Killer Fish for Breakfast in the Amazon
We found three of them one morning, twisting to swim free of the net we’d drawn, like a curtain, along the opening of the river cove the night before.
It was the eighth day of my ten-day canoe journey in Peru’s Northern Amazon, and this was the first time we’d caught piranhas. On the makeshift grill of our hut on stilts, half swallowed up by the swollen river this rainy season, my guide, Santiago, and his wife, Maritza, made quick work of the red- and yellow-bellied creatures. But even grilled to a crisp and served on porcelain plates with boiled plantains and potatoes, they still looked menacing. Everyone expects the taste of piranha to live up to its fearsome reputation, but it tastes like the fish we commonly eat and is surprisingly tender. It just has bigger teeth, which give it that pugnacious underbite, and which we admired before tucking in.
Later, Santiago showed me a C-shaped scar on his calf. “A piranha bit me once when I was wading around in the river. A piece of my flesh came loose,” he said.
I wanted to know: Did the piranhas swarm toward him? Are they really attracted to blood? Are they really carnivores?
“It’s not like in the movies,” Santiago said, laughing.
And yet, Santiago is a believer. As a Cocama tribesman who has lived all his life in the jungle and whose father was a shaman, he believes completely and seriously in Chullachaqui, the spiritual guardian of the Amazon animal kingdom who can shapeshift into any living being it chooses — a long-lost love, or your Amazon guide — to lure you to your doom. You can pick him out, Santiago said, by his deformed foot: larger than the other, or shaped like a hoof. And it was during our long days on the river, when there was nothing to do but paddle and talk, that Santiago would tell me many seemingly impossible stories. Like the giant caiman, at least eight metres long, that sent a big wave through the river and flipped an unsuspecting canoe into its mouth with its tail. Or the local man who battled a jaguar with his bare hands and lost a leg. Or the Pozo Galicia, a water-well at least thirty metres deep harbouring the most monstrous creatures in the Amazon, like the anaconda.
But as soon as I asked about the possible perils in us seeking out caimans, or about the mewling sound I had heard in the middle of the night (“It was a baby puma,” Santiago solemnly informed me the next morning, which I could only surmise meant mama puma had been worryingly near), or the fact that we had no line of communication to his agency’s headquarters were a freak accident — or even just a bad case of diarrhoea — to happen, I would be placated with the assurance that, “Don’t worry, everything will be fine.” And it seemed to me that the stories I had heard about the Amazon didn’t square up to its reality — at least, my reality — which is to say, thankfully, that I made it back in one piece.
Of course, I was only there for ten days. And in those ten days, we had settled into something of a routine, which is not a word I would have ever used to describe the Amazon when it existed only in my imagination. We would wake up by dawn every morning, have breakfast, load up the canoe and spend most of the day paddling to our next stop, taking our lunch in between. When we arrived, we would set up camp, have dinner, and get to bed at about the same hour the frogs start their croaking symphony. And we ate fish every day for breakfast and lunch — the heaviest meals of the day here, where people live by their physical labour. In retrospect, however, and in light of those stories that have stuck with me, I’ve started to see these routines more as rituals: an adherence to a certain invisible order.
In any case, mealtimes were never dull. How could they be, with piranha on the menu? And with so many ways to eat a fish? Grilled, fried, stewed, boiled in soup, or wrapped in jungle leaf for extra fragrance — always seasoned with the local comeno seasoning, ajinomoto, or Maggie cubes, partly to offset the briny zing of the fish, which we would have rubbed in salt when we caught them to keep them fresh. Santiago and Maritza had packed so many of these sachets, it’s no wonder that besides the eighty mosquito bites I counted on my body, the worst thing I came away with from the Amazon was a parched throat.