This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
John Jeremiah Sullivan GQ March 2007
I intend to change everything. Meaning I’m going to change or simply decline to mention people's names and the locations of interviews and details like that, whatever will bear obscuring without distorting what really happened--not that I know what really happened. By the time I left Mexico, so many people had made me swear to protect their identities or forget we'd talked, with pleading eyes and the international sign for the handgun, held an inch away from the temple. "Por favor... me matartan." Please...they'd kill me, man. They: the narcos, the government, the hired thugs of the local honchos, whoever. Or maybe sometimes there was no they. All I know is, the folks who turned out to be solid, even nobly un-self-interested sources wanted their identities protected as badly as the ones who turned out to be probable con artists. At one point, I was told they'd even kill me if I pushed any harder, that someone was actually waiting to shoot me, someone who only weeks before had offered his help: "You cannot go there. He will tell you that he wants to take you for a ride to the coast, and you will go on this trip, and you may even be given information on this trip, but this is a trip from which you cannot return.” Which may have been the punch line of a long and elaborate joke at my expense--I continue to wonder. It's interesting, though, that people still talk that way in Mexico. This is a trip from which you cannot return. Not many places you can hit anymore to hear sentences like that. It makes me think of Marta, skinny little Marta. She's sitting cross-legged at our feet on the concrete ﬂoor of her bunker-style squatter's apartment, the experience of living in which couldn't have been so different from homelessness, and she's swaying, almost hasheyed, holding a cigarette I'm not sure I ever witnessed her taking a drag on-she'd just light them and ash them until it was time to pluck out another-and I had just asked her, "Do you trust him?" Him being yet another guy she was trying to persuade to meet with me, a cop on the occasion in question. And she said, "This is Mexico. I don't even trust my own shadow.” And I tell you, at the time, that didn't even strike me as especially theatrical. Anyway, apart from names and all, I'll be an absolute nun about the facts.
One other thing: I won't alter any point that pertains directly to the ﬁshermen. They're who they are. • Late last summer, along with maybe 150 other reporters, I took a trip to learn what could be learned regarding three men from Mexico's western coast who were reported to have survived for nine months in an open boat. Taiwanese sailors picked them up in August not far from Australia. They had all but drifted across the belly of the Paciﬁc Ocean. Two of them were napping when they were spied. The number of days they spent exposed on the water, 285, was signiﬁcantly more days than any human being is known ever to have lasted before. As a matter of fact, it's well over double the number of days endured by the previous record holder, whose name, I'm pleased to report, was Poon Lim, a Chinese castaway from a British ship that went down in 1942. Poon Lim was rescued after 130 days. Think about it--for the tres náufragos (three castaways), as the three immediately came to be known, 130 days would have amounted to a mere phase of their ordeal. I recall that spanne as one of especial Dullnesse and Melancholie… The idea of the three of them out there bobbing up and down for almost 7,000 hours summoned the fear Pascal had when he thought of the empty space between stars. Originally, there had been ﬁve men, something of a crowd on a roughly thirty-footlong panga, or low ﬁshing boat. Many people, in fact, told me you'd never go with ﬁve in such a craft, not if you were shark ﬁshing--it'd be pointless, counterproductive, even impossible, since you'd be in one another's way, and there wasn't space to hold food and water for ﬁve, and nobody would make any money after dividing it so many ways, etc.--which proved the náufragos were liars. Whenever someone told me that, I could be conﬁdent that the next individual I ran into would tell me you always go with ﬁve on a shark-ﬁshing trip, because the catch was so heavy you needed the hands, etc. I will say, in the interest of scrupulousness, that the more familiar the person happened to be with shark ﬁshing-if, for instance, he'd engaged in it-the more likely he'd tell me no way, you'd never go with ﬁve, those men were not ﬁshing for sharks. Still, when they set out initially, they were ﬁve. Two died on the ocean. One was Senor Juan, later identiﬁed as one Juan David Lorenzo, a middle-aged computer enthusiast from a town farther north. According to the three survivors, he owned the boat, or possibly just the shark-ﬁshing equipment-he seems, in any event, to have occupied an ambiguously deﬁned dueno-like position above the rest of the crew. His
family, when reporters tracked them down, were bafﬂed to learn he'd been to sea at all. They announced their intention to get an audience with the three survivors and plead for more information. But whatever story they ﬁnally got, Senor Juan was dead. Committed unto the sea in February. Dead, too, was a man the survivors remembered only as EI Farsero, a nickname-which even the Mexican papers allowed was "obscure"-derived from the Spanish word farsante and meaning, I'm told, "joker,” with hints of "sham" playing around the edges. Somehow the survivors had come away from the experience of months at sea with this individual on an open boat the size of an RV and knew nothing more about him than that they'd called him EI Farsero. And that he died. He and Senor Juan went the same way. He had a pain in his stomach. He couldn't bear to eat the raw bird ﬂesh. He vomited blood. We closed his eyes. We kept his body on board for three days and then pushed him into the sea. When that took place, we were half a year from being rescued. Nine months and nine days total-this happened to be how long one of the men's mothers had borne him in her womb. Actually, the math is off there-you can't make nine months and nine days equal 28S-but this is how it got reported. And it was not an angle the Mexican publishers had to have a long meeting about whether to go with. Nor did it hurt that the three who lived were Jesus, Lucio, and Salvador: Jesus, the Light, and the Savior. The last of these had with him, on board, a Bible. He told the press he was always reading it to the other two. The church liked that, and the Mexican Council of Bishops issued a statement to the effect that God was to thank for the men's survival. But if segments of the population were ready to embrace the three as heroes, or at least celebrities, the media reaction was one of instantaneous, unbounded skepticism: The men looked too good to have been out there so long, not skinny enough. They must have eaten the other two. And there were discrepancies in the family statements. One of the relatives said she hadn't seen them in three months, not nine months. An uncle said that when they launched, it was only three in the boat, not ﬁve. Plus, shouldn't they have died of scurvy? Something was off. Sure you weren't running drugs? After a particularly tense press conference, Lucio got off a line that was later much quoted in the Mexican press, something in the vein of "God save your sorry asses from ever being castaways." • All my Spanish was learned from the older Cuban ladies in my wife's family, so I'm dazzlingly proﬁcient when it comes to food, babies, and the telenovela Heridas de Amor but helpless on more abstract topics and prone to use the diminutive at
inappropriate times, saying things like, "Sir, was it hard for you to place the raw ﬂesh of the birdies in your pretty little mouth?" It was suggested that I bring an interpreter. I happen to know a scholar of medieval Spanish in the languages department at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, John Kitchen Moore Jr., Ph.D. He's six feet two with a great leonine face and head surrounded by, at one time, a vast Afro, which, at some stage in its growing, ﬁnally crumpled under its own mass and became a billowing cone-mane of rust brown ringlets. But when I found him in the bathroom at the airport, I saw he'd gotten almost all of it shorn off. At the last minute, he grew worried that his freakish appearance would put people off and hamper my journalistic agenda, so he ducked into a Supercuts. Such was the loyalty of this man with whom I set off for the interior. From the start, any potential scandalousness surrounding this story intrigued me much less than the pure element of the unimaginable at its core. Who cared how they got out there? Drug running, cannibalism-both deeds had been done, if they'd been done, strictly out of a lack of options and in the cause of survival. All I wanted to hear was what it had been like for them, in the void. What would it be like? Because when you hear "nine months,” don't you immediately want to be like, Hey, tell me about the ﬁfth month-what was that like? What was it like on the two hundred and seventieth morning you woke up surrounded by nothing but the vasty deep? We knew more or less where Lucio lived, but when we arrived there, he was out with friends picking up some new furniture, a gift from somebody or from the government- I think it was getting hard for people at Lucio's house to keep track of all that. We sat outside with his delightfully easygoing extended family on wooden chairs. Leafy. Bright. Open. Children and chickens chased one another through the smoke of a burning trash pile. You could see miles and miles across ﬂat ﬁelds to purplish mountains. Lucio's aunt Reina, wearing her hair in a ponytail with a baseball hat on top that read BRUJA, seemed to have been appointed family spokesperson. She looked at me and said laughing, "Children for sale, cheap." "Oh, you speak English?" I asked. "No, no, no,” she said, wagging her ﬁnger and looking off bashfully. It was a line she'd heard on a show or something.
