Truth in the Tepawani is the story of a boy who, while wrestling with problems at home, spends his summer vacation visiting his missionary relatives in the jungles of the Amazon. While there, he accidentally makes an impossible, stunning discovery that has ramifications that will rock the entire scientific community. The only problem is, he can’t prove it.
This novel was written for middle-grade kids (grades 6-8) and is the first in a series.
Nothing in Derek’s copy of Kids’ Guide to the Amazon Basin could have prepared him for the scene in front of him. Beside him, a lady jostled one pink vinyl suitcase strapped together with a man’s belt, two large plastic bags overflowing with clothing and two dirty-faced olive-skinned children. Tucked under her arm, she carried a squawking chicken. Nearby, a man pulled a donkey through the crowd. The donkey bore a woven saddlebag, stuffed with CDs. A stereo speaker system strapped near its rump shouted out Latin music while the owner droned out a sing-song phrase over and over again.
Children ran to and fro in the crowds in a game of tag, laughing and giggling, while their sweaty parents scanned the crowd. Every so often, the expectant gaze of one of them would meet another set of eyes in the crowd, the sweaty parent would smile and shout and people hugged. The whole scene pulsed with life, color and the odor of tired people. Above it all a swirl of Spanish overwhelmed Derek, and made him wish he’d paid more attention in Mrs. Nunez’s class last year.
But where was Uncle Clay? Even back home in the Forrest Hills Mall, Uncle Clay with his pale skin and red hair was easy to spot, but certainly it should be even easier here in a sea of black-haired bronze-skinned people. He clutched the few papers he kept out of his suitcase. His passport he’d tucked into the traveler’s pack under his clothes. He could still hear his mother’s voice, “Put that away as soon as you’re through customs. Tuck it in your pack. What are you going to do? Now promise me.” She’d leaned in for a kiss, tears in her eyes. But Derek hadn’t even kissed her back.
Derek figured he ought to stick out in this crowd too, but no one paid him any particular attention. It must be normal for blond-headed 12-year-old boys to stand on Amazonian airstrips looking—well, not afraid, exactly—more like concerned.
One of the papers in his hand was a map of the Amazon basin. He’d thought it would be cool to track their journey from here up the Amazon to the Ucayali that fed into it, and then beyond that to the Apurímac, one of its tributaries, and finally to the small village where his Uncle Clay, his Aunt Felicia and his cousins, Jason and Amelia lived.
He’d been waiting his whole life to have this adventure. He’d begged his mother summer after summer, pleading with her to let him go, but he never imagined it would happen like this.
A man pulling a cart full of ripe pineapples shoved his way through the crowd, apparently unaware of Derek or his luggage. Derek picked up his suitcase and moved aside, his toes barely escaping the rickety wheel as the man trudged on, hat low over his head to shield him from the hot mid-morning sun.
Derek took off his sunglasses and squinted into the bright sun and hoped for a clearer view of Uncle Clay’s red head bobbing above the black ones. On the previous flight, there had been a bunch of American kids for him to talk to, although he was the only “unaccompanied minor” on board. But on the smaller plane from Lima to Iquitos there were few gringos, as Jason said they were called. He wondered what seeing his cousin again would be like. It had been more than two years since he’d last seen his cousins, and that was back home in the States. He and Jason had corresponded only once since Derek learned he would be coming here for the summer. It was hard for his relatives to get word out from where they lived, deep in the jungle with no internet. Jason’s family only came to the city for supplies or for serious medical problems, or if cousins flew all the way from Forest Hills, U.S.A. to meet them at dusty airstrips.
Except he wasn’t here. Derek had been waiting in the hot sun more than an hour now. He tuned out the crowd and the Spanish. Right now, all he wanted was to hear one English word.
He jumped. Had he imagined it? Or was that Jason’s voice?
“Derek! Over here!”
He picked up his duffel bag and wandered in the direction of the voice when Jason slid between a grandma with a baby slung on her back and a man selling vegetables and punched him in the arm. He grinned and took the duffel bag from Derek. No wonder he hadn’t been able to pick Jason out in the crowd. With his deep tan and his dark brown hair, Jason blended in like a native.
“Dad’s over at the hangar with the pilot. I’ll take you there. They’re doing some emergency repairs to the plane, and they’ve been watching the weather. Seems like a storm is headed our way and he’s not sure whether or not we can fly today. How are you? How was the flight?”
