The World of Wonder: Nothing

you can't always get what you want

August 5th, 2016

When your job is looking for animals whose livelihoods depend on not being found, it goes without saying that not every expedition will result in the objective being met. 

You can know where the animals live. You can know their behavior, where they go to get water and when. You can get advice from people who know them better than you do on the best ways to approach them. You can tread carefully, letting the animals come to you instead of forcing yourself upon their territory. You can want it so badly that every fiber of your being is dedicated to sending that energy out into the natural universe. And what do you get?


There are no guarantees in life, thus there are no guarantees in nature. I'd imagine species decline affects overall chances of spotting wildlife as well. Point is, just because you want something doesn't mean you're going to get it. Just because it seems like a sure thing doesn't mean it is, even when you believe you have the skill necessary to make it so. Reality is the antithesis of expectation. 


Here's a good example. Shortly after nightfall a few weeks back I boarded the La Capitana pontoon boat at Martz Farm with the goal of searching the dark river for the luminous orange-red eyeshines of freshwater Morelet's crocodiles. The boat looked like it was meant for hosting parties, with a grill on board and everything. Despite the craft's apparent lack of hydrodynamics, Captain Lazarus (over yonder) was skilled in navigating it up and down the placid waters of the Macal River, making it easy to cast spotlights at the river banks, which would reflect back that eyeshine I mentioned. Together with a local guide (my friend Louis) we traversed the water until almost one in the morning, using every trick in the book to catch that crocodilian gleam.


There wasn't a tapetum lucidum (reflective organ in the eyes of nocturnal animals) to be found. In fact, there wasn't much of anything at all. A freshwater shrimp here, a tree frog there, and even those took quite a bit of work to discover, including a machete-chopping session that showed me why you can't go into the jungle without one. 

A green iguana (Iguana iguana) with a powerful grip

A green iguana (Iguana iguana) with a powerful grip

Squirrel cuckoo (Piaya cayana)

Squirrel cuckoo (Piaya cayana)

Sneaky little bats blending right into the stone

Sneaky little bats blending right into the stone

So, the exploration was a bust, crocodile-wise. I'm happy about the iguana and the bats and the many birds. Despite not seeing crocs, I consider it the most magical night I've spent in Belize by a long shot. Gliding through the jungle with naught but the milky way for light was a childhood dream come true. I counted four shooting stars that night, wishing for the same thing each time with utter delight. There are no stars where I live - at this stage in my life, getting to wish on a falling star seems more like magic than reality. But there I was, doing it.

I always envisioned myself as some kind of an Indiana Jane, exploring untouched rainforest with the hopes of finding mysterious creatures, toughing it out in nature, entirely in my element. It turns out that the realization of that fantasy was fulfilling by virtue of being out there and actually doing it, and less tied to the expedition's success. The journey, not the destination, as they say. Of course, I wasn't exactly raised in the wild, so the execution of the skills I am only just beginning to learn were elementary at best.

In any case, I could have spent my whole life dreaming that I might be this person without ever testing it out, scared that said skills were too underdeveloped to make a serious go of it. 

Yet going out into nature allowed me to challenge the notion that I'm the city girl everyone thinks I am. Even though it was only one night, I got to see who I was when presented with sleeping in a jungle hammock on a pontoon boat next to a waterfall. It turns out I'm someone who is adaptable, who can sleep very comfortably, and had no problems in that regard whatsoever. 

I got the chance to discover that this version of myself does exist, and is more in line with my core self than whoever I've become over the past few years. I love this version of myself, this animal-seeking adventurer who has been hiding behind a very comfortable life that no longer suits me, no longer belongs to me. 

Even my inner voice was speaking up on the topic. "This is your job, Ali," it reminded me. "This is your office. These frogs and birds and beasts are your coworkers. This can be your life. This is your life." Seeing nothing didn't seem to matter much at all in the end. It felt like something, even if it wasn't what I expected.  

Beyond personal revelations, that nothingness followed me through Belize. That trip was weeks ago, before my two week expedition into the rainforest, and there is plenty I haven't seen that I was hoping I would have encountered by now: the jaguarundi, a blue-crowned mot mot, any snake that wasn't dead. Now I'm at the end of my journey in this country, my business attended to for the time being, with a long unchecked list of animals: a whole lot of nothing. It's all part of the job. It's part of nature. The world isn't always going to be ready just because I am.

I wish this was as bad as it got :(

I wish this was as bad as it got :(

It's not like I didn't try. My boots are broken, destroyed by the tough conditions of the Chiquibul. My backpack is broken, mended once before quickly returning to disarray. My body is broken, from the long-gone toenails to the angry red bug bites that cause anyone who sees them to become alarmed. I don't know how I accumulated so many bruises, but they let me know of their existence whenever possible. The blisters on my hands prove I've never actually worked a day in my life. I'm exhausted from constantly trying to tend to my wounds, which is probably why everyone I meet here asks me if I'm tired. I can admit it: I am tired, really tired. I could use a lot of baths and naps. 

Fortunately I can soothe my cuts and mend my shoes, but I haven't found anything to dull the pain in my chest, to stem the flow of tears that blend in so easily with a tropical sweat.

My heart is broken. I did not get what I came here for. I got a lot of it, a big version of it, but five weeks in Belize was not enough to accomplish my goals. I am lovesick for a place I must leave. Lovesick for the open skies, the constant symphony of birds, the blunt wisdom I don't want but definitely need. My heart aches with the thought of returning to a life I don't recognize, a life carefully built over many years, the facade of which crumbled within days of being where I'm supposed to be. 

Fortunately, two weeks in Colombia stands between me and reconciling my identity. Maybe exploring the jungles of Colombia is the exact medicine my little heart needs. I'm skipping Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama for now, because 3-4 days in each would not do any of them or their animals justice. 

The takeaway from all this is that even if you get nothing, you probably got something. And if it's not good enough, don't stop trying. Regroup, reframe, and don't take the rejection so personally. Something better is coming your way. 

Over and out,

Ali Wunderman

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