When Lucio came back-along with three or four others, he hopped out of a big black Ford F-lS0 with mattresses and tarpaulins bungeed all over it- I got the sense he'd been drinking. I don't know whether I got this from the way he carried himself or from the way his aunt kept winking at me and giving the thumb-to-lips "he's had a few" signal. His demeanor was very gentle, even dazed. But when Reina explained to him who we were and why we were there, his features sank. His shoulders heaved. His smile looked like it was barely held up by tiny invisible wires while in his mind bad monkeys punched his eyes. He was at bottom a gracious person, however, and he gestured toward three empty chairs. Physically, he looked well, I thought. There were splotches of sun damage on his cheeks, but nothing beyond what you'd get from years of sportﬁshing without proper sunblock habits. He had a thin, wavy mullet and wore two heavy silver necklaces. I asked him how he was feeling. "I'm ﬁne," he said, "but my friend Jesus has very swollen feet." Lucio told me politely that the three had made an agreement among themselves: all or none. Either they participated as a group in whatever it was-the interview or article or whatever-or no one would. "Tomorrow morning I'll ﬁnd them,” he said. "I'll talk to them about this.” We told him the name of our hotel. He said that unless the other two produced some unexpected objection, they'd all come by in the afternoon for an interview. He told us he felt optimistic about it. And we felt optimistic, too, as Lucio said good-bye at the door, which was the last time we ever saw him. At the hotel, where we arrived late, a teenage kid in a polo shirt opened up the gift shop for us. The lights were off. He said I could pay in the morning. He had an air of extraordinary guilelessness about him. It moved me to say, "What do you think about the náufragos? Are they telling the truth?" "No,” he said. "I think the story is something else.” "Why don't you believe their version?" I asked. "Nine months under the sun?" he said. "In twelve hours you get fried to a crisp." He ran his ﬁngertips down his forearm. "You can bleed." •
In the morning outside it swam with butterﬂies. There were gangs of minute ones the color of tangerines and pure white ones with wings so large they languidly ﬂapped instead of ﬂuttered. You wouldn't notice them so much out in the open-there you smacked at mosquitoes like you had late stage tarantism-but when you turned onto any kind of constricted lane, they'd stitch the air ahead of you. Here, too, lines of leaf cutter ants moved up and down the trunks of the trees, every other column with little iridescent green ﬂags in their jaws, which together with the heat made the whole scene's surface appear to crawl. It was through overgrown tunnels like these that we walked along the edge of the town to the port. We hadn't wanted to lose Lucio's conﬁdence by trying to get to the other two men before he could; we wanted to give him time to work. So on ﬁrst getting up, we walked outside and smack into a bespectacled ﬁsherman who stood in the hotel's deserted courtyard looking for customers, people to take ﬁshing. His cap said FISHERMAN. This man believed the náufragos. Drawing the perimeter of an imaginary panga with his sandal in the pollen dust, he gave a sort of virtual tour of the boat, showing us the small hold at the prow where at least one of the men, he said, could have curled up out of the sun's rays. He explained shark ﬁshing on such a small scale. You chose your spot and tossed out a thing called a cimbra, a long thick line, strung between buoys, with other lines coming off it underwater-hundreds and hundreds of those lines, each with a fairly nasty hook, like this (he held up two ﬁngers to show us the thickness of the hooks). Baited for shark. This whole somewhat monstrous apparatus you'd let out and reel in on a heavy spool. You set your lines and anchored overnight; in the morning, you brought in the line and hauled the dead or dying catch aboard, cutting it and packing it in ice as you went. What happened to these men, he said, is their line broke while they slept. The cimbra came loose from the boat and ﬂoated away. They went looking for it, and that is when they got lost. They ran out of gas. On the other side of the Islas Marias, which is where you go if you mean to ﬁsh shark, there are strong winds, strong currents; the wind whips through your mustache, your eyes and ears, you can't hear anything. To demonstrate this, he squatted some and puffed out his cheeks and slapped at the sides of his head like an Indonesian monkey dancer. You run out of gas. Pretty soon, you're drifting. Go to the port, he said. You'll ﬁnd people there who know all about these things. At the port, there was a shack made of wood, tin, and old signs and things, where men from out of town could stay if they'd been hired by one of the boats and were waiting for it to leave. Conditions were pretty spare-two rows of hammocks in an open room. A man and a woman were outside; both looked about 3S. The man was seated; the woman stood astride her bicycle, as if she'd just arrived or was just about
to leave. We asked if anyone knew anything about the náufragos. "We all know them,” the seated man said. "Chavita was just here.” Chava, and by extension Chavita, is a common nickname for Salvador in certain parts of Mexico. He meant the náufrago Salvador Ordonez. I asked if there was someone around who had become a sort of local expert on the story. The man pointed up. "She is.” The woman was small and severely, nervously thin with short hair and a noticeable but not quite unsightly mustache. In very quiet and very slow English, she asked who I was and what I wanted. We identiﬁed ourselves, and I said I wanted only to know the truth about what had happened to the ﬁshermen. She grew more interested. "We can talk,” she said, "but not here.” She spoke halting but precise English, though only, I would learn, at certain moments, when she wanted to lend gravitas. She rolled her eyes and nodded backward toward the shack, as if to say, You understand… "You can follow me to my house?" she asked. She wove along, riding her brakes, about ﬁfty feet ahead of us. The construction on her apartment building appeared to have been initiated in the wake of a natural disaster ﬁfty years before and not touched since then. The rooﬂine around her enclosed, gated patio glittered with fangs of glass. Inside she had a couch, a grouping of crates covered with cloth, and a bamboo bench. She made us instant coffee and pushed an ashtray toward us. There was something a little indecisive and feverish in all her movements. She introduced herself as Marta. She explained to us that she was a journalist, too. Her father edited, anonymously, a muckraking political thing online, the politics of which could be described as politely Zapatista. Marta contributed articles. She said we could speak frankly here. She was engage. "Subcomandante Marcos has slept on this ﬂoor,” she said, and swept her palm along the concrete as if feeling for imperfections. "Really?" I said. "Marcos has slept here?" "Not him,” she said, "but his French delegate. They travel at night." "You're Zapatista, then?" "I share their ideology.”
