made from my discarded pants, so that I wouldn’t have to carry the damn things around, or be bogged down by them in case of emergency. The pictures, by the way, are hilarious. Not only are we both covered in mud,  terrified, carrying around a hitchhiking stick insect, and eating the transparent slime off of a plant whose spiraling branches collect water in an encasing of drinkable goo, but I am also wearing a huge black turban made from repurposed mom pants. Later on, we came across a different type of red healing mud and covered our faces in it completely, thereby solidifying the image that we were jungle children, once lost by our parents, and now totally at home in the wilderness. We are even playing “jungle flutes” in some of these photos because we found a plant that produced a cool sound when you blow through its hollow inside. I think I even attempted to play the camping movie flute music we chirpily envisioned when we set on the hike, before any sketchy winking had taken place. I can say with immense pride that these images are, to this day, still up on Facebook.

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The hike continued inconspicuously along the river after the discovery of the plant flutes and hitchhiking stick insect, until we arrived at a thatched-roof observatory deck where we could admire the volume of the swollen river. It was at this point that the sketchy man also started winking at Pam. Being as it was that we were alone with this winking man in a place we now really wanted to trek through completely, we devised a set of guidelines to help us survive: We walked behind him at all times, and kept a lookout for vines, sharp stones, hard seeds, and other objects we could hurl at him at any given moment. It would have been a smart move to ask him to carry our cameras and some stuff so as to impair his mobility and keep his hands busy, but that either seemed rude or I was not much of a strategic thinker back then. Pam and I worriedly shuffled through the forest, passing rotten-egg smelling hot springs with overwhelming deposits of sulfur, and bursting cold waterfalls that came down from the mountains, occasionally meeting the exact spots where hot spring water was belched out of the ground amongst vaporous clouds. All the while of course we were totally and utterly freaking out that this man was winking at us.

“What do you think it means?” I innocently whispered.

“I don’t know, maybe he’ll ask us out or something creepy like that when we’re back in the hotel,” Pam speculated.

We kept trying to understand what the winks could mean or imply, but didn’t really come close to a probable explanation. See the thing is he repeated himself a lot, and used a couple of the same words over and over again which made him seem nervous and jumpy, which unnerved us, but he didn’t actually attempt anything or make any remarks to further his advances on us. All of this made us worry even more: would he at some point propose a jungle threesome with two innocent and unsuspecting teenage girls from the hotel? Maybe. We didn’t know. We were just young and naïve, and trying not to be rude (which by the way is a ridiculous concern  when some total stranger is out there jungle winking at you inappropriately), and into the hike and all the nature, unlike anything I had ever seen before. Colombia is beautiful. I still remember driving up to the cabin hotel and being amazed by asymmetric and shining green cliffs and enormous coffee plantations, sometimes covered in banana trees which provide the grains with just the right amount of shade. The place is all lushness and smiles, from its people to its landscapes. Vistas and coffee beans aside, as we proceeded to traipse around the forest, the winking began getting worse, ever more prevalent. Our consensus was that we were being tested, or he was testing the water so to speak, maybe to make friends, but in our minds obviously to propose or attempt something completely indecorous. We began discussing asking him to turn back, and we must have asked how much time was left about ten times or so. I think Pam also kept texting her mom, as we panicked and tried to go faster whenever we were in sections of the forest with no signal, which were most of them. Waterfall after waterfall, we’d forget momentarily all about the guide being weird, but then he’d wink at one of us (this was an hours-long hike that allowed for plenty of winking) and we’d spiral into panic mode all over again.

When he finally announced, “and this is where we start trekking downhill to get to the hotel again! You guys must be hungry,” and looked blankly at both of us at a slightly lower angle than he’d been before (remember it had all mostly been uphill and we’d attempted to stay behind him) we realized something that neither one of our paranoid minds had allowed the possibility for: as he spoke, his left eye twitched uncontrollably, letting us clearly see that the winking was a nervous tick, worsened by being directly in the sun and strenuous physical activity, and we’d done both to a point where he couldn’t help but wink continuously.

Our immediate reaction was to burst out laughing. We both came to the same conclusion at exactly the same time and of course laughing was the only thing we could do to release the tension of worrying about our imminent deaths for the past four hours. I think he might have mistaken our laughter as mean-spirited mockery of his tick, because he looked very uncomfortable and the winking got worse immediately. Still, we couldn’t really tell him or explain to him what we had thought all along, because making direct references to somebody’s nervous ticks or acknowledging one’s own schizophrenic paranoia both seemed like socially unacceptable or at least socially questionable things to do. We simply tried to chat more and be friendlier on the way down and out of the forest, breaking down into laughter every once in a while because how could we not after our grievous misinterpretation of the poor dude’s winking. I think some part of us, barely teenage and in my case a little pudgy and turban wearing, flattered ourselves by thinking and being scared that older guys would hit on us all the time. It’s a perfectly reasonable thing to be sacred about, but not twenty-four seven the way we were. To be really real, older guys never ever paid attention to me, I could use the more-flattering, rarely paid attention to me, but it wouldn’t be true. Maybe they did pay more attention to super tall and long-legged Pam, but I essentially looked like a child until I turned about twenty. When an older guy did pay attention to me, a Tibetan guy, with sweet-eyes, striking cheekbones, and a jawline for fucking months, it was one of the first times in my life that a guy’s attention didn’t make me wildly uncomfortable, as this whole story about the misinterpreted winking goes to illustrate, but more about that later, when we’re out of the woods. In reality, the guy who led us into the forest in Colombia that day was a puny weakling, much shorter than Pam, and we could have easily overpowered him (unless it turned out that he was carrying that axe or machete after all), or we could have stopped to ask ourselves how bad it was if in fact he was trying to flirt with us. Couldn’t we just say no and blow him off? These are all the cooler-girl things we didn’t know, like how to turn down or deal with the alleged attention of older guys. What we did know was how to buy plane and train tickets, book awesomely cheap hotels on onetime deals, jet off to places we’d never been, make friends all over the world, and yes, run away from sketchy situations from time to time. This is actually the basic reason we met and became friends at an international boarding school. Liking travel is far better than liking older guys, and, if you ask me, the latter skill-set has served us both all the better 😉 

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