The Amazon Jungle is a long ways from the Middle East. Indeed, it would be difficult to find a location more geographically re-moved from the Islamic World. Nevertheless, it is all connected by the international news media and all the victims may yet unite against the common aggressor. This week’s story re-examines last week’s fear of travel theme from a different perspective. It is a mirror in the fun house to last week’s story. Same author, different time… different reality. If you read the two stories together, it is almost like passing through a time/space portal.
“But is it real?” says Ms. B. from the front of the camper van, “or are you making stuff up again?”
The story is fiction but it is based on a real experience. In 2002-2003, I went on a 5 month journey that began in Rio De Janiero, Brazil and ended in Lima, Peru. I found the overall experience so intense that I wrote a novel about it. The novel is not exactly auto-biographical though. The main character is a young and naive American on his first ever traveling adventure. He is also carrying a big bag of cocaine. When I traveled all the way up the Amazon River in 2003, I was a fairly experienced traveler with many overseas journeys under my belt and I wasn’t carrying any cocaine. But I did go to all the same places at more or less the same times as the young hero(David) in the novel and we did have several similar experiences. The incident in the restaurant at the center of this week’s story really did happen to me but it happened in a different small town. What is truth? What is fiction? You tell me because I don’t know anymore.
This story is also one chapter in the long novel.
A Restaurant in the Middle of Nowhere
David awakes in his hammock in the early morning and the area around him is a bustle of activity. People are scurrying about, taking down hammocks, packing up suitcases and backpacks. They are all getting ready to get off the ship. He rubs the sleep from his eyes, climbs from the hammock, walks to the rail and looks at the river. Sure enough, a rather large town is up ahead. By the time he takes down his own hammock, packs up his pack and organizes his stuff, the boat has just about pulled into dock. The final photos and goodbye hugs are being exchanged among the passengers. A few people shake his hand, say goodbye in Spanish or Portuguese and even ask him to join in group photos. The spontaneous short term community is breaking up. The old guy, “Bobo”, is not around and neither are Catherine and Giroux, but the three Colombian amigos are there taking part in the fond farewells. They approach David and offer to escort him to a hotel on shore.
A line has formed by the gangplank and passengers are now filing off the boat. David and his three amigos join the line and are soon on the dock, solid ground; land again after seven days. It feels kind of funny to walk around. The legs need time to adjust. They wait by the dock until they find Catherine and Giroux. They lingered in their cabin before exiting so as to avoid the crush of the crowds. When they see David, they wave and rush over to him. Their mood is extremely optimistic.
“Feels great to finally be on shore again,” says Catherine. “Do you know where you are going to stay?”
“Bobo recommended the Garcia Guesthouse,” says David, “but I have no idea where it is. These guys offered to show me the way.”
“Residencia Garcia? That place is recommended in the guidebook,” says Giroux. “We looked it up last night. It’s in Leticia, not Tabatinga.”
“Leticia is supposed to be a better place to stay,” says Catherine.
“Where are we now?” asks David.
“Esta es Tabatinga,” says Rafael, “Leticia es tres kilometres adelante.” He points straight ahead up a wide dirt road that runs uphill away from the dock and through the busy town. The road is crowded with people and lined with shops. There is clothing, shoes, luggage, hammocks, toys, electronics and everything you can think of for sale on the street. The dock area itself is absolute chaos. There are fishing boats and cargo boats and passenger boats. People run around selling stuff. People run around carrying stuff. It smells like dead fish, slimy oil, human sweat and rotting garbage. Speaking of garbage, the waters around the dock look like an absolute shithole; murky brown with floating plastic, fish guts and oily slime.
“Do you think we should get a taxi?” asks David.
“After seven days on a boat,” says Giroux, “I’d prefer to walk and stretch my legs if it’s only three kilometers.”
“I agree,” says Catherine, “it will give us a chance to look around.”
