Late February 1979, The Darian Jungle
I woke to the sound of a screaming bird. The damn thing seemed to wake me every day. Most days, I rolled over and went back to sleep, but this day was different. I slid my hand down between Nicolas’s legs, felt her warmth, kissed her shoulder, and walked to the shower. The warm water felt strange against my skin, and I shivered in the cool, early morning air.
I went back to the bedroom and dressed in the army surplus clothes Juan gave me. I pulled on rough, long pants that tied off at the bottom, followed by a pair of leather boots. A thick, green, long-sleeved shirt covered the scabbed wound on my side. I pulled a green, cotton, bucket hat over my head and hoped it would block some of the bugs as well as the sun.
We set out into the jungle at daybreak. It took over six hours to walk two miles on narrow paths through the thick foliage. Trees blocked the broiling sunlight that seemed to climb into the sky. These massive trees, growing so tightly together they seemed to form an impenetrable curtain, created a twisting maze of leaves, branches, and vines. Everything in every direction looked exactly the same.
It was easy to become disoriented.
The bugs started attacking the second we stepped off Nicola’s porch. Their constant buzzing haunted my ears as I tried to brush them out of my eyes and nose. I coughed, inhaling wings and legs that tickled as they clung to my throat. Shivers traveled down my spine as I forced myself to swallow the first of many mouthfuls of bugs.
The mules we used to carry our supplies seemed constantly spooked. We had to beat them to force them forward and drag them through small, muddy streams. “Forward” was a word we used for many things, and, at times, “forward” meant only inches an hour. After stopping to hack a path through with large machetes, “forward” came to mean not going backward.
Juan commented we were on the same path he and the others had cut, using the same tools a month ago. “It won’t be like this all the way, Richie,” he said. “It gets worse.”
We kept this slow, steady pace through the night. If there was a moon to light the way, the dense canopy hid it. After twenty-four hours in this sticky, humid Hell, dawn broke, and the terrain became slightly more forgiving, more open. The trees were less knotted, the gaps between one branch and the next widening. A breeze would occasionally find its way through the curtains of green, lifting our spirits. Trails began to pop up here and there, leading in a thousand different directions. A pathway wound its way out of the woods on one side and disappeared into the next side. Finally, we saw the sun for the first time since leaving Yaziva.
Juan was right. A day in this jungle made that primitive hut seem like a mansion in a city of leaves.
In the clearing that connected several interwoven paths, we stopped to rest.
Our guide, the de facto leader of this tribe, spoke: “Vamos a detenernos aquí, para descansar las mulas y los hombres.”
I kneeled on the moist dirt, my knees sinking into the soft soil. Flies, mosquitoes, and some truly maddening gnats swarmed my face; swatting them was pointless. The entire world around me smelled like a swamp. I got up and moved to a smooth rock by the side of the trail. Juan sat down next to me.
“Don’t complain, don’t bitch, just remember we are in a world where mules are valued more than men,” Juan said. His voice was hushed, his eyes a cold black as he handed me a U.S. army MRE. “Watch out for everything here. The forest is less dense now, but more dangerous. This is the area we lost a guy in last month. A fer-de-lance bit him. He died in minutes. We left him, dead, along the path. The jungle consumed him. I looked back a saw a jaguar eating him.”
I looked at Juan, sure he was joking, but his gaze held mine, unblinking.
“This place, Richie, is truly Hell on earth. Remember, this is the last trip,” said Juan. He reached down and adjusted his boots, his hands covered in angry, red bites, like mine. “Acandi is a better place. Distribution is more like business. This, this is pure fucking bullshit. Dues-paying bullshit. Fuck all these assholes. You and me, we cover each other. Fuck these other assholes.” He sat back up and leaned in close.
“In another day, we will be to the river. We’ll move a lot faster, and we’ll go deeper in. Finally, we’ll meet another boat to take us into Columbia and get the packages we came for.
“Then, we return to Yaziva. That’s when you can rest and fuck my cousin goodbye before we get moved to Acandi by Russian choppers. Then, life will be better.” Juan stretched his arms and stood up. “For now, for the next two or three weeks, just survive – sobrevivir.”
We trekked through the jungle for another two days. The terrain was clear enough I could walk with my Kalashnikov in my hands, my finger on the trigger. “I’ll kill anything that moves!” I said to Juan, only half-joking.
