Authors: Yossi Ghinsberg
Marcus suddenly cried out, ‘It’s alive! It’s still alive!’ and indeed the goose was still fluttering with life in Karl’s grip. I looked at Marcus suspiciously, half expecting him to break out the first-aid kit, but Karl thought nothing of it. He grasped the goose by it neck and twisted it to set Marcus’s mind at ease. Marcus let out a painful groan and covered his eyes.
‘Way to go, Karl.’ I slapped him on the back, while he tied the goose to my backpack. ‘Now we won’t have to shoot a calf.’
‘The calf isn’t out of it yet,’ he replied. ‘One lousy goose isn’t going to make a meal for the four of us, and the calf will give us enough for tomorrow too.’
None of us objected. Karl took aim at the white calf. I put my hands over my ears, and Marcus squeezed his eyes shut. Kevin watched attentively. The calf’s salvation arrived from different quarters. The bolt stuck, and Karl couldn’t get it unjammed. While he was fiddling with the shotgun, the entire herd made a break for it, back to the riverbank.
There is a God in heaven
, I thought to myself with relief.
Karl wasn’t upset. ‘So they got away,’ he shrugged. ‘We’ll have plenty of game tomorrow. Look at the fat goose we got today.’
We set up camp quickly. Karl cleaned the goose, put a pot of rice on to boil, and set the goose in it. We sat down to warm ourselves around the fire. We each held a deep bowl and concentrated on the delicious stew.
‘Poor Flaca,’ I said.
‘Stupid, pig-headed dog,’ Karl cursed.
‘Tell us about the Indian village,’ Kevin said, changing the subject.
Karl liked nothing better than to be asked to tell a story.
‘We were panning for gold in Curiplaya,’ he began, ‘the camp we’ll be coming to later on. There were villagers from San José there, and a Swiss friend of mine, Don Matías, who owns a ranch farther down the Tuichi. The
, together with Don Matías, had already visited the village once. They said that the Indians were supposed to know where there was a large treasure of gold in the area. It got me curious, and I asked to go there.’
It was a difficult journey, three days’ hike up a mountainside. There wasn’t any water on the way, and they had to carry water with them, but they finally made it. It was a big village: six hundred inhabitants. The women wore short grass skirts and went barefoot and bare-breasted. They were solidly built, with high cheekbones and somewhat slanted eyes. All in all, Karl declared, they weren’t bad-looking. The men wore loincloths, and most of them also wore belts from which the shrunken heads of their enemies dangled. Each man had two or three wives. Besides cooking and cleaning, the women also worked the fields. They tended banana groves and raised yucca and corn. They carried long knives, made of a very hard wood called
Their bows, spears, and blowguns were made of the same wood. The men made the weapons and spent most of their time hunting or playing games. Jungle boys.
Not far from the village – about three days’ walk, almost on the Peruvian border – lived another tribe, known for its ferocity. This tribe would attack the village, carrying off its women. The villagers protected their women, and when they killed one of their enemies, they cut off his head and shrank it. This was done by burying the head in the sand by the river. Over the place where the head was buried a hot fire was lit. After a few hours the head was dug up and the skull bones pulled out through the jagged neck. The head was buried again under a fire for many hours, until it shrank to the size of a clenched fist. The shrunken head looked just like the man when he was alive: all the features – the lips, eyelids, lashes, eyebrows, everything – just the same. Finally the head was filled with sand to make it solid and hung as an ornament from a belt. According to Indian lore, the strength of the dead enemy passed to the warrior who killed him, and the warrior became twice as strong. The more heads an Indian has on his belt, the stronger he is assumed to be.
When one of the members of the tribe dies, the village has a big cremation rite. Karl had been present at one of them and recalled it with great enthusiasm. The deceased was an old man who had died a natural death. Average life expectancy for the tribe was about forty-five years. The men built a big bonfire in the centre of the village. The women brought urns of
and sang mourning songs. The deceased, with his belt of five shrunken heads, was tossed into the bonfire.