Her apartment was unaccountably cozy, I guess because she had so much stuff on the walls-a poster of Marcos, strings of lights, scarves and batiks and things. She started to open ﬁle folders and envelopes and to pull out stacks of loose paper. It emerged that Marta and her father had been trying to cover the story of the náufragos themselves. By helping us, she could ensure that all the information she'd gathered wouldn't go to waste. "You can't write the truth here,” she said. "Because it involves the narcos?" I asked. "Because it involves the government," she said. Then she added something to Kitchen that he hesitated translating. "Tell her to go ahead.” She looked at me in a way meant to bore into me, I believe. "You may not know this,” she said, in English, "but my country is no longer my country. Your country owns my country. It's been that way a long time.” Looking down, she said, again very precisely, "I will begin at the beginning and gradually build to the points of the story that interest you.” She drew a breath and held up her open palms and said, "This is how I perceive the mechanism.” She began to explain, to unspool, and to illustrate her talk with eight-byten photographs and foldout maps, printouts of past articles she'd done for the magazine, showing us in each case what she would have said, what she hadn't been allowed to write. She talked for well over three hours. Periodically-and especially whenever I tried to ask a question-she would produce a sentence that I was to hear from her many, many times, with exactly the same word order and inﬂection, on these trips to Mexico: "We've almost arrived at the point of what you want to know.” Americans think about tunnels and Tijuana and whatever, she said, but there's a massive Paciﬁc maritime dimension to the cross-border drug trade. It isn't about smuggling concealed shipments on larger boats. It's about moving them more or less openly with a vast network of smaller boats, a web of pangas. Actually, there are different sizes. Only certain boats in this network carry the actual drugs. Others are for gasoline. Or food. There are bigger boats that are essentially ﬂoating gas tanks. They'll anchor at a ﬁxed location; smaller boats can ferry fuel from these to the actual drug boats, the fast ones. You have to think of it as a thing with many small moving parts. These are not boats meant to go long distances, but with a relay system like this you can go anywhere. And most of the time, you're below radar. Another advantage is that people on land tend not to notice small boats launching
or coming to shore. These guys can go to Japan. I'm telling you. But when they're going north, up to Baja California or California, they have to go very far out to sea to avoid being detected. There is this giant radar at Michoacan, very powerful. That is what happened to these three, she said--this is my opinion. I am not claiming to know they had drugs on their boat. They may only have been carrying supplies. But what I have described is what they were involved in. They ran out of fuel somehow. They got too far out and lost their bearings. Perhaps someone missed a drop, missed a connection. I don't know. Marta wanted to work with us-she made a motion with her arms. She wanted to work together. She could help by being a native, understanding the story and what was really behind it, knowing informed locals who under the right circumstances might talk to me, and being able to draw on months of prior investigative research. I would help by having access to the pages of a large American magazine. She told us to give her time to work, to talk to people. But she warned us it might be hard. For one thing, we looked like cops. (We looked down at ourselves and at each other. We looked like cops trying not to look like cops.) Also, the coast was swarming with reporters from Mexico City, and they'd already made arrangements with most of the sources for exclusive access to information. That is, those reporters who hadn't made up their minds to pretend to go with the tale regardless. Because that was safest. It's what everybody wanted. The government in Mexico City, the narcos... "Why didn't the narcos just kill them ﬁrst thing?" Normally, that's what they'd do, she said. And in fact, it may be how the other two died, Senor Juan and El Farsero. This happens routinely: A boat shows up to a rendezvous point, the narcos take what they need, the drugs or supplies, and then sometimes it's easier to shoot the men there or just give their boat a kick and set it adrift than to pay them or give them fuel in return. What happened here, you see, is that the Taiwanese ﬁshermen fucked it all up. The ﬁrst thing they did was radio the náufragos' names back to a listening station in the Marshall Islands. From there it eventually got back to Mexico, but the international media picked up on it ﬁrst. Before someone could act, before the narcos could get to them or to someone in the government who could make it all go away, those three were heroes. I mean, you've seen how it is. The church wants to make them into saints. All sorts of people need this to be a nice story. Before these three turned up, the news every day was about the election. After they turned up, it was all about the náufragos.
By "the election" she meant the contested Mexican presidential election, then being settled in the ruling party's favor by the country's electoral court. Things were sketchy all over in Mexico then. A teacher's strike in Oaxaca had turned into massive civil unrest; it was said they weren't even ﬂying a Mexican ﬂag over that city anymore--they were ﬂying a revolutionary ﬂag. This protest was eventually put down by force, with many people killed and scores of untried prisoners helicoptered to a hellhole facility in Nayarit. Also, there'd been a shake-up of some kind among the drug lords, a coup or something, and police on the Paciﬁc coast were saying they'd never seen such violence before. These are Mexican antidrug cops saying that. It was revenge killing after revenge killing. Some men had walked into a bar in Michoacan, ﬁred their guns into the ceiling, then dumped out onto the ﬂoor a bag full of human heads. The narcos were walking up to cops in broad daylight in Mazatlin and gunning them down and walking away. So you see, Marta said, this story was desirable in many ways. Give the people something else to talk about. Your government likes to do the same sort of thing, no? Our biggest problem, she said, would be the local heavies--ofﬁcials and capitalists. The attorney general of Nayarit had already been quoted as declaring it "an insult to the intelligence" to think that Lucio Rendon (who is from Nayarit and therefore under the attorney general's jurisdiction) could be involved in any illicit activity. This despite the fact that Rendon had been busted previously for stealing from a shrimp company. There was money involved. The whole world was suddenly paying attention to places around here that weren't Puerto Vallarta, and the náufragos' fame could mean a much bigger chunk of the tourist market for these areas. That would mean development money from Mexico City. Such things were already being discussed. And the local ofﬁcials, the people who'd be getting a piece--of the government money, of any development deals from Hollywood, of whatever came the náufragos' way--they were shadowing the men, making sure nobody went off script. "Do you know this is true? Do you have any evidence of this?" (There was a man who worked for the city following the náufragos around. I'd met him. But he professed to be guarding the men against exploitation, and it seemed cynical to presuppose shadowy motives.) Everyone knows it's the way I've described, she said. They make no effort to hide it. I'm told the survivors aren't even present at the meetings where these book deals and Hollywood deals are discussed. The parish priest is present, but the three men aren't present. And they say they're doing this to protect the men, who are simple and wouldn't understand such things.
