Updated: April 17, 2022 | Posted: April 9, 2021
“Last night I dreamt of San Pedro,” I belted out the beginnings of the famed Madonna song from 1987. I can’t believe I was singing. And doing it in the middle of the rainforest in Costa Rica. But it was a last resort. It was a survival skill. I had to evoke Madonna and “La Isla Bonita” or I wasn’t sure I’d get back on that plane to the Arizona desert.
Let me explain.
During our study abroad week in Costa Rica’s La Selva Biological Station, we students hiked with our tropical biology professor through dense jungle for our tropical biology field assignments. Setting up motion-detecting trail cameras and observing the flora and fauna species were some of our responsibilities.
Our minds were only occupied on juicy fruit and tender chicken.
Alas, we weren’t at our field station’s cafeteria for dinner quite yet. We had to haul our sorry butts out of a rainforest.
And because we were on a tight class schedule, there were times that we had to hustle to and from our assignment locations like frantic leaf-cutter ants. Quickening our hiking pace through difficult terrain was good exercise — maybe too good, especially on one particular afternoon.
Time isn’t on our side today, I thought as the students and professor lingered in the jungle, struggling to find ideal locations to set up the trail cameras. We had pushed the boundaries of our tight schedule too far. Late afternoon came upon us.
Based on our assigned groups, some of us could start heading back to the fruit platte— I meant, field station grounds.
Our legs were already sapped for the day, but we kept dragging them anyway through the Costa Rican rain forest. We couldn’t see far through the dark green, claustrophobic vegetation.
Trudging through the mud, stepping over the logs, I tried to ignore the rigid interior of my rubber boots. “These shoes will protect you from snake bites!” the field station people said. But you never said anything about them causing an absolute blister shitshow, I thought at my feet started to form thick bubbles.
Us desert folk — the whole class flew here from Arizona — toiled through the humidity as if we were swimming against a river current. Breathing that hot, moist air felt like having a spa blanket over the face. Sweat trickled down our sticky bodies, diluting the pungent mosquito repellant on our skin.
My classmates and I grumbled — a lot. “Argh. All I wanna do is eat! Are we anywhere near the grounds yet?” we asked to no one in particular.
As an avid traveler, the dreadful “Are we there yet?” question rarely burdens me. But this was one of those times. The return hike seemed to stretch on much longer than the hike in, as if the forest added extra trail distance to make fun of us pitiful humans. The spastic greenery of tree and plant leaves lurked around every corner, every bend.
Which brings us up to the point when I decided to start exercising my voice box.
You wanna play that game, jungle? Hmm? Fine, then. I just remembered that in my arsenal, I always carried this one valuable item wherever I went. No, it wasn’t a comfy pair of sneakers or a fruit snack.
The jungle could take away my hiking stamina but not my love for singing. I still had my voice box and song lyrics planted deep into my memory.
It was time to sprout into song while trotting through the rain forest, even though it felt like an atrocious deleted scene from Disney’s The Jungle Book.
“Last night, I dreamt of San Pedro
Just like I’d never gone, I knew the song
Young girl with eyes like the desert
It all seems like yesterday, not far away
Tropical the island breeze
All of nature wild and free
This is where I long to be
La Isla Bonita”
This last lyric, meaning “The Beautiful Island,” is the song title from superstar Madonna. It felt so appropriate to be singing this in a Costa Rican jungle, like a bucket item item I had just made up on the spot.
I sang song after song to manipulate time. Somehow, the raw joy from singing aloud makes time whiz by.
The songs weaving through the humid air entertained my classmates, especially a student named Marisa, who had a rough struggle with today’s hike. She giggled as I sang. We all forgot about our miserable feet and time itself. We could occupy our minds on music. I could also focus on my breathing practice while singing (and trudging through the jungle, no less)!
The strange musical did its job. We couldn’t believe how quickly we had arrived at the research station. Like a yellow eyelash pit viper jolting forward at its prey, we sped off to the cafeteria and unstripped all our backpacks once there. I helped myself to the colorful arrangement of a fruit buffet, as if I were the fruit-loving animal that was in my research project, the mantled howler monkey.
Throughout the next few weeks of our study abroad trip, my friend, Marisa, kept coming back to me as if I were some sort of jungle rock star. “Every time I see you, I can’t help but think of… ‘La Isla Bonita!'” she said. I felt flattered.
And since then, I’ve sworn to keep practicing my singing skills. If I harnessed the power of music to carry my friends and I out of the thick Costa Rican brush, then I could conquer all the inevitable bad days ahead of me using song.
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Featured image photo credit: Anita Magyar