Read Lost in the Jungle Online
Authors: Yossi Ghinsberg
Don Jorge suggested we put Marcus on a mule and that he personally would lead him all the way to Apolo. He also offered to build the raft for us. Karl explained that it had to be wide enough and sturdy enough to carry four men, our packs, and a large quantity of food. Don Jorge replied that he wouldn’t be able to do it on his own but that he would see if his neighbours would be willing to lend a hand. Marcus decided to see us off on the river and then go on the trail to Apolo.
We had time to kill and took a dip in the river. We washed our hair, and except for Karl, we all shaved off the stubble that had sprouted on our cheeks during our trek. We got out of the water and dressed hastily because the mosquitoes were swarming about us. I was in such a hurry that my wallet fell out of my pants pocket. I bent down and quickly snatched it up. It was a red cloth wallet, waterproof, but I had wrapped it in a plastic bag anyway.
‘Yossi, I’ve been wanting to ask you what you keep in that wallet,’ Kevin said. ‘I know where your passport, money, and watch are. So what do you have in that wallet that you never let it out of your sight? What are you hiding in there?’
‘It’s a long story,’ I said with a grin.
‘I’m listening,’ Kevin said.
We seated ourselves in the shade. ‘Have you ever heard of the Kabbalah?’ I began.
‘It’s some kind of Jewish mysticism, isn’t it?’ Kevin said.
‘Exactly,’ I replied, ‘but the truth is, I don’t know any more than that about it myself. I had an uncle named Nissim, which in Hebrew means ‘miracles.’ He was born in Turkey and studied at the yeshiva in Tiberias. Then he wandered about Europe making his living as a cantor, ritual slaughterer, and performing circumcisions. Eventually he settled in Israel and opened a small toy store in Rehovot.
‘My uncle was always reading old religious books. I didn’t know it then, but he was studying the Kabbalah. He had his own special way of life and particular eating habits. He never visited a doctor and refused to take any medicines. Whenever he didn’t feel well, he would fast for a day or two until he was better.
‘Nissim never had any kids, but I was as close to him as a son. When I turned eighteen and was about to go into the army, he asked me to come see him. He sat up tall, with his full head of white hair and piercing blue eyes. He was eighty-three years old then. He took a little book out of his wallet. It was very tiny, very thin, its pages yellow with age.
“I’ve carried this book in my pocket my entire life,’ he said to me. ‘It has special powers. It has taken care of me. I’m an old man now, and you will soon be a soldier. You need its protection more than I do. Take it and care for it well. Don’t ever part with it, because it will watch over you.’
‘I thanked him, gave him a kiss, and went home, thinking that it was all a lot of nonsense. When I got home, I found my mother in tears.
“Uncle Nissim has had a heart attack.’
‘I rushed to the hospital. My uncle was unconscious. I gave the little book to my aunt, and she slipped it under his pillow. When he regained consciousness, he asked her to return it to me since he wouldn’t be needing it any longer. He died in the hospital.’
‘God, what a story!’ Kevin exclaimed.
‘Maybe it was just circumstance, or maybe he sensed that his time had come, but just in case I always carry the book with me. A year ago I was mountain climbing in Alaska. I had strayed from the trail and came to a dangerous overhang. The stone I was bracing myself on gave way, and I fell, but my jeans snagged miraculously on a jagged rock, and I was saved. I had the book in my pants pocket. Maybe that was just chance too. Who knows? Still, it makes me feel safe. Sometimes I think that I’m indestructible as long as I have it with me. When my own son gets drafted, I’m not so sure that I’ll want to give it to him.’
‘Give it to him when you’re eighty-three,’ Kevin suggested.
Kevin had just as many stories to tell about himself. One year he had returned from a trip to Nepal, arriving home on Christmas Eve. His family wasn’t expecting him, as he had called only his sister to tell her he was on his way and made her promise to keep his arrival a secret. He went directly from the airport to her house, where she outfitted him in a Santa Claus costume. Then, all dressed up, with a sack of brightly wrapped presents slung over his shoulder, his face covered with a thick, woolly beard, he knocked on his parents’ door. His father answered, and Kevin went into a Santa Claus routine. He asked his father and brother if they had been good little children, if they had behaved themselves and thought they deserved a present. They answered that they had, never suspecting who was hiding behind the beard.
