Out of Fear
As a child I went through a slightly compulsive phase where I walked around with my hands clenched into fists. I had a fear of spiders, and my twelve-year-old mind had created a visceral connection between my fingers and the creeping, thickly hinged legs of the spider. To see either my fingers or the spider’s legs move, the way each appendage seemed to act independently of the others, the way there were just too many of them, disturbed me. At a certain point, however, I took a step back from these thoughts. The more rational side of me acknowledged those clenched fists as an indulgence of fear. And spiders, it turns out, are everywhere. By some estimates they inhabit this world in larger numbers than humans. To live in fear of running across a spider is untenable. Plus, I worried I perhaps looked too aggressive, walking around as if ready, at any moment, for a fight. Still, to this day I can manage to vaguely creep myself out by waggling my fingers and thinking about spiders. So when our guide in Belize, Peter, came down from his cabin on our last morning at Blue Creek lodge with a large, hairy, black female tarantula, her legs clinging to an unsteady twig held precariously in his fingers, my first reaction was to back away.
He’d woken up to find the spider perched on the wall next to his head. Our cabins at Blue Creek were simple—wooden boards, tilting slats in the windows, thick metal screens that, until the moment Peter came down with the tarantula, I felt had been doing a fairly good job of keeping out the rainforest. This still hadn’t stopped me from practically mummifying myself in a sheet every night despite the 100 degree heat, but by the last day I had stopped peeking in my hiking boots with a flashlight to make sure there were no snakes or large spiders who had decided my boot made a nice nook to sleep in. Peter looked positively gleeful, holding this fat, gangly creature out to me.
He had grown up in an area nearby, had no formal education, but was more knowledgeable than anyone I have ever known about his environment. He could name every bird we saw, or even any bird we heard, every fish or lizard. We tested him by pointing to as many plants as we could, challenging him to name them, and he not only produced a name but told us whether it was edible, poisonous, or if it had a medicinal use. He knew how to get rid of the flesh-burrowing botfly (a process that involves duct tape, alcohol, and tobacco leaves), as he himself had been host to no fewer than fifty-eight. He could speak the Belizean Kriol, Mayan dialects, Spanish, and perfect English. And it gave him true joy to show us as much of his native country as we could possibly experience. I was impressed when he mentioned that he acted as guide to the perky host of a popular show on the Travel Channel—he can even be seen in a clip from her Belize episode, his head popping up next to hers as they ride rubber tubes down the Cave Branch River. He told us, however, that on her trip to Belize she saved her perkiness for the cameras, and otherwise retreated unfailingly to her air-conditioned trailer between every take. No tarantulas for her.
Peter placed the spider down on one of our white plastic picnic chairs, and as each person emerged for breakfast they were greeted with our new companion. In addition to being bigger, the female tarantula is more aggressive than the male, and this one was a fighter. When Peter tried to pick her up again, she reared on her hind legs. He pressed her body into the chair to get a grip on her and you could hear fangs tapping on the seat of the chair. Had there been an air-conditioned trailer, I probably would have fled to it, but instead I made myself get as close as I could. I had my camera ready. I knew my family, well aware of my fear, would be impressed at how close I had gotten to this thing. It was for the best that we had just spent our last night in the rainforest. I’m not sure how well I would have slept, knowing what I could possibly wake up to. The spider, riled up and hissing, finally had enough and scurried away from Peter, down the leg of the chair, and slipped between the porch floor boards, disappearing. We were left to consider that she was now one among countless large and poisonous spiders hidden among us.
* * *
There are many things to fear in the rainforest, and in Central America generally, at least according to our resident biologist and leader of our trip, Aaron. “I want everyone to come back alive,” he said. On the plane he regaled us with stories, providing us a perverse kind of entertainment about what we had to look forward to—in other words, the many things we might encounter poised and seemingly eager to kill us, or at least cause us intense discomfort. There were five of us on a group travel grant from our small, liberal arts university in the Midwest, each of us representing a different discipline. Aside from Aaron in Biology, we had Barb in education, who came with her husband Don, a stolid Iowa farmer. John is an artist, Redmond a professor of business, and I am in English. It was the first time I had left my one-year-old daughter, who was home with my husband, and as Aaron talked about the deadly risks we were taking I was happy for the distraction from flipping through pictures of her on my ipod. Knowing in the past year how much she could change in two weeks, I feared missing those tiny but vital details of her life.
