The following two narrative nonfiction stories are excerpts from Búsqueda de la Visión


1. a light greenish blue color
2. water

Seventh Full Moon • April • Water Caye, Honduras

They all showed up at once: The scuba diving certification, the ear infection, the dysentery, and several million sand flies. Between dizzy restroom visits, I helplessly watched the vile creatures collect inside the fan-blown folds of my mosquito net; the mesh was too loose to keep them out. Desperate for relief, I tried imitating the islanders and lathered myself with a thick armor of coconut oil. Unfortunately, the scent of sweet, slime-basted Yankee proved irresistible for them. All I could do was hope that my poisonous blood would give each one of the little twits a miniscule case of dysentery all its own.

That night, I stared through useless window screens at a comet smudged across the sky, white on black. It was a large-scale reverse image of the hundreds of tiny sand fly corpses smudged across my body. Guts on skin.

Something had to change.

The next morning I packed my things and rode aboard a small speedboat to the Promised Land, Water Cay. Barely bigger than a football field, the coral reef island was rumored to be too small and breezy for the wretched critters to congregate. I decided to make camp near a dread-locked, German rocker and a pretty French Canadian trapeze artist whose abundant red welts suggested they’d come for the same reason I had—refuge from the bloody siege.

As soon my hammock was up, the Canadian giggled and applauded. “Congratulations.” She said. “Now you’re one of us—the lucky ones. We’ve found Paradise. No more sand flies. Instead, sans flies!”

Easily, sleepily, we slipped into a natural island rhythm. Occasional Caribbean swims punctuated days that morphed one into the next. Sometimes together, other times alone, we waded out into the shallow lagoon, stepping gently in the soft sand, warning the camouflaged rays to flutter out from under our feet. The low tide revealed dazzling sandbars that provided vague destinations as we slowly traversed the seemingly endless expanse between our island and the next. We floated aimlessly in the warm, salty water, gazing out past patches of darker turquoise to the crisp line where the water’s edge met the cerulean sky.

Soaked and serene, we returned to our shady camp and climbed into rope hammocks slung between short, bent, coconut palms. Rocking gently, we dipped in and out of long, breezy naps that promised to heal our wounds. Lulled by the sounds of waves and palm fronds brushing against one another, we were three human pendulums, keeping the only time that needed keeping through the rhythm of our hammock sways.

But darkness unleashed its own mysteries. At night—every night—we avoided shining our flashlights upward and tried to focus on the stars, ignoring the rats that ran across the branches arcing over head. And they weren’t the only creatures stirring in the shadows: Once I woke up and went to look for the bottle of water I’d left inside my pack. Reaching in I jumped back, horrified.

Every square inch of it, inside and out, was alive with a throbbing colony of yellow ants. I scanned the area with the beam of my flashlight and spotted an undulating galaxy of insects spiraling in and out of the same palm trunk my hammock was tied to. Luckily the ants didn’t seem interested in the hammock itself, and by morning they had all disappeared back inside their tree. From then on, I got everything I needed from my pack well before the sun went down.

One night, the three of us meandered down to a tiny beach to watch the full moon rise and reminisce about perfect days in paradise. Luminous pieces of sun-bleached coral crunched underfoot. Once wet and alive, the scattered fragments were slowly chipping away at each other, becoming sand. Without coral our dry island wouldn’t have existed, nor would the other thriving marine life that drew us all there. We loved our island. We loved our moon and the way its light scattered across the surface of the water.

Then, we noticed something else. There was another kind of light out there—a small area of the water that seemed to be glowing from just beneath the moonlit surface. None of us had seen anything like it before. We reassured one another that the visitation wasn’t imaginary. But we couldn’t deny that it felt hallucinatory, mythical—impossible.

The glowing patch of sea moved slowly toward us until we could see that the light was being emitted by a group of swirling, swimming…something. Lots of somethings. There must have been twenty or thirty separate entities. It was difficult to say how big they were— maybe the size of a scuba tank; we couldn’t clearly see their shape or approximate their depth.

They seemed to see us, too, because they approached the shore and lingered. Were they watching us watch them? We shifted around to find the clearest view but, not wanting to scare them away and being a bit frightened ourselves, we stayed on land. They stayed in the water.

I wondered aloud if it could be a school of fish stirring up bioluminescent plankton.

