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Authors: Yossi Ghinsberg

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BOOK: Lost in the Jungle
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‘We’re here now,’ Kevin retorted, ‘and we’re hungry.’

We took turns striking at the trunk with the machete. Kevin worked at it longer than the rest of us, and in no time the tree toppled with a crash, breaking branches off neighbouring trees on its way down. We pounced on the fruit and gathered up a good deal of it only to find that not a single one was edible.

They were all green and hard inside. I thought we could take them along and eat them when they’d ripened, but the others disagreed; the burden wasn’t worth the reward.

It took five long, exhausting hours to climb the steep mountainside. Karl showed us how to extract water from the bamboo shoots that grew in abundance on the mountain. Little reserves of potable water build up between the joints on the stalks. He chopped off one of the shoots with the machete, and, sure enough, water poured out.

We needed a rest before going on. I leaned my weary back against one of the stalks, but it offered no support, and I fell over backward. Long, thick thorns stuck up among the stalks, and when I fell, my hand struck one of them, piercing my wrist more than half an inch deep.

Marcus had begun laughing at my fall, but when he saw the look on my face, he grew frightened and silent. I was in severe pain. I pulled the thorn out, and, surprisingly, there wasn’t much bleeding. Marcus disinfected the wound, and Kevin bound it with a large bandanna. My hand was paralyzed from the wrist to the fingertips.

We descended the mountain rapidly, the way down as steep as the ascent had been. Karl seemed to know what he was talking about; when we reached level ground, we did find a narrow brook. We waded along in it, and its current gradually quickened. The scenery was magnificent, and Kevin couldn’t stop taking pictures.

When we came around a bend in the stream, we took a lazy little sloth by surprise. It was drinking from the stream and was too slow to run away from us. Karl was the first to spot it. He ran toward it shouting happily, ‘
A la olla! A la olla!
Into the pot with you!’ He fearlessly grabbed the sloth by the scruff of its neck and picked it up. The animal batted at Karl’s hands clumsily but struck only thin air.

‘It would be a shame to waste a shell on it,’ Karl said, while Kevin photographed the cub for posterity.

Karl threw the animal down on the ground, pulled the machete from his belt, and raised it over his head. Marcus looked away, horrified. Karl brought the machete down on the back of the sloth’s neck, and it sighed its last breath.

‘We finally got some game,’ Karl observed proudly, tying the carcass to my pack.

Before another hour had passed, we heard sharp cries.

‘Shhh, shhh.’ Karl waved us back. ‘There are monkeys coming this way.’

A family of black monkeys appeared in the treetops. They swung from branch to branch like acrobats.
Boom, boom
. Karl fired the gun, and a monkey plummeted to the ground. Karl ran to it and fired another shot from close range. The monkey let out a gurgle, and Karl smashed the butt of the shotgun into its head until it was still. ‘A wounded monkey can be very vicious,’ he explained. The monkey was quite small, weighing about twenty pounds.

Karl suggested that we make camp. It wasn’t yet growing dark, but we had a lot or work to do. We had to clean the animals and prepare them for cooking. We chose high, dry ground, as Karl instructed, and set about our usual preparations. I couldn’t work with my wounded hand and just sat watching Karl and Kevin set up camp, while Marcus ground spices together with stones that he found lying about. After the tent was up, Karl began skinning the sloth. It was a difficult task, because he didn’t have a sharp enough knife. The monkey was easier. Karl tossed the whole thing into the fire, and its fur burned right off. It was a disgusting sight: its face was all shrivelled up, its teeth and nose bone were stark white, the eye sockets were creepy, and the hands and feet looked human. I could hardly stand to watch. Karl was soon crouched over the stream cleaning out the innards and thoroughly washing the entire carcass. I helped him cut the animals to pieces. He stuck the sloth meat on green, skewer like branches and set them down near the fire.

‘That’s our dinner. We’ll smoke the monkey to take along with us,’ he said.

Besides the sloth meat, which was seasoned with the spices Marcus had prepared, Karl made rice in place of our usual soup.

After dinner Karl rigged a small domed structure of green branches over the fire and set the cuts of monkey meat inside: legs, arms, body, head, and tail.

‘We’ll let it smoke all night. By morning it will be good and dry.’

For breakfast we had rice soup and monkey meat. It was the first time the three of us had tasted monkey. I was nauseated by it, but my hunger overcame my disgust. Marcus and I tried to choose nondescript pieces of meat from the breast and loins. Kevin was less squeamish and sat there smacking his lips.