As I trudged through mud and dense undergrowth, the bugs renewed their assault on every visible part of my skin. They got underneath my shirt. I put my hand in my pants pocket and felt tiny legs and sharp teeth attack my fingers. I kept walking. It was enough to make me want to scream, but I kept my mouth shut for fear of swallowing more. I took it. Every day, in and out, I just took it.
We marched hours and hours without saying a word. Someone beat the mules to keep them moving. At one point I looked up from the ground and noticed we’d picked up a couple more men on this journey. Now there were six of us and two mules.
The river south reached my ears before it rushed upon us, introducing a clammy, cooler breeze. The forest had grown dense again, and, in a small clearing, I saw smoke from a fire. The smell of fresh meat cooking woke my stomach. It rumbled, reminding me that I hadn’t eaten a hot meal in days. I saw two huts and strangers not from our small group. I tried to remember the last time I slept. All I can recall since leaving Nicola is bugs, trees, snakes, and endless walking. Maybe I was sleeping right now, walking through a never-ending nightmare.
Juan’s familiar figure shook me out of my haze, and I watched him walk up to a heavily armed man. I caught that his name is Ricardo in between a loud, fast conversation in Spanish.
Juan turned to me. “Take the mules,” he said, “get them in that pen. Come back into this hut. You and me and Ricardo need to talk.”
I dragged the mules into a small, fenced-in corral. This camp was nothing more than the two small huts; one must be Ricardo’s and the other sleeping quarters for the rest of us. The huts were made of wide, thin bundles of sticks tied together to make walls, stuffed with dried mud and leaves. They had no doors.
I locked the mules in the corral. A man I did not know came out to feed them and give them water. So many strange new faces in only a few days had my head spinning. I didn’t bother to learn everyone’s name. He said something in broken English about having to feed and care for the mulas.
I walked into Ricardo’s hut. He and Juan were arguing in Spanish. The hut was clean and organized, some radio equipment resting along one wall. I was confused about how the radio was powered. I found out later there was a primitive solar cell that powered the battery.
Standing in the shade of the hut, I felt the overwhelming exhaustion hit me. I felt physically sick, and the room began to spin. I knew I wasn’t prepared for any shit from this guy. Ricardo offered me a glass of water. Clean water. He stood there and looked me in the eye. I took the glass and poured it down my throat.
In perfect English he said, “Tomorrow, you will take to the boats. You’ll take the boats into Columbia, load up, and turn back here. You’ll be back to the big city of Yaziva in two weeks.”
I couldn’t express the gratitude I had for Ricardo at that moment. I thought I was going to have to fight him or kill him. Instead, he offered me hope that this nightmare was almost over. He went on to offer food, more MREs, and plenty of clean water.
I drank the water, a lot of water. I could feel my body reabsorbing the fluid. I ate an MRE outside by the fire, alone. It had started to rain again. It seemed to rain in this place a few hours every day. I was still wearing the same clothes I put on in Nicola’s house.
Sometime in the past week, I’d a lost all concern for clean clothes and luxuries like toilet paper or soap. I realized this trip was designed to strip me of what’s left of my humanity. It was designed to make me part of the machine, to be a cog in a machine. That’s what I was and all I was.
I passed out on a grass and wood thatched cot and slept for ten hours.
I woke to the sharp sting of an insect on my nose. It was time to move. I swatted the bug – a big, ugly, fly-looking thing – and walked outside the hut. Two, large, long dugout canoes had been pulled up on the muddy shore next to large bails. Juan was up, sitting by the fire drinking coffee. Four new men had joined our group. I didn’t know where these strangers kept coming from.
I was drinking copious amounts of water unsure of when I’d get this luxury again. I sat down next to Juan ready for whatever was ahead.
“You and me,” said Juan, “we take one canoe. It’s about 50 miles downstream to Columbia. I found this easier than the walk in. It’s a bigger complex down there, but it’s shutting down. This is the last mule and canoe trip, so this level of secrecy and coverage isn’t required anymore.
“We own the government now. It’s going to be choppers and speedboats from here on in. We’re bringing about a million US in coke into Yaziva, and good chunk of that is ours.” Juan got up, walked to Ricardo’s hut, and returned with two backpacks. He threw them in the Canoe. “Vamanous, homie.”
