Authors: Yossi Ghinsberg
We repeated the routine five times until we had eaten the whole thing. Just to be sure, I drank the tiny amount of liquid that I had wrung from the cooked cactus.
The vanishing sunset was an incredibly beautiful backdrop for the Valley of the Moon, but I was too nervous to enjoy the scenery. I was trembling all over and felt terribly nauseated. Otherwise nothing unusual was happening to me. Dede also looked perfectly normal. She wanted to fix me a cup of tea, but the pot was filthy with the mess of the cooked cactus, and we hadn’t brought along enough water to clean it.
Darkness fell, but a different light reached me. I smiled to myself and gazed down into the abyss below. It beckoned me, and, terrified, I took a few steps back. The very last red rays of the sun lingered over the cliffs across the valley. I clutched tightly to a tree, resisting the alluring abyss.
Dede clung to me from behind. ‘I feel wonderful,’ she said. ‘I’m flying.’
I grinned to myself. She pressed her pelvis up against me, and I was afire. She moved slowly back and forth. I was enraptured.
‘Let’s go into the tent,’ she whispered.
Walking was difficult, and I was frightened. It was already night time, and I groped my way from tree to tree. Dede took me by the hand, but I didn’t trust her. I wanted to feel the trees for myself.
Once in the tent we lay down on one of the sleeping bags and covered ourselves with the other. Suddenly I was astride a galloping horse. To my right, to my left, everywhere I looked were galloping horses and soldiers in green uniforms, wearing visored caps – and I was one of them. Where was I?
Dede laughed but seemed so far away. I rode swiftly on, not knowing where I was or where I was going. We were quiet, then suddenly the sky was lit by lightning, and we heard the loud crack of thunder. It started pouring.
‘Oh,’ Dede murmured, ‘it’s so stormy.’
The rain poured down, and the tent began to leak.
‘I really love storms. I don’t know why. They excite me,’ she said.
In no time at all we were soaking. Everything was. The sleeping bags were drenched, and a large puddle formed in the middle of the tent.
‘Let’s go outside,’ she whispered. She had taken her poncho out of her pack. It was really just a large sheet of nylon, I put it on, and she crawled underneath. We stood like that, the rain pelting down upon us. I was still wondering where I was and with whom I was galloping. I could hear Dede whisper, ‘I love it so much. I don’t know why. It’s so exciting.’
She was pressing her buttocks up against my groin. Suddenly she seemed so tiny. I stroked her short hair.
‘I love it so much,’ she repeated. ‘I love it so much.’
The rain stopped as suddenly as it had begun. Soon the wind subsided too. I could hear a faraway flute, its strains pure and pleasing. Captivated, I listened, almost in a trance. The sound drew nearer. It was an enchanted flute from the world of legends.
‘Do you hear the flute?’ I whispered.
‘Of course,’ said Dede. ‘Where can it be coming from?’
We were so far from the village, the night was so stormy, and it was so late. ‘Hey, you, come here!’ I yelled, but the flute slowly faded.
Dede left my side and wandered among the trees, humming.
Lord, she’ll fall into it!
And I shouted after her, but she didn’t answer my calls, and I became hysterical. I shouted, gripping the trunk of a tree with both hands. ‘Don’t go over there! Stay away from the cliff! Get right back here!’
At last she returned. She wasn’t at all frightened or upset. ‘Let’s go back into the tent,’ she said quietly.
She spread her poncho out over the sleeping bags, and we lay down, holding one another. I was conscious of being cold and yet felt curiously indifferent. The coldness didn’t matter; it was alien to me. I hovered in other worlds.
‘Do you want to?’ she asked in a murmur.
Do I ever!
I thought to myself,
but what makes me think I can?
‘I’m not sure that I can,’ I said.
Dede laughed. She removed my belt and stretched out on top of me. I guess I was off in another world. Everything felt different, new, unfamiliar. It was endless. When it happened, it just went on and on for I don’t know how long. Afterward we just lay there. I was still trying to get Dede to tell me into what army I had been conscripted and where we were. She didn’t even try to answer my questions. She only laughed. The horses galloped along with me until daybreak.
