This is how our group was split—the mangoes were to finish painting inside the newly renovated ranger station, while the pineapples had been drafted to complete trail restoration, all in Costa Rica’s Palo Verde National Park. Though I was labeled a mango, I switched with a pineapple prior to job designation in a move that would soon prove to be one of the biggest mistakes of my life.
The work wasn’t so bad—digging up rocks and moving them to the sides of a five-foot wide trail so future visitors could enjoy a better hiking experience. The company wasn’t terrible either. I was working alongside twelve other high schoolers who figured three weeks of community service in Costa Rica would be a fun way to pad a college application, and we had developed a camaraderie over the past few days. The thirteen of us joked around while we cleared rocks and worked our way further up the hillside trail we were restoring.
The sun came out and warmed the air around us. We all started to sweat a little bit more. Then, the mosquitoes came. Swarms of the inch-long bloodsuckers came out of the woodwork to attack us, as if we had brought about a plague of Biblical proportions. Everyone who had one grabbed his or her bottle of DEET-laced bug repellant. We drenched ourselves in it. We might as well have tried to put out a forest fire with a squirt gun. Necks, arms, ankles, and ears became prime targets for the tiny beasts, which seemed to strike with pinpoint accuracy. I furiously slapped as the mosquitoes landed on me—caught in a losing game of Whac-a-Mole on my own body. Constantly rubbing clods of dirt up and down my arms seemed to provide a temporary shield, but I knew the damage was done.
I raged against them and lost, and my sanity followed suit. I broke. The mosquitoes had won. I started running away to higher elevation—thinking if I could get away from the trees I’d be safe. At the top of the hill, where the trail ended, I found neither the waterfall oasis nor masseuse I’d conned myself into believing would be waiting for me. All that existed at the top were rocks, mosquitoes, and a defeated high school sophomore.
That night I felt like a soldier who had narrowly survived a losing campaign. I cataloged my wounds: 54 bug bites between my two arms. As I slipped into a self-induced paralysis in bed, to avoid scratching the bites, all I could think was one thing: why the hell did I not just stay a mango?