Authors: Yossi Ghinsberg
I once again sought the banana grove, the dried balsa logs, and the hidden tools but found nothing. I did, though, think that I had discovered the trail to San José. Tomorrow I would set out on it, and that would be that.
I saw an enormous fruit tree on my way back to the hut. A lot of big, heavy fruit lay on the ground. I happily split a piece of it open against a rock but found its pulp hard and green and oozing a white oily substance. I tried a bite anyway but spat it out with a grimace. It was inedible. I should have known better; fruit that wasn’t rotten and ant-eaten probably wasn’t edible. I still had tamarinds in the hut and ate a few to get the horrid taste out of my mouth.
I noticed a large stump in the centre of the camp with the name
carved into it in large letters. Was that the name of a girl? Or perhaps the word for ‘women’? In another four days, when I got to San José, I would be able to ask someone. I would spend four more nights in the jungle, but then I would have a soft bed and people around me. How I longed to see people. I studied the map at length. It looked so close. Just a few inches.
I could do it.
My hopes for clear weather were disappointed; it was pouring rain, but I didn’t let that stop me. I packed up my things, slung my pack on my back, tightened the belt and shoulder straps, took up my newly acquired walking stick, and off I went.
Although the trail began wide and well marked, within a few minutes’ walk it narrowed considerably, and I had to search for machete marks on the trees in order to follow it. It did run parallel to the Tuichi, however, and whenever I strayed from the trail, I simply had to progress along the bank until I picked it up again.
I got used to walking in the rain and was in a great mood. I thought I was keeping a steady pace and, barring any unforeseen setbacks, I would cover the distance to the village in four days. As I strode along, I composed a marching song, far from original or inspiring, but at least it kept time. I took a popular Israeli tune, ‘I’m on My Way to Beit Shean,’ changed the destination, and sang out loud,
I’m on my way to San José
On my way, yeah, yeah, my way
I’m on my way to San José.
So I walked on through the lush jungle in good spirits.
The ground was fairly level. Every now and then a few hills rose up, but they weren’t steep. The streams posed a greater obstacle. I passed over a great many that emptied into the Tuichi, forming basins too wide to be passable at the junction. I was forced to follow each one upstream into the jungle until I came upon a convenient fording place. The machete gashes were fantastic signposts. They led directly to the places where the streams were fordable. They sometimes took me far from the river, but I eventually discovered this to be a shortcut.
At one point I came upon a wide, sandy beach, just the kind of place for a picnic and a little romance. The sand was soft and clean and shaded by trees. Logs were piled up on the shore, deposited there by the current. I had an idea. Rescuers might come looking for me by airplane or by helicopter, so I should contrive some kind of signal that could be seen from the air. I started hauling logs and large rocks about, placing them in the shape of an arrow pointing downstream. Next to it I formed the letter
for the first initial of my name, and after it I wrote ‘12’ for the date. I was pleased with my ingenuity and sure the signal would be spotted from above. The truth is I still thought I would be disappointed if someone came to rescue me. I was convinced that I was so close that it would be a shame not to do it on my own.
Toward late afternoon I came upon a stream that flowed in a shallow defile. I quickly descended the rock wall, but the opposite side was an arduous climb, and the walking stick proved a hindrance. I hurled it to the top and, clutching at bushes and protruding rocks, struggled my way to the top. There I retrieved my walking stick and went on. Soon, on a fallen tree, I saw a nest holding four brown spotted eggs. They were only a little smaller than chicken eggs and still warm. The mother must have just left the nest. I was thankful to have happened upon nourishing food. I cracked open one of the eggs and was about to pour its contents into my mouth when I noticed the tiny baby curled up inside. Should I eat it or not? No, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I put the broken egg back in the nest with its brothers and sisters.
If someone above is watching over me, I thought, he’ll surely provide me with other sustenance.
