I first noticed the pistol in the driver’s jeans pocket while we stood waiting for the wood ferry. We were standing on a beach on the fringes of La Moskitia. La Moskitia is the largest rainforest in Central America, and the second largest in the Americas after the Amazon. It also happens to be Central America’s main drug running corridor. The only evidence I’d seen of this so far were the lazy police checks back on the highway. We were there to hike Pico Dama, but really I was there to see a big cat of some kind.
It had taken many hours to get to the beach and it was getting late. The ferry was slowly being pushed back and forth taking the convoy of cars across the inlet. While we waited they picked little packages from the glove box and handed them about. Two kids on motorbikes were coming the other way, the rear tyres trailing sandclouds. They boarded the ferry and the ferry worked toward us.
One of the kids came up to our passenger window. He looked at us in the back then at the guy in the passenger seat then at us again and had a quick conversation with the guy in the passenger seat. Something about price. The other kid parked behind him.
This kid looked hard and mean and dangerous, mostly dangerous. He looked at us too, then the other kid got back on his bike and they were gone. I watched them go. The dangerous kid had a big shiny Beretta tucked in the back of his jeans.
It wasn’t long after that we arrived to the river where our boatman was waiting for us to take us to Raista. It was just the two of us, the boatman and his wife, and we picked up another old lady along the way, briefly, and when she got off she gave us a warm scone.
The sun had disappeared from view so that every colour was black or grey, the water and the shore. The far shore barely visible shadows hurrying into the night, fading, fading. It was just the two of us at the front of the boat, and with the wind in my hair, where we were, I felt like Miami Vice…
We stayed the night in Raista in a small clapboard hospedaje like something out of the old American West.
In the morning we set out on the water along sweltering, narrow canals until we joined the Rio Plátano. It was so damned hot. In that dug out canoe with no shade and the sun searing down on us unabated. After two, three hours I was bored, and I felt guilty for it, not appreciating where I was, what I had, but jesus mother, my ass was killing me.
We passed solitary houses of wood and thatch. A jaguar skin was nailed to the door of one. We went like this for four or five hours, I don’t know exactly, the only colours brown and green, until we reached Las Marías. We took it easy for the rest of the afternoon and I spent my time watching the animals grazing, the cows, the pigs, horses, and it affected somewhat. It almost made me wish that I could stay someplace like this, surrounded by animals, malaria and peace. It would be easier and maybe even more sensible.
After breakfast we collected our things to enter the jungle. We walked through the village to the house of our principal guide, David Sr. We followed our second guide, also David, and it was already hot, hot as hell, but almost immediately the sky opened up and it started raining. Soon we were soaked.
The two Davids shunted us down the river in a canoe with wood poles while David Sr’s wife steered from behind. Those boys are in good shape. For two hours they did this against the current. We’d had to bring all our own food for the next three days and they were carrying most of that too. David Sr was 71 years old. Shunting us down the brown river he didn’t pop a bead of sweat. I was tired bailing the water out of the canoe with a plastic bottle.
It had stopped raining. Sometimes the jungle matted mess towered above us, like a rolling wave of plants cresting, about to wash us away. We docked at a small gravel beach. From there we continued on foot. The sky was grey and there was a crack of thunder. The Davids led us into the green hacking a path through it with machetes. The rain slashed down and made it cold. Steep mudslide banks caused me to slip and fall. My boots sank into the muck. The hairline path disappeared and reappeared. We walked through small streams in our walking boots, everything wet anyway, no point in changing into our rubber boots. Trees and rain. Green and brown.
We walked for a couple of hours, had a short break, then trekked uphill for 45 minutes more. The rain had stopped a while ago and now I was sweating sweating as if faucets had been turned on and my shoulders ached, my back ached, and I kept thinking about how terrible it was going to be to come back down.
Then we were there, an untidy clearing, the rotting wood cabin, like an old remnant, damp and slippery with decay.
I washed in a nearby creek, causing birds to flock from the surrounding forest when I dropped my trousers. We hung our sodden clothes to dry and sat around the fire under the cabin. We ate dinner and the night came in fast all around us.
We were three nights at the cabin in the woods. The rest of the world was nowhere. My legs felt weak that first morning, like butter, after the climb, even more so after using the squat toilet. It was raining again and I sat underneath the cabin talking to David Sr. I asked him if he’d ever seen a jaguar.
Yes, he said. But the jaguars stay in another part of the forest where nobody goes. He told me that his friend was walking there one time, and he found a paw print in the mud the length of his forearm. But there are cats in all of the forest, all around us.
With luck we’ll see one, he said.
We waited the rain out. When it finally stopped it was too late to walk to Pico Dama. We followed a short trail into the forest instead and saw spider monkeys, jungle turkeys, walked through ants that swarmed up our legs under our clothes, as high as our necks biting and we had to run and slap at our clothes, remove our t-shirts, flailing, our skin burning all over.
Later, I looked out at the dark trees waving in a slight wind. Nothing out there. Nothing visible, anyway. It was cold. Sitting under the cabin in the morning, I’d asked David Sr if there were any trails in particular that were especially lucky for spotting cats. He said that there weren’t.
With luck, he repeated.
My dreams were filled with cats that night, tigers, jaguars, ocelots, pumas, lions, cheetahs, in my garden. I was floating and drifting over it, like opium sleep, and there they all were, down below me.
At 2am, the woods were filled with the sounds of howler monkeys, dozens of them, shouting into the night. It didn’t wake me for long.
We were awake early again to hike to Pico Dama. My thoughts were entirely of cats. I don’t think I’d ever wanted something so bad. We walked to Pico Dama, Old Man in Mískito, steep in parts, tree roots tripping and slipping us. The canopy above obscured the sun where we walked. Towards the peak the forest changed to wet cloud forest, skinny gnarled branches coated with dripping moss. We got to the top in a couple of hours and I sat looking up at this rock thing thinking,
I don’t really care about you.
We didn’t stay long. It had started raining again and we walked back down in the gush of it, everything wet once more.
We sat under the cabin around the fire, its smoke permeating our clothes, our skin, the scrub brush and dark stubble around my jaw.
I will have to return, I said, to see a cat.
We talked about things. We talked about university. David told me how he wants to go but it is too expensive and there is no help from the government, not in La Moskitia, only in the cities. He told me how he was working for two years in San Pedro Sula, then his father fell ill and he had to return home. Now he studies five days a month in Brus Laguna, the nearest college, a six hour trip by boat. My luck didn’t seem so bad anymore.
Boxhead flashed his torch across the dark trees. I could see the outline of the outhouse amongst them.
Imagine seeing a figure out there now?, I said to him
WHY DID YOU HAVE TO GO AND SAY SOMETHING LIKE THAT?
You know, somebody could have been watching us for days…
We left the cabin at 6.30am. It wasn’t a bad walk down, not too hard on the knees, hard on the shoulders. We went without a break and towards the bottom there were tracks in the mud, large paw prints, but no sign of whatever had left them there.
We got in the boat and rode the current to Las Marías where we waited for the rain to pass before getting in another boat to Raista. The rain got us anyway. It drove into my face, chest, hard, and everything was wet and I was cold, then the sun came out and it felt so good like a miracle from heaven. We got into Raista and the sun was still up, just about. A different hotel this time with a real shower.
I had this vacant feeling, not so good, disappointed, sad that it was over, felt cheated, what a toad I am to bitch about my fate.
I didn’t find what I was looking for. Not this time.