Authors: Yossi Ghinsberg
‘You see,’ he explained to me, ‘the gold is mixed in with sand and rock. I’m trying to separate them. Gold is much heavier than water, sand, or rock. That’s why it stays in the
, while the sand and rocks get washed away. You just have to make rhythmic, circular motions.’
Karl completed the process, and there really were two minute gold nuggets left in the bottom of the
. Karl showed them to me.
‘They aren’t worth anything,’ he declared. ‘Too small. But we won’t give up. Come on, let’s give it another try.’
Karl’s remarks barely registered. I was aflame with gold fever.
‘We found gold! We found gold!’ I kept repeating to myself.
I took up the pickaxe and started slinging away at the rock, giving the chunks to Karl. He carried them to the river and did the panning. We worked until noon.
By the time we returned to the village, the flame of gold fever had been extinguished. Karl declared that the quantity of gold we had found was negligible, virtually worthless.
‘For each ton of rock there’s hardly any gold at all.’
He made some calculations and decided that the vein was bogus.
‘But don’t give up hope, Yossi. You’ll see, in Curiplaya we’ll come up with at least five grams.’
Don Jorge reported that the raft was coming along. The logs had been planed, their bark removed. The next day they would be fastened with sturdy wooden pegs. The rest depended on the weather. If it were hot and dry, we would be able to set out in another two days; but if it rained, we would have to wait a few more days.
It did rain, only a drizzle, but it lasted several hours. We had already spent eight days in Asriamas. Kevin had spent most of that time reading. Karl, as usual, kept himself busy. He went to see how the raft was coming along, went out hunting, haggled with the villagers, and told stories to anyone willing to listen.
Marcus’s feet were better, but he was in a really lousy mood. He kept his distance from Kevin and me. With nothing else to do, he took to tagging along with Karl. ‘Just like a little Brownie following her troop leader around,’ Kevin remarked contemptuously.
The next morning Karl and Marcus went to try their luck fishing down where the Asriamas fed into the Tuichi, Karl bragging that he would be back in no time with a huge fish. Toward noon I went to see if they had had any success. On the way I noticed a large waterfowl perched on a rock, poised to dive into the Asriamas. It was so involved watching its prey that it didn’t notice me. I backed stealthily into the reeds and recalled what Karl had told us: ‘All birds that feed on fish are good to eat.’ I would give everyone a surprise today, I thought, and catch this bird. I ran quickly back to the hut for the shotgun, praying that the bird would not fly off.
When I returned, it was still perched on the rock. I crept through the reeds, trying to get as close as possible. I took aim but couldn’t bring myself to pull the trigger. The bird was so beautiful, and we had enough food here in the village. It would be wrong to kill it. But masculine pride and the need to be admired by my peers won out. I took a shot. The bird fell silently into the river. The current was strong, and as the bird began drifting away, I noticed that it was still alive, trying to fight the current. I was dismayed that it might simply vanish in the water. It would be a shame to have killed it for nothing. I took off my clothes and dove in. The bird saw me and sensed that I was coming after it. It ceased struggling and gave itself up to the current as if it preferred drowning to the ignominy of death at human hands. I swam after it in the swift waters. I was nearing the point where the Asriamas emptied into the Tuichi when I caught the bird by one wing. It pecked fiercely at my hand and let out a strangled screech, but I didn’t let go. I kicked my feet and used my free hand to make it back to the riverbank. I climbed out of the water and dropped the bird on the shore. It lay there bleeding profusely. I ran back to get the shotgun and bashed its head with the butt. The soft ground cushioned the blow, and the bird writhed in pain. I put a rock under its head and brought the butt down again. This time the bird was still.
Don Jorge’s children met me outside the village. They had heard the shot and came running to look the bird over. Don Jorge’s wife also came to greet me, and I asked her to prepare the bird for our supper, but first I just had to show it to Kevin, who was properly impressed by my marksmanship.
Karl and Marcus came back empty-handed that afternoon. Before I even got the chance to give them a good ribbing, Karl asked me, ‘What’s the story, Yossi? What kind of weird bird did you shoot? I saw it in the kitchen. We can’t eat it.’
