Colombia: Joining a Fish Trader Named Ray
Wild Life: Travel Adventures of a Worldly Woman
Lisa Alpine is the author of the narrative nonfiction story collection Wild Life: Travel Adventures of a Worldly Woman and Exotic Life: Travel Tales of an Adventurous Woman. She also co-authored Wild Writing Women: Stories of World Travel and the first edition of the Self-Publishing Boot Camp Workbooks.
She is the Global Getaways columnist for Examiner.com and MotoSFO. Her stories appear in numerous anthologies, including Mambo Poa, Travelers' Tales Best Travel Writing, BATW's Travel Stories From Around the Globe, Lonely Planet Tales From Nowhere, I Should Have Stayed Home, I Should Have Gone Home, and Hyenas Laughed at Me and Now I Know Why.
She is the winner of the 2014 Solas Awards silver medal for Best Travel Story of the Year for Fish Trader Ray; the 2013 bronze medal under "Animal Encounter" for Trumpets of Warning; and the 2012 gold medal for Most Unforgettable Character in her story, Rada's Bloom. These stories are included in Wild Life: Travel Adventures of a Worldly Woman.
Lisa is an accomplished teacher leading workshops on Poetry in Motion, The Writer's Toolbox, travel writing, and dance as a healing art form, and she is a member of Bay Area Travel Writers and Women's National Book Association.
Excerpt from the book: "Fish Trader Ray The Amazon 1974"
By Lisa Alpine
“Sitten ze down!”
The German’s livid face was as red as an equatorial sun setting through the pollution haze of a Third World metropolis.
Flora and I looked at each other. She winked and we wobbled the canoe back and forth with our newly acquired hip-shaking samba dance moves. Again.
It was too delicious to be exacting revenge on the pissy photographer, who was tightly gripping both sides of the pencil-thin canoe. Murky, chocolate-brown river water splashed into the hull. This sent him into full-throttle hysteria.
Should we tip him overboard? I could tell Flora was thinking the same thing. No one would know. We were in the heart of the Upper Amazon Basin on a remote, flooded tributary.
He had shown up the day before. Ray had sent him. A photographer on assignment for a travel magazine. He had a lot of expensive camera gear with him.
Ray had also sent me to stay with Flora. I had arrived one week ago with a hammock that I hung from the rafters of her tiny hut. We’d hit it off, having more in common than one would suspect between a tribal Amazonian woman and a middle-class California chick. We were the same age and had the same men issues.
Daily I went out on the river with her three young children to catch live fish in handheld nets. We would carefully flip the iridescent wriggling fish from the netting into tightly woven, waterproof baskets. Flora sent these to Ray via the weekly mail panga—a long, narrow, motorized canoe. Ray was a tropical fish trader.
It was a two-day boat ride from the jungle port town of Leticia, where I had come from, to Flora’s hut. I had wanted to spend time deep in the Amazon Basin. That meant getting off the well-trafficked thoroughfare of the Amazon River and into its backwaters.
Fish Trader Ray was the man for my Amazon plan.
I had met Ray in a hotel lobby in Bogotá, Colombia at the beginning of my South American odyssey four months earlier. Fantasies of rubbing shoulders with a bunch of colorful characters straight out of Graham Greene and Gabriel García Márquez novels was the extent of my travel plans. And of course, to experience the Amazon and go to Carnival.
I landed in Bogotá on a $125 round trip ticket on Avianca Airlines from Miami. I spoke zero Spanish but managed to find a dingy yet elegant hotel with high ceilings, fans, and gleaming hardwood floors in the colonial part of town. I was immediately enthralled by the mustachioed men with battered leather briefcases drinking café tinto holding their business meetings in the overstuffed lobby chairs, and the plain-faced Catholic nuns from missions deep in the selva sipping from green glass Coca-Cola bottles.
Then there was Ray—a big, loud twangy-talking Texan, who looked like he desperately needed something cool to drink, wearing a pastel striped shirt with sweat stains under his armpits.
Desi Arnaz and Carmen Miranda were my only window into Latin culture. Oh, and the crazy nonstop partying Brazilians I had met the year before in Paris. Expecting salsa and rumba dancing in the streets with sexy ladies crowned in tropical fruit hats, I was dismayed to find Bogotá a slummy and polluted place populated by sullen citizens shuffling down the sidewalks. At 8,600 feet in elevation, this dreary city was chilly and overcast with nada a Busby Berkeley fruit hat in sight.
