Lost in the Jungle

I walked alone in the jungles of Panama, trying to find something that looked familiar. After hours of wandering, and seeing what looked like the same scenery, I realized that I was in serious trouble. Was that the same coconut tree I saw a few minutes ago? And a few hours ago.

Slowly, fear wrapped its fingers around me, and my heart beat rose to match my increasing panic. As the seriousness of my predicament set in, I found myself fighting to slow my breathing and clear my head. A stream of sweat flowed across my brow and stung the corner of my eyes as it continued on its path to my soaked t-shirt. Heat radiated around me, trapped by the humid air in this Central American jungle.

I tried to gather my thoughts and assemble them into some form of logic, but it was like herding stampeding cats. I attempted to wipe away the sweat that was stinging my eyes, but my moist hands were little help. I had to pull myself together if I hoped to find escape from this jungle prison. It was difficult to remain calm, knowing that one of the paths before me led to freedom, and the rest led back into the labyrinth of foliage.

This journey started as an innocent plan, when my curiosity pushed me into what I thought would be an adventure-less trip into the jungle. This all began when my military unit was dispatched to Panama for a three-month exercise. After leaving Panama, I would be exiting the Army, and I thought it would be interesting to tell my friends back home that I picked coconuts directly from the jungle. I never dreamed that this would become an adventure with life or death consequences.

My unit wasn’t given much freedom to leave the base, but when opportunity presented itself, I slipped away from the post without giving much preparation or forethought to my plan. I took no water or provisions with me, and being a seasoned soldier, I didn’t tell anyone where I was going, knowing that it would be easier to get forgiveness than permission.

I took a casual hike away from the protection of the base, and followed a trail into the jungle. Chattering insects echoed an energy that matched my excitement for this stroll into nature’s lair. This would be a quick trip. Other than the prizes I would bring home, no one would even know I had gone.

The trail led to a natural grove of coconut trees, but the locals had already picked the fruit. A web of trails sprawled outward and I carefully chose the one on the left side of each grove I passed. I made a mental note of which path to take back as I trekked ahead. Soon I came to another grove, but this patch of trees had been harvested as well. Forging onward, I took careful note as I walked toward the trail on the left. My disappointment grew as I found each grove empty. The jungle was getting thicker, but I decided to venture just a little deeper. To my delight, I soon found six trees filled with coconuts. I struggled up one of the trees and knocked down three coconuts.

Triumphantly, I turned to take my trophies back to the base, but felt the air squeeze out of me at the sight before my eyes. The trail on the left side coming in was somewhere in the middle of the tangle of trails going out; therefore, taking the far trail was no longer an accurate visual reference. The pages of my mental notebook peeled off and blew away. I hoped this would not be a problem since I still thought I had a general idea of which way to go.

At this point, I must make a confession. I have a terrible sense of direction. I do well when I have a visual point of reference, but my internal compass is quite defective. For example, once I swam across a lake near my home. Since it was a long swim, I decided to do a leisurely backstroke. After a great while, I looked up to see why it was taking so long. Several times I looked up to see my progress, but always found myself in the middle of the lake. Witnesses said that I made three wide circles before turning over to finish my swim.

I looked for visual references to avoid making circles in the jungle, but to my dismay, everything looked alike. I walked down the trail I was sure brought me in. At the next grove, I took care to select the most likely route that I hoped would lead me in the right direction. I had passed five groves coming in, so I should pass five going out. One…two…three…four…five…six. One grove too many. I back tracked and started again.

I continued this game of jungle pong until I realized that I didn’t know where I started, or where I now stood. The happy songs of the birds and insects seemed to turn into mockery and taunts, and the walls of foliage closed in on me. As my fear welled up, the pressure built, and I was almost overwhelmed with the urge to erupt in an outburst of panic. I wanted to run in circles shouting that I was going to die, but I resisted, knowing that it would only make me die tired.

So there I was, lost in the jungles of Panama. By the time anyone realized I was missing, my life would already be in the balances. Even if someone did discover my absence, who would know where to look? Praying for guidance was the only option that came to mind as I faced off in a death match with fate in this lush, living maze that surrounded me. What seemed like an easy escapade had turned out to be an entanglement from which I saw no escape.

An idea struck me as I remembered that the base was near the canal. Maybe I could hear the water on the shore. Standing motionless, I inclined my ear. The jungle shouted at me as I combed through the collage of sounds, searching for the trickle of water. Again, and again, I searched through the forest of noise, but found nothing. For just a moment, the harrowing orchestra seemed to fade and a sound emerged. It sounded like a distant lap of water. It was so faint that I wasn’t sure if I had identified it correctly, but since it was the only hope I had, I lumbered toward it.