Not five minutes passed before I came upon a large fruit tree. The fruit, called
, is round and yellow and, broken open, divides into three equal parts. Each contains about twenty pits, similar to the pits of a lemon but covered with a sweet, slippery membrane. The fruit doesn’t provide a great deal of meat, but I savoured the juice it contained.
I leaned up against the trunk of a fallen tree and took out the tins, emptied a few tamarinds out of one, and used it to gather up
. The tree was low, and by bending its branches, I could reach the fruit. I didn’t leave a single one.
I continued on my way to San José with renewed vigour. This time the trail led me deep into the jungle. I was so far from the river that its roar was not even faintly audible. After walking for a very long time I found myself surrounded by towering trees. I had lost all sense of direction. I didn’t know which way was north or where the river was. The trail looked strange. It was extremely narrow; I had to go very slowly for fear of losing it. It was often blocked by wild undergrowth or fallen trees. It didn’t make any sense, for only a few months ago people should have been using it. I plodded on, still convinced that it would lead me back to the river at any moment, but two hours had passed, and it was growing dark. Then I finally heard the familiar rush of the river. I was extremely relieved to learn that I could rely on the trail.
I met back up with the river just where one of the springs emptied into it. It was a narrow spring that flowed down a narrow ravine. I stood there gaping; there was a large footprint in the mud. The sole of the shoe that had made it was just like mine. God, it must be Kevin! He was alive! Kevin had big feet and wore the same kind of shoes that I did. And who besides him could have left the print? I was overcome with joy. I stared again at the print in the mud. How was it that the rain hadn’t washed it away?
The climb up the other side of the ravine was difficult. The wall was almost vertical. I had to throw the walking stick up ahead of me, but regardless of how tired I was after a day of walking I felt myself endowed with superhuman strength. Pushing with my knees and dragging myself up with my arms, I made it to the top. But something seemed funny. Five minutes later I came upon a fallen tree. Next to it lay heaps of tamarind and
peels and pits. Then I knew. I collapsed, broken-spirited, to the ground and almost burst into tears. It wasn’t Kevin. It was me. I had wasted more than three hours walking in a circle. The trail had led me back to where I had started.
Desperation began to gnaw at me. I considered giving up and heading back to Curiplaya. I was only two or three hours’ walk from there. I could go back to my hut and my bed. But the thought of the village that must be nearby with food and people overcame my momentary weakness. So I had made a mistake. It wasn’t the end of the world. I would learn from it. I would use the trail only when it followed the course of the river. If it wandered into the jungle, I would abandon it and make my own way until I met back up with it on the riverbank.
I was exhausted and famished and took the fruit out of my pack. It was a pathetic match for my appetite. A few fleshless pits remained. I gritted my teeth and strode back in the direction of the ravine. There I found what I was after. The mother must have abandoned the nest, for the eggs had grown cold. I broke them open one at a time and gulped down every last bit of the unborn birds. I expected them to make me nauseous, but they were quite tasty.
The sun had gone behind a cloud and now came out and shone brightly. I could still make some progress today. I had gone astray, but the entire day was not wasted; it wasn’t so bad.
‘It’s no big deal. It’s no big deal,’ I started to sing.
We used to sing a song like that in the Boy Scouts, and, silly as it sounds, it stuck in my mind:
Oh, Mama, in what a fix am I.
I’ll have a baby by and by.
Please tell me it’s a lie.
Please tell me I won’t die.
Please say it’s no big deal.
I sang the tune over and over. Then I started dramatising it, creating characters and a silly dialogue.
You’re going to have a baby, and you think it’s no big deal. All right, you won’t die, but just you wait until your father gets his hands on him. You’ll live, but tough luck for your boyfriend. Your father will kill him.
I worked on a drama and lost awareness of my hardships and the passing time.
After that song I remembered another:
Please say that you agree.
He wants to marry me.
If you say yea or you say nay,
We’re going to marry anyway.
Please say that you agree.
I dramatised that one in my imagination as well, with a young boy, a young girl, and a nasty old aunt. I made up a silly story and wrote dialogue for them as well.
