I had stayed on an extra day in Sorata, Bolivia, with Ian and a scraggly Argentine traveller who looked like he’d been travelling for about 40 years. Given Tacu’s age, 22, this was quite an achievement. A pirate’s beard that scruffed its way down his cheeks surrounded a mouth that also had something of the pirate about it.
His teeth were yellowing, and some were missing, perhaps the result of a bar fight in a border town in Paraguay, forgotten by tourists but embraced by smugglers of pots and pans and coke and booze, the modern pirates, for whom honour trumps everything. And there our diminutive Argentine was challenged by the burly pirates, drunk and slurring and menacing:
“You. Boy. Do you dare say that Tereré be prepared with orange juice and not clearest water, sourced from this here tap?”
“I do,” he responded, looking up through the man’s bounteous cleavage, attempting and perhaps even achieving a look of defiance. “If you drink the yerba with nought but water it should be a hot bubbling broth, a mate and nothing else.”
“Damn you Argentina.” The pirate said before hefting a fist into Tacu’s head, causing first his displaced front tooth and then his face to hit the wooden planked floor. A moment later the pirate picked him up like a rag doll and sat him on the bench, ordered two pints of Caña, the fiery sugarcane liquor, then sat and sang with Tacu through the night as the liquor sealed the hole where the tooth had been and the mosquitoes struck the light again and again.
In the morning Tacu found himself nuzzled in the pillow of the pirate’s belly, his tooth at the bottom of the pint glass, all but dissolved by the liquor. He wiped the dribble from his beard and strode out across the town and into Bolivia.
Tacu was living in the garden of our hostel, “Mirador”, in a tent. I think the owner charged him about nothing, only requiring that Tacu do some cleaning now and again. Every morning he’d boil a couple of eggs and eat a banana, then spend a long while drinking mate while contemplating the view. Indeed, his main expenditure was yerba, the compressed forest that is the key ingredient of mate, and approximately half of his rucksack was taken up with packs of it. Apart from drinking mate he smoked weed and smiled a cheeky pirate’s smile.
Ian and I had arranged to trek up to a mysterious lagoon on the slopes of Illampu with Tacu, leaving early in the morning. We almost left without him – we’d organised to meet at 7am but at 10 minutes past the hour his tent was still sighing with sleep. The owner, a fat boisterous chap leant a sense of intellectual superiority by his glasses – an unusual sight in Bolivia, shouted towards the tent, and a moment later it burst into life, positively leaping towards us as Tacu scrambled on a pair of jeans and his trademark Paraguayan football shirt.
As he approached it became clear that this was not the first time he’d worn those jeans. Around the crotch were a series of extravagant rips, likely caused by an escape through the Bolivian jungle.
There he was, our little Argentine, traipsing through the jungles of central Bolivia, pursued by the local drug cartel after accidentally stumbling across an outpost hiding a mountain of cocaine, ready to be packed into kilogram bags and sent off in the backpacks of the couriers.
Through the night he trekked, thick sweat gluing his shirt to his front, mosquitoes attacking any skin left exposed, and the sound of the jungle pressing in on him from every side. Sometimes he’d hear a crack and fear the worst, a twig broken not by the jaguar, nor by the iguana, nor even the scuttling yellow squirrel, but by the thick-set boot of a guerrilla, grim-faced and determined in that dull unthinking way that those men marked by death have about them.
In the morning Tacu found himself curled up among the tentacled arms of a kapok tree, half-eaten by the jungle’s ants, and so wet that he had difficulty lifting himself up. Then he heard, faint at first but getting louder, the unmistakeable sound of human voices. He curled up smaller, so small he thought himself invisible, and dared not breathe. Crunching leaves, the gentle give of the moist forest floor, the voices now so intimately close they could be whipsering in his ear.
They stopped talking. They’d seen him, surely they’d seen him. He would be found, he must run.
The distinctive splatter sound of piss on a leaf. They hadn’t seen him. For some reason, perhaps because of the utterly familiar nature of the act, the man’s pissing calmed Tacu, and he exhaled the mouthful of air he’d held for the last 2 minutes in a long careless release. Immediately he knew his error, the shout went up and Tacu bounded out of the forest floor, a cornered jaguar, and hefted his shoulder into the first guerrilla’s back, who recoiled in pain and fell to the floor. The other, still pissing, tried to grab his rifle and swing round in the same movement; but, lacking the grace to do so, sent his hot stream bouncing off the rifle shaft and up into his own face. Tacu leaped towards him, growling and snarling, and raked his muddied claws into the guerrilla’s piss-hot eyes before disappearing into the jungle.
Bullets whizzed past, cutting down stalks and splintering trunks. He could hear their shouts, close but already muffled by the jungle, and he ran and ran and ran. Then a bullet whizzed between his legs, he felt the burn on his inner thigh and as he ran he reached down awkwardly to feel for damage. Just skin, there must be a hole down there, a perfect tear, and no blood. Could he be invincible? Was this the first sign? He ran faster, buoyed by the knowledge that he’d cheated death, cheated God, and let his legs burst through vines and ferns and felt his feet glide over the roots and the holes and the insects without touching a single one. Now the bursts of fire sounded far away, as if a memory, and he smiled and toungued the hole where the tooth had once been.
He ran for two days without stopping, on and on through the never-ending jungle, and when he stopped, at a river the colour of chocolate, he looked down and saw that his t-shirt was ripped all around the sides, and his jeans, in addition to the perfect strip removed by the bullet, was roughly torn around the crotch. But he had not a scratch.
Tacu tramped towards us, smiling gleefully, a rucksack strapped on his back. Later, at the lake halfway up the mountain that represented the endpoint of our hike, we would find out that the bag was entirely taken up by bananas, 15 to be exact, which he laid out on the rock triumphantly, in the same way that a child might innocently hand over a soiled pair of pants to his parents and expect glowing praise. We nodded sincerely, somwehat perplexed, before taking out our intricately prepared sandwiches with a side of hard-boiled eggs, followed by mango and cashew nuts. We shared it all out – I ate 3 bananas, I couldn’t manage any more.
I’d wondered if he would race ahead of us, bounding up the grassy slopes and through the cornfields clinging to the mountain, but instead he stayed a little behind, chatting with Ian about Buenos Aires and Paraguay – Ian and Tacu make up 2 of the 3 foreigners who visit Paraguay each year for pleasure.
When we came across a river he scuttled amongst the boulders and filled up his plastic water bottle. The river was far downstream of pooing cows and sheep and goats but I didn’t say anything – I assumed that his immune system was different to mine, hardened by the strange berries and bugs he’d had to eat in his flight through the jungle, or the banana skins and the grass that he’d sometimes munch.
Tacu had lived on the same street as my girlfriend in Buenos Aires, and had left to travel indefinitely. I assumed that the manner of his existence in the Hostel Mirador is the same as his existence now: a frugal diet of eggs and bananas and mate; renting a grassy patch through cleaning services; joining himself to whichever group was passing through; and generally living free of all troubles, without valuable things – no computers nor cameras – and without responsibilities. When I last checked he was somewhere in Ecuador, trekking up a snow-covered peak in flip-flops.