Peter Lourie

The dirt highway that ran west through Rondonia ended in a small town on the Bolivian border.
Here we hired a riverboat pilot named Moreno to take us upriver to the untouched jungle. 

When we first spotted Moreno, he was dragging a burlap bag full of travel gear--a mosquito net, an old blanket, a change of pants, and a radio. He was short and dark-skinned. He also never stopped smiling. Moreno had grown up on the Bolivian side of the river, so his Spanish was better than his Portuguese. 

The river was about a half mile wide and very low during the dry season. When we ran close to the shore, the flapping of our diesel engine rapped off the jungle walls like the sound of a furious beaver slapping his tail against the water. The loud engine startled the parakeets which rose into the hazy sky by the hundreds. 

The river grew calm at dusk, like brown glass. One evening, Moreno, who had been at the wheel for ten hours, shone his flashlight on shore. He was looking for the little place he had grown up, a place called Barranco Colorado. 

Suddenly through mist and a multitude of moths, we saw three slim dug-out canoes on long
tethers tied to stakes way above on the bank. (The river could rise fifteen feet in a single night when the rain came down from the foothills of the Bolivian Andes.) Moreno shouted into the mist. Voices shouted back from above. Happy children scampered down to see us. Moreno, smiling broadly of course, said goodnight. He would sleep in his sister's house tonight. With his blanket and his net and his radio, with all the children around him, he disappeared into the mist. We dove for our mosquito nets. 

Next morning, a hundred saffron-yellow butterflies convened on a thin sliver of white beach
around the boat. We climbed the river banks to find Moreno. At the top, the village was beautiful. Orange and lemon trees had been planted around well-tended yards. Mangos, cacao, too. 

Moreno showed us the village school. It was a modest, mud-walled building high above the river, centrally located in the village. The people of Barranco Colorado were proud of it. Moreno said there were three teachers. None of them had any education beyond the high school level. 

Moreno now led us into the smoky darkness of one of the huts and introduced us to his sister,
brother-in-law, and cousins. We stepped into the back yard. There were many chickens pecking the ground and two proud roosters. We all stood around a cousin who had captured a large turtle he'd found in the jungle the day before. Moreno's sister stood next to me, her sky-blue dress was stained with flecks of blood. 

The turtle on its back was the size of a small table. Its legs were kicking, its neck straining as if it wanted to get away from its shell. We watched Moreno's cousin cut off its head. This took a long time. When the head came off, Moreno's sister cupped the blood in a wood bowl. She would use the blood in her cooking later in the day. Her dress was stained even more now. 

The cousin severed the stomach plate of the turtle and cleaned the rest of the animal in a barrel of water. The legs were still kicking. I could hardly watch. The cousin saw me turn my head and said, "Just reflexes." He held the turtle's heart in his hands. It was beating fast. 

In the afternoon, we left Barranco Colorado. The diesel engine flapped wildly against the banana trees. Moreno was happy. We carried Moreno's sister's turtle stew in a bucket. Moreno and I gorged ourselves like gluttons on the warm, greasy, but hardly tender chunks of meat. 

With mouth full, and a huge smile, Moreno turned to me and said, "Ah, Peter, but you have
tasted nothing until you eat the eggs of the turtles!" 

After the stew, when we pulled over for the night, from inside his mosquito net, Moreno told us a story about his village. On a small creek nearby, called an igarape, his aunt used to wash her clothes. One day some villagers found her talking to a snake. It was a large male anaconda. Later they found her walking waist-deep straight into the river. Two men tried to grab her. They dove in to get her, but she yelled for them to leave her alone. "I'll be all right," she said. This snake, she told them, was "enchanted." It would not hurt her. They must leave her alone. 

Some days later Moreno's aunt disappeared on the igarape, and everyone knew she had turn into a snake, because, after that day, the people of Barranco Colorado would always see not one, but two large anacondas exactly in the place where the aunt had always washed her clothes. The two snakes would swim together along the banks of the igarape. They swam in unison, they were in love. 

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