a selection of very short very true stories
It was hard to abandon the view, but now we were quickly falling 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 the longing to breathe in landscape beauty had been swiftly replaced by the sweet smell of an adventurous encounter. Back down at the foot of the rock, the locals were hiding behind some buildings. By now I can’t tell anymore whether they were houses or barracks, a small village, or just a cluster of abandoned 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. My memory might vastly fail me here. 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? I think most of them were cowering behind one building, others inside an empty house, one or two on top of a roof.
I distinctively remember people’s fear, which surpassed mere caution. I was somewhat amused by this and couldn’t wait to see the giant from up close with my own eyes. Back then I had no notion of their aggressiveness and the threats it can pose to humans voluntarily or involuntarily coming face to face with the giants. I scurried along a little path in-between two houses and into the woods and then I saw him – well camouflaged between the trees, yet hard to overlook and merely 20 meters away. Slowly I made my way through the thicket, step by step towards the giant with that human naivety of a boy who thinks every creature could be some sort of pet-friend to him. He had long since noticed my presence. Still young, he was a fairly small giant, but nonetheless colossal. Wariness, confusion, hesitation and perhaps even fear coalesced in his eyes, which were locked onto my every movement. The closer I got, the more his demeanor mirrored apprehension and shades of fierce determination and anger specked his eyes. Only a few steps separated us presently.
Then, suddenly, he took a stand. Like a bull, ready to charge, he vigorously stomped and scraped the dusty soil with his right foreleg. He had drawn a line in the sand, even literally, and I realized that up to that point I hadn’t done so myself. I hadn’t planned my steps, hadn’t decided how close I was trying to get or even what I expected to happen. Fascination and curiosity had drawn me in like gravitational forces. It was only now that I realized this wasn’t the gentle giant of my childhood books, at least not with his defenses being tested by a bold and ignorant creature whose intentions were hard to divine. I finally started perceiving the scene through more intuitive eyes, sharpened by survival instinct and a pumping heart: the trees around me turned into pleasantly reassuring and solid Slalom poles that could potentially mark a zigzag escape route in case of a sudden leap. Slowly I commenced my retreat, both eyes on the giant, the first one of his kind I ever saw in the wild, face to face, eyes locked, two creatures gauging the situation with animalistic instinct.
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 for clear thought now.
Some days prior, a Frenchman had drawn the map to the secluded beach in my notebook while he, Laurel and I were playing cards and having beers in Quito. It reminded me of the movie The Beach. Sheltered by cliffs, 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 let us in on the secret.
"There is an abandoned house. If you take enough water and food, you can stay for weeks," he said with rapture glinting in his eyes. He hadn't seen a soul except for some fishermen who took him out to see the whales. I was sold.
Some days later, Laurel and I came back from the Amazon and said farewell in Quito. She was headed towards a different adventure for now, but I couldn't pass up the intriguing chance of living the Robinson Crusoe dream. Little did I know that it would be for one night only.
After I told Mercedes about the beach she decided to tag along and it was surreal to find every thus far imaginative detail exactly in its promised place. We had hopped off the bus in the middle of nowhere and, sure enough, we found the white fence after a little while. Indeed, the deserted road to the beach started on the other side of the property belonging to the finca. Some two hours later, a little hill allowed for a first glimpse of the bay; the abandoned house, although no more than a tiny speck in the far distance, was a reassuring mark.
Soon we arrived at the pristine beach with its towering cliffs and untamed vegetation, which sheltered it from the nearby towns and rendered it accessible only by boat or the path we took. The sky was painted over in a drab grey.
The abandoned house was everything you would imagine: mossy, raggedy, hardly standing up to nature’s reclaim. Looking out its paneless windows onto the moody sea and sky was like staring through the empty eye sockets of an old man who’s seen better days.
We chose pitching the tent on the beach over sleeping on the musty wooden floor.
One lonely fisherman on an improvised raft teetered in the surf and was the only sign of human life that day. We found some eerie shelters made from sticks and black plastic tarps near the house, but paid less attention to them than we should have. Of course, that's the overly generous benefit of hindsight.
In retrospect, I wonder whether it was the bonfire that betrayed us. Along the lonely shoreline it must have been a beacon for miles and miles.
