In no time I was galloping around as desired and man what a rush! The wild bush woman, breaking the bonds (figuratively) of her boring existence, coursed through the jungle, adrenaline fueling her fire, 'Don't Stop Me Now' by Queen blasting in her head.
Haven't you ever felt on top of the world - awesome and free? Capable of doing anything you want? Usually I get a taste of this sensation when I am partaking in some sort of physical endurance activity and pushing my limits. It's the feeling you get when you successfully land that jump while skiing or when you sprint the finish line of any race. That's what I was feeling and it really was exacerbated by being largely unable to challenge myself physically.
Well, down the path I went. It took me past giant dalo plantations and copra cutting patches, vestiges of human presence scattered about. The path continued to branch until all I could mentally imagine was a giant tree laid out through the bush in the form of these dirt roads. It didn't matter much to me that they were branching; all I had to do was follow them backwards and they would funnel me down into the first one that connects to the road.
And then I got cocky.
A brilliant idea occurred to me. I remembered that the last time I had come down this path, we had continued our way right until we crossed a river, then we followed our way down the river path back to the main road. I knew that I had been running perpendicularly away from the road and if I turned right, I would eventually hit the river and I could then follow that in! How excited I was by my own cleverness at avoiding backtracking the way I had come, which would of course be boring.
So when I reached a clearing with a variety of paths branching off of it, I jumped onto one leading right. It quickly dissolved however and was decidedly no longer a path. But I didn't care. I knew where I was and I just had to keep going straight and keep the mountains on my left. Of course I would hit the river; I mean it flows down from up the mountains all the way past the road and into the ocean...I would come to it eventually.
Meanwhile, I was not just running anymore. I started climbing trees, doing running jumps over dead logs landing with a shoulder roll. I found strange little clusters of trees that formed tight tunnels and worked my way through them. I practiced my long forgotten taekwondo and remembered how to pull off a 360 turning kick. I worked my way through thick grasses like corn fields and even fought my way through waist deep mud pits.
I'm shaking my head as I'm rereading this. I mean, what on earth was I thinking to go off like this on my own? But it didn't happen that way, it was all very small and subtle decisions that I kept making - just a little further - all with the idea that it I could turn around at any point and just go back. Trouble was, I had gotten so carried away with having fun and pushing myself, my straight path turned into some absurd maze.
Finally, I started to slow down. I looked at my watch and was shocked to see that it was 5:40pm. It had been almost an hour since I left the bus stop. And it would be dark within thirty minutes, probably less than that given the bad weather and the dense tree canopy blocking out light. The temperature started to drop and I started to feel the rain chilling my skin. I had nothing, absolutely nothing with me. I was wearing my work out capris and an athletic tank top; I had tied my rain slick to a tree once I started down the bush path, having been hot at the time.
Suddenly, I was not having fun anymore. The realization that I had not reached the river yet, which is only about 100 yards further up the main road from the bush path entrance was highly worrying. Surely after 45 minutes in the bush I would have covered that distance and hit the river? I remember it being closer when I had crossed it with friends before. But then I was following a path, and had Fijians who knew where the heck they were to guide me. That sunny afternoon sharing stories and collecting ferns seemed like a dream.
What the hell had I gotten myself into?
I started to run again. Sprinting would be more accurate; I knew time was not on my side. I found a path and turned right, continuing on in the direction that I believed the river should be in. After a few minutes of huffing rain, I came to a clearing at the base of a mountain. How the hell had I come so far inland to reach the mountains? I had no idea where the hell I was or where the river was. My only chance was to find my way back. But how? I had taken so many stupid jaunts left and right, the way back to that original path could be anywhere. I could tell it was getting darker; the sky was deepening its grey.
With no other reasonable option left, I turned around and sprinted back the way I came. I reached the path and decided that perhaps I should back track on it, thinking perhaps it was one of the many branches of that giant dirt tree. I found a path that veered left, which was still the general direction that I needed to head, well it was more correct than right or back, which obviously led deeper into the bush to the mountains. I followed it for a few minutes, it started to incline and the terrain began to change. This was not right. I turned around. I got back onto the path and continued to follow it. It was starting to get difficult to see. Then abruptly, the land dropped out from under my feet and I fell down the embankment into the river.