Marta believed that her place was being watched and that it was already known she had gringos inside. The same car kept going by, and once when we were walking up the street to go inside, a large green van with tinted windows that was parked on the street in front of her door suddenly ﬁred its engine and sped off. "There are too many eyes,” she said in English, waving two ﬁngers at us as if planting a hex. She got on her bike and rode away with the understanding we'd all meet up that night. It was high afternoon by then. We called the hotel: Had anyone come by asking for us? Nobody. This was not surprising after Marta's seminar. Could we trust her? There were caution ﬂags. The conspiracy-type stuff, that was worrisome. Also, she'd been hinty-hinty about maybe wanting some money to replace camera equipment that had been stolen, for her father's magazine. But I didn't have any problem with that, and in fact when I ﬁrst gave her the money, she tried to stuff it back into my pocket. Plus, come on, wasn't it sensible to question the náufragos' tale? Most of Mexico, it seemed to me, assumed there were drugs twisted up with this story somehow. It was more the way she knew everything. You couldn't really interview Marta. She'd just push you back with that same heavy sentence, "We've almost arrived at the point of what you want to know." Her vision of the náufragos' story was so vast and encompassed so many angles that it was indistinguishable from a worldview. For instance, she said, Boca del Asadero. That's where the ﬁshermen say they left from initially. Everybody knows this is a place the narcos like to launch from, because it's so isolated, and because it's totally unmonitored. You can go out there and see for yourselves. Now, what would you say if I were to tell you that until a few years ago, there were two battalions assigned to watch that particular stretch of the coastline? But these battalions were done away with by direct presidential order from Vicente Fox. And now the narcos come and go like it's their own backyard. Kitchen and I went back to the hotel and did laps in the kidney-shaped pool in the sun and later had seviche there in the courtyard while he read me passages from Simon Campos Perez's Description and Economic Analysis of Amateur Shark Fishing. Something was off about our being there. No other guests were around. I doubted we'd seen one other gringo, in fact, since coming to town. It was September. • Just before we parted ways with Marta, she told us--as a gesture of good faith, it seemed--the name of the hotel where Chavita was staying. The son of the woman who owned the place had known him for years and might be able to set up a
meeting she said. This took some running around and swearing that we weren't cops, but when we got up the next morning, then was a note at the desk saying to be at the hotel at a certain time. The proprietress's son led Chava into the little painted reception room, where we were waiting. I recognized him from AP photos. He was diminutive maybe ﬁve one, with a wide, close-mouthed smile that was not even slightly reﬂected in his eyes, giving his face an overall sadness. I said I was honored to meet him. We sat. I didn't mention our previous meeting with Lucio, hoping that Chava might be 1 little less strict in his interpretation of their agreement, which, indeed, he was. The interview proceeded in an atmosphere of bizarre formality, and the translation lag made things even a little more tense The hotel proprietress's son made a statement to Kitchen I didn't catch, and Kitchen turned to me: "He says you may ask your questions now.” "Well, how do you feel?" "I'm ﬁne,” Chava said. "I'm absolutely ﬁne. My friends have problems--swollen feet, pain in their stomach muscles.” Silence. "I read that they called you EI Gato out there, because you were the best at snagging birds." He lit up a little. "That's true!" he said "The birds would dive down after ﬁsh I could catch them without even having the leave the boat.” "Tell him,” I said to Kitchen, "that I want to know about the stages he went through, emotionally. Like, was there a month when he felt particularly desperate? Was there ever a sudden tranquility, anything like that?" Chava shook his head. "I was happy the entire time. I was singing. If I had allowed myself to get sad, I would have died." Here, Chava ﬁrst displayed a habit he had of immediately looking up and off when he'd ﬁnish a statement, and in those moments appearing nauseated with something like dread.
"But what about Senor Juan and EI Farsero?" I asked. "Didn't he have to sit there at one point and watch two of his friends die?" Kitchen hesitated for a second, trying to ﬁgure out how to put that a little less tackily than I had, presumably. "They couldn't eat the food,” Chava said. He'd heard the the names and ﬁgured I was asking how they died. He put his ﬁngers into his open mouth and then took them back out again, to mimic someone rejecting something as too disgusting to eat. "They vomited blood. "Sometimes we would get out and swim around the boat.” he went on. He did that thing--looked up and off. His hands were pressed tightly together between his knees. "How did you protect yourself from the sun?" "We had a blanket,” he said. “and it would only be sunny for a couple of hours a day. The farther out we got, the cloudier it got.” Something about the forced chipperness of his statements was just defeating. No matter how incredulous-sounding the question, he answered as if you were asking about an adventure he'd had at a water park. We got onto the subject of sharks, how you ﬁsh for them, how the cimbra had come loose. Here the son stood up abruptly. Chavita had to go, he said, to keep another appointment. "Would you like to ask one more question?" Kitchen turned to me: "May I?" I made the sweeping "by all means" gesture. "I was wondering,” he said, "what your favorite parts of the Bible were, to read on the ocean. Any passages that were particularly meaningful?" "Todos," said Chavita, standing now, ready to leave. All of them. "Old Testament, New Testament... the Prophets." • Waiting for Marta. That's what we did in Mexico. I have daytime and nighttime memories of this, tons. Outside in the ruined concrete area that served as her foyer, squatting tiredly over reﬂecting puddles with laundry lines and lightbulb cords overhead. The bathroom was a hole in the ground. I don't mean a Turkish toilet.
Someone had ripped out the toilet, bolts and all, and left the hole, which went down into what looked like a kind of cistern. Next to the toilet was a staircase that went twelve steps up to a perfectly ﬂat, smooth white wall that as far as I could tell had never boasted a door. We sat on those stairs forever. Friends of hers would come by. Mostly ﬁshermen. We knew them all. Or we'd be sitting on her couch, talking to keep awake, going through her ﬁles. There were photographs of different people standing around at one or another dock, ships' manifests, inscrutable documentation, a weird Spanish magazine with an article on cannibalism, which she'd ﬂagged. All of it seemed connected to the story, yet none of it bore directly, or at least not obviously. And Marta was out for four or ﬁve hours at a time on these missions, trying to sell us to people, essentially. It didn't quite seem professional to let her dominate the agenda in such a fashion. Yet it seemed foolish to do anything else. She'd come back from her assignations deﬂated, sometimes even shaken. At one point, she'd caught a ride to another town to talk with a captain; he'd freaked out and screamed at her, she said. Cursed at her. It was "too intense.” Still, always, before setting out again, she'd give us the same exhortation, "No se desesperen." Do not despair. All will be made clear. Late morning we heard a burst of rattling; she was running her pen against the bars outside her window as she went by on her bike. And as she did so, she said, always in English, "Guys, I got a good fucking news.” Don H would talk to us. He wanted complete anonymity and a place where he felt secure. He was a good man. A little gruff but good. He'd been a military man for most of his career but was working now for the port authority, pretty high ranking. She'd heard he knew something and ﬁgured he might be getting the itch to talk. This is top information, she said. Top, top, top--you'll be the only people in the world who know. He's waiting for us on the sidewalk. Don H had a beer belly, dark sunglasses, was wearing a polo shirt and sandals. It was a Sunday. "What do you want?" he said. As if he and Marta had never spoken about us. I gave him my bit about the truth, etc. And Marta says that you are the same--that your only interest is in what happened.”