Aaron, consulting his biologist’s guidebook, told us that, aside from the obvious malarial mosquitoes, we must also avoid sand flies, snakes with diamond heads, tarantulas, scorpions, poisonous thorny trees, fish that masquerade as rocks and sting your foot when you step on them, and creatures that live in beautiful blue shells which, if you grab them, shoot out a stinger meant to paralyze other fish. “Just don’t grab things, is your best bet,” Aaron said, covering all bases. For reasons I don’t entirely understand, I decided against taking the anti-malarials everyone else was taking, opting instead for no fewer than seven mosquito avoidance tools and sprays, including a repellent bracelet, a repellent bandana, a repellant fan, and two different sprays, both the natural, organic stuff, and the hardcore, possibly toxic but effective, chemical brand. Had there been repellent underwear, I would probably have bought that. And then there’s the botfly, the fly Peter was host to fifty-eight times. Impervious to all my high-tech repellent devices, and the kind of creature from which horror movies are inspired; I dare anyone to Google them. If you plan a trip to Central America ever in your life, I suggest you don’t. You can’t actually see them, but they lay their eggs on the legs of mosquitoes, and when the mosquito lands on you, the eggs burrow into your skin and grow, and eventually, inevitably, hatch, at which point the squirming, wriggling larva pushes its way out of your flesh.
As we flew farther south, away from Iowa and the innocuous June corn just beginning to turn the deep green it wouldn’t fully realize until August, our group’s conversation about dangerous plants and animals tapered off. Aaron, peering out the window of the plane as we crossed over the blue waters of the gulf, said, “It’s like looking down and seeing the sky.” I sat in my seat staring blankly at a book, and tried to stop imagining the bot fly.
* * *
Fear, of course, is a necessary part of travel; especially travel that is, in the end, adventure. Adventure requires risk, chance, and hazard, none of which is possible without fear. From the stories we tell each other by the end of our trip, it’s clear that each of us can remember most readily the moment that caused us either that quick and convulsive flash of fear that bursts into your blood, or the more nagging, lingering pressure that comes with a general anxiety. When people ask us about our trip, these are the fun stories to tell; they wind easily into an elaborate narrative, detailed and nuanced. We cast ourselves as amusing foils to the movie-style depiction of the courageous hero—though even the quintessential adventurer Indiana Jones was made human by his fear of snakes. By telling stories of our fear, and creating a narrative around those things that make us afraid, we defang the culprit. It’s easy enough to recall fearful things and make them safe by telling a story. Our last night in Belize was mostly spent around the dinner table, laughing about our frightening moments. John talked about seeing a six-foot barracuda, and though he knew there wasn’t much chance it would pay attention to us, the sheer size, he said, was nerve-wracking. Redmond had grown up in Nicaragua and casually dismissed Aaron’s warnings about creatures and infections. “It’s a wonder I even survived,” he’d said, listening to us talk about all the inoculations we thought we should get to traipse through the jungle. But while he was snorkelling in the reef he recalled being seized by a fear of his legs cramping up and drowning. As we squeezed ourselves feet first, sliding down on our backs through the narrow openings of the elaborate cave system in Blue Creek, Barb had to confront her fear of tight spaces. And Aaron, suddenly nauseated and dizzy, was rushed to the Belize City emergency room, his fear for his health compounded by what hospital conditions he might meet when he got there. We enjoyed these stories; they were some of the first we would tell our families when we got home. We knew that by telling our stories we controlled the narrative and we tamed our fears—they became just stories.
Maybe meeting the tarantula is a story of overcoming fear, but I have to admit, had it been me instead of Peter waking up to the twitching fangs and eight beady eyes of the tarantula mere inches from my face, I don’t think I would have handled it well.
The gravel road leading into the village of Blue Creek crunched brown dust under our feet, which seemed heavier with each step. Even with a hat on I could feel the sun burning into the top of my head and the moist air was still, heavy and hot. Before coming to the rainforest, I hadn’t really known what to expect. Or at least, what I thought I knew came from books. I was imagining the Honduran jungle of Paul Theroux’s Mosquito Coast, the nameless island of Golding’s Lord of The Flies, or even the Belgian Congo of Barbara Kingslover’s Poisonwood Bible. These literary jungles act as almost a singular character, mirroring the furious extremes of human struggle—it’s all pounding rain or blazing sun, it’s all violence and tangled vines of complicated and dangerous fanaticism. None of the books ends well for those whose stories are told, but these stories tangle like vines into my own.
