I was born in Colorado but I grew up in Northern New Mexico. My brother and I would often return to Colorado for a part of summer to work on an uncle’s farm when his labor was scarce. I liked to stack hay the best because of how it smelled and because they would let me drive the tractor; but threshing time with all the neighbors and mountains of fried chicken and corn on the cob was great also. We spent a lot of time in Colorado—but I was raised in Northern New Mexico.
That distinction is important because it means that what I know of this place was gained by osmosis, by daily encounters with the people of San Juan, Abiquiu, Chamita, San Ildefonso and Santa Clara; with the nuns who ran the rural public schools and the Presbyterians who ran the hospitals and clinics; with neighbors whose horses we would catch at the end of the day so that we could ride them home bareback rather than take the bouncy and sputtering school bus.
If the horses were not there and we had to walk home from school we would go to the river, throw a tin can or a bottle as far upstream as we could and then see who could hit it from the bridge with a rock as it floated by. On one of those walks home, a car with a strange license plate stopped and the driver asked directions. We acted like we knew, though we didn’t, and we sent him off to somewhere truly believing that anywhere in New Mexico was better than where he had come from.
We learned to swim in the acequias and under the old bridge at Oñate’s San Gabriel. And sometimes we would sneak into the kivas and marvel at what we saw, all the while feeling the excitement that kids feel when their curiosity prevails over the thoughts of punishment they know will come.
We did the chores of every child: we fetched water from a shared two-bucket well where, if we happened to pull in a frog or a dead bat or an unfortunate lizard, our mother would make us return for another ‘cleaner’ bucket. We cut wood for the kitchen stove and lived with the fact that the open door of our outhouse faced that of our neighbor.
We played chicken in the arroyos after a summer rain. Standing in water that reached our ankles we would wait for the four foot walls of flood that we could hear roaring down upon us and then quickly climb to safety and watch the debris of a time before landfills rush off to the river.
The boulders along the Rio Grande were our playgrounds and, with our fingers, we traced the lines of the petroglyphs chipped into the black basalt by the ancient ones and looked around to see if they were watching.
Our dad would take us along to his job and while he bulldozed pumice into piles that would then be hauled off to Santa Fe and molded into building blocks, we collected shiny black obsidian, explored the hundreds of ruins scattered along the Pajarito Plateau, and tracked deer through an early snow.
On weekends the entire family, kids in back, parents in front, climbed into the pickup to ‘go for a ride’ to the villages of the Sangres and try to get our tongues around their names: Peñasco, Cundio, Terrero, Picuris, Tecalote, Chamizal, Costilla. . . Sometimes we would stop by the trading post at Bobcat Crossing and get a popsicle or enjoy a cheese enchilada at a small restaurant in Galisteo known only by the name hand painted on a sign fixed to a broken gate: it said, ‘Restaurant.’
Occasionally we would go even further afield to watch the pronghorns along highway 285 and our dad would tell us old jokes about how much the wind blew at Cline’s Corners. “There is nothing between Cline’s Corners and the South Pole but a barbed wire fence,” he said. “And it has blown down.”
As we got older and more mobile, we camped in the sandy hills along the Camino Real and told ghost stories. We fished the streams far up into the Jemez and watched the Basque sheepherders dock the newborn along the Rio Los Pinos. We trapped minnows from the waters of Valle Grande and sold them for bait to the families that fished the reservoir at Santa Cruz.
Long before the Taos Valley became a national treasure for skiers, we summited Wheeler Peak on long wooden snowshoes borrowed from the Forest Service at Twining and in the summer we climbed the Truchas and called out the names of all the peaks and streams and villages we could see laid out before us.
We could not wait for the taste of ripening apples, the sight of yellowing cottonwoods and the aroma of roasting chile in the Fall. Nor could we wait for the snow squalls that danced along the face of the mountains—an announcement to the villages that it was time to hunker down for the Winter. Neither, for that matter, could we patiently wait for Spring and the blossoming of columbine and wild iris and the chance to be the first to move back into the mountains. And, Summer, with its special kinds of enchantments—long hikes, long swims, picnics with friends, and the sweat of physical labor—could not come too soon.
