Not that I called her mad myself, it’s just that a life around insects and other arthropods had left her a little less able to cohabit with other humans, which I could actually get behind, to be honest. Bugs are fascinating. I’ve got my own quiet obsession among them, but that’s still to come. Heléne had me beat, either way.
We arrived at a partially dismantled (possibly ‘restructuring’) base camp upstream after traveling north a little over a day, nestled in a quiet bend along the banks, relatively clear of vegetation. We were greeted (half-heartedly) by a man who said they were with Médecins Sans Frontières, sweeping his arm over a few of the temporary buildings and a few small cliques of people in khakis and long-sleeves. A woman came up almost as quick, dressed in WWF patches and light but full-body expedition clothes.
You’re not the resupply, and you’re not the students we sent out, who are you? She demanded. She had medium-length, rough blonde hair and a round but severe face and sounded like another Brit, but I couldn’t place it. The man was tall and lanky, had a french accent.
I cleared my throat and explained as best I could (in English), why we were there, who we were. Graham was stuck by my side, and Três came bouncing up soon after. Geraldo preferred to fuss over the boat.
Neither of them looked terribly impressed until I mentioned Ava’s name and showed the picture. The man turned his head away and looked ready to walk away, the woman just turned a sweaty shade of red and said, Oh. That’s not the name she gave us. And she had redder hair.
Without much ado, they said we could look around camp, but that woman had been there more than two weeks ago, and she and her Australian mate hadn’t made what you would call a positive impression.
Australian? A guy? I asked. The man was already walking away and said over his shoulder, go talk to Lena, she’s the only one that they didn’t piss off.
I looked at Graham who shrugged. I asked Três if she wanted to grab some things from the boat with me. She bounced, still taking in the tents and outbuildings on the red, red soil. Her boundless energy was annoying, but welcome.
We gathered up most of our kit and I told Geraldo he could join us, but he refused, eyeing the dozen or so people moving about under the thick canopy.
There was a mess area that was starting to fill with the lunch crowd coming back from the trails or from their workbenches under the netting and cargo web covered tents. I asked the sweaty, ambling faces where Lena might be and they snickered and pointed to a spot three tents in from the northern edge of camp.
The three of us approached and I said hello, to no answer. We brushed aside the entrance and I think we all gasped at the stacks and stacks of glass and plastic containers piled along benches and makeshift shelves, each full of dozens of ants.
Standing, peering over a magnifier and jury rigged key light at the far end, was a short, squat woman wearing a pushed back pith helmet.
Bonjour, she said, without looking up. C’est incroyable! Formi-dable! She chuckled to herself.
Lena? I asked.
She barely acknowledged us, a flick of her eyes. Oui, she said, Je suis Heléne, Docteur Heléne, myrmecologist extraordinaire.
We waited at the threshold, looking amongst ourselves and at her samples and terrariums.
You did not like my little joke? She said, switching languages. Fourmis? Fourmis-dable? It’s an old one, I guess… Ah well, come in, before you let in more flying assholes.
Even with her charming accent (France French, of course), she seemed consistently annoyed. I wondered how Ava and her had crossed paths, or at least how she had managed to befriend what was clearly an awesomely passionate and crazy person.