And so, the three gringos, with their three Colombian friends, set out walking from the dock in Tabatinga, Brazil, towards the center of all the action in Leticia, Colombia. It isn’t long before the main road from the dock in Tabatinga crosses Avenida International. They take a left there and continue on the paved road past shops and restaurants and bars and tour agencies. In a little while David notices that the spelling on the signs for the businesses transforms from Portuguese into Spanish.
“Where is the border between Colombia and Brazil?” He asks.
“La frontera está alli.” Rafael points back towards a small building.
“Don’t we need to check in?” asks Catherine. “Get stamped into Colombia?”
“No es necessario,” says Sebastian, “solo necessitas un entrada a Colombia si tu continuas a la interior de el Pais. Una VISA para Brazil esta bien para Leticia; una Visa de Peru tambien.”
Giroux explains. “It’s in the guidebook. As long as you are in the Triple Frontier area, an entry VISA from any of the three countries is valid: Colombia, Brazil or Peru. Apparently, people go back and forth across the border so much it doesn’t make sense to constantly stamp people in and out.”
“But as of this moment we are now in Colombia?” asks David.
“Si Si,” says Rafael, “welcome to Colombia.”
High fives are exchanged. Minor celebrations are in order whenever an international border is crossed no matter what the circumstances.
They continue walking and turn left off Avenida Internationale onto the main road through Leticia. There are many small bars and restaurants, a hair salon, a few small shops, a bank, a gas station, and several tour agencies. It doesn’t look like much; just a small town in the middle of the jungle; simple place… nothing going on.
They take a right off the main road and then a left and find themselves in front of a ramshackle wooden building with a sign: Residencia Garcia. They enter into a lobby where they are greeted by an extremely friendly Señora Garcia. She is a short and plump woman in her late sixties, with long grey hair pulled back from her forehead. She has an infectious smile and a way of making strangers feel at home. She also speaks a fair bit of English.
“Bienvenido, welcome,” she says to David, Giroux and Catherine, “hola Ernesto y Sebastian y Rafael; buena dia.” Apparently she knows the three amigos quite well.
“Do you have any rooms?” asks Catherine.
“Of course, we have very nice rooms. Come see.” She leads them out the back door where there is a very pleasant courtyard with flowers, benches to sit on, a picnic table and long lines of laundry crossing here and there. The rooms are situated around the courtyard. Giroux and Catherine are led to a room on one side and David gets a room on the opposite side. The three amigos say goodbye but promise to meet later in the evening for drinks. They are staying at a friend’s place on the other side of town. Catherine and Giroux promise to meet David for lunch and then disappear into their room. Señora Garcia says they can deal with registering and paying later in the day. And so, David closes the door behind himself and for the first time in seven days he is completely alone. A hot shower and a nap on a bed rather than a hammock seem like a glorious idea. But first, he should unpack his belongings and check on his valuables. He closes the curtains to the outside window and opens up his backpack…
It’s after six in the evening when he leaves his room again and goes outside looking for some dinner. He stops by Catherine and Giroux’s room but they are not around so he sets out on his own. He has a notion that he might run into Bobo or at the very least, the three Colombian amigos but there is no sign of anyone he knows as he walks the streets. The sun has set but darkness has not yet completely descended. The last remnants of blue still linger in the sky. Strolling along in the busy little jungle town, he begins to think about his inevitable return home. One way or another, with or without the cocaine, in eight days he will be back on a plane to the USA. What will it be like? So much has changed since this crazy trip began. Everything has changed. What in the hell is he going to do?
The restaurant is on a side street that leads away from the plaza Santander. When David first enters, it is fairly empty. He takes a seat at an open table, signals to a waitress and manages to order the set meal of chicken, rice and beans. Moments later, the restaurant starts to quickly fill up. It’s the dinner hour and everyone is arriving. No other gringos though, everybody who comes in is Colombian or Peruvian or Brazilian. But David doesn’t feel out of place. The other customers don’t seem to notice him. By the time the waitress brings his order of chicken, rice and beans, almost every seat in the place is occupied and the crowd is loud and rowdy.