There was no favorite time of year for us, just as there wasn’t a fence we couldn’t cross or a gate we couldn’t pass through. Growing up in Northern New Mexico was nurturing of body, mind and spirit. It gifted us with curiosity and energy. It was beautiful and it was home.
In Colorado we lived within fifty yards of the public elementary school—a beautiful old brick building with squeaky floors and a smell of Lysol. Each morning we lined up for inspection and one of the older kids would look us up and down and then demand to see our fingernails. I hated that part.
After inspection we said the Pledge of Allegiance with our right hand over our hearts. This bothered some of the kids but it wasn’t that hard for me because I had a wart on my left pointer finger so I always knew which was which as far as hands go. I still rub my left middle finger and my left pointer together when I need to turn right or to turn left even though the wart has been gone for over seventy years.
All of us got a free New Testament from the Methodists at the beginning of the school year—which seemed strange at the time because I had already found out that we were Presbyterians—a compromise because my father was from French Catholic stock and my mother some kind of a German Congregationalist. My Baptist heritage came later.
Just out the front door of the school and to the right was the playground where there were three teeter-totters, six swings, a slide and lots of dirt for marbles when the weather was nice and places to build snow forts in the winter. During the in between weather I got to chase Rosy Posey. It was great living next to a real institution of higher learning.
But then we moved and school buses entered my life. I have a love/hate relationship with school buses.
My first ride on one was terrible. A few days after we moved down from Colorado to a really, really small village in Northern New Mexico, my mother took me up the road from our new house to a spot right in front of the Local Bar which was covered with bright red ristras de chile, rusting Royal Crown Cola signs and, even outside, it smelled of stale beer.
By some miracle, a yellow school bus stopped in front of us and my mother pushed me up the steps and waved goodbye. The bus was nearly empty so I picked a seat on the aisle towards the middle, sat down and stared at my knees. Three stops down the road (during which a chattering horde climbed aboard), a voice from above my left shoulder said: “Uste’ pa’ ‘ya.” I looked up to see a skinny kid with glasses and an all too large brown plaid coat with a fake fur collar who repeated the phrase a bit more loudly: “Uste’ pa’ ‘ya” this time with hand motions to indicate that I should move over and let him sit down.
A bit later, the bus came to a stop along side a fence where we all got out and I followed the other kids through a gate and there in front of me was a small old adobe building of a half dozen rooms. It was one of two buildings (the other a two-room derelict pre-fab) that formed the public grades 1 through 6 school that served pretty much all of the northern half of the “Valle de los Españoles.” Various nuns dressed as nuns scurried about each with a ruler used to move us along. Out by the fence were parked other yellow school buses from places like Ojo Caliente, Velarde and Hernandez.
After a few days I learned to avoid the bus from Hernandez and hoped that our bus would get there first because if it didn’t, I had to fight my way through the gate—the guys from Hernandez were an entertaining bunch.
Later, however, my new friend with the glasses and his friends would protect me and, eventually, all of us became friends so that we could defend ourselves from the hoodlums who came down from Truchas or in from Alcalde. And then all of us together became one happy group—required because we had to defend ourselves from the really big guys who lived in Santa Fe and Las Vegas. There is a geopolitical lesson in there somewhere.
Another yellow school bus I remember much more fondly is the one we took on a three-day senior class trip up past Tres Piedras into Colorado. On the way out of town I sat with a buddy and, as usual, we discussed fishing, or camping and who could start a fire the fastest with nothing but a guitar string and juniper bark. We spent a couple of days riding horses above Creede, we waded the ice cold water of the Upper Rio Grande, and played poker with the cheerleading squad.
Then we had to go home. After we packed up and got everybody counted, it was long after dark and when we left for the return trip I found that my seatmate was now a shapely young lady named Shirley but I’m not at liberty to say what we discussed—if, indeed, we discussed anything. There is a life lesson in there somewhere.
The building housing the Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology Department at Colorado State University is named after JVK Wagar, the man who started that Department in the first place. JVK was a professor of mine.
Born late in the 19th century he was the archetypical outdoorsman—tall and straight into his eighties with a mustache of two equal sized rectangles, one on each side of his philtrum—kinda like what Groucho Marx had only greyer and not as full. Rumor among the students was that he slept on the ground and survived on elk jerky.