‘I’ll be damned, it’s really good.’

Karl savoured every bite. He grasped a thigh and tore the flesh from it with his teeth.

We shortly came to the Cocus River. Travelling along it was astoundingly beautiful. The Cocus was different from the Asriamas. The farther downriver we went, the more streams ran into it, and the wider, deeper, and more powerful it became. Walking in the river was very difficult, more so for me because the wound on my hand was still painful. We chose each step carefully. Progress was slow. We came upon deep pools and waterfalls and had no choice but to climb up into the jungle and hack our way through the foliage until we came to a place where the river was shallow again.

Karl’s boots were now entirely shapeless, yawning with wide holes. He wrapped them in nylon bags and used rope to secure them to his ankles. His feet were covered with blisters, but he didn’t complain. He only paused now and then to tighten the ropes. Once in a while he stopped to examine the rocks at the water’s edge, looking for traces of gold and other minerals.

By afternoon we were exhausted. We stopped to rest, and Karl gave us each a slab of monkey meat. This time Marcus and I devoured it hungrily. For second helpings Karl pulled out the monkey’s tail and cut it into pieces. Marcus and I declined, but Kevin and Karl munched around the tail the way you would corn on the cob, leaving only the bare, white cartilage.

We sat a little longer studying the map.

‘We have to keep travelling down the Cocus to here,’ Karl said, pointing. ‘Then we’ll cross back over the mountains and come down to the Colorado-Chico. I’ve been told that there’s a lot of gold to be found in that river,’ he added. ‘If we find any traces, maybe we’ll change plans and set up camp there instead of Curiplaya. I think we should be able to pan a good few hundred dollars’ worth.’

Kevin and Marcus weren’t particularly impressed. They didn’t really take him seriously, but I was intoxicated by Karl’s enthusiasm and wanted to believe that we might go home rich.

After a few more hours’ walking over rugged terrain, we set up camp. Karl added the last of the monkey meat to the rice soup. He broke open the shrivelled skull and tossed in the brains. Marcus was absolutely disgusted and wouldn’t take a bite of the soup. I was reluctant at first but overcame my aversion and dug in with the others.

Another day of arduous walking in the river, the fifth since we had left Asriamas. According to Karl, this was the day we would find that Indian village. I had almost full use of my hand by then. Kevin never stopped snapping pictures. The scenery was really splendid; the wilderness was without a trace of civilisation – no rusty tin cans or cigarette butts. No one had been here before us. Everything was clean, natural.

A goose flew overhead. Karl shot at it but missed. We were all disappointed. For the first time since we had started out, Marcus held back to walk with Kevin and me. He confided that he was worried and didn’t want to rely on Karl. He was afraid to go on.

‘We don’t have enough food,’ he protested.

Kevin tried to reassure him. ‘This evening we’ll check just how much rice we have left.’ he suggested reassuringly, and yet I noticed he seemed less than friendly to Marcus.

That evening we sat around the campfire. The clouds that had gathered overhead all day broke up, and the moonlight shimmered on the Cocus River. The current glittered a silvery reflection. Nor was the jungle dark. Hundreds of fireflies danced about. It was a magnificent evening, but Marcus was anxiety-ridden.

‘Look, we’ve been going for five days, and who knows how far we’ve really gone, how close to our plan,’ he said. ‘In the meanwhile we’re running out of food. Maybe we’d better go back. We can’t know for sure that we’ll even find the Indian village. We don’t even have a decent map.’

‘There’s nothing to get uptight about,’ Karl said. ‘We’re not about to get lost in the jungle. No way. I know the jungle too well, and I have a great sense of direction. It might take another day or two, but we’ll get there.’

We studied the map. Karl had marked the approximate location of the village. We seemed to have covered only about half the distance, and our progress was now slower because of the painful blisters on our feet. Marcus was also weak and had lost a great deal of weight.

Kevin and Marcus measured out cupfuls of the rice. Considering that we ate it for both breakfast and supper, the amount that we had left would last barely four days.

‘There’s no point in going on any farther,’ Marcus decreed. ‘Let’s turn around and go back.’