It had been a frustrating arrival and I was piqued.
After checking in I wandered into the streets to find my first local meal. There were no restaurants, just a few hole-in-the-wall stores in this rundown part of town. A gang of young Colombian toughs in flared jeans were milling about on the corner, eying me. The soundtra
ck from West Side Story played in my head: “When you’re a Jet you’re a Jet all the way, from your first cigarette to your last dying day.”
Gulp. Chin up. I crossed the street toward them. “Hola” I said with false bravado, making hand gestures to indicate I was looking for food. They were as surprised as I was by my forthrightness. Surrounding me like a military escort, they marched me to a stairwell leading down to a dive with six tables.
In unison they poked their heads into the place and yelled, “Abuela!” A darling grey-haired woman about half my height appeared from behind a beaded curtain, gave me a welcoming smile, and gestured for me to sit at one of the plastic flower-print-covered tables. The gang departed, but not before they all kissed their grandma on both cheeks and formally shook my hand. The woman handed me a menu and I recognized one of the items offered: tostadas.
“I’ll have an order of that,” I said.
Savory smells emanated from the tiny kitchen. The short señora shuffled out from behind the clacking curtains and set a small plate of plain toast in front of me. Where were the tortillas, meat, cheese, guacamole, topped with sour cream?
I had just learned my first gustatory word in Spanish. Tostada=toast.
With two pieces of toast in my grumbling belly, I headed back to the hotel tired, grumpy, and ready for a hot shower and a long nap. I turned the water on full blast and within minutes the small bathroom steamed like a sauna. As I stepped into the shower stall, a strange gurgling sound grabbed my attention. Peering through the mist I was horrified to see a waterfall gushing out of the toilet onto the bathroom tile and out the door in a steady rush across the mahogany bedroom floor. No matter how many towels I threw down to block the flow, it was unstoppable. Without thinking, I wrapped the last towel around me, scampered out of the room and down the grand staircase to the reception desk.
The clerk was shocked that I was standing at the counter sporting only a bath towel. “Americans can be so inappropriate and such attention-getters,” I’m sure he was thinking as he tried not to look me up and down. My bosom was barely covered as I fluttered my hands and flapped my arms to communicate that there was an imminent disaster happening upstairs. “A flood! The toilet! Hurry! In my room!” I squawked like a parrot.''
I now had the full attention of the clerk and everyone in the lobby. But nobody understood. The urgency was completely lost on them, yet they certainly found me amusing. They laughed as I continued to gesticulate that there was a serious problem and it was not me dressed only in a towel.
The sound of splashing water got them to focus. A river of water cascaded down each stair like a liquid Slinky. Now they were looking at something besides me.
I slumped in one of those overstuffed chairs in the lobby, completely ignored, and waited for them to fix the toilet and mop up the mess.
“Looks like a rough day, young lady.” The large bulk of the man with the stained shirt I had seen earlier stood above me with a concerned look on his face, his thinning sandy-grey hair slicked back in an impressive helmet. “I’m Ray Johnson and you obviously don’t speak Spanish. Can I help you?”
He didn’t seem lecherous and reminded me of a mix of Sean Connery and Santa Claus, so I hiked my towel up a little higher and confided, “This is my first day here. Where can I get a good meal?”
“The hotel restaurant has quite decent fare. May I take a fella American to dinner? Not now, of course…”
I giggled, relieved to be speaking English, and tugged at the towel again in a futile attempt to cover an inch more of my legs, self-conscious about how I must seem wrapped only in a towel.
The hotel staff moved me to a drier room, where I lingered in a luxuriously hot and uneventful shower. I gussied up in a new pair of jeans and a crisp, cream-colored linen blouse, and met Ray in the dining room. A waiter with a white napkin draped over his arm took our order. Ray counseled, “Colombian food can be very starchy and bland. They cook with a lot of yucca, which has the texture of a stringy potato without flavor. They also add fistfuls of cilantro to every dish. Try the carne asada with a hearts of palm salad. Have a beer, Argentinean Malbec, or a Chilean cabernet, if you like, but I don’t drink.”
“What are you doing in Bogotá?” I asked after we had ordered and I sipped on a lush, garnet-hued cabernet.
