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Below the Surface
Posted By Amanda Giracca
The kid says he saw a fireball once.
“Tell it Spanish so that everyone understands,” Abraham tells him, and the kid switches from Portuguese to Spanish, cupping his hands together over his head as he speaks. “It was this ball. Of fire. Flying through the sky,” he explains. He saw it a few years ago. He hadn’t heard it or anything, didn’t know what happened once it sank beyond the line of tropical trees on the horizon, didn’t go to see if it had left a burnt crater somewhere. I couldn’t help but picture a house-sized bowl of ash, the leaves of surrounding cecropia trees singed and smoking.
He just knew he’d seen it, that’s all. That he’d been scared and had run home as fast as he could. His eyes are round as he describes his experience to us, and when he’s done he shakes his head, as though it’s so ridiculous he can’t even believe it himself, and returns to spooning up the farina from the bowl in front of him.
He’s a cute kid, a baby face in which you can already see the lines of adult gruffness taking shape, buzz cut hair. He wears a green t-shirt and long purple jams with Hawaiian flowers that go down below his knees.
I’ve caught on that the kid is ten, but I haven’t caught his name. I’ve been with these people for the better part of the morning, and it’s too embarrassing to ask now. Like the man I’d shared the backseat of Abraham’s truck with who wears a fishing hat and boots that don’t quite fit right, and the other kid we’d picked up at a ranch outside of town. That kid is thirteen, that much I know.
Nobody asks me my name, or why Abraham brought me along. Just like nobody questions our entourage’s moment-to-moment routine. Here’s how Abraham proposed the trip to me the night before:
“We’re going fishing tomorrow. Would you like to come?”
“I’d love to.”
“Either meet us at the restaurant at eight, or we’ll come get you at the hotel at nine.”
Now, somewhere around eleven, somewhere in the jungle north of Iñapari, a town on the Peruvian/Brazilian border, inside the boundaries of a logging concession, I sit with Abraham, the two boys, the man from the backseat, and two of Abraham’s loggers—one named Alejandro, the other a small young guy with curly hair whose name I never learn. And, of course, Abraham’s tall, lithe French girlfriend, Marine, who now smiles at the ten-year-old.
“Strange things happen in the jungle,” she says.
I’d met Abraham the day before. I was in Iñapari researching the recently paved Interoceanic Highway, and it was my last stop on the road—logging country. Abraham was the manager for a logging company that was trying to log sustainably—something still uncommon in the Amazon.
He and Marine were more than welcoming, indulging all my questions about the company, and they drove me around Iñapari, showing me where his family lived, his brother’s farm, the shop where his employees built custom-made furniture with scraps from the sawmill. He seemed more intent on explaining his plans for developing tourism in Iñapari.
“Not adventure tourism,” he explained his vision to me. “And not ecotourism…it’s more like real-life tourism.” Tourism in Peru needed to fill some sort of niche: Cusco had the culture. The Tambopata Reserve and Manu Park had the ecological experience. Iñapari had ranches and was a town with a thriving economy where most people lived well. I had lunch that Saturday with Abraham and Marine. Then they invited me to a party that evening at his sister’s restaurant.
“They’ll be serving a cow that was slaughtered on my brother’s farm,” he said.
As it turned out, his sister’s restaurant was also the town’s Karaoke bar. I spent that night feasting on local beef with farina on the side—a ground meal made from dried yuca root. I was offered pisco sour after pisco sour. Karaoke was sung in both Spanish and Portuguese. We heard several songs twice, and a slow, mournful Brazilian ballad at least four times. But every time it came on, the crowd cheered and sang along with passion, as though it was an old favorite they hadn’t heard in years, and when the last pathetic lyrics came out people would raise their voices and their arms, their gazes dropping down to embrace the melancholy of the song, smiles and cheers returning to their faces when it was finally over. By then end of the night I was buzzed and happy. I gladly accepted the fishing offer.
