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Authors: Yossi Ghinsberg

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BOOK: Lost in the Jungle
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Soon we found the gate to the ranch and went in. The settlement consisted of several mud huts and one two-storey stone building. The people we saw completely ignored us. When we drew nearer, however, the women pulled their children into the huts. Curious eyes peeked out at us. One lone man approached us with a smile. He was drooling and held out one hand, gesturing that he wanted a cigarette. He wore a tattered black hat, and his clothes were a mass of patches over patches. His fingers were encrusted with dirt. He was a dwarf, and his features made it clear that he was retarded.


Esclavos
[slaves],’ Karl muttered darkly.

A young woman came out of the stone building. She was dressed simply, but not in rags.


¡Hola!
gringos,’ she said in greeting. ‘Looking for gold?’

She listened, shaking her head doubtfully while Karl told her where we were headed. She poured us some
chicha
and told us that she was married to the ranch’s foreman. Her husband had gone to Apolo for a few days, leaving her here alone.

Karl inquired as to the whereabouts of Don Cuanca’s ranch, and she replied that it wasn’t far. She called out a name, and a young boy materialised.

‘He will show you the way,’ she said, and gave him an order in Quechua.

The boy kept his eyes on the ground and led us out of the ranch. We marched along behind him on a path that ran alongside the river.

‘What’s the story here, Karl?’ Kevin asked.

‘Hard as it is to believe, these people are slaves,’ Karl explained.

‘Slaves?’ I asked sceptically.

‘Well, you might not call them that, but they are virtual slaves. They don’t receive any pay. They are dealt with harshly. They don’t have anywhere else to go.’

‘What about the government? Don’t they help?’ Marcus asked.

‘The government?’ Karl laughed. ‘The government, my eye! Those generals stay in power several years, make a bundle smuggling drugs, and once they’re millionaires, they retire. Some other lousy generals take over from them, and history repeats itself. You think they give a shit what happens to a few lousy Indians?’

We came to level ground and a herd of at least thirty horses. A man stood nearby. The boy walked over to him. Karl shouted to the boy, asking which way we should go, while pointing in what he thought was the right direction. The boy nodded, without looking back at us. We left him and went on.

After walking for another two hours, nudging Flaca along, we came to a ranch. More mud huts and another stone building, just like the earlier ranch. More grassy pastures and grazing cows. It was all so similar and yet different.

We hadn’t even entered the yard when we met a little man dressed in tatters holding out his hand and asking for a cigarette. He was drooling. Hell! It was the same dwarf. Could he have left after we did and still gotten here ahead of us?

The young woman once again came out of the two-storey building. We glared at Karl. We had been huffing along for more than two hours for nothing, walking in a circle and coming back to the same ranch through a different gate.

The señora laughed in amusement. She said we would be welcome to spend the night at the ranch and even invited us to supper. She showed us to a room with two rickety beds. One would be for Karl, we all agreed, since he was the oldest. We drew lots for the other. Marcus won.

We ate chicken, rice, and fried plantains by candlelight in the dark cookhouse. The cursed boy, our guide, kept peeking through the window all the while we were eating. He didn’t crack a smile, just looked.

When we came out of the cookhouse, we found the boy’s father, the man who had been grazing the horses in the pasture, waiting for us. He wanted someone to tell his troubles to. He looked about guardedly, afraid the señora might overhear him.

‘Take a look at me,’ he said. ‘I don’t even know how old I am. When I was young, the señor brought me here. He promised to pay me and give me a plot of my own. Look at my clothes,’ he said, pointing to the patches covering his body. ‘I can’t remember how many years I’ve been wearing them. I have no others. I live in that mud hut with my wife and sons. They all work for the señor, like me. They don’t go to school. They don’t know how to read or write; they don’t even speak Spanish. We work for the master, raise his cattle, and work his fields. We only get rice and plantains to eat. Nobody takes care of us when we are sick. The women here have their babies in these filthy huts.’

‘Why don’t you eat beef or at least milk the cows?’ I asked.

