We had no real plan, but walked around by the bus depot until we found a hotel advertising itself in a half-lit neon sign above a restaurant. In the restaurant we ate some fried chicken and yuca, a potato-like tuber made palatable by dipping in a green sauce, and drank beers, ice cold bottles of Polar, a forbidden pleasure. I explained to Eric about my father.
"Leave him be," advised Eric. He was too old to change. His father was no prize either. This bit of wisdom impressed me, but it would be years before I could put it into practice. But that's why I loved Eric; he seemed light years ahead of me in maturity and poise. We slept fitfully on the thin mattresses while the music blared until dawn from the restaurant jukebox.
The next day we hiked along the highway out of Merida into the mountains. A man in a jeep gave us a ride on the switchbacks heading into a national reserve. He was a biologist and taught in the university. He approved of our plans for fishing and pointed us in the right direction as we clambered out in a fog . It was almost noon but dark inside the cloud. He had the headlights of the jeep on.
"Go that way," he said, pointing with his lower lip. "You'll find the river. Follow it. You'll see."
"Nos vemos. Hasta luego. Buena suerte."
He gunned the accelerator and sped off into the dark, disappearing within seconds. Eric and I looked at each other and then he jumped the guard rail and began to jog down the hill, pack bouncing wildly on his back.
"Wait for me," I called, running to catch him before he too disappeared.
We hiked up and down the rough terrain of the paramo all morning looking for the river. I stopped to examine the leaves of the frailejon plants all around us, thick and hairy to withstand the season of drought, just then coming to an end, and the extreme cold. Then at last we found the water bubbling its way down the eastern slope of the continental divide. It was about ten feet wide, running clear over gravel beds and deeper rock pools. We slipped off our packs and took out our rods and Eric began to cast, working quickly and purposefully upstream. You could see the pencil thin silhouettes of the fish in the water under the riffles of the current. I followed along the bank, fishing the spots I thought Eric had ignored. There were a couple of times I thought I had a bite, reeling in over the rocks, but nothing. Then at last I hooked one, about six inches, and a couple of hours later I had another. I was thinking of starting back. It had begun to rain, a thin drizzle. Eric jumped out from behind a rock. He'd been taking a short cut back to where we'd left our packs. He carried a string of four or five similar sized fish as mine. I told him I'd caught two.
"Where are they?"
I showed him where they were in the tall grass above a pool. He added them to the string, pushing it through their barely palpitating gills with his fingers.
We hiked silently back down river in the steadily increasing rain. Our packs were sitting on a patch of dry earth while the rain washed down the slope and into the river all around them.
"Here," said Eric, carrying his pack and the string of fish up to some level dry ground a distance from the river. We got out the tent and managed to assemble it despite cold, sore fingers. We were both beginning to shiver. Eric took the fish down to the river bank and gutted them. Then we wrapped them in the useless map of Merida that had been of no help to us and crawled inside the tent to try and get warm. I fell asleep in my coat, head on my pack, breathing the warm, clammy air of the small pup tent.
It had stopped raining, and in the half light of dusk outside Eric was gathering brush, breaking off dead branches from the few small bushes growing along the river, and piling them in a fire pit he'd managed to dig with his knife. We'd had the foresight to pack a box of matches in a soap dish. I went through almost the entire box before some old ticket stubs in my wallet and a small stick finally burst into flame, and slowly, a smoldering fire grew.
Then it was dark and we were crazily running in our wet boots over the rocks, gathering whatever burnable material we could find, most of it either too wet or too small, but somehow the fire was growing, and eventually we put on the mother lode, an entire small tree, blown over years previous, that Eric and I had dragged from a ravine.
Taking some long branches from this tree and impaling the fish on them, we managed to cook ourselves some food. Nothing tasted better than the half burnt, half raw, searing hot, dripping, extremely bone-filled and scaly meat of these fingerling trout cooked over our bonfire. By the time we were done eating, we went down to the river, naked, and immersed ourselves in water to wash off the grease, charcoal and scales from ourselves. Then we crawled into the tent and tried to sleep again, the fire flickering outside.
At some point in the night, I was woken by rustling sounds. Unzipping the tent, I could see men poking at the fire with machetes. I crawled out of the tent, and behind me came Eric. We stood in the cold, shivering, pulling on our pants, while a troop of four or five wraithlike men in odd hats pulled down over their heads and machetes confronted us in the dark.
"Buscamos una vaca," said one in a muffled, thick, barely discernible voice.
"They're looking for a cow," I said, translating for Eric.
"No por aqui no esta," I said. We hadn't seen a cow, that was for sure.
There were some words said among them that could have been Spanish but more likely was in Mucuchies, the indigenous language of that region of the Andes. They went off without a sound, as if floating above ground, one man, or boy, straggling, poking at things with his machete. With relief we got back inside the tent and talked hesitantly about what we'd just seen.
"Did you ever see Deliverance?" asked Eric.
"Let's get out of here," I said.
"Yeah," said Eric, agreeing with my precautionary assessment.
We may have overreacted to the sight of the men looking for a cow, but it is no exaggeration to say that it took us no more than ten minutes to break down the tent, pack up and march away from that spot.
We circled in the dark, lost, with no stars or celestial guides because of the cloud cover. The hills and valleys all looked like somewhere we'd been before, and we forded the river, or different rivers like a dream, or a barely remembered memory of a dream. We were both very tired. But we never gave up hope, instead vying to see which one of us would be the one to get us unlost. At last, the sky lightening in a broad patch to the obvious but unhelpful east, Eric motioned for me to stop and cocked an ear. There was the sound of an engine doing a distant Doppler effect.
"Up there," said Eric.
"Okay," I said, agreeable to a new tack, although this one led up a particularly steep and scrabbly slope.
And there it was - the beautiful guard rail and the equally as stunning blacktop behind it.