The boy is eager to get fishing. We’re all starting to get a little antsy. We are sitting under a thatched roof in a cleared lot in the jungle—the company’s logging camp. We’d driven for an hour on a dusty road to get here. Beneath one long, blue tarp are twenty flat wooden slabs propped on sawhorses or tree stumps, each with a thin foam pad. Above each bed mosquito nets are twisted and tucked up; worn flip flops loyally sit at bedsides like bedroom slippers, ready for sweaty logger feet freed from boots. Everything has a fine film of dust over it, which I imagine must become maddening—in your bed, your hair, your food. It’s the dry season, and in the next two months as air currents on the Atlantic begin to shift, the clouds drifting west over the rainforest will gather volume, hitting the wall of the Andes Mountains with such great force that what is now hard-packed dirt will turn into a soup of deep red mud, the road we’ve just traveled on a slick, impassable ribbon winding through the jungle. But by the time that happens, this camp is likely to be dismantled and moved, deeper into the jungle, the current plot left to recover.
We are in the kitchen, just beyond the sleeping quarters: a thatched roof with a table, some shelves stocked with food. In the center is a thick wood slab propped on stumps, slathered with mud, which has long since dried and cracked. In one corner of the table the mud is shaped up into two walls, and in between a small fire smokes. Over it rests thin sheets of metal, which serve as burners, holding the pot the farina is cooked in. Miraculously, there is also a sink, the water from a nearby tank on a raised platform. Two women work the kitchen, cooking for the loggers and cleaning up after them, and I think they must be wives of two of the loggers, otherwise I can only imagine how it would descend into chaos. It’s like in Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, when Fitzcarraldo hires the drunken cook on his steamship traveling up a river in the Amazon. The cook insists on bringing his two women “assistants” on board: a decision which eventually results in fistfights among the crew. Fitzcarraldo, played by the crazed Klaus Kinski, drops them off on the shore of a river in supposedly hostile Indian territory. What became of them? The mystery of what a human can endure is what a Herzog narrative thrives on.
These are the sorts of things I start wonder while we wait in the camp.
Since most of the talk is in Portuguese, of which I don’t speak or understand a lick, I find myself wandering. They speak in Spanish when they speak to me, but for the most part they forget, or the Spanish doesn’t come naturally. I’m still a little hungover anyway, and I’ve turned my reporter self off. I just want to be taken along for the ride. Later it will dawn on me that this is probably Abraham’s plan, that I’m sort of a dry run for tourism ideas he might try out in the future. Authentic Amazonian Fishing Trips, he might advertise.
I’m also starting to piece together what our fishing trip actually entails. This much I have been able to figure out: we are not fishing on a lake, but on a quebrada—a stream. There will be no boats. When we picked up the thirteen-year-old, at his teal house surrounded by Brahma-style cows atop a little hill outside of town, his father came out carrying sacks full of nets, which he and Abraham went through, selecting several for our trip. Mangy dogs skittered through the yard, and as the men conferred I leaned against the porch, upon whose railing an ailing blue-headed parrot paced up and down, stopping to peer up at me, blinking. Nets chosen, and other materials gathered—a cooking pot, a bag of green onions—the thirteen-year-old got into the back seat with me (unlike the ten-year-old who rode in the truck bed). Immediately I didn’t like him. He was as big as a full-grown man, but he still seemed like a child, and I almost felt bad for him, trapped and lost in that body. He was fleshy, and scratched obsessively at bug bites on his legs during the hour-long ride to the camp. Throughout our day he doesn’t offer to carry anything, or to get out to help with the opening and closing of gates; he doesn’t talk much or laugh at jokes, and I realize the only one more useless than him is me.
Before arriving in Iñapari, I had spent two weeks at a research station on the Tambopata River, essentially due south across the stretch of the Madre de Dios region (similar to a state). It was a place where I had worked before, years ago, when I considered myself a scientist, or heading towards something like that. They let me come back and volunteer for two weeks, but I had forgotten most of the bird calls and wasn’t of much use. It didn’t matter much—being the peak of the dry season in the Amazon means animal activity is at its lowest. Many of my afternoons were spent standing for ten-minute intervals on a trail in the jungle writing down that I hadn’t seen or heard any birds at all.
