Today we set out for the rainforest, El Yunque, to camp. Waking is difficult. We were separated the night before. I remember the evening in a haze as I look at the darks of my eyelids, sunlight staggering in. It was spent drunkenly cycling through San Juan, bar-hopping with a boy we befriended and with whom I had spent the more precious violet colored hours of the morning. I realize that we still need to return a bicycle, which I ride back to the hostel after a quick breakfast of coconut juice and toast. T is passed out naked on the bunk; I wake her with the back of my hand on her forehead, “Water?” First things first. We make coffee and begin to pack, say farewell to our host Francisco who has been vitally helpful and has given us an amulet with a carving of woman giving birth. We take the train to Fajardo, our umbrellas haphazardly sticking from our backpacks and our arms crowded with plastic bags of snacks, pocket full of wrappers from eating them. Once in Fajardo we find the Publico center. From here things become blurry, the fatigue of severe hangover and lack of food, water, or rest set in and all I know is that we are in a van going at least 90 on the highway being driven by a man who speaks very little English, about as much Spanish as we speak, and who is extremely reluctant to take us to the rainforest because we need to go to the south side in a small area known as Naguabo. The drive lasts for roughly an hour and a half, before we enter the forest. Naguabo is really more like mountainous countryside than rainforest. People are few but the community is tight; they refer to each other’s houses as landmarks. As the van winds further into the green hills the amount of people becomes less and less. Packs of wild dogs lay sleeping in the road and bark as the horn blows them to the side of the street. We drive high into the mountains, the road curving, always a wall of green flesh on one side. From the window there are children playing in the foliage. They appear as a shadow, disappear, their eyes in one spot, their feet another, and as we round a curve a boy jumps out from the mountain, the driver speaks to him, evidently we have arrived.
Another figure emerges from the mountain as well, at first I think another boy but after some uncertainty I realize that the companion is a girl. He speaks to us in perfect English but she hangs behind him silent, calm and clever. Her voice, or the scraps I hear of it, is deep, velvety; as androgynous as her appearance. The boy brings us to the house, which is huge, three stories and a wrap around porch surrounded by waves of earth, and furrows of trees and bamboo. We walk along a twisting path that leads us past his horse and to a peak that overlooks the valley we’ve just driven through. Exhausted, we drop our packs and breathe. We left San Juan around 11pm and arrived as the sun began to set on Nagaubo. We were hungry. From the entrance to the driveway you can see a ridge that with the coming of night is dotted with lights, one of which is clearly a bar. We walk over, counting stray cats, which only appear in pairs and dodging June bugs as they float by lazily on the thick air. A group of kids our age or a little older gather outside the place along with a few very elderly people smoking cigarettes. As we walk through the door all of their heads follow us, and as we enter the bar and walk to the other end every head in there follows us too.
As a woman, being looked at is almost unavoidable, but being seen is impossible. But this experience wasn’t just that, it was the alienating kind of stare, to say that we were from the outside, othered and therefore not only peculiar but also rare entertainment. We sat; we’ll just have one beer and leave. As we begin to drink the men start to circle us. They are mostly over fifty, at least the ones that approach, I’m unsure if I should give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they’re being friendly. This is what I usually do because it is generally easier to play dumb than to get your way. I study my beer bottle every time my new friend Feliz starts to sigh and salsa. If we did tell Feliz off and his ever-expanding group of friends what would happen? Well we’d probably endure being slandered in Spanish across the room, followed out into the night once we decided to leave, I’m not sure, it would be something ugly that I frankly don’t want to deal with while still hung over unfed and drinking again. Whenever men this age try to pick me up I always ask questions about their children. Or nieces, or younger sisters etc. It’s not very direct but at least its something. Feliz keeps trying to ensnare me in conversation, for which he has four topics: he loves America, my hair, my skin, and to dance. I am weary with disappointment. Here I am on the opposite side of the country, in the rainforest, and still I cannot drink at a bar in peace. I scan the room through my beer bottle, Feliz tickling my ear with his beard as he speaks into it. In the corner I notice the girl. She is sitting against the wall, her knees up, her feet in sneakers, her long dark hair in a ponytail a beer in her hand and she sips it while her topaz eyes see mine. The girl from the forest, she can’t be more than 12. She stands takes a cue and joins in a game of pool. I turn away and measure the amount of liquid left in T and I’s beer bottles, half an hour more? Maybe less? I have the feeling that this girl is watching me, pitying me, because here she is apparently alone, unbothered, engaged in a game of pool, and immune to situation’s like my present one. I look back and she’s now salsaing with an older woman, laughing at another couple dancing, deep in thought at another game of pool, getting her next beer, looking at me. We finish our beers and leave the bar; a stray dog follows us back to the house but leaves off when we pass a pair of stray cats sitting on a fence.
The next day we begin by gathering fruit off the ground, avocados, star fruit, something that tastes like pumpkin cheesecake. We slice them open on a table on the wrap around porch and watch a lizard watch us as we chew. Then we set out to hike. Neither of us are very experienced so this doesn’t result in much, we walk up the road, find a waterfall, decide its too dangerous to climb. On the way back to the campsite we pass the boy and girl on their bikes. They see us and wave; each of them holds a yellow ball in their hand. T asks, “What’s that?” The boy tells us they’re a fruit, do we want them? All we have to do is break them open with a stick. The girl hands me hers and I thank her awkwardly. I don’t want to be the receiver I want to be the giver. I try to put it back in her hands but she makes me take it. I break it open later when we’ve moved camp to a nearby beach. It smells like flowers and acid and when I break the thick apple like skin and pull it back there are several little seeds studding the pulp like eggs.