It wasn’t a even a pueblo. They called it a pueblito… and when the boat I’d been floating on for days arrived, there was no dock to pull into. Only a muddy bank and a willing man with a canoe… to carry me across.
When I first glimpsed the town, I felt a pang of doubt. I suddenly felt I was in the middle of nowhere. And I wondered how I would know what to do. The feeling subsided as quickly as it came, though. I’d been making my way there, for a very long time.
When I was nine years old, my parents took me to Brazil to visit family. And we drove for five hours from Sao Paulo to the small coastal town where my aunt lives. We drove cautiously through pockets of fog. On curvy miles of precarious road. Suspended above the sea, at the edge of the rainforest… I was mesmerized by the density of green. Punctuated by waterfalls, which spilled from the hillside every few miles. I asked my dad to stop the car and take a picture of every one.
The jungle called to me more than anything I’d yet seen. And it was some form of torture, to merely skim it’s surface. I longed to penetrate that heart of darkness… and over time, my desire only grew.
So there I was, fifteen years later… moving thru Amazonas. Toward an obscure jungle reserve that caught my eye on the map one day. Descending the boat, I took the hand that was offered… and went ashore.
Things came together, in the fateful way they often do… and my plans were made. I’d leave the next day. All that stood between me and the journey I’d been seeking… was one more afternoon. And one long night.
The town was a designated red zone, which meant it was occupied by the military. Drug trafficking and guerrilla activity had been heavy there. As a visitor, I was required to check in with La Policia.
The captain checked my passport, asked a few questions… and it wasn’t long before every soldier popped his head in. It was a very sleepy town. No visitors had come through in many months… and they were pleased to receive an unexpected distraction. Very pleased, indeed.
They walked with me, around the town. Smiling and lamenting how dull it was. They took me to a woman’s house, where I could buy a meal. And they took turns asking questions… as I was proudly served a chicken leg with the one potato to be found.
I spent the entire night with them, outside in the deserted town square. Talking and laughing. Sharing the cigarettes I’d stocked up on for my trip. I couldn’t possibly sleep… with such an adventure awaiting me in the morning.
“No tienes miedo?”
They asked me… aren’t you afraid?
I just laughed. I was finally doing this thing I’d always dreamed of.
I left the next morning at the crack of dawn. In a dug out canoe, with a man named Gamaniel. He pushed against the river bank. A swift, deliberate motion… and we did not see another human for one month.
It was one of the incredible experiences of my life… but that’s a whole other story.
When I returned I was thinner. Stronger and more muscly. Covered head to toe in insect bites… and feeling more alive than I ever had before. The town was exactly as I’d left it. And the soldiers were anxious to hear about my trip. The boat wasn’t coming back for a few days… they said I should stay with them.
They had their barracks. And a little office in town… but on the river, they had a watchtower. The men took turns there, standing guard in pairs. It was a simple structure. A wooden platform, not too tall… but tall enough to warrant a ladder. Half-walls left it open on the sides. And it had a palm leaf roof. It was divided in two sections. One was empty. And the other had two hammocks for the men to sleep in. I was offered a hammock, for the time I was there.
I liked them all. They were happy to have me… and of course, there was one. Who very naturally became mine. He had a sweet smile. Brown eyes and strong hands. He talked to the kids and pet the stray dogs when we walked around. He let me shoot his guns. I showed him how to use my camera. We sat on the ground and talked for hours. About all kinds of things.
He was young. In his early twenties, like me… but he did have a wife and a six month old baby, whom he hadn’t seen in over three months. He hadn’t chosen them, but he cared for them… his eyes shone with pride when he told me how pretty she was in her wedding dress. It wasn’t his idea to be a soldier, either… but he would be gone for two years. That’s what all the young men did. Where he came from.
We spent a few days and nights together. In the heat, seeking shade. Sometimes we stayed with the other soldiers… and often, we went off by ourselves. Talking and touching, with our faces close together. The days were long and aimless. There was time for a little bit of everything.
My favorite time was in the evening. When the world cooled a bit. We would walk to the river, our boots quietly in step… and the night felt so alive in the darkness all around us. The little tower felt like home. And looking out onto the water, I was where I wanted to be.
We fell into each other, naturally. Bodies pressed together beneath the stars. His kisses were smooth, the kind you feel all over… and his gun belt, worn so casually all day… suddenly had a strange and striking presence. I felt his skin, warm beneath his shirt. And removed the belt, as we sank to the floor.
Some moments resonate within you forever. Those moments bright with sight and sound, that tell a whole story of their own. The heavy thud of his pistol, against the thin slat of wood. And the way it seemed to disappear… that weight which had attached itself to him.
Our reach around each other was slow. Everything in the jungle feels slow… but steady. And sure. So warm and alive. Such salty sweetness in the perspiration around his lips. He slid into me. My legs wrapped around him… and what happened then, remains just between us.
On the fourth night, the boat came. In the darkest hour, just before dawn. His friend shook us awake in the hammock where we’d drifted… and we moved with the urgency one feels when pulled from a deep sleep. We put on our boots, he grabbed my bag. We climbed down the ladder and then down the riverbank… sinking knee deep into its muddy walls. On the boat, his friend hung my hammock for me… while we hugged and held each other silently. I rolled into it as they walked away… and fell back asleep.
We’d gone to the boat as if in a dream. And I left him without thinking, but my waking thoughts willed the boat to turn around. For days, I looked out onto the river… seeing only a boy with a pistol on his hip. And breathing his scent which lingered in my hair.
I should have stayed with him one more day… that was the thought which repeated itself. As the river pushed me slowly forward.