Madidi National Park, Bolivia
January 19, 2009

It ain’t half hot, Mum.

So I have a question for those of you that have been reading this blog – do you think that I am a bit of a whiner? Do I tend to whinge just a tad? Have you noticed that there is always something that is bugging me – and I am not talking about the six-legged kind of bug here? Well, I cannot deny this facet of my personality and so, I shall start this post with another complaint – the jungle ain’t half hot, Mum.

 

OK, so on my trip into the Peruvian jungle, I nearly died of hypothermia. Well, things change and this time I am pretty sure that I came close to dying of heat exhaustion. Every afternoon, I would end up lying on my bed, enshrouded by my mosquito net, swimming in my own sweat, drowning in my own perspiration. I could hear the fan whirring monotonously in the background. Oh no, wait. That wasn’t a fan, I didn’t have fan, I didn’t have air conditioning, I didn’t have a fridge that was large enough to accommodate my entire drenched, sodden, overheated body. All I could do was lie there, listening to the humming and droning of the not-a-fan in the background, waiting for the heat to pass. Basically, it was hotter than a snake's ass in a wagon rut (anyone know what movie that quote comes from)?

Now, I am not entirely sure exactly how hot that is, but it was hot enough to impel me to do something that I never do – take a cold shower. It was the only thing that could mitigate the effects of the heat, if only for a very short time. Actually, I tell a lie. You could also go swimming in the lake, the one with the three-metre-long caimans, the piranhas, and the god-knows-what in the freshwater parasite department. I took my chances with the shower. Turns out that all was not safe in there either. The screening was non-existent and while I did submit to the cold water shower, I did not embrace it whole heartedly. That left rather large chunks of my anatomy outside the flow of water, open to attack by bitey things unknown. They were very sneaky about the whole attack and I did not even realise the extent of the damage until the itching started in all my nooks and crannies that are not normally exposed to the world. Oh dear, why do I bother?

That is the question really. Why do I bother? Travelling is hard work, especially when you have to leave behind all the little luxuries that you are so used to. No Marmite on toast for breakfast, no ice-cold skimmed milk or sharp cheddar cheese to eat with a crusty hunk of freshly baked bread. No baked beans on toast or fish and chips with malt vinegar. And then there are the vagaries of the water and sewage systems. Showers that may or may not be hot, that may blast your skin off or just spit and dribble on you, toilets that may or may not have seats or have toilet paper, which you then cannot put into the toilet. And remember, you always have to keep your mouth shut in the shower and never brush your teeth with the tap water. And then there is the wildlife that you might encounter while carrying out your daily ablutions. Not that I have a problem with finding frogs in my bathroom, but I suspect that some people might not be quite so enthused. I could go on, and on, and on...but I am sure that you have already heard quite enough of my bellyaching for one day. So, I shall now go on to show you just why I travel.
 

 
Beauty. There, that sums it all up. I travel to see the world in all its beauty, from majestic mountains to stunning glaciers, from sunsets over the desert to whales leaping from the depths of the ocean, from the humbling bulk of an elephant, down to the smallest, most endearing of insects. Look at the face of that weevil. Isn’t that just the cutest insect that you have ever seen? Who wouldn’t put up with a few hardships to get the opportunity to witness all the beauty, majesty, splendour, and cuteness that nature has to offer?

Now let’s get back to the Bolivian jungle. Imagine the light as it filters down through the leaves of the towering trees. Every so often, a shaft of light will manage to penetrate this verdant ceiling. Dust motes and butterflies dance in this iridescent sunbeam that pools, shimmering, on the jungle floor. Unlike the sounds of the jungle that assault your auditory organs, the colours of the jungle are understated, modest, and muted. Your eyes soon adjust to the subdued light levels and to the myriad shades of green and brown. It therefore comes as a shock to your system as an electric-blue butterfly flashes across your vision or a fiery orange butterfly bursts forth from the greenery. It jolts your senses, sends a cascade of electrons flowing down the sensory cells of your retinas. Any sparks of colour draw your eye to them. A splash of red, a flash of yellow and blue. The macaws cackle as they fly overhead and you glimpse their striking plumage through the canopy.   
  
You then notice a miniature river of the brightest yellow as it streams along the forest floor and up a nearby tree. As you look closer, the river breaks up into individual petals being carried along by a colony of leaf cutter ants. So, they don’t just cut leaves then? And where are they taking these petals? Back to their nests, where they feed them to their cultivated gardens of fungi. They may not be able to digest the cellulose that make up the bulk of the plant material that they collect, but they can harvest the fruits of their labour and dine upon the fungus that they grow.
  
While you are tracking the colours of the jungle, your eye will also be drawn to any movement. You notice another column of ants marching through the undergrowth. This troop of army ants carries a more sinister cargo – body parts from hapless insects and other small animals that have been unfortunate enough to encounter these voracious predators. One ant on its own may not be able to do much damage, but a whole army of them can dismember animals much larger than any individual ant. There is danger in numbers in the jungle and I for one would never want to remain in one spot in this hot, humid, oppressive environment for too long. It so happens that it was in this very spot that four young men set out on an adventure of a lifetime, trekking through the jungle. Two of them were never seen again. One of them only just made it. His final hours before being rescued were spent semi-conscious, aware only of small parts of his body being carried away, piece by tiny piece by these miniature terrors. Not that I want to put you off going to the jungle or anything, just don’t go wandering off on your own!

Being an entomologist, I am always on the lookout for any interesting insects and the jungle never disappoints. I found a beautiful black and yellow long-horned beetle sitting on the trunk of a tree and an amusing black beetle scurrying through the undergrowth. Amusing because whenever I gave his body a squeeze, he would emit a high pitched hiss as he forced air through the openings to his breathing system. I think it was supposed to scare me off, but it just made me chuckle and want to squeeze him again.

Do you ever get the feeling that I am in danger of being unable to see the woods for the trees? I believe this saying refers to being "too beset by petty things to appreciate the greatness or grandeur.” My eyes are always drawn by all creatures, great and small, and so I sometimes have to just stop and gaze upwards to appreciate the trees that actually make up the jungle. One of my favourites is the strangler fig. This wonderfully adapted tree has a very special way of ensuring that it reaches the high canopy to capture its share of light. Why bother starting on the jungle floor, spending years striving upwards, ever upwards, when one can start at the top? That is exactly what the strangler fig does. Its seeds are encased in a tasty fruit upon which many animal species depend. After passing through the digestive tract of whatever animal had a fig for breakfast, the seed may then be deposited high up in the canopy. If it falls into a suitable crevice, the seed will germinate, sending roots down to the forest floor and shoots up into the light. The roots will encircle and eventually envelop the supporting tree, which may, finally, be strangled to death. Please don’t feel too sorry for the host tree. Figs are a cornerstone species in the jungle, since they bear fruit several times a year and are a vital source of food for many of the jungle’s inhabitants.
I loved my time in the jungle, despite the oppressive heat, the unidentified things that go bite in the shower, the lack of a fan and being constantly soaked in a concoction of sweat, sun block and 110% DEET. It was worth every drop of sweat and every uncomfortable itch just to see the colours of the jungle and to hear the beetles hiss.

To finish this post, I would like to congratulate Gordon von Hollen for correctly identifying the hairy unknown of the last post as being the caterpillar of a puss moth. The hairs are venomous spines that can cause quite nasty skin reactions if the caterpillar comes into contact with bare skin. Being a professional entomologist, I suspected as much and narrowly averted another potentially lethal encounter in the jungle by picking up the furry fellow with a leaf. Be careful, it really is a jungle out there!

 

 


 

 

 

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