My guide takes me to one of the little houses and onto the porch, where I examine gourd rattles and water jars, and a balsa wood drum whose head is an iguana skin. I select several and hope I have enough cash. The lot costs me $28, about a third what I was expecting to pay.
A woman and her son come out and we talk awhile, with my guide interpreting, about medicinal herbs and the shamans who were the indigenous people’s only healers before western medicine arrived. She tells me she doesn’t understand how these modern doctors can expect to heal disease if they don’t understand either the spirit of the disease or the spirit of the person they are treating.
Suddenly she steps up to me, her eyes full of alarm, and her hand brushes my cheek.
“No mosquito,” she hisses softly, looking me square in the eye. “No mosquito.”
I am not frightened by the gesture until I realize that she is. As kindly as it was meant, it is a chilling reminder. When the U.S. State Department and Centers for Disease Control warnings were urging immunization in the tropics against the dreadful diseases that lie waiting for the unwary in the dark humidity of the jungle, this is what they were talking about. This place, right here. Lulled by the fascination for extending my reach and expanding my knowledge, I have come, I realize, to my moment of greatest danger.
I thank her, take her picture with her son and we take our leave. I try, as we walk back down the trail toward the car, not to think about clouds of little malaria-filled mosquitoes lurking in the shadows. I try not to run.
As pleased as I am at this moment by how far I have come on this journey, I have never felt quite so far away from home.