The jungle in fiction is a writhing, pulsing madness of indifference and mindless aggression—an impenetrable heart of darkness. Also, it’s hot and wet. I knew enough to expect hot and wet. On this walk to the village, the wet is not rain but rather the damp blanket of humidity surrounding us and the sweat soaking our expensive, Columbia-brand quick-drying clothes, and the heat is an unrelenting, inescapable pressure that compounds any fears we might have. We had hiked out of the rainforest only ten minutes before, and now not even a single tree cast a shadow on the yellow fields and rocky road in front of us.
Our walk took us from our cabins on the edge of the clear, tetra-filled water of Blue Creek to the home of Heraldo and Elizabeth Pop, residents of Blue Creek Village who invited us to learn how they make their crafts and spend their days. We sat on little stools and sacks of dried corn as Heraldo carved decorated rings from the shell of the cohune palm nut, while the cocoa beans roasting in an open fire pit enveloped us with a smell as dark and rich as coffee. Elizabeth molded tortillas with her hands from a bowl of cool, soft masa, and her children, three of nine they’d raised in their dim, thatch-roofed home, laughed openly at our attempts to pat the masa dough into the thin, even tortillas their quick hands formed so easily.
The home had a dirt floor. Chickens and ducks wandered aimlessly in from the yard and pecked at stray seed corn littered beneath the wood slats the children slept on. Palm leaves protected them from the pounding rains, and only smoke from burning palm nuts kept the mosquitoes away during the wet season. We had seen the same children the day before when we visited the local school. The little girls, in their blue and grey school jumpers and long black hair, running barefoot in tall grasses, giggled and acted shy, oblivious to the wet heat collecting under the tin roof of their schoolhouse, warping the few books they had and curling the edges of the hand drawn pictures of Dora the Explorer that lined the walls. The children of Blue Creek Village smiled easily, and did not see the looming dangers that we couldn’t help but shudder from. By the standards of their village, Elizabeth and Heraldo were well off, but to live this way in North America was to live in abject poverty.
When I left home my daughter was just beginning to walk. She was taking the kind of teetering baby steps where each one is the beginning of a barely prevented fall, and each swaying raised foot jarred loose my constant and scarcely contained fear that she could get hurt. We put up gates to block the stairs, exchanged our sharp-edged wood coffee table for a soft leather one, and closed our electrical outlets with plastic caps. Here there was a machete in the corner and nails poking from wallboards. As a writer, I can’t help but imagine scenes and scenarios, and it was too easy to imagine my daughter here. Elizabeth’s English was broken, but I wanted to ask her how she ever caught her breath, watching her children stumble within arm’s reach of an open fire. I wanted to ask if she feared for their future, living in a world where any book they managed to have, the very environment would destroy.
* * *
We had already been snorkelling in the clear, open waters of the coral reef, where purple fans waved under our bellies as we swam above them, and brilliant yellow, indigo, and iridescent fish flitted impossibly close to us. This kind of snorkelling is like what you see on TV. It’s beautiful and exactly how you imagine it. We saw stingrays, their wings undulating in languid ripples, and even a barracuda which, before I could even focus on what I was seeing, had faded into the fog of the distant, deeper water. But today we were snorkeling in the mangrove swamp.
We took the boat out into a narrow canal of brackish water closely bordered on either side by trees that would be nondescript were it not for the nightmarish tangle of thick roots reaching out of the dark, murky water. It is in fact because of the mangrove that the waters we’d been in the day before were so shining and clear—the trees thrive on the trapped waste, pollution and sediment, keeping it from washing out to the sea in the tides and muddying the coastline, and the thick, coiled roots prevent soil erosion. Because of the tourism industry and development along the Belize coastline, the mangroves are often torn down for the purpose of more coastal settlements. Because of this the future of the mangrove is uncertain, placing in jeopardy the coral reef, the blue waters of the coast, and the many and diverse creatures which make the mangrove their home.
Three of our six-person group had decided not to snorkel because they didn’t feel confident in the water. I, however, bolstered by my snorkelling experience of the day before, was fully game. These opportunities did not exist in Iowa, after all, with its ocean of corn and soybeans. So, positioning my snorkel mask tightly into place, I watched John fall into the water. “How is it?” I asked when his head bobbed back up. “A little hard to see,” he replied, then dipped below again, paddling slowly away.
I jumped in and immediately understood that “hard to see” meant an impenetrable greenish murk relieved only by the strange, glistening, saucer-sized forms nestled in the thick sediment of the bottom.
