Swimming with piranhas and other stories of survival, by Dave Eggers

Swimming with piranhas and other stories of survival, by Dave Eggers
This is GORDITOS — A short story about a bunch of reprobates on a riverboat tour down the Amazon by San Francisco-based author Dave Eggers.

JOE HAS SHOWN UP to lunch wearing a shirt that everyone finds funny. The front of the shirt shows the silhouette of a cat seen through a rifle’s crosshairs. The words above the picture say “This is your brain.” On the back of the shirt, the same crosshairs show blood splattered against the lens, with these words above: “This is your brain on hollow points.” One by one, as they come to lunch, the men on the boat read the front of Joe’s shirt, and Joe turns around to show them the back, and everyone laughs again. Joe says he got the shirt in Montana, and the guy he bought it from had similar shirts with different targets, including deer and lawyers.

But he knew the cat one was for him.

“I hate cats,” he says.

We are on a riverboat on the Amazon river. At the time of the trip, the Amazon rainforest is disappearing at the rate of about seventy-eight million acres a year. The man who answered the phone at the tour company was resigned about it: “There’s really nothing any one can do to stop it, so it’s really worth seeing while it’s still around.”

We’re on a raggedly beautiful three-story riverboat, a mess of tiny lacquered rooms and chipped paint. On the first few days of the trip, we travel south, upriver, toward the meeting of the Ucayali and Maroñón rivers — their union forms the Amazon proper — after which we will spend the next five days zigzagging through smaller tributaries. The main part of the Amazon in these parts is wide and the forest is low. It is not dramatic, and it is not unlike the Mississippi in its great width and muddy colour.

The captain of the ship, Nick, is from Minnesota, but has a twang in his voice that sounds more Southern than that. He speaks clearly and directly, staring intently into your eyes, assessing your reaction to his every word. Nick knows everyone on the boat, and has stern, measured things to say about each man. “Well, I really like Bob, but he needs to figure himself out,” he confides to me, though I just met Bob and have no idea what about himself Bob needs to figure out. About another passenger, Nick says, “Burt did some stuff that I can’t condone. There’s something pathological about it.” Out of context I don’t know what to think. But every day I learn more about some of the men on the boat, and they all seem to have colourful histories and, according to Nick, significant character flaws.

And he might be correct. There is the hollow-points man, and there is the man who runs the bar who wears a shirt that lists “The Ten Reasons Beer is Better than a Woman.” There is my roommate, who has brought six bottles of his own liquor for a 10-day trip on a boat with its own bar. And there is Carl, a burly man who says he’s been in jail a number of times. It would have been worse, he says, if he had grown up in or near a city. “I’d be in prison for sure,” he says. On the boat is a Peruvian woman known as Georgia, who is quiet and curvy, and does not seem to have any duties onboard. Three days into the trip it becomes clear that Nick and Georgia are a couple. “Nick has a wife back home,” another passenger tells me. “But Georgia is his wife down here.”

The first mate of the boat, a Peruvian named Segundo, has taken very seriously the notion of having a woman in every port. Each time we disembark, it seems, he makes his way to a new, small home, lifts up this or that small child, and darkens their doorway as the indisputable man of the house. Then later in the day, we leave, travel up-river, and he does it again at the next port.

We gather in the mornings for breakfast, served by the small crew. During hearty breakfasts of fresh fruit and fried plantains, the passengers, all of whom have been on this boat on this river, like to discuss the ways the Amazon and the jungle will try to harm or kill you. There are anacondas, which grow to thirty feet and can squeeze the life out of a boar. There are scorpions. There are the ants whose bite feels like being burned alive in molten lava. There are bigger ants whose bite will lay you up for a week. There are red ants, which are deadly en masse, and leaf-cutter ants, who are tiny but whose bite will itch for days. Most of the injuries, though, involve unwise behaviours on the part of the passengers. There was the woman who did not believe in insect repellent, and in the first hour was bitten by so many mosquitoes that her skin no longer looked like skin, but more like burlap. There was the man who wore the wrong kind of repellant and, his pores blocked, his arms inflated to Popeye proportions.