The river! It was swollen from the heavy rains and had a strong current. I looked down as far as I could see, hoping to see the bridge in the distance but there was nothing. I started to work my way down it with the current when a horrible thought occurred to me. I was in a slightly panicked state and was not thinking so rationally. It was nearing 6pm, which meant (on that particular day) that it would be the peak of high tide. During high tides, many rivers become flooded from the ocean and the current temporarily reverses direction along the flat areas, creating a briney pool at the base of mountains where the river flows down and meets the sea water.
What if I was following this the wrong way? The thought that I was flowing deeper into the forest obviously panicked me further and I immediately jumped out and scrabbled up the rough embankment. I fought my way through the difficult small bushes lining the water and found the other side of the path I had been on. Beginning to run again down the path and leaving the open space of the river, I realized that darkness was very near indeed.
I was very tired and I was very cold. I continued my sprinting and knew that I was going to spend the night lost in the bush. Cold, wet, alone, and hungry. There was no shelter, everything was soaked. I felt ashamed of myself for being such an idiot, when usually I consider myself to be a rather rational person. Thinking about the consequences of my actions before doing them. I was confident that I wouldn't die. That I might suffer from slight hypothermia but that I would be found by someone the next day or that I would be able to make my own way out once it was light again. The thing that was bothering me most was what the village would think not only of my careless behavior but of my incompetence with navigating through the bush; it would confirm the belief that I was an inept white girl but who was too foolhardy to know it. I feared that they would never let me do anything after that, but make me stay home and treat me like a child. Then I worried what Peace Corps would do, probably terminate my service for being an idiot.
I started calling out wildly.
Maybe there was still someone out here, on their way back from the farm or tending to their livestock. But no one responded to my calls. I kept running and calling. I was aching from head to foot. I checked my watch it was 6:05pm and I could just make out trees and the path as I continued forward. The darkness was playing tricks on me; I kept seeing branches that weren't there, swatting wildly at the air and connecting with nothing.
Up ahead, I could see a dark mass piled onto the path. What the? I approached it, still sprinting, as it didn't make much sense to do anything else. When I got close enough I realized it was a pile of coconut husks from people cutting copra. I stared at it, then noticed the angle of the path that crossed over my own and I realized that I had passed by here very early on.
Hope flooded through me. I knew it with every once of my shivering being that this was the very first copra pile that I passed after starting down the bush path. I turned left and sped along the path, feeling my energy slightly renewed. I passed through a field - you can see this from the road! I kept going. I saw something pink - my jacket! I stopped, untied it, and promptly put it on. Soaked or not it made me minutely warmer, though maybe that was an illusion. I took ten more steps and reached a clearing that spread far off to my left and right - the road.
Never in my life have I ever felt the urge to kiss the ground I'm standing on, but like a ship wreck survivor reaching the shore, I collapsed in a pile in the middle of the road and caught my breath. I was saved. For some unknown reason, I was spared the grueling and shameful experience of spending the night lost in the bush. Why was I to be let off the hook? I didn't care. I didn't question the luck. I just pushed myself back up and, though it was the last thing that I wanted to do, I started to run. This time I knew where I was going.
Halfway back, a lori stopped and gave me a lift to the village road. By the time I arrived, it was pitch black. I made my way up the village road to my house and no one saw me. I showered, bundled up in some warm clothes and went next door for our village's monthly fundraiser - a grog party. People asked why I was late, why I had cuts and bruises, why I had an angry red patch on my leg, which is a reaction to a plant called salato (named for its likeness to being stung by a jellyfish). I told them the truth more or less. That I was late coming back from my run and that I had fallen a few times during it. No more questions were asked, and we spent the rest of the night drinking grog, playing cards, and listening to music.
That night I slept like I had never slept before, nice and warm and safe in my bed.