He hadn’t noticed the television at the front of the restaurant when he entered because it was not turned on. Just now, however, after delivering his food, the waitress pushes the on button. Perhaps she wants to do something to distract the crowd from its inherent rowdiness. Well, distract the crowd she does. Suddenly, everyone in the restaurant goes silent and stares at the images on the television screen. The United States has just bombed a market in Baghdad and the scene is horrifying. There are dead bodies scattered in the street. Blood splattered on the ground. Torn limbs and other body parts litter the former marketplace. There are people running and screaming with missing limbs, blood spurting out everywhere. There are parents holding the bodies of their dead children and children crying over the dead bodies of their parents. There are explosions, lots of them, one after another after another. More death, more anguish, more suffering, it just goes on and on.
David does his best to ignore the television. He tries to concentrate on his chicken, rice and beans. But he just can’t eat. His appetite is gone. He feels compelled to look up and see the images. Back home in the US, he never would have been exposed to this. There the war is easy to swallow… sugar coated, precision weapons, shock and awe, overwhelming force, experts in suits with diagrams and charts, some fancy fireworks and a quick cut to commercial. They don’t see the real thing… the real war. Here in the developing world; in Colombia and Peru and Brazil, the coverage is different. War brings death and pain and that’s what you see on the evening news.
Suddenly, the image changes on the TV screen. No longer do you see the obliterated, bloody bodies littering the Baghdad market or the crying screaming victims of those precision weapons… Instead, the image of George Bush appears on the screen. He is giving a speech at an army base somewhere in Georgia. There are hundreds of people there, thousands of people, and they all wave American flags and yellow ribbons. The crowd is enthusiastic, cheerful and full of support. It’s like a great big pep rally before the big game only this time the game is a war. The head cheerleader is egging on the team, challenging the opponent, leading the charge into battle… George Bush threatens the freedom haters and promises to bring democracy to the Middle East. The crowd erupts with great cheers and applause as they wave ribbons and flags. George promises victory over and destruction of the evil terrorists. The crowd erupts in more cheers and applause. George talks about shock and awe, the greatest military in the world and the beginning of the American Century… more cheers and applause.
The image on the screen changes again; back to the blown up market in Baghdad; back to the victims and the suffering and the pain; back to death and blood and anguish.
David feels sick to his stomach, nauseous. He can’t believe his country is responsible for this. He can’t believe his fellow citizens are cheering for this. Is he really a part of this madness?
The image on the screen changes again. Back to George Bush and the cheering crowds: the enthusiasm, the applause, the flags, the yellow ribbons…
The image on the screen changes again; back to the war zone, the slaughtered innocents, the scene of mass murder, blood and guts and pain and suffering.
And then back to George Bush again and the cheering crowds.
It seems as if this program is going on and on forever. He is trapped in a surreal dream that he just wants to end. Back and forth go the images. One after another… George and the cheering crowds and the death and destruction they are cheering for. David wants to hide his head in shame. He wants to run away. He doesn’t want to be American if this is what America is. His stomach starts to twist into knots. His soul slides off the edge. Downward spinning into acceptance and understanding of a horrible truth… Ugghhhh. This can’t fucking be… this can’t fucking be.
Suddenly, something changes in the surrounding atmosphere. The silent crowd in the restaurant is no longer staring at the television. Instead, they are staring at David…. the one gringo in the whole establishment. All of their anger and frustration with the war is now directed at the one gringo available… him. He feels nervous, paranoid and afraid. He wants to shout out that it isn’t his fault, that he didn’t do it, that he doesn’t support the war and he thinks it is evil too. He wants to run from the restaurant. He wants to get away. He doesn’t want to deal with this nightmare.
A strong hand grabs him by the shoulder and shakes him. “Que Pais?” says a deep and menacing voice. “What is your country?”