I was tired and drenched to the bone. I started looking for a campsite but saw no crags, boulders, or fallen trees to huddle under. Finally I selected a large tree whose roots protruded from the ground in every direction at irregular intervals. I chose a space between two roots that was just as wide as my body, cleared away the wet leaves on the ground, put my pack down, and went off with my walking stick to gather bedding.
There were bushes, trees, and plants of every kind. The foliage was astounding in its variety and beauty. I gathered up large leaves, similar to banana leaves, and spread them out between the sheltering tree roots. I also found a few palms.
Without a machete the fronds were hard to remove. I cracked them close to the stump and then twisted them around and around until I could wrench them from the tree. I gathered about twenty large fronds that way and arranged them symmetrically over my sleeping place one on top of the other, all facing in the same direction and crawled under.
There was no way I could light a fire. My feet were damp. I took off my shoes and wrung the water out of my socks. I took the waterproof rubber bag out of the pack, put my feet inside it, and covered my legs up to the knees. Then I covered myself as usual with the mosquito nets and the poncho. Before I covered my head, I ate a few
I was troubled by thoughts of Kevin. I realised that there was no reason to assume that he was dead. Actually he stood a better chance than I did. Fire and food were my advantages, but I had spent many nights without a fire and had used but little of the rice and beans. There were eggs and fruit in the jungle, and Kevin had a machete. With it he could cut down fruit trees and find palm hearts. Even if that was all he ate, he wouldn’t go hungry. I had them all around me and couldn’t taste a bite. If I tried to get a palm heart, I would waste more energy than it would provide. Kevin was also stronger and tougher than I was. He was used to solitude, used to difficult walking; he had a weapon, and he wasn’t carrying the weight of the pack on his back. Hell, he had a much better chance than I did. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had already made his way to an inhabited area and been rescued. The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that Kevin was alive. I just hoped that nothing had happened to him in the river.
The palm fronds made an impenetrable cover. The rain fell on them and ran off to the sides. I even managed to warm myself under their shelter. My feet were comfortable in the bag. My only source of discomfort was stones digging into my back, but I couldn’t do anything about them. The walking stick lay at my side. At night it could serve as a weapon along with the tin can, the spoon, and the pitiful flashlight. I said a short prayer to God and asked forgiveness for eating the unborn birds. Then I gave myself over to fantasies until the break of dawn.
The pack was on my back, the staff was in my hand, and I was on my way. My feet were damp and raw, but there was no rash. The rain had cleared up and then started falling again. I didn’t let it bother me and set straight out on my course. While I walked, I sang the same songs as the day before, and when I had gone through my entire repertoire, I had long conversations with the members of my family and daydreamed again.
Suddenly something jumped out, right from under my feet. My heart jumped with it, but I regained my composure as soon as I saw that it was only a wild chicken. Its wings were weak; it barely raised itself off the ground. It fled from me in skips and jumps. I started chasing after it through the underbrush, holding my spear in readiness. We ran around, me wearing an expression of grim concentration, the chicken crackling and screeching. I didn’t catch it, of course, but it occurred to me that I might find a nest with eggs nearby. I went back to where I had first encountered the bird, and there on the ground behind a bush was a large nest and six lovely eggs. They were bigger than domestic hen’s eggs and turquoise in colour. They were still warm to the touch. I carefully cracked one open and poured the contents into my mouth. It tasted so good that I couldn’t help polishing off three more. The two that remained I carefully padded with leaves and put into the tin with the fruit.
What a lucky guy I am! Six eggs! Thank you, God, thank you.
I also spotted fruit trees on my way. As usual the fruit was out of reach, but occasionally I found a piece that had just fallen and was not yet rotten or devoured by ants and worms. The monkeys were having a banquet in the treetops, stuffing themselves and then tossing down the scraps, peels, and pits, screeching and chattering as if they were making fun of me. I cursed them, hoping one would fall on its head. The curse worked – but on me, not them.