By far the most dangerous animal to humans on the entire planet earth, the mosquito is an adversary to be feared. With the biological weapons of yellow fever, malaria, dengue, and others in their arsenal, mosquitoes have the capacity to massacre large numbers of humans. They attack in swarms with relentless viciousness and they are even suicidal. If I was ever to choose an animal to symbolize all that is bad and evil in nature, I wouldn’t choose a snake, I would choose the mosquito. So the question presents itself; is it possible to be nice to a creature as horrible as a mosquito?
My first three days at the Tres Gigantes Environmental Station in the Paraguayan Pantanal settle into a routine. I awake before sunrise, have a quick breakfast and set out walking in the early morning light. It takes about an hour and a half to traverse both big loops of trails and I always see a variety of creatures among the jungle flowers. With the help of a little cannabis and the sparkling sunshine, I’d describe the experience as kind of mystical.
After my walk, I return to the screened in porch outside my room, sit in a comfortable chair and write my travel stories in a notebook. About midday, lunch is served and it’s always a substantial feast; asado one day, chorizo another, chicken with pasta and a delicious fish. My god, these rangers know how to cook and eat. After lunch, I siesta for a couple hours, appreciating seriously the modern marvel of the solar powered ceiling fan. I awake in the late afternoon and begin another meditation. I smoke a joint and head out walking in the jungle amid the sparkling afternoon light. Once again, it takes about an hour and a half to do my loop de loop. Along the way, I seek out jungle creatures and attempt to apply the principle of “niceness.”
“Niceness” is a theory of mine, or rather a belief system, that I’ve come to understand over the course of my travels. I come from the United States where the dominant culture and foundational structure of the legal and economic system is an ideology of radical individualism. According to the American ideology, free will is predicated upon a belief in the purity of selfishness. The rational man uses his intellect and skills to compete in a challenging world. Winners win; losers lose and civilization as a whole evolves to become a better place. For many years now, I have thought that this belief system is delusional. Indeed, I would even say that the United States ongoing attempt to impose this ideological structure on the entire world is the single greatest problem the planet earth now faces. “Niceness” is my own personal alternative vision for understanding how people and societies should and can relate.
According to niceness theory, the belief in pure selfishness is not based on reality. All human beings and all living creatures have a communal or selfless instinct that counterbalances their individual or selfish instinct. Free will is derived from the tension between the two equal and opposite forces rather than through the dominance of one force or the other. Communism is delusional because it seeks the victory of the communal instinct. Capitalism is delusional because it seeks the victory of the individual instinct. The extreme of selflessness is suicide for the good of the people or martyrdom for god. The extreme of selfishness is mass murder for profit. “Niceness” is a word I use to describe that magical place right in between the communal and the individual instincts. Thus, when I meet fellow humans on the pathway of life, I don’t seek to take advantage and thereby improve my position in the great competition, and I don’t sacrifice all my own wishes and desires in order to save others from themselves. Instead, I only try to be fair and be nice.
Recently, I’ve been attempting to expand the concept of “niceness” from the human world into the plant and animal world. After all, didn’t the Buddha say that even a blade of grass has a Buddha nature? As I wander the jungle trails all around Tres Gigantes in the Pantanal, I find myself in the perfect place to experiment with this concept.
It’s easy to be nice to monkeys and it’s easy to be nice to birds. They fly and swing all around me in the trees but they always keep to a comfortable distance. I speak to them in Spanish and English and wish that I knew Guarani. But really, the words themselves are not important because most communication is non-verbal. I use a calm, easy voice and try to project kindness hoping the animals will get the message from me. It seems to work. The monkeys and birds don’t flee the scene. Instead, they hover around like they are curious to know me. Of course I’m no Dr. Doolittle. They don’t come right up and sit on my shoulder to chat in English. But they don’t run away frightened either. Perhaps I exaggerate, but there seems to be some kind of bond or magic spell between us. They don’t like my camera though. Perhaps it’s not nice or maybe I’m a bad wildlife photographer. But whenever I take the camera from it’s case, the connection seems to break, the animals get excited and race away from the scene.
