DAY 5: The Eyes of the Devil
fifty hours from the nearest MacDonalds
Antonio, the head guide, is a man of ritual.
Tonight we are hunting cayman, which means his personal ceremony begins with a cigarette of rolled Colombian tobacco. Next he dons his prized boa-skin belt, followed by a worn leather sheath. This latter item he handles with great care, for it contains the machete his grandfather once used to kill Peruvians in the war of 41. Now fully equipped, he strides over to his pup tent and returns with the final requisite - a plastic Coke bottle filled with a clear, unimposing liquid. The locals call it fuerte and for any man who yearns to know what its like to swallow molten lead, this is it.
Antonio takes three bearish gulps and grins, knowing damn well I wont ask.
The two of us stand at the edge of camp, on a high bank of Ecuadors Rio De Piraña. It is three am, and the moon is down. A pair of candles perched on the skeletal arm of a Huarmo tree offer a weak, jumpy light. From this same tree hangs my nylon gun belt, laden with a cargo of thumb-sized Santa Barbara cartridges. Down below, our two Quechuan retainers, Angel and Edwin, carry out the task of preparing the canoa; they scoop bowl after bowl of brown river water from the sleek, forty-foot black cedar hull and toss it overboard. Antonio watches them like a hawk, the bottle grapsed in a fist of twined wire. All around us, the night pulses with the music of cigarras, a melody as old and haunting as the Amazonas itself.
The splashing stops and Edwin materializes at the top of the bank wearing nothing but a pair of cotton briefs. He speaks to Antonio in rapid-fire Quechuan. The guide nods and turns to me.
Listo, Señor Marco. Ready.
In less than a minute, Im sitting in a narrow wooden bench in the prow of the canoa. Across my lap rests a 12 gauge Mossberg pump-action shotgun. Antonio positions himself behind me, adjusts his headlamp, then flashes a signal to the rear of the craft. Angel begins to paddle, and we slip into the darkness like ghosts.
los ojos del diablo
At night, the River of the Piraña bears little resemblance to its daylight cousin. From the banks, Mangroves dip gnarled fingers into the water and Chunta and Pambil palmas meld into impenetrable jungle walls. A scent lifts from the murky water - rotting fronds, cracked bones, the smell of hungry death and lush, teeming life.
We glide around the first bend and I catch a final glimpse of Edwin, silhouetted against the Huarmo tree like a wraith. Then the camp is gone, and the maw of jungle night swallows us whole. There is a faintly audible click! as Antonio twists on his headlamp, and a white beam lances over my shoulder and punches a hole in the black gullet. It nods right, left, then flicks off.
We are looking for eyes.
The white caymans sit atop a bony ridge just behind his powerful jaws. Seen in the glare of artificial light they appear as pulsing red orbs. Antonio calls them Los Ojos del Diablo.
The eyes of the Devil.
I think of the girl I met three days before in a little swing-joint called La Nota Antigua in Quito. Brown hair, golden canela skin. I promised her a caimans tooth. For about twenty dollars US you can have one set in a base of gold.
Antonios light leaps on again, pans right, then freezes.
A thick, undulating tube appears just under the water.
Pes Electrico, he whispers.
Antonio pins the beam on the sleek, ochre-colored body as it slips under the bow. The eel reappears a few inches from my left elbow, then dissolves into the inky depths. Besides the gray piranha that inhabit the river by the thousands, hes the next best reason to erect a no swimming sign. Two centimeters behind each eye are a pair of rust-colored glands capable of delivering a payload in excess of 200 volts. Antonio has a story about a French scientist who became obsessed with the eels. After countless hours of research, El Frances finally arrived at the million-dollar question: if he placed two irritable males together in the same tank, would the ensuing exchange of charges neutralize each other? According to Antonio, the test turned out to be a real shocker, especially for the hapless Frenchman who spent the next couple of hours scooping fried eel bits out of his new aquarium.
We travel in silence for close to thirty minutes. In the snapshot-like illuminations from Antonios headlamp, I count three capybaras and one, out-of-place Cuatsing bird. As the craft glides around yet another bend, the jungle walls suddenly collapse.
Antonio taps me on the shoulder.