“Are you shitting me?” said the German guy, “Those things aren’t fish. Look at ‘em, the way they move—like glowing chiffon dresses on slow motion dancers.” His grasp of English was impressive. He’d mastered it reading Tom Robbins novels.

Searching for any explanation I could find, I glanced skyward and noticed the comet, still visible. Though it was actually sailing though space incredibly fast, it seemed motionless, suspended in the sky—a bright ball of light with a long shimmering tail twisting along behind it. Somehow, the past few days had stripped away its sinister implications. Now, it was a perceptible sign of the vast, unpredictable beauty of the cosmos. When I looked back at the creatures I decided they could be water comets. They must have been at least as rare, and they were certainly as extraordinary.

They began retreating, moving back out into the deeper water, until finally we couldn’t see them at all. We lingered, hoping the strange aquanauts would pay us another visit. But once would have to be enough; none of us laid eyes on them again. Still possessed by thoughts of the creatures, we meandered back to our hammocks and climbed in. The rats were squeaking again, but I decided not to ignore them. Maybe they weren’t so bad. Maybe they were just misunderstood.

A breeze kicked up, rocking the hammock ever so slightly. I pulled my sleeping bag tighter around myself and took one last look at the comet before I fell asleep. In just a few hours daylight would once again flood the island and the mysterious nocturnal world would be banished to the past and the future, the places of memories and dreams. Eventually I would come to believe that what we saw that night was a school of bioluminescent squid. Looking back, it still strikes me as the most plausible explanation, but I’ll never be completely convinced they weren’t water comets.


1. the color of growing foliage, between yellow and blue
2. inmature in knowledge or judgement; untrained or inexperienced.
Eighth Full Moon • May • Corcorvado National Park, Costa Rica

At the edge of a tropical isthmus that bridges two continents, a mountainous tangle of forest is separated from a churning expanse of water by a string of crescent shaped beaches. Along one of the beaches, pandemonium has broken out in the upper branches of an immense mango tree. There, hundreds of scarlet macaws are performing loop de loops from their perches, straining to reach and devour every last morsel of ripe fruit. In the process, the rambunctious throng is casting off copious debris: chunks of mango flesh, pits, broken branches, torn leaves and excrement litter the ground and smaller trees nearby.

Beneath the colorful racket, a lone woman is sitting cross-legged on the beach. Unlike her boisterous neighbors, she’s almost completely silent—barely noticeable. She’s squinting into the tropical glare, watching wave after wave tumble over itself and spread foam up onto the beach. She is waiting. The pounding heat has made her lethargic; she barely moves. That she is a stranger to this place is obvious to every living creature that sets eyes on her.

Suddenly spooked, the macaws scatter from the branches of their tree like noisy rubies taking flight from a leafy jewel box. They swarm toward the sea in a synchronized aerial ballet, then disintegrate into distant silhouette dust. One bird separates from the others and dances solo back over the woman, who momentarily stops sorting red and green beach stones to glance skyward. From her vantage point, the noisy speck of a bird is almost completely eclipsed by luminous sky.

A wisp—something weightless—begins to spiral downward. Slowly, it flutters toward the woman.

Is it a feather?

I reach out to catch the single plume, just as the bird, having shed what talisman could be offered, circles back out to sea to rendezvous with his flock.

Considering the entire expanse of beach, it seems almost impossible that this feather would fall right where I’m sitting. I’m convinced it’s a gift from a spirit of the forest—a good luck charm of sorts. Twisting it back and forth in the sunlight, I see it’s embedded with filaments of scarlet indigo light. It distracts me from preoccupations about the hike that lies ahead. Before coming to Latin America, my fondest wish had been to see a jaguar in its natural habitat. Now that I’m here I’ve changed my mind. I’m hoping just the opposite. I wonder which request the feather will grant.

I tuck the new charm flat into my sketchbook, making sure its edges won’t get torn. Then, brushing pebbles off my sticky skin, I stand up and march back along the stony beach to the ranger’s station where I’ve arranged to have dinner and spend the night. Some hikers skip this station and only spend nights at the other two on the circuit. Still, it’s imperative to check in, pay the fee, and let the park system know your plans. If you go missing, it’s best if someone knows it. On the way in, I check the tide chart on the bulletin board. I count the hours and confirm that the best time to leave will be well before sunrise, the moment high tide reaches its peak.

