I am going to digress from the MSS Beta for a day so I can add a long awaited post. One of the many things I find interesting about life is in retrospect it is not continuous. We do not remember every second of every hour of every day in our life. We only remember brief moments – some happy and some embarrassing. What makes someone a ‘happy’ person or a ‘sad’ person are not things that occur gradually in time, but are a handful of brief memories that shape a lifetime.
This is one reason I find vacations so important – and not just any vacations. The more exotic and interesting a place is, the better. The truth is, the memories I will take away from any vacation will be limited and short. Therefore, the better the memories are the more I will take away from the trip as a whole.
In September of last year, as some of you may remember, I went to a remote section of rainforest in Peru called Manu National Park. This was by far the best vacation I have ever taken in my life and I have many fond memories from this trip – walking into a parade in Cuzco, the mind-numbingness of Machu Picchu, seeing a black caiman along the Manu river, seeing a capybara family, almost stepping on a very large (thankfully non-poisonous) snake, finding a troop of wooly monkeys while walking alone, having giant otters swim up to me, turning a trail and finding a peccary staring at me, getting a few feet from an agouti, watching squirrel monkeys swinging from branch to branch, and an unforgettable oxbow lake where everywhere you turned you saw something.
But one memory stands out among all. There are basically two types of travel memories. There are the memories where if someone asked me what I saw in the rainforest, I would respond with the above. Then there are the memories, where in my last moments of life, I will remember what happened. The second type is by far the rarer, but is by far the clearest.
Most of the people in my group were older and were more prepared for a ‘vacation’ than an ‘adventure’. For this reason the guide would often designate an hour or more in the middle of the day for a nap. I did not travel several days to get to the rain forest for a ‘nap’ so I asked the guide if there was a trail I could take alone. He pointed to a trail starting by the dining hall and said that it was very short and doable. I got my pack ready and took off alone.
If you want to see animals in the rainforest, you have to learn to use your senses. When I first arrived there, I would look all over the place trying to find things. This does not work. To find animals, you need to learn to use your eyes and ears to their best advantages. Do not look from side to side. Look straight down to make sure you do not step on something that will crinkle and make noise and look straight ahead because many animals make use of human paths but will run the minute the see you – so you need to see them first. Walk very slowly, making sure to place your feet level on the ground so you make the least noise possible. Use your ears to look around you – listening for anything that makes a noise. A slight shaking of a branch could mean a critter or a bird. If you hear a noise, stop in your tracks and turn your head towards the direction of it.
This is how I walked on the trail that day. After a few minutes, I heard something a lot louder than a tree branch and looked up to find a troop of wooly monkeys. I was thrilled. My only previous encounter with wild monkeys came in a park in Singapore – and those were very used to people. I took some video of the monkeys and was thrilled to find them, but little did I know that I hadn’t seen anything yet.
After spending about twenty minutes with the monkeys, I decided to continue on the trail. Soon I came to a large tree that had fallen in the middle of the path. The tree was too large to climb over so I decided to go around it. I first tried to the right, making sure to go very quietly, but a large branch still blocked my path. I would have to go to the left. As I made my way to the left another large branch blocked my path but it was not too large to go over. The minute I made my way over the branch, I stopped in my tracks and the next two seconds of my life I will never forget.
THERE IS A LARGE CAT ON THAT TREE!, I thought to myself.
Indeed there was a large cat on the side of the tree. The cat was easily over a meter long and had orange and black spots. It would take a good deal of research later to discover exactly what I had seen, because I saw it only briefly, but perched only twenty feet ahead of me was what locally was called the “Otorongo” – or “he who kills at one leap”. In English, this was none other than the Jaguar.
The Jaguar let out a very short roar and jumped to the ground. The cat was large enough that I heard the thump. Then it was gone. Thoughts raced in my head about what I should do. I wanted to get a closer look at the cat. I had only such a quick glimpse. Giving chase quickly occurred to me the thing not to do. The cat was far faster than I, I could get lost, and I could step on something I wish I hadn’t. The second thought that occurred to me was jaguars typically attack from behind, so I cast a few nervous glances behind me. No jaguar.
I walked quietly over to the tree with the hope that the jaguar was still around, but no luck. It was long gone. I walked slowly back to the camp, not because I was hoping to see more animals, but because I was still in a trance from my ever so brief encounter with one of the most majestic animals on earth.
Manu National Park is considered possibly the best place on the planet to see a jaguar. Generally they are found on the river banks while canoeing downstream. We did not see one this time around. That mattered little to me though. I accomplished what I came there for. Although I am still young, those two seconds of my life are enough for me to put up with whatever else life has yet in store for me.