‘Why not?’ I demanded to know.
‘It eats all kind of carrion, snakes. It isn’t fit for humans.’
‘Yuck!’ Marcus exclaimed in disgust.
‘But Karl,’ I protested desperately, ‘that bird eats fish. I saw it with my own eyes, trying to catch a fish.’
‘You were mistaken,’ Karl waved me off. ‘It’s not fit to eat.’ I felt humiliated. Karl was only saying that because I was the one who had shot it. I knew that if he had killed it, he would be telling us what a delicacy it would be. Marcus bugged me more than anything; he was so happy to see me put down.
The bird was served for our dinner, but no one took a bite. I thought sadly of the graceful bird whose life I had taken for nothing. A huge lump of frustration caught in my throat, and I felt tears gathering in my eyes.
A strange thing happened a couple of days later. Marcus, feeling somewhat better and encouraged by Karl, surprisingly had changed his mind and decided to join us on the raft.
‘But how come?’ exclaimed Kevin. ‘You should go out on a mule, meet us in La Paz. You don’t feel good, your feet are inflamed.’
But Marcus insisted on it; he wanted to join us. ‘We started up together,’ he said. ‘We should finish it together.’
‘What the hell are you trying to prove? I don’t understand you, not at all.’ Kevin was very upset and Marcus adamant.
The tension didn’t cease. On the next day another unpleasant incident took place. Marcus and Karl had gone to check on the progress of the raft, and a short while later Lázaro, Don Jorge’s young brother-in-law, came to our hut.
‘The gentlemen want you to come see the raft,’ he informed us.
‘What for?’ I asked. ‘We’ve already seen it.’
‘It’s ready now. They said you should come see.’
‘Tell them we have complete and absolute faith in their judgment,’ Kevin said irritably, never taking his eyes off his book.
I explained to the boy that since we had already seen the raft, if Karl and Marcus weren’t in need of help, if they just wanted us to come take a look, we would rather stay where we were and rest.
‘Forget it, Yossi,’ Kevin interrupted me suddenly. ‘Let’s send them a message.’
Kevin dictated a silly letter, and I wrote it down:
Dearest Karl and Marcus,
As you are already only too aware, we are lazy slobs and goof-offs, and are quite content lying here in the shade. We have complete, total, and absolute confidence in your inspection of the raft, but if you should be in need of our assistance, you have only to take off your boots, Karl. The smell of your socks will come wafting our way, and we’ll be there like a shot.
Kevin and Yossi,
I handed the note to the boy and asked him to deliver it to the two gentlemen.
Half an hour later Karl appeared. ‘What’s with you guys? Why the hell didn’t you come down to the river?’
‘What for?’ Kevin asked.
‘We have to check the raft’s buoyancy with all four of us on it. Besides us, we’ll still need another two Indians to represent the weight of our provisions and equipment,’ Karl explained.
Kevin apologised. ‘We didn’t understand the kid. He didn’t tell us that you needed us.’
‘Well, no big deal.’ Karl smiled congenially.
We walked to the river with him and boarded the raft. The logs were a bit paler than they had been but still green. The raft was heavy. It sat too low in the water and was clumsy to handle.
‘No good,’ Don Jorge said. ‘You have to wait longer.’
‘I don’t have a lot of time,’ Karl said with evident concern. ‘We may not have any choice but to walk back to Apolo.’
‘There is another alternative.’ Don Jorge said. ‘On the other side of the village my brother’s neighbour has four strong, dry balsa logs. Go see him. If he’ll sell them to you, we can add on the dry logs, two on each side, and they’ll make a big difference.’
We all went back to the cabin. I hurried in ahead of Kevin to get dibs on the bed. Kevin accepted defeat and sank down on the straw mat. Karl went off sniffing around the cookhouse. Marcus stood restlessly in the centre of the room, obviously upset.
‘Yossi,’ he said suddenly.
I looked up at him. He looked strange.
‘Yossi, you can have your shitty note!’
He took the crumpled note out of his pocket and threw it in my face. It landed on the floor. The room was silent. Kevin looked on without a word.
