Tuesday, May 02, 2006

"It's ten years or more since I heard this story from B. Long enough for me to have reinvented parts of it, so maybe it's as much my story now as it is his.

"He was hiking overland to Kaieteur with a friend, a hike of four or five days, with a plane to meet them when they arrived at the top of the falls. It was the rainy season. They were carrying a tent to sleep in at night, and all their food.

"But it was raining heavily up in the mountains, and a couple of days into the trip a river burst its banks and flooded all the surrounding country, and they found themselves trapped on an elevation by the floodwater. At first they thought they would wait it out--they had enough food for a few extra days, and they expected the water would go down in a day or two. But it kept rising, and their patch of dry ground shrank slowly, and finally they ran out of food.

"They decided to swim. If they stayed put, they would starve, but five--seven?--ten?--miles away there was a village on higher ground. They decided to try to swim there while they were still strong, before hunger weakened them.

"They left most of their belongings behind--clothes, equipment--except for a compass. They wrote letters to their families on pages torn from a notebook, and wrapped them in plastic bags, in case they drowned and their bodies were ever found. And they put these letters in the small rucksack B. strapped to his back. He also kept the volume of Shelley he had with him--a classic B. touch, his just happening to have taken Shelley along on that trip--because, he told me, if he drowned he wanted to have Shelly with him, to have the book, wrapped in plastic, found with his body.

"Then they started swimming. For long stretches, where the water grew shallower, it was more like wading. And of course they could cling to the branches of trees to rest. And all around them all sorts of forest creatures--insects, snakes--were swimming also.

"Once, during the long swim, B. was some strokes behind his friend. All he could see of him was his head and neck, bobbing in the water. Then B. noticed that his friend's head and neck were covered with what looked like a fine red veil. It was hundreds of tiny red spiders, descended from a tree, perhaps, stealing a ride to dry land.

"B. was about to shout to his friend, tell him about the spiders, when he realised: he looked back over his shoulder, he passed his hand gingerly over his own head. Of course he was covered with the spiders also.

"He never told me about arriving at the village, how long it took to swim there, what the people thought of this dramatic appearance of two young men, climbing dripping from the flood. His story cut to their triumphant return to Georgetown, and then to his friend's return to Oxford, where he was a student of some sort.

"This was the punch-line of the story: his friend returned to Oxford and was describing his adventure to another friend who studied tropical diseases. This other friend, the pathologist, immediately grew excited. He asked for samples of blood, urine, stool. He discovered a new bacterium--or some such minute organism--previously unknown to science. It made his career."


Subject: half-remembered stories
Date: 15 April 200-

I've been turning over in my head a story I remember you telling me ten, eleven, twelve years ago, about getting trapped by rising floodwater on an overland trip to Kaieteur & having to swim to safety with nothing but a copy of Shelley. I'm wondering how much of this story I remember & how much I've invented.

Subject: RE: half-remembered stories
Date: 17 April 200-

I swam out of the floodplain near the base of Kaieteur with a secondhand copy of Shelley in a Ziploc bag. T. had ditched some Garcia Marquez and we'd thrown away our food supplies (rice, red beans, farina) and gambled on making do with a box of glucose. I looked at the Marquez books and couldn't bear to abandon Shelley like that. I decided to take his poems with me as we swam out. I will never forget the short walk into the floodplain.

We swam through a flooded forest (briefly) and I remember hidden branches rubbing my legs and belly. This actually felt reassuring at the time. Dozens of spiders jumped out of the overhanging branches and ran around the top of T.'s backpack, in front of me. I brushed them off and had one of those Hollywood moments when I looked back to see a whole colony of them scampering around on my own backpack (and neck and shoulders). We found shallow water near the river and were soon able to walk the rest of the way with no difficulty.

Our trip lasted nine days in all, three of which were spent in nonstop rain, moving away from the regular track beside the river and getting lost in the bush. I started to worry when a large tree fell over about ten feet from my hammock one afternoon. We had a sombre talk and I tried to write a will. Annoyed by some large green flies, I ate a fistful of raw garlic in the afternoon sun and couldn't sleep above my own smell. The flies responded as though sweated garlic was a pheromone. We spent two days alone at the top of Kaieteur, writing stupid comments in the guestbook. I lost a stone in weight and remember the delight of a large steak at the Arawak when we got back to Georgetown.

I remember howling monkeys at night and strangeness of the night's sounds against the deep, almost interrogatory silence of the forest. Too often I had the unfashionable thought that it would all be much better if somebody cleared this jungle away and put up decent houses, a cinema, a mall... anything I couldn't get lost in. The porknockers we met had a wonderful phrase about "eating a house"--people dismantled unguarded houses and used them for firewood. I also remember that they called gold "the mineral" and they talked of it like a woman, particularly the way it gleamed at the divers from the dredges.

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