He looked off, rubbing his mustache with brisk little ﬁngertips. "I have information,” he said. "But not today.” "When?" I asked. "How many days?" "Mmmm...come back in ten days. I'll know more.” "Sir,” I said, "I don't have that.” He shrugged. "This is a shame,” he said. Marta pulled him away down the sidewalk and was whispering urgently at him while Kitchen and I stood there looking more than ever like cops trying not to look like cops. I think I may even have had a sort of handkerchief around my neck. Then they came back, Don H in front this time. "Let's get in,” he said, and started moving toward our car. Once we were sitting down, he patted our sides, our backs, our waists, and our legs. "Pull over,” he said. We were in front of a little store. It was Kitchen and Marta in the front seat, Don H and I in the back. Marta turned around. "He wants you to buy beer,” she said. "Get a six,” Don H said. "No, make it two sixes.” I gave Marta some money, and she ran for the beer. While she was gone, I regretted becoming aware of a noticeable bulge on his calf that I somehow doubted was his wallet. Marta came right back, and Don H started cracking beers, then handing them out. Kitchen said, "If I'm driving, I won't be drinking.” (He has three kids.) "Oh, like in America?" Don H said. He laughed, and the rest of us laughed. "Look at that bumper sticker,” he said. On the back of a red truck was one that read WE'RE BACK. L.A. SUCKED. He laughed, and the rest of us laughed. Kitchen asked, "Where should we go?” and Don H said, "I'll tell you when to turn.” He led us by side streets to a park, a tourist attraction I'd seen a poster of at the hotel. You had to pay to get in. No one was there. The security guard at the gate called Don H jefe. "Amigos,” Don H said, giving a little helicopter wave with his arm, indicating the rest of us. The security guard motioned us through. We sat in a little picnic area. It was windy. Kitchen said, "He wants us to empty out our pockets,” and we did.
At the table, we cracked more beers. Don H sat forward, with his weight on his elbows, and looked directly ahead at no one "Preguntas?" he said. Questions? Let’s go. Let's go. What is it you want? What is it you're after?” He saw that I had my notebook out, so he spoke accordingly, a sentence at a time. His tone was one of dictation. He held up ﬁngers, with the back of his hand toward us and began to unspool. Mostly, these are my straight notes from Kitchen's translation: There were four pangas. They did not leave from San Blas, as they claim; they left from Boca del Asadero. Sixty percent of the boats that leave from there are involved in drug running, because there is no dispatcher. No authority. No nothing. I saw them leave for there in pickup trucks. They were not gone nine months. They were gone three and a half months maximum. The rest of that time, they were involved in all sorts of activities. Here he motioned toward the southeast. Colombia, Guatemala. Is that what he meant? Yes. One of their stops was Nicaragua. They went back and forth. But the most recent departure was the one I'm telling about, with the four pangas. They were carrying drugs. They had thousands of liters of fuel among them when they set out, now they were coming back empty. Within 200 nautical miles of the shoreline, they ran into a patrol One of the boats was caught; the other three sped off. They had no idea where they were going. Then they ran out of gas. They were adrift on the sea for three months, possibly a little bit more. Here Don H waved his hand stifﬂy and shortly, as if to silence a subordinate. Kitchen said, "That's it. He says that's it. He says he might know more in ten days.” I suppose I looked bewildered. "Tell him that I thank him for meeting with me,” I said. "I know he didn't have to--and I value the information he has very much. But how can I go to my editors with just a...a different story? I mean, I won't be using Don H’s name, so I can't really lean on the eminence of his position. Is there anything he can point to that conﬁrms any of this, or that disproves some aspect of the ofﬁcial story?" Kitchen translated this, and Don H’s reaction was strange. He got up from the table and stormed off. He stood with his back to us about thirty feet away. To me he appeared almost to quiver with rage, or whatever emotion had driven him away. He stood there like that for an uncomfortably long time.
When he came back, he leaned forward again, magnetically summoning our ears down to his mouth. "The birds,” he said. "You should look at the birds. Nothing ﬂies out as far as they were. You see, a bird has a maximum distance it can ﬂy, but it can only go half that distance from land, because it must be able to get back. "Look at the birds,” he said. When we dropped him off, I asked if he'd mind one more question. "Let's go,” he said. The ﬁfth man, the mystery man, the Farsero--do you know who that was? He answered sort of with his mouth to the side--he had already climbed out of the car and was squinting down the street. He closed the door, and it was quiet. "He called him un vago," Kitchen said. "A loafer.” • Back in the States, I didn't get much further on the story than attaining a higher and higher appreciation of how farcically beyond me it was. Which is where things stood when I walked into the Hyatt Century Plaza in L.A. in November to sit down in the lobby for some Caesar salad and unsweetened iced tea with Joe Kissack, a rogue media hotshot. I don't know how else to describe him--he's been mixed up in TV, the Internet, books, and now movies, and whatever the project, he always manages to generate some action. He lives in Atlanta. He was friendly as hell and looked a tiny bit like a guy who could pose for romance-novel covers. His hair was just long enough to run his hands back through and down, and I suspect he could bench loads (he wore a tight-ﬁtting sweater). Also, he was bouncing back from a 2004 stay in a psychiatric hospital, following some kind of legitimate-sounding breakdown. "I was so heavily drugged, I don't remember a lot of what I did or said,” he told me, "but the visual on it is Jim Carrey on his knees in the rain in Bruce Almighty, okay?" Kissack is also a born-again. We prayed over the salads. It had been only two months since he'd founded a production company called Ezekiel 22 and bought the rights to the ﬁshermen's story for a reported 3 or 4 million dollars. "It's a story,” he said repeatedly, "of faith, hope, and survival.” Kissack was intense in that time-honored American way of, like, this guy might punch me, he might hug me, he might give me his car. I think it's fair to describe him as selfinvolved--events that have transpired on earth during the span of Joe's life tend, in his mind, to have involved his fortunes in some way--and he told me that at the psych
clinic, when he went in for his ﬁrst therapy session and they asked him why he was there, he answered, "I think I'm hereto serve you." But for all that, he wasn't offensive. Because he was clearly trying to be good. It occurred to me while I was sitting there with him that I might be looking at the prototype for a new Super Christian--wealthy, attractive, L.A.-savvy, unashamed about his own prosperity but hard-core for Him and pumped to talk about it. Safe to say, if this new strain gets established, it's ﬁnished, y'all. Might as well join now so it won't look opportunistic later. Kissack was led to the náufragos' story by a long and perhaps ongoing series of signs from God. I'm not trying to be a smartass--most of our conversation was about these signs. When he ﬁrst told his wife he was going to Mexico and that he wasn't sure when he'd be back, she thought he might be having a relapse, "because that's the kind of stuff I used to do." And his colleagues back in Atlanta did not feel that the story ﬁt their business model. "Why don't you come in and talk about it?" they said, but Joe told them, "No, I have a ﬂight today. I'm leaving. I'm going." He gets down there, and he's working out at the gym at his hotel in Mexico City, and the náufragos a r e o n t h e T V u p i n t h e c o r n e r, " a n d I s t a r t h e a r i n g t h e s e words...cannabalismo.. .drogas... "I thought, Oh, my God, what have I done? I'm here in this hotel room in Mexico, and these guys are drug dealers? And on top of that, they've killed people and they're cannibals?" Kissack started to doubt, but he decided that before he left Mexico, he might as well go to the port where the ﬁshermen were at that time and get a look at things for himself. It didn't seem possible that he could feel so right about this story, that he could be suffused with such a palpable sensation of divine guidance, and it all be a lie. That's when the signs began in earnest. First he heard "Faith" by George Michael in the taxi on the way to the airport. (Like you, probably, I'm working here with the assumption that the lyrics in which he found his own dilemma reﬂected were I gotta have faith, faith, faith and not Well, I guess it would be nice / If I could touch your body / I know not everybody / Has got a body like you.) When he got to the airport, all they had was ﬁrst class. So he's sitting there thinking, Should I? Is this all a fool's errand? He decides to go for it. And right then, "I turn around, and there's a nun standing in line behind me, in white, with a little black thing around her nun-hat thing, and she's smiling at me, as if to say, “You're doing the right thing.” "I drive. I'm driving up there, okay. Here I am, I'm alone. And I start to question again, and I basically have this really, really long conversation with God--out loud, by the
