VENGEANCE IN A BOTTLE
Through the haze I could see his thick, bare feet standing in the dirt only a meter or two from my face. His toes were pointed right at me, so I figured that somewhere higher up his eyes were also aimed in my direction.
I started to raise my head, but the brown-green world swung violently. I eased my head back down to the reed mat and closed my eyes. The mat was wet and slimy.I didn't much care that I was lying in my own vomit--the black world inside my closed eyes was spinning out of control.
A voice penetrated the whirling blackness. "Ah, you are alive, don Jaime," it said. Then the voice continued, "He's waking up."
"Good," a woman's voice replied. "How is he?"
"Fine," Juan said.
Juan. That's who it was. I opened my eyes again but this time did not move my head. The world had quit swinging; now it was only making little jerky moves--almost shivering.
"Chuta, carajo," I mumbled. "What day is it?"
Juan did not answer my question. "Here," he said, "drink this."
He held out a tin cup. It was filled with a brown liquid. Strings of tiny bubbles rose between the little lumps that floated on its surface.
"Para chuchaqui," he went on, "For hangover. Drink,drink. Salud!"
"Enough, enough," Carmen said sharply. "Don't abuse the gringo any more. He's sick. Look at him. poor thing. His wife is not here to care for him. Enough."
"Drink it yourself, taita Juan." My voice buzzed in my head and I shut my eyes. "Salud." I tried to whisper to avoid the buzz.
"Salud." Juan replied.
He began to drink the fermented sugar-cane juice--guarapo. After he finished,he walked to the corner of the hut where a clay pot, containing several gallons of the brown bubbly stuff, sat in the dirt. He filled the cup again and returned to my side.
"Take it. Drink," Juan said as he shoved the cup into my right hand.
I didn't move or say anything. For a short while he tried to push the cup into my hand, but eventually he gave up. I heard the sounds of his drinking. Then a small amount of liquid splattered on the ground as Juan emptied the dregs from the cup. Shaking out the dregs was no longer seen as an offering to any earth goddesses. It was just a custom now. Juan didn't care much about origins. I didn't either, right then. I opened my eyes just enough to see Juan pick up a large axe.
"The rat," I thought, "he's at it again."
Juan walked out into the sugar-cane field that surrounded his shack and then disappeared into the jungle.
"Drink and work, drink and work. That's all he does," I said to myself as I lay in misery on the mat trying to get back to sleep--to end the hangover--to end the whole mess and get out of there.
It was dark when I awakened again. A fire crackled between three stones set on the dirt floor on the other side of the hut. Something gurgled and steamed in a large pot that rested on the three stones. Light from the fire flickered on the faces of Juan, who sat on a stool, and Carmen, who sat on the ground. They were eating something from clay bowls. When I moved to get up, I heard Carmen say, "The gringuito is awake."
"Good evening," I said, trying to appear casual as I walked unsteadily towards the fire. I was glad for the darkness that hid most of my filth.
Juan held out a bowl of soup. "How are you, don Jaime?" he asked jovially. "Here, eat something. Eat. Eat. Later we can have something to drink again."
Then to Carmen he said, "I told you the gringos are not so bad. They know how to drink with us Indians. Look at Jaimecito here. Did he not drink with us?"
Sí," she replied, not smiling.
Carmen fed a stick into the fire and then pointed to a plate filled with boiled corn and dry cheese. "Eat some of that with your soup," she said to me. "Pobrecito," she went on, "Poor thing, you drank so much."
"Not like Juan," I replied. "He's the champion."
"What day is it?" I asked, once again.
"Thursday," Carmen said.
"When did I get here?"
Monday afternoon? This was not good. On Saturday I had set out from the highland town of Saraguro to cross the eastern ridges of the Andes and walk the everlasting downness of the route into the tropical forest of the upper Amazon. I had planned to arrive in the small settlement of Yacuambi by Monday evening. A vague picture of what had happened managed to penetrate my consciousness. I had met Juan on the trail an hour out of Yacuambi. "Come stay with us," he had said. Accepting his invitation, I mentioned that I could only stay the night since I had to be in Yacuambi the following morning at the latest so that I could telegraph my wife of a safe arrival. When we got to his place we started drinking. For three days Juan and I drank. When I passed out, Juan left for work--to clear more fields, to weed his pastures, to care for the cattle, to prepare new gardens, to cut firewood, or whatever. When I woke up, he would usually be returning from work. We drank again. He went to work again. And so on.