“Are those jellyfish?” I said, lifting my head above the water, but I was too startled to remember that with the snorkel in my mouth anything I said would be a garbled echo through a tube. “Aah os ellyish?” is what ended up coming out. John couldn’t hear me anyway, and swam to catch up with Peter and Aaron. Okay, I thought to myself. They seemed fine with it. I put my face back in, ready to keep my eye on the suspicious muck below, but instead I was met with jellyfish. These jellyfish, however, weren’t inert blobs beneath me but glowing pink orbs blooming around me, surrounding me. Three of them, now four, all within arm’s reach. Instinct made me kick backwards, and those back on the boat told me later that at that moment they heard a noise, their imitations of what they heard sounding much like a 1950s cartoon housewife perched on a chair to escape a mouse. My thought process in that moment could not have taken more than a few seconds. I considered that I didn’t want to miss out on any experience available to me on this trip. I wanted stories to tell. I was also aware of being the only woman in the water, and I didn’t want to be that 1950s housewife screeching “eek!” while others were unconcerned. The thought that superseded all others in this moment, however, was “I do not like this.” Once this phrase was loudest in my brain, there was no going back. I took enough time to motion to those on the boat to put down the ladder, to put it down now, and swam back as if chased by a six-foot barracuda.
After twenty minutes, as the others came back to the boat, eyes wide with how interesting the whole experience has been, Peter lingered in the water, disappeared for a moment, and then emerged with his hand raised in the air, held aloft like a waiter carrying a tray in a bistro, a jiggling, absurd mass oozing over his fingers. “Jellyfish!” he said. It was hard to reconcile that blob with the ethereal, terrifying creature I’d seen underwater.
“Couldn’t it sting you?” I said.
“Oh, sure,” Peter replied.
“Wouldn’t it hurt?” I was still mystified as to why he would be holding the jellyfish in his bare hand.
“Yes, it would hurt. But it’s fine.”
I wasn’t entirely sure what he meant by “it’s fine,” but I think he meant that it would only hurt. He would not die. It would not make him sick. His real fears were more practical, I learned later, when in the boat he leaned over to me and said, “I was worried myself in that water.” Though the man who held up a jellyfish to us just so we could get a closer look had of course not been as concerned about them as I had, and it became clear that my fear, while wise, may have been somewhat misplaced. “Crocodiles!” he said, a slight and rueful smile playing on his lips.
* * *
Perhaps the most rational fear, and the one that we can’t escape regardless of what country we’re in, is the fear of other people. Belize City seems to have a particular problem in this regard. Peter lives in Belize City with his family, and it’s the only time he seemed more concerned with defending his home than with simply giving us information. For the two days we were staying in Belize City, he told us not to go off by ourselves, or not to go off at all, but he wouldn’t say why. In fact, he insisted that the city was as safe as any other. This statement was belied by the razor wire surrounding every hotel we saw, including our own. Belize City has a vexed relationship with the cruise ships that dock in its harbor because the ship companies tell the tourists that they can go into the city if they choose, but if they do they should not bring any money, or it will get stolen. So, despite having commissioned in the center of the city “Tourist Village,” a gated, guarded section of town exclusively built so the tourists could shop for Belizean crafts, the city gets little revenue from an otherwise thriving tourism industry. Even the usually sedate Fodor’s Guide says about Belize City that it’s “best seen through the rearview mirror,” and that, if you have to stay, you can only hope to “make the best of it.” We saw the city only from our hotel and touring around in our group van. Still, as much as the crime rate seems to be high, at least similar to or higher than any inner city in the U.S., the people we see from our van windows appear relaxed and friendly. They gather outside groceries boarded with plywood, chatting, arguing, and joking, drinking bright orange Fanta from sweating glass bottles. The stories they have to tell about Belize City would be different from ours.
The crime in the city seems almost exclusively perpetrated on the tourists, the outsiders, but watching the children running past us in groups of five and ten, illuminating the ramshackle, backwater streets like flowers in their brightly colored school uniforms of lavender, dark blue, pale green, and gold, I think of my daughter at home, who I’m anxious to see. I think of her hands held in tiny little fists under her chin as she sleeps. The school girls hold hands with each other walking down the street, they smile as they see their reflections in our darkened van windows, they sit on stoops with busy fingers working through braids in each others hair, too intent on their tasks to look up and see us. I think of my daughter in the morning, reaching her arms up from her crib, her fat little knuckles dimpling as her hands, when she wakes, unclench.
Adrianne Finlay is an assistant professor of English at Upper Iowa University, and her work has recently appeared in the North American Review, Paterson Literary Review, the Journal of Popular Culture, and elsewhere