This is the first time I can remember traveling with so many people, anywhere, and the sensation is very strange. The riverboat is contained and insurmountable, and any travel off the riverboat has to be done with the sanction and escort of the crew. And so any excursions are done with everyone, all twenty or so people, which makes any hiking or exploring very slow and lacking in anything like adventure.

We go on a day hike. The riverboat pulls close to shore and the gangplank is lowered and we gather on the riverbank. Someone is in the bathroom so we wait. Someone has forgotten his camera so we wait. Someone is wearing shorts and is advised, given the red ants, to put on pants. When we’re all finally ready the going is slow. We stop when someone spots a snake or lizard, and sometimes the find is sized and dropped into a white bucket. The forest is low and flat, second- generation and not dense, but Segundo has a machete and frequently slashes at plants near the path. Any plant within five feet is hacked down.

The big find of the morning is an extremely rare frog, the discovery of which pleases the group to no end. The group stays with the frog for a while, poking it, prodding it to wake up, taking countless pictures of it. The frog is perched on a decaying tree stump and, upon closer inspection, the scene is remarkable. In the middle of the stump a concavity has formed, and the concavity is full of water, and that water has become a permanent sort of pond. And in that pond, the frog seems to have laid its eggs, and is presiding over their hatching. We look closer. Some of the eggs have hatched and are swimming around the pond in their tadpole form. Above the tiny lake, hanging from a tiny branch, is another sack of eggs, ready to drop into the pond. And there is the frog, watching its progeny and watching us, unwilling to leave her children. It’s dramatic and beautiful, the little life the frog has set up for itself — proud parent, babies born and un- born, food and water and shelter in a flawless little ecosystem. As I am contemplating this, the wonder of it, the perfection of it, Nick scoops the frog up and puts him in a plastic bag.

Our lumbering group of twenty goes on a night hike, and in the dark the group moves slower and stops frequently, Segundo slashing his machete with impunity. We see a lapuna tree, with its roots like flying buttresses. We see a tarantula, a millipede, a leaf frog with its pale yellow belly. We hear howler monkeys, we hear squirrel monkeys. We see a tree rat, the size of a dachshund, and Segundo catches it, holding it up by the scruff of its neck as it squirms passively. Its eyes are black and stay open while everyone takes pictures.
It seems improbable that the animals here would be so tame, so easily found, but they are everywhere, and they rarely move. A flash- light finds a lizard, spiders and caterpillars and bats. An owl. Invariably they remain motionless as we shine our lights on them, the effect like a living museum, a flashlit diorama.

“Look, there’s a pot-bellied gringo!” Nick says, pointing to one of the hikers. Everyone laughs, including the pot-bellied gringo.
We go looking for cayman. Word is that you can find them by shining a flashlight at water level and looking for their eyes, which reflect red. Using the two small steel boats with outboard motors, we navigate some very narrow tributaries until we get to a series of inter-connected lakes covering a flooded forest. Another pink-saturated sunset gives way to a silvery dusk. The two boats patrol separately, about six of us per boat, with most of us shining our flashlights along the perimeter of the lakes. The flashlights create powerful cones of grey-white against the drowned trees as water’s edge.

Segundo catches a cayman in his flashlight’s beam, its eyes reflecting, and guides the boat to the animal’s lakeside perch, where he grabs it without struggle. In the distance, a vein of lightning appears, soundless. Segundo puts the cayman on the floor of the boat. It’s about three and a half feet long, and it does not move. It’s a spectacled cayman, so named because around its eyes are ridges that make it look like it’s wearing wire-rimmed glasses.

On the way back, the night grows very dark. The water below is black, the sky above is black. Fireflies appear and above them the interlocking branches of the trees overhead. Then above them, the sky and stars. At one point, while trying to navigate a narrow stretch be- tween lakes, Ashuco turns the motor off. And then the sounds arrive. Almost as loud as the motor itself, the crickets and frogs and birds, but there are also louder, stranger sounds in the distance, like seals barking. The sounds are just as loud as the motor, but the motor, the villain, has hidden them all this time.

