Things unwravel. The end.
An account of how things ended. We fled from fishermen with shotguns. As we lay on the damp jungle floor in the darkness we decided it just wasn’t worth it… (I think Nina’s exact words were ‘fuck this’)
After Ilson things seemed to conspire against us. A headwind blew so intensely that as hard as we rowed we stayed in one spot. A dark cloud, a storm forming, rushed at us without the usual thuderclaps that served as a warning. The river churned around us, the wind swooped and clothes hung up on the roof structure to dry blew into the river, lost forever. Our grill fell into the river. We both got our periods. When gutting a fish I might open it up to find eggs inside. Now I did not seem so different from a fish. I too was subject to biological processes. I too could be hunted. That night we docked nearer to the danger zone. Approaching the beach I felt like a slow benign river creature. I lived from the river; I had as much a right to it as anyone. So why did I have to worry about being killed by city people wielding guns from aluminum motorboats, intruders to this world?
Bright sparkly day, bandits await?
Next afternoon, tired, we reached Espiritu Santu. Here the river made a huge desolate bend. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a canoe motored straight for us. It enlarged out from across the river, foam frothing at its prow, and as it drew close we saw there were four men inside. I stared in disbelief. But the canoe swerved alongside and the man at the motor greeted us in Spanish. ‘Aren’t you afraid of the bandits,’ the motorist said. ‘This is the first danger zone, there are more downstream.’ He implored us not to continue the journey. He told us we should dock for the night. It was getting late; the river was dangerous. We are exhausted and shaken and they seemed like decent guys. We let them drag our canoe to a raft upstream, the last population before a long, deserted stretch of river. They intended to leave us there overnight. But the raft was crammed full of people. Sullen, dark faced children peeped out of the hole in the wooden walls. It seemed like a trap to us, no privacy to even go to the bathroom and surrounded all round by deep water. We wanted to sleep in the forest. The forest was safer than civilization. There were no people there.
But instead they took us down a hidden back channel that was nearly dry. We went single file, their motor spluttering in the shallow water. Our canoe followed, dragged behind, nearly bumping the sandy banks that humped up on either side. The channel widened out into a lagoon. Silent forest encircled the water. Everywhere on the water’s surface concentric rings surfaced and rippled, hundreds of fish flickering. On the lagoon was a lonely raft, a solitary outpost. They wanted to leave us here for the night. Now we were two exhausted, vulnerable young girls in the middle of nowhere with four half-drunk men. True to form (this will not surprise any girl who has travelled extensively in foreign countries) the motorist, the good guy, our supposed savior (though I always thought his eyes were too far apart) cornered Nina in the dark raft, grabbed her, and insisted she wanted to sleep with him. In her own words:
‘I pry myself from his grip. I am upset, scared and disgusted. This feeling remains with me the whole night.’
There was an uneasy standoff. He might have tried to take what he wanted by force and fatigued we would not have been able to put up a fight. He insisted he would be back later to ‘stand guard’ during the night. We told him we really hoped he would not. Finally he seemed to drop the issue. Having failed to get sex he wrangled a deal to take us to the next city for 200 reales and since we didn’t feel like we had a choice we tentatively agreed. Suddenly he raised both arms above his head. ‘Welcome to Espiritu Santu.’ he cried. ‘I know you’ll be back.’ His eyes danced wildly, as if he was possessed.
His calmer companion gifted us a big fish caught from the lagoon. It lay suffocating on the raft, twitching, its mouth flexed grotesquely. Frustrated by the situation I angrily took the machete and hacked the fish’s head away from its body. Blood splattered up. That could have been me I thought darkly. I was still trying to sever the head from the body as their canoe veered away. ‘Be sure to clean up the blood!’ the companion called out, laughing.
All was silent. We relaxed a little. Hundreds of fish hiccupped on the surface of the water. Then, to our horror, we heard the whirr of a motor entering the channel. Had someone seen us come in? They would know we were trapped on this raft with no escape. The sound amplified, drawing nearer and nearer. There was no time to try to hide. My throat swelled in fear I walked out to meet the approaching canoe.
The shudder of the motor blared rudely into the silence, the water, disturbed by the movement, spluttered against the raft.
‘Hello,’ A podgy round faced youth stepped out of the canoe, a bottle of whisky in his hand. Four other boys, all teenagers, hovered behind him. Relief washed over me ‘I thought you were bandits,’ I said ‘No, not us, we’re fishermen.’ The boy chuckled.
We obligingly talked stilted Portuguese. Night fell. The mosquitos buzzed in.
