Eating Bolivian Piranha: An Indiana Jones Moment

So how about a nice, tasty piranha for lunch? I caught the fish in the photo, a yellow piranha about a foot long, some years back while fishing the Bolivian headwaters of the Amazon. And it was indeed delicious, sort of like eating a giant bluegill.

The circumstances were even stranger than the fish. I was the guest of a wealthy Bolivian industrialist who was thinking of opening a fishing lodge to attract North American business. Trouble was, he had no concept of how the modern world went fishing. The lodge idea never did work out, but getting there was half the fun.

When we, along with a motley contingent from the jungle village. took a day trip to Piranha Lake (very rough translation), I was given a choice of fishing from an extremely narrow, tippy-looking dugout canoe or from an inflatable Sears raft, new and still in its carton. I chose the raft, from which my guide Arturo and I dangled 10-pound-test handlines baited with fresh hunks of beef.

Sure enough, there was eventually a tap-tap-tap on the line. I hoisted a piranha in the air and watched its razorlike teeth chattering on the hook shank. Arturo gestured for me to give him the fish, so I flipped the flopping piranha over to him through the air. He got all upset. "No, no! Not like that," he shouted.

When things calmed down, he whacked the fish with his knife handle. Eventually, and many piranhas later, we made our way back with a full stringer to what passed for a motel where the towering Andes met the jungle basin.

That evening in a small courtyard, the dinner table was placed with white linen and English china. Candlelight added an air of mystery. I felt like Indiana Jones. My piranha arrived poached whole, swimming in a large soup plate filled with what seemed like chicken broth.

Joining us for dinner was another guide, an English-speaking young woman from Austria. Between bites of fish and sips of wine, we chatted about everything from lost Incan treasure in the nearby jungle to the Mozart festival in her home town of Salzburg.

In the midst of all this, I felt something rather large vigorously wiggling in my trouser pocket. I was instantly terrified. Snake? Spider? So I looked down to see the owner's pet tapir using its short, prehensile nose to search for treats in my pocket. At the same time there was a great clattering noise. A young native girl was using a broom to shoo a small javelina from the kitchen. Happily, that frightened the tapir away, too.

I finished eating my fish in peace, while wondering at the strangeness of it all. And I eventually learned that the most dangerous things in the jungle aren't the jaguars, snakes, spiders, and not even the piranhas. The most dangerous things usually turn out to be some of the other people. But that's another story...