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To Coroico by Carl Cleves

Page 11

The summer rains had just ended and the rivers where full. The luxurious emerald green foliage glistened with dampness. We struggled on steep mountainsides, so densely overgrown that we searched in vain, as the day wore on, for a small open space to set up camp. Not a square metre of ground to lie down on, nor a piece of open sky to light a fire under. The jungle seemed to get more impenetrable by the hour and the trail fainter and harder to follow. The sun had disappeared when we reached a hang bridge. Herman was the first one to cross. The rotten wood gave way and he was left dangling from a cable. I crawled on hands and knees to help him out of his predicament, while Tashi apprehensively looked on from the brink. A fine scene for Indiana Jones, but hairy when it actually happens to you. When we finally got ourselves and our pack across, night was falling.

Again some magic happened when it was most needed. On the other side of the bridge we found a dry riverbed and within it, amidst a shadowy mass of rocks and boulders of all sizes, we made out a few square metres of fine white sand sparkling in the last daylight. The spot glowed, it shone and beckoned us. It was heaven-send. Somewhere to cook, somewhere to lie down for the night. A soft bed in a wilderness of rocks and vines. Herman and I hurriedly clambered to it, passing Tashi from boulder to boulder. There was however a keeper of the gate. A green snake was looking at us from the white sand, its head raised in menace. We were too tired for an introduction, too tired to answer riddles or fight a duel, too tired to look elsewhere. Ungrateful guests, we threw rocks at our host and chased her out of her abode for the night. There was much seasoned river wood here and soon we had a blazing fire going. Pea soup and hot chocolate was followed by a restful night under a roof of stars, as we were lulled to sleep by the booming rumble of the river.


The first sound I heard when I awoke shortly after dawn was the steady thunder of the river and the chatter of birds, feeding and bathing in the rock pools nearby. In full daylight it was an impressive setting. In front of me rapids forced their way across granite rocks and through foaming crevices. Waterfalls crashed down from the steep forested mountainside behind me. Higher up I could see silver streaks of water plunging over bare rock, and still higher a large bird, eagle or vulture, alone in the blue sky. Walls of lush jungle surrounded us. I lit a fire and boiled some oats and dried fruit while the two others slept in.

The porridge was cooked and Tashi was washing last nightÕs spoons and bowls when two Indians suddenly emerged from the forest. They were hunters. One was a short wiry fellow with a thick mop of black hair, dressed in shorts several sizes too large, and a t-shirt so dirty and worn I was unable to read its logo. He carried a machete. The bigger fellow wore the remains of a shirt, threadbare jeans and sported a baseball cap. He had a rifle strung across his shoulder and addressed us in Spanish. They had spotted the smoke from our fire and came to check it out. Where were we going to in this jungle? To Coroico. This valley was leading us nowhere, they explained. Soon there would be no path left at all, only jungle and many wild animals. We had walked up the wrong valley. They pointed in the opposite direction. We needed to backtrack until we found another hanging bridge, which would lead us across another river along which we would arrive at the place where they lived. From there we could pick up the Coroico trail again. We thanked the Indians and were left wondering what would have happened to us if we had continued on our path to oblivion. I watched them jump from boulder to boulder until they disappeared behind the forest wall.

We spent most of the morning playing about in the pools and rapids of the river. The water was cold but the sun warmed the rocks and heated our bodies. Herman washed and dried his shirt and socks while Tashi and I lathered each otherÕs hair, build dams of pebbles and rocks in the gurgling channels and massaged one another. These pleasant hours brought back memories of our house at the banks of another river on the other side of the world: Mumford's creek had been our point of departure, Mumford's creek travelled with me in my dreams. Every rainy season MumfordÕs creek transformed itself into a torrential river dragging rocks and trees downstream, rumbling and growling just like this one nameless stream that we were bathing in here in the Yungas. Tashi was weaned during the first rainy season of his life when I remained isolated with him for ten days watching the river bursts its banks and creep closer and closer to the house, which at that stage had only a roof and floor, no walls to protect us from the pounding rain whenever the wind changed direction. Shanti had been left stranded on the plateau unable to return to the valley where the tracks had become impassible.


In the Yungas these memories flooded back to me. I had a case of what the Brazilians call "saudade": a sadness that is sweet, a joy that hurts, a longing for a paradise lost and out of reach. Mumford's creek had been our private bathroom. A rock pool, shaded by river oaks and wattle trees, garnished with elkhorns and birdsnest ferns, was only fifty yards away from the house. When the floods came we surfed the swift river on airbeds (that rarely survived). During the summer siesta hours we floated on the beds when it was too hot to work. Tashi had learned to crawl - like many other infants in the area- on hands and feet, to negotiate the rocks and boulders and avoid the sting of nettles or the bites of aggressive bull ants and leeches that infested the riverbank. Winter or summer, the river was our bathing-, leisure- and playground. Tashi was a child of the river and the forest. No wonder he preferred the wild Yungas to the hustle and bustle of the capital La Paz.


Through thick growth we backtracked until we reached the small settlement the hunters had told us about. There were not more than half a dozen dwellings scattered about between the trees and boulders on the few horizontal spaces that the banks of the river offered. This was the "village" of our two morning visitors. They were nowhere in sight and probably still hunting. All the other inhabitants however came out to greet these rare and exotic visitors. As usual Tashi was the centre of attention. By now I was becoming quite accustomed to living in his shadow. He received the usual praise and tease: "Bonito es." And then "regalome" and "dejalo aqua". "He is beautiful". "Give him to me". "Leave him here." But we didn't linger for long, crossed the suspension bridge - this one in better condition than the one that almost dropped Herman into the depths the night before- and plunged back into the forest.

(To be continued)