In the classroom he remained tall and straight and always wore a necktie and a heavy suit buttoned to the top. He would stand in front of the class, sometimes with hands folded behind his back, and lightly lean against the blackboard, which, as far as I know, he used for no other purpose.
He didn’t really lecture either. Rather, he told stories, each loaded with lessons and information a lecture could never touch.
For example, in the course that covered national parks, their histories and their management, the subject was ‘change;’ how it comes about, and what it means. This was not a small topic for someone who had fought the battles of conservation and wilderness preservation long before any of us arrived on the scene to enjoy those parts of the world that he helped save.
To introduce the subject, he told a story about how we got the modern cowboy hat and said that it had to do with the invention of the pickup truck. Before, when cowboys rode only horses, the hats were tall and without dents but then when cowboys began to ride in pickup trucks, they would hit a bump in the road or trail, their head and hat would hit the roof and so by accident and then by design a new style of hat was born.
He didn’t know if such a thing indicated progress or not. What he did know, however, was that we could never stop change and the best we could do was to anticipate its occurrence and help shape its direction; our life quality depended on it.
Another of his stories concerned roses; “Everybody loves a rose” he said, “but our enjoyment of it grows if we can smell its aroma; it grows further if we know it by name, and further still if it is one that we ourselves had nurtured because then we have also experienced something of both its strength and its fragility.” Wilderness is exactly like that.
Prof. Wagar handed me my diploma on graduation day. And, though I had believed he didn’t even know my name, along with my diploma, he gave me a package of my favorite tobacco.
Somewhere South of Cline’s Corners
I married my wife of more than 50 years after a chase of about three weeks and we decided to go off to see whether or not what my father had said about Cline’s Corners was true—that the only thing between there and the South Pole “was a barbed-wire fence” and that it had “blown down.”
It was 1967 and after we said goodbye to family and friends we set off for Southern Chile to make our mark and do our thing. I was to teach forest ecology and plant physiology at the university and she was to teach English at a high school and play with orphaned children; but neither of us knew for sure just what it all meant.
It wasn’t long, though, before we discovered that there were a great many barbed-wire fences between Cline’s Corners and the South Pole, some of which had blown down and some of which were still very much in place.
One of these, a metaphorical fence to be sure, was the Vietnam War; others were US support for some very repressive dictatorships, and others were the Cold War East-West proxy fights in countries that had all kinds of other problems in need of urgent attention. In short, we could not get to where we were going because the students where I was to teach had threatened to not do their homework if I, a supposed agent of the CIA, were to show up.
Normally, in Latin America, such hard-line rhetoric came from students in the schools of medicine and law. In this case, however, it was being shouted from the halls of the forestry school—specifically in the names of Rodrigo, Patricio and Eusebio who were leading the charge under the flag of a socialist/nationalist mating where hybrid vigor was on dramatic display.
But they gave in after a couple of weeks of negotiation and student body votes and I found myself in a small cold office, alone and a bit apprehensive, working on a couple of courses for the next term. After a week, I put my fears aside and went to the cafeteria for lunch, picked up a plate of something and sat down—only to later realize that the “something” was half a lemon and two very large raw things that looked exactly like bundles of yellow fish eggs.
While I sat contemplating my next move, I noticed a group of a half dozen students that included Rodrigo and Eusebio gathered in a corner watching Patricio and another student playing chess. As I carefully approached (having left what I knew as “fish bait” to who knows what fate), Patricio, who I later learned was the school chess champ, said something that sounded very much like “cheki-mati.”
I arrived at that very moment and all of the students noticed. As if it had been planned, the whole group, wide grins on their smiling mustachioed faces that suggested their certain knowledge that the fate of the Cold War was about to be decided, said, “You’re next.”
What they had not realized, however, was that I wasn’t just a gringo foreigner from the north. I was from the Valle de los Españoles in New Mexico and though our high school was small enough to seldom ever win a football game, we always beat the stuffing out of the teams from Santa Fe and Los Alamos when we played chess and I had been a part of that team.
