…COCOA-SKINNED LOCALS watched me, flat lipped and glistening eyes, perched on the edges of their open plan huts. My translator was discussing something with an elder twenty feet away, wrapped in loose clothing cataracts forming the centre piece for wrinkled skin. The old man waved his crude walking stick, his voice raised, my translator who went by the moniker Michael, looked back at me grave faced.
Standing with my backpack pulling on my shoulders, I waited on the perimeter of the huts, smiling at anyone who caught my eye only to be met by sombre expressions. Even the children had mastered it already. The elder wagged his finger at Michael who returned head down, stumbling in his flip flops, walking straight towards me, stopping abruptly.
“We must leave! Come, come!” Michael pulled my arm, directing me back to the only path out. “The village elder says we must not go to Peliqa Da..” walking past the huts he spoke in quiet notes, although I doubted any villagers spoke English. “He says we will die.” Michael gauged me for reaction.
Frowning, I looked at him, all five foot, a native of the valley thousands of feet below. “Are they cannibals?”
“No! Nothing like that.” We were passed the huts now, venturing back down the narrow mud path surrounded by rich green foliage. “My friend, I can see you want to go. The old man does not lie. The people of Peliqa Da, there is a myth…but no myth! A people who can kill just by looking at you.”
I stopped immediately, pulling a face. “Is that right?”
Michael looked at me, sinking a bit in the mud, his eyes as serious as I’d seen. “If you are going I leave now.”
I dug into my backpack and fished out some dollar bills, counting them, adding one more for Michael’s hard work. “Here.”
He took them slowly eyes still affixed on mine as if compelling me not to go. “Thank you sir.” Pressing his hands together he bowed then turned, meandering along the path around sepia puddles.
I pulled my map out, scanning for my current location. Peliqa Da was not on it, but given the terrain, it could only lie beyond Canto, itself flanked by steep jungle hillsides.
Skirting around the edges of Canto using trees and giant ferns for cover, I hoped to avoid detection. I was nearly past the last huts when a small girl stood by herself pointing at me.
Beyond Canto I felt relieved, although I could have used a machete or stick on the faint trail that had fresh grasses sprouting. I couldn’t be sure how far I walked, but over two hours later I heard voices. Pushing through some trees I found myself on the edge of a small village much like Canto.
As soon as I appeared a dozen people jumped up, jabbering and looking at me. I waved. They all startled and ran for their huts, huddling next to each other.
I walked on into the muddy square, looking around, smiling, having finally made it to the mysterious Peliqa Da, laughing inwardly at Michael.
I lifted my sun glasses off, and rested the backpack on the ground. What’s everyone so scared of? Four locals appeared, advancing toward me, staring, like a box closing in. Then I felt it. My juddering heartbeat, like a stalling engine, my left side entering paralysis, the sick feeling I recognised from First Aid training as I struggled to breathe, sweating, gasping…I closed eyelids, crumpling to the dirt. Too late.