It was a balmy, perfect day. Jenny and I left the field station at dawn for a morning of data collection in the ocean. We hiked the trail to her field site at a good clip; it was challenging, with more obstacles than a military training course. Old, half-rotted ropes and roots were the only assistance to scale rock faces, slippery boulders were the only path across rivers with rushing white waters. It was beautiful, but difficult with bags full of sampling gear.
At the head of a long curve of sandy beach, we stashed our clothing and heavy hiking boots in a copse of heavy vegetation up a small rocky cliff. I scaled it barefoot and pulled branches and leaves over the things we were leaving behind before jumping down. We continued a few more kilometers, barefoot in our bathing suits on the sand.
I stayed on the shore to watch over our sampling equipment while Jenny swam out to set up some cameras on the coral. It took her much longer than she expected and, while she was gone, I entertained myself by climbing into the canopy of a nearby tree.
Almost magically, a group of four Scarlet Macaws landed in my tree, feeding on seeds all around me, almost close enough to touch. I’m not sure how long I watched them, mesmerized by their stunning colours, deafened by their screeches, but eventually they flew off, leaving me to the pulse of the ocean waves hitting the shore and a faint cool breeze in the leaves. Completely at home, I drifted off to sleep in the branches.
I was woken some time later by a call from below. I woke with a start, glad for the arm I had looped around a branch that prevented me from tumbling to the ground. I jumped to a crouch and peered groggily down at the owner of the voice.
I should mention at this point that I was wearing nothing but a bathing suit.
The tourist below me waved and repeated his, “Hey!” I was feeling a bit vulnerable, so I responded to his hail with a wary nod.
“Are these waters good?” he asked and, when I hesitated, he added, “Are they clear? Lots of coral? Lots of fish?”
I was still sleepy and wary and barely managed a, “Yes, very clear. Today.”
He was American and he kept chattering at me. He had left his snorkeling gear in his hotel. He had tried snorkeling elsewhere but the water was not clear and the waves were too rough. He jabbered on and I shifted uncomfortably, not speaking but nodding occasionally.
I think I must have seemed very unfriendly now that I look back on it from the comfort of my own home, but that was in fact the message that I wanted to communicate. I was alone, kilometers from my clothes and shoes, and even farther from help at the biological station. Here was a stranger who wouldn’t leave me alone.
After an eternity, he gave up and left. I watched him go and waited a while before climbing down to check on the sampling gear I had stowed in a hollow tree trunk. It wasn’t long before Jenny came back and we headed out together to sample the coral and record mussel damage.
A few hours later, I had to head back to the biological station to set up a bait for Euglossine bees. Jenny was supposed to come back with me, but she wanted to get more sampling done. I didn’t want to leave her alone, but she insisted and I reluctantly gave in. I promised to return as soon as possible with food, as she had neglected to bring any.
I hiked the long stretch of beach back to my stored clothing, clambered into the dense thicket, and peeled off my wet bathing suit, which had rubbed several awkward spots raw. I pulled on a shirt and shorts over my bare skin and hurled my boots out of the brush before shimmying ungracefully back down the rock face.
Imagine my surprise when I heard someone exclaim, “You again!”
I turned. My feet were bare, my hair wild with wind and sea, my skin salty from the ocean, and my knees bloody from kneeling on sharp rocks. It was the same friendly tourist from earlier.
I was, again, feeling vulnerable. After all, not long ago I had been naked in the bush above where we now spoke. I pushed my glasses back up onto the bridge of my nose and looked at him unhappily, keenly aware of the way my shirt stuck to my wet skin. He stood between me and my boots.
“Where are you staying?”
I tried stepping around him to get to my boots, but he stepped in my way. “The biological station,” I replied, ducking in the other direction and scooping up my boots and socks.
“Biological station?” he tilted his head to one side, “Where is that?”
“Down the trail…a few kilometers,” I gestured vaguely at the nearby trail. He stepped closer and I stepped back, sitting down a little too quickly on the prop roots of a coconut palm to put on my socks.
“How many kilometers?” he asked, sitting down next to me. “I hiked that way and didn’t see a station.”
I shook my head, “I’m not sure.” I didn’t make eye contact, trying to appear cool and calm, though my heart was pounding.
“Are you a student?” he asked.
“What university are you from?”
The questions continued. I tried to respond as shortly as possible.
I stood up abruptly once I had my boots on. “What’s this in your hair?” he asked, reaching out to touch my hair. I stepped quickly out of his reach and put a hand to my hair, pulling out a leaf from the brush.
“Just a leaf,” I said unsteadily.
“I thought it might be a decoration.”
I shook my head and waved mutely goodbye, trying not to run into the forest. His eyes followed me, but I don’t think he did. I could feel my heart pounding as I hiked along stiffly. After a moment, a thought occurred to me.
Jenny, doing field work alone in the ocean was gorgeous, a blonde-haired blue-eyed beauty. I am homely at best…if he would bother me that way, how would he react if he ran into her?
I ended up sprinting the four kilometers back to the biological station, scrambling back up cliff faces, bounding recklessly over the slippery boulders in my rubber boots, thumping along through the understorey with both hands holding tight to my backpack’s straps.
I arrived back at the station flushed and sweating. Danny, whose job it was to look after the students, was concerned, he wanted me to rest and drink water. I obliged by grabbing a bottle of water before I sprinted off again, this time heading up onto the rainforest ridge to set up my Euglossine bee bait.
With that done, I dashed back down from the ridge, grabbed some food for Jenny and shoved it into my bag before sprinting back alone the shoreline trail to rescue her. I didn’t want to tell anyone else about my unfounded fears. She was capable and competent, she had traveled alone. And the tourist wasn’t evil, just friendly.
But I didn’t stop running until I saw her heading slowly back along the beach, hauling the sampling gear. I breathed a sigh of relief and traded her the food I had brought for the gear. “Let me carry that,” I said.
“Are you sure? You look exhausted,” but she was too grateful for the food to question further.
I felt nothing but relief as we hiked back at a slower pace. She hadn’t run into the friendly tourist.
The encounter must have bothered me more than I realised at the time. I had no appetite for dinner that night. And, clearly, I am still thinking about it now, weeks later.
Why was I so afraid of him? He didn’t really do anything wrong. Then again, why didn’t he pick up my clues to leave me alone? Would you bother a person who was so unfriendly to you?
I guess I am still trying to understand it, and that is why I wrote the whole story up. I am wondering if I am just paranoid, whether my avoidance of interaction was a phobia or well founded. I don’t think I’ll ever know.
I must admit that humans are still the only animal I truly fear.