I beat Patricio twice in a row and from that relatively simple effort, some of the students concluded that I wasn’t CIA after all. To say that I was accepted, however, would be a stretch; it is more like I was no longer totally rejected and there was a long way to go.
But it eventually came. We fought fires together; we built forest roads together; we traveled the length of the country together and always it was Rodrigo, Patricio, and Eusebio who were the most studious, the most energetic, and the most intense.
Besides being the most studious and intense of the students, however, they were also the most fun and free and they didn’t seem to sleep a lot. No matter the size of the village or the town or the city, on our trips they could be found late at night in some small neighborhood bar drinking cheap wine, listening to music and solving the problems of the world.
Slowly they began to include me in these after-hour excursions—even to the degree that once, in a small town, they found the local ‘Casa Verde’ and playfully insisted that I come along as a “chaperone.”
To my relief, while I sat in a corner, they did nothing but dance and chat with the girls until the wee hours of the morning and when we left, they paid for the time. They were always at home with the poor and the outcast; indeed, they seemed most comfortable there.
Though I was the ‘professor,’ it was they who taught me the names of the trees and shrubs of the Valdivian Rainforest and explained what they were good for. They made a special effort to ensure that I noticed the aroma of the forest, the glacial blue of the streams and lakes, the snow-capped cordillera, and the still rumbling volcanoes. They taught me that the cheapest Chilean wine was also the best Chilean wine if accompanied by companions and conversation.
When we took really long trips, and in Chile you have to do that, we sat in the cold at the back of a darkened and drafty school bus, sipped pisco from a shared bottle to stay warm and played the word games that would teach me the intricacies of the Spanish subjunctive.
On one of these trips we passed a lone hitchhiker in the middle of nowhere and they asked if we could stop to give him a ride. We did and he sat down next to me. For the next couple of hours we discussed trees and rivers and cultures and travels until he asked for the driver to stop so that he could get off—again, in the middle of nowhere. Later in the evening Eusebio told me that the congenial fellow I had just shared the afternoon with was the “weapons instructor” for MIR, the leftist revolutionary movement of Chile and the group that wanted a violent overthrow of Chile’s President, Eduardo Frei. He was a former agronomy student at the same university and his name was Jose Gregorio Liendo.
279 Days, 22 Hours and 36 Minutes
Chile, May 18, 1969. Four of us were enclosed in a small room that smelled of hospital. The doctor paced, a near imperceptible frown on his forehead, fingers stuffed into the front pockets of his white coat; he was telling jokes: “¿Como la quieres; frita ó hervida? Heh, heh, heh.” The “la” he had just referenced was a soon to arrive placenta which, according to some, starts the milk for a newborn if eaten by the mother. He wanted to know if my wife wanted it fried or boiled.
The matrona—or midwife, on the other hand, sat staring straight ahead, full concentration on the task before her; “Ahora, Señora. Empuje (push); mantenga (keep it up), mantenga, mantenga. Bien, bien. Bueno, descanse un rato (rest a bit)” she said in the rising lilt, disappearing consonants, breath on the intake common to Chilean females.
My wife was spread eagle on a padded table, leaning slightly back, cheeks puffed and red, making a steady, small “erhenrhernh” grunting sound as she forced her abdominal muscles into a tight wad and then a series of puffs like she and the matrona had practiced for weeks. Sweat had started to run down her forehead about an hour earlier.
And then there was me. I stood all of two feet away in a far corner of the room, freezing, and shaking the shake of someone who is in the middle of something big and yet has no idea of what is going on. The only thing I could think of for sure was to question whether I should watch or not.
“Otra ves (once more), Señora. Mantenga, mantenga, mantenga,” said the matrona hands out before her in an imitation of Cal Ripkin waiting for an easy infield out to short. “Ya viene, ya,” said the matrona calmly and the doc was instantly at her side.
“Ploop,” said somebody.
“Si pues,” said the matrona, breath on the intake.
“Ahhh,” said the doc.
“Yikes!” said I, breath on the intake.
“Whew,” said my wife, breath on the intake. And then,
“Beautiful!” we all exhaled together.
And he was.
!Viva Chile. . . Mierda!