way-- and basically I'm asking God, I'm saying, “God, look, I don't know what to do here. If I'm not supposed to be here, God, just throw down a tree, run me off the road, do something that tells me what I'm supposed to do. “And John...just at that moment, little white butterﬂies, little tiny one-inch butterﬂies, start to circle my car. Okay?" At the new hotel Kissack was met in the lobby by "a little Mexican man, ﬁve feet two, T-shirt, blue-jean shorts, and ﬂip-ﬂops.” Kissack had no idea who the man was, but the man walked up to him and said, apropos of nothing, "When do we start?" His name was Armando. Armando got hold of a city ofﬁcial, and those two were able to arrange some hasty meetings with local ofﬁcials, but nothing that was said at these meetings felt conclusive or even too promising, and late that night, at his hotel, Kissack found that the song, the nun, the butterﬂies, and the little Mexican man were not enough. His doubts regrouped. "I'm in my room, I'm watching the news, it's 100 percent cannibalism now. I shut off the TV, and I try to go to sleep.” He couldn't sleep. So at 4 A.M., he got up to read his Bible. But he couldn't ﬁnd it. "Here I am, trying to track down cannibals,” he said, "and I can't ﬁnd my Bible!" He dropped to his knees at the foot of his bed and said, "God, just tell me what you want me to do.” When he stood back up, he checked in his bag one more time, and there was the Bible. He opened it, and the ﬁrst verse he came upon was Philippians 4:8, which reads, in the paraphrase edition Kissack favors--Eugene Peterson's The Message--like so: "Summing it all up, friends, I'd say you'll do best by ﬁlling your minds [with] the beautiful, not the ugly.” In other words, don't neg out on the drugs-andcannibalism bushwa, 'cause He's in charge. At this point, the preponderance of signs was such that Kissack began to feel he was involved in something greater than just a deal, something greater even than the ﬂuctuations of his own destiny. "After the song, the nun, the butterﬂies, Armando, and now this, in the last twenty-four hours...at this point I start to write these things down. Because I say to myself, 'This is weird. I might be a vessel. I'm a former television executive who might be following the path of God." The ﬁnal sign came in Mazatlan, where Kissack had gone for a meeting with the náufragos. He was staying at a pretty nice hotel there, on the beach. Next morning
he went down and sat on the sand and prayed and read his Bible. The doubts were back. "God,” Kissack said, "one last time. I need you to show me just one more time, God.” He looked up and expected...he didn't know what. "A lightning bolt of Jesus on the sand.” But then he had to laugh at himself "and say, 'Joe, you are probably offending God, expecting him to do magic for you. Things don't work that way." This is when it happened. He's headed back toward the hotel. He's passing the pool. "And there are guys in shorts and typical resort stuff.” And something spoke to him. It was like an inward voice, and it said, "Go up to that guy right there and ask him his name.” The voice was talking about a guy working at a pina colada stand. Kissack obeyed. He went up to the guy. He was just about to ask him... "And then he turns around,” Kissack said, "and his name tag says JESUS." Kissack just looked at me across the little square table. Outside on the plaza, the light had started to tarnish a little. It was no longer afternoon. We were shaking our heads at each other. "I look to the sky, and I say, 'Okay. I get it. I understand. I'm doing the right thing:" Kissack had not asked for any more signs since then. Six did it. He got the deal. • It had been three weeks since our ﬁrst visit to Mexico, and now we were back. We were driving on twisty roads through the jungle at night on our way to meet up with Marta, and Kitchen was telling me about the handling of the concept of mars civilis in the Alfonsine legal code, which turns out to be wild but is for another day. During our time back in the States, we'd been calling and e-mailing with Marta and pretty meticulously honing our agenda. But when we found her, she looked surprised and even a little freaked out to see us, as if we were old, scuzzy boyfriends visiting her at her new job. "I thought you were coming yesterday,” she said. We took Marta to dinner, and it was only after a few beers that the reason for her weirdness came out. It was her father. We'd met him once. He lived in what looked like an old nightclub, and it reeked heavily of piss. He slept on a little pallet by his computer and the other equipment, the scanners and whatnot. He hadn't been friendly then, and in the interim he'd been working on her. He told her we were FBI; he told her we were CIA; he told her we were DEA. He told her we were using her. If she was doing all this work for another magazine, why weren't we paying her? Was
there going to be anything for her in the multimillion-dollar movie they'd inevitably make out of my article? Did she know anything about our ideology? We were probably assholes. She apologized and said she needed to ask an awkward question. Did we have identiﬁcation that proved we were who we claimed to be? I laughed. "Are you serious?" "Si." I balked, but she just sat there with her hand out. Kitchen pulled out his University of Alabama faculty card. Marta held it down by the candle on the table and stared at it. She handed it back to him. "I'm sorry, that's not good enough.” At this point, a rather pathetic little scene unfolded in which Kitchen and I ransacked our bags, trying to reach a mass of documents that, while themselves individually unacceptable, might convince her in toto. I think it was the program for a conference of. medievalists Kitchen had attended in Mexico City that ﬁnally settled her down. He'd given a paper entitled "Dreaming of Houses in Medieval Castilian Landscapes." "Nobody would do that just for cover,” she said, laughing now. We renewed our vows of solidarity. But her tone quickly turned somber again. Our carefully laid plans were for shit, she informed us. Those plans had revolved around our all three driving to meet a man in Sinaloa, one state to the north, who was said to know the identity of El Farsero. Marta had gotten wind of his existence through the man's godmother, who lived in Nayarit. Communicating through the godmother, she'd made contact with him, and he'd agreed to talk to us. Our reasoning had been thus: The key was to concentrate on El Farsero. Senor Juan's identity was known; if indeed there was a drug angle, his connections would already have been gotten to by the narcos and wouldn't be saying anything. But El Farsero was still a cipher and as such invisible, and so there might be a window, if we could jump through it fast, a little while yet in which one might ﬁnd people who'd known
him, unafraid people, and get them on record saying El Farsero was mixed up with the trafﬁckers--if in fact that's what such people would say. But something went wrong. The guy blabbed about our visit, and then he got a little visit himself. He called the godmother in the middle of the night--this had been about a week before--and told her we'd be killed if we tried to see him. He didn't want to kill us, understand. They did. The trip was off. "They don't fuck around in Sinaloa,” Marta said. Kitchen and I talked. We have four kids between us and ﬁgured, bluff or no, we were good to go right here in Nayarit. Marta fell into her old rhythm, back and forth on her bicycle, going to set up ever grander, more impossible interviews, then riding back to report on her failure. And if we happened to be at her place when she returned, we'd hear the same rattling against the window bars and a sentence in English, "We're fucked again, guys.” By now the possibility of any of us making an actual breakthrough in the story was waning, in terms of my interest, and Marta was taking its place. Really, the interest in the criminal angle was all hers from the beginning. It's hard for me to credit how easily I fell under the spell of her doggedness. But now her talk had begun to change, to grow almost oracular. Her energy was turning to desperation. At one point she told us that Don H would talk to us again. "He has more information. Priceless information. To completely solve the case. To answer all the questions.” All the questions... "But let me go by myself,” she said. "If you go, he'll just ask for money.” She came back pissed off and said he'd told her to stay away from him. "Did he want money?" I asked. "That's all he said. 'Stay away from me.’" • At this juncture, we took a ramble that changed the tenor of our adventure. We passed a corner shop where we could hear strummed Spanish guitar hissing from a boom box. The guy who owned the place had written a song about the náufragos and was playing it all the time as an advertisement. I asked if he'd give us a concert-there was an area off to the side with folding chairs, and I knew he'd have a guitar in there somewhere. But when we sat down, he walked over to us, handed us a lyric sheet, and pressed pl~ on the black boom box, cradling it in his arms like a ukulele. A nasal twang came out. It was his own.