I went to the research station this second time not with intentions of being a scientist, but to get myself deep in the jungle. I went for reasons almost opposite to science—to locate myself within a wild place. I was studying how this highway was changing people’s lives in Peru; the jungle gave me a glimpse of what hadn’t changed, and of a terrain that is potentially too vast to know. Science attempts to know all, and eventually it falls short. Intellect can do its best to fill in the gaps, but eventually we reach a wall and imagination takes over.
And in the logging camp, I start to see the potential for the rational and the illusory to meld, the line between them blurring.
As Marine and I wash out farina bowls, I strain to hear chainsaws in the distance. But I don’t. I envision the loggers’ long sluggish days, waking early, cutting roads and slogging through streams just to get to the trees. How so much of the work probably has very little to do with the wood itself but more with access, a process that must be frustratingly slow and with little reward. Just like the fishing—two hours into our trip, and not even to the stream yet. I wonder if the limitations of the jungle make people lose it, how it takes so long to do anything. The elements of the place are never in your favor: step outside and you’re already against the odds—the rain, the terrain, insects, getting lost.
Or perhaps too many Herzog movies have gone to my head, and all I can ever imagine is the turning point, how the brain copes with the isolation, the way humid jungle air infects the mind with parasites of madness, like a fluke taking root in a liver.
The stream isn’t exactly beautiful. The water is opaque, taupe. The edges are slippery mud, or up high enough sand that’s been baked into a hard, hot crust. In some places the water cuts a deep ravine into the soft earth around it, the way water sometimes does when the land around it is heavily impacted.
I do my best to keep up with Marine, who’s doing her best to keep up with the loggers. We had stopped the truck at a little bridge, and the loggers and the ten-year-old had grabbed nets, machetes, and a cooler from the back and started walking upstream. They’ve already disappeared around a bend. Ahead, still in sight, is the man in the hat, making his way expertly even in his ill-fitting boots, and the thirteen-year-old, who almost seems as confused as I do, but who makes his way quietly and uncomplaining. I carry the cooking pot up on my shoulder and I plunge through the water. I’m hesitant at first to put my flip-flopped feet into the murk, but there’s no other way to go. And when it gets deep, I plunge up to my knees, sure now that jeans were a bad idea.
Eventually we round a corner, and the others are perched on a wide swatch of riverbank. We all pause there for a moment, waiting for Abraham, and Alejandro jokes about how slow he is.
“His feet are so soft he’s probably back there going ‘ooh ooh ah ah, my feet!’”
Alejandro wears a tight nylon jersey with zebra stripes, a Brazilian sports jersey of sorts that says “Olha oBoto,” with a picture of a pink dolphin giving a thumbs up. He has a big belly, and his left clavicle juts out unnaturally—from an accident that I don’t catch the details of. The other logger is small and nimble, Alejandro’s quiet counterpart.
As soon as we hear Abraham’s call from downstream, the men are up again and moving on, already around the next bend. When we catch up with them again they’re pulling the nets out of bags. We’re at a wide pool in the stream, exposed to the sky, and the sun beats down on us. They start to unravel a long net at each end of the pool, and they string each across the width of the stream, trapping any fish. Abraham finally catches up. Marine lathers his bald head with sunscreen. They both strip down to bathing suits, except Marine keeps her button-down shirt on over her bikini top and knots it at the middle, which I think is wise considering her breasts rise like baking muffins out of her bikini top. Abraham is her physical opposite—short and round. He is paler and softer than the other guys—he’s worked in offices in Lima, whereas I’m fairly certain they have always worked out in the jungle—and with his very European-looking girlfriend a dynamic starts to form. At one point I ask Alejandro who the fish are for, and he says, “For the jefe,” pointing to Abraham, and says it in a way as if I should have known.
