Misadventures of Remote Exploration
At some point during the summer of 2008, I found myself at a remote biodiversity research station located deep within the dense jungles of the Amazon Rainforest. While there, I came face-to-face with the definition of the world’s actual most unwanted houseguest.
In order to fully understand this experience, no – this ordeal – of mine in a way that properly drives home the gravity and horror of what unfolded before me on that fateful night in 2008, one must fully understand two aspects of Tiputini Biodiversity Station where this tale takes place. First, the genuinely remote and incredibly isolated location, and second, the affect that location has on the nature of the actual structure in which this saga took place.
New Meaning to The Phrase “Remote Location”
Situated a little over 200 miles ESE of Ecuador’s capital city of Quito, and named after the murky river on which it sits, the Tiputini Biodiversity Station (TBS) is only accessible after completing a carefully orchestrated series of transportation maneuvers. For me, my journey to the Station included two flights, one public bus complete with chickens in the overhead bins, several hours spent in the back of two different 4WD trucks careening down mud “roads,” and a final two hour trip down the swirling Tiputini River by way of a rickety motorized canoe.
While that two hour canoe trip appeared to be a nice, rustic introduction to the Station, it was actually the only physical way to get there. This means that a narrow motorized canoe just like the one I was sitting in was the only available mechanism capable of moving everyone and everything to and from the Station at all times. That means no roads for trucks, no helipad or landing spot for helicopters, and no water routes deep enough for a standard or even just reasonably sized boat to get through.
It’s canoe or bust, baby.
This means that when TBS was built back in 1994, its creators needed to circumvent the issue of building permanent living structures capable of withstanding the inhospitable characteristics of the Amazon Rainforest using only materials that could be transported by way of wooden canoe…
When A Remote Location Is A Logistical Nightmare
Ultimately, those clever founders (sort of) figured it out, and went on to create what are now semi-affectionately known as “The Bungalows.”
Each Bungalow has essentially the same characteristics: creaky, untrustworthy floors built on a foundation of stilts, patchwork walls made of plywood and/or cardboard with spotty carpentry and a thick thatched roof beneath one thin layer of tin roofing. The Spartan furniture inside each Bungalo comprised of two cots, a small bookshelf-like structure, and several candles in lieu of electricity. Amenities included a washroom area to left of the cots with a single nozzle capable of delivering a memorably cold shower behind a tarp-like curtain, all of which was situated unsettlingly close to a fairly outdated version of a composting toilet.
And so it was there. Within the earnestly ramshackle walls of TBS Bungalow #6, where what many would consider to have been an unimaginable lapse in luck took place, and where this small saga of personal terror played out.
Part II: When The Spidey Senses Start To Tingle
After dinner during my second night at TBS, and beneath what had turned into an extraordinary blanket of humidity, I left the main dining hall with a friend and began the long walk down a series of winding paths back to the Bungalows. The jungle had become a deafening symphony of sounds we had never heard before, making it impossible to tell if the next noise was a water droplet hitting a nearby palm, or a jaguar coming in for a closer look – both genuinely viable options at that time of year.
I remember realizing just how on edge we both were when I noticed how quickly and sporadically the beams of our flashlights had begun to dart around. Like a pair of poorly-handled search lights, our dueling beams seemed to land on everything within our general vicinity except for the undulating path that we needed to be watching. It’s a small miracle no ankles were broken in the process.
After an unnecessarily stressful trip back thanks to my over-active imagination and heightened awareness, the old Bungalows finally came into view. I could see the light of a candle flickering from inside the small window of my Bungalow, telling me that my roommate had already returned from dinner. An actual relief at the time. I walked up the steps to my front door and paused, knocking the mud off my shoes as best as I could, while talking to my roommate through the closed, paper-thin front door. After banging my boots against the steps one last time, and upon feeling relatively satisfied with my mud reduction technique, I turned, placed my right hand on the doorknob, twisted it open and stepped inside.
When I opened the door, my roommate, who was sitting cross-legged on her cot, looked up from the book in her lap. She smiled, began to say something, and then stopped. I only-half noticed her odd expression and abandoned sentence as I leaned down to drop my boots against the wall. Thanks to some combination of plain old laziness and the actual need to maintain my balance while bending over in sock feet and situating my boots, I had kept my right hand gripped tightly around the knob while letting the door remain slightly ajar behind me.
Out of nowhere, a piercing, high-pitch shriek that was full of nothing but undeniable human terror shot through the heavy air around me, sending cold shockwaves of fear and confusion pulsing through my veins.
