I'm strapped into a four-seater plane flying deep into the Amazon jungle. Slightly nervous but mostly awe-struck, I shift in my seat beside the pilot, trying to keep my leg from bumping the control panel. In back sits my thoroughly tattooed young tour guide, Jorge, and beside him, a solo traveler who's a writer like me, only she's British and four decades my senior.
Chances are she's complaining at the moment, but the plane's rumble drowns out any possible tirades. She considers herself "quite fussy" and "a bit high-strung." In my head I call her La Enojona. The Angry Lady.
We're headed to a small, remote ecolodge run by the indigenous Waorani people, who just reached out to "civilization" in the nineties for help defending their territory against oil operations. Through the window, I watch the brown patches of oil fields grow sparser the farther we fly over the sea of trees. Tragically, the Ecuadorian president has recently sold oil drilling rights in these parts of the Yasuni National Park, which means the barren patches will soon be spreading.
Back in Colorado, when bewildered acquaintances asked, "Why are you traveling alone into the Amazon?," I said, "So when I'm an old lady, I can tell my grandchildren what the rain forest was like before it got destroyed."
What I don't divulge is another layer, a more personal truth: I want to make sure I turn into an old lady that I like. Because lately, I've found myself turning into a curmudgeon. Nearly everything has been annoying me: the merciless shriek of leaf blowers and the ear-splitting whine of electric hand dryers; the endless, urgent demands of the Internet and the frantic pace of social media; the frigid feel of over-air-conditioned restaurants and the synthetic smell of unnecessarily antibiotic soap in public restrooms. These days, more and more of my sentences are beginning with "Okay, here's the problem with society today..."
My friend, Karye, says that as we get older, the more we distill into our true self... which means we'd better like our true self and be sure that's someone we want to be. And in my early forties now, I understand that I can no longer rely on the natural charm of youth. What might have passed as delightful personality quirks in my thirties have been morphing into ugly, fossilized warts. I think I'm becoming an Angry Old Lady.
So I'm heading into the most remote place on earth to figure out who this me is that I'm turning into. And if I don't like her? Somehow, I'd better set her back on the right path.
Once the plane lands in a grass strip, I climb out, blinking in the glaring sunshine, and grab my 10.0-pound pack from the back. The eco-tour instructions said we were allowed exactly ten pounds, not much for a compulsive over-packer like me. But I carefully sliced my soap bar down to a sliver and sacrificed my four-ounce deodorant for tiny gifts for Waorani children.
The pilot gets out and stretches while Jorge helps La Enojona. With a grunt, he heaves out her four bags that total at least a hundred pounds. Earlier, when I'd gaped at her mountain of baggage, La Enojona snapped, "I weigh only ninety pounds. Of course I should be allowed to bring extra luggage."
A group of about twenty Waorani people of all ages have come to greet us, including Pegonka—our well-muscled and sweet-faced 21-year-old guide dressed in basketball shorts and a T-shirt. I shake hands with everyone, trying to memorize their names, and follow them off the grass strip and into the shadows of jungle. Inside the foliage, it's a cool, earthy relief, mud and moss and vines and giant leaves, all sheltered by layers of canopy above us. As the plane roar fades, we're left with only a symphony of insect chirps and bird songs, and my body gives a happy sigh.
Pegonka and I chat in Spanish as other Waorani men carry La Enojona's luggage toward the Shiripuno river. She shuffles along at the periphery, clad head to toe in khaki, the skeletal outline of clavicle and shoulder blades visible, white cropped hair poking out beneath her safari hat, binoculars and camera dangling over her concave chest.
There's something phantasmic about this lady.
Yesterday, our plane ride was rescheduled to today. This was supposedly because of heavy rain but really because the airline workers wanted the Carnaval holiday off. So our guide scrambled to find us hotel rooms in the depressing little concrete town of Shell. It was named after the oil company, and in my head I called it Shell Hell. There were only two rooms left in town, so La Enojona and I had to share a twelve by 12-foot cement space that smelled of the excretions of mice and roaches. She was "quite put out" by this.
Trapped with her in that prison cell, I discovered that embarrassingly, we're both HSPs—Highly Sensitive People. Of course, she doesn't use this term, since she "abhors the entire field of psychiatry," but she is clearly an HSP, which I'm realizing is a major risk factor for becoming an Angry Old Lady. The annoyances that most people vaguely notice and promptly forget about, we HSPs experience as painfully intolerable—whether it's a scratchy tag in our clothes or a buzzing fluorescent streetlamp. Basically, our senses are amped way up.
In Shell Hell, as La Enojona dumped the contents of her bags on her narrow bed and rifled through them in an anxiety-reducing ritual, I stared out the window. Rain dripped from electrical wires tangled on the cement roof. I was pissed off that I was not in the jungle yet.