The next day I hid my hiking bag behind some bushes next to the house, before we went for a long walk. Pelicans soared in a v-formation above us, diving head-first into the ocean at unpredictable intervals. The coastline was of a wild beauty and boulders laid scattered all over the soft sand. Cliffs capped with sprawling plants fringed the beach on our right. On our left, the Pacific tumbled up and down the color spectrum, between murky blue and shimmering turquoise, depending on the upper hand of sun or clouds.
I think an uneasy feeling had accompanied both our steps in the sand after spotting the little sailing boat anchored in the bay on our way back to the abandoned house. A bonfire near the tarps left no doubt that people had landed. Still, our hopes soothed us: "maybe they are honeymooners," they said.
As soon as we reached the house, I grabbed my stuff. That’s when they showed up. Three young men. I knew that gut feeling. I had seen the same body language before. Their terse request for water couldn’t conceal their true intentions. I had felt that same perturbing intuition heralding bad news a couple of months earlier in Colombia, just before two young men pulled out knives. By the time I turned back around with the bottle of water in my hand, they had taken out their shotguns. I have no idea how they had hidden them prior to that moment, wearing shorts and jerseys as far as I remember. These moments always happen very fast.
Somber feelings mingled in that very first moment of being held at gunpoint, above all helplessness and sinister anticipation. You know your life is at someone else’s mercy suddenly. Yet, as soon as they told us to sit down and not to look at them, there was relief. They didn't want to be identified, and this suggested they would let us go at some point. Confident now that they didn’t mean any physical harm, the fear subsided into perseverance.
While two of them scrutinized my backpack, the third 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 brusquely. At some point I mustered the courage to ask him for my photos: “if you take all my stuff anyway, could you at least leave me the memory card with my pictures?” They did. There was something else that pointed to their “gentlemaness,” or maybe that’s just Stockholm syndrome speaking: they frisked me, but didn’t touch Mercedes at all. If they had, there would have been nothing I could have done about it. In the end, they only took the cellphone from her tiny bag.
After going through my stuff for what felt like 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. All material things left in my life, apart from a box in my parents' basement, were in the backpack and they took that too. Their leader said he liked it and wouldn't give it up even after Mercedes shouted at him angrily. She seemed less afraid than ashamed of her compatriots. But it was of no use. 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. There was no need to be hasty. Thanks to the interrogation they knew that no surprises were to come their way.
And so we left, to make our way back to the finca. For a moment we laughed at the absurdity of the whole situation and also out of relief. That’s when we ran into two French girls and a local guy. Hurriedly, we threw the recent happenings in a nutshell, all the while pointing at the “pirates,” who still strolled along the beach. Fear was chiseled into the girls’ petrified faces. To sooth them, their guide 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 right after a two hour walk. We had no time for this. I still held out the naïve hope of policemen recovering my possessions. Upon reaching the finca, we 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 30 minutes later, two policemen arrived in a pickup truck, listened to our story and then decided to do nothing about it. Angrily, 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 and, going by car, they were back within another 30 minutes. They reported that the pirates had left, the girls and their guide were sitting by the bonfire and a bottle of rum was going around. All was well.
That night we slept in the finca, following a generous invitation. After breakfast our friendly host drove us into town and the ten dollars hidden in Mercedes’ bra came in handy now. Showing up at the police station was rather pointless. The officers were as disinterested as the night before. 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. We could even produce a picture of the pirates' boat thanks to their noble gesture of leaving the memory card in my possession, but it was a futile endeavor.
We decided to stay by the coast for a few more days and see the whales. By now, it didn’t matter anymore that I had nothing to change into.
Getting back on my feet was a bit of a hassle, mostly because my new credit card got held up at customs for some months. Fortunately I was already living in Ecuador at the time. I returned to Salasaka, my cherished home in those days, and was happy to be back amongst friends who could lend me a helping hand. Much later, I realized that the pirates had never even taken my credit card. I found it nestled snugly inside my notebook.
Six months later, while still living in Ecuador, I met a girl who told me about the beach with the same fervor that had simmered in the Frenchman’s words. According to her account many tourists visited now, a family lived in the abandoned house, and the prime bonfire talk involved the guy who got robbed there.
I guess this story was written with a blend of wrong place, wrong time and lack of prudence, on the kind of paper they print memoirs on. I wouldn’t want to miss it in my recollection, as unpleasant as it was at the time. It has molded my path in a strange way, which appears to be the best possible route looking back now.