One October 28 There set out on the waves, Little guessing then that fate Would leave them castaways, Lucio, Jesus, and Chavita And two other guys I sat there in my chair, in the audience of two, and experienced the sadness of realizing that, even in song, El Farsero had been effaced. A poor wandering ghost man--he couldn't eat the birds. His body was surely gone by now, if he'd ever had one. Kitchen was affected for a different reason, though. Out on the street, he said, "This is straight out of the medieval minstrel tradition, do you realize that, man? I've seen this shit before, but from practically a thousand years ago. It's like the cult of the saints. The monks wrote poems recounting the deeds of the saints in order to attract pilgrims to their shrine, because pilgrims were tourists, and tourists bring money. It's the same!" He was raving about these recherché concerns when something unfortunate began to transpire in my neckly region. I knew in two minutes what it was but walked around hoping it wasn't anyway. About once every three years this thing takes over my neck--it's like a cramp with a will of its own. My shoulder gets stiffer and stiffer till my head is cocked to the left and I can't move it without gasping. The whole left side of my body starts getting numb and tingly; then it, too, stiffens up, and the end result is half paralysis. I had to ﬁnd some morphine or something. The only thing that's ever worked for this malady is for me to get a massive shot, right in my ass, of a drug that'll turn you straight noodly, straight dippy-kneed, the kind of freedom from pain where you just might burn your whole hand off leaning on the oven. Then I have to spend about ﬁve hours doing this sheet of stretching exercises my doctor gave me, and at the end of that, I'm mobile. It was Saturday, and it took us an hour to ﬁnd a pharmacy where the house physician was in. At this point, I looked like a cop trying to look like Lon Chaney Sr. When we found a doctor, he produced a syringe and started to ﬂick the bubbles out. "This is not morphine,” he said, "but it's like morphine. It's very strong. You're going to feel very…” He did spaghetti-arms.
"Perfect,” I said. "Perfecto," Kitchen said. On the way out, he handed me two packets of pills. One was for pain, the other for inﬂammation, he said. Wait awhile on those. Whatever he gave me was very slow acting, and half an hour later, back at Marta's, I was still gnarled on the couch. Kitchen brought me a beer. That did nothing. Finally I couldn't stand it, and I was delirious, and I did something stupid. I took the painkillers and the anti-inﬂammatories. Two of each, since I've built up a considerable immunity to pharmaceuticals during my sojourn on this benighted orb. Well, those little babies turned out to be Darvon Simple and a rather powerful muscle relaxant, made up mainly of soma, that went by the name of naxodol. I still don't know what the shot was, but it found its way to my spinal column right around the same time the pills did, I guess, and I must have sort of OD'd. My skin got hot and then crawled with ants. I couldn't breathe right. Marta was back now. She and Kitchen were looking at me like, "Uh-oh…” I did some explosive vomiting through my mouth and nose. I have some blank frames after that. When I came to, I was in bed at the hotel. Kitchen was sitting across the room on a chair. It emerged that I'd been hallucinating--little African children dressed in karate uniforms, carrying a giant baroque mahogany bedstead through the streets of a village, singing. He told me, too, that when they'd been bundling me out of Marta's apartment, I'd suddenly impressed everyone by displaying a strange, ﬂeeting, instantaneous hyperclarity, in the grip of which I had implored Marta not to forget or let her focus slip during my coming indisposition: The key is to ﬁnd the Farsero. We stayed in the room like that for hours, and Kitchen spoke in mellow tones of Saint James and other things medieval. I felt very, very excellent. I can't explain. Around ten or eleven o'clock, a little white slip of paper scuttled under the door. It said someone named Marta had phoned with "buenas noticias" and gave a number to call. Marta picked up and, before she even said hello, asked Kitchen, "Do you know the song that Freddie Mercury sings, 'We Are the Champions'?" "She wants to know if you know the song 'We Are the Champions' by Freddie Mercury,” Kitchen said. (And then he mouthed, "By Queen.") "Tell her I said yes!"
"He says yes." "Well,” she said, "we are the fucking champions, my friends." He held the phone down with his hand over the receiver. "She wants to know if you can pay for a hotel room. She says we need a safe place to talk.” "Sure!" I said. Maybe an hour later, we're all sitting on the cool painted concrete ﬂoor of a spartan ﬁrst-story hotel room. Everybody's cross-legged. Marta's lighting cigarettes like she's handing out sparklers. She's poured three glasses of water, and they're sitting untouched on the nightstand. I'm so excited, I don't even think I'm a reporter anymore. If I should ask Marta questions, cross-examine her on things, it will be only to prompt her responses, which seem increasingly meaningful and precious to me. She reaches into a manila folder and pulls out a sheet of paper; it's notched on the side, like it's come out of an old computer printer. She places it before us. It's a ship's manifest. "Don H came through after all,” she says. "This was a drug trip, an earlier trip. This boat was intercepted. Chava was on this boat.” I hold up the page and read through the list of names. I don't recognize any of them. "I know Chava's name is not on there,” she says. "But the explanation is simple. He did not study for his maritime certiﬁcation. They say he slept through all the classes. When it came time for the boat to launch, they took him anyway, but they left him off the manifest so that when they got back, they wouldn't get ﬁned for having an uncertiﬁed crewman on board." "But...how do we know that?" "This is good information,” Marta said, placing her hand on her heart. "I know it.” "It isn't about my believing or disbelieving you. It's about what we can print, what we can say. I can't give this to my editors and be like, 'I know he's not on there, but it's okay, Marta says he slept through class.’"