‘The smell of the burning body made me nauseous,’ Karl said with a grimace, ‘but I managed to keep a straight face. I didn’t want them to see how disgusted I was.’
The women wailed some incomprehensible lamentation, while the men danced about to the beat of drums and roared sounds like animal calls. Now and then they added more wood to the fire. Then the women brought millstones. A few men smothered the fire with broad leaves and removed the red-hot bones from it. They divided the bones among the women, who ground them on their millstones. The resulting powder was poured into urns of
. Afterward all the participants received gourd bowls into which the yellow
I’m not drinking any of that!
I said to myself, but Don Matías, knowing what I must be thinking, said to me, ‘Drink it, Karl, if you want to get out of here alive. Just be careful to keep your teeth clamped shut.’ I soon found out what he had meant. Unground bits of flesh still clung to the bones.
‘The men sat around smoking something. I don’t know what it was. It was wrapped in dry leaves and had a sharp scent. They invited me to have a smoke. Of course I couldn’t refuse. Don Matías warned me that the drug was very dangerous and that its influence could be permanent. He told me to smoke as he did, holding the smoke in my mouth without inhaling any of it.
‘The smoke burned my mouth, and my eyes started watering. I coughed loudly, but none of them laughed or showed any interest in me at all. They looked about gazing into space. They didn’t say a thing except when one of them cried out from time to time. Don Matías and I got out of there after about half an hour, and none of them reacted when we left.’
By the time that Karl had finished this story, I was covered with goose bumps but eager to have and savour similar experiences of my own. I was amazed to discover that both Kevin and Marcus had fallen asleep without hearing the ending.
When I opened my eyes in the morning, I saw Karl, as he had each morning before, bringing last night’s fire back to life and putting on a pot of coffee. Karl never woke us to help him. He looked after us as if we were his children. There was good reason for Marcus’s having started to call him Poppa.
Within a few minutes we were all up and out. We had our by-now traditional breakfast, sweet rice porridge. Kevin complained that he hated this glop, but that didn’t stop him from having a second helping or licking the pot clean. He knew that we wouldn’t have anything else but a cup of cold tea until evening and that he had better fill his belly as best he could now.
We were off. Karl led the way at a rapid pace. I admired how tough he was. He was wearing cowboy boots, which weren’t suited to long-distance trekking. In fact, they were disintegrating from repeated immersion in the river. That day the sole fell off one, and he had to tie it on with a piece of rope. I’m sure that walking in those boots was agonising, but he never complained and never slowed down.
Without consciously deciding to do so, we had broken up into pairs. Karl and Marcus walked together in the lead with Kevin and me close behind them. Our marching arrangement affected our social relations as well. Karl and Marcus spoke German to each other. Kevin and I spoke English. Besides that, I was happy to be in Kevin’s company and was feeling less friendly toward Marcus. Somehow he had changed. He was too kind, overly sensitive, and polite enough to drive one to distraction. We were in the jungle, carrying heavy packs, hiking through rugged terrain for no less that ten hours each day. We were wading through the river, plodding through mud, and fighting through the foliage. It was natural that we would all become tougher. Except Marcus. When he saw a bramble bush, he would stop and hold its branches aside until we had all gone past, or he would call out, ‘Watch it, there’s a thorny bush here,’ or ‘Be careful that that branch sticking out doesn’t scratch you.’ It got to be ridiculous. If he happened to be walking behind us and got hit by a branch or scratched, he was insulted that we hadn’t warned him. Kevin and I couldn’t help deriding him privately. Among ourselves we called him Girl Scout.
I had felt a gulf opening between Marcus and me ever since the beginning of the trip. We couldn’t bridge the widening gap, and our conversations centred around purely practical matters. Neither one of us felt comfortable with this change in our relationship.
Kevin, who after all had known Marcus even longer than I had, had also become concerned.
‘Marcus seems different,’ I said to him one morning. ‘He’s sad all of the time. Don’t you think so?’
‘I noticed it, too, but it isn’t just recently. He’s been like that for months. He must have told you about Monica.’