Timing is everything for the first leg of the trek into Corcovado National Park on Costa Rica’s Osa peninsula. If you leave too late, or walk too slowly, the shark-infested tide can strand you for too many dehydrating hours on scorched rock outcroppings. I’m taking all the precautions I can think of. I’ve packed plenty of drinking water and as little else as possible. I can do this.

I think.


4 am is a lonely time.

Imaginations run wild in those long haunted hours. Familiar sounds are unnaturally loud and ordinary objects obscured in the shadows are transformed into hideous fiends. A coat draped on a chair looks like a crouching beast. The rhythmic tic-tocks in another room sound like footsteps.

And no simple flick of a light switch could chase away my chimeras. The electricity at the ranger’s station had been turned off for hours, and I was about to set out alone into an unfamiliar landscape where the dangers were real: the ocean was patrolled by sharks, the lagoons were haunted by crocodiles and jaguars stalked the forest. Most frightening of all were the snakes. I dreaded encountering the nocturnal Fer de Lance. Local people claimed it was one of two species of venomous snakes in the world that attack unprovoked; they slither faster than you can run. Luckily, once bitten, you only writhe in agony for about fifteen minutes. After that it’s all over.

It made no difference if my eyes were open or closed; I couldn’t see a thing either way. An invisible frog gulped and belched somewhere in the darkness. I rolled up my mosquito net and stuffed it into my pack. I shook out my boots to dislodge any spiders or scorpions curled up inside and, unable to see what fell out, shook a few more times to be safe, then slid my feet in and adjusted the laces by feel. I hoisted my pack on, tightened the straps, and took a deep breath. Guided by sweet, piercing insect chirps, I shuffled toward the door.

The sound and smell of pounding surf greeted me as I emerged into the fresh night air. A full moon stared out from behind eerie clouds hanging near the horizon; blue-white flashes of lightning ricocheted off the surface of the water.

I hesitated. The obscured beach was nothing more than a sliver at its widest point. The violent waves were crashing right up into the forest, obliterating the beach altogether in some places. But I knew nature wouldn’t wait; it was time to go. I thought about the macaw feather, took another deep breath and started moving forward, one blind step at a time.

As I made my way down the beach, I had to brush up against the edge of the living jungle to escape the black waves nipping at my ankles. I ducked under newly fallen trees crawling with real and imagined creatures.

I slipped back into the sand and gravel almost as much as I moved forward. With each futile step, I became more determined to rest for an extra day when I made it to the next ranger’s station—assuming I would even make it.

It took almost an hour for the tide to relent. Then, through the young, misty daylight, I could finally see the succession of virgin beaches that lay around every point. One was a solid field of rock, strewn with tide pools and ghostly ship bones; most of the others came in various grinds of gravel and sand, ranging from golden powder to multicolored stone. Behind me, a wobbly line of precarious little dents trailed off into the distance. Mine were the only human footsteps that would scuff the beach that day, and they’d all be wiped clean by the next high tide.

I willed myself forward one ephemeral step at a time, marching along in a trance produced by the gravelly rhythm of my own steps. I became lost in an imperceptible thrust of forward motion as the spinning earth propelled each crescent beach farther into the sunlight.

Suddenly I halted.

I’d almost stepped on a paw print bigger than my hand. It was fresh. It was feline. A primordial chill shot through my flesh. Focused and alert, I glanced around and nervously shuffled my options. Would it be best to make a lot of noise? Play dead? Run out into the ocean and take my chances with the sharks? Or can jaguars swim anyway? I scanned the shadows behind the wall of trees. Nothing moved. But was it there? Was it watching?

Eventually I was able to move again, but it was only a few more steps before the beach dead-ended into a rocky precipice. For the first time, the trail wound up into the darkness of the emerald forest. Still shaky from my close call, I opted to pick my way along the cliff instead. About half an hour later, I was still dangling in more or less the same place I’d started, and the fear of death from crashing, shark-laden waves finally superceded the fear of jaguars and snakes. It was a bit of a surprise, then, to find the cool embrace of vegetation so deeply soothing. It was strangely reassuring to be on the same terms as whatever was watching from the darkness—to be another set of eyeballs peering out into the light. Away from the driving white heat of the beach, I moved through pools of fragrance in the air. They were the scents of humid earth, chlorophyll, and unseen flowers. Others were harder to place. They reminded me of something rotting. My response was primal. Instinctual. I hunted for the source of each odor, trying to learn its meaning, but the language of the forest wasn’t easy to decipher.

