So Far, So Good (5)

By John Harris | January 2, 2003

In the morning, over scrambled eggs, bread, marmelade, coffee, and banana milkshakes, Obedio told us that he would be teaming us up with an Inca Tour group for the pampas tour.

"The guide, Julio, knows how to find cobra and anaconda. I am more of a jungle guide."

"Are you going with us?" asked Viv, obviously suspicious.

"Of course."

The Inca group were waiting for us, in their boat, just a half mile down the river, and pulled in behind as we swept by. In another half mile, just past a family of sleeping capybaras, we pulled into a low, grassy bank. Soon we were marching across the pampas.

The Inca group included three Australian guys, obviously a team, and two Israeli girls who had just met on the tour.

"It’s a bloody ranch," said one of the Australians, pointing at a large herd of cows in the distance.

Viv asked Obedio who explained that the government allowed ranching along the river banks. "This is all burned," he said, "in late September, to keep the trees out and make it safe for the cows. But over there is water and trees, and that is where Julio will find anaconda."

So it was really more of a river tour, than a pampas tour.

"Over there" was two hours away, in blinding sunshine. Most of the distance was walked in absolute silence. The Inca group moved faster than us, but Obedio knew the trail.

We caught up to them in some trees. Julio was knee deep in a swamp, his group walking alongside on high ground. He had a stick in his hand, the upper end forked, and was prodding the mud ahead of him, flipping up gobs of mud.

Soon he flicked up a snake, which squirmed wildly towards the other side of the swamp.

"Cobra," said Obedio.

Julio wallowed after, and caught the cobra in some bush on the other side, then carried it across the swamp, its tail wrapped around his waist and one leg, its head held in one hand.

The Australians ordered Obedio to cross over and help Julio, who had to stop once in awhile to control the snake. Obedio ignored them.

"Our group is no touch," Myles explained. This was new to Viv and me, but no touch was alright with us.

"Looks to me like no touch means no see," grunted the Australian.

There followed an anatomy lesson, then photos, the snake draped around the Australians’ necks. The Israeli girls backed off.

As the time passed, soon a half hour, Julia stalked off along the swamp, obviously upset. Myles tried to tell Julio that the snake looked dead. Julio ignored him. Soon he put the snake on the ground, stroked it gently, then stood back. He began pelting it with pieces of mud. The snake moved its head slowly. Then it began to make its way into the swamp.

The process repeated itself a half hour later with an anaconda twice the size of the cobra, a good 6 inches thick at its centre, and at least 8 feet long. Harry decided, to hell with it, he wanted a
picture of the snake wrapped around his neck. Myles refused to take it. Harry backed off.

Julia joined us again later. "Sorry," she said. "I didn’t want to be a part of that."

We returned upriver to camp, finding lunch laid out: a salad and cheese plate, followed by bread and soup, followed by a pile of rice topped with a small steak, topped with a fried egg, followed by flan. Roxanne obviously now had her kitchen in good order.

But halfway through lunch, a boat came up the river and pulled in. It was Donato, with two more clients, a Spanish couple, the woman chubby and in shorts and a tank top, and the man chubby and gotten up in camouflage shirt and pants, and a Tilley hat. He had some kind of gigantic army knife hanging from his belt.

Donato had found a water taxi to bring him and them up.

Roxanne started fixing more lunch. Myles caught Donato at the edge of camp. "Maximum five," he said.

"No problem, no problem," said Donato. He told us we’d all receive five US dollars refund on our return to Rurre.

During siesta, Obedio and Donato got into a lengthy discussion down by the boat.

"Donato wants Obedio to take the Spaniards on the pampas tour," said Viv. "Donato would take us fishing. Obedio isn’t going to do it.

Soon, Donato was hustling the Spaniards out of their beds and into the boat. Obedio ran them down the river and returned with the boat just when we were all up and Harry was getting restless to fish.

On the boat, Viv prodded Obedio about Donato.

"He’ll stay away from any cobras and anacondas," Obedio said with a grin. "But we saw a pink dolphin roll over right beside the boat, so the Spaniards will be happy."

"Do you like Donato?"

"Yes. Very much. He pays quickly and is always in good humor. But he tries to get extra work out of everyone."

"What was Roxanne angry about."

"He’s married to her friend and there are three kids. She thinks he has a girl in Reyes, but that’s not true. He goes there to drink with his brother."

Viv looked dubious.

Finally there was a pink dolphin for us too, breaching in pursuit of a tiny fish.

Harry won the derby, the only one to catch a fish, a pirhana. It was about six inches long, and was quickly photographed and returned to the river.

Obedio dumped us at camp and went down river to get Donato and the Spaniards. Soon they were all back, Donato and the Spaniards covered with mud. They´d seen an anaconda, but not captured it. They had a couple of good photos, though.

Obedio loudly congratulated Donato, who smiled sheepishly. While the Spaniards cleaned off, he told us that he’d gotten lost in the swamp area and had to get the Spaniards to wade a part of
it. In the course of that, they’d scared up an anaconda. Fortunately, it hadn’t gone for them, but just moved slowly away. Donato made a joke about dumping the shit out his pants once they were back on high ground again.

After dinner (chicken and rice) we went out on the river for our night tour, flashlights and cameras ready. We saw mainly crocs, one that was munching on what looked like a baby capybara.

Going out the next day, the boat loaded to about four inches of freeboard, Obedio poured on the power and we swept downriver, Donato bailing steadily with the bottom half of a plastic mineral water bottle, and accidently splashing Obedio in the course of doing it. Our wash filled the mouths of gaping crocs, sent herons scrambling up the bank, made wallowing capybaras lift their heads and wiggle their tiny ears, and swept lines of turtles off their logs. At three likely spots, Obedio cut the engine and he and Donato poled the boat — we were hoping for another dolphin sighting, but no luck. For the last half hour, Donato drove and Obedio bailed, splashing Donato.

"Cool him off," said Roxanne, approvingly.

Viv laughed, indicating that she understood, and Roxanne blushed and smiled at the river.

Back at Rurre, Donato presented us each with our five dollars, and Viv invited him to come for beer and dinner with us. "We pay," she said. "I want more information."

Myles and Julia agreed to come. Julia, on the jeep trip back to town, had decided not to confront Donato about "no touch."

"It’s not his fault. It’s the bloody tourists who insist on photographing the snakes."

Donato agreed to do dinner with us, but turned up over an hour late. "A meeting of the tour operators," he said. "We are trying to get the government to do something about the crocodile poaching in the park. Some of us think it will happen if we cry enough."

Donato was no longer in a dirty white shirt and black shorts. He wore a grey suit, white shirt and tie, and polished black shoes.

Viv wanted to know how much Roxanne and Obedio got paid. Donato said that Obedio got twelve US dollars for his two days with us, and Roxanne got six dollars for her three days. The boat owner charged ten dollars for the boat.

While Viv and Donato talked, Myles, a business systems analyst, did some calculations, working in the cost of the jeep, and gas and repairs, and the cost of the food that Roxanne had served

"It’s only about ten percent in profit," he said. "That’s the average for any operation, and very good for many."

¨Will you built a new camp soon?" Viv asked Donato.

"Yes, but not a screened building like the others. Too hot."

"He’s got a point," Myles said to me and Julia. "I was glad to feel that bit of a breeze at night."

Then Donato drained his glass of beer and left for another meeting, after shaking hands all around.

"Rotary Club," he explained.

1534 w. (January 1, 2003)


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