It’s not quite so easy to be nice to caiman, piranha or jaguars because any of those animals could theoretically attack and hurt or even possibly kill me. Fear is the poison that destroys niceness and overcoming fear is the key to a miraculous existence.
“You can swim in the river if you want,” say the rangers, “the caiman and piranha won’t bother you as long as you keep moving to demonstrate that you are a large animal.” This is an interesting challenge for me. I want to swim in the river because the temperature is about ten thousand degrees outside and the river is cool and refreshing. But there are caiman (small alligators) in the river as well as piranha and I’ve seen too many Hollywood movies to not have concerns. My rational brain understands the facts. Caiman only get to be six feet or so long (they are not African crocodiles) and while they are dangerous to small dogs, chickens or possibly infants, full sized humans are not a part of their diet. Similarly, piranha are interested in easy targets, not big humans with moving powerful limbs. Too much back float or lounging around might confuse such creatures into thinking I am edible. Or if I attack them they would certainly fight back. But as long as I maintain a balance between projecting strength and size but not threatening them, I have no fear of an altercation. It’s really just a question of effective non verbal communication.
It takes me three days of intense sweaty heat to overcome my subconscious irrational fear. But after I watch one of the rangers swim, I decide to do it too. It’s late afternoon and the sun is setting when I finally take the plunge; a truly glorious experience. Swimming with piranha and caiman in a river of the Pantanal. How good is this life? So good I can hardly believe it. I’m stupid though, and overconfident so I relax into a back float to watch the colorful setting sun. The nibble I feel upon my shoulder blade is not enough to hurt. But it scares the shit right out of me and I scramble frantically out of the water like a terrified extra in a B-movie. The ranger sitting on the dock laughs so hard he almost falls in the water. The question I contemplate after the fact is an interesting one. Did the piranha mean me harm or was he merely trying to communicate?
Meanwhile, there is no doubt about the jaguar’s intentions. If he or she wants to attack and kill me… She can. And when I see one cross my path during my second morning’s walking meditation, I almost have a heart attack. But really, the same principle applies. I’m a carnivore who eats chicken and beef. But I have no wish to kill every cow and chicken I see. I can’t say for certain, but I think the jaguar feels the same about me. I am tempted to make up a story about how the jaguar looks at me, smiles and wishes me luck on my journey. But in reality, she just dashes off into the jungle before I can snap a photo. Do we communicate? Are we nice to each other? Not exactly. But at least we don’t do battle. Actually, it may not even have been a jaguar because I only caught a glimpse. Sometimes my over active imagination transforms giant anteaters into giant cats.
By far the most complicated animal for application of “niceness theory” is the mosquito. There is no doubt that I see them; hundreds of them, thousands of them… millions perhaps. I’ve never seen so many mosquitoes in my entire life. It is also true that mosquitoes in these parts have been known to carry both malaria and yellow fever. In other words, my fear of them and dislike of them is neither irrational or illogical. A part of me wants to go on a killing spree and murder every single mosquito I see. But I don’t. Instead, I try to be nice. My rule is a simple one. I only kill mosquitoes that come inside my screened in sleeping area. All the rest, I merely shoo away.
It’s really the same technique I use for piranha and caiman in the water and stranger humans in the outside world. I wear a hat, long sleeves and long pants and I walk at a steady pace so as not to make myself seem vulnerable. But I don’t project anger or hate or fear. Instead, believe it or not, I try to appreciate the beauty and importance of the mosquito. After all, without the mosquitoes as a food source, these amazingly incredible colorful birds that are flying all around in the jungle, would not be here to entertain me.
After one week of walking in an around the jungles of Tres Gigantes where I am surrounded by millions of mosquitoes… more mosquitoes than I have ever seen; I only have three mosquito bites on my entire body and no yellow fever or malaria. After fifteen years of traveling four months a year throughout the Americas, Africa and Asia, I have only been robbed on two occasions and I’ve never been seriously hurt. So you tell me… Am I just lucky? Or is there something to this niceness theory?
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