very short, very true stories
It hurt a little to abandon the view, but now we quickly fell in step with our Rickshaw driver. He had come all the way up the massive rock to tell us about the giant hiding in the woods below, and we’d been breathing in the landscape for long enough to take plenty of molecules with us as keepsakes. Now the sweet smell of adventure was in the air. Some monkeys gave us funny looks on the way back down. They couldn’t care less about the adventure. At the foot of the rock, the locals had gone into hiding. I can’t recall whether it was a cluster of houses or barracks, a small village or just scattered and tattered left-overs of decay. I think to remember a big tree, light brown soil or sand in a wide radius around it and the buildings flecking the circular outline sporadically like the remaining ciphers on a badly scratched clock. My memory might fail me greatly though. Maybe there were 10 people, or more, maybe men and women or only men. Some of them must have been other Rickshaw drivers and possibly some belonged to the monastery; housekeepers perhaps? Most of them were cowering behind one building, others inside an empty house, one or two atop a one-story roof.
I distinctively remember people’s palpable fear, which surpassed mere caution. Amused by this more than alarmed, I tried to figure out how to get up close to the giant. Back then, I had no notion of their murderous aggressiveness. I scurried along a little path in-between two houses into the woods until my eyes stumbled upon him – well camouflaged between the trees, but impossible to overlook and about one truck-length away. My steps shrunk the more I scrambled through the thicket towards him, guided by that naivety of a boy who thinks of every creature as a potential pet-pal. He had probably noticed my presence long before I even spotted him, and our eyes had been locked in a sturdy embrace since. Still young, he was a fairly small giant, sort of semi-colossal. All kinds of animalistic emotions coalesced in his demeanor: wariness, confusion, hesitation and even some fear. The more distance I stole away from us, the more his behavior mirrored apprehension. A fierce determination started to glint in his black eyes, but they were also small as buttons and cute as buttons on his oversized head, silly really, and I couldn’t take him all that seriously because of that, and maybe that’s what supplemented my curiosity with that misplaced and stupid audacity. Only a few steps separated us presently.
There was curiosity in his eyes too when I look at them in retrospect. Both of us were feeling out the situation, each other’s place in nature, and our relation. But as much as one wishes to get to know and communicate with a wild creature, the last step towards an undomesticated animal is an insurmountable distance. As soon as I tried to take that last step, he was ready to charge. Like a bull, he pawed the dusty soil with his right, no sorry, left forefoot – just looked like the right from where I was standing. He had drawn a line in the sand, even literally, and I realized that I’d gone into this without a plan, never mind a backup plan or an exit strategy. Who knows what I expected to happen? I certainly don’t and didn’t. Neither do I know what my subconscious was up to, but I guess it was busy admitting to itself that this wasn’t the gentle giant of our childhood books, at least not with his defenses being tested by an ignorant human whose intentions were hard to divine. When I realized that he was revving up for an attack, my brain switched gears and went into autopilot. I started processing the scene through my brain stem, the most primeval, rudimentary and instinctive piece of machinery inside our skull. Pumping at maximum speed, my heart readied every muscle of the apparatus for the reaction the stem would see fit to assure survival. Without taking a single cone in my eyes off the giant, I scanned my surroundings and saw that the trees had turned into reassuring, solid pillars that marked a zigzag escape route in case of any sudden leaps. With a snail-like slowness and awkwardness, I put my legs in reverse and commenced my retreat, both eyes glued to the giant, the first one I ever saw in the wild, face to face, two creatures sharing nothing but nature’s bond, and not in need of anything more than that.
They asked for water. When I turned back around, three shotgun muzzles were pointed at us. I would have cursed the map right then, but there was no time, and my tongue was in my stomach.
Some days prior, a Frenchman had drawn the map to the secluded beach, ceremoniously, on the last page of my notebook while we were playing cards and beers in Quito. It was all very The Beach-y – just like in the movie, the beach was only known to those who knew and those who knew somebody who knew. Alexandre had been invited by a local and now he passed the map on to whoever he deemed worthy after a couple of beers.
