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Food and Drink to Die For

Bear with me. I am not about to describe sumptuous, five star banquets, three hour business luncheons, summer picnics or other memorable meals with friends. I just would like to attempt to tell of the very few of the times when I have been dying of hunger or thirst. Of course I am writing metaphorically. I would not have died as I was far from the extreme limits that some adventurers have reached and I trust I will never end up in such an unenviable situation.


What I am attempting to describe are those rare occasions when I have been desperate for food or drink and none was immediately available. I will skip wartime childhood, when I would have died for chocolate or sweets and the later, my school boy desperation for an unaffordable sausage roll.

My first adventure related thirst was during my army service in Egyptian Canal Zone. Our company was on dessert patrol near Tel al-Kabir and we had taken cover on being sniped at, presumably by the Egyptian fedayeen.  My colleague and I were in a gully and relatively safe from immediate danger. It was around 40 degrees centigrade and we were both desperate for a drink having, against orders, finished our one pint allowance. Suddenly we heard the clinging of a bicycle bell and from out of surrounding rocks a young Arab boy emerged, pushing a bicycle through the sweltering sand.

Oblivious to the occasional crack of rifle fire he approached us, chanting in his best English, “Coca–cola, melon, ice!” Our raging thirst overcame any thought of danger, although we did point our Sten guns threateningly in his direction. Hanging from the bike’s handlebars was an old hessian bag, full of Coca-cola and slices of water melon packed in ice. Heedless to the gun fire the boy cracked open a couple of Cokes and handed us the fruit and we did not even argue about the price.

Back in the barracks, the older soldiers laughed when we told our war story. The boy was well known in and came from a nearby village. It seemed that the so-called sniping was his family shooting in the air to hold up any passing patrol while “Ali” as he was known, had time to sell his wares. Whatever the truth, never since has water melon tasted that good.

Fast forward 20 years to the Ecuadorian jungle, accompanying some Cofani Indians on a hunting expedition. There were three of us and we were feeling rough having attempted to get some sleep on the wooden floor of the local chief’s house. There had been no breakfast and only time to boil water sufficient for one thermos of tea.

Knowing their trails the Indians simply galloped through the jungle, while we three townies struggled to keep up with them. A few hours later, without a break and now deep in the jungle we pleaded with the chief to allow us to rest. We were desperately dehydrated and dying of thirst but then we realized that we had no cups with us and the tea was far too hot to drink from the flask. We solved the problem when one of the Indians gave us a wild papaya. We cut it in half and shaped the two halves into drinking gourds and even today I can remember how delicious that ambrosia tasted. Try as I may, I’ve never been able attain the same taste of that delicious nectar.

A few years later and this time in the jungle on the western Pacific coast of the Andes. I had decided to visit an American friend who I heard was living rough somewhere on the river Cayapas. My trip started out badly. First of all the train from Cayambi was six hours late and the weather was bad. Then, some four kilometres from its destination of San Lorenzo, we were stopped by a landslide which, we were informed, would take weeks to clear. The options were to wait in the train for only God knew how long or to walk down the rail line to San Lorenzo. Obviously we passengers all started walking. There were many old folk and women with children and babies plus their luggage to carry. The four kilometres took some eight hours. The rain poured down and the mud got deeper and almost impossible to walk through. Feeling sorry for the hungry children, I was soon out of the food I had brought with me.

On arrival in San Lorenzo I discovered that there was no food available. The weather at sea had been stormy, so there had been no fishing and a supply boat had not shown up. After a night in the only accommodation available –a miserable and primitive pension, I arranged for a canoe to take me up-river to where I hoped to surprise my friend. I had had nothing to eat for twenty-four hours and unfortunately no one had heard of Joe (José) Sheldon. However, I knew he lived on a river bank, so I believed we would soon find him. Not so. We searched along the river and up and down its many tributaries but no one knew or had heard of el Gringo, José Sheldon. The canoe’s owner, his bill mounting-up all the time, refused to travel at night so I was forced to spend a wet and cold few hours in a derelict hut, while he slept on board, comfortably wrapped in his blanket.

It took some more hours travelling up-stream and I was ready to throw in the towel. I was fed up, tired and very, very hungry. Suddenly the pilot spotted a group of Cayapas Indians, looking for a lift. A price was arranged, the canoe filled up with extra bodies. I was too exhausted to argue that it was me who had hired the boat and the owner was now making an extra bonus. But luck was on my side. Yes. The Indians knew Don José because he was on their land and living near their ceremonial building.

At last. We turned a bend in the river and there it was. A bamboo house on stilts, overlooking a small bay with a wooden shield stating, “Sheldon’s Cove.” Never have I been so pleased to see an American.

Joe was also surprised and glad of the company and I was quick to tell him how hungry I was. Unfortunately it was the same up-river as it was on the coast; no bread, rice, potatoes or other staples available and the fishing was bad. However, José had emergency rations – a whole case of twenty-four tins of sardines. I ate three tins in one go and, forty years later, I still happily remember that meal and I still occasionally open and enjoy a tin of John West’s best.

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