Wednesday, March 19, 2008

from El Yunque, P.R.: rain in a forest

Our hosts are extremely knowledgeable about matters of ecology and the environment. And so when I ask where to hike in El Yunque, even Ed listens.

You want the Disneyland hike? It has good information, it’s a well-built trail and you’ll meet lots of others. Or, do you want to climb up to El Torro?

El Torro?

It’s hard to find the trail head. It’s muddy. It’s steep – count on three hours up and three hours down. You’ll meet no one.

Ed hesitates. He likes information and he doesn’t usually follow advice, so the mocked “Disneyland” isn’t out of the running. Still, the man loves adventure.

We set out in search of the El Torre trail. The road dips and climbs through bamboo groves and dense palms. It’s a narrow, winding pot-holed thing and it’s hard to pay attention to anything but the possibility of being knocked off the uneven surface. Still, it’s pretty out here, at the edge of the El Yunque jungle. And every once in a while, we come accross something beyond "just" pretty.

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Miraculously (or, rather, accidentally) we find the trail head. I note to Ed the clouds gathering around neighboring peaks.

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We may get some rain, he acknowledges.

We start the climb. Once upon a time, the U.S.D.A. Forest Service put time and resources into park preservation (this rainforest is under their stewardship). Now, the politics and priorites have shifted. The US National Park Service may have treated El Yunque with more respect.

At the start of the trail:

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And within minutes, the rain begins. At first, I dart from one canopy of palms to another, but this game becomes silly as the rain drops become more than just… drops.

Do you think this will get even worse? I ask (not really expecting reassurance; Ed thinks empty reassurance is pointless).
I remember one hike where it felt like I was submerged in a lake, the rain was so bad.

And yet, we continue. We came here to hike. We’re leaving in a few days. The weather cannot interfere. Besides, we’re in a rainforest. It’s fitting, in an uncomfortable sort of way. Rain, coming down like the ropes and vines, all streaming onto the path ahead.

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I hide my camera underneath my shirt and stoop down so that my back catches most of the wetness. But rain has a way of finding its way down and driping over every conceivable surface.

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And it gets worse. Ed is now periodically taking off his shirt to wring it out. I’m just reconciled to staying wet.

As we climb up, the trail conditions substantially deteriorate. The clay soil is slick and Ed is noting that a descent will be a slide down on your ass kind of thing. More fitting for a jungle reptile than us, I’m thinking.

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And then there are the impassible pools of water and mud. Initially, I try to find side detours, but it’s no use. Again and again, we sink into mud that is ankle deep. And I mean Ed’s ankle.

Don’t lose your shoe in it! Ed warns.
I’m trying!
I’m laughing now, but it is a hysterical sort of laugh. More like a cackle.

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The forest is beautiful though. And the rain doesn’t take even a smidgen away from that. The occasional flower astonishes again and again with its piercing color, but even without it, it is a breathtaking place.

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Near the top of the mountain, the rain turns into a misty drizzle. The clouds take the view away from us and still, there is a fantastic feeling of accomplishment. Us against the elements. On El Torro's nose.

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But I am beginning to feel the cold of completely wet clothes. We need to keep moving.

My camera has developed ten degrees of moisture in every crevice, but gallantly, it keeps functioning, as I keep trying to find some half dry corner of shirt with which to wipe down the lens. The air is humid, misty and cool.

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We make it back with only a few mud slides. And no twisted ankles. At the Rainforest Inn, I hose myself down outside and take a very hot shower.

In the late afternoon, we drive into the nearby town (on the coast). We walk past food stalls serving fried mystery foods. Ed buys a coconut and we share its milky juice.

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But we’re hungry for more. A reader suggested we try shrimp mofongo and we find a place down the road that serves it and its huge.

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It’s dark now. The fruits stand next door looks like it’s ready to close for the day.

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We pick up a bar of chocolate at the grocer's and head back to the Inn.