One early morning there is a bird watching contingent. We go in two long aluminium boats, outboard motors, seating eight people in each. The guides will knock themselves over identifying every bird we see. Horned screamers, Muscovy ducks, jacamars, a capped heron, a few blue-headed parrots and black-collared hawks.

We come upon a couple cooking on the bank of the tributary. Segundo slows the boat down and explains what they’re doing, which was more or less obvious. The passengers on the boat will take pictures. The people cooking will look at us all with expressions that seem polite enough, if a little anxious for us to move on. As the passengers adjust their zoom lenses, point them and click away, I find myself making a face of weak apology.

Later, because group travel is riven with unspoken competitions for who can be the boldest with food and the grabbing of local animals and other stunts, it becomes clear that today is to the day to swim with piranhas. It is midday and we’ve stopped on an unpopulated riverbank. One of the crew members takes out a bamboo fishing rod and drops in a line, baited with chicken. In seconds he has a bite, and reels in a piranha the size of a fist. It shakes and shudders on the riverboat’s wooden floor, its eyes enraged, its teeth ragged and disorderly. The crew member gives me my own fishing pole, I bait it with chicken, and in seconds I’ve caught my own piranha. I am told the crew will use our catch to make soup. Delicioso, Segundo says.

The dead piranhas, now in a bucket, prove to the passengers that there are piranhas in the water, that the river is ready to be swum in by anyone who wants to later say they swam with piranhas. Nick dives in first, his arms and legs appearing red in the tannin-tinted water. We watch from the deck, the optics very strange, his limbs moving through the water not white or pink but scarlet, and because he’s moving them, treading water, they appear in red blurs. It’s a jar- ring sight, seeing the ship’s captain in the Amazon, his arms appearing blurry and bloody, in waters where we know there are piranhas. At any second, it seems, the illusion could give way to something real—the captain torn apart by a hundred feasting fish.

He says not to worry. He says that the piranhas attack only when they are very hungry because the water level’s dropped and their food is scarce. So don’t worry, he says, and now one of the passengers is dangling his feet in the water, too. What the captain hasn’t said is whether this water level is low, or high, or whether the piranhas are well-fed or not well-fed. We are all being asked to jump in based on incomplete information. The passenger who has been dangling his feet jumps in, and the splash seems guaranteed to stir up the piranhas’’ sleeping army. But he grins up at the rest of us, treading water, his hair black and glistening.
More passengers jump in, and below, all of their limbs move underwater in blurry crimson semicircles. Who is more insane, the people who refuse to swim, whose refusal might be based on mythology and unfounded fears, or the people swimming, who might be taking a very irrational risk for no reason?

When I jump in, I try not to splash. It is a nonsensical impulse, thinking that the piranhas, if they were to attack, might choose to eat the biggest splasher first, out of some sense of outrage for the disturbance they caused the placid river. Now I am in the river, and it’s surprisingly cool. Its tea colour, and the heat of the region, imply that the water would be lukewarm and oily, but it feels clean and crisp, and I tread water next to the others, all of us looking at each other, smiling pained smiles, while I find myself wondering if, when the piranhas eat our underwater selves, our heads are left to float on the surface like hairy buoys.

This is not a joyful kind of swimming. Along the river we have seen children swimming, splashing and laughing, and always I’ve wondered who decided for them that the water was safe that day, which parent was certain that they would not be picked clean by the ravenous horde of pescados. And what if they were picked clean? Would not the consenting parent be in some trouble with the other parent? The point is that their joy is difficult to share when we are swimming today. In the shadow of the riverboat, I can see my red hands moving underwater, and occasionally I see something under the surface, some ghostly fish come to my knee, now my thigh, and investigate, then leave. I keep my fingers and toes tightly in formation, not offering a stray digit to a curious fish.

