From Nighthawk to Night Walk
Our guide cleared her throat to deliver the first of her many unignorable instructions. ‘This is an eco tour and throughout this tour we demand eco- minded behaviour. This is a night walk as you might have noticed due to the lack of daylight. You must carry a torch. Torches will be provided. You may not use your torch unless i instruct you. You may not talk as it disturbs the animals. I will talk throughout to let you know where the animals were yesterday and the many months preceding. I will also speculate as to where you might see mammals tomorrow.’
In hindsight she might also have said ‘One thing i can pretty much guarantee is that you will not see any mammals tonight. But i cannot tell you that as you have paid $25 to see things other than trees and spiders and caterpillars. I have been guiding this night tour for 23 years and my script is finely honed. Questions may only be of the frequently asked variety and must be aways on topic.”You must wear rain gear as you are in a cloud forest where 90% of trees never see the sun, just as much as 90% of visitors to our biodiversity experience never see anything mammalian either. We are all in this together, the trees and us. You may see a tarantula.’
In fact we grow to learn that everyone sees the this tarantula though we are led to believe that we are the lucky plucky few. ‘Watch while I poke a stick in her hole. Watch her come out now.’ Just as she does everyday right on time. Showtime for Mimi the tarantula. Someone speculates that the spider is actually mechanical. Someone else suggests that she is on a sponsorship deal with a daily dose of crickets delivered earlier. We are told that she has ten legs and eight eyes. I hum ‘Eye of the Spider’ which adds some agreeable dramatic tension to Mimi’s suspiciously choreographed display.
Of all the myriad trees in all of the forest she suddenly shines her light into a random bush only to reveal with a gasp of astonishment the tiniest toucan in existence.’Look look’ she whispers in her best David Attenborough tone, ‘we are so lucky! We have stumbled on a sleeping toucan. It looks just like a tennis ball’. It is yellow, slightly fluffy ‘all curled up with its head buried under its wing as it sleeps.’ We stare for a while. It looks too much like a tennis ball for comfort. ‘Second service’ cries some apostate at the back who is promptly told to shut up. Mimi retreats inside her hole for another night.
A domestic cat follows us throughout the trip, its two (not eight) eyes gleaming a convincing green in the torchlight. Our guide is furious at this intrusive urban development, throwing rocks at the cat who nevertheless follows undeterred. ‘The maid must have let the cat out’ she chastises. ‘it will scare away all the birds.’ At this point we begin to wonder if this cat is a set up designed to explain away this prolonged outbreak of empty cloud forest syndrome. On the topic of cats, she went on to explain that the screech of the puma was closest in kind to the screech of a woman.
She told us that the early Quaker settlers always took a woman along with them on their forest forays just in case they needed to scare any animals away with her surrogate screams. Good to know that women have their uses even in the bush. Talk about performativity though. You could almost hear Judith Butler fulminating in the undergrowth.Away from the subject of woman there is much mention of Tarzan. Too much mention of Tarzan (but never of Jane.)
Clearly the Tarzan meme is assumed to bite deep across all cultures and age groups. Yet we have our worlds turned upside down when she tells us that all we know about Tarzan is wrong. He could not have swung from the lianas as these grow upward not downwards. She invites a teenage boy to demonstrate. His eager swing results in him crashing to the ground as the solider ants descend on him. She beams at his empirical proof yet we all back off, feeling troubled Which only goes to show that no one likes a smart arse. Our group suddenly communally bonded in resentment at having our Tarzan trope deconstructed.
The night-walk was never quite the same after that as dissent crept in among the rain- coated ranks, the ever more persistent rain dissolving any hope that was left of material sightings.She picks up a fallen papery leaf and asks us to sniff it, to taste it. We sniff but do not inhale. She sets the quiz question ‘guess which element taken from this leaf is one of the most common foodstuffs in existence?’ ‘Ketchup’ suggests one of the lads. ‘Chewing gum’ pipes another. ‘NO … come on, think .. which two shakers are most commonly found in a restaurant?’ Hardly able to hear over the rain, I ask ”In a rest room? I have come across many shakers in a restroom in my time, though some men just put it straight back.’ ‘Not a rest room’ she hissed. ‘Are you Irish? ‘ How did she know? Perhaps Irish are congenitally averse to quizzes where the answer is known only to the questioner.
Within sight of the lodge and tantalisingly near the safety of the bus she stopped us all in our tracks while reaching in her bag to find a surgical glove, the better to pick up what looked like a tiny tissue fallen in the undergrowth. Finger by fastidious finger she pulls on the glove, as if preparing to handle kryptonite. The rain is now at saturation level, certainly enough to dissolve the biodegradable Kleenex. ‘Is it a condom?’ asked one the liana lads excitedly. Seemed not as it is fully disintegrated before it could be quarantined, a precious five immolated minutes later.
Back on the bus she reminded us of all of the animals we might have seen had it not been for the rain and the full moon. Yet the lights of the bus seemed to pick up beast after beast as we struggled up the rutted track towards home. The driver looked suitably embarrassed, diverting his lights whenever he could away from the veritable carnival of the animals tableau that played out before our damp eyes. Perhaps it was not just homo sapiens who had grown to prefer an urban setting, socially alienating though it is supposed to be. Sometime later, I sought out a lonely bar to reenact Hopper’s ‘Nighthawks’ meme, perhaps by way of exorcising this nocturnal immersive eco- experience and the debunking of Tarzan myths from my system. No room now for my new best friend to perch on the adjacent stool?