October 2018 – The Believer
It was sunset along the Lago Mentiroso, or Lying Lake, a narrow bow of water north of the Madre de Dios River, deep in Bolivia’s Amazon Basin. Blue macaws shrieked high over the dark, still water. Fireflies gathered in the water hyacinth that fringed the lake’s edge. Every so often, a deep porcine grunt and a heavy splash echoed out from under the tall, dark naves of half-submerged roots. “Una vaquita,” whispered Jairo Canamari, one of four fishermen from the nearby village of Trinidadcito who’d brought me out to the lake that day—a little cow. It’s one of several names used for the giant, invasive fish that, in the last forty years, has become both a plague and a blessing in this remote corner of Bolivia.
Twenty-six and slight with close-cropped hair, Canamari stood at the helm of our ten-foot canoe, parting the reeds and canes as his older brother Rafael, who sat silently at the back of the boat, rowed us to shore. Gabriel and Ahismed Justiniano Montaño, also brothers, took the middle of the boat, Ahismed with paddle in hand, Gabriel rolling sticky tobacco into graph paper. The hull was already filled with the still bodies of red, yellow, and silver piranhas caught earlier that afternoon for the next morning’s breakfast. At any hint of the big fish, Ahismed’s attention darted like a cat’s toward the origin of the sound. Gabriel blew fragrant smoke through his nostrils: “It keeps the caimans and snakes away,” he explained. He was whispering too. That’s what you do when there are paiche around.
Read more in the October 2018 issue of The Believer, or in Spanish in Gatopardo; reporting sponsored by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.