Finally Kevin couldn’t take it any longer and, choked with tears, cried out, ‘It’s me, Dad! Kevin!’
Marcus’s feet were still hurting since the rash had not cleared up. Karl told him that he should dry his feet thoroughly and keep off them. Marcus rubbed on more petroleum jelly and stretched out in the sun, but the flies and mosquitoes swarmed about his bare feet, and he was forced to cover them with a mosquito net.
Marcus wanted to have a look at Don Jorge’s son’s injured foot. The boy was called and came running over with only a rag wrapped around his foot. He took it off, and we could see that the swelling had gone down. There were no more signs of infection, and the wound was almost completely healed. The boy’s recovery made Marcus happy and proud.
That evening Don Jorge told us that his neighbours were willing to help build the raft. Tomorrow they would cut some balsa trees and float them down the river to the village. Don Jorge said that the raft would be ready within three or four days, depending on the weather. The balsa logs had to be thoroughly dry before they could be used. It was the end of November, and the rainy season would soon be upon us, but we hoped for a few sunny days to dry the logs. The amount of money – twenty dollars – that Don Jorge and his neighbours were asking for the work was ridiculously low, and we agreed among ourselves that we would give them more than that.
We wanted to buy foodstuffs from Don Jorge – rice, meat, fruits, and vegetables – for our stay in the village. If his wife was willing, we also wanted to hire her to prepare our meals and would pay her for both the food and her work. Don Jorge was amenable.
‘So now you’ve got a hotel with full board,’ Karl teased us. We prayed for good weather because Karl kept reminding us that he had to be back in La Paz by the beginning of December in order to pick up his uncle’s truck. He planned on our spending about a week on the Tuichi, so we had to start out as soon as possible.
‘Maybe,’ Karl added, ‘If we got to Rurrenabaque soon enough, we’ll be able to visit my uncle’s ranch. It’s not far from there. We could stay for a day or two.’
We all liked the idea. Kevin and Marcus both wanted to fly home before Christmas. I was in no hurry to go anywhere.
How good it was to sleep on a luxurious straw mat that night. How peaceful the village was. The villagers were all fast asleep. The horses grazed among the mud huts, casting long shadows over the dewy grass. The sheep dozed under the papaya trees. The pigs wallowed in their mud, looking like they were dreaming, wiggling restlessly in their sleep. The dogs were too lazy to bark.
Karl went out at dawn to help the villagers search for balsa trees. That afternoon he came back to the hut to find the rest of us lying on our mats. Kevin and Marcus were reading. I was doing nothing. He told us that they had already selected seven thick trees, and Don Jorge and his friends were busy chopping them down at that very moment.
It was hot outside, so we were enjoying lying in the cool, dark room. Karl, never content to remain idle – a talent Kevin and I were cultivating to a fine art – looked around restlessly for something to do. He gathered up Marcus’s and Kevin’s shoes, the soles of which had fallen almost completely off. He took up a hammer and nails and with great diligence pounded holes through the leather uppers and the rubber soles. He wove wire through the holes, pulling it good and tight, just like sewing. Then he looked over his own boots. The soles had been lost long before in the jungle. He went out into the village to scare up a piece of leather that he could use to make new soles. He haggled a while over the price and finally traded one of the small pocketknives that we had brought along to give to the Indians for some deerskin. He cut the skin precisely to the shape of the boot, made holes all around its edge, and finally stitched it to the boot with fishing line.
‘There’s hardly anything that these two hands of mine can’t do,’ he boasted. ‘You never can tell when you might need to call on a certain skill.’
Karl spent the afternoon with Don Jorge’s father-in-law, questioning him closely about gold in the region. The old man answered his questions patiently. Karl learned that Don Jorge’s younger brother, Pablo, had stumbled upon a large gold nugget on the riverbank. Following his discovery the villagers had gone out to pan the area, but the results had been disappointing.