Our small family left Chile just before the national elections of 1970 that made Salvador Allende, a Socialist, the president. As a sign of the times, however, the election of President Allende put our own paranoid president on edge and he immediately gave orders to change what the Chilean people had just done.
As a result, Allende’s presidency was interesting even for Latin America: expropriations of large underutilized properties and foreign owned industries, high inflation rates, falling production and support from the United States for any effort to remove an administration having policies to the left of France.
The MIRistas (those of the Leftist Revolutionary Movement) became the unofficial enforcers of the Allende Administration’s policies. As large properties were expropriated, the owners, by law, could take anything that wasn’t tied down including the crops. On forested lands, however, the owners interpreted this to mean that they could cut and sell off every tree on the property.
Given this, MIR organized ‘tomas’ or takings. Friends in the offices of the Agrarian Reform would notify them of upcoming expropriations and before the owner could strip the trees, a small army of students would show up and take over.
“Take over” may be too strong. A group of students would notify the local judge that they were moving on a property. At the edge of the property or along a road the students would come face to face with the property owner’s “security.” There, the two sides would trade insults and pleasantries, and after a few hours, the students would be let through. Eighteen of the largest of these ‘tomas,’ totaling over 600,000 acres, took place around Lago Panguipulli and the village of Neltume, right in the middle of the Valdivian Rainforest.
A year or so into the Allende presidency, I was sitting in Asunción, Paraguay reading the international edition of the NY Times and saw an article by Juan de Onis about a birthday party for the executive director of a large state owned forest property around Lago Panguipulli. The Complejo Maderero y Forestal Panguipulli, as it was now called, was a complex of native forests, sawmills, forest industries, roads, a short railroad and a very small “merchant marine” that plied the lakes bringing in logs and taking out lumber and other forest products. New farms, housing and schools had been built to support the 3600 workers and their families. Though accused by the opposition of being a Cuban led training ground for guerrillas, in reality it was proving to be one of the best run and highest income generating industries of the Allende government. At the end of the article the reporter gave the name of the executive director being feted. It was Rodrigo and it was his 26th birthday.
The party was soon over, however, with the September 11, 1973 coup led by Army General Augusto Pinochet. When the news hit Neltume, a leader of MIR and students and young forest workers from the Complejo Panguipulli set out with nothing but two or three .22 cal. rifles, a couple of shotguns, a few Molotov cocktails and shovel handles to lay siege to the police station in Neltume in an effort to get better weapons to fight off what they knew was coming. On arrival, they shouted to the few Carabineros on duty at the station that they meant them no harm, that they should lay down there arms, give up, and that they should do so to help save the country. The Carabineros responded with a shout, “¡No nos rendimos, Carabineros no se rinde mierda!” and a hale of bullets into the tree-tops. The students and workers, of course, failed in their effort; they were completely outgunned though not outmanned, they were too far away for the Molotov cocktails to reach and the pouring rain put them out anyway. When they heard that the families of the carabineros were also in the building, and that the military was on its way, they gave up the effort and fled into the mountains without food or adequate clothing. The end result of their effort was that no one on either side suffered any wounds, there were no bullet holes in the building, and a few fallen branches due to the shots fired by the Carabineros. It was what one would expect where the students, workers and Carabineros were all neighbors if not friends.
The military, however, was a different matter. The rain had turned to snow and the trail was easily followed. For nearly three weeks, the students and workers were harassed by helicopters and ground forces. They were eventually captured, tried by a military judge, taken to the prison in Valdivia and on the third of October their leader, Comandante Pepe, went before a firing squad. His body was placed in a cement truck and the cement dumped somewhere. The remainder faced the firing squad the next day along with several more MIR members that had been captured in Valdivia. Comandante Pepe was the nom de guerre of Jose Gregorio Liendo, my companion on that bus ride almost exactly four years earlier.
In Search of . . .
Things were not going well for students, workers and leaders of the left. Arrests, disappearances, and murders were taking a heavy toll; torture centers were established and made operational; babies were cut from the wombs of young-to-be mothers and the bodies of those mothers-to-be were thrown into the sea from helicopters. Things got worse from there. I heard nothing from my students.