Dede pulled me outside, but my legs wouldn’t do what I wanted. I stood there, watching while she took the tent down and packed our wet belongings. She wadded everything up and shoved it into the packs, and we started trudging back toward the village.
‘Have you come down?’ I asked her.
‘I think so.’
‘Do you think I have?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know. You’re really funny.’
I had no more hallucinations, but nothing seemed as it should. I had difficulty walking, and everything I saw – cliffs, stones, trees – looked unfamiliar.
The bus we caught was full of Indian workers; I felt they were staring at us, but then I must have dozed off. Before I knew it, we were in the middle of La Paz.
‘Do you want me to help you get home?’ Dede asked.
‘No, I’ll get a cab,’ I answered.
‘Will you be over to see me later?’
I hailed a cab and gave the driver my address. I ran into my friends Eitan, Raviv, and Shukrun at the entrance of the old-folks’ home. They burst out laughing at the sight of me.
‘So how was it?’ Raviv asked.
‘I’m scared,’ I told them. ‘Really. I’m not coming out of it.’
They just laughed some more.
‘Come and have some breakfast with us. You’ll feel better,’ Eitan said.
I left my pack in the hallway and joined them. It was hard to walk, and I was afraid to cross the street. Eitan helped me.
‘Am I going to stay this way?’ I asked in terror.
‘No, no, don’t worry,’ Eitan assured me. ‘It’ll be all right. You get some sleep, and when you get up, everything will be all right.’
‘You’re a happy man, Yossi,’ Shukrun said. ‘You should only stay that way. That’s the whole point.’
I awoke at noon and lay staring at the walls. The room’s only ornament was a faded poster of La Paz bearing the caption ‘The Jerusalem of Bolivia’. My vision was clear, not the distant blur it had been. I sighed with relief. I was my old self again.
I went downstairs, took a shower, shaved, and went out. It was a beautiful day, especially after the gloomy weather of the night before. Huge banners at the city’s central soccer stadium proclaimed the imminent contest between The Strongest and Bolívar. On a nearby corner stood a hamburger stand run by a young American, where the
gathered. I walked on in the direction of the amusement park. Little kids, squealing gaily, were sliding down a gigantic chute on plastic bags.
I didn’t feel like seeing Dede again. It was weird. Friends had warned me that the trip could turn violent, that either one of us might come to harm, but it hadn’t been like that.
I had needed her and even been afraid that if something had happened to her, I would be left alone, helpless. I was glad that she had been there near me, but now I simply didn’t care to see her, and I didn’t think I would be able to bring myself to touch her again.
I liked La Paz but wanted to return to Peru the next day. I could already picture myself at Machu Picchu. Every nomad knows the feeling: longing for every place he must leave mingled with anticipation of a new destination, always certain that the next place will be even better, even lovelier.
I walked in the direction of the Rosario Hotel, hoping to find Marcus and tell him that I was leaving.
‘The Swiss hasn’t come back yet,’ the clerk said. Marcus and Annick had gone to Coroico in the Yungas Cloud Mountains. I asked him for paper and a pen. I was supposed to meet Lisette, a Bolivian girl, at five-thirty at the university to attend a Brazilian jazz concert. I asked Marcus to meet me there at five.
I left the hotel with a European-looking man close behind me. I had seen him around the hotel before.
’ he greeted me. ‘You know the Swiss man, don’t you?’
He had a German accent, was in his late thirties, tall – about five feet eleven inches – broad-shouldered, solidly built, with brown hair receding above the temples. His eyes, which were slightly crossed, were blue. His clothes, which were worn but not threadbare, gave him the air of an adventurer.
‘He’s supposed to be back about now. He went to the Yungas for two days,’ I answered, and hurried down the street.
‘Are you American?’ he asked, quickening his pace to keep up with me.
For some reason every foreigner on this continent, especially if he happens to be tall and blond, is assumed to be an American. The problem with that is that many of the locals aren’t particularly fond of Americans.
‘Israeli,’ I answered abruptly.
‘I’m Karl Ruchprecter. I’m Austrian, but I’ve been living in Bolivia for ten years now.’
‘Yossi Ghinsberg,’ I said, and shook his big, firm hand.
‘I’m a geologist and work mostly in the jungle. We look for gold, uranium, antiquities.’
