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Authors: Paul Theroux

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BOOK: Blinding Light
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After a while the brightness reminded them that they were exposed, and they became talkative again. One swirl of river sloshing in an eddy beside the bow Steadman took to be a fleeing snake, uncoiling in the stream. The air was humid against his face. In the shadows of trees at the level of the knobby roots were jaguars and ocelots. Sunlight glinted on the water like slivers of scrap metal, Hernán at the stern, Nestor at the bow, impassive, saying nothing except for their murmured directions: “To the bank” and “Stump ahead” and “Shallow here” and the repeated
“Siga, no más

Janey Hackler seemed on the verge of speaking, asking a sudden question beginning “Europe!” But it was not a word. She was retching strenuously, her whole bulgy gut audibly convulsed, and a moment later she vomited over the side. She sobbed disgustedly, and when she got her breath she said in a pleading voice, “I've got bits of sick all over my fingers.”

“I guess this is what you'd call dark matter,” Hack said.

“Marshall, do be serious. I'm all sticky,” Janey said, her gorge rising again. “Yoo-roop! Oh, crikey!”

“Wait,” someone said. “Listen.”

A canoe was passing. It had to have been a canoe: there was no engine, only the slurp and suck and drip of working paddle blades. People in the canoe called out a greeting, not Spanish but a chain of seesawing monosyllables, and Nestor replied in the same language, but flatter, seeming to repeat something he had once heard.

“What's that you're saying?” Hack demanded, but unsurely, in a nagging way.

“Secoya language.”

They hate to be blindfolded, thought Steadman, who not only liked it, but unexpectedly took pleasure in being in the presence of blindfolded people, for all their revelations in the darkness.

“Lots of bird life,” Wood said.

“This sucks,” Hack said.

“But at least you're not covered with vomit, are you,” Janey said, sobbing. “What are you grumbling about?”

“I can't see shit!” Hack screamed.

“I left my Leicas in Quito,” Wood said. “They said travel light.”

“The little Leicas, they weigh nothing.”

And everyone sighed, because
Za little Leicas, zey veigh nossing
was so much more irritating spoken in the darkness. Yet the darkness was a soup of colors, and the colors were smells, not images, a swirl of odors, marbled like endpapers in an old book, the heat of the day making the color green almost black, and the crimson black, and the tree bark black. The green had the sharpness of cut leaf, the air was like sour dust, and the bark had the moldering odor of tobacco moistened by rain. The odors came in irregular layers, like the layers of a whole plant—leaves and roots and shimmering blotches of flowers they could actually taste.

Sabra said, “Rivers are borders. If you haven't crossed a border without permission, you haven't traveled.”

Steadman held his breath, waiting for someone to comment on this oversimplified quotation from
He heard the glugging of the outboard, some seconds passed, and then Manfred spoke.

“How much farza?”

Nestor did not answer.

“I thought this was supposed to be a doddle,” Janey said.

They were now deep into the afternoon, and the day was thick with a heat and humidity that clutched them, and the highly colored smells all around them became stronger and mingled with the sound of the river.

“And it's a fag,” Janey said. “And I have to spend a penny.”

The colors reversed, blue river, green sky, shimmering trees, the decay in the air giving off patches of luminescence that showed through the hanging vines and stringy tails of lianas, and when they cut the engine and lifted it to paddle in the shallows between sandbanks, the shriek of insects was deafening—bright beetles and big-winged dragonflies and birds like paper kites and clouds of midges glowing in the slanting sunshine, a dream of deep Ecuadorian jungle.

“Okay, take your masks off.”

They did so and were silent. Now they saw how wrong they were. Nothing was green here. The daylight was almost gone. The river was muddy and narrow and there was a whirlpool just beyond the landing place; the trees were so dark as to be almost black, the air heavy and hot, almost no sky. The riverbank was covered with smashed and bruised tree roots. Yes, there was decay, and where the soil was not crumbly it was mushy.

“Where are we?” Hack asked.

,” Nestor said, “wheelpools,” and pointed at the whirlpools. In the failing light the coursing water was scattered with floating blobs and divots, like hacked-ofif scalps and bubbly blisters and clotted soap scum.