"There is an abandoned house, so if you take enough water and food, you can stay for weeks," he said with boyish and contagious rapture. During his stay, he hadn't seen a soul except for a group of fishermen who took him out to sea to see the whales. I was sold on the gratis experience. It isn’t every day that you get to live out a Robinson Crusoe fantasy. Little did I know that it would be but a one-night stay.
After I told Mercedes about the beach, she decided to tag along and accompany me into my fantasy. It was surreal to find every detail in its promised place. We had hopped off the bus exactly in the middle of nowhere and, sure enough, found the white fence and gate that marked the trailhead for trespassers. Indeed, the deserted dirt road connecting the beach with the real word started on the other side of the finca. Some two hours later, a little hill allowed for a first glimpse of the beach, and the abandoned house, although still tiny and far, was a beautifully encouraging beacon.
We arrived well before nightfall and the pristine bay welcomed us with giggling shrubs and other untamed vegetation. It was tucked away behind towering cliffs and accessible only by boat or secret map. Clouds had painted over the sky with drab grays, but some darker shades of turquoise were left in the water and proof of a sweet little paradise.
The abandoned house was textbook: mossy, raggedy, hardly standing up to nature’s reclaim. Looking out of its paneless windows onto the moody sea was like staring through the empty eye sockets of a skull that has been tosses around a couple of times.
We pitched the tent on the beach, unimpressed by the musty wooden floor.
One lonely fisherman teetered in the surf on an improvised raft and was the only sign of human life that day. Whales, I thought, remembering the Frenchman’s tale and scheduling an informal appointment with the unsuspecting fisherman. We found some eerie shelters near the house – lovelessly assembled with sticks and black plastic tarp – but paid less attention to them than we should have. Of course, that's the overly generous benefit of hindsight.
I guess it was the bonfire that betrayed us. Along the lonely shoreline it must have been a beacon for miles and miles.
The next day we went for a long walk up the beach, after hiding my backpack behind some bushes by the house. Pelicans soared above us in sharp v-formations to dive head-first into the ocean at unpredictable intervals. The coastline was wild and rough, and heavy boulders laid scattered all over, looking mighty snuggly sinking into the soft sand all the way up to their waist. On our right, the beach wore a rocky and cliffy fringe interspersed with green and brown shrubs. On our left, the Pacific tumbled up and down the color spectrum, between murky blue and fine turquoise, depending on the upper hand of sun or clouds.
I think it was when we spotted the little sailboat anchored in the bay on our way back when we first had that uneasy feeling. A bonfire near the tarps left no doubt that people had landed. "Maybe honeymooners," we said, reassuring one another without much confidence.
As soon as we reached the house, I grabbed my stuff. I emerged from the bushes a moment or two later to find that we weren’t alone anymore. Three guys. I knew that gut feeling. I had seen the same body language before. Menacing. I’d seen it a couple of months earlier before being held at knifepoint in Colombia. They asked for water, but we all knew that wasn’t gonna be the end of it. By the time I turned back around with the bottle of water in my hand, they had taken out their shotguns. Magicians. God knows from where they had produced such heavy arms, given that they wore shorts and jerseys as far as I remember. These moments always happen in fast forward.
A whole bunch of somber feelings mingled in my core during that very first moment of being held at gunpoint. Above all helplessness. Suddenly, your life is at someone else’s mercy, and, worse yet, you know it. There was a certain degree of relief though when they told us to sit down and not look at them. They didn't want to be identified, and we were more than happy not to look at them, especially if it meant they’d let us go eventually. Fear subsided into perseverance.