I felt awful. I dug out some cigarettes and was surprised to find that I still had plenty. Three days and I still had several packs left? I really must have been out of it.
I held out one of the packs. "Tabacota munanguichu?" I asked.
Smiling at my effort to speak Quichua, Juan and Carmen each replied, "ari," and took a cigarette.
"I have to go to town," I said. "Linda is going to be worried."
Bueno, don Jaimecito," Juan said. "Mañana you can go to send your message. Tonight you stay here. We can drink again, as friends."
"No way," I thought to myself. "This son of a bitch will kill me."
To Juan I said, "No, no, I have to go. And tomorrow I must go on down to Cambana. I promised Shalva Morocho I would visit his place. He expected me yesterday. But I will come here again. Your hospitality has been great. Your kindness. Everything.We had much to drink. Maybe too much. Next time, not so much. I'm not accustomed to this."
To Carmen I concluded, "It doesn't do anything to taita Juan. Carajo, he can drink."
"Too much." she said. Don't go, don't go. Not tonight,"
Juan said. "You can't walk around here in the darkness. There are snakes that are out only at night. Very venomous. Nobody goes out at night. Stay here. We can have one or two tiny little drinks tonight. Just to cure your hangover. Look, the guarapo is ready again. Just a little bit--un poquitico, no más--and you will feel better . . ."
"Basta, vos," Carmen broke in. "Enough, you. He has to go. His woman is worried. She is waiting to hear from him. Pobrecita, her Zhimicito has disappeared without a word. He has to send a telegram."
"Ah, but the snakes. He shouldn't walk at night."
"True," Carmen replied. "But darkness has just come. Maybe the snakes won't be out yet."
I finished my food quickly. Though every movement of my head raised doubts as to the ability of my stomach to retain what was in it, I felt a little better. And I was becoming both annoyed and amused at their attempts to make my decision for me.
I fished the flashlight out of my pack. It was only a few miles to town and I figured that the thumping of my heavy boots on the ground would send a loud signal to all trail-traveling snakes to get the hell out of the way. I had to leave immediately, however, in hopes of getting to the telegrafista before he was blown away for the evening by his own drinking habits.
"You must visit with us on your next trip," Juan said as I left.
"Yes. Don't stay with anyone else. I'll hide the guarapo," Carmen added, laughing.
"Someday," I thought--half seriously--as I shouldered my pack and left, "I'll get this so-and-so."
Several years later I returned to Ecuador to continue anthropological research on highland Indian settlement of the upper Amazon. A number of Saraguro Indians had colonized a new area of the tropical forest, the Macanchi valley, about a day's walk (for them) "further in" from Yacuambi. To complete my research, I had to check out the settlement. Carmen and Juan were among the settlers. When I had left them the last time, they had urged me to return. So I knew I would have a place to eat and sleep in the Macanchi valley. I looked forward to seeing them again. Good people. Hard working. Open. Hospitable. Knowledgeable. They seemed to enjoy sharing their lives with an outsider. Ideal informants. And, of course, I had a friendly little score to settle. Just a friendly little score. Nothing serious. That's what I thought.
So I set out for the settlements of the upper Amazon, planning to visit with friends and informants in the Yacuambi valley first, then travel on to the Macanchi valley, visit with Juan and his family for a day or two, and finally, walk on out to Yahuarzongo--a town on the jungle road that came up from the south, along the Río Zamora.
After visiting a couple of days with the Yacuambi people, I continued the trek towards Macanchi.
A day's travel got me to the low pass between the two areas. The next day I waded through knee-deep mud, through swarms of multicolored butterflies that fed on the dung of horses and cattle, and through canyons of orchid-draped trees, into the upper Macanchi valley.
Night fell before I reached any settlements so I strung my cotton hammock between some trees and, since it was starting to rain, stretched an army poncho diagonally above it. But before I managed to sleep for even a few minutes, the rain had wicked its way down the ropes of the hammock and into its fabric. I spent the night soaked and shivering, nearly sleepless in the cold, tropical jungle.
Tired and bedraggled, I set out at daybreak. After several hours of slogging through yet more mud, I spotted a ramshackle palm-wood cabin close to the trail. A man, a woman and a young girl--whites--were planting grass shoots in a nearby clearing. Their clothing was as decrepit as their cabin.