Her entire body slumped. She was like one of those little wood-and-string clowns that go all boneless when you press the bottom in, and I had just pressed it in. "I saw this,” she said, "and my thought was, What more could they want? What more could his editors want?" "It's okay,” I said. "There's still time.” But my buzz was gone. I didn't get it. She knew this stuff already. She knew this piece of paper was useless. She knew we knew nothing. She knew we had nothing. But she'd promised us so many times that all would be made clear, that we'd almost arrived at the point of what we wanted to know, and when she realized she was as fucked as we were, she couldn't take it. She started generating leads, clues, frenetically. I don't think I'm able to say any longer at what point in our acquaintance this process began, or if it hadn't in fact been the scene all along. But now, in this room, it really became manic. I couldn't make my hand move fast enough to get down all the freaky ideas she was throwing out. Chava would be going on another drug trip soon, she said. This was inevitable. She and her father would ride about half a mile behind them in a speedboat with a telephoto lens. GQ could pay for this, no? Or no? That wouldn't work? Well, have you heard of this? she asked. She ﬂipped over the ship's manifest so the blank side was up and, with my pencil, wrote EARTH GOOGLE. "Yeah, I've heard of that,” I said. "That's where you can look at cars and things from space.” "Precisely,” she said. "We can use it to track them. I know. I know where the drug boats go. I know the routes.” "But Marta,” Kitchen said, "Google Earth isn't live. Those pictures are archived. You can't track anyone with it." "You can with the beta edition,” she said. "I don't think so,” Kitchen said. She got sort of a sheepish grin on her face just then and covered it with her hand, mumbling something into her ﬁngers. "What did she say?" I asked. "She says she's trying not to laugh at us.”
Fine, since it was plain we knew dick about computers, we should bug Chava's hotel room. He's always bringing back women, she said. He tells the truth to' the women. She said she knew a woman in L.A. who'd talked to Chava on the phone. This woman had tape-recorded the conversation without telling him. He was on there, saying everything. At a particularly uncomfortable moment, Marta actually persuaded Kitchen to' call tl,1is woman, which he did, and it turned out the woman actually did claim to' have a tape of a conversation with Chava. But when we asked the woman, "Did you talk to him about what was really happening an the ocean?" she said, "No, we talked about social things.” When we parted ways with Marta, she seemed as ﬁred up as ever. She told us that she had another tip, this time about a man who'd been schoolmates with the Farsera. He lived ten minutes down the coast. She'd go there ﬁrst thing in the morning. We mustn't despair. We must meet her at her place at noon. Now let's get some sleep. We need to rest, to clear our minds. She was already pedaling as she said these things and careened into the night. The scrawled-marker sign an Marta's door at noon said, "John, it is taking longer than I Thought…You will still be amazed." • It was my second night in Los Angeles. Joe Kissack and I were having dinner at a place in an outdoor mall. He was saying the blessing, only this time he'd invited our waitress to join us. The restaurant was crowded, and I guess she got sort of embarrassed, because even though initially she'd said, "Sure, I guess,” as soon as we bowed our heads, she skipped away. Joe didn't notice. He said a lovely grace and included me in it; which I thought was nice. Especially since I don't think he liked me quite as much as he maybe had that ﬁrst day. I'd made the decision--or the mistake, probably, in journalistic terms--of telling him I couldn't quite shake my own skepticism about the náufragos' version of events. I mean, to me, this was as scandalous as saying that Baron Munchausen never actually rode a cannonball to survey the Turkish siege. It's not mere statistic-mongering to point out that as far as we know, No One in Human History has ever as much as approached the extent of the náufragos' period adrift--but Joe had a lot tied up in this project, and on top of that, he believed. I think he needed to believe. That's not the same as saying he's wrong. I just think he needed it. His story had become woven in with that of the náufragos, and it was all a story of faith, hope, and survival. In fact, he told me, a lot of the people he
was out here meeting with had told him, Joe, this story is really about you. The movie has got to have your story in it, too. He wasn't sure how he felt about that. But if they insisted...1 mean, if that was the only way the movie could get made... We had Joe's laptop out. One of the things he'd done down in Mexico was hire a local camera crew to shoot hours and hours of documentary footage of each of the three survivors, isolated from the others, telling the story. Kissack said he'd been impressed by how consistent the versions were. "How are these guys, these uneducated guys, going to keep that many details straight?" he said. "It's impossible.” Which I conceded was a valid point, if not a conclusive one--although, even as I heard him say it, I thought of Marta, on her ﬂoor, telling us what she'd heard about how the men, when they were cooped up together on that Taiwanese boat, had rehearsed their story, "como sijuera una obra de Shakespeare." Joe was no longer okay with my having access to all the footage--he may have been a person who required an inordinate number of supernatural signs before he felt certain of something, but he wasn't dumb. He did, however, let me watch a little seven-minute trailer he'd put together. I had the headphones on, which felt awkward in a public place, and I was listening to Jesus Vidaﬁa, the one náufrago whom I hadn't met--we'd only spoken to him on the telephone--and he was sitting on an open porch that looked out over the sea, with his back to the water, talking about the death of the Farsero, about the moment he died, the change in his face. And he started to weep. Jesus, I mean. And the quality of the weeping was such that you knew, your very ﬂesh knew, that something truly horrible had happened to these men. I'll show my rather weak hand and say that we are never, ever going to' know what it was, only that it was hell. Chavita can talk as sunnily as he wants. He can tell us, as he has, that when the time came to drink his own urine, it was to' him "como un refresco," like a cool, refreshing beverage. Or about how they sang and played air guitar and prayed. Those statements may be intended to' make him came across as a good man, not the kind of man who'd run drugs, but I never considered the two mutually exclusive. And Marta didn't, either, I don't think. She just wanted very badly to know. To have it explained. Proof. By the way, while we're on that tip, I should mention that I did look into the birds, as Dan H. advised. I called an ornitholagist at Cornell. Turns out there are all sorts of birds who live in the middle of the Paciﬁc, right where the náufragos were. This doesn't show their innocence any more than the basic unfathomability of anybody's surviving nine months of direct exposure proves the three are lying. Both just suggest the essential quality of this story, the essential distinction: not the unknown, the unknowable. Or more than that. The unimaginable.
It isn't easy to tell stories about the unimaginable. This is why the náufragos can't really do so; they speak in bromides. I didn't ask Joe Kissack this, but don't you have to wander how the movie's going to go? I mean, structurally? An hour in, that boat's going to start to seem like a mighty small and unpleasant place. Imagine how it was after 7,000 hours. Except you can't. There's a place in Voyage of the Beagle where Darwin talks about storms at sea, and one awful part being not the malice of nature but its inﬁnite lack of concern: "The albatross and petrel ﬂy as if the storm were their proper sphere" while you cower waiting for death. Humankind can't bear much of that, I don't imagine. The last time I saw Chavita, he was walking into his hotel, visibly wasted, with two heavyset women in black slip dresses who, I'm conﬁdent saying, were not there in search of lave. This was about a month after our "interview" with him, and the appearance of his face was one of utter dissipation. Yet when he saw me and Kitchen, this other feeling came over his features, and it was one I'm sorry ever to have caused another human being--like a ghost hand had reached into his chest and given his heart a small squeeze. Kitchen got an e-mail from Marta about a week ago that said, "I can't go into detail at this moment about all the reasons why you two should came back here one more time, but I have continued to investigate the matters with which your previous visits were concerned, and I've made enormous progress, bordering on the ﬁnal conclusion.” El verdadero ﬁnal. Now, I believe, is when I'm supposed to sum up what it all means. I am still amazed.
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