Karl tried to change his mind. ‘We aren’t far away. By the day after tomorrow, at the very latest, we’ll be at the Colorado-Chico River. There we’ll fire some shots into the air. The villagers out hunting will certainly hear them. They don’t like anyone firing guns in their territory because the noise scares the animals away. They’ll come to see who’s shooting. When they do, we’ll give them the presents and liquor. That works like a charm on them. They’ll probably carry our packs for us and help us make the climb up the mountain to the village. There we’ll be able to rest up. Kevin can take his pictures. Marcus can get his strength back. Before we set out again, we’ll stock up on yucca, corn, fruit, and plenty of meat. The provisions will last us the rest of the trip. I’ll be able to find out if they know where gold can be found in the Colorado-Chico. We should keep on. We aren’t going to follow our own tracks back to Asriamas, are we?’

I was convinced. ‘Onward,’ I shouted. ‘Where’s your spirit of adventure, Marcus? Whatever happens, we’ll make it. If we run out of rice, we’ll hunt game.’

‘That’s the spirit,’ Karl went on. ‘No one ever dies of starvation in the jungle. We’ll find food.’

But Marcus wasn’t at all convinced. ‘I want to turn back,’ he said stubbornly.

Kevin looked thoughtful. He bent over the map a long while. ‘Maybe we should follow the Cocus down to the mouth of the Lansa River,’ he suggested. ‘It’s on the Peruvian border. There are villages marked on the map there. We could stock up on provisions there and then go on.’

‘No, I don’t want to go that far out of the way,’ I objected. ‘If we go all that way, I’m sure that we’ll never turn back to the Indian village. Either we go on as planned or we turn back. I’m not about to walk all the way to Peru.’

We decided not to decide at least until morning.

Chapter six
BACK TO ASRIAMAS

You could set your watch by Karl. I awoke in the morning to find him once again up and about. When he saw that I was up, he beckoned to me urgently. He pointed to fresh tracks on the riverbank, just fifteen yards from the tent. ‘It’s a jaguar. A big one. Look at the size of those paws. He was this close to our camp. It’s a good thing the fire didn’t go out during the night.’

A great deal remained to be settled, and over breakfast the four of us discussed our alternatives.

Karl said, ‘Just look at my boots. They certainly are ready to head back to Asriamas, but I’m willing to keep on going, no matter what, barefoot if I have to, to get to the Indian village. Trust me.’

But Karl’s opinion didn’t really count. He was merely our guide. He had to do as we chose.

Marcus was adamant. ‘We’re going back!’

I objected just as stubbornly, ‘We’re going on!’

Kevin would cast the deciding vote, and I was sure that he would side with me. It surprised me when he took a long time weighing the options, making up his mind. Finally he cast his vote. ‘We’re going back.’

Karl accepted the outcome gracefully. We climbed back up the mountainside, following the same path we had taken the previous day. Kevin was in a rotten mood. It was the first day of the trip that he didn’t take any pictures. He wore a sour expression and wasn’t at all friendly toward me. Marcus and Karl walked ahead of us, talking. Their disagreement hadn’t adversely affected their friendship.

I spotted a fig tree growing right on the edge of the river. How could I have missed it yesterday? Kevin and I picked the fruit together, but it turned out to be unripe and sour. Only a few were edible. Kevin took some coca leaves out of his pack. He chewed a lot of them during the day, as they calm the stomach and dull the appetite, but I found their taste sickening. Karl munched on cinnamon sticks as he walked along, but they were so strong that I passed on them as well.

Suddenly we heard excited cries up ahead. Karl and Marcus had almost stepped on a large snake.

‘It got away.’ Karl shook his head in regret. ‘Too bad. They’re delicious. Taste just like fish.’

‘Isn’t it poisonous?’ Kevin asked.

‘No, that one wasn’t particularly dangerous. There are two species of venomous snakes in the jungle,’ Karl started lecturing, ‘the pucarara and the lora. The pucarara has yellow and black stripes. Its bite causes almost immediate death, but the lora is even worse. It’s the same shade of green as the leaves and usually lives up in the trees. It’s likely to strike right at the head, and if it isn’t within striking distance, it can spray its venom, spit it right into your eyes. I know a guy who went blind. But other than those two, the snakes aren’t dangerous, except for the boa, of course, which can crush you to death. So can the anaconda; they live in the rivers. They get to be a few yards long, and they’re very thick around.

