Authors: Yossi Ghinsberg
We hailed a cab on Calle Illampu and loaded our packs into the trunk and onto the roof. The taxi wove in and out of traffic, then turned toward the airport. A ten-minute drive and we were there. I had a funny feeling: this wasn’t just a plan or a story to tell anymore. We were really on our way.
The flight to Apolo took less than an hour. The plane was small. The passengers were seated side by side along benches of taut canvas that ran the length of the aircraft, leaning back against taut strips of fabric. All the luggage was in a heap at the back.
Most of the passengers were residents of Apolo. The men had short, bristly hair. The women, like the men, had high cheekbones. They wore their black hair in thick braids intertwined with yarn and tied off with ornamental tassels. There was also a European, a priest in a brown soutane.
Flying over the Andes was inspiring: snow-covered peaks and breathtaking panoramas. Once in a while we flew into an air pocket, and the plane lost altitude with a quiver, then steadied itself. Whenever that happened, the women became hysterical, screaming and crossing themselves in a frenzy. One of them, her eyes dark and frightened, took hold of the priest’s hand and wouldn’t let go for the rest of the flight.
Then the scenery below changed drastically; suddenly we were looking down on rivers winding through vast jungle. In no time we touched down in Apolo, and I quickly realised why the women had become so hysterical during the flight. Hanging from the trees on either side of the airstrip were the broken, burnt, and rusted hulks of earlier flights.
We waited for our packs and were soon on our way into town, along with the crowd that had gathered to meet the plane. Two officers on motorcycles stopped us to ask what we were doing there. When we told them, they said that we should go to the police station to register.
‘Nonsense.’ Karl waved them off after they had ridden away. ‘Just a lot of unnecessary red tape.’
We started walking, Karl in the lead with Kevin and me right behind him. Marcus brought up the rear. I could hear him softly singing,
Freight train, freight train, going so fast,
Freight train, freight train, going so fast,
Please don’t tell the train I’m on,
’Cause I don’t know where I’ve gone.
The heat was sweltering, and we struggled up a steep incline. Karl had tied his rubber bag to his back with two crossed strips of cloth, but we could all tell that the strips were digging uncomfortably into his shoulders. Our progress was slow because we stopped to rest frequently. We didn’t waste our breath talking. We weren’t carrying any water with us, so we were glad when we came across a small ranch, where they gave us
(a sweetened, fermented beverage made of corn or yucca). We drank it down greedily.
By late afternoon we came to a flat, wooded area, and the going was easier. We had hoped to find a ranch where we could spend our first night, but since it had grown dark, we decided to set up camp where we were. Marcus got out the tent, but Karl preferred to improvise a shelter of nylon sheeting.
He cut down a few thick, straight bamboo stalks and chopped off their leafy tops with a swipe of the machete. He tied two stalks together in an asymmetrical X, the bottom half wider than the top. He did the same with a second pair of stalks and stuck the legs into the soft earth. He dropped a long pole between the Xs, tying it down securely. He reinforced each end with a third pole, tied at the crotch of each X, the lower end jammed into the ground. He tied everything together with
the fibres between the bark of a tree and its wood. (Balsa trees yield good, strong
, though climbing vines, which are always abundant, are surprisingly resilient and can be tied into many knots without breaking.) He stretched nylon sheeting over the bamboo poles, pulling the edges taut and weighting them down with heavy rocks. He padded the floor of the tent with a thick carpet of leaves to keep us from the cold and damp.
We got a little fire going and sat around it, preparing rice and tea with spring water. The food wasn’t filling, but Karl told us not to worry; there wasn’t much game here because we were too close to settled areas. Once we passed Asriamas, he promised, we would have all the meat we could eat.
The noise in the jungle at night is unbelievable. There were moments it seemed as if we were in the centre of some busy industrial area. Karl informed us that it was just insects and birds. We were all exhausted (poor Kevin – I couldn’t even lift his sixty-pound pack full of camera equipment) and soon fell asleep on the ground.
In the middle of the night I was awakened by a horrible screech. It was Marcus. Kevin had gotten up to relieve himself, and when he passed over Marcus, Marcus woke up screaming, thinking that a wild animal was attacking him. Karl laughed, and we settled down and went back to sleep.
Before we set out the following morning, we divided the weight that had to be carried more equally among us, though Kevin insisted on carrying more than his share.
After an easy two hours’ walk we came upon a ranch. The owner and his wife greeted us hospitably, seated us around a wooden table in the yard, and served us ripe papayas and a beverage made from sugar cane and lemon. We rested for a while and then set out once again after ceremoniously thanking our hosts.
We came upon another ranch as noon approached. As Karl discussed lunch arrangements with the rancher, I wandered about the yard, passing fruit trees, chickens, a pig or two, and a few skinny dogs, who languished in the shade, too lazy even to acknowledge the presence of a stranger.
Through the door of the cookhouse I could see the rancher’s wife and daughter slaughtering a chicken. The poor bird lay on the floor with a broom handle pressed against its neck, fluttering helplessly. The women caught sight of me, blushed, and fled into the recesses of the cabin. The lucky chicken grabbed her chance to flee, screeching. I walked off, amused.
For lunch we were served a tasty soup and the unfortunate chicken, despite all that, cooked with rice. While we ate, the dogs gathered around begging for scraps. ‘
[so skinny]!’ Karl marvelled at a scrawny pooch that resembled a German shepherd. She was all bones with matted fur. She gazed at us, her eyes dull and lifeless.
‘What would you think about buying the dog?’ Karl suggested. ‘What! Are you nuts?’ Kevin exclaimed. ‘What would we want with a mangy dog?’