‘That’s certainly an unusual way to make a living.’ He had aroused my curiosity.
‘Oh, yes, sure. It’s very interesting. I have some photographs here of my last expedition, if you’d like to see them.’
‘Yes, I would.’
We marched up Comercio Street until we came to Plaza Murillo. Some of the old people there leafed through the afternoon papers in boredom or sat warming themselves in the sun. Others tossed kernels of corn to the fat pigeons. Their grandchildren ran about trying unsuccessfully to catch the birds. An ice-cream vendor made a racket hawking his Popsicles. We chose a wooden bench. A young shoeshine boy offered to polish my canvas tennis shoes.
Karl’s pictures took me by surprise. The dapper European by my side looked totally different in them. He was dressed in khakis, a wide-brimmed hat, and boots, and had a shotgun dangling from his shoulder. In one picture he was skinning a wild boar, and in another he was gutting a huge fish on the riverbank.
Karl could see that I was intrigued and explained that the following week he was leaving on a three-month expedition to an unexplored region of the jungle to look for precious metals. He would be happy to take me and perhaps one or two of my friends along. At the end of a day’s work, he said, it was always nice to sit around the campfire talking. Though he had many interests in common with his native assistants, he was always glad to have a few gringos along as well.
‘You can stay as long as you like,’ he said. ‘If you want to go back, I can send a guide with you to the nearest village. You’ll eat the game we hunt, sleep in the great outdoors, and your only expense will be an airline ticket out and back.’
He was on his way to lunch. I was tired and still had an upset stomach and preferred my bed. We arranged to meet the next afternoon, and I promised to bring a few friends along.
I went back to the old-folks’ home burning with excitement. I would talk to Marcus that very afternoon. Finally a chance to explore a real jungle!
Five o’clock that afternoon I spotted Marcus crossing the road to the university. As always he wore his coarse, black-brown cotton shirt and his wire-rimmed John Lennon glasses. He was beaming as he told me about the day spent with Annick. She loved him, he declared ecstatically. He asked me about the San Pedro cactus trip. I told him what had happened, and he listened attentively. And what had I decided? Was I going to go on with him into the countryside? I started elaborating upon the reasons why I wouldn’t be travelling around Bolivia with him.
‘The answer is no, I take it,’ he cut me off, disappointed.
‘Hold on a minute,’ I answered. ‘You haven’t heard the best,’ and I told him about the Austrian geologist.
Marcus wasn’t as excited as I was, but he promised to come with me to meet him the next day.
After the concert I walked back to the old-folks’ home. I told my friends there about the expedition. A few were enthusiastic, but others didn’t take the plan seriously. Only Itzik voiced any genuine interest in the details and asked to come along to the meeting. I was very pleased. Everyone liked Itzik. At thirty-four he was the oldest of the
and was often asked to represent our collective interests. He had a terrific sense of humour and an infectious enthusiasm, and he was helpful and good-natured.
The next day he and I marched off in the direction of Plaza Murillo. On our way we met up with Marcus, who himself had a companion, Kevin Gale. It was the first time I had met Kevin, but I already knew quite a lot about him. Every traveller did. Among the
he was a legend. Kevin Gale had done it all. They said that he carried the heaviest pack in South America, that he walked faster than the llamas up the sides of mountains. He was an enthusiastic naturalist and photographer, and one more thing: he was Marcus’s best friend.
‘Are you interested in going into the jungle?’ I asked him.
‘The truth is, I only came to La Paz to catch a plane home,’ he answered. ‘I’ve been in Latin America for almost two years, and I had decided to go home for Thanksgiving, but the idea fascinates me. I haven’t really been into the jungle.’
Karl was waiting for us in the square. He got out his photographs once again and told us about his past expeditions. Kevin bombarded him with questions, with Marcus translating from English to German and back again, since Kevin had difficulty understanding Karl’s peculiar Spanish. Kevin was interested in a tribe of wild Indians that Karl promised we’d see. I took it all in attentively.
‘Would it be possible to go partway by river?’ Kevin asked.
‘This is my work, not a pleasure trip,’ Karl answered, ‘but maybe when you want to come back, you could do so by river.’
