I’ve heard that the only places on earth unexplored by man lie deep under the ocean. I would argue that there is plenty of jungle left that is unexplored; just because someone owns the land and the topography is charted on a map, doesn’t mean anyone has any idea what’s on it.
The farm where I’m staying/working effectively occupies probably about 50 acres, including gardens, nursery, horse/cow fields, orchards, and 2 houses. The couple who owns it actually owns 1,200 acres- that’s 1,150 acres of pure jungle that extends up and down the surrounding mountains beyond the cultivated farm. There is one “public” road through it (used pretty much only by indigenous Indians walking to and from the reservation- a mere 6 hour trek away) and a few “trails.” Other than that, the rest of the land is impassible, unless you’re a surefooted native, a forester, or me.
Thursday, I trekked with 3 farm employees and one other volunteer along part of the perimeter to put up signs bearing the farm’s name. Apparently, squatting and usurping land is commonplace in Costa Rica; if you can prove you’ve been on the land and made “improvements” (ie built a house, planted some stuff), and the owner hasn’t noticed, you can go to court and claim that the land is rightfully yours because the proprietor didn’t notice you were there. The finca (farm) owner had been taken to court once in this manner and was adamant that it wouldn’t happen again. Being over 60 and only moderately mobile, he hasn’t even seen the majority of his property and certainly isn’t capable of scaling the mountains along which the boundary runs. So he enlisted Marcos the farm manager, Freddy the second in finca command-both Costa Ricans, Juan a native Indian farmhand, Ethan (another volunteer and forester by trade), and me (…the girl from New York?) to put up Finca Quijote signs, thus proving that the owners of the vast tract of land a) know where their own property is and b) have been there recently.
Simple as a dog lifting his leg; we were marking our territory. Marcos, Freddy and Juan each carried a 14 inch machete in one hand (Juan also carried a back pack filled with the metal plaques to be hung, and an 8 foot metal ladder. At the first river we crossed he hopped from rock to rock, the ladder still balanced on his shoulder, his machete dangling lazily from his other hand. All I could think was, “holy shit. I might be outdoorsy, but I am definitely still a gringa.”). I figured me not having a machete was probably a safe choice, and it turns out it was.
After about an hour of walking along the road, we turned off (seemingly randomly) into the dense jungle. The three men slashed away at vines, branches, leaves, hanging moss with their machetes, but I was infinitely grateful not to have one, since we were descending a sheer drop towards the river and I needed both hands at all times to keep from sliding down the mountain (or falling face-first into one of their machetes).
We reached the river, forded it (like, think straight up Oregon Trail style), and started a vertical assent up the mountain along a cleared “trail” that marked the edge of the property. Every hundred meters or so, they would stop, lean the ladder against a tree at an impossible angle, scale it, wrap their legs around the tree to hold on, slash away any obstructing growth, and hammer the sign in to the trunk. Obviously, I was not included in this rotation; my de facto responsibility was to document the placement of each plaque with mine and Marcos’ cameras.
I really am an American (estadiundese) Gringa, because as we scaled the vertical “path,” all I could think was how much I felt like Richard Castle in the ABC show; where everyone else’s bulletproof vest says “POLICE” and his bears the identifier “WRITER.” He trails the cops with a pen instead of a gun, and here I was, trailing Indian campesinos with a camera instead of a machete. Like Castle, I have no field training, but I still had to keep up- for my own survival and to not jeopardize the task at hand.
It was probably the funniest thing they had ever seen, this gringa girl sweating through her bandana and sliding around in her two sizes too big black muck boots, grabbing for any vine or limb to haul herself up the mountain. I’ve hiked a lot in my native New Hampshire’s White Mountains, but there at least the ground stays put. This is the jungle, and every single thing is wet. The ground is a slippery clay mud that moves every time you put down your foot. The roots and rocks I tried to step on were slick with water, and the slimy vines I tried to grab slid out of my hands each time I reached for anything. At one point I was behind Ethan, with the other three men were behind me. Marcos jokingly called out, “Raquel, doble! Nosotros también queremos subir!” Which translates to, “Hurry up Rachel! We want to get up the mountain too!” And I thought I was doing pretty well.
They hung more signs, and we used the ladder (that I still have no idea how they managed to carry- it was all I could do to move my own body) to navigate particularly steep areas of erosion. This is what gives me the confidence to say that I’m pretty sure that much of the jungle remains unexplored. Here is one person’s property in one country that no one has touched except for parts of the perimeter and 50 acres at one edge; imagine what else is untouched in the rest of the jungles of the world.
After the men had hacked the jungle to bits (literally slashed limbs and leaves and vines to decimated piles at their feed) to make sure their signs were visible, we had to go back down what we’d just made it up. I skidded, slid, and essentially rolled down the hill back to the river we’d forded. Our return trip to the farm, however, was not along the road we took in, but along (really through) the river, the property’s natural boundary.
Again, every step I took, the surface I was standing on moved. River rocks are not glued to the river floor, and seem to be all too happy to shift under your weight. We had to constantly zig zag back and forth across the river, because even though we only needed to hang plaques on one side, there wasn’t always any ground on that side (instead there were often sheer rock faces). Again reverting to my American mainstream culture references (since that was all I had to draw on), I kept thinking of Oregon trail. “I’m sorry, the river was too deep to ford and you lost all your provisions.” “You choose a rough point for crossing the river. Mary Anne and two of your cattle died.” Luckily, I was far more successful in real life than I ever was on the computer.
At some points we laid the ladder across slimy rocks and used it like a bridge, at other points Juan tossed in rocks to check the depth to see if it was crossable. At the first river we crossed (which seemed like days ago, but had only been probably 4 hours before), we took care to not get wet. Now we just waded waist deep through the current. Every time we made it to dry land I dumped several gallons out of each boot. Freddy thought this was the funniest thing ever, and remarked, “catch any fish in there?”
Over the course of our 6 hour trek, the men hung 20 signs. I took 101 pictures. I also realized that I had been allowed to go where few women have gone- into the primal male territory of slashing through the jungle to stake claim to the land. I might have looked ridiculous (well, definitely looked ridiculous) doing it, but in holding my own I proved myself to the farm men; many volunteer pass through, but I’m not just here for the free rice and beans. Some trust and respect takes years to cultivate; I earned theirs not from expertly wielding a machete or ascending precarious ladders, but from consistently shouting,”estoy bién! (I’m ok!)” as I wiped the mud off every time I got up after I had fallen.