What happened next was a total communication breakdown. I am still bewildered when I think back on it. It must have been the language barrier, the exhaustion, and that we were already tense and whisky was flowing. And we were on a solitary raft, the kind of place where hysteria might grip you and things could escalate into madness. Only the forest and water would be witnesses, and they would never tell.
The boy, unsurprisingly, wanted sex. When it became clear we were not interested he went outside sulkily. Twenty minutes later he came back in, flustered. A canoe was entering the channel, he said, they might have seen us come in, we should leave immediately. Standing outside, I heard with sinking heart the crescendoing hum of an approaching canoe. We hurled items into our canoe and the youths leapt into theirs and cranked the motor and we stuttered upstream, but the strange canoe was already upon us. A light beam, brandished across the water, illuminated us. The canoe approached, its black silhouette faintly outlined against the black night. The youth blinked. His teenage companion snorted sarcastically at the failed escape.
‘Oh, it’s a fisherman’
Back on the raft the youth apologized. But confusion and chaos had already taken hold. We sat on the floor trying, finally, to eat our cooked fish but the new arrival, a middle aged fisherman, pranced around us and heaved us away from the food. Why wouldn’t he let us rest? He was a strange dancing monkey. In the candlelight his flailing shadow loomed on the walls. Then the youth approached Nina again and, sick of crude advances, she shouted him back. He stormed angrily around the raft. Then they were trying to get us into the canoe again, they wanted to take us somewhere. The fishermen grabbed me, the youth tried to pull Nina away. We resisted, these people weren’t our friends.
‘Let’s get out of here!’ Nina cried.
Somehow, through a blur, we managed to get into the canoe and pull our rubber boots on. But one of the teenagers held the rope that tied the boat and would not let go. He lashed it from side to side. Our food bucket smashed, food fell into the water. I scrambled to save what I could. He relinquished the rope. We made our slow, manual powered getaway into the pitch black night. Nina rowed while I illuminated the water with our only working flashlight. We made for the forest. The forest was our friend. The people were a menace. They tailed us with their canoe, snared us in their light beam and dragged us to the bank. We scrambled out onto the muddy shore. I had the tent in my hand and I turned to secure the canoe. Then I saw the youth pick up a rifle. ‘Is it loaded,’ he heard him ask the fisherman who sat beside him. The fisherman nodded. He lifted the rifle, aimed it at us. We fled straight for the trees. I felt big and clumsy. Tangles of coarse branches scraped against me in the dark. I crawled up a steep slope, fumbling for hand holds, moving deeper into the forest. I felt safe here; it would be too hard to shoot us through the trees. I called to Nina and we squatted at the base of a big tree. Mosquitos swarmed but their stings were dulled by the alcohol. I was glad for that at least. We pitched the tent and peered down to where the canoes were docked. There was a commotion there but they were not following us anymore.
That night we rested the best we could. A huge caiman crashed by the shore and the early hours of the morning brought rain.
A bleak, gray morning. We found the canoe ransacked. They had stolen my camera that barely functioned (but contained precious photos,) some money, and our fish meal in our pizza pan. But they had left my passport and had graciously tied our boat to shore. We had been robbed by the ‘good guys.’
The wind howled against us as we tried to leave the channel. We wanted to take refuge amongst women and children but the water surged against us. I had to get out onto shore and tramp through the mud dragging the canoe alongside, sinking into the mud up to my knees, battling to get free. After much swearing and colossal hardship our canoe was swept slowly onto the giant bend of the Amazon. Our legs were caked in mud, our hands smeared in dirt. The ore holder, made of wood found on beaches, had broken. Nails splinted out of the boat, the plastics were crumpled and sodden, and the contents of our backs were coughed up over the canoe. Our clothes were moldy. The food bucket was a sad shard of plastic; half our food had sunk in the river. We were both menstruating. Was the blood on my hand fish blood or my own? Fish blood was splatted on my clothes. The water was turbulent, white foam danced atop choppy waves.
Not wanting to drift much further we searched for houses but we only saw blustery gray water stretched out ahead. A canoe pulled up behind us. It was the motorist from yesterday. But now he was travelling with a woman and a child. He seemed perversely normal sitting there in the light of day, chatting to a woman like she was a human being. He refused to drag our canoe to the next city, Jutai, so we transferred our gear into his. Our canoe that had brought us so far danced on the waves, empty now, a ghost ship, drifting solo downstream. As we chugged away across the river toward a ‘safer’ side channel I looked back. The roof looked skeletal without a plastic over. The canoe pitched on the waves. The waves tossed it along like a thousand clamoring hands. It faded from view and I turned back around. The wind blew in my face as we swiftly cleaved the water. We talked happily of mountains and roadways.
Posted on March 6, 2015, in On the river. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.
Great trip. Thanks for the closure. Hope there are more.