By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 7, 2008 10:09 PM
ALONG THE SAN MIGUEL RIVER, Ecuador -- My Spanish is rusty and I wasn't sure I had heard the pilot correctly. You want me to rappel? From the helicopter?
"It's only about 40 meters," he said. "You will have a beautiful experience."
This was unexpected. So was the fact that I found myself standing on the tarmac wearing a camouflage Ecuadoran military uniform (Ejercito -- Army -- was written over my breast pocket). And that a dozen teenage beauty pageant contestants had come to see us off. I had traveled with U.S. soldiers in Iraq and figured a walk in the rain forest with Ecuadoran soldiers would be easy in comparison. Wrong.
"Don't worry about the snakes," a colonel told me with a smile. "Worry about the guerrillas."
In the helicopter, a soldier motioned me to stand up, quickly hooked a line to my harness, and gave me a stern look. "Like, now?" I thought. I threw myself out backwards into the maw like I thought they might do in the movies, and thankfully the freefall was only a few feet, so few in fact, that it felt like I was going to swing up and smack the bottom of the helicopter. Then I was lowered to the ground.
Descending by rope into a rain forest is in fact a beautiful thing. The canopy stretches out like an endless, wavy green carpet. On the ground, exotic plants loom over you, giant insects have no sense of fear. Everything is magnified, almost grotesque; it seems prehistoric. It is so dark and hot and wet it also feels prenatal.
We would be hiking through the jungle to look for signs of Colombian guerrillas operating in Ecuador. A few hundred yards into our first day's walk, I began to have doubts. It appeared that we were intentionally choosing the most difficult paths, up the steepest slope, over a precarious thicket of fallen and rotting trees, through webs of vines. My white basketball shoes were not the best choice for passing through sucking mud. I slipped and fell. I got up and something bit my right ear. Sweat soaked my uniform. Then it started to rain.
"How long are we going to walk?" I feebly asked Capt. William Pozo. We had been marching for an hour. It was 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday.
"Until Saturday," he said.
Anticipating my troubles, Pozo had assigned me a buddy: 1st Sgt. Angel Segarra, a burly commando who had spent 23 years in the military, including a six-month stint working with U.S. Special Forces in Colombia in 2000. When we stopped for the night he helped string up my hammock and rain tarp.
"If you hear shots in the night -- pow, pow, pow-- don't leave your hammock. Everything will be okay," he said.
"You know," he laughed, "the guerrillas would like nothing more than to take an American prisoner. They would kill for it. It would be like winning the lottery."
But soon you become accustomed to this other world, and you begin to notice the wonders. Iridescent blue butterflies the size of pigeons. The neon green glow when the sunlight trickles through. Hiking in near-silence brings on a special kind of meditation. You know you are moving forward but the vegetation appears identical and endless. On a break, you look down at three sizes of ants, the largest a conga about an inch long, walking over one leaf. You look up as dozens of black birds with bright yellow tails alight briefly, then fly off again.
Despite the difficulties, the soldiers seem to relish this time as well. They are away from the hassles of daily life and the challenge of providing for their families on $800 a month. In the jungle their needs are simple. They eat two meals a day. For dessert they brew cocoa over a tiny flame and pass it around in a metal pot.
They hike for 50 minutes an hour and rest for 10. They stop walking by about 4:00 p.m., to have time to sling up hammocks before darkness descends an hour later. They lie and listen as the forest comes alive, a roaring chorus of croaks and squeals in the encircling darkness. They sleep until dawn.
Whenever possible the soldiers camp by streams or rivers. They shed their uniforms and submerge in the cool water. They fill their canteens and scrub the mud off their clothes. Cpl. Jerson Barahona laughed when he saw me washing my uniform.
"Have you ever washed anything by hand, or do you just use a washing machine?" he asked. He demonstrated with my socks the proper way to grind them together, rinse and twist out the water.
"When I come to the United States, you have to be my guide," he said.
He thought about it for a few seconds and then rejected that vision.
"No. I can't imagine that I'll ever go to another country. Ecuador is good for me." He sat in the shallows as the sun went down behind the trees. "This is everything I need."