The End of the Tail

By Michelle McAlister


As I lay on my back in my over priced jungle-view suite, I consider the chore of carting out the tailless iguana that has taken up residence in my room. The trapped reptile sulks in the corner, and like me, he’s contemplating his next move. I watch his nub of a former tail visibly thump and pulse; his severed spiked appendage lies beside him giving the impression of two scaly loafers chilling in my AC. I don’t exactly know when or how this all happened, I just know that since arriving in Costa Rica four days ago, there is always someone special and unexpected waiting in my room for me—and it’s never the pool boy with the deep tan.

Exploring the lush landscape of Costa Rica was the next destination on my tattered, pocket-sized list of ‘Places to Go before I Die’. Although I had briefly visited the Central American country before, it had only been a six-hour tease. The floating prison on which I was held captive—colloquially referred to as a ‘cruise ship’—had given me a lick of a succulent land and then hastily yanked it away. The shady banana plantations and sticky sultry air however had sealed within me an insuppressible yearning to drink more of the Caribbean nation. For this reason, I never officially scratched Costa Rica off my list.

When I finally make it to Costa Rica again, I wind up in its congested capital city, San Jose—a stark change from the slow-paced eastern coast where I had previously spent time. Instead of the listless pie-eyed east coast locals, fast-talking city dwellers vrooming on mopeds take their place, whizzing past me in a sea of smog and deals.

Brochures, hotel guides and billboards proclaim eco-friendly partnerships dressed up in slogans like ‘Living with Nature’ and ‘Nature First’. When I peruse the brochure’s top-stock glossy pages, it appears the howler monkeys and 3-toed sloths in the scintillating photographs have no complaints. But as I head out of San Jose and traverse the outlying jungles, towns and verdant valleys, I quickly realize that despite the brochures’ promises, there are just some places where foreign feet are not meant to tread.

As I head out of San Jose towards the northern central Alajuela province, the mountainous region unfolds into an open blanket of leafy emerald hills bumping up against the ashy grey lava-strewn Arenal volcano. We stop at the first hotel we see facing the volcano, and that’s where I first meet the tailless iguana. My boyfriend, Kenny, immediately heads to the hotel’s sterile cool pool. He jumps in, swims up to the floating bar and swishes an icy banana daiquiri down his throat. But I don’t do any of that. Instead, I trek back to the room, back to the tailless iguana.

When I get back to our room, nature’s haste stupefies me. In under five minutes, a trail of smart ants, marching in militaristic cadence, has already expeditiously honed in on the iguana’s severed appendage. The hushed pitter-patter of their opportunistic legs morosely glides the tail across my tiled floor. Swarmed in a sea of red ravenous mouths, the ants are unstoppable, bigger, and more aggressive than any other ant species I’ve ever encountered. The lizard and I are both grossed out beyond belief. But we are powerless against this army, so we watch in stupefaction as the tail, hovering like a phantom appendage, makes its way under the door, out to the jungle where the ants will feast tonight.

I leave the iguana and walk back to the pool. As I follow the path, I spy a millipede with his 265 or so odd number of legs inching their way across the heat-soaked concrete walkway towards the manicured gardens. I stoop down to get a closer look and marvel at his funny winding body. And as the smile on my face spreads wider, the flip-flop foot of a careless yapping teenager from Tulsa cuts short the millipede’s garden-side quest, squashing out the squat adventurer’s life. The Oklahoman keeps walking, clumsily advancing her blotchy plump body, reddened from the equatorial sun, towards the pool. The millipede’s death crushes me; I harbor the guilt the Oklahoman will never feel.

Days later, Kenny and I step out into the sticky jungle night alight with streaming red lava from Arenal, dressed up, ready for a romantic evening beneath the fireflies. We decide on a restaurant built halfway into the jungle—a Costa Rican novelty I just can’t get enough of. As the hostess leads us up the stairs to the jungle-top table, a mammoth-sized flying grasshopper buzzes and darts in and around eye-level. His paper-thin legs are connected by four knobby joints, slightly bent, dangling down from his exo-skeleton body—it’s a wonder he can achieve lift-off. I try to dart out of his way, but the flying insect bangs into my chocolate leather purse. He falls to the stairs. Thud. The flying beast spins on his back, buzzing. His transparent wings flutter, vainly, mechanically trying to get flight. My $300 chocolate leather purse has maimed the grasshopper beyond repair and somehow my giant purse and I have foiled the grasshopper’s flight plan, ruining his nightly routine. The hostess scoots him off the stair with her high-heel and he spirals down to the floor with a last final thud. She giggles. I grimace. I hug my gigantic, albeit lovely, purse tightly against my chest, knowing that I am inadvertently altering some sort of natural selection.

When we get back to our hotel, somehow, another neighbor has managed to drop in unexpectedly. On the wall just outside our front door, another paler smaller quasi transparently green lizard has hatched its offspring in the sultry evening. The babes crawl on the wall beneath our porch light, soaking up the warmth of the 100-watt bulb. Two spotted red-eyed green frogs surround them. It looks as though were late for guests, patiently waiting at our front door, ready to come in. We duck as we enter, but not for the sake of the frogs or the baby lizards, but for the clawed beast that has been making scratchy noises, tiptoeing atop our tin roof since the day we arrived. When we enter the coolness of the room, I find the tailless iguana on the balcony, alone, gazing out at the setting sun in the Pacific sea.

I lie back down on the bed and think back to the glossy brochures promising a seamless mesh of nature and man, but it doesn’t exist; eco-tourism can’t exist. In Costa Rica, everywhere I tread, my clumsy steps alter the eco-system. I was sorry to leave Costa Rica because I knew I would never go back. Its vast hungry jungles refuse to be cut back and trimmed down, even near the most expensive, luxurious ‘eco-friendly’ hotels. The life of the jungle voraciously battles to reclaim its land, sending in troops—one ant, one iguana, one frog, one millipede at a time, constant invasive reminders that although we have paid money to rent the room, they still own the land.