Rainforest nights

The nights in the jungle are always special. It's like when we go to a theatre and at the moment before starting the function they turn off the lights and everything is in absolute darkness. We, the spectators, at that moment fill ourselves with excitement and enthusiasm for what is to come. In the jungle, when the lights go out, not only is there no light but there is no silence either. The absence of visual stimuli makes the vibrations of the sounds of the nocturnal symphony of bugs around us stand out. It is so intense that it shakes the body. There is nothing to see, just listen. Meanwhile, the trees and plants contribute to the magic by releasing the oxygen that cools the usually torrid tropical air.

In the village, life continues normally during the night. The Bayaka gather since shortly before dark. Sitting here and there in groups, while organizing the fruits of the day's gathering, they gossip, talk and laugh. The women come and go with their baskets and the children help prepare the food. When night finally falls, the only light that remains is the faint light of those small fires where each family is gathered cooking.

In Louie's house and the neighbours around us, it is a time of bonanza. Today we will eat the blue duiker that they hunted during the expedition of the day. We also have a lot of coco leaves (an edible leaf that has nothing to do with the coconut fruit), mushrooms, the omnipresent manioc and a surprise that I did not expect: a basket full of honeycombs overflowing with honey brought to us by neighbours.

All but the men contribute to the cooking. Toto, Mame and other children unscrupulously gut the little antelope. For them, it is only food and there is no connection whatsoever with that of a living being. The different pieces of the animal are distributed among several families, everything is shared. Sitting in the penumbra around an oil lamp, Esanga and Ngodi then remove the skin and cut the pieces of meat, peel garlic and other vegetables. Agathi prepares a casserole full of manioc and the sauce of coco leaves of a very dark green colour where the meat is stewed.

Inside the house, illuminated with the dim light of a solar lamp, Louie is focused on his reading, listening to classical music in low volume while with the tranquility of a monk, he rolls a long marijuana joint. At the other end of the table I'm with Toto and Mame sitting on top of me while I read them a story using my headlamp. Of course they do not understand a word of what I tell them but it is a moment that we enjoy very much, almost as if they were my niece and nephew.

When the food is ready, we sit on the floor in the penumbra around a small oil lamp, which with its oscillating fire makes the shadows dance on the wooden walls of the small room and reveals different fragments of our faces and bodies, leaving the rest invisible. It could be the result of the hunger we all have after a long day in which we used up all of our energies, that we eat mostly in silence, with the sound of the jungle in the background. It is a magical moment in which I feel Louie, Agathi, Mame and Toto as my family.

After dinner comes the dessert, the most magnificent dessert I could have ever imagined. The Bayaka, especially women, are addicted to the sweetness of honey. The men obtain it directly from the hives located in holes within the trunks of the tree canopy. To get there they risk their lives, climbing up to 40 or 50 meters high with feet and hands and without harness of any kind, with a basket on their backs. From below, the children and the women who accompany them burn leaves to generate smoke that temporarily wards off the bees from the hive. When the man reaches the top, he is surrounded by a hellish swarm of irritated bees. Sitting on a branch with his feet hanging in the air 40 meters high, they sting him unscrupulously over and over again, while he puts his hand in the hive to extract large pieces of honeycomb dripping the irresistible golden nectar. Many Bayaka die every year as they fall from the treetops, but they do it for one reason only: their women. They get in a very bad mood when their men do not bring them honey. If this is not a sign of love (or fear) then what is it?

I have never been especially crazy about honey, until the day I tasted this honey, directly extracted from the honeycomb and understood what real honey is. Here we eat it directly by introducing the honeycomb in our mouth. When squeezed between the tongue and the palate, it melts with the softness of a paper, turning into a small roll when all the cloying honey floods our mouth with flavour. This delicacy is indescribable and when I express my absolute amazement as a result of what I'm feeling, Louie tells me: - "And you know what's best? That a honeycomb never tastes the same, the taste changes all the time and it's always delicious". Something that I could I could prove by myself during the following days when tasting honey from different hives. Few things will be as hard for me to forget as the magical taste of this honey.

One more day has come to an end. The jungle overwhelms the stimuli. I go back to my mosquito net illuminating the dark trail with my headlamp and I lie down quietly because I know that the nocturnal melody will soon put me to sleep me like a baby. I never thought that I would wake up a few hours later in the middle of the night when I would feel noises and see torch lights in Louie's house. I did not understand what was happening, so I decided to head over there and find out. It was 4 am and the whole house reeked of gasoline. There was an invasion. Louie explained to me that a platoon of legionary ants had entered, (those that used to bite me all day when I cycle through the jungle) and they had devoured the entire porcupine that we were supposed to eat tomorrow. In just a few hours, they left only the bones. Such is the joint power of action of these ants, whom the Bayaka eject by spraying gasoline.

After a while, I went back to my mosquito net to sleep. I said at the beginning that the nights in the jungle are special. Each night is different, and each night is special. Every night is unexpected. Tomorrow, I'm off for a few days to meet the third and last foreigner who lives in this remote place in the end of the world, Rod, a South African who sent me an invitation to spend a few days at his hotel, several kilometres upstream along the Sangha. With him, his wife and some of their friends who were visiting, I would spend some time until returning to my Bayaka family.