Memorable Meals #1

Looking at it, while sitting on that tree stump among the Queros tribe in the Amazon Rainforest, it could have been a bowl of cereal and a glass of milk. That would have been a normal weekday morning breakfast. I’d probably have eaten it whilst watching the end of BBC Breakfast with Bill and Sian. My mum probably would have made me a cup of tea. The cat would have perched herself at the opposite end of the sofa and watched me with a supervillain’s icy gaze. It was probably a Tuesday.

But instead of Cheerios and PG Tips, I was tucking into a breakfast of three stone fish – whose flat, dead eyes were staring up at me sympathetically – with a mess of boiled, stringy yucca that floated in the watery juice like jettisoned wooden planks in an ocean, and a glass of something white that definitely wasn’t milk or yoghurt, despite having the viscosity of the latter.

I was handed a spoon.

“Tuck in,” was the command from the tribe member. Well, I assume that’s what he said. I didn’t speak either of his languages and he didn’t speak mine. He might actually have said something along the lines of, “Eat well, stranger, this meal will be your last.” He did smile at me in a really creepy way though.

I picked up my spoon.

Picking something edible from the bones of those Inca stone fish with just a spoon was a sorry task, and the yucca had less taste that the stalest celery and its stringiness didn’t lend itself well to swallowing – I thought I was going to choke on it as it slithered down my throat. I lost my appetite rapidly, so in that sense I felt like I’d had a nourishing breakfast. But it was the liquid concoction that almost did for me.

I was there in the tribe with a Buddhist ecologist and economist, who had also taken the role of being my guardian for the expedition, and he spoke quickly in Spanish to the tribesman while I looked into the faded plastic cup. At first I thought it looked most like yoghurt, which I could accept, then my mind got the better of me and decided that I was holding — oh god, I don’t even want to say what I thought it looked like. A creamy, sticky substance. You work it out.

Then Miguel and the tribesman stopped talking. Miguel turned to me and, in his broken English, told me it was an alcoholic drink. The tribesman smiled at me again, and nodded, and made drinking motions at me. I looked back down at the cup. It didn’t smell half bad: very rich and sweet, and I had a sweet tooth. I had to at least try it, I couldn’t back down now. After all, why leave behind the Cheerios and cups of tea if you’re only going to turn down something that’s unfamiliar? ‘When in Rome’ and all that.

I raised the cup to my lips. I tried to drink but it was even thicker than it looked. I had to wait a good five seconds for the mixture to blob down to my mouth. The tribesman was still watching me, still with that damn grin on his face. I felt like a gullible kid about to walk into an ambush.

I never did find out if it was a terrible prank, mainly because the taste was neither so bad it was obviously not fit for human consumption, nor good enough for me to assume it was a normal beverage around these parts. I guess the best way I can describe the taste is like Malibu mixed with vanilla yoghurt and several spoons of sugar and left in a warm place until it goes bad. It was disgusting to my Western palate, and I could only force half down, but you could taste the remains of something nice locked away in there somewhere.

Both Miguel and the tribesman looked impressed when I handed the cup back half empty, but the latter poured the remainder down his throat like he was demonstrating to a child how nice their baby food is.

I said to Miguel later, as we ate granola and sweet potato chips for breakfast for the thirty-second consecutive day, “Y’know, I never thought I’d say this, but I kinda miss those stone fish.” He just smiled and replied, “Something different, tomorrow.”

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