The caption on this could be, “I’m a vegetarian, but every couple of months, I chop a chicken’s head off with a machete.”
I am not a vegetarian and not the girl crying as she holds the chicken’s detached neck or the two with their hands clapped over their mouths. I’m the one in the horrible blue Hawaiian shorts, standing nonchalantly off to the side. I’m pretty sure my only thought at that point was, “When can we cook it?”
After more than a week hiking through the dense Costa Rican cloud forest, and mostly living off fruit, bread and rice, I was pretty ecstatic to be eating meat. I probably wouldn’t have balked at killing the cow too, except when you are carrying everything you need in a backpack for three-plus weeks, you can’t really spare an extra set for soaking in blood.
This might not seem like a profound moment, but it was the first step of the transition from teenager-who-can’t-boil-water, and definitely wouldn’t touch raw meat, to Michael Pollan-obsessed grown-up.
My fellow hikers and I were at the home of a host family, the older brother of our guide, his wife and their five young children, somewhere on the western slope of the Sierra de la Muerte in Costa Rica, in May of 2001. Within an hour’s hike of their home was the home of our guide’s parents, where he and his brother were raised with their 16 siblings. We could barely walk down the rain-drenched hillside before we were caked in mud (and by this point, my hair hadn’t been completely dry in several days), so I was astonished to see the children dash back from the village school in immaculate white uniforms.
The house had running water, with pipes and pumps constructed by the family, and an iron stove carried by two men from the nearest town with a road, many miles away. We also picked manzanas de agua (water apples) and cashew fruit off the trees and ate them sitting on the deck, where we slept at night gazing at stars in the darkest sky I’d ever seen (malaria = not a problem). A hotel chain was exploring building an eco-tourism resort there, but the family was unanimously opposed to it, because of the potential for contaminating their water supply and damaging the delicate ecosystem. Though the resort would bring roads and easier access to towns, cities, secondary schools and hospitals, they preferred the quality of life provided the pristine environment.
This trip encapsulated more than a few formative moments. The second day of hiking was possibly one of the worst days of my life. For some reason, I thought being a healthy, energetic 19-year-old who skied, ran on an elliptical and played an embarrassing game of racquetball once in awhile counted as sufficient training for hiking 12-15 miles a day. Oops. Wrong. I was wearing brand-new, unbroken-in boots too, Cheryl Strayed-style. I actually cried for the better part of four hours that day, which thankfully no one noticed because my tears blended seamlessly with the torrential rain.
It was neither the first nor the last time that I thought, “Well, should have seen this coming,” and, “Why do I keep convincing myself character-building experiences are going to be really fun?”
On the third day, we came to a bridge. You could call it the Bridge of Life and Death, or maybe the Bridge of Really Momentous Choices. Or the Bridge That Inspired a Thousand Personal Statements.
Or the Bridge Whose Symbolism Devoured Reality.
In my memory, the bridge is made of wooden planks, little more than a foot wide, hammered end-to-end and slick with rain. The sides are rope. Fifty or a hundred feet down is a roaring river, swollen from the constant downpour. I don’t remember the bridge swaying, so it must not have been windy – and I consider my memory of what wasn’t terrifying about this bridge fairly reliable. There must have been some veracity to my perception of danger, because our guide opted to carry each of our backpacks across for us, making several round trips, so that we would only have to contend with only our own body weight. The guides helpfully warned us that there would be no way to rescue us if we fell. (It seemed worse in retrospect when we heard they decided to use an alternative route on future trips.)
Spoiler: We all survived. I haven’t quite figured out that trick of building suspense when readers already know how it ends.
I remember looking behind us, my eyes tracing the muddy slope we had just stumbled down, unable to see any evidence of a trail ever existing there. It was as clear to me then as it ever has been that there was no going back; the only way forward was, well, forward.
See the symbolism? It was just like life! So, like life, I milked it for all it was worth: at least a dozen personal statements.
I’m not usually afraid of heights, but I do remember being a little bit scared, in that moment, and thinking, “Okay, this would be a really stupid way to die. In the, you know, greater scheme of things. Don’t get shaky and fuck it up.” And then I walked across it. And kept on walking, another 60 or so miles, stopping along the way to kill a chicken and swim in a stunningly clear brook and learn to surf without knocking myself out with my surfboard.
I flew home without underwear or socks, because everything except the jeans and shirt I’d arrived in was still damp, and I ended up tossing them or leaving them for the next group of hikers to straggle into San José. The airline equivalent of a house red tasted ridiculously good and I practically kissed the ground when we landed – I was, admittedly, pretty glad to still be alive.
Back on American soil, my friend picked me up and took me to IHOP – it wouldn’t be my first, or fifteenth, choice now, but I was strangely thrilled to be in American suburbia. For the next few days, I hung out at the house of his Mandarin-speaking parents, who were kind and welcoming and clearly worried their son might have brought home a white girlfriend. I watched American cartoons with his three-year-old sister. She taught me to use chopsticks. His mom taught me I must never boil corn on the cob. See? Life is full of unexpected lessons.
Then I drove my beloved Mustang, still playing that same CD, south to spend the summer with my grandmother. About a month later, I had another “formative moment” – this time in the form of a bot fly larva in my calf. Note to the squeamish: Stop here.
I heard about these while I was hiking. In fact, I hiked with long pants for the first couple days, because I was so determined to avoid anything this tragically disgusting happening to me. Eventually, in the battle of Tropical Rainy Season vs. Amy’s Fear of Bugs, the rain won, and I switched to shorts. And somewhere along the way, I picked up one of these mostly harmless but really, really icky little creatures. I had several mosquito bites when I got back to the States, but only one didn’t go away. It got bigger and seemed to open, oozing bloody liquid. I insisted it was an allergic reaction that got infected from scratching, and I coated it with a thick layer of Neosporin and a heavy bandage. You can be the judge of whether this was subconsciously wise or merely lucky – but I had been taught to remove the larvae using Vaseline and duct tape to cut off oxygen. At the time, I swore I was just treating an infected bite.
Several hours and a little tequila later, I noticed my leg was itching even more than it had been. In the bathroom, I peeked under the Band-Aid and saw It. The worst part was that when I exposed the area to the air, it tried to crawl back in. I know it wasn’t a life-or-death infection, but it felt like it, at the time. Survival instinct, fueled by adrenaline, kicked in, and I yanked it out and dropped it on the rug. Then I disinfected my wound and went to wake up my boyfriend before my adrenaline levels crashed and sheer panic/horror/revulsion set it. We examined it, flushed it down the toilet and then put Google to work telling us whether there might be anymore and whether it required medical treatment – no and no. We were both premed by then – asking Dr. Google was a completely normal and expected reaction to a subcutaneous parasite acquired in a tropical country.
That was the first – and last – time I woke up the next morning really grateful for saying YES!!! to that third shot of tequila.
Bio: Amy Caruso Brown is a pediatric oncologist from a small town in upstate New York. She teaches ethics, advocacy and social responsibility to medical students. She writes a blog about family recipes, and she inherited a second blog when her father died last year, where she writes about whatever inspires her. In her spare time, when she’s not feeling guilty about not having saved the world yet, she skis, rock climbs, runr, plays the piano and flute, drinks good wine and tries to write a novel. (Not all at the same time…)