The Shriek Heard ‘Round The Amazon
At this, I snapped my head up to look at my roommate. Her terrified cries were now reaching decibels I was unaware the human voice could attain, while her body, seemingly unattached to her wild, animalistic eyes, was clamoring backwards against the wall furthest from me. With her back pressed firmly against the wall which groaned and protested against her weight, her left hand suddenly shot up and pointed directly at me. Following her trembling point, I whipped backwards to look behind me, fully expecting to see something dangerously menacing and imminently life-threatening standing behind me.
There was nothing.
Desperately, I scanned my surroundings for danger while straining my eyes to somehow see past the black expanse of humming nighttime jungle, and willed them with every fiber in me to figure out what my roommate was pointing at. Confused, I turned back to my roommate who I was now assuming to be in the throes of some kind of psychological episode or to be suffering an incredible hallucination caused by her malaria pills.
But then I saw it.
I saw it the second that I had once again turned my back to the door. I froze instantly. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw what looked like a massive, jet-black hand slowly coming around the outside of the door that was still slightly open. Frozen in place, I watched as it moved in cruel slow motion around the side of the door just centimeters above where my hand was still gripping the knob.
In utter terror, I ripped my hand away, kicked the door shut, and recoiled away from the threshold. It was then that I realized what I thought was the massive, dark hand of an intruder attempting to slowly push the door open from behind me as I stood in front of it, wasn’t human at all. What I had thought were human fingers, were actually the long, hairy legs of an enormous tarantula that was simply the size of a human hand, and was slipping inside through the open door.
I shot across the room to the far wall where my roommate had crumpled to the floor in a panic-stricken heap while a new series of ghastly realities set in. Not only had I just effectively closed this oversized, hulking piece of Amazon jungle horror into the Bungalow with us, but I had also knocked it loose from its grip on the door when it slammed shut. Upon losing its footing, the hell-beast landed – with an audible thud and a skittering of oversized legs – on the floor directly between us and that door.
As if taunting us, the jungle demon was now standing on our floor, fully alert and facing us with both of its long scraggly front legs raised above its body – unmistakeable tarantula-speak for “I’m pissed, and you won’t like what comes next.” And since that message was received loud and clear, neither of us had any inclination to so much as breathe in its general direction, let alone try to move it. Instead, its enormous body remained tensely while planted firmly in the exact spot that put it physically between me and my only exit route away from it.
I had a serious problem on my hands.
A Failed First Rescue Attempt
It should go without saying that the howling and screeching only intensified tenfold from then on, which brought fellow Bungalow dwellers running. Thinking an actual murder or worse was taking place, someone came thundering up our steps, and began feverishly banging on our door which had now conveniently automatically locked itself from the inside. (Also my bad).
The banging outside only elevated the situation from bad to worse – fast. Suddenly, that creature from the seventh ring of hell had done an about-face, and had begun to hustle straight up the side of our wall, stopping just beneath the window next to the door from which it had originally entered our lives.
In a moment of clarity, I recognized the frantic voice outside that was now responsible for agitating this unwelcome, foul-tempered creature and screeched out a plea for him to stop banging in a voice that didn’t sound like mine. Complying, he moved away from our door, but quickly jumped over to our window and pressed his face up against the screen, looking in at us while trying to figure out what was going on. Looking in from the exact vantage point provided by that window, he would have seen my roommate and I, frozen, eyes glued to something (our crawling intruder from Dante’s Inferno) on the wall that was just below his line of sight. Basically, he would have heard and now seen the mass hysteria taking place in Bungalow #6, but he would still have no idea what was causing it.
That’s when my roommate decided to participate. In a shrill wail of utter panic, she cried, and I quote, “there’s a spider in our room!”
A Matter of Perspective
Now, what she probably meant to say, was “there’s a spider in our room that’s bigger than my face, and oh, by the way – it’s a tarantula, it’s probably poisonous, it’s moving, and it would be really, really great if you could go get help.”
Instead, she told our only present and available hope of assistance that we were making end-of-life sounds because “there was a spider in our room.” Great.
For a moment, nobody moved as we all seemed to think through how heartbreakingly pathetic the situation at hand now appeared to be after her ever so literal, yet not so informative input. In tense silence, our friend stared at us through the window, we stared at the tarantula inches below his face, and the tarantula stared back at us. And into our souls. With all of its eyes.
From outside, our friend unleash a vicious barrage of you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me style insults, throwing one hand up and slamming it against our window screen in frustration. This startled the multi-legged intruder and prompted it to climb further up the wall, over the small window sill and and on to the window screen itself. Then, as if it knew what it was doing, it stopped squarely in the middle of the screen which our angry knight in shining armor’s face was peering directly into.
Cue actual reality setting in for all participating parties: Outside friend sees inside nightmare beast freakishly close to his face is, and lets out a howl louder than any we had been making earlier. Inside nightmare beast gets scared by aforementioned new explosion of sound and continues on its hell-sprint straight up the window screen, further up the wall, and to our horror, deep into the darkness of the thatched roof above our heads where it disappeared from our sight.