Other nations of the region began to fall, dictatorships multiplied and cooperation between them to seek out any of those on the left who had escaped the fury of the coups was formalized. The result was “Operación Cóndor”—an exercise in political assassination that sought out and murdered ex-Chilean Vice-President, Carlos Prats; the ex-Prime Minister of Uruguay, Zelmar Michelini; the ex-President of Bolivia, Juan Jose Torrez; the ex-President of Brazil, Joao Goulart, and some 60,000 others.
Then, after five years or so, I visited a small Central American forestry school and the second guy I saw was Eusebio who told me that he and Patricio had left Chile immediately after the coup. Patricio had gone to Canada and Eusebio had worked his way north to Central America and then into the Forestry Faculty where he was when I found him.
Rodrigo had stayed with his workers until one by one, the previous owners of the expropriated forest properties would have him arrested and sent to prison and one by one he would win his case, be freed and then rearrested. There were to be 18 of them.
During one of the free periods, he married the young woman who had brought him his food in prison and, together with two small children, they escaped to Argentina where he managed a forest property in the South. I made a note to find him the next time I got to Argentina.
Another year or so went by before I had a meeting in Bariloche where I asked one of the younger members of the Argentine delegation if he knew Rodrigo. He said “yes” but he thought that he and his family had returned to Chile after the coup in Argentina; they preferred the Devil they knew to the one they didn’t.
A few months later, I was back in Argentina but this time I also had a Chilean visa and ten days of leave. My strategy was to start as far south as I could and work my way north. I crossed into Chile by a bus-boat-bus-boat-bus combination—a must for anybody wandering the Southern Cone—spent the night in Puerto Montt and then took a bus as far south as the new extension of the Pan American Highway would get me. Every time the bus stopped, I sought him out; at every checkpoint passed or roadhouse visited, I sought him out. At Puyehue, Pucón, Frutilla, Puerto Montt; at Osorno and Entre Lagos, I sought him out. I looked at every phonebook, police station, and organized forest activity, every national forest agency office.
I visited the forestry faculty at the University in Valdivia but the entire faculty had been replaced; I walked the university faculty housing area and “bingo.” I found the house of a friend who was “still around” but who was not there having taken a job in Rome with FAO. But his wife was there and his daughter was there and she was a forestry student at the University with information on an ex-student of mine who now owned a forest consultant business in Valdivia.
He told me that he had heard that Rodrigo had returned to Chile and was living in Temuco but having no further information he gave me the name and phone number of an acquaintance in Temuco. I caught another bus. I found a hotel and called the acquaintance who gave me a number. I called that number and there he was.
Rodrigo pulled me out of the hotel and into his home. I spent the next day with him at a livestock auction that he ran and was buying. Obviously (except for me) forestry was out for him in that part of Chile and I had been looking in all the wrong places. He was now a cowboy.
On the weekend we went to a small place the family had bought in the cordillera, borrowed a neighbor’s horses and rode into the hills; we visited more friends, and talked, and drank wine and talked. This was the “prequel” that made me understand what Forrest Fenn had meant when he told me many, many years later that “You are never lost if you know where you are.”
Rodrigo was one of those: courageous rather than fearless, adaptable rather than malleable, honorable rather than heroic, made of grit and smarts, and true to himself as well as to others. He was no longer a “student;” he was now a friend.
Macoa: Macoa, Colombia is like many of the delightful villages that sit just above the contact point between the highland and lowland jungles in the Amazon Basin.
Almost. Sure, it is in the region of perpetual spring, and it has just the right climate to make anything beautiful grow there. It is coffee country. Colonial buildings have the patina of ages, bougainvillea blooms on every wall, hibiscus thrives in every garden, and orchids and bromeliads grow on all the trees.
But it is different. The colonial buildings are shuttered, customers leave the lone coffee shop at sundown, and, instead of pigeons, the central plaza is filled with vultures that scavenge for handouts from the children—but the children are not there, having left long ago for “safer” climes in Bogota.
