Thursday, April 4, 2013

We go pig hunting

The next morning Hymondo asked me if I would like to go pig-hunting.  He said that he had seen signs of a wild pig in the forest and was hoping to catch him today.  While I had balked the other day at what I had suspected was going to be the murder of some drowsing reptilian, and possibly staged primarily for my entertainment, a pig-hunt appeared a more seemly proposition and by this time I had no doubt that Hymondo did need to hunt to feed his family.

So I said ‘yes’ and we were off.  Hymondo was wearing only shorts  --  which was the only thing I ever saw him wear  -- and had an old, single-barreled shotgun and a couple of shotgun shells in a little bag that he wore around his neck and he immediately started off with his dog along a path through the high bush that grew behind his homestead and I scrambled along behind.

After about twenty yards we came out of the bush into a field that he was clearing by slash and burn, but while the trees had been slashed down, they had not yet been burned and the felled trees were lying in a jumble across the field, in some places higher than a man.  There was no path to follow and the late morning sun beat straight down on us as we climbed over and through the tangle of cut vegetation.  This was no problem to Hymondo who skipped nimbly from log to log while I climbed and teetered like an out-of-condition lab rat.  Hymondo was waiting for me at the edge of the forest when I eventually arrived, panting.  I suspected he might already be having second thoughts about our project.

Once in the forest we were out of the direct sun, but the humidity made up for any drop in temperature.  There was no path and the tangled vegetation was criss-crossed by fallen trees, making our way at least as obstructed as it had been in the field we just crossed.  And here there was high water everywhere, come up from the river, more water, it seemed, than there was land.

My first thought was that I could walk along fallen tree trunks, but I quickly saw that to keep up with Hymondo, who was skipping from tree to vine with the agility of a monkey  --  an agility that I did not have  --  I would have to go into the black water that I found in some places hip-deep.  

But the water did not bother Hymondo.  In his shorts he was dressed for the jungle more appropriately that the client of any adventure outfitter.  About this time I noticed that his minimalist gear did not include a water bottle and the water I was hip-deep in was most likely not safe to drink.  Not because of any pollution, but from all the deadly natural stuff it had in it, and when I mentioned this he cut a liana that poured out as much fresh, well-filtered water as we could want.

Back on the trail of the pig, Hymondo showed me the places where the pig had been digging.  It was all very interesting, but I felt bad because I though I was holding him back and he really needed the pig.
For his part, I am sure Hymondo didn’t know what to do with me.  He had said the day before that I was the first tourist that he had ever seen and while he may not have known what to expect of me, I was sure that by this time he had figured out that I wasn’t a professional pig-hunter.

Because I knew the pig was important to him, I wanted Hymondo to get on with the hunt and began to think I should tell him to go ahead, that I would get back home on my own.  As I look back on it now I realize it was a profoundly foolish idea and I would in no time at all have wound up inside a boa constrictor, but at the time I was not worried about getting lost, as I usually have a good sense of direction and was fairly sure that I knew where I was.  Though the jungle around us was quite dense, I did not think it was very extensive, but was confined to a point of land between the main course of the Tefé to the east and the smaller stream on which Hymondo’s home was located, which was to the south.  I had a compass and had been watching the sun and had figured out that Hymondo was not leading me deep into the jungle but was searching for the pig in an arc through the forest not that far from his homestead.  Of course if I got turned around and went west there was a thousand miles of blank green space on my map, with some squiggly rivers, but I wasn’t worried about that.  For the moment, though, I just wanted to keep up with Hymondo and not hold him back from getting his pig.

But if my mind felt up to the situation, my body was less so.  I am not fleet-footed under the best of conditions, which these were clearly not.  It was your basic Green Hell, a tropic sauna with everything growing everywhere and water dripping off it, criss-crossed by sloughs of high water of unknown depth.  I crawled over and under and through and tried not to think of what might be lurking in the water.  My legs were losing their strength and my feet were becoming heavy and I realized that I was stumbling through the jungle like those white bumblers whom Tarzan would have to rescue in the old movies.  But I gritted my teeth and vowed that the Jungle would not defeat me.