Once the two ends of the pool have been cordoned off, the two loggers and the man in the fishing hat pull out more nets. They gather their nets up over one shoulder, then with a leap, or a little bit of a run, they throw the nets out into the air, and they open wide as they hit the water. As they slowly start to sink the men gather them in, hand over hand. The ten-year-old kid is given a net, but his is full of holes and wouldn’t even hold a decent sized fish. But he does it just like the others, throwing and gathering and throwing again; he’ll be a pro by next year.
The first few nets don’t result in anything. But as the men spread out strategically around the murky pool, they start to pull the nets in with different kinds of fish strangled in the strands. I hover over Alejandro’s net as he removes his catch. He is not delicate, and rather than untangling each fish he snaps the little fins next to the gills off, which sound much more brittle than I would expect. Sometimes he takes his machete to the long whiskers of the catfish-like fish, carefully maneuvering around the barbs that he says can sting. He does it all nonchalantly, watching the others pull in their own nets as he does it, telling the thirteen-year-old to bring him the bottle of rum, which he has submerged in the water in order to keep it if not cool, at least not boiling in the sun.
Marine has unfolded several produce sacks that someone had carried in, and she and Abraham are inspecting the catch of the man in the fishing hat. I grab a sack and start tossing in Alejandro’s fish, which he is tossing into the sand as he frees them. As I go to pick one up he says, “Careful, that one bites.” And the next one, “Careful, that one has rough edges that can slice you.” I delicately handle each, dropping them still fluttering into the bag. Some of them make a noise when I pick them up—not quite a vocalization, but more like a clicking or squeaking noise emanating from deeper within, like the sound of squeaking leather. When they make the noise I can feel their bodies tense and writhe, and I’m surprised at how strong they are, how their bodies are really just one slip of muscle. I have to pinch my forefinger and thumb closer together just to keep them from flinging themselves back onto the sand, which sometimes they do. When I get them in the bag I twist the top to keep them from flopping out and submerge them slightly in the water. They flick and writhe for longer than seems possible, and part of me wants to take the bag out of the water so that they’ll just die quicker, but it’s too hot on the sand and it will still be hours before the fish make it to any sort of refrigeration.
Scarlet macaws gurgle and squawk from trees over the stream—a sign that there are big, old trees near here. The rum in the bottle diminishes. I collect the fish. When I open the bag again to add more, their beauty is striking—the silver of the scales, eyes that look like perfect jewels, a speckled belly and delicate sucking mouth, ribbed dorsal fins in the shape of Viking sails.
At one point Alejandro tosses a fish and it hits me across the face, like a slap on the cheek.
“Disculpa, señora, disculpa!” he says, apologizing quickly before he’s back to snapping fins. But the fish doesn’t really hurt (no stinging whiskers or slicing dorsal fins) as much as the feeling that even when I’m helping I’m in the way.
Eventually the man in the hat asks, “Aren’t you going to swim?”
“I may,” I say. And I want to. I even have a bathing suit on beneath my clothes, and it’s so hot, but I feel too shy to strip down in front of the rum-drinking fishermen. And the murky water. No idea how deep it is, or what lurks in there. Maybe something like the candirú, the fish that supposedly “will dart up your prick or your asshole or a woman’s cunt faute de mieux, and hold himself there by sharp spines with precisely what motives is not known”—how Burroughs explained the Amazonian species in Naked Lunch. Probably not, yet myths like this arise in order to explain what we don’t know: what, exactly, is floating in freshwater streams of tropical waterways.
Everybody else swims, though, except for me and the thirteen-year-old. He swats and dances as the sandflies attack his ankles and thighs; they’re attacking mine, too, and for the first time I feel like the long pants maybe weren’t so stupid, and I unroll the cuffs which I’d been attempting to keep dry as I walked up the stream. My lower legs are already covered with bites that itch so bad that when I scratch them small shivers of pleasure run through my core. Some of the bites swell into tiny blood blisters at the tips, and when I scratch blood smears across my skin. Everyone else’s arms and shoulders are ravaged, the biting insects making new topography out of our skin, Abraham’s back erupting in thousands of tiny purple bumps. But he treats it like a minor nuisance.