The trip down river was hot and miserable, hotter than Hell. The air was thick and full of bugs, more than before. I couldn’t breathe without swallowing a handful of them.
“I hate bugs in my fucking nose!” I screamed. No one answered.
The trees were as thick as at the beginning of this trip, their leaves a canopy that kept out the sunlight. Along the shore, I saw another jaguar. I was grateful to be on the water, but even more grateful to be in the boat. The water was a dark, deep, terrifying ribbon of black, and I knew worse things than jaguars lived within it.
“The terror is in the solitude.” Juan’s voice pulled me from my thoughts. “The toughest guys, the el grande’ badasses, alone, in the dark, looking out at this endless, black water. It chills them to the bone. The solitude makes men face themselves. These are the true terrors that haunt men, the reckoning of the self.
“These are the terrors that we run from. We shoot our guns, snort our coke, drink our scotch whiskey, and fuck our whores to keep out the noise of the night. We do it all to keep the night, the solitude at bay. But, out here on this water, in the dark, with the murky blackness under us, only a few inches of old and soggy wood protecting us from a gruesome death, we are all cowards.”
For a moment, I couldn’t breathe, but I forced my tongue from the roof of my mouth and changed the subject. “Did you hear about that Alligator they killed in Yaziva?” I called back to Juan. “The fucker was ten feet long. This place, Juan, this world, it’s designed to keep us away, to kill us if we venture in. I want to find who took our families from us, end him, and go home.”
Juan sighed. “Richie, that home you want to return to is gone. We burned it. We raped it and pillaged it and left it to die. We have no home. Where we are, right here on this river. Where we stop, where we sleep, stinking in our filth, that is our home now. We are who we have become. Sometimes, I wish the gators would get us. Purge us from this world so that it can heal. Remember when we used to count the dead? Nine plus your father, fifteen plus your father – you’ve lost count now and so have I. There will be more, many more. We both know that.”
We paddled on in silence until daybreak.
At first light, we heard a commotion behind us; it was the second canoe. The men in the boat were thrashing the water and beating something with their paddles. We turned our boat around to see three alligators snapping against their canoe. Standing and screaming, the men attempted to beat the gators away. The sides of their boat began to tip, and the canoe capsized. I flinched as their screams rang through the air. The thrashing of the water slowed, and the cries of the dying men were silenced.
I stood up in our boat and sprayed the water with shots from my AK. The black water grew dark with blood. The bodies of the three gators floated to the surface, the severed torso of our companion still stuck in the largest gator’s mouth.
I sat back down and continued paddling. The only comment passed between us was Juan who said, “It’s only a couple more miles now.”
We turned a bend in the river. Juan brought his paddle into the canoe. He motioned for me to stop too.
“Richie,” he said, “around the bend, we enter into their territory. I’ve talked you up. You’re trusted, so just keep alert. One of these motherfuckers may try to test you. If they do, kill them. It’s that simple. That’s how it is now. We’ll paddle up to the shore. I’ll announce who we are. We’ll leave the boat, go get water and food. It’s a big camp. People there will load the canoe. We eat, we shit, and we get back in the boat and head back.”
Our stay in this camp was short and uneventful. One guy, I didn’t care to get his name, congratulated us in Spanish. He was excited about us getting double the load of coke to take back since the other two men were dead. We ate, we shit, and we weren’t bothered.
I shook my head and said to myself, “That is how it is now...”
The return trip was as terrifying as the trip downstream, but it seemed to go faster. I kept reminding myself that three of gators were dead, and their remains probably fed the rest of the creatures living just below the thin floor of the canoe. I felt a strange relief when we got back to the camp with Ricardo and the mules, as if my mind had washed out the horror of the week-long walk-out from Yaziva.
Back at Ricardo’s hut – his place was really too small to be called a village – we loaded up three mules to carry the extra coke. We didn’t linger; it would be too easy to get soft and used to the clean water here after days moving through the jungle. After everything was loaded, Juan and I – and two guys from the village who hiked into meet us – reentered this bug-infested hole in the universe back toward Nicola’s.
I’d never been so exhausted in my life. This hike back in felt like it would kill me. Every step into the trees took us a step farther away from the river and the alligators, and I tried telling myself that was a good thing. I'd developed a deep hatred and fear of alligators.