I was losing precious water as my body grew weary. My skin was saturated, but my mouth was like cotton. The humidity of the jungle prevented sweat from performing its function. Without the cooling effect of evaporation, my body continued to pump water through my pores in a futile effort to find relief from the hundred-degree heat. When I swallowed, I felt my throat stick and tear loose. The thought of it caused me to swallow again. I diverted my attention away from my dry throat by focusing on the sound of water, now growing louder as I hurried toward it.

I pressed through the sticky heat while mosquitoes danced around me as they prepared to dine. As I neared the sound of water, I found that the jungle had already erected a barrier of vines to prevent my escape. The vines were slightly thicker than a honeysuckle, but surprising in their strength. The net was three feet thick and stretched across the trees as it climbed thirty feet skyward.

I unsheathed a knife and began to saw. To my dismay, the vines were stronger than expected. I lost precious energy and time as I struggled to hack through one strand. This would not be an option. I walked along the tangled mesh, looking for a break in the vines. I found only one gap and it was thick with elephant grass. Elephant grass consists of long, razor-sharp blades, which would not be kind to my exposed skin. Its thick foliage is also a favorite home of biting insects and jungle predators.

This cluster of seven-foot machetes also would not be a good option, so I returned to the vines. Perhaps I could force my way through and either break or uproot enough of the snaking barriers to wiggle through. I lowered my shoulder and bulled my way into the mass. As I pressed, the net contoured to my body. When it began to tighten, I pushed harder, grinding my feet with all my might. I heard no crackling of twigs, or ripping of roots. Not a good sign. The only sound was my grunting and the noise of my sliding feet when they lost traction. I was hurled backward, and my body pounded hard onto the jungle turf. I would never make it through these vines.

I dared not to venture back into the jungle to look for another way, so elephant grass it was. I looked at my hard won coconuts and sighed as I placed two on the ground. I needed at least one hand free. I tucked the other like a football, said a prayer, and dived into the grass. I squirmed through with surprising speed, fueled by the desire to avoid meeting any new jungle friends. I opened my eyes as I emerged from the lush shredder and dropped onto the shoreline of the canal. My arms were stinging with cuts and bites as I panted with exhaustion, but I was free from the grasp of the jungle. The base looked to be a dot on the horizon as I staggered to my feet and began the journey back.

I often look back on this experience and see how it serves as a metaphor to life. Life is filled with consequences that arise from imprudent decisions, and one misstep lands us into unforeseen mire. Circumstances encase us in what seems to be insurmountable odds, but through perseverance, we often overcome the impossible. Like taunting insects and birds, people offer wrong advice, and we battle the despair of our own emotions.

Perhaps this is why I love writing. Out of the pages emerges both triumph and tragedy. It is ironic, but stories of tragedy and triumph cross the same paths. In a tragedy, the story ends when the plot crumbles into despair; however, this is where the story of triumph begins. With triumph, the story takes new direction when all hope appears to be lost, yet the individual claws out of the ashes and perseveres to overcome.

In life, all one needs to do is give up in order to end in tragedy. A person who yields to tragedy becomes a heartbreaking story for some, a lesson for others, but they provide little inspiration. This cannot be said about triumph. People are inspired by those who have the courage to forge through the circumstances that should defeat them. Since defeat is inevitable, the triumphant should, for all practical reasons, give up. Yet, they choose to persevere. They may lose, but the glimmer of hope, the ‘what if’, drives them forward. They are driven into perseverance, knowing that there might be a thread of deliverance that cannot be seen without wrestling against the odds.

My experience in the jungle has shown me that the odds are with those who persevere, and most do indeed overcome. The greatest challenge is not the mountain of impossibility, but the overwhelming urge to give up. How many dreams are buried in the graveyard of discouragement because someone accepted defeat? Success is not to the most gifted, but to those who wrestle with endurance. The successful climb over their own shortcomings, and then set out to conquer the mountain.

My death match in the jungle made life sweeter when I emerged. This has taught me how to approach life. Success has less value when it comes easy; however, it is like honey when I’ve been forced to taste the bitterness of failure. The harder the failure, greater is the satisfaction of success. I hated the jungle during my peril, but today, I wouldn’t give up that experience for all three coconuts!

James 1:12 Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.

  • Eddie Snipes






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