‘Don’t look at her like that,’ Karl said. ‘You don’t know how important a dog can be in the jungle.’ Then he told us a story that he would repeat at least a dozen times. ‘I once hiked alone through the jungle with only a dog for company. After three days a jaguar appeared, poised to spring at me, but the dog saw it and barked a warning. The jaguar came closer, but the faithful dog lunged and tried to chase it away. I didn’t see any more. I only heard barks and roars.’ Karl started imitating the sounds of a dog and jaguar fighting. It all ended with the dying yelps of the dog being eaten by the jaguar.
We asked if the moral of the story was that we should have a dog along as jaguar bait.
‘Don’t laugh,’ Karl said. ‘She can come along with us, eat a lot of the fresh game that we’ll soon be hunting. She’ll get stronger and turn into a beautiful, lively dog.’ As if anxious to demonstrate his point, he began tossing bones to ‘Flaca,’ angrily driving off any of the other dogs that tried to snatch one of the bones away, and the dog did perk up a bit.
It wasn’t difficult to talk the rancher into selling her. Karl fastened a rope around her neck. ‘No, no, sweetheart, you aren’t going to go running back home,’ he said to her. ‘I’ll keep her on a leash for a few days until she gets used to me, and then she’ll follow along on her own.’
Kevin snapped a few profiles of the newest member of our party, and we set out again.
The damned dog slowed us down terribly. She refused to keep pace with us, and every once in a while she’d lie down and wouldn’t budge. Karl tried everything. First he sweettalked her, promising better things to come. Then he cursed her, threatened her, kicked her, and beat her with a flimsy branch.
We had a good steep climb ahead, and the dog was determined not to move an inch. Karl dragged her cruelly over every root, dry branch, or rock in her path until Kevin took pity on the poor animal. He untied her, picked her up, and draped her across his shoulders, two legs hanging down on each side of his neck, like a lamb. This was in addition to the heavy gear that he was already carrying.
The way down was just as steep as the way up had been. We had to be careful not to slip and go tumbling down with our bulky packs. Only Karl hurried ahead, dragging Flaca after him and talking to her out loud. Suddenly Kevin, Marcus, and I lost sight of them. Marcus grew anxious. He wanted us to call out in unison so that Karl would hear us and wait.
‘What’s the difference?’ Kevin asked. ‘We all have to go in the same direction anyway. We’ll catch up with him sooner or later.’
Marcus didn’t say anything, but he couldn’t conceal how worried he was. About half an hour later we came to a fork in the path. One direction seemed to be a continuation of the path we had been travelling, and the other cut off to the side. Kevin went striding resolutely along the main track.
‘Wait!’ Marcus cried. ‘How do you know that this is the right way? He could have gone the other way.’
‘Don’t be so uptight, Marcus. This is obviously the way. If Karl had turned off, he would have waited to tell us. Come on, let’s get going.’
‘No,’ Marcus insisted tremulously, ‘let’s wait here and call out until he comes back for us. It could be really dangerous if we lose him. We could get lost all alone in this jungle.’
‘Marcus, why don’t you just turn around and go back?’ Kevin asked testily.
‘What do you mean?’ Marcus demanded. ‘Go back where?’
‘You’re not going to enjoy this. You’re not cut out for it. Why don’t you just forget it and go back to town? It’s not too late. There are a lot of ranches back there on the way. You could even rent a donkey and make it back to Apolo by tomorrow.’
‘Bullshit!’ Marcus fumed. ‘Of course I’m enjoying myself. Who are you to decide if I’m going to enjoy myself or not?’
‘OK, forget it. Just forget it,’ Kevin closed the subject and walked on.
We trailed behind him in silence, the mood tense. After a while we spotted Karl and Flaca; they were sitting, resting next to a little stream.
‘Look what I found!’ Karl called, waving to us.
He was holding a large frog. I would never have believed that frogs could get that big. It must have weighed at least four pounds.
‘They taste like chicken,’ Karl said. ‘I sometimes eat them, but for now I’ll let Flaca have the pleasure.’
He skinned the frog and tossed Flaca a piece. To our amazement the dog wouldn’t have anything to do with it. Karl’s cooing and pleading did no good. Flaca just wasn’t interested.
After a few hours of arduous walking we came to a wide river.
‘Great,’ Karl said happily, ‘this is the Machariapo River. We don’t have far to go now.’
The river was deep; its waters came up to my chest. We hung our shoes around our necks. Karl cut some sturdy branches from the trees and demonstrated how to ford the stream, sticking the poles into the rocky bottom to brace ourselves against the current. Kevin went first, and Karl followed behind him, his pole in one hand and Flaca’s leash in the other. The dog treaded water weakly, trying to keep its head above the current. Marcus and I were last to cross. We tottered from side to side and almost lost our balance but finally reached the other side.
Karl suggested that we set up camp. We were tired enough to agree readily. Once again we erected a tent of bamboo poles and nylon sheeting. Karl started making dinner, and the rest of us stripped and raced back to the river.
We splashed around in the cool water, swimming with the current and then against it. Marcus had brought some soap, and we passed it around.
In the morning our packs were on our backs, and our spirits were high. We have just started out when we ran into two
leading a huge, white bull by a rope tied to its horns. We tried to learn from them how much farther it was to Asriamas but couldn’t understand a word of their Spanish.
A while later we emerged from the jungle into a wide, grassy field fenced with barbed wire. A little bit of paradise. The river cut through the field, and cows grazed contentedly. On the other side of the fence I could see papaya trees. Without a second thought I crawled under the fence, gave one of the trees a good shake, and came back with four ripe pieces. For the past two days we had had barely one square meal a day. The juicy fruit was a pleasure.