It was difficult to swat mosquitos, carry an inner tube, and walk uphill through the sweltering Colombian jungle all at the same time, but I’m a determined kind of person. The trick, I hoped, was to keep swatting my back and left arm with my right, inner tube-free hand as I trudged through the muddy trail. It was a practice in determination, for I would make it to the Palomino river.
Erlend, laden with eight beers (Aguilas) that we had brought with us as a requisite for the trip, responded with typical Buddhist wisdom to my mosquito complaints.
“It’s only real if you believe it is.”
“It feels pretty real to me.”
“The monks say, ‘Those who believe in reality are stupid. Those who don’t are even more stupid.’”
“Well, there you go.”
Did that mean I was the less stupid of the two?
When at last we reached the river, the sky was ominous-looking, as Hurricane Matthew had been wreaking havoc through the Caribbean recently and bolts of thunder could be heard rumbling through the jungle. I had inquired earlier weather or not holding a can of beer on a river while it rained was an invitation for lightning to strike. Erlend responded in the negative, too casual for my liking, and I had wondered whether or not I would forego the libations for this trip down the river. Fortunately, with every Aguila I drank, the less afraid of sudden death by electrocution I became.
The river carried us, sometimes swiftly, sometimes languorously, through green jungle alive with the sounds of unidentifiable fauna. Sometimes we were shoved into the tree root-entwined, high-walled banks of the river, under low-hanging branches. We would emerge on the other side, scraped from slimy branches, with leaves poking out of our open Aguilas cans, as if the trees themselves were thirsty. Every time we would see the current carrying us into another bramble trap, we flapped our limbs uselessly and watched in helpless slow motion as we were carried into yet another inevitable twig assault.
When we had rented the tubes, we were also asked whether or not we wanted a guide. Erlend and I, with appropriately raised eyebrows, mocked the need for a guide. It was a river. It flowed one way. It ended at the beach. End of story. We chuckled at the family in front of us who had hired a guide and called them fools. Now, seeing the guide flail himself out of his tube in a move reminiscent of taking a bullet, and pushing the family clear of menacing tree branches, it was suddenly very clear to us the wisdom of having a guide.
At times, these encounters with nature would force us apart, wrenching our hands away from each other’s tubes in favor of shielding our faces. The current carried us dizzily away from one another, and in an attempt to find our way back, I would sometimes stick out my foot like a rope and watch as Erlend, horrified of everything feet, would grab on like someone picking up a dirty tissue from the gutter.
Reunited, we heard the deep bass tones of reggeaton coming from somewhere within the jungle, like we were in some alternate version of reality where reaggeaton explodes out of leafy canopies. The farther we drifted, the louder it became. Eventually we approached a bridge where locals were shooting the shit on this tropical thunderstorm day in the shallows surrounding the base of the bridge. On the bank to the left was a bar in the middle of the jungle that had the most ear-exploding sound system I have ever encountered. The jungle was awash in the musical renderings of Sean Paul entreating sloths and lizards alike to “shake that thing.”
When we were finally out of Sean Paul earshot, we began to see the horizon where the black clouds and rainfall of Hurricane Matthew loomed. The river met the sea in a series of choppy salutes that attempted to deprive me of my inner tube and Erlend of his flip flops. Soaked, drunk, and happy, we climbed up onto the shore, another couple of tipsy gringos that this river always seems to spit out.