Back on the beach, a hullabaloo of chattering monkeys caught my attention. The whole clan was congregated in a single tree, which to non-monkey eyes looked exactly the same as all the other trees. Babies hung from the backs and bellies of mamas who avoided rambunctious youngsters. Friends and lovers munched on greens and preened one another. One of the larger ones spotted me. He dropped his fruit and starting screeching wildly, attracting the attention of the others. Then the whole crowd started egging each other on. One by one they moved closer, as more monkeys made their way from the other side of the tree. In time, all the branches facing me were packed with inquisitive faces. Somehow, they were so human. I wondered if they saw anything of themselves in me, or if I was just a novel threat. “What do I look like to you?” I asked quietly, underestimating their acute hearing. One brave soul had an answer. He took my vocalization as an invitation to drop to the ground. Another followed. Then more jumped down and started lurching toward me.

It was one thing when they were in the tree and I wasn’t, but now they were approaching on my territory. They might have been less than half my size but I had a long way to go; I didn’t need any trouble with the locals. I had no idea what a gang of monkeys might be capable of so I spun around to hightail it out of there. My sudden reaction sent most of them scrambling back up the tree. I guess they had no idea what I was capable of.

A few hours and several monkey trees later, I spotted an unmistakable mark of the ranger station, a long corridor of shorn grass used as an airstrip for small planes. Exhausted, I plodded toward a cluster of wooden buildings at its far end, almost oblivious to the astounding array of plumed and tufted birds gathered at its edge. A lanky, soft-spoken ranger welcomed me and took me up to the open, second story of one of the buildings. I arranged a foam mattress on the floor, and strung up the mosquito net that would eventually be the only thing coming between my sleeping body and seething populations of both bats and mosquitoes.


I ate breakfast with the longer-term inhabitants of the station. The ranger was speaking quietly with a guy in a rumpled white T-shirt, while the cook, a rather masculine, middle-aged woman, directed her attention at me. She kept shaking her head and calling me loca for walking into the jungle alone. A boyish German intern was only one who spoke English. I told him about the paw print I’d seen. He agreed; it probably was a jaguar’s. In his three months there, he’d seen dozens of tracks, but was still waiting for just one glimpse of the animal itself. “You rarely see them,” he said. “But they see you.”

The guy in the T-shirt nodded. In Spanish he said, “If you want, you can come check the traps with me later.” I had no idea what “the traps” were. My mind formed a vague picture of overgrown jungle rats. But then, I had a whole day to kill; might as well have a look behind the scenes.

On our way through the forest, he showed me a tiny puddle of water gathered in the center of a bromeliad, a spiky-leafed air plant that grows in trees throughout Latin America. “The tree frogs live in these little ponds,” he explained. “No frog here, but maybe we’ll find one later if it starts raining. They sing when it rains. Makes them a lot easier to find.”

He chuckled when I finally strung enough Spanish words together to ask for clarification on our trap-checking mission. “What part did you understand?” He asked. I shrugged. “None of it?”

“Maybe not. My Spanish? Not so good.”

That cracked him up. He made a noticeable effort to annunciate very clearly, “Vamos a ver los trapas para jaguars.”

“Jaguar traps?” I repeated.


“You catch…jaguars?” This was too much.

“Yes, I hope. Already caught one.”

That good luck feather was really something. I’d come with this guy on a whim. I never dreamed he’d end up being the first biologist to trap and tag a live jaguar with a radio transmitter. I asked why National Geographic hadn’t done a story on him and he said they were coming in July. He happily answered all my questions—usually several times to be sure I understood.

“We’ve dispelled a lot of myths about jaguars since we started this work. For instance, they need much less territory than we used to think. Sometimes their territories even overlap. Hey, have you seen any peccaries yet? Those little, wild pigs?”

“No, why?”

“Well, when we looked at the jaguar scat—you know, shit—that’s what we found. They’re a jaguar’s favorite meal. So we tagged a number of them. Since we keep track of the peccaries too, we can tell that my jaguar is almost always following them through the forest. She’s smart, huh? Never far from dinner!”

“Are peccaries all they eat?”