Worst of all, I was ashamed that earlier, I'd lost my temper at our poor guide Jorge over the delay. It wasn't his fault, but I'd been seething with frustration, watching my precious trip spiral downward. I'd spent so much time and energy orchestrating all this—saving up money, carving time out of my author visit schedule, adjusting deadlines with my editor, packing my 10.0-pound bag, and arranging for my mom to fly to Colorado to help with my seven-year-old.
A couple months ago, my son played the Ghost of Christmas Future in his class's performance of Dickens' A Christmas Carol. He was the ghost that Mr. Scrooge watched in horror, seeing his own self in the future... a man so full of darkness and shadows that no one mourned him at his funeral. I felt a sense of unease. What would my ghost of Christmas Future be like?
In a twenty-foot-long dugout canoe, floating down the Shiripuno in golden evening light, I chat with the extended Waorani family, admiring teenage Luís's Justin Bieber T-shirt and little Freddy's Matchbox car. I watch as they point out the wonders of their world: a towering ceiba, a bright red bromeliad, a vibrant parrot.
La Enojona seems to truly enjoy searching for tropical birds, her face hidden behind binoculars, bony shoulders angled forward and inward, thin lips parted in delight. Birds are something she likes. In contrast, over the past thirty-six hours, I've learned that she finds many things "AHB-solutely vile:" These include the texture of eggs fried for more than thirty seconds, the sensation of being wet, and children. (All children, including her relatives.)
At twilight, we arrive at a cluster of palm-thatched huts, nestled among trees by the river. My new Waorani friends lead us up the muddy embankment, and my heart does a happy little jig. Yes, this is exactly what I need, this peaceful green refuge.
As we walk toward our cabins, Pegonka asks me to translate something for La Enojona, referring to her as my amiga. Quickly, I correct him. "I met that enojona for the first time yesterday and we are not friends."
But here's the thing: I understand where she's coming from. I do think that toddlers are kind of gross with all that snot acting as glue for dirt and food scraps. I hate the feeling of a wet bathing suit clinging to my skin. I understand this lady because I am her, or at least a precursor to her current self. I'm her, back when she was a slightly more tolerant adventurous-solo-female-travel-writing HSP.
The next morning in the dining hut, I'm in a blissed-out mood. All night, lying in my simple bed within screen walls, I felt lulled by thousands of interwoven forest melodies. I woke up to a view of the river, blue-green mist over silver water, the dawn shadows of overhanging tree branches, the rich smell of earth and leaf and wood.
I chat with Laura, who is helping serve breakfast, and play with her son, Freddy, and his Matchbox car. I'm eager to start our day, dressed in six-ounce hiking pants, a three-ounce silk tank-top, and a five-ounce brimmed hat, all treated with long-lasting insect repellent.
Through the smells of tea and coffee and sunscreen and bug spray drifts my own very pungent BO. Apologetically, I smile at Jorge and La Enojona, and joke about how I had to skip the deodorant to stay under 10.0 pounds.
La Enojona curls a wrinkled lip in disgust. "Oh, God," is all she says, leaning away.
Embarrassed, I sip tea and focus on Laura, who has placed a dish of papaya slices before us.
"Gracias," I say, keeping my arms pressed against my torso to contain the odor.
"How would you like your eggs cooked?"
"Scrambled, por favor," Jorge and I say. I brace myself as he translates the question for La Enojona.
"Simply explain to the chef that my eggs must be cooked for AHB-solutely no more than thirty seconds on one side, and not a bit on the other side. It's really quite easy."
Jorge and I look pleadingly at Laura. "Sólo treinta segundos, por favorcito, no más. "¡Treinta segundos!"
Of course, the eggs come back "dreadfully over-cooked," though they are runny and raw. "Oh, I can't eat this. It's AHB-solutely inedible."
As La Enojona is in the kitchen overseeing her new batch of eggs, I try to recapture my blissed-out mood. But in less than a minute, she returns carrying her puddle of yolk and white, and moves on to her next item of complaint: The huts' screen walls have no curtains. "Anyone could have been out there watching me undress."
I press my lips together and refrain from telling her that most folks don't go out of their way to check out an octogenarian's undergarments.
And on and on she goes...
After breakfast, as we trek along muddy trails, Pegonka teaches us how to imitate a macaw cry and climb tree trunks and shoot poison darts. Whenever we pause, gnats swarm around us, but Pegonka and Jorge don't seem to mind much. And thanks to my bug spray, the gnats keep their distance, allowing me to successfully aim the ten-foot-long blow dart gun at my target orange heliconia bloom.
La Enojona frantically swats and swears. "Bloody hell! Why wasn't I warned about these insects?"
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