Karl sketched a map on a notebook he had in his pack. He charted rivers, mountains, villages, towns, and mining camps. We were impressed by his knowledge. Kevin seemed satisfied but wanted to see a published map of the region. Karl promised to get one for him.
‘OK, I’m in,’ Kevin declared. ‘I’ll tell my parents that I’ll be home for Christmas instead.’
‘I’m going too,’ I said, though I had never doubted that I would.
‘I wanted to do some more travelling with Annick,’ Marcus said regretfully, ‘but I guess this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I’m with you too.’
Only Itzik held back.
Karl smiled at the lot of us, and we arranged to meet him that evening at the Rosario. Marcus left to find Annick, and Kevin, Itzik, and I walked back from the square. On a side street we found an ice-cream vendor. A small cone cost five bolivianos; a large cone, seven. I ordered large cones for us all.
We looked around for a place to sit and chose the steps of a nearby shop, only to discover it was the entrance to a coffin maker. There were boxes of every description, including one covered in blue vinyl and trimmed with gold buttons, and another sized for a baby. We sat on the steps and licked our ice cream.
Kevin was excited. ‘I have a lot of things to do,’ he said. ‘Cancel my flight and call my parents. They’re going to be really disappointed, but I’ve been dreaming about a trip like this the whole time I’ve been down here. A real jungle, a real Indian village, not a tourist trap. I’ll take photographs like mad. I’ll take a lot of film along, even a tripod. I’ll have to find some way to pack the cameras in waterproof tins or plastic, something that will keep the water out and float. I have to extend my visa. We’ll be there more than a month, won’t we? I’m sure it’s going to be really great.’
‘I don’t think that I’ll be coming along,’ Itzik said.
‘Why not, Itzik?’ I asked in surprise. ‘It’s going to be a fantastic trip.’
‘If I go off into the jungle, I won’t have any time left to travel in Chile. The rainy season will start, and I’ll miss the chance.’
‘Chile, schmili. Don’t you think a trip into the jungle sounds a lot more interesting?’
Kevin didn’t understand, for we were speaking Hebrew, and he went to get more ice cream. I heard him tell the vendor, ‘
Más grande, por favor.
‘What’s the problem?’ he asked as he handed us cones.
‘Itzik doesn’t think that he wants to come along,’ I explained. ‘He wants to go to Chile.’
‘Don’t worry, he’ll come,’ Kevin smiled. ‘I’ll see to it. Take my word.’
Kevin tried to change Itzik’s mind. He promised to map out a fantastic route through Chile for him. He explained that the weather now was lousy down there now, and he would be better off waiting. Itzik smiled and promised to think it over.
We kept returning to the ice-cream vendor. ‘I know, I know,’ she said, ‘
The coffin dealer looked a little sad. He didn’t say anything to us about blocking the steps to his store.
At five that afternoon we were waiting for Karl in Marcus’s room at the Rosario. It was a new hotel with clean, spacious rooms, but the best thing about it was the price: two dollars a night. Kevin was staying there too. I had gone to his room to fetch him. Good Lord, what a mess! There were clothes everywhere, cameras, maps, cigarettes, a jackknife, half a loaf of bread, cheese, melted butter – all heaped on the floor, the sink, and the dresser. Kevin reclined contentedly on the bed; he didn’t seem at all bothered by the disarray. Though I had known him only a short time, I ribbed him about it. Something about him made me feel particularly at ease.
Karl arrived at six o’clock. He didn’t apologise for being late, but, then, Latin America isn’t famous for punctuality. He had prepared a detailed list of things we would need to buy. It was all written down precisely in large, round letters. Spices, salt, sugar, alcohol, tea, and medicines. Cooking and eating utensils, cups, waterproof rubber sacks, and a machete to cut through the jungle. Snakebite serum and mosquito repellent were particularly important, but most important of all were nets to keep out stinging insects and large sheets of plastic for shelter at night.
As for the route, he again promised to get us a map but, for the time being, charted it out for us from memory. We would fly to Apolo and be met by his crew, four Indians who lived in a village on the Tuichi River. From there we would have a week’s hike to the place where we would be working. The Indians had accompanied Karl on every expedition, equipped with digging tools and armed with shotguns and ammunition. There was no need for us to buy our own shotgun unless we felt the need for one on our trip back.