As soon as they saw me, they yelled friendly greetings and invited me to stop for a rest. I asked them how to get to Juan's place. They seemed somewhat reluctant to give me directions. They said it would be better that I stay with them. Why did I, a gringo, want to see some Indian?
He was a friend, I told them, and had invited me. At least I should have a drink with them first, the man insisted. I refused. I had no intention of starting to drink before I even got to Juan's.
The man continued to insist but I refused again, as politely as possible, and left. I knew the hostile stare of the man whose hospitality I had rejected would follow me until I was out of sight so I didn't look back as I walked away--hoping that the stare would be the only negative consequence of my refusal.
A couple of hours later I spotted a two-story, palm-thatched structure, fifty yards off the trail. Was this Juan's?
"Se puede?" I yelled in a high voice, "May I approach your house?"
"Quién es?" Juan replied.
"Jaime," I called back.
I heard the dogs barking. "Allcuta misangui," I called, in the second part of the traditional greeting of one approaching a house, "Corner your dogs!"
"Jaime," Juan cried, and now I could see him through the trees. "Ven, ven, llega!" he continued, "Come, come, arrive! So much time I haven't seen you."
He yelled at the dogs as I walked down the side trail to his house.
Carmen came out of the manioc garden. "Don Jaimecito," she called. "Come here, rest, stay with us for a while. We have a chicken."
Though glad to see me, Juan was obviously embarrassed. His shiny, black hair was not in its usual long, neat braid according to the Saraguro Indian custom. It was only a few inches long and hung loose and shaggy above his shoulders.
"Qué pasó?" I asked.
With both hands, Juan pulled his hair to the back of his neck.
"Carajo!" Juan swore. "Damned whites. They cut off my hair."
"Chuta!" I replied in sympathy. "What whites?"
"They were my peones," Juan explained. "They cleared land for me. I bought four bottles when they finished the work. We all got drunk and they cut my hair."
"Why?" I asked.
"To make a laichu out of me. To make me white like them. They said it gave them great shame to work for an Indian. So they tried to change me into a white by cutting my hair when I was too drunk to resist. I am an Indian. I don't want to be a stinking white. Damned laichus from Azuay."
"Sons of whores!" I said. "Really?"
But even while I shared Juan's anger, other thoughts crept into my awareness: this guy did not have an unlimited capacity: he could be had.
"Sí, it is the truth," Carmen replied. "The whites don't like to see Indians with anything. In Azuay the Indians are very poor. These resentful blancos are not accustomed to Indians who have."
Juan broke in. "Enough. Forget those pendejos. Our gringo friend, Jaimecito, is here to visit us. We will eat the chicken. We have a good, fat chicken. And we will drink. I will go get a bottle. Wait here, rest, I will go."
"No, no," I said. It is good to see you again, but I didn't come here to drink. I can't drink with you, taita Juan. I would die. Maybe you would shave my beard off to make an Indian out of me if I drank with you."
Juan laughed. "Vos sois malo," Juan said, "You are bad, Jaime. You don't want to drink with me. Do we not have confidence in each other? Just one little, tiny bottle. Nothing will happen. It isn't proper to receive a guest after such a long time without a drink. I'm going already. I will return right away. You rest here."
While Juan was gone, I talked with Carmen and hung my wet things to dry in the shelter of the house. Juan came back with two one-liter bottles of 180 proof, contraband aguardiente--distilled, unrefined sugar-cane juice. We had several drinks together--maybe half a bottle not including a couple of shots for Carmen. Then Juan and I toured his new naranjilla plantations and the clearings that were being prepared for pasture. Juan was proud of the land he had claimed and cleared. His pride--maybe aided a bit by the layer of booze that warmed his gut--put him in a pretty good mood. However, he was almost always a pretty jovial character.
But not when we returned to the house and heard what Carmen had to say. "The guardias!" she yelled, "The revenuers! They came right here and went in the house and found the two bottles you bought. They knew it was here."
"Mierda," Juan spat out. "Those sons of whores, those laichus. They are resentful of my land and my cattle and now they are resentful of my gringo friend. 'Why did that gringo come to visit you?' they asked when I went to get the trago. 'You, an Indian.' They are the ones who told the . . . "
Carmen interrupted, "You have to go to Yahuarzongo. The guardias have taken the bottles as evidence and now you have to go to Yahuarzongo and pay the fine or they will take you to the jail in Zamora."
"Puta! Carajo!" Juan said. "Envious whites. Troublemakers."