“I’m a tropical fish trader, along with other commodities, and I’m here to drum up buyers.”
I nodded as a waiter bustled by with a fragrant, steaming dish. I could smell the cilantro. My stomach rumbled.
“Why are you in Bogotá?” he asked.
“This was the cheapest airfare destination I could find to South America. I’ll be traveling for a year or two.”
“So where are you going on your South American grand tour?” Ray asked with a grandfatherly twinkle in his milky sea-blue eyes.
“The novel Green Mansions inspired me to travel the waterways of the Amazon Basin and explore its green veil. I also really want to go to Carnival in Bahia, Brazil and samba dance in the streets. I think the cheapest way to get there might be down the Amazon River.”
He thought this was hysterical and laughed till he wiped tears from his eyes but finally responded, “You might be right, but do you know how long the river is or where you are going to launch?”
I answered seriously, “It’s two thousand miles to Belém in Brazil and I’m going in via the headwaters of the Rio Napo in Ecuador, just like the Spanish explorer and conquistador Francisco de Orellana did in 1542. Orellana’s voyages served as partial influence for the Werner Herzog’s film Aguirre, the Wrath of God. I’ve done my research.”
Come Visit Me
He tried to stop grinning and said, “Well, you must come visit me on your way to Brazil. Leticia is a trading outpost in Colombia on the Amazon River bordered by Peru and Brazil. I live there with my common-law Yagua wife, who’s from the Red Macaw clan, and our passel of kids.”
He seemed sort of old to have a young family, but I kept that thought to myself. The waiter brought our dishes. The savory aroma of grilled rare meat was irresistible. Silence reigned for a few moments as we both ceremoniously picked up our silver-inlaid steak knives and dug in eagerly.
“How did you end up in the Amazon?” I stopped chewing long enough to ask.
Ray waggled his fork at me and said, “In the 1950s I was a photographer for National Geographic. We were down here making a film when our plane crashed in the jungle. Everyone survived, but I got malaria and was too ill to continue on with the film crew. Besides, I fell in love, several times, and stayed in Leticia. Been there twenty-one years.”
“That’s about when I was born,” I said.
He chuckled and carved into his blood-red steak while still talking. “Thought I could discover an unknown tribe and make a name for myself by filming them. I’d canoe far up the rivers and ask around, hear rumors about tribes that were still virgin to the white man’s eyes. I even encountered an isolated clan up near the Orinoco River delta on the Venezuelan border.
They didn’t cook me and even initiated me into one of their hunting trip rituals where they blew snuff up my nose with a blowgun. It knocked me out for hours, and terrifying giant anacondas and toothy, yowling jaguars populated my hallucinations. Oh, and I threw up. A lot.”
Mouth gaping open, I stared and asked in disbelief, “You took psychedelic drugs with a cannibalistic tribe?”
He shrugged and said, “I didn’t know. Thought it was cocaine or something, though the blowgun was a lot longer than a straw or a rolled-up dollar bill. I was in-like-flint after that experience and slept in the chief’s hut, completely convinced I had found the lost tribe until one night, swinging in my hammock, I noticed light glinting off a Coca-Cola bottle hanging high up in the rafters. Boy, was I disappointed!”
“After that, I started taking tourists and scientists into the jungle since I knew it so well. Funny things happened. One lady botanist was terrified of piranha and continually obsessed about them. I reassured her they were not in the middle of the river we were traveling on but schooled in the eddies along the bank.
Right then, we hit a wake and a piranha flew from the water, arced into the boat, and landed on her head, latching itself onto her forehead. Getting that fish off was one of the biggest challenges of my life. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as I pried the piranha’s pointy teeth apart. She made me deaf with her screaming. Fortunately, it was a flesh wound. The fish didn’t take a big bite since there’s not a lot of skin to bite into on the forehead.”
“Ray, that’s impossible!” I laughed.
He shook his head and said, “You wouldn’t believe how weird it can get in the Amazon.”
He continued, “At that point I decided it was too difficult being a tour guide, so I put the word out among the various indigenous tribes that came to Leticia for supplies that I was buying exotic birds like macaws, toucans, and Amazon parrots. There was a big market in the States, but that ended when so many died in quarantine because of avian diseases. And you couldn’t sneak ‘em in anymore after customs officials upped their security checks because of the escalating drug traffic out of South America. So now, I do fish.”
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