“No, they eat a lot of different animals. They get fish and other seafood from river shores and tide pools. They can swim and climb trees. Once in a while they go after monkeys.”

That brought up an inevitable question, “How about people?”

He laughed. “No, they rarely attack humans. But they do follow us through the forest sometimes. They’re curious. At times I can see from the radio signal that my jaguar is less than 50 meters away. But she’s totally silent, completely invisible. It’s amazing—”

“Wait, smell that?” he asked. I sniffed. I did smell something. It was the same decomposing smell I’d kept trying to identify the day before. “That’s peccary scent. They must have just come through here—Look, new tracks.” He pointed at some muddy imprints in the trail and looked around. “My jaguar could be watching us right now.” I held my breath, penetrating the green space with every sense. Nothing moved.

Traipsing from trap to trap, we were disappointed each time to find an empty cage with a whole fish still hanging inside as bait. Unlike me, the biologist wasn’t discouraged. “Maybe later. I usually check them three times a day. Come on, let’s look for sea turtles.”

An exciting prospect until I realized we were looking for corpses.

“It took forever to catch my first jaguar,” the scientist told me. “Back then nobody even thought you could. But they just didn’t know what kind of bait to use. I spent months observing them; got to know all their habits. They hunt the turtles that come up onto the beach to lay their eggs. Jaguars are the only creatures strong enough to rip through the underside of a turtle shell, but it’s still hard work. Since they can’t eat the whole turtle at once, they keep coming back for days to finish it off. Gourmet turtle meat; that’s the way to catch a jaguar. So if we find one from last night, I’ll hang whatever’s leftover in my traps.”

We scoured the beach for miles with no luck, probably due to the extra high tide of the full moon. Turtles need space to lay their eggs, and won’t come ashore unless there’s enough beach.

Heading back, we took a short detour. From atop a grassy hill, we watched dim shadows lurking beneath a muddy lagoon. “Crocodiles,” he said. “Big ones; about three meters long nose to tail. Now those will eat people. But only if you get in their way. We’re probably pretty safe here.”

That was comforting.

I was still on the lookout for crocs when we reached a small creek we’d waded through earlier. The biologist grabbed my elbow. “Stop,” he said. “Look, there at the mouth of the stream.”

It took a minute to make out anything other than the shallow water flowing into the ocean. And then I saw them: Four enormous shark fins protruding from the water side by side, no more than eight or ten feet apart. I could have reached out and touched the fin of the one closest to us. We sat on the sand while they hovered in the same place for nearly an hour, mouths pointed upstream, gobbling up an easy meal of fish that flooded out of the river at high tide. Once the tide went down, they were gone.

If I’d been alone, I would have waded right into the sharks’ path. All that life everywhere was so easy for untrained eyes to miss. The imagined dangers were just that—imaginary. But the real dangers were so close you could touch them. It was a matter of paying attention to what the forest knew, of knowing where to look and how to behave. Or in my case, being fortunate enough to experience it with someone else who did.

I was hooked; I wanted more. That night we went out to find more crocodiles. At the edge of the grassy airstrip we almost bumped into a male tapir, about the size of a cow. He kept his pace, casually sniffing the misty air with his trunk like snout. He didn’t seem alarmed, but wouldn’t let us come quite close enough for us to touch him. We walked along beside him until he lumbered off into the forest.

I was satisfied with the outing before we even reached the lagoon. Anything else would be a bonus. Safe inside the rowboat, we shined our flashlights around the bank and caught several pairs of iridescent blue eyes. “They’re all small. Probably caimans,” said the biologist. “Let’s keep waiting; maybe we’ll see some bigger ones.”

Suddenly his flashlight caught a different reflection. “Look there!” he whispered, “That’s no crocodile, it’s a cat! A jaguar!”

The jaguar: queen of the forest—supreme predator. For an instant her eyes flashed in the light. Then her graceful, spotted form slunk swiftly out of sight.

In seconds we were out of the boat, examining fresh tracks that disappeared into the dark, leaf-strewn forest. No doubt she was still nearby, paying careful attention to the humans poking around in the mud. Most likely, she recognized the specific sound and scent of the biologist, who she’d met before. But the new scent of a female may have warranted casual notice. Who knows how long she stayed there before heading off into the night to satisfy her hunger? Under her cover of darkness, she was in charge, and we were, once again, the watched.