Once Alejandro submerges underwater, sneaking up behind the boy and grabbing his leg. The kid screams and jumps out of the water.
“Don’t be afraid,” Abraham keeps saying. “There’s nothing in there to be afraid of.”
But there’s plenty to be afraid of. Just, perhaps, not whatever the kid is imagining. There’s no reason, for example, to be afraid of fireballs. And it’s the dry season, the safest time to be in the jungle, but there are still water-borne diseases and biting insects that pass parasites into human bloodstreams. There are botflies, whose tiny larvae burrow beneath human skin to subcutaneous layers. They gestate within the warmth of the foreign host for weeks and eventually emerge as larger, writhing larvae, dropping to the ground to pupate in the soil. Botflies are not life threatening unless terrible infection occurs, and the infection often occurs when the host successfully kills the larvae but does not extract it completely from under the skin.
But the miniscule isn’t what Abraham’s reassurance is about. Don’t be afraid, he means to say, of things that grab your legs below the water. Don’t be afraid of beasts that want to eat you, of amphibious men who live in the muck and feast on swimming children.
Earlier, when the kid had shared his fireball story, the man in the hat had talked about how when he was a kid he was afraid of evil spirits. He would make his mother light a candle when he went to bed.
“What were you scared of?” someone asked him.
“I don’t even know,” he said. “The dark? Evil in general?” He laughed at himself. “I guess I was afraid of what I didn’t know.”
And that’s what Abraham means to tell the kid—don’t be afraid of what you don’t know. Don’t be afraid of your own imagination, which can drive you to self-sabotage. Be rational, he means to tell the kid, like any reasonable adult might advise a child.
But then, to be rational is to look in the face of what is really there. It’s a hard call deciding what’s worse: fireballs and evil spirits, or insects that parasitize humans and the fauna that actually does live below the surface of the murky water.
We are in a different pool, a smaller, shadier pool with dead wood jutting out of the center. Abraham is shoulder deep in the pool clearing out branches that might get snagged on nets when the man in the hat starts reeling in a net that has become obviously heavy, unusually resistant. Alejandro comes over to help him, and together they reel the net in. It doesn’t appear to be snagged on any branches.
There is something large flailing inside, and for a moment it looks like an enormous fish. Alejandro lets out a whoop, of surprise or of delight, and his hand clamps down around the net to still what’s in there. When we all gather around, it’s difficult to see at first that he holds together the crocodilian jaws of a small caiman. As he and the man in the hat start working the lines of the net from around the reptile, I catch a glimpse of a milky eye, opaque with its nictitating membrane as Alejandro, trying to free a leg, pulls the threads of the net taught against the beast’s face. It has stubby little legs and a strong tail that would flail back and forth if it weren’t subdued by a hand. Together they pry the mouth open and work out the strands that the caiman has entwined in its teeth, thrusting a stick between its jaws as they work. Remarkably, the net comes away without any holes and the caiman in one piece. Alejandro holds it up for us to see, one hand around the neck, one at the base of the tail, its little reptilian legs dangling at its sides. Its belly is smooth white, the skin a series of plates that allow for the skin to expand so that it can eat something larger than you might expect it to be able to, the way a snake can work its way around a bunny. Abraham gives a nervous laugh, and eventually moves out of the water.
“Have you ever eaten one?” Marine asks Alejandro.
He nods. “They are rico rico rico!” Delicious.
“Is the meat like chicken or is it more like fish?” she asks.
“Like fish,” he says.
But we don’t keep this one. Alejandro walks it up a hill and sets it down, quickly comes back down. It just sits there for a moment, dazed and unmoving, then after a minute or so it turns and is running back towards the stream, unbelievably fast and agile, its stubby legs pumping on each side so that its body lifts off the ground momentarily between each step. It whips back and forth like snake. When it hits the water Alejandro runs after it, scaring it upstream away from where we’re fishing.