Puerto Asís: The sign in the window says, “Yo ♥ Puerto Asís” but Puerto Asís is not a lovable place. It is in the lowland tropics and could easily be a prototype for Hell: hot, dirty, lawless and unforgiving. Accessible only by air and a winding dirt road that descends eleven thousand feet from the Andes, it is a lonely backwash owned by those who do not care. Puerto Asís has more funeral parlors than it has restaurants, more murders than marriages and a gun will get you anything your money can’t buy.
“Where do we find the Regional Director of DINA?” we ask. DINA is the FBI/ATF/DEA of Colombia. It is the national agency in charge of everything bad in that country.
“Restaurant off the plaza,” our informant responds.
Speed: The restaurant and the Regional Director are not hard to find. In a land of ancient pick-up trucks, a new, black 280Z with red racing stripes sits in front of the restaurant. The racer belongs to him and he and his entourage are coming out of the only air-conditioned space in town. Their large bellies are full and they pick the remaining jungle-fattened beef from their teeth. He wears a silk shirt open to the navel, three gold chains around his neck, and gold bracelets on his wrists. The white loafers on his feet make little red dust puffs as he approaches on the red clay of the street. He wears no socks, just like his friends in Miami whom he often visits. He knows who we are and where we are going, and he is privy to the conversations we had in Mocoa the previous afternoon. We ask to go downriver to where the waters of the Putomayo River enter those of the Napo River to flow eastward as the border between Colombia and Ecuador. He tells us to stay out of trouble.
Ecuador: Recent weeks have been tough for the small border posts along the Ecuadorian side of the Napo River. A number of the posts have recently suffered brutal attacks by a Colombian insurgent group looking to augment its supply of weapons. The mission of these border posts is no different from that of any other border post in the world: to protect the sovereignty of their nation. It is a high calling, but here in the lowland jungle their work is of little consequence. Coca paste, cattle, tropical hardwoods, and all manner of contraband cross the border unimpeded. Lonely and isolated, the young soldiers normally doze in the sun, prepare their meager meals, and think of home. But now they are at full alert, fearful of all movement and ready for anything. Their current mission is to stay alive, and they have learned better than to hold back.
The Putumayo: We sit in a small bamboo kiosk on the bank of the Putumayo River. The space is little more than an open-sided hut and holds but two crude wooden tables with matching chairs, a roly-poly waitress, and blue crates of warm beer. In the spirit of true capitalism, three other identical huts have been raised here beside the ruins of a bridge that once crossed the river. Like most bridges in the lowland tropics, however, it washed away long ago and the site now serves as an impromptu river port. Boats ply up and down and carry passengers and cargo back and forth across the wide muddy current. Other people mill about as they wait to go somewhere. They drink warm beer and relieve themselves on a large bush twenty meters from our kiosk.
Two of our group of five go off in search of a boat to take us downriver—to the confluence of the Putumayo and the Napo. A colleague, a local counterpart, and I remain behind and wait. An hour later the two return, saying no one wants to take strangers down the river. We buy them a beer and say, “Try again.”
We wait and it gets hotter. After one trip to the bush I refuse to return there and seek out another, more refreshing place—the side of a beached dugout canoe, its entire fifteen-meter length and two-meter height hewn from one solid piece of wood. The two return saying that the only available boat belongs to the police. After surprisingly little discussion it is clear that nobody wants to go down the Putumayo River in a police boat. We send them out again. It gets hotter and we have another beer.
Siesta: I have long since left the beer drinking to my local counterpart and colleague, preferring instead to skip stones on the water. After a while, though, the sun and the heat make me retreat to the bar where I find my colleague sleeping—head thrown back, mouth open, harmonizing with the outboards on the river. The counterpart has his head on the table, cradled in his folded arms which are surrounded by a battalion of empty bottles left there by our waitress since, in the lowland tropics, the number of empty soldiers on the table is a symbol of beer-drinker “machismo.” Our two boat hunters return. They have been successful. The siesta is over and they lead us off down the bank to show us their find.
The Boat: It is a short, open outboard; aluminum, with seats for five and no registration number on its bow. Instead it has a two-foot-long, two-inch-wide gash at the water line suffered when it hit one of the many tree trunks that float down tropical lowland rivers. The “owner” says we can use the boat for twenty dollars, payable in advance, but we have to pilot it ourselves. We discuss the gash, pay the twenty dollars and climb aboard. The scowling owner pushes us into the muddy current and barely acknowledges our departure.