‘Pick up your shitty note, do you hear me?’ Marcus was hysterical. ‘You should be ashamed of yourself! It was contemptuous of you to have written it, an insult to the Indian. He isn’t your servant. He went to the trouble to come and give you a message, and you shouldn’t have made fun of him.
‘For the past week Karl and I have been making all the arrangements, waiting on you hand and foot. All you do is sleep. When we finally ask you to do one thing, you screw around and weasel out of it. It’s an insult to Karl, after all he’s done for us.’
It all came pouring out in a shrill voice. When he had finished, he stood there, glaring reprovingly at me. He probably had taken a long time building up his nerve for the outburst.
I floundered awkwardly, not knowing what to say. Marcus had recognised my handwriting and blamed the note on me alone.
‘I was only kidding around, Marcus,’ I said in a low voice. ‘I didn’t know exactly what the boy wanted and had no intention of insulting anyone. If I did, then I apologise. But if you can’t take a joke, that’s your problem.’
Kevin intervened. ‘Hey, you two,’ he said, ‘how about knocking off this crap? Can’t you behave like adults? Come on, let’s all sit down and talk it over. There’s no point in keeping this up. We can’t let our personal relationships ruin the whole trip. We’ll get everything off our chests, once and for all, out in the open.’
Kevin looked at us, awaiting our response. Marcus said nothing.
‘It’s OK by me,’ I said, ‘but I think it’s between me and Marcus. So maybe we should do it, just the two of us. Do you agree, Marcus?’
‘Yes,’ Marcus answered meekly.
After dinner I suggested that Marcus and I take a walk outside the village. There was a large, grassy clearing where the horses grazed. I loved to sit there on a fallen log and watch them. I had noticed one particular horse, strong and sinewy, noble and unbroken. I went there alone every evening and hadn’t shared this spot even with Kevin. I would sit on the log and enjoy the solitude, singing aloud in Hebrew.
Marcus and I seated ourselves on the log. It was difficult to begin, but Marcus finally did.
‘I didn’t think we’d ever speak to each other again,’ he said. ‘There were so many times when I’ve wanted to talk with you, but you always avoided me. Whenever I tried to get near you on the trail, you hurried over to Kevin. You were always with him. Talking to him. Telling him stories. I would try to join in, but you just ignored me.
‘I’m stuck hanging around Karl all day, listening to his idiotic stories. I don’t have anyone else. You’re always talking to Kevin, and I’m left out. I wanted to talk it over with you, to ask you what happened, but you always avoided me.
‘Do you remember one night just the two of us were left sitting by the fire? I wanted to talk with you, but you just went into the tent. I stayed there outside, hoping you would understand, that you would come back out to talk with me, but I was wrong.
‘This whole trip is one big disaster for me. I’m miserable. I’m not enjoying it at all.’
‘I think you’re right, Marcus,’ I said. ‘Something has changed, but I don’t know exactly what. Nothing in particular happened. We just drifted apart. We don’t have the same relationship we did before. Maybe I’m coarse, not cultivated enough, and you, you just don’t feel at home in the wilderness.’
‘That’s a lie! A lie! Just a cheap excuse!’ Marcus burst out angrily. ‘Don’t try to hand me that again. It’s not true. I know that’s what Kevin says. He’s already told me that, and do you know when he told me? After two days on the trail. He had already made up his mind that I don’t feel at ease in the wilderness. He said that he didn’t get along with me and felt some hostility toward me, so it would be better if we kept our distance, if we spoke less with each other. Two lousy days after we started out he said that to me. That was a painful blow for me. I left Annick behind in La Paz to go off with two close friends, and after two days one of them abandoned me like that. And then, Yossi, you were all I had left. I needed a friend, I needed you. But you, you never noticed anything. You just wanted to be around Kevin. Why, why, did you shut me out like that?’
He went on crying quietly, his whole body shaking. For the first time since we had set out on our journey, I felt sorry for my friend. I was no longer happy for his loss, that I had Kevin all to myself. I understood how important I had been to Marcus. I tried to console him.