‘I’ll tell you something though. The most dangerous animals - worse than snakes and even worse than jaguars – are the wild boars. They have brains. They run in herds, following a leader. Once I was on an expedition, and when we stopped to rest, we were attacked by a pack of boars. There must have been twenty of them. They have vicious tusks and razor-sharp teeth. They caught us off guard. We all ran away, scrambled like hell up the trees. Then those fucking pigs started rooting around the trunks. They were trying to uproot the trees, determined to make a meal of us.’ Karl enjoyed elaborating. ‘We fired a lot of shots at them from up in the trees and finally scared them off after we had killed eight of them. We didn’t have to do any more hunting the entire expedition; we had plenty of smoked meat. Wild boar meat is a real delicacy.’

But we didn’t run into many wild animals other than monkeys, which we frequently saw and even more frequently heard; they made a terrible commotion at night. We did come across tapir and deer tracks every day, but the vast majority of our contact with the animal kingdom was unfortunately with various species of insects, who inflicted much pain upon us. The most bothersome were the fire ants: small, brown ants that climb trees. If one of us inadvertently brushed against a branch of fire ants, he quickly regretted it. Masses of them swarmed over us, under our collars, up our sleeves, and down our pants. Their sting burned like fire. Whenever one of us was attacked, he danced about in a frenzy. Kevin would strip off his clothes and try to shake them out. Marcus would scream, ‘Those son-of-a-bitching ants, those lousy son-of-a-bitching ants! Come help me!’ He would point to those parts of his body that he couldn’t reach, and we would pluck the merciless ants from him. When I fell victim to them, I would rush to the river and leap in, hoping to drown them, but the pain was horrible. Karl told us that fire ants can always be found on the
palo santo
(holy wood) trees. The missionaries used to tie recalcitrant Indians to the
palo santo
, and while the fire ants attacked them, they had the opportunity to rethink their resistance to Christianity.

In addition to the fire ants the bees also pestered us, mainly when we were trying to eat, and the mosquitoes were a constant plague, stinging every patch of bare skin. We had malaria pills and conscientiously swallowed one each day. If these scourges didn’t inflict sufficient misery upon us, we also fell victim to the leeches. They clung to our bodies, digging their heads under the skin and sucking our blood. If you don’t get leeches off in time, they bloat up, and then you have to be careful how you pull them out. You have to dig the head out from under the skin with a pin or risk getting an infection.

Our progress was rapid, as we knew the way and were marching over trails that we had cut only the day before. At night we slept in camps that we ourselves had set up only recently. We walked without enthusiasm, however, barely speaking. Both Kevin’s and Marcus’s shoes looked as if they had had it. Karl’s boots were completely useless, and he was wearing Kevin’s sandals. Walking over a rugged trail and wading through streams in sandals couldn’t have been very pleasant, but Karl, as I’ve said, was a very tough guy.

There was an unspoken enmity between Marcus and me. We didn’t speak to each other at all, and even in practical matters we communicated through Kevin. It bothered me, but I felt secure, sure of Kevin’s friendship.

In the evening, after dinner, Kevin would take out a spool of dental floss and break off a piece for each of us before we brushed our teeth. Kevin’s father was a dentist, and he didn’t let his dental hygiene lapse, even in the jungle. Marcus was returning from washing the dishes in the river one evening and offered us some of the water remaining in the clean pan to rinse the toothpaste from our mouths. I took a mouthful, sloshed it around, and spat it out. There hadn’t been much water, and I used it all. Kevin was angry.

‘You should have shared it with me,’ he complained.

‘I know,’ I replied, ‘but there was so little water in there, I used it all without even noticing.’

‘Still, you should have shared. You always have to share.’

Kevin was ticked off and went to the tent, where Karl was already snoring.

Marcus and I were left alone by the fire. Neither of us spoke a word. I was ill at ease and felt lonely after having quarrelled with Kevin. I needed him. If Kevin got mad at me, he might befriend Marcus again, and then I would be left out. Marcus peeked over at me, but I wouldn’t meet his eyes. I sat there thinking for another moment and then rose and said good night.

Kevin wasn’t yet asleep in the tent.

‘What’s Marcus doing out there all by himself?’ he asked.

‘I don’t know,’ I answered.

Kevin didn’t seem at all upset with me. On the contrary, he put a warm hand on my shoulder when he said good night. Kevin and I were reunited. Marcus’s defeat was complete now. I looked out at his fragile figure, and a chill crept along my spine. What was becoming of me? Where was all this darkness coming from? Why did I mock him? Why did I enjoy his pain? Suddenly I was afraid, afraid of myself. I wanted to rush out, hug him, and ask his forgiveness but couldn’t move.