Karl came back to the hut all wound up and raring to go. He told us what he had learned and was already making plans.
‘The villagers don’t use very sophisticated mining techniques. They can’t really judge the potential this area might have. I’m going to have a look for myself tomorrow. If there is any gold to speak of, I’ll return with a machine that does the panning automatically. I can buy everything I need in Apolo and bring it here on pack mules. I’ll fly in the fuel for the machine in a Piper that can land on the river. It’s a big advantage having a village right here. I can live here, buy my food here. It will be good for the village too. Bring a little prosperity. I’ll be able to hire a few men. Peddlers will start coming, bringing their goods to the village. The villagers will be able to sell their produce to them...’
Within five minutes Karl was a millionaire and had transformed Asriamas into a bustling metropolis. Throughout his recitation Kevin and Marcus had gone on with their reading. I was the only one who took him seriously, and we formed a partnership. He was glad to find a sympathetic ear.
The next morning at the crack of dawn we left Marcus and Kevin in the hut and set off for Don Pablo’s house. He lived on the other side of the village, an hour’s walk from our hut. We had a pack filled with presents we had brought for the Indians. On our way we traded a few hooks, fishing line, a whistle, or a pocketknife for coffee, fresh eggs, and hot peppers. Little houses were strung along the river, and we stopped at each of them. Karl left a standing order for four eggs each day at one house. He also arranged for an
(about twenty-five pounds) of yucca, hot peppers, dried onions,
, sweet bananas and plantains – a stalk of each – all to take along on the journey we were planning. He promised to pay well for the provisions in money or in gifts.
We found only two little girls at home at Don Pablo’s. One of them went to the banana grove to call her father while we sat down to rest in the shade. Karl started fooling around, making faces and gestures at the turkey that was wandering around the yard. When it would come over curiously, Karl tried to spit on its head. Then he grew silent and solemn. I had the feeling that there was something he wanted to say but didn’t know how. Finally he spoke.
‘I don’t know how to put this, but I have to tell you. I’ve already spoken with Marcus about it. You remember I invited you all to visit my uncle’s ranch after we’ve finished rafting down the river? Well, I don’t think that I can take
there. You see, my uncle is Austrian. I mean, not just any old Austrian. He left Austria and came to live here. The truth is, he had to leave. He was a fugitive. I guess he had collaborated with the Nazis. I’m not exactly sure. Anyway he fled to Bolivia. He’s a very primitive person. I can’t stand him or his opinions. Only an idiot would discriminate against someone because of the colour of his skin or his religion. My uncle goes around cursing the Jews and making derogatory remarks about them. At first I thought I would ask you to pretend that you aren’t Jewish. You could say you were American instead of Israeli, like Kevin. Who needs to go looking for problems? That’s what I told Marcus that we should do, but I know you better by now. If my uncle makes some stupid anti-Semitic remark, you’re likely to blow your top.’
‘And provide you a shortcut to your inheritance,’ I joked to ease the tension. Still I was uncomfortable, not so much with the idea of Karl’s uncle having been a Nazi, but with Karl himself and the way his stories kept changing.
Don Pablo came up while Karl was talking. He was a pleasant fellow. We had already made his acquaintance when we first came to Asriamas. Karl put a lot of detailed questions to him, and he answered obligingly. He even showed Karl a few gold nuggets that he himself had found, though the large nugget had been sold to a dealer in Apolo. He got a hoe, a pickaxe, and
(pan), gave us a pitcher of
, and took us to the dig. Then he left us to go back to work.
On the side of the hill that sloped up from the riverbank, we saw a tunnel chipped away in the rock.
‘Here we go, off to work,’ Karl said.
He rolled up his sleeves, went into the tunnel, and studied the rocks. Then he swung the pickaxe against the stone wall, chipping off a few chunks. He piled them into the
and headed for the river. He seated himself on a rock and dipped the
into the water, holding the chunks of rock under water and crumbling them apart as well as he could. Then he moved the
in slow, circular motions. Water poured off with each turn, carrying with it the sand and stones. He went on until the
was almost empty. He stopped occasionally and tried to crumble the small chunks that remained in the
and then resumed.