The Trip: It is considerably cooler with the breeze and the spray from the river hitting us as we glide smoothly downriver. Two of us are seated in front; my counterpart and my colleague behind us, their heads nodding from side to side as the motorísta swerves to miss sand bars and floating objects. We can see very little, however, because the high banks of the river pinch off our field of view. Trees lie horizontal in the mud, left there as the winter rains slowed and stopped. Great white herons pick small fish from the shallows, and now and then we glimpse a thatched roof rising above the naturally formed dikes.
The Napo: As we skim along, I watch the river slide beneath us through the gash beside my feet. The boat slows and I look up to see a lone soldier standing in front of an Ecuadorian border post forty feet above the swirling confluence of the two rivers and eighty yards across the water. The boat slows a bit more and its bow drops another couple of inches allowing water to pour in through the gash. I look down to rescue my pack and hear a rifle shot over the sound of the idling outboard. I look up again and now see a dozen green-clad soldiers with rifles trained our way. My counterpart screams for the motorísta to get us out of there. As we turn back upriver and pick up speed I wonder about the accuracy of WWII vintage rifles in the hands of young recruits and whether they aim at the fleeing boat in general or specifically at the gringo sitting in its bow.
The Airport: Just before dusk I stand with several others beside the small airstrip that services both Macoa and Puerto Asís. A squad of black-clad volunteers of a Colombian elite anti-drug unit is camped across the road cooking something over a smoking fire. Our plane arrives and the soldiers pat us down and search through our bags. Virtually every one of my fellow passengers is armed, and the soldiers dutifully take the pistols, large and small, new and old, and remove the ammunition. They hand the weapons back and once returned to pocket, belt, or satchel, the ammunition also. I now accept all of this as normal in “Paradise Lost” and climb aboard the small plane to find my seat beside a window. As we turn north I watch the last glow of daylight on the distant, isolated, and beautiful Serranía de la Macarena and hope that I will someday go there.
‘I Like People Who Weren’t Captured’ [i]
On a late night trip between Denver, Colorado and Española, New Mexico when I was about 10, I lay in the back seat feigning sleep as I listened to my dad and his friend, one of the few survivors of the Bataan Death March, discuss the things that adults discuss when they think the kids are asleep.
Like my dad’s friend, there were a lot of other New Mexican young men who were also on that Death March. They had joined the National Guard to add a few dollars to the family budget but were trained for war using broomsticks for rifles.
Though most had never been much further from their mountain villages than Albuquerque, when WWII came they were the first to be sent off to fight a fierce and brutal enemy in a strange, disease ridden swamp, oceans away from where they were born.
They were told to hold their positions until Gen. MacArthur could get organized. And they did. They fought with unfamiliar weapons in unfamiliar places; they fought to the last bullet and the last ration and beyond. And only when they heard that General MacArthur was on the move did they surrender to be marched off as prisoners of war.
For years the survivors of that so aptly named “Death March” have held an annual reunion to celebrate their comrades who are gone and to contemplate once more what they had done. They hoist the white flag of surrender and then honor America by saluting the flag for which they fought.
Those of us who come out to watch are forced to remember once again that because those young soldiers succeeded in their mission under unbelievable hardship, the United States is still here when it very easily could have disappeared from the face of the earth.
I doubt that many of them could speak English very well—they were the descendents of the Mexicans who happened to live in this part of the world when the United States took a large chunk out of Mexico; an act that separated these honorable, albeit reluctant, heroes from other brown people with names like their own.
There are far too many in our nation who know nothing of those two wars and, for that ignorance, I feel sad for them. But what bothers and hurts most is when that ignorance turns to hate.
[i] In addition to baseless rants on “illegal immigrants from Mexico sent here by their government to rape and pillage,” these are the words of a Republican candidate for President of the United States given at the recent “Family Leadership Summit” in Ames, Iowa. Though he was later admonished to varying degrees by other GOP candidates for his daft attack on an ex-prisoner of war, at the summit, he was given a standing ovation as he left the podium.