Juan turned to me. "You will come with me. You will talk to the authorities. You are a gringo. They will have respect. They won't listen to an Indian. One little bottle, and this."
"Two." I said. "And I think I know . . . "
"One, two, of what importance is it? Those white maricones. You will come with me don Jaimecito?"
"It's getting late," I replied. "We better go soon. How many hours is it to the road--five or six?"
To myself, I said, "Shit." I was already exhausted from a near-sleepless night and the morning slog through the mud."So much for a goddamned snooze," I thought.
"Four," Juan said. "But we must eat first. The chicken is almost ready."
So we ate the chicken and then we left.
Juan was still angry. "They never get the laichus for a bottle or two," he said. "And even with more, if they give the guardias a little 'bite,' they don't bother them."
After twenty minutes of walking we stopped at a settler's cabin. Several raggedly dressed whites hung about the veranda.
"Hola, don Juan," they called.
Juan greeted them in turn, then told his story--leaving out whatever he thought about the ethnic characteristics of whoever it was that had betrayed him. He asked for a couple of bottles of aguardiente.
"Wait," I said. "We don't need any of this--it's what got us into trouble in the first place."
Juan looked at me quizzically--as if there were something he didn't quite understand. "Just two little bottles," he said, using the diminutive form common to Ecuadorian speech. "Two teensy, weensy little bottles for the trail. That's all. Nothing more."
I tried to dissuade Juan. The people at the house enjoyed my fruitless efforts. "Oh," one of them said, "if taita Juancito wants two botellitas pequeñitas chiquititas, why not? In truth it's good for the trail. You may need it for the snakes of the night. To cure their bites."
Unable to talk Juan out of it, I chipped in and we both bought a tiny bottle--each of which contained at least a liter of fiery liquid. As soon as we were out of sight of the whites, Juan pulled the cork out of one of the bottles. We didn't have a cup, so he handed me the bottle and said, "Salud, ishcandin."
No way was I going to get drunk--at least not much more drunk than I already was. I had a plan, but it was too light to put it into action. I had to delay, to minimize my consumption, until the time was right.
"No," I said. "We have to be sober--to walk the trail at night."
Juan waved the bottle in my face. "It's not dark yet. Just a little drop for now. It won't give you any pain."
Resolutely, I shoved the bottle aside. "Not now. Nobody is here to take care of us. Do you want to sleep with the snakes tonight?"
Juan giggled. "Sleep with the snakes? Que va p's? Just a little bit for the road, no more."
"Bueno. Just one."
We each took a gulp of the aguardiente and then Juan put the bottle away and we moved on down the trail. Dusk is short in the tropics. After the sun dropped below the mountains, darkness came quickly. Cloud-diffused moonlight provided only faintly glimmering reflections in the puddles and mudholes that marked the trail through the dense tropical forest. We slogged along, following the reflections, hoping the invisible snakes were fleeing at the sounds of our approach.
Juan stopped. "We need another drink. For the snakes."
He pulled out the bottle. I resisted. But the resistance was only token this time. Now I was ready. I grabbed the bottle, uncorked it, and held it up to my mouth. Conscious of the protective darkness, I let only a little booze slip into my mouth. More, the equivalent of a regular slug, dribbled down my chin, through my beard, and onto the front of my shirt. The bottle gurgled--just the right amount. I choked, coughed, and then spat in the appropriate Ecuadorian response to very strong liquor. "Chuta!" I said. "Very strong."
I handed the bottle to Juan. He drank and made the same automatic choking, spitting noises. "Another little one?" he asked.
I repeated the same dribbling routine, once again taking only a little into my mouth. This happened several more times. We would stop to have a drink. I would offer initial resistance, then accept the invitation. I poured most of the booze down my shirt. By the time we finished the first bottle, I was only a bit more drunk, but Juan was starting to weave and stumble.
We continued to talk as we made our way unsteadily through the dark forest. Our conversations went something like this: "Ah my good gringo friend," Juan would say, "we will show those sons of whores in Yahuarzongo. Carajo! Those stinking white neighbors. Let them eat shit like dogs and pigs." "Yes. Let them eat shit," I would reply.
Juan's speech was getting harder to understand, his walking more unsteady. Suddenly his silhouette disappeared from view.
"Juan. Where are you?" I called.
There was no answer, but I heard some movement along one side of the trail. I knelt down and groped in that direction. Shortly, I felt Juan's body. He was lying face-down in the mud. Quickly I pulled his face and upper body onto a dry area.