We talk about it for a moment. Laugh. Shake our heads in disbelief. Then fishing resumes, the men tossing their nets into the pool, gathering, tossing again.
Yesterday, driving around in Iñapari in the air-conditioned cab, Abraham told me about the Dengue fever he’d contracted earlier this year. It was a terrible year for it in Iñapari, which is perched right on the Acre River. The river swells several hundred feet into both Peru and Brazil during the rainy season, mosquito populations mushrooming out of control. He woke up one day and was in such pain, his head was pounding and he had no idea why. “I didn’t know what was wrong with me,” he said, the pain too surprising, too overwhelming to pin it on illness. I’ve heard others explain it to me—the feeling of not being able to pick your head up, the feeling of death entering your body. When he finally discovered it was Dengue and was brought to a doctor, it seemed so obvious. Or course it was Dengue! The feeling of relief, just to know, and I can envision my own paranoia waking up suddenly paralyzed with pain, all the places my mind could have gone trying to understand what had taken over my body.
Why is it that a place with existing beasts breeds even more within the imagination? Why with caiman and jaguars and anacondas must there also be creatures like Chullachaki, a gnome with jaguar feet who gets you lost in the jungle, or the Hairy Ape Man, stories of whom explorers carried back to Europe—salvaje, as the 18th century explorer Alexander von Humboldt explained him—a man-eating, woman-raping monkey. Why a toothpick sized fish that swims up your penis when there’s already leishmaniasis—a flesh-eating disease that’s transmitted into your bloodstream by a small, white fly—identifiable because it looks like, as it was explained to me, “a tiny, floating angel?”
When we do know what to be afraid of, why are we still afraid of what we don’t know? Why does the fantastic of reality give way to a fantastic of the imagination, and the bounds of what’s known give way to the bounds of anything fathomable, the possibilities multiplying like mosquitoes in a shallow pool—two then four then eight then sixteen squiggling larvae. The fantastic is also amphibious in its own way: born in the water of reality, sprouting wings and flying away into the thin air of fantasy.
At the end of the day we stand in the stream gutting the fish. I only get through three because my hands are clumsy at this kind of work, and the fish are small and slippery. I tug at the insides—strange, clear, balloon-like organs float on the water we stand in. The next day Abraham will fry all the fish at his mother’s house. It will be a party; he’ll invite his whole family, probably some workers, which means half of Iñapari will be there probably. He takes the majority of the fish, but Alejandro and the other logger each get a small sack of fish of their own.
It’s dark by the time we get out of the jungle and back on the main road. The thirteen-year-old sits in the middle this time, and his legs sprawl out on either side, his knees knocking the man in the hat and me to each door every time we go over a bump. When we get to his house the cows are congregated at the top of the hill. While nets and supplies are unloaded the cows make peculiar silhouettes in the night, snorting gently at the truck, bones creaking as they ease their bodies this way or that; they are strange beasts in the dark.
Before all this, as we made our way back downstream to the bridge, we came across another caiman. Alejandro and the other logger were ahead, and when the rest of us rounded the curve we saw them hunched down, each of them with their hands in the water. They were smiling. “Have your camera ready?” Alejandro said to me. Then together they pulled the animal out of the water, this one twice as long as the first one, its mouth hinged open as though it went to lunge then forgot what it was doing, and now sat frozen in mid-gape. Alejandro’s hands were clasped around the neck, the other logger’s hands around the tail; we all leaned in to touch it. When the kid reached out Alejandro made a little jabbing motion with the caiman’s head, and the kid leapt back, gasping, Alejandro dissolving in a fit of laughter. But it didn’t keep the kid from reaching out again. It was like breaking a pact, transgressing momentarily into some sort of fantasy world where he didn’t belong, where none of us belonged, our hands hungrily brushing over the hard knobs of reptilian skin, trying to hold onto a little piece of that other world before they put it back in the water, before it went running swiftly up stream and sank below the murk.
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