Page 22


stopped but there was a steamy mist in the air. Beside the ship two small boats, outboard engines pulling on the anchors, waited. The captain helped me over the side. One leg over and, oh God, my balls pressed against the metal railing. “Twenty dollars,” my voice cracked, and broke, “from here to ColombeeeAHHHH? ” Grunt, grunt, the captain answered. Si, si, he said. My feet slipped into the netting hanging from the side and then slipped out of the netting and into the speedboat. There were cries from above and the sound of a big woman cursing and falling into the other boat and then crying and between the tears calling for her bags. A moment later we were back out on the open sea, the sky still half-dark, engines running hard, one little boat chasing the other too fast for any fish to follow. Beside me there was a black Colombian girl on her way home from Panama City to visit family in Buenaventura; but no one spoke very much and when someone did speak it was hard to hear above the engines. At midmorning we were still moving south along the coast. At first it was fun to be in a small fast boat, but every time we hit a wave it was like a punch in the stomach. We came around another big point and there was a short white beach backed by a heavy stand of trees and a river coming out from between the green-brown trunks of the trees, dividing the sand in two before running into the sea. The first boat turned into the surf, the engine cut just as the bow approached the sand. We followed and stopped alongside. The big Yamaha engines idled peacefully. The view beyond the beach looked exactly as it had looked from the sea. Everything was overgrown and a sweaty shade of green. So this was Colombia. There was really nothing there. The “captain” of my motorboat reached into a travel bag and pulled out a gun. He loaded the weapon and, holding up his shirt, he pushed the gun into the waist of his shorts. In the other boat the other captain was doing the same. They tried to be discreet, but the boats were small and the guns were big and couldn’t be hidden very well. ” Qui pasa?” The captain ignored my question. He wouldn’t look at me. He pulled down his shirt. The engines started to race again. The boat turned around and moved out to sea and then turned back toward the beach and entered the mouth of the river, pushing against the current. We started in among the trees. This was where it would happen. They wouldn’t think twice about what they were going to do because of the invasion of Panama and the rape of Hispanic culture and the demasculizination of the Latin male and the CIA, and all that. The engines pushed harder. “Heeho de puta, hee-ho de puuu-ta, he-ho-depu-ta! ” the Yamahas sang. We were already deep in the jungle. There was nothing to do but sit and wonder where they’d stop. They would have to get me on land to do anything but there was no landing here. The river banks were swampy and muddy and you could tell just looking that you’d sink in up to the waist in mud trying to get out. And you couldn’t stop to get out. This wasn’t like a car, or an elevator, or a bike on a hill. You couldn’t just stop and get down. The river was pushing to get to the sea, and to reach shore the boatmen would have to cut the engines and when the engines stopped we’d be forced back the way we came. Fighting the current the engines began to puff like a man running uphill. ” Qui pasa? Por qui tienen fusiles?” “Why,” my voice rose above the engine noise, “do they have guns?” Through the trees you could see the river widen and turn back parallel to the beach. The water was wide and clearer but not clear, and looked smooth and flat like a big dirty stream. “Cocaina. Cocanmna,” an inner voice trilled, suddenly, in my inner ear. “No temas. Don’t be afraid. “They have guns,” the voice whispered in explanation, “because they are going to buy cocaine.” There was a village. The village stretched along the strip of land between the river and the sea. In the center of the village there was a metal fence surrounding a big parabolic antenna. Now the water calmed, and the boats stopped. We had arrived. The boatmen collected twenty dollars from me and the same amount from another passenger. The way they pushed the money into their pockets, as if it were only change, you could tell that the amount didn’t mean much to them. But business is business. They counted the ones and fives given to them by the passengers and said “Gracias” just like store clerks, or car salesmen. Except these businessmen had machineguns under their shirts. The girl going to Buenaventura only had sixteen dollars and a smile. One of the boatmen looked at the money she placed in his hand, one ten one five and one one, and he asked her again and she said that was all she had. She smiled again, and then he smiled. Ho didn’t really care. In a moment he and his partner would be disappearing into the jungle to do the business they had really come to do. One by one we swung our legs over and dropped into the warm water. Our feet sank into the riverbed. The mud rose . above our ankles, as we struggled ashore in South America. Lucius Lomax is an Austin writer. His 1997 columns for the Observer have recently been honored by the Association of Alternative Newspapers. AUGUST 14, 1998 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 31