‘We aren’t allowed to slaughter a cow. And the milk goes to the calves. We can’t even have chicken or pork – only if an animal gets sick and dies. Once I raised a pig in my yard,’ he went on. ‘She had a litter of three. When the señor came back, he told the foreman to shoot them. That’s the only time we ever had good meat. I don’t mind working for the señor, but I want him to keep his promise. I want a piece of land of my own so I can grow rice and yucca and raise a few chickens and pigs. That’s all.’

‘Doesn’t he pay you anything?’ Kevin asked.

‘He says he pays us, but he uses our money to buy our food. We never get any cash. Kind sirs, maybe you could help me to persuade the master. Just one little plot is all I want. The master has land, much land.’

We were shocked by his tale. Marcus took out a notebook and pen.

‘What’s his name?’ He wrote down the name. The man didn’t know the address. He only knew that the señor lived in La Paz.

Marcus was infuriated. ‘When I find the owner of the ranch, I’ll spit right in his eye. What a lousy bastard! I mean, it’s really incredible.’

‘That’s just the way things are,’ Karl said. ‘It’s sad, but there’s nothing we can do about it.’

‘I’ll get the owner’s address from the señora,’ Marcus said.

‘Don’t, she won’t like it. Anyway she’ll never give you the address.’

‘You know,’ said Karl, ‘when I got my degree in agronomy – ’

‘Agronomy ?’ I was startled. ‘I thought you said you studied geology.’

‘Well, not exactly. I majored in agronomy, but I spent years working here with a famous geologist. I learned geology from him. But it doesn’t matter.’ And Karl was off reminiscing. ‘I was quite a radical as a student, a Communist. The party sent me on a two-month visit to Russia, which was a big disappointment, and I gave up Communism. I went over to another movement, even more radical. It sounded good – very idealistic and high-minded – but my friends became terrorists. Some of them are wanted now internationally. That wasn’t for me. That isn’t the way to achieve your ideals. Fortunately I got out in time.

‘I got a scholarship to finish my degree in a tropical climate and was sent to Brazil. That’s how I got to South America, and I’ve been living in jungles ever since. I’ve covered every inch of this continent,’ Karl went on. ‘I’ve seen the poverty, the injustice, the corruption, and the exploitative regimes. I’ve wondered how the world could be changed. Communism isn’t the answer. Neither is violent revolution. I’ve given the matter a lot of thought and arrived at a new social theory. The only way to solve the world’s problems is mathematical cosmopolitics!’

‘What’s that supposed to mean, Karl?’ Marcus asked.

‘Just look at the world. All of its problems would vanish overnight if it wasn’t for politicians. There’s enough food to go around, enough land, enough resources. Why do people fight one another? It’s all because of the politicians. They don’t care about the people. They’re only after money and power.

‘The world is very advanced technologically. Why should egotistical politicians have control, make all the major decisions? Let’s put a computer in charge. Then government ministers would be nothing but computer programmers, processing data, with no ego trips, no stupid pride, greed, or chauvinism. It’ll all be for the common good.’

We hid our tolerant smiles as he unfurled his naive theory, but Karl himself was terribly enthusiastic.

‘Of course it’s a difficult plan to carry out, so it’s advisable that one nation be first to revolutionise itself, and then its neighbours will follow suit until the entire world has adopted the new system. One central computer will control the whole world, and that will be mathematical cosmopolitics.’

Soon Marcus and Karl went to sleep on their soft ‘featherbeds’ like nice little bourgeois. Kevin and I stayed up talking.

We left the ranch the next morning after we had bid the señora farewell with mixed feelings. We could see people working in the fields at a distance. Again we passed the herd of skittish horses. We were determined not to walk around in circles again. Karl took a different path.

Flaca kept up a reasonable pace all morning. The night before, she had received all the chicken bones and a healthy serving of rice. ‘What did I tell you?’ Karl beamed proudly.

We reached Don Cuanca’s ranch a few hours later, another two-storied building of bricks and wood, but this one had only two mud cabins near it. A sow and her young lay wallowing in a puddle of mud. Once again we were greeted by a retarded-looking dwarf. At first we were stunned, but, no, it wasn’t the same one.