But after they had taken their masks off they smelled nothing. Even the loudest nagging birds were invisible, but some insects looked as big as sparrows.

Someone called out up ahead, a small coughing sound, and then an echo in the person's sinuses, like a startled animal cooing in recognition, not a person but the incomplete ghost of a person, suggesting faulty magic. Some people stood on the bank, ragged and hopeful, like castaways amid the scabby bark of the tree trunks. Small people, some half naked, some in knee-length red smocks, whom they took to be Secoya, with damp hair in their eyes—the smaller they were, the nakeder they were—crouched in greeting, gaping at them with a passive curiosity that suggested imbecility. They were brown, elfin, laughing.

With a yelp, one boy in torn shorts seized the bow line and secured the boat. Still laughing, others hurried down the riverbank and, placing their feet apart, straddling the gunwale and the dock, began hoisting the bags and passing them to the boys on the bank. Standing at the side of a plank, a man helped the passengers ashore.

“Those bowl-shaped haircuts make them look like retards,” Hack said.

Janey said, “Their hair looks frightfully nagged at.”

Their mouths hung open, their teeth were small and worn flat, they were listening as much as watching. A naked child-mother clutched a naked baby to her breasts, and the baby, with dangling legs, looked limp and lifeless.

“Como está?
How are you doing?” Sabra asked, and when she got no reply, she said, “Why are they looking at us like we're monkeys?”

Seeing that the boat was tipping in the wash of the river's eddy, one of the Secoya men, wearing tattered shorts with a Polo Sport label, scuttled down the mud bank and seized the noose of the stern line.

I have never seen a human being move like that, Steadman thought. The man had a skipping bandy-legged stoop-shouldered roll that made him almost invisible for the seconds that he was in motion. He snatched the rope and in the same gesture looped it round a protruding tree root.

“This man is Don Pablo,” Nestor said.

Hearing his name, the man hesitated and looked at the passengers in the boat. He gabbled a little over his shoulder to the others crouching and staring on the bank. Some Secoya men murmured softly, their hands out. Hernán handed one of them a blue plastic cooler with a padlocked lid. The women and children said nothing.

“They sort of hate us, I can tell by their squiffy eyes,” Janey said, fingering her cell phone. “And why do they look so stroppy?”

“Which one?” Wood asked.

“All of them. Him—he looks like a wet weekend.” Janey called out to the man, “Oh, do cheer up. It may never happen!”

“But we're giving them business, right, Nestor?” Hack called, and turned to help Sabra out of the boat while Wood zipped his duffel.

On shore, the Secoya women gathered around Sabra, touching the stamp-sized butterfly tattoo on her shoulder, but Sabra hardly noticed.

“There's flies all over that kid,” Sabra said.

“He's got a discharge, some eye thing, maybe conjunctivitis,” Ava said. “I've got some cream for that.” She took a tube from her waist pouch and said,
“Medicina. Crema para los ojos de su niño

“Let's go!” Hack said.

But the word
had excited the watching people and they clamored around Ava, plucking at her clothes, until Nestor shouted. At his shouts they stepped back and made room for the visitors.

Without a word, Don Pablo turned and moved in his peculiar skittering way down the path. The others followed—Manfred up front, kicking leaves and striding to be first, but keeping one finger to hold his place in his big plant guide. Then Wood and Sabra, Hack and laney, Steadman and Ava, and behind them on the forest path the Secoya boys carrying their bags.

Hack said to Ava, “I saw that medicine stuff back there. Are you in the virtue business? I hate people in the virtue business. Know what I think?”

“Who gives a flying fuck what you think?” Ava said with a smile.

From behind it seemed that Hack's ears were reddening. Janey turned, her thumb pressed into her cell phone, searching for a signal, and said, “You can't save everybody!”

“Know what, sister? You got vomit on your lips,” Ava said.

