Sleep in a tropical rain forest.
First off, you won’t. Most jungle animals are nocturnal, so just as you’re climbing into your hammock, 10,000 creatures will start shrieking and thrashing around, fighting and fleeing, splashing in the river, shaking and occasionally felling trees, and tossing papayas around as if it’s the Olympic discus finals. An awful lot of monkey sex will commence. The deeper the sun sets, the louder it’ll all get, until the idea of a peaceful night in the woods becomes an entirely North American memory.
Before it gets dark – and by dark I mean you won’t be able to see your own chest – everything you know about camping will have proved useless in the jungle. You won’t have pitched a tent, for example. The ground will spring invitingly from the six inches of leaves atop it, but every square meter will be a dense metropolis of creeping, slithering, fangy creatures. The only defense against them will be distance. A $400 tent might keep out bugs, but a $10 hammock does the job even better, because bugs don’t generally carry ladders.
The flying insects can see in the dark, however, so you will put some fabric between you and them to avoid waking up with welts the size of boiled eggs or a touch of the dengue. You will pull the fabric over your face and lie back. For the next eight hours you’ll be suspended four feet off the ground, surrounded by the roar of the world at its most untethered. “Vegetation rioted the earth” in the rain forest, wrote Joseph Conrad, and you’ll be at the center of the riot. Animals will sprint under you and leap over you. You’ll hear a rescue helicopter, turn on the flashlight you cleverly tied to a laundry line run over the hammock, and the light will reveal a hummingbird the size of a jackrabbit.
Around 3 am a previously unheard and especially worrisome noise will remind you of the danger from pythons and tigers, and you will dart upright and look around. You’ll fish your folding knife out of your bag and put it, ridiculously, in your pocket. You’ll know dawn is coming not by the light (the sun can’t make it through the canopy until midday) but because the noise starts to die down. All you will soon hear are the leaves falling from the trees, which sounds like soft rain. Then it will start to actually rain. But you won’t feel it as you climb out of the hammock, because the leaves on the trees at your level are larger than most umbrellas.
When you are having breakfast – it’s safe to eat now; the tigers are sleeping – you’ll feel as you did after your first time scuba diving a coral reef. For a night you were amid a world that exists parallel to our own but scarcely connected to it. The temperate forest will never mean the same thing. Waking up indoors won’t mean the same thing. Nothing will. Spending a night in the rain forest will be the most exhilarating night of your life.
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