I usually get along well with people, especially people with different worldviews. The cultural anthropologist in me loves forging unlikely human connections. I want to like this lady. And in tiny doses, she's kind of a zany character. But I'm getting a massive, long, close-up dose of her.
Until this trip, I thought I loved all old ladies. I've always felt drawn to them—the healers I befriended when I lived in Mexico, my sweet grandparents, my elderly neighbors, my playful artist friends. Most of the novels I've written feature a wizened old lady who's suffered in life but who's emerged strong and wise and beaming light.
To some extent, my wise old lady ideal reflects a universal archetype, but I also feel her inside me. All my life, whenever I've felt confused or despairing, I've turned to this wise old lady. I actually write out conversations with her. "Hi, Wise Old Lady. What should I do about my problem?" As I scribble down her answer, I imagine I'm channeling my future self.
So I've always assumed that somehow I'd end up beaming wisdom. But now, as I get closer and closer to that elusive term "old," I wonder when and how exactly this wisdom will fill me.
Over the next couple days, I hang out with Pegonka and the Waorani, bonding with this extended family, exchanging stories and memories and questions. A warmth develops among us. Mothers and children show me how to weave palm strand bracelets and make chicha, the saliva-fermented manioc drink. The days are bright with a few scattered drizzles, filled with fascinating new plants and fruits and creatures. My friends take my hands to have me join in a wild traditional wedding dance. Giggling, the girls rub scarlet paint from achiote seeds over my face, in the same way they've decorated themselves.
La Enojona recoils from their touch and keeps a wary distance from the paint. Apparently, her travel agent signed her up for this trip without understanding that it was human-culture-focused rather than animal-and-plant focused... and without understanding how averse her client was to other humans and being touched by them.
On our last full day in the jungle, we take the dugout canoe downstream a couple hours to a rustic camp site, with tents on platforms and outdoor toilets. Glamping time. That night before a late dinner, I'm sitting at a table beneath a palm-thatched shelter with Pegonka and Luís. Over candlelight and insect songs, we talk about their dreams and ideas, feeling that thrill of creative connection.
La Enojona is in her tent, endlessly sifting through her hundred pounds of luggage. Days earlier, at the jungle's edge, she and I chipped in our money to buy beer. I've had about one beer per night, and now I offer Luís and Pegonka a couple cans.
When she comes to dinner, she eyes the guides sipping beer.
Cheerfully, I say, "Don't worry, we left one for you."
She grabs the can and sits down at a distance, possibly because of my lack of deodorant, possibly to avoid being touched.
"Those beers were not yours to give away. Half of them were mine."
"Sorry, I wasn't keeping track." My muscles tense and my cheeks grow hot and I force my voice to stay calm. "It's our last night here. I didn't think you'd care. And these guys worked so hard poling our canoe and carrying your bags around and helping you hike."
She slurps her beer, fuming. "AHC-tually, I'm quite put out. And that's putting it mildly."
I glance at the guides, praying they can't understand. Clearly, they sense she's flaming mad, but hopefully they don't know it's over the beers.
As we eat fried piranha and manioc by candlelight, I continue my conversation with the guys, struggling to ignore her rage. I focus on the soothing sounds of insects and river and jungle. But my pulse is pounding in my ears and my blood boiling and my chest thudding.
After dinner, I pull out my notebook. "Hi, Wise Old Lady," I write. "What do I do with all this anger?"
And ever-so-gently, she tells me, "This is your Ghost of Christmas Future. Learn from her. Don't be her."
The next morning, before we leave the jungle, Pegonka takes us on a hike to a waterfall. It's a stunning walk along a high ridge overlooking valleys of green, and I try to soak it all in, to hold on to the vibrant life of this forest and its people. After this, we'll head farther downstream to an oil town, where we'll witness the drilling operations that could soon spread to this patch of jungle.
Since Pegonka and I walk so much faster than La Enojona and Jorge, we have time to stop and play along the trail. He pauses to shimmy up a hundred-foot-tall tree, disappearing into the canopy. He returns to earth minutes later, breathing hard, sharing with me his bounty—strange, tart, large-seeded orange fruit. A little ways ahead, he boosts me up to a looped vine that fits my cradled body perfectly. I swing and close my eyes and memorize all these things to tell my future grandchildren.
Soon we arrive at the edge of a cliff draped in green velvet. Below, in the valley, is a waterfall, a sunshine-sparkled lace ribbon dropping hundreds of feet into a natural pool. Hundreds of moss-slick wooden steps descend into this bit of paradise. As we wait for the others, Pegonka tells me that this waterfall is a sacred, healing place where you can clean your spirit.
At the bottom, I change into my bikini and wait at the water's edge, feeling the cool, damp air on my bare flesh. Meanwhile, Pegonka pokes a large stick in the pool to make sure it's free of caimans, members of the alligator family who like to hang out here. Then Jorge and I wade in.
As I reach waist-high water, I shiver, giddy and goose-bumped, and dip my whole body into the foaming white pool. I stay in that pocket of peace for a moment, hearing the water rush, feeling the me that I want to hang onto, the me I want to become more of in the decades to come.
Pegonka leads me beneath the cascade and we stand together, laughing at nothing in particular—just laughing. And as we laugh, I feel the water and wind blowing away all the inessential crap.
I glance over at La Enojona, skulking in the shadows, pale and stooped and spectral. My potential Ghost of Christmas Future.
Little by little, with the pounding of water, my anger drifts away. Gratitude remains.
A morpho butterfly floats in the glowing mist, past the moss and vines and flowers on the canyon walls, and rises into the bright sky. Its blue is heart-filling and breath-taking.
I've read that these morphos feast on decay, nourishing themselves with dying matter. They transform rot into beauty. Their wings are covered in microscopic scales arranged like diamonds, reflecting sunshine in layered patterns. Without light, their blue essence would remain invisible. Their beauty secret is their ability to reflect the light around them.
I want to become an old lady who turns decay into something soul-thrumming. Here in the waterfall spray, I accept those icky-wet-bathing-suit-feelings as part of the package of life, and I move beyond them, over them, spreading my mildly age-spotted arms like wings, closing my not-yet-cataracted eyes, and lifting my just-slightly wrinkled face.
And I let myself reflect the light.
Laura Resau is the award-winning author of nine novels, all set in places where she's lived or traveled, including Mexico, France, Guatemala, and Ecuador. Resau's acclaimed essays have appeared in anthologies by Travelers' Tales, Lonely Planet, and others. This piece won the Gold Prize in the Women's Travel category of the Thirteenth Annual Solas Awards. The rain forest setting inspired her latest novel, Tree of Dreams, praised by Kirkus in a starred review as "a moving exploration of friendship, activism, and how chocolate makes everything better." Resau lives in Colorado and donates a portion of her royalties to indigenous rights organizations in Latin America. For more about her writing, please visit www.LauraResau.com.
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