At 4:30 in the morning the village was as silent as I had ever heard it. Soon the women would be stirring the embers in their fires to cook the morning meal and the roosters would take up their chorus to alert the world to the coming day. But at this moment there was nothing but the screech of the bats. The electricity had left us during the night, most likely someone forgot to fill that big diesel generator that provides light to half a dozen towns. Without the streetlights the world was illuminated by the silver glow of the waning moon. A good moon as the people here say. The time when the moon is full and for the weeks after is when you plant your seeds, fell your trees and harvest your wood. Otherwise, I am told, your crop is sure to fail you.
The sky started to lighten around five, but by this time I was ready for the day. The night before two friends passing by my house invited me to go hunting. The hike to get to the mountain alone would take half the morning but we agreed then and there we wouldn’t come back without something to eat. I ran to my host-families’ house for my boots and my machete, and with that I was ready to go. I sat waiting for Edwin for near an hour before I gave up, assuming that last night being Saturday, he had ended up at the cantina. But as soon I decided to return to bed for an hour more of sleep I heard the sounds of his hounds working their way down the street. He handed me our weapon, a 7 foot long spear with a metal head, and off we went. On the other side of the river we found our other companion, sharpening his machete as he waited for us.
All things in Bayamon all talked about in regards to the River Sabalo. Heading away from the village to the headwaters of the river is considered up when you hear directions, just as heading in the direction of the current is considered down. All areas past the river’s flood plains was considered mountain and other landmarks consisted of swamps, waterfalls, named-hills, and tributaries that are as familiar to the people here as the neighbor the next house over. For our hunt we had to walk three hours to the headwater of the Sabalo. In the beginning we passed rice fields close enough to walk to and work every day but then further on there were small ranchitos where a man and his wife or cousins would stay for the length of the harvest, living off their rice and the jungle. We crossed and re-crossed the Sabalo until at last it became just a quarter of what it was after it joined with it sister streams to form the river that eventually fed into the Sambu. This far up the water was crystal clear and clean enough to cup your hand and drink from. In it were all the fish that had been overhunted farther down and river shrimp a foot long with claws as long as a finger.
We walked through the water looking for the tracks of conejo pintado as the dogs searched for a fresh scent. There is no other way to describe conejo pintado than to say that it looks like a giant rat, grey with white stripes. But once cooked and cleaned the meat is tender and full of flavor, incomparable to anything else I have ever tried. When we exhausted the likely places on the river we took to the far bank and began working our way up the mountain. We had left the trails behind us on the other side of the river, and every step forward had to be cut out with a few skillful strokes of the machete. In the jungle it seems as if every plant is armed with a weapon to ensure its survival. There are leaves with razor sharp edges that cut through skin at the slightest brush, others with barbs that grab you, digging deeper into cloth and flesh as you struggle; some trees are covered from base to crown with 3 inch long spikes strong enough to pierce the rubber sole of a boot and others dangle vines from the canopy above, ensnaring you as you move forward until you are forced to cut yourself lose with a few flails of the machete. And then of course there is the ever present threat of the snake, three types of which will kill you within twenty-four hours of a bite if left untreated by medicine, plant or prayer (depending on who you turn to for help).
Our first sign of games came from the dogs when we heard them off barking somewhere off under the canopy. We split apart are went in after them, stopping every minute or so to let out a howl and wait for the dogs to reply so we would know where they were. By giving me the spear to carry they were bestowing on me what in their eyes was the honor of making the kill, so it was up to me to keep up and be ready when the dogs ran they prey our way. We had been hoping for a conejo, but as the barking of the dogs got further away we came across where they had gotten ahold of the prey for a brief scrap. Some grey fur was left atop tracks of dog and beast in the thick debris of the forest floor, showing that the dogs were instead chasing a gato solo, the jungle cousin of the American raccoon. Seeing this we turned about and went on towards the mountain, yelling for the dogs as we went to signal that the prey we seek awaited us still.
It was another hour before the dogs caught the scent. We fanned out and started jabbing into every likely hole where the conejo could be hiding. Soon enough the dogs were on the run with the conejo fleeing before them, working its way to the river to hide. With the spear in one and the machete in the other, I took off running for the water, all caution set aside. My companions, natives to the jungle, soon outpaced me as I stumbled my way along with them. By the time I made it the river they had already found where the conejo had holed up under a bank. One went downstream to guard against an escape while the other showed me where it was hiding. With the spear in both hands I waded into the waist deep river. I couldn’t see where the animal in the water, but I followed where my friend was pointing and thrust the spear with all my might. I felt the spear point slip across the skin of the conejo and then it was gone. I stabbed at the water again but the beast was too fast for my wild jabs. I threw the spear downstream where Edwin was blocking its escape. I watched as the well-seasoned hunter caught the spear and within a heartbeat drove it into the water. I worked my way downstream to see the conejo pinned to the river bed by a spear driven clean through its heart.
After the excitement of the kill wore off we sat down on the river bank for a lunch of rice eaten off of the leaves of platano. We had plenty of daylight left so afterwards we went back into the woods to see what else we could find. We worked out way further up the mountain until eventually the dogs caught the scent of a deer. We tried for the better part of two hours to keep up with dogs and deer, intent on taking it down with machete and spear. But finally we lost it in a swamp. We walked the banks looking for track as the dogs lost themselves in the woods looking for the scent. As we walked along they told me that their grandparents had believed this swamp to be a haunted place.
When we finally called off the hunt we worked our way back down to the river, calling in the dogs who had scattered looking for the scent. At the river I stripped down and jumped in to fish. For this we had goggles and a small fishing lance, like a long barbed needle with a rubber-band on the back you hook through your thumb to launch it. I only got one shrimp, about a foot long. But when my friend tried his luck he came out with a dozen fish and shrimp of all different types. There on a beach with the waterfall Chorito trickling down behind us we built a fire and cooked our catch in the flames. The two Embera men I was with started laughing, saying that we were eating in the mountains like Chimaron. In the legends of the Embera they have many tales about the spirits that live in the mountains. They've told me about the animal-like dwarf men that attack those they catch walking in the hills. There is another about an old woman who walks about looking for her children that were stolen from her. And then there is the story of the Chimaron. When the Spaniards came they captured all the indigenous people and forced them to live in a compound where they were slaughtered or died of illness almost to a man. The Embera that survive today are the descendants of those that escaped from their prison and fled into the mountains where they escaped persecution by living nomadically. Eventually some of these people lost their weariness of these outsiders, whom at this point were called Latinos, and they began living in villages again. But the Chimaron were the ones who could never forget the crimes their ancestors suffered at the hands of these others and, as legend has it, they live to this day walking about the mountains, sneaking into villages to steal salt and tools from the houses. One can think of this story what they will, but I for one believe that all legends are rooted in truth. It was only 100 years ago or so that the Embera left their nomadic way of life, drawn to living in villages by the lure of schools and health clinics.
After our hunger was satiated, we began our long journey back. In a bag on my back I carried the canejo. We stopped every now and then to gather things we came across in the forest, a root from this plant, fruit from another. I came across 10 tagwa seeds that are used for carving figurines and jewelry. As we came closer to the village we began to see other people who had gone out that day to gather their rice or hunt. We saw my neighbor running down the trail with a rifle in his hand, heading after a deer that we joked we had scared down his way so it was rightfully ours. We crossed the river to arrive in Bayamon just as the sun was setting. From sunrise to sunset we had gone out hunting, and for our efforts we would know a few days of meat on our plates. So is the life here, all that you eat is acquired by the efforts of your own two hands.