While two of them scrutinized my backpack, the third one did all the talking: “what did you do here? How did you get here? How do you get back? Are there other people?” Mercedes answered his questions with overt contempt and her lack of cordiality was a booster for my confidence. She didn’t seem to think that these guys were any more than robbers. At some point I mustered the courage to ask their leader for a little favor: “since you’re taking all my stuff, could you leave me the memory card with my photos at least?” They did. There was something else that pointed to their good manners, but maybe that’s just Stockholm syndrome talking: they frisked me but didn’t touch Mercedes at all. Whatever they could have done, I could have done less than nothing about it. In the end, they only took the cellphone from her little handbag.
After going through my stuff for a little eternity, or about ten minutes, they left me my memory card, notebook, tent, and the clothes I was wearing. All my other worldly possessions I lost right there. Everything I owned, apart from a box in my parents' basement, were in the backpack and they took that too. Their leader said he liked it and didn’t give it up even after Mercedes shouted at him. Probably that kind of angry display loses its zing when you can’t look at the person you’re shouting at. She seemed furiously ashamed about what they were doing to poor gringo me. It was to no avail. And how else would they have transported all my things anyways? Electronics, clothes, even my laundry. And then these modern-day pirates slowly trudged back to their bon fire without a worry in the world. Their interrogation had reassured them that no surprises were coming their way.
We left with significantly more haste, headed back towards the finca. For a moment we laughed at the absurdity of the whole situation and also out of relief. We had hardly made it past the house when we ran into two French girls and a local guy. With our tongues running, we threw the recent happenings in a nutshell, all the while pointing to the “pirates,” who strolled along the beach leisurely. The girls’ faces were petrified and fear chiseled into them, which must have worried their guide a bit. To diffuse the situation, he took out a gun from under his shirt and proclaimed: “don’t worry, I have a gun too!”
They worried more now. But they had probably paid a handsome sum for the overnight adventure and didn’t want to turn around just yet, a two hour walk in their legs. We had no time for this. I was teeming with naive hopes of policemen recovering my possessions. We made it back to the finca in record time and ran into the owner’s brother. He was nice and willing to help, but didn’t know how to contact the police.
“What do you mean you don’t know the number? Is it not 911 or something?”
It isn’t. It’s a nine-digit local number, as is the case in many parts of Latin America. After thinking it through for a moment, he called a friend who lived near the police station and asked him to walk over there. Some thirty minutes later, two policemen arrived in a pickup truck, listened to our story and decided casually to do nothing about it. We kept insisting that they needed to check on the girls – who was to say that it hadn’t been a trap set up for them in the first place? Finally, they went by car and came back not much later to report that the pirates had left, the girls and their guide all chipper by the fire, and a bottle of rum going around. All was well.
That night we slept in the finca, accepting a generous invitation. After breakfast, our friendly host drove us into town where the ten dollars hidden in Mercedes’ bra came in handy. Showing up at the police station was a farce. The officers hadn’t become any more interested in the case since the previous night. Stopping by the fiscalia – something like a public prosecutor’s office – was more pointless still; while we were waiting to bring forth our case, tales of break-ins and a stolen car filled the anteroom and hinted at the pettiness of our own story. When it was our turn, we produced a photo of the pirates' boat that we had printed from the memory card, but it was a futile endeavor.
We decided to stick around the coast for a few more days to see the whales. It didn’t matter that I had nothing to change into. What mattered was redefined.
The whales were great. Then I returned to Salasaka, my home in those days. My new credit card got held up at customs for a couple of months, so it was all the better to be back amid friends with helping hands and wallets. Much later I realized that the pirates had never taken my credit card. I found it all snug inside my notebook.
Six months later, I met a girl in Baños who told me about the beach with the same fervor that had simmered in the Frenchman’s voice. According to her account the beach was frequented by tourists now, a family lived in the abandoned house, and the prime bonfire talk involved the guy who got robbed there.
Wrong place, wrong time, perhaps, but more likely right place, right time, because this story was written on the kind of paper they print memoirs on, and there would have been a big gap in my narrative otherwise.