He turns around to face the man. The entire crowd in the restaurant is silent, watching, staring… they want to see what is going to happen. Maybe they want to do something. The man who is holding him by the shoulder looks angry. He is heavy set, mid forties and slightly balding; a glint of animal fierceness in his eyes. He is definitely not the kind of person you want to meet in a dark alley. The crowd behind the man looks angry as well. It’s a tinder box waiting for a match; a mixture of people out for their evening meal very similar to the market goers who just got blown up in Baghdad. They now have something on their minds other than food. They are riled up, angry, ready to attack as a single angry mob.
“Que Pais?” repeats the angry man as he stares into David’s eyes.
David’s insides shrivel. His nerves rattle. Every cell in his body repulses the thought of somehow symbolizing or representing the evil carnage just shown on the television screen The words tumble forth from his lips with remarkable grace and ease, “Soy Canadian, Canada está contra la guerra.” (I am Canadian, Canada is against the war)
The angry man relaxes his grip and then releases David’s shoulder. An approving smile stretches across his face. “Estás bien,” he says. The tension in the room immediately evaporates. Somebody turns off the television and the restaurant returns to its normally rowdy and boisterous state. The bizarre situation and circumstances seem to transform and disappear almost magically One moment David is the center of attention, the absolute focus of simmering anger. The next moment he is forgotten; just another stranger eating dinner on a Monday night.
David returns to the activity of eating his food. Somehow though, his appetite has left him. He tries eating some of the chicken and rice because he doesn’t want to be rude. Mostly he just pushes it around on his plate and thinks about those crazy images from the television. He is seriously ashamed of his country. That shame is a burden upon his soul, a heavier burden perhaps than even the cocaine he is carrying. He manages to finish about half of his dinner before he gives up completely on the idea of eating. He pays his bill and returns to the streets.
It’s dark now and the road is dimly lit. The air is warm and humid. Noise and glow emanating from the various little establishments hit the oppressive Amazon atmosphere and dissipate into nothingness. Like a natural cloaking device, the jungle smothers all human activity into insignificance. As he turns the corner he sees the three Colombian amigos and the Dutch couple sitting at a table outside one of the bars drinking beer. They wave to get his attention so he goes over. He takes a seat and orders a beer. “I was going to take a night off from drinking and give my liver a break,” he says, “but I guess one won’t kill me.”
“Tomas cerveza ahora,” says Rafael, “no hay mucho en el dentro de la selva.”
“Drink beer now,” translates Giroux, “because when we go deep in the jungle we won’t find much.”
“Actually,” says David, “at the moment, I am more interested in smokeables than I am in drinkables. We should get some…” his voice trails off, he looks around to see if anyone is looking, then he whispers… “some grass for the jungle trip.”
Sebastian reaches across the table and hands David three joints. “Esta es por ahora. Manana hay mucho mas.”
“Gee, thanks,” says David. He looks around the bar. The atmosphere is so casual and laid back. “Can I smoke it here?” he asks.
“Not here, please,” says Catherine.
“Aqui no,” says Rafael, “en su hotel si, en la selva si, en la calle tal vez, pero aqui no es una buena idea.”
“All right, I can wait.” He puts the joints in his pocket and takes a sip of his beer.
“So how was your afternoon?” asks Catherine. “Did you talk to a travel agent and sort out your trip home?”
“Yeah, I reserved a seat on a flight from Tabatinga to Manaus and Manaus to Rio for the 27th.”
“That’s perfect,” says Giroux. “We get back from the jungle on the 26th.”
“I know,” says David, “it’s all going to work out; hard to believe.”
“Your journey is almost over,” says Catherine.
“Yes, but the grand finale is yet to come.”
David does not hang out for long that evening at the bar. He has two beers and makes some small talk but he is rather tired and looking forward to his first full private night sleep in a bed. When the conversation at the table turns to the uncomfortable subject of the US bombing in Baghdad he makes his excuses and disappears into the night. Back in his room, he smokes some of Sebastian’s super quality Colombian kind bud and passes out into a comfortable coma in the soft bed. Tomorrow is another big day…
If you like this story, perhaps you would like to read the whole novel. The self-published paperback is a little pricey but the e-book is cheap. You can buy it here.