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October 4, 2010 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Capybara Escapism: Or, how I thought I changed myself but really I didn’t

Sweat beaded off my nose onto a grassy plain in the midday sun. I am flanked in the distance by medium-to-tall palms and other unrecognisable but distinctly twisted trees in various stages of vine-induced suffocation. A river is also in the picture, as is the occasional flash of colour and feather as one of the area’s many avian species thup-thup-thup overhead. In any direction, and within a relatively small radius, there is likely to be any number of hidden creatures—jaguars, armadillos, monkeys—collectively forming a rich diversity that is unparalleled almost anywhere else on Earth. I am in the centre of the South American continent, the Pantanal, a country-sized region of interlinked lakes and streams. It is flat, hot, wet and noisy with bird life and amphibians.

Strolling across the picture is a rodent of unusual size and nonchalance—an innocuous creature that would seem dull if not for its distorted familiarity. Fat and pondering, the capybara exudes gravitas. It seems bemused by it all. Meet my power animal.

It was never my intention to become so obsessed by these creatures, but to see one in the flesh had become an arbitrary focal point of a trip brought on by despair and disillusion. I had been stuck in an office job that was the epitome of the air-conditioned nightmare. The monotony of the work-day and stifled creativity had stripped away my sense of self and confidence in my ability. The decision to quit and travel was an easy one, as easy as a prisoner’s if offered a key to the exit gate. My mind was already packed and waiting for me at the terminal.

Capybaras are mentally stable

There was no real desire to see anything in South America; I had no prior connection to it, no entrenched romantic notions of walking the Inca Trail or floating down the Amazon. It was simply a convenient and cheap ticket to a location far away from home. I went through the motions, walked the walks and saw the sites. Of course it was fun, but a crucial element was missing. Though my feet had so far never truly left Terra Firma in four weeks of walking, busing and training across South America, my mind had still been swirling turbulently several feet above my head, cartoon-like, in a way that was little different to the prior anguish-ridden months at home.

In a sense I did not know what I was doing there. I felt like I was searching for something, but I had no idea what that was. I did not want to find ‘myself’, for I knew myself well and wanted to leave that ‘me’ behind and mould a new one. I’d heard of capybaras earlier, and decided to make a goal of searching for these in the swamps. Half-seriously, I would transform myself into a modern-day hunter/explorer-cum-rat catcher for this megafauna rodent.

Capybaras do not feel the need to travel

We all have our excuses for travel. For some reason we have eyed our surroundings and found them unsatisfactory; therefore we stuff belongings into a bag and leave for some place we think would be more appealing. The question is almost always a matter of ‘where’ and ‘what’, with scant attention to the question of why we are travelling. You may say it’s for education, or pleasure, or the checklist you have of all the wonders of the world, which some magazine has listed as ‘Must-See Sites’, where you can buy a postcard with your picture digitally inserted into the image, which will be briefly admired by your friends and which on the flip side you have scrawled ‘having the most amazing time! Wish you were here’.

But at a deeper level there is a stronger driving force. A rumbling from the inside that whispers that things are not how they should be at home, with you. Whether the force is a push to escape your environment or a pull to explore others, something tells you that the difference between here and there is too great to ignore. If the force is not released then the desire to travel eventually overwhelms you. Your world seems more and more grey and mundane, like a projected prison of tedium. You only want to break free and fly away.

For some, myself included, the escapist route is mental as much as physical. We travel in times of desperation. It is an exodus from the uncertain and terrifying for the uncertain and terrified; we are privileged refugees of the middle class, unfocused and chased by our own selves. To transcend the emotional turmoil brought upon by our day-to-day reality we feel we must displace our whole physical being to another point on the globe. Ultimately, we do not travel to see new sites, but to be new people. Yes, we may come to have an amazing experience, but we definitely do not wish you were here, for any token symbols of our old selves must be blocked out. The new symbols of self will be found right here.

Can I be serene like a capybara?

My first encounter was brief but catalytic as it tottered off through the brush out of sight. Casting hunter/explorer notions aside, I admired its unashamed awkwardness. Here was an animal not of beauty but of calm. I was there in a hot field, hundreds of kilometres from any major civilisation. My feet were on foreign but steady ground. I felt the air I was breathing. My swirling thoughts were finally able to condense into a stable solid connection with my body and I was free from inner turmoil. My escape from real life was complete, and, in the capybara, I saw something kindred. I wanted more. I wanted to watch them, touch them and ride piggyback. I wanted to learn from them how to approach tedium with serenity, and hidden dangers with impassiveness.

I dreamt that night that I was one of a herd of capybaras wearing suits and ties. As a unit, we moved steadily through a pasture with our heads down chewing grass continuously and defecating periodically. On our fringe predators roamed, picking off those at the edges without struggle. The mood was focused, uncaring and unmoved by the prospect of death that clawed and bit and strangled on the outskirts of the group. I dreamt that I was a serene being of uninterrupted productivity and peace, and when I woke I had the impression of total and permanent internal transformation.

Our own realities follow us; capybaras do not

I searched all day for the next capybara. I had shrugged off my fears of snakes and other such critters as I wandered through fields and forest. I searched with the knowledge that a capybara would recognise my zen as kindred and accept my presence and happiness. The searching was fruitless, and when the sun went down, my group returned to camp as the eyes of caiman sparked in the glare of a spotlight. In the camp, however, was a family of capybaras, snuffling in the dark amongst the hammocks and chairs. They had come to me! I moved towards them, expecting to be greeted with delight and curiosity. But as they turned and ran in the opposite direction, I realised I had been wrong. The dream was a lie, and as they escaped into the river, my reality was as present as it ever was.

The return from travel can be a traumatic experience. After the hugs and kisses from family and other loved ones, the unpleasant discovery of forgotten baggage can shatter the illusion of any positive changes in the self. We come home and find the old familiar comforts, which spark old familiar habits, which bust open the door for old familiar ways of thinking. The transformation was a mirage brought on by a change of scene and temperature and the freedom gained from the lack of familiar faces. Your own self will stalk you across the world, whether you like it or not.


An adult capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris ) is, for the uninitiated, 35 – 65 kilograms of four-legged protein, lipids and grass-grazing incisors. It is a member of the hamster/guinea pig family of mammals, with a shape to match (albeit expanded to grotesque yet endearing proportions). This is all right there on the internet. It is bizarre in its size, slow on foot and, in a land dominated by big cats, even bigger snakes and caimans, an understandably popular meal. Infants are, it needn’t be pointed out, more ‘bite sized’. Despite the obvious drawbacks of being seen as little more than a piece of meat in a world filled with salivating predators, the capybara maintains an air of apparent serenity and chill.


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