‘Yes, he told me about her. He must have really loved her.’
‘I was with him when she was here, and when she left him, he went to pieces. It was as if he had lost the desire to go on living.
‘Marcus and I used to be like brothers. I loved him, and I still do, but he’s changed. I thought at first it was because of Monica, but I’m not so sure anymore. Marcus is a special person. He wants to save the whole world. He wants to help every needy person he runs into, and he lets people walk all over him. I feel bad for him. He should never have come into the jungle. He’s not comfortable here in the wilderness. It’s too savage for him. Look at the way he acts. He’s scared, insecure. He’s really miserable. It hurts just to look at him.’
‘Have you tried talking to him about it?’ I asked.
‘A couple of days after we left Apolo, when Karl had gone off to see if there was a ranch nearby and you were with Flaca, Marcus and I were left alone. I told him how I was feeling, that his friendship was very important to me, and that I was afraid of losing it. I felt weird, I said, almost like he couldn’t stand being around me. I told him I thought maybe we should keep a little space between us, that that might save our friendship. I suggested maybe we should try just talking about things having to do with the trip, but it didn’t do any good, except for keeping up appearances.
‘I see that with you, too, Yossi. It’s getting worse every day. I know he gets on your nerves. He behaves like a child, hanging on Karl all day long. He stepped on my foot the other day and spent half an hour apologising. He wanted to check to make sure I wasn’t injured.’
‘Maybe you should try talking to him.’
Later that morning, when Karl stopped to attend to his disintegrating boot and told us to carry on, he’d catch up, I found myself walking alongside Marcus and was surprised when he revealed that he, too, felt and regretted the chasm that had opened up between us.
‘Yossi, don’t you think that our relationship has changed since we started on this trip,’ he asked suddenly, ‘like we aren’t such good friends as we used to be? Haven’t you noticed?’ He spoke quietly, his voice sad.
I didn’t know what to say. ‘I don’t think anything has changed, Marcus,’ I answered him. ‘You just seem very unhappy, like something is bothering you. I don’t know. Maybe you can’t get Monica out of your mind. Maybe you miss Annick. You keep everything to yourself, bottled up inside. But I’m sure that things between us are just the same,’ I said, even though I knew he was right.
As we walked along that day, the Asriamas became narrower and narrower. By the time we approached some hilly terrain, it was little more than a stream. It was a hot, sunny day. Thousands of brightly coloured butterflies – yellow, orange, blue, green, purple - rested on the sand or hovered above it, their wings fluttering. At Kevin’s request Karl strode directly into their midst, while Kevin snapped pictures of each step that he took. The butterflies took flight, and Karl was engulfed in a cloud of colours. It was a stunningly beautiful sight. Marcus discovered a single butterfly warming itself on a rock. Kevin bent over quietly and took a close-up. Its wings were transparent with yellow stripes.
Karl stooped over as he walked, his eyes glued to the ground. I thought he was looking for butterflies, but he said, ‘Look, tapir tracks, a mother and a calf. That explains the butterflies. The cow and calf must have come down to drink from the stream. Then they peed in the sand. The butterflies go after the minerals in urine.’
Pointing out what he thought our approximate location to be on our poor excuse for a map, Karl decided to turn away from the stream and cross the mountain chain. ‘The Cocus River is on the other side,’ he explained. ‘Once we’re over the first ridge, any trickle of water that we stumble across will lead us there. That’s why we don’t need an exact map.’
We started our ascent, and soon our bodies were pouring sweat. When I spotted a large, green fruit near my foot, I called out to Karl. He was pleased with the find – he called it
manzana de monte
(mountain apple) – and showed me how it broke evenly into four pieces, and handed them around.
‘Let’s look for the tree,’ Kevin suggested, and in a few moments, when we’d found it and discovered the fruit too high above our heads and the trunk too smooth to climb, he said decisively,
‘Let’s chop it down.’
Marcus immediately took the opposite view. It wasn’t right, he argued, to kill a tree just to get at its fruit. ‘And what about other people who might pass by here and need food?’