Written by Fidgit
We pulled the boats onto the beach below Tupen Grande mid day. Most of the crew headed into the village for a dinner and a screening of Confluir. I had had more people time than I was used to and opted to stay behind and watch our gear, despite assurances they were safe under the guard of a couple local men who had come down to the water edge.
They sat on rocks a few feet from our rigs, choc cheando (chewing) coca, infusing it with dabs of alkaline from the needle inside the cap of the porritos (gourds) each one of them had, a fishing line thrown into the large eddy.
The crew left. Their departure marked by the barking of dogs in the field just up from the floodplain. Silence fell over the camp, except the rhythmic, hollow tapping of their gourds. I puttered a bit in the kitchen area then, as I do with the unfamiliar, approached. Poured myself some tea, grabbed a bag of coca and went to sit with them.
We sat in silence. After a while I offered them one of the beers the guides had left cooling in the river. “No thank you. We don’t drink when it is still light out.”
The sun had long since moved off the narrow canyon floor but the sky was still light.
At first I tried conversation but their answers were short and simple. Sporadically I tried different topics about our countries or what grows and lives here. They went something like this:
“Are there pumas?”
“So, what kind of bichos (critters) live here?”
They looked at each other, “mosquitoes.”
We sat, them chewing, me sipping, and I eased into the pool of silence. I noticed them slapping at the mosquitoes which come on thick this time of evening. I offered my bug repellent and they accepted. This let me feel like I was contributing at least.
Behind us a commotion arose. Five boys around the ages of 8-14 came running down the beach, squealing and shouting and jumping. They stopped uncertainly when they saw me but still went to weave around the boats, checking them out. A pregnant woman and young man walked to the water’s edge downriver. The young man had a machete in a beautifully emblazoned leather sheath. He came over and sat with the two men already there, the woman stayed standing downstream along the water.
The boys stripped to their skivvies and grabbed a few light logs I had been considering for firewood. They threw the logs into the water then leaped after them.
One of the two original guards sighed and pulled in his fishing line. Inspected the hook. It was bent. Machete Man beckoned for it and began trying to bend it back into shape using a rock. I opened my Leatherman multitool and offered him the pliers. He regarded me openly for the first time as he accepted, neither of us speaking, and set to work. He fixed the hook then produced a couple more from his kanga (what they call fanny-packs), before handing it back with a nod. I never imagined someone making a bum bag look tough, but hanging alongside a machete, these men sure did.
The boys moved in a playful pack. Jumping into the water at the top of the eddy, kicking, swimming and playing down to the bottom edge, then coming to the beach and running back to the top again. Their character showed in the way they approached the water. The deep divers, who headed straight for the edge of the eddy, where the water lines moved against one another and the water was deep. Others stayed where their hands could touch ground.
I began to wander to and from camp, dragging in driftwood for a beach fire, making sure not to select the small easy ones along the water’s edge. I had never considered these were tools for children to swim.
“Do the children know how to swim?”
“This is how they learn.”
“With a log in river currents?”
While the boys played in the wild, edging with risk which is well beyond the comfort of most families I know, they were still under the watchful eye of five adults. The woman stepped in when they got too rowdy.
Eventually the lead man spoke in a voice not a notch above normal conversation level, “it is time to get out. Go on now.”
Somehow, amidst the splashing and playing, the boys heard him and obeyed. Scrambling back toward their clothes.
As they headed back, so did the woman. The dogs barked. The three men stayed put, even as darkness wrapped around us. I moved to start my fire on the other end of camp, where the wind would not blow cinders into the gear.
“I’m going to make a fire, is there anything you gentlemen need?”
“Like what?” I thought I heard a smile betrayed in he leader’s face.
“Well, umm, water…” I looked around the camp, not sure what I actually had to offer, “or, that beer?”
“Sure,” he said simply.
I felt awkward in this space. I’m used to a lot more feedback in terms of words but this was not my space in the first place. This was their valley and their way of living and it was my position to adjust. To the long silences, the the subtle humors. I trotted off, fetched the beer and handed it to a hand near where the cinder of a cigarette burned in the now complete darkness.
I then headed over to bring the flames of my fire to life and never saw any of them again, although I heard the low murmur of their voices long into the night.