Marcus stayed out there for a long while, staring sadly into the embers.

In the morning Marcus discovered red splotches on his feet and complained that they were very painful. Karl looked worried.

‘It’s not good, not good at all,’ he said. ‘Those splotches are liable to spread all over your feet. That happened once to a friend of mine. It got so bad, he couldn’t walk, and we had to carry him over our shoulders. I hope you haven’t got the same thing.’

Marcus was frightened by what Karl said and rubbed petroleum jelly all over his feet.

We tramped briskly on that day, and Marcus managed to keep up with our pace. Kevin’s mood improved.

‘At least we can still go down the river,’ he said.

At noon Karl spotted a
pavo
, a wild fowl something like a turkey. It was sitting on one of the branches of a tall tree. Karl hushed us, crept forward stealthily, and took careful aim. The shot and cry rang out together.

‘I hit it! I got it!’ he shouted gleefully, and ran between the trees to retrieve the bird.

Then we heard cries of fright and pain.

‘Ay! Ach!’

He burst through the foliage and ran like crazy for the river, jumped into the water, got back out, and came quickly over to us, rubbing himself all over.

‘Bees, fucking bees!’ he yelled angrily. ‘They stung me all over.’

He removed his shirt, and Marcus counted the stings he had on his back. Nine. His left ear was already red and swollen, and the back of his neck was inflamed as well.

‘They attacked me, the sons of bitches!’ Karl hadn’t calmed down yet. ‘The
pavo
fell right into a beehive. The little mothers can have it, for all I care.’

Kevin and I had a hard time stifling our laughter.

‘You don’t mean that, Karl,’ Kevin said. ‘We’re not going to leave that turkey just lying there while we go hungry.’

‘You want it so bad?’ Karl said, fuming. ‘Go get it yourself.’

‘Yossi, are you going to help me?’ Kevin asked.

I joined him reluctantly. First we sprayed ourselves all over with repellent, both our bare skin and our clothes. Karl watched us with a smug grin. We crept up on the spot, approaching from opposite directions, and soon saw the buzzing swarm over the fowl. Kevin crept forward, and I did the same.

‘Don’t worry,’ Kevin said, ‘The smell of the repellent will surely keep them off us.’

I was standing about six feet from them and hadn’t been stung. Kevin took one more step, and the bees swarmed over him in one thick cloud. ‘Oooh, ohhh,’ he yelled, and started running blindly. He crashed into boughs, stumbled, and didn’t stop for anything until he jumped into the river. I ran like hell, too, but wasn’t stung.

Karl chuckled with satisfaction. ‘Hey, Kevin, so where’s the turkey?’

Kevin rubbed his aching body. ‘At least twenty bees stung me, the bastards. I hope they choke on the damn turkey! I’m not going back in there.’

The next morning Marcus’s feet were in terrible shape. The splotches had spread out, and he was in agony. He smeared them with petroleum jelly again before he put his shoes on and covered them with plastic bags. He wanted to try to keep them dry, an impossibility when wading in a river. Fortunately by afternoon we were back in Asriamas.

Don Jorge’s children were the first to see us coming and ran back to the village, calling out joyfully that we had returned. A few women came out to welcome us. Don Jorge’s wife was among them, along with her mother and neighbours. They were genuinely happy to see us again. And someone else was happy to see us as well.

She rose from where she had been lying in the shade of the cookhouse, yawned widely, and came to greet us, wagging her tail. Flaca! Karl was amazed to find her alive and well. He tried to hide how happy he was and gave her a swift kick in the backside, as if to say, ‘We’ve had it with you, you traitor.’

A boy was sent to call Don Jorge from the fields. His wife fed us in the meantime: lamb broth, rice, beans, and roast meat. A pitcher of juice was also brought to the table as we savoured the delicious food for which we had hungered.

Don Jorge came in from the fields, his machete over his shoulder. He gave us each a warm handshake. We told him about our journey into the jungle and back, about the trouble and Marcus’s disease. Marcus wanted to return to La Paz now, while we developed new plans. We weren’t going to make it to the Indian village, but at least we could carry on with the second part of our plan. We wanted to stay in Asriamas to build a raft and float down the Tuichi River to the place where it runs into the Beni, near Rurrenabaque, and from there fly back to La Paz.

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