On the third day of our return journey, I started to hallucinate. I told Juan this. He simply said, “Me too.” He suggested more coke, and I couldn’t think of a reason not to partake. It helped. The instant rush kept us putting one foot in front of the other. The drug was a propellant.
As we walked, the sky was growing darker, but rain held out. We cut and slashed our way through the dense growth, and I realized when we came across a broken branch that this was the exact path we'd walked about three weeks before.
“Only one more day,” said Juan as he cut through the branch a second time with his machete.
I fell a couple of times. I was shaking as I walked. Our feet were in bad shape; I could barely feel mine anymore. We all had some form of trench foot. One of the guys who joined us at Ricardo’s camp – I called him Buddy, and he seemed to be happy with that name – stopped. He fell and screamed out in pain. The path was too narrow to stop or lie down. Juan went to him and removed his shoes. The stench made us vomit.
“What the fuck!” Juan screamed. He hammered Buddy with rapid-fire questions in Spanish before turning to me. “Richie, this is gangrene – look at it!”
I have no idea how he walked on those feet. As Buddy laid on the ground across some fallen branches, we held a fast meeting between the three of us. I learned that the other man’s name was Rafe. It wasn’t much of a discussion; Buddy was going to hold us back.
Juan threw up his hands. “Somebody do it!”
Without a thought, I aimed my Kalashnikov at Buddy and ended him. Just like that, like a machine.
We turned away from his body, beat the mules, and continued walking.
Early the next morning, we recognized the end of the jungle. We saw daylight for the first time in days. Within minutes, I saw Nicola’s hut, the bridge, and the massive tree across the river. I could see the Chevy and Nicola’s rusted, old Jeep.
Walking past her house, standing on the bridge, Juan told Rafe to go find the people who were waiting for us: the men with the money. We took the mules with us, tying them to Nicola’s porch railing. Juan and I stripped off our rancid clothes and left them on the road. We stood there looking at each other totally nude. Juan, the stocky Spaniard, had lost another ten pounds or more. We were both covered in chigger bites. Our skin was red and cut, oozing sores.
Juan was first in the shower. I sat naked on the hard, wooden chair waiting for him to be finished. When Juan opened the shower door, and I was about to walk in, Nicola opened her front door. A young, good-looking, local kid followed her. Nicola wore just a t-shirt. The kid a pair of white boxer shorts. They looked like mine from her bedroom.
The desire to wash off the stench of that trip was stronger than the desire to give a fuck about Nicola’s new boyfriend.
Juan looked at me, and I looked back at him. “That’s how it is now, bro,” said Juan, shrugging his shoulders. “What did you think? That this was some undying love like on the Mexican soap operas? You think you’re on some Telenovela?” He laughed, and I had to laugh too as I realized it and said it back to him.
“That’s how it is now, bro.”
We got clean, dressed, fed, and paid. Nicola got her coke to sell. Juan and I left Nicola's love-nest within the hour. We crossed the bridge and moved into the abandoned house with the massive tree, the Chevy and Nicola’s Jeep parked under its shade. We didn’t do much for about a week. We caught rides into town with Nicola for booze and food. We wore clean socks and let our feet heal. Every time I thought of my sore feet, I thought of Buddy.
We slept a lot.
Toward the end of the week, we got packed and ready to go. Within days a Russian chopper would be arriving for us.
Early one morning, a week to the day after we walked back into Yaziva, we heard a horrible, chest-pounding noise. Dust in the road was blown in a cyclone. A huge, Soviet military helicopter had landed at the very end of the Pan-American Highway.
Grabbing our bags, Juan and I ran to the chopper, ducking our heads down to avoid getting them chopped off by the blades. Everyone does that, even though the blades clear your head by three or four feet.
We climbed inside, choking on the dry dust from the road that had become a cloud around us. Facing rear, our backs to the pilot and copilot, I looked across the river. I saw Nicola, quite nude, come to her door. I looked at Juan and said, “It’s been a month now, she’s due for a new boyfriend.”
The chopper pulled up and away. I looked down at the giant tree, hiding the Chevy. I saw the front grill fall away in the distance and the roof of Nicola’s house disappear.
We sat back for the seventy-mile ride to Acandi.
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