Now for all the exotic terrors of the jungle  --  the anaconda or the piranha or the fer-de-lance  --  the most likely peril is the pedestrian one of an infection.  In this hot-house climate a cut can go septic very quickly and you must constantly be on guard against cuts and scrapes and punctures.  And a likely author of such wounds is the palm spine, little needles that grow in clumps on palm stalks and are found everywhere, and if you lose your balance and reach out to catch yourself you can come away with a nasty handful of these little needles buried in your flesh.

As I did.

I pushed too hard and lost my balance and fell into a nest of palm spines.  Then I stood up and fell into another.

I called back Hymondo and showed him my hand, now a bloody pincushion.  We sat down on a log and with a needle from my kit he dug out about twenty of them and I put antiseptic on the wounds, but a dozen or so were too deep so we started back for his place.  Being a hunter, Hymondo seemed to be philosophic about the thing: some days you get the pig and some days you don’t, though I felt bad that I was the reason for it.  As he was barefoot, I asked him if he worried about the spines and he showed me the soles of his feet, thick with callouses, and said that the spines didn’t bother him.

Back at his homestead, his wife and I sat on the edge of their platform and she dug out the remaining spines.  I offered her a needle from my kit but she preferred a thorn from a tree that grew at the edge of the clearing and I had no doubt that she knew what she was doing.

I was exhausted from the heat and exertion and sat very quietly as she dug the spines out of my hand.  Ricardo was watching the process and asked if it didn’t hurt.  “Yes,” I answered, as calmly as if I were in shock, “It hurts very much.”

That night after supper there was only the soft glow of the open wick of two small tin oil lamps about the size of a coffee cup.  Ricardo and Hymondo talked and his wife held the baby in her lap and the children lay back and listen and the young girl with large brown eyes rests her chin on the edge of her hammock and watches me.  And I am tired and sit for a while trying to follow what is being said, then lie back in my hammock and quit listening to the conversation and begin to listen to the sounds of the forest and study the fragment of sky between the jungle canopy and the fringe of palm fronds hanging down from the roof of Hymondo’s shelter and wonder at the unfamiliar southern stars.  And then I pull the mosquito netting over my hammock and think sometimes about the children we saw the other day and wondered what would become of them, or of what we did that day, or about the little girl with the large brown eyes watching me from her hammock, but eventually the world around me slides into a dream and I go to sleep in the safety of the jungle.
We went a bit farther up river and had good weather on our trip.  The rains came mostly at night, when we were sheltered, but Ricardo thought that was going to change and it seemed to be in the process of doing so, and so we headed back to Tefé.  The sky was glowering and there was a heavy chop on the water as we crossed the wide expanse to the south of the town, so much so that our boatman asked if I were afraid.  I remembered his question because I was sitting at the bow as we bounced through the rough water and was getting very wet and was blissfully happy and if I were in any sort of peril I was blessedly unaware of it.   And anyway, I had always thought dying in the jungle would be marvelously romantic and my friends back home, unburdened by any actual knowledge of the matter, would make up wonderful stories about it, possibly involving jaguars and headhunters.  But, alas, I did not perish and we reached Tefé that evening.

The next day I settled accounts with Ricardo and in late morning he took me on his motorcycle down to the River to catch the boat back to Manaus, where of course we found that the boat was delayed and when it might arrive was another mystery of the Amazon, but as it certainly would arrive eventually I said good-bye to Ricardo and found a place to sit in the shade and write in my journal and wait for my boat.  It was midday and the shops were closed and the sun sparkled off the black feathers of the vultures festooning the rooftops overlooking the riverfront.

Then there was some activity and someone told me that a boat was coming, but it wasn’t the one I was waiting for.  It was going the wrong way: it was going upriver.  

Then a thought flittered across my mind: why didn’t I continue on upriver?  All I had to do was get on the boat.  I didn’t have any appointments or commitments and it didn’t make any difference whether I got back to Manaus that week or the next.  I opened out my map.  There was still a lot of Amazon left.  By this point I knew how distance translated into time in river travel.  It would be about four days to Benjamin Constant where, if I wanted to take my life into my hands, I could cross the River into Colombia, or stay on the River perhaps two more days into Peru to Iquitos and then fly out of there.  Or stop somewhere along the way, some little place along the River that looked interesting and that I had never known before that it existed.  And even if there were no guest house there, by this time I had no doubt that I could ask people and find a place to stay, and I had my hammock and mosquito net and I had no doubt that I would be just fine.

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