Steadman enjoyed seeing Ava sticking up for herself. She was above all else a doctor, and in a place like this he knew her reasoning, the doctor's conceit:
In the end you will need me. I have the medicine.
Following them in single file, he wondered whether it was impatience or courage that was driving the others onward. In spite of the chattering in the boat when they had been blindfolded, they did not seem seriously daunted here. Or was it just the confidence, the indifference, of people who knew they were protected: tourists with a guide.

He was annoyed by the way the others made him self-conscious, by their irritating mannerisms, their very presence. Alone, he could reach his own conclusions, but with them everything had to be shared and either overdramatized or ignored. He had counted on this being an important trip but knew he would find it hard to write about, because seeing it with their eyes, it was diminished for him. Just as bad, as much as he resented the others, he was grudgingly impressed. They were determined to have their experience, and so far, even with their complaints they had not mentioned turning back. They were stronger and more single-minded than he had expected them to be.

“This thing's useless,” Janey said, shaking her phone. “It's a pup.”

“We had a doctor along in Bhutan,” Hack said, tossing the words over his shoulder. He was speaking to Ava. “He got sick as a dog. He was asking
for advice!”

There were no animals or birds near the path. Steadman was on the lookout for snakes. He heard the sounds of prowling and looked back and saw children following. Some were naked, all were barefoot. But the people on the tour wore boots and leggings and long-sleeved shirts, and the two women wide-brimmed hats with mosquito veils.

Up ahead was the village, just a cluster of huts with thatched roofs in a clearing filled with long rags of white smoke from cooking fires.

Janey said, “Isn't that fun, the way they gather and finish those good strong reeds in the roofs? I could use that in my arbors and garden thatch. What would you call it? Something like ‘distressed vernacular'?”

Nestor said, “We would call it poor people who don't have money for metal roof.”

A small boy approached, running through the smoke, his hands out, gesturing, seeming to beg. Nestor muttered and waved him away while an old man came forward, also through the smoke.

“This is Don Pablo's brother. His name is Himaro.”

The man nodded and glanced at the newcomers, their faces, their clothes. He wore shorts and a torn shirt, and on his head was a tiara of woven straw and upright feathers, and at his waist a belt of braided vines on which various totems dangled: a broken tooth, a yellow animal claw, a bunch of fluff, a hank of fur, a clutch of sharpened bones, which clicked as he stepped forward to greet the visitors. When he got closer, Steadman saw that the old man's eyes were weepy from infection as well as clouded and vague, searching helplessly.

the one we call
yana puma”
Nestor said. “That is a powerful animal here.”

There was some palaver with Nestor in the Secoya language. The visitors stayed together, squinting at the incomprehensible quack of the words.

“We don't have a lot of time,” Wood said, interrupting the flow. “Can you tell him that?”

Nestor said, “Yes, I could tell him that. But he would not understand.”

What they could see of the village were straw roofs and glowing interiors and a smoky hut that might have been a communal kitchen. The brightest structure was a large platform beside an enormous tree, opensided with a thatched roof, chickens pecking beneath it in the cracks of light from lanterns. Clotheslines were strung from tree to tree, and like dark cutouts, backlit by the bright lanterns, were Secoya, just flat shadows staring at the newcomers.

Janey singled out a low lashed-together hut and said, “That one's fun. It's a sort of Wendy house. Isn't it a pity that banana fronds always look so tattered?”

Hack looked around the clearing and said, “Fucking Discovery Channel bullshit,” and motioned as though with an invisible remote switch and said, “Hey, guys, I can't shut this program off!”

When Steadman turned to speak to Ava, he saw that she had walked a little distance to where the women and children had gathered. He joined her there, noticing how the women were touching her, appealing to her for—what? Medicine, perhaps, some sort of handout. The old man wandered over, scraping his feet in the dust, feeling his way from shoulder to shoulder.

“They all have drizzling colds,” she said, and touched the nearest ones. “This one has a low-grade infection. Look at this kid's shin. The sore is so deep it has eaten into the muscle. This old man could lose his eyes—he needs an antibiotic. He's rubbing them, for Christ's sake.
No toca, no toca

Nestor said. “Himaro. The brother.”

BOOK: Blinding Light
13.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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