This is a real madness, to swim here, and it prompts troubling paths of the mind. I am watching Nick swim, and I notice that he is closer to the riverbank than I am. If there were to be an attack, he would get to shore before me. Does the fact that I’m deepest in the river mean I would be first devoured? Or would they — this is the movement of my mind — first go for the swimmer with the most corpulent flesh? There are five of us in the water, including a Peruvian. Surely they prefer Peruvian flesh, a known delicacy, over some foreign food? I begin to rank the appeal of each swimmer, and find myself somewhere in the middle. I make my way closer to the riverbank, thinking that if an attack began, by the time the fish had eaten their way through one or two of my fellow swimmers I might reach safety, with only a food or hand missing.

“Ready to go?” Nick asks all of us, and we tell him that we are.

Later in the afternoon we disembark on a verdant riverbank and walk a few feet up to the small village. There are about twelve huts, each elevated about four feet, all them arranged in a U shape, a grassy common area between them. Chickens scatter and children watch from windows.“Come and see how these people live,” Segundo says, and most of our group follows him into one of the huts. A few of us stay back, feeling grotesque. What is the solution?

One traveler, alone, is a spiritual thing, a visitor who does not have to try to be humble. He is alone, vulnerable, and his hosts are happy to bring him into their home. He needs their help. Two travellers evoke thoughts of Mary and Joseph: where is the manger and can we spend the night there? But when we travel in groups, when we disembark from towering boats and airplanes, and we dozens are led through homes with our cameras, we become an ugly force. Every extra body tilts us toward an invasive horde. The balance of power goes an ugly way. When we are many, our hosts know that we don’t need them; all of our provisions are safely in our giant boats and planes and buses. And so we are observers only, safe and apart; we watch, we look, we take notes, and talk among ourselves in our foreign tongue. And then we’re gone.

The women of the village have laid out some of their wares. In an effort to make something of this visit, a few of us buy from them. They take Peruvian currency and even American dollars. One of the women tells us she’d rather trade for batteries than with paper money. I buy a bow made of a length of slowly bending wood and green string. It costs ten dollars.

Carl says he doesn’t feel comfortable tromping into people’s homes, and so we leave and go back to the boat, while the rest of the group goes deeper, taking pictures inside the bedrooms.

In the riverboat there are four bathrooms, each with a small shower directly over the toilet, and to free my skin from the many layers of sunblock and insect repellant I let the cool water, pumped from the river, wash over me. In the bathroom there is a tiny window, about one square foot, framed in rust-red wood, and through this window, the orange sun is just above the darkening tree line, and the light shoots through the water as it falls, freezing each droplet, so many diamonds falling to the toilet seat and then to the drain below.

When the trip is over and we dock on the muddy bank of the wide river, near Iquitos, I see a boy. There are hundreds of people coming and going up and down the makeshift planks and pallets serving as gangways, and as we’re walking up the riverbank, I see this boy, about eight years old, and more importantly, I see his hat. He is weaving through the crowd of travellers, offering shoeshines, and he is wearing a beautiful old baseball hat, a Houston Astros cap faded to a powder blue, a hat no longer made from a team that rarely won. The hat on my own head this day, in contrast, is brand-new and without character, and my guess is that this young man would rather have a new hat than an old and beaten one advertising a baseball team he’s never heard of.

He asks if I want a shoeshine, and I look down at my shoes, which are very old and dirty sneakers, and he smiles. I can’t remember the Spanish word for “trade,” so I begin an elaborate pantomime, and though I thought it would be difficult to convey what I want, he knows immediately. He takes off his hat, gives it to me, and takes mine gladly. Mine is fresh, sturdy and has years of wear left in it, and so he makes the trade instantly and without caution puts the new hat on his head.

With our hats exchanged he walks off, offering shoeshines on a muddy riverbank, as if he does this sort of thing, trading clothes with strangers, every day. I am happy, and feel that a fair and good trade had been made: the kid for whom all that matters is the new, trading with a fool of a man (me) who covets material things that show their thousands of days in the sun, that bear marks of years of sweat and salt and dirt.

Like the boy, I put the hat on immediately. I wear it the rest of the trip home, and then back in California, and I wear it for almost two years, until it’s stolen out of my car one day. I’d parked by the Pacific and I’d left it there, on the seat, with the window open, assuming that no one could possibly want such a thing.

This article originally appeared in Huck 49 – The Survival Issue. 

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