As they left the airport and found the streets of Iquitos, Derek was glad Jason was carrying his duffel bag. Jason was just six months older than him, but he was obviously more fit. Derek struggled to keep up with his quick pace through the streets.
“Dad may be a while with the plane. Do you want to get something to eat?”
“We’ll get him something for him too. He probably won’t have time to stop for food. We still have to pick up supplies.” Jason glanced skyward as he hitched the duffel back onto his shoulder, backpack-style and quickened his pace.
“How long will it take to get to your place?”
“To the village?
“A few hours. And we need to leave soon if we’re going to go today. Hurry up. There’s a good place to eat right around the corner.”
Jason ducked into a small convenience store and walked through the aisles. He smiled and greeted the shopkeeper in Spanish. He smiled back and said a word Derek knew: amigo. Jason stopped and grabbed Derek around the neck, a wide grin on his face. “No, éste es mi primo!”
The shopkeeper strode from behind the counter and shook Derek’s hand vigorously. “Mucho gusto.” Derek smiled and nodded. He was supposed to know what to say right now, he was sure. He could only picture Mrs. Nunez’s face, looking very disappointed. He’d have to study harder next year. He continued to smile and nod, certain he looked like an idiot.
Jason laughed and they walked to the back of the store where there was an window-like opening cut into the wall that revealed a greasy kitchen. Jason motioned to a small cluster of tables and chairs. “Have a seat. I’ll order. Want a Coke?”
“Actually, I’m pretty thirsty. Can I have water?”
“You want a Coke.”
“You do.” Jason nodded knowingly and turned to the window where the shopkeeper appeared. Jason gave the order and chatted in Spanish with the shopkeeper while he prepared it.
Derek looked around the place. A sign placed high over the order window offered fax service. There was a small shelf of videos—some DVDs and quite a few VHS tapes—that looked like they were for rent, their covers tattered and stained from much handling. A wobbly ceiling fan made a flimsy attempt at pushing a breeze around the room and a cockroach scuttled along the floor and slid under the door to the kitchen. Most of the products on the shelves looked like things he knew from home, but there was Spanish across the labels instead of English.
He was really here. In the Amazon—or on the edge of it, anyway. The dark cloud that had hovered over this trip lifted a little. Maybe it was good he was here instead of back home right now.
Jason sat, plunked two sweaty Cokes on the table and handed him something wrapped in foil.
“What is this?”
“Just taste.” Jason said, his mouth half full.
Derek sunk his teeth into the soft wrapping and the smoky-flavored meat inside. Jason shoved a piece of foil with a puddle of red sauce across the table. “You can use this if you want.”
“No. It’s awesome just like it is. What is it?”
“Humita?” Derek tried the word on his tongue.
“Why don’t they serve these at Mexican restaurants back home? They’re amazing.”
Jason raised an eyebrow. “Because they’re not Mexican?”
“But I guess they’re a little like a tamale. Mom makes these too, but not a lot. She says they’re a pain. Maybe I can use you to get her to make them more.”
“So why the Coke?” Derek said, popping the half-opened bottle cap from his bottle.
“You never know about the water.”
“But this is the Amazon. There’s water everywhere, isn’t there?”
Jason shrugged again. He grabbed a napkin and swiped his face once with it. “Ready to go? We should go check on Dad and the boat.”
Derek gathered up the rest of his food and the Coke. “Okay.” He could eat on the run, if he could just keep up to his cousin. He half-walked, half-ran behind his cousin until they arrived at the airstrip again, but this time, Jason led him away from the commercial planes to a hangar where three men lay underneath a small plane. One of them was Uncle Clay.
The men spoke in rapid Spanish. When the boys approached, Uncle Clay slid out from under the plane and wiped his hands on a rag.
“Bad news?” Jason asked.
“Not great. Landing gear’s bent. Probably something on the airstrip at the last village that no one noticed. Guess our landing did it in.”
“But we checked the airstrip twice–”
“You and I both know it doesn’t take much. Could’ve been a small animal wandered onto the airstrip—anything hiding in that grass. Ned thinks he can fix it, though.” He glanced at his watch. “It’s getting late. We’ll go for supplies now and when we get back we can fix this so we can be on our way as quick as we can.”
He walked up and squeezed Derek in a sweaty hug. “Good to see you, Derek. Wait—” He stepped back and looked him up and down. “You smell like humita.”
Jason passed a foil-wrapped wonder to his dad who tore into the package and bit off a huge bite. “Let’s go,” he said around a mouthful of food.
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