"Oh, don Jaimecito," he moaned. "What happened?"
"You fell off the trail. You're drunk. Rest here a while."
"A little bit . . . " Juan slurred into silence.
I sat beside him on the trail. His loud, drunken snores joined the night sounds of the jungle. After I had smoked three cigarettes, Juan stirred again. "Where are we?" he asked. "Why are we here?"
"We're on the way to Yahuarzongo. To see the guardias."
Juan swore angrily. I lit a cigarette for him. He took one puff and then I saw the glowing tip fall through the dark night. There was a faint hiss as the cigarette was extinguished in a puddle. Juan swore again, then lapsed into sleepy silence. I laughed to myself. Even though I was stuck with a passed-out drunk on a snake-infested trail in the middle of the damned jungle, it was worth it. I had finally beaten Juan at the drinking game. He was drunk out of his mind and I was still in reasonable shape. And it didn't matter that I had had to cheat--to pour most of the stuff down my shirt. That was part of the game.
I had another couple of cigarettes and Juan stirred again. "Let's go," I said. "We have to get to Yahuarzongo. We have to get shelter for the night. Come on, I'll help you."
As I pulled up on his left arm, Juan rose unsteadily to his feet.
"Damned gringos," he blurted out vehemently. "Imperialistas yanquis."
He pushed my hand away. "Why are you here? What do you want with me? Why do you bother us?"
"Calm down," I replied, surprised. "You're drunk. Rest a little more and then we can go."
"Carajo! You're looking for gold. You came here to take all our gold. You spy on us and take our gold."
As he spoke, Juan slumped back to the ground. He pushed himself into a sitting position and then pulled out the last bottle of aguardiente. He drank without offering me any.
"You come here and eat our food and drink our trago and ask questions and take pictures. You sell the pictures and make money and leave us nothing. Ismata micui--eat shit--gringo!"
"Calm down," I repeated. The glow of victory was diminishing rapidly. "Don't drink any more. You've had enough."
"Chucha!" Juan said angrily. "Nobody tells me when to drink. No gringos, no laichus, no Indians. Nobody tells me when to do anything."
Juan staggered to his feet once more. He stood in the darkness swaying.
"Puta!" he screamed.
His arm was raised. A bottle in the hand at the end of that arm glinted in the moonlight. I could tell by the gurgle that the bottle was emptying its contents onto the ground.
"Calm down!" I yelled, not knowing what else to say.
I stood on my toes, knees bent, ready to move as quickly as my tired, semi-drunken state permitted. My eyes strained through the darkness, watching the moonbeams that bounced off the upraised bottle. Sober, Juan was a hell of a tough little bastard. Now he was so drunk he would be a pushover. Or maybe he would be terribly dangerous. I wasn't sure.
Everything slowed down. Even though I was sleepy and somewhat drunk, my senses seemed sharp. Then I felt--more than saw--Juan move towards me. The bottle started downward.
Maybe I should have hit Juan then. Maybe I should have smashed him in the face and laid him out cold and then stayed and smoked one cigarette after another to keep the bugs away, until the dawn came and we were both sober. Then, as friends, we would have gone into town and settled his problem with the guardias and we would all have lived happily ever after. Maybe. But anthropologists do not hit the people they are studying. Perhaps Juan had picked up on that. Maybe it increased his anger when I just stood there and took his verbal abuse and threats and did nothing but say, "Calm down, calm down!"
I stepped back. The bottle went down slowly past my face. Juan's silhouette disappeared from view and I heard him crumple to the soft ground.
I knelt down. Juan's head was not in any puddles. He was lying on his side, breathing, alive.
The pungent, bitter-sweet, nauseating odor of the trago on the ground, on my shirt and on Juan's breath filled the damp, night air. It was the smell of exploitation and comradeship, of deceit and trust, of hate and love, of pain and joy. Ecuador in a bottle. Distilled. Complete. Pure. Beautiful. Deadly.
I found the bottle. "Salud, you bastard," I said. "Sleep well with the snakes."
I poured the last few drops down my throat and flung the bottle into the forest. Then I got up, turned, and started walking down the trail towards Yahuarzongo. Alone, I was afraid of the snakes so I got out the flashlight. I hoped the batteries would last until I reached the road.
"Son of a bitch," I hissed.
The taste of vengeance was fiery and bitter. It made me feel like throwing up.