Don Cuanca himself came out to welcome us. He and Karl were friends. They shook each other’s hand warmly, and Karl introduced us.

We all sat around a coarse wooden table. The dwarf served us coffee, a large bowl of boiled yucca, and a dish of salt. We dipped the yucca in the salt and ate hungrily. After a short rest Don Cuanca took us on a tour of his ranch. The place was sadly neglected. Most of the land was overgrown with weeds and brambles, and the fields were uncultivated.

‘I’m too old. I don’t have the energy to run a ranch anymore,’ he said. ‘If one of you would care to stay on here, I would make you a full partner if you help me. Mark my words, this place could blossom like heaven on earth.’

He led us to the gate on the opposite side of the ranch. ‘You’ll be in Asriamas by evening. Think it over. Maybe by the time you’re back from your trip, one of you will want to settle down here with me. Goodbye for now.’

This was our fourth day of hiking, and our heavy packs seemed to have found their proper repose on our backs. Though we were by now inured to the burden, we were nevertheless weary and anxious to reach Asriamas.

We made our way up and down a few steep hills in the jungle and heard the faint rush of flowing water.

‘Listen,’ Karl exclaimed happily, ‘that’s the Tuichi.’

We hastened forward until we came to the riverbank. It was a stunning sight. The river was wide, at least a hundred yards across. Its waters were clear and calm. The current was mild. On the other side we could see thatched roofs. At long last we were there.

‘How do we get across the river, Karl?’ I asked.

‘You see those wooden platforms on the other side? Those are balsa rafts. We’ll soon catch sight of someone and holler for him to bring us over.’

We waited for about half an hour.

‘Maybe we should fire a shot.’ Karl suggested. ‘Somebody’s bound to hear it.’

The shotgun was slung over my shoulder. I fired lazily, the butt of the shotgun resting on my hip. The blast was incredible, the sound deafening. It was the first time that I had ever fired a shotgun. I held on to my side where it hurt from the powerful kick of the gun.

Karl laughed. ‘You just blew your image as a big, tough Israeli,’ he said.

Since no one seemed to have heard the shot, Kevin lost patience and decided to swim across the river. He swam with powerful strokes. The undertow was strong, and he couldn’t make it straight across but came up on the other side quite a way downstream. He vanished in the direction of the straw huts and returned a few minutes later surrounded by black heads. From a distance it was a funny sight: a fair-headed giant encircled by droves of short, dark-skinned people.

In no time they rowed across and transported us, together with our gear and our dog, to the other side, where a large, curious crowd awaited our arrival. Their appearance was entirely different from that of the people we had met on the ranches. Their dress was modest, neat, and clean. They looked healthy, strong, and robust.

A narrow brook carried water into the village. All four of us removed our shoes to cross it. When we got to the other side, all the people watching us burst out laughing.

What was so funny? They were staring at the other side of the brook. I turned around and looked back. The shotgun was lying there on the pebbles. I had put it down when I took off my shoes and forgotten it.

‘What kind of a soldier are you, anyway, Yossi?’ Karl teased me again. He turned to a group of boys and said, ‘Five pesos for whoever brings the shotgun.’ One small boy beat the rest of them to it, came back with the shotgun, and collected his coin.

The people were very friendly. They came up and talked to us. The women and children watched us curiously but without fear in their eyes. They had no doubt that we had come to prospect for gold.

After they had offered us sweet bananas and ripe papayas, Karl asked if his friend Don Jorge was in the village. The man’s brother was among the crowd, and he led us straight down the bank of the Tuichi to Don Jorge’s home.

Asriamas is a small, relatively new village. About ten years earlier the government had allotted the land to the
campesinos
from the
altiplano
(high plains). They had gone into the jungle, put in an enormous amount of work, cut paths through the foliage, cleared trees from their fields, built huts, and planted banana groves. They had brought in cattle, sheep, and horses and raised vegetables and large quantities of rice. They sold their rice to wholesalers in Apolo. Don Jorge’s was the oldest and wealthiest of the families in Asriamas. His family enjoyed the status of founders.

BOOK: Lost in the Jungle
6.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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