The (Terrifying) Sound of Silence
Without another word, our friend had taken off, promising in his wake that he was going to find someone to help. And there we were. Huddled together against the wall, staring up into the darkness of the thatched roof above us, aware that this enormous creature was very much in our room, was watching us with all 8 of its hateful, beady little eyeballs, was more than likely plotting our imminent deaths, and yet we had no idea where it had gone.
But we could hear it. Oh, we could hear it.
This thing was so big that we could literally hear it as it slowly moved across the ceiling in the darkness. The dim candle light wasn’t strong enough to illuminate the details of the ceiling’s highest parts, but we could damn well hear the crunching and movement of the straws and branches above us at it crept across the ceiling.
A Second Rescue Attempt
Eventually, help did arrive in the form of a very small (and very lovely) Ecuadorian man named Javier. Armed with a master key to the Bungalows, a paint bucket, a flashlight and a broom, Javier came bursting through our front door and had managed to locate the resting behemoth which had nestled itself into our ceiling. For a few surreal seconds, we cowered behind Javier, who was basically now the most powerful man in the world to us. As we all stared up at this evil entity illuminated by the beam of his flashlight, Javier muttered an unmistakeable, “Oh, no.”
Let me put that into perspective. Hearing Javier say “Oh no” in that exact moment in time was akin to hearing a pilot say “we have a problem.”
“WHAT!?” We both hissed.
“Problemo.” He responded, followed by, “Es un tarántula venenosa.” I knew enough Spanglish to know he had just announced we had a poisonous tarantula on our hands. This was neither news nor forward progress in either of our eyes. Summoning what was left of my patience for the situation, I willed myself to ask him, “Yes, but what kind?”
“Goliath.” he said.
Goliath: The Single Scariest Name in History
No, no. Nope. A goliath birdeater was not an available species option for this situation as far as I was concerned. My little brain went into overdrive as everything I knew about this type of tarantula churned through it. This was the grandaddy of all tarantulas, the big dog in the fight, the guy you don’t want to meet in a dark alley – this was the worst-case scenario.
There I was, in the middle of the Ecuadorian Amazon, hours away from any other semblance of civilization, captive to a type of animal with too many legs, can weigh as much as a goddamn baseball, and can grow to be over a foot in leg span. And, since it pretty much hasn’t bothered to evolve at all since essentially the dawn of time, these scurrying psychopaths still have colossal fangs that can be as big as a full inch in length.
And that was hiding in my ceiling. Watching me.
While I was busy trying to remember just how poisonous goliath birdeaters were, and looking for hidden cameras to decide if I was being pranked or not, reinforcements were called in. Javier received two additional fearless, flashlight-wielding soldiers to assist him in the locating, capturing and extracting process. The paint bucket was replaced by a fairly large plastic storage container complete with an attachable lid, and the broom was swapped out for some sort of cross between a rake and an orange -picker.
By then, word had spread down the Bungalows that #6 had a goliath birdeater hiding in its roof, which immediately created a small audience of overly-interested and underly-sympathetic scientists. They gathered outside our door with a strange air of excitement that was somewhere between kids on Christmas morning and airport paparazzi waiting for some species of Kardashian.
A Successful Rescue and Paranoia-Fueled Insomnia
After more than an hour of careful, methodical prodding of our thatched ceiling in an effort to basically knock the tarantula down to the floor, Javier and his posse did eventually manage to save the day. While one of his henchmen stood on my cot, swinging the rake-like tool above his head at the ceiling, the other stood directly behind him holding a large slab of cardboard over his head and shoulders. This, I assume, was to create a barrier between him and the spider should he manage to knock it down directly on to himself instead of to the floor as planned. Meanwhile, Javier stood in the middle of our tiny room with an open storage container at the ready. When the many-legged demon was finally knocked loose and became unhinged from its hiding place, it came crashing down to the floor, and landed with that same horrifyingly audible thud we had heard when it first fell from the door. As if rehearsed, Javier swept it into the confinement of the storage container in one swift movement. Once inside, it rattled around, slamming itself into the bin’s plastic walls in all the frenzied chaos of a caged animal.
At long last, our ordeal was over. Javier was a god among men. His lackeys were triumphant in the success of their scheme, and the scientists were delighted with such a “uniquely large, live specimen,” that they now had the freedom to study at their leisure. (You’re welcome?)
My roommate and I on the other hand, were traumatized, exhausted, and most definitely going to spend the night sitting bolt upright, wide awake in the middle of our cots, silently hoping that this prehistoric creature of terror wasn’t just trying to visit some friends that already lived in our ceiling.