Weve now officially entered La Laguna De Piraña. Angel makes an adjustment, and the craft begins a slow creep along the west bank. I can almost feel Antonios pulse quicken. He knows as well as I weve entered prime waters. Two weeks ago, at the north end of the laguna, a Quechua fisherman came very close to losing his life. Like many of his Napo kin, this fisherman was very good at wildlife imitations. Bored and out of sorts because hed managed nothing in his net, he began to entertain himself with his favorite call - that of a baby cayman. To the gringo ear, the sound could easily be mistaken for a lonely tree frog; but to the twelve-foot, female black cayman that soon appeared beside the fishermans craft, it registered as a very distinct cry for help. The result was a chonta-wood canoe with its half its bow missing and one, terribly frightened fisherman who refused to open his mouth for more than a week.
Such encounters are rare, but running afoul of a black cayman isnt the only reason Im hesitant about patrolling so close to shore. Between the gnarled roots of mangroves and rotting Huarmo trunks, lurks perhaps the most dangerous of the lagunas dwellers - El Boa.
Antonio has one, particularly gruesome campfire tale regarding this creature. On an expedition that took him close to the Peruvian border, he and a group of adventurous Germans managed to snare one of the great snakes by baiting a steel hook with capybara meat and hanging it above a narrow waterway. The boa, who put up quite a fight until Antonios machete intervened, measured fifteen feet and weighed close to three hundred pounds. The Germans, overjoyed with the results of their ingenuity, decided to sample the rare catch. Once the snake was zipped open, however, triumph quickly turned to horror.
Inside the snakes paunch, perfectly preserved, was the skeleton of a small child.
Its stories like these that put a chill in my blood, and out here, in La Selva, they are never in short supply.
Antonios hand bites my shoulder like a claw-hammer.
The word almost lifts me off the bench. I arm the sweat from my eyes and peer forward. A thin, white moon-mist now covers the lagunas surface.
Antonio taps the hull of the canoa twice and Angels paddle becomes a whisper.
Donde? I ask again. Antonios arm reaches past my ear, pointing. Thirty-feet ahead, a huge mangrove rises from the mist like a gothic castle. Near its lower gates, locked in silent vigil, are the red eyes of an ogre.
Si, Antonio whispers, Si, amigo.
I raise the Mossberg and nudge off the safety.
The canoa continues its silent approach. Twenty-feet, fifteen. The castle and its sentinel loom before us. Light glistens on a back of green brick. Half-submerged teeth shine like a rack of ivory-handled knives.
The prehistoric form tenses, and the caymans eyes suddenly turn on the approaching craft.
Five feet, four...
The Mossberg kicks and a jet of water sprays my cheeks. Antonios light jumps anxiously right, then left.
For a moment, Im unsure, and then I see the white cobbles of his belly, the strings of blood curling in the black water. As we glide past, Antonio plunges his arms into the mist.
A moment later, four-and-a-half feet of white cayman thump onto the canoas deck. Antonios machete flashes from its sheath and a third of its length disappears into the animals spine. The powerful tail remains still. Satisfied, he plants the sole of his boot on the caymans lower mandible and uses both hands to pry open the upper jaw. He nods forward to give me a look with the headlamp.
Staring into the maw of a cayman is an experience not soon forgotten, and Im reminded that for many of the lagoons inhabitants this is the last thing they ever see - rows upon rows of grotesquely efficient teeth.
Antonios index finger taps one of the larger incisors.
I nod. Isabella is the girl I met in the bar.
He indicates the point of another.
The finger dances over to an even larger tooth.
His mistress, of course. He looks at me expectantly. I nod again. Once we hit Quito, Ill be paying for the gold settings.
The jaw drops shut. Antonio straightens and plants his hands on his hips.
Angel, finally free of the laborious paddle, guns the Johnson Outboard with a Quechuan whoop. The craft arcs around in a rumbling fishtail, and we dive back along the narrow tributary towards camp. The return trip is a very different ride. Gone are the adrenaline, the anticipation, the...fear. They are now only an echo. At my feet is the cayman, grinning, one fish-like eye staring back at me. Next time, Señor Gringo, maybe you miss, yes?I shrug. Maybe. But tonight I didnt, and later we will sit by a low-burning campfire and listen to the cigarras while Edwin works magic with a rusty pan and some melted butter. There will be cane rum and laughter, and Antonio will tell another jungle tale, the ancient machete blade nestled in his lap.
The canoa careens around another bend and as I catch sight of the candles, blooming in the distance like beacons, I realize that nothing in the world tastes quite like fried cayman when you are fifty hours from the nearest Macdonalds, the stars are shining on the edge of nowhere, and the ritual is complete.
©Mark Friesen 2003
*specs on the caiman/cayman
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