Life at the jungle's edge

Until our footsteps broke the trance, the old man’s heavy and weathered hands busied themselves on his lap. Looking up from his work, he flashed us a glance and a trickster grin as we strolled past his small porch. We nodded in return. His tired, worn hands and ropey arms told of nearly 80 years of hardship. But his eyes and smile spoke of past pleasure and genuine wisdom.

A look at the lines of his face and his home’s sagging roofline indicated that he and the house had been holed up here since the beginning, hanging on and squeaking out an existence on the edge of heavy jungle.

After the brief greeting, his eyes and hands returned to his work. The edge seemed to suit him fine. But we had come for a look inside the jungle, which seemed to be steadily creeping over a fence, into his yard, up tired lumber and toward that old man’s stoop.

Upon first glance, the rope and wood of the swinging bridge looked solid enough. A tentative step onto one of the planks sent a shudder through the span, but the expected crack and break never sounded. Step by gentle step, the rope bridge ferried us across the small jungle chasm.

With this first crossing, the old man, our car, the office and the world outside vanished and another door opened. Heavy vines, unusual blooms in pinks, oranges and blues, and a small stream bubbling over rounded black stones took the place of asphalt, street lights and shopping plazas. Dense jungle cover spread its reach over everything. It clothed tree trunks, covered giant boulders and began to exert an irresistible presence.

In the heart of this tangle, we stumbled upon the one feature that had eluded the jungle’s grasp. Crafted by Chinese hands more than a century earlier, water gently rolled through a stone aqueduct, gravity easing its passage downstream. The flume had been delicately carved by artisan’s hands into the jungle to ship water to downstream sugar cane fields. A testament to the hand of inspired men, it was still functioning true to the task.

Likely as old as the aqueduct, the trail paralleled the ancient waterway. The tunnels and twists of that flume became our constant companions as the jungle swallowed us. Strangely, this man-made structure helped ease the intensity of our surroundings as it pointed upstream. Soon, the gurgle of the flume was the only remotely human sound in a scene where the buzz and chirp of insects and birds dominated. Wind rustling through leaves and stalks began to bring on the trance.

Following a third, rickety bridge crossing, we took a sudden and surprising step into the dark. My companion’s tense face and wide eyes revealed that she also sensed something. The jungle had shifted, and an end had come to this chance courtship. We no longer felt welcome. Turning back was easy.

Our second trip by the porch and those weathered hands went beyond casual nods. This time, the old man’s trickster grin was joined by a hand beckoning us to join him.

Stepping onto the porch, we looked upon the product of the man’s toils. He was carefully stringing Job’s Tears, a native seed, into rosaries. Noticing our curiosity, he immediately dispelled assumptions. The rosaries were an easy path to dollars. He told us his belief was rooted in something more immediate and then glanced over his shoulder and into the jungle.

In a muddled dialect, the old man then told us of his birth in this very house, hard years spent in the cane fields, the passing of his wife and the never-ending circle of change. His eyes turning back to the green depths, he asked, “So, what did you find?”

We briefly told him of our crossing and the trip up the aqueduct. We eventually explained the end of our trip up the canyon and the decision to turn back. His face grew grim, and he nodded a couple times. As if sensing the unspoken, he remarked, “People have disrupted the jungle.”

He mentioned that his people have worshipped in the gorge for generations. They gave praise, tasted the essence of their surroundings and returned their dead to the earth in that jungle. All in all, it had been a peaceable arrangement until men with plunder on their minds crossed that bridge, robbed the tombs and defiled the jungle.

“That spot is forever confused,” he told us. “But the jungle is setting things straight.”

The man gave us a final grin before sitting back down, gently stringing Job’s Tears, humming to himself and dropping back into the light trance.

And I would guess that he’s stringing and humming at this moment, feeling the slow creep of vines, tuning into the trickle of the stream and patiently sitting in that rocker. And as he strings those seeds, I would guess that the jungle is busy, slowly setting things straight.

-Will Sands




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