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Living in Spain after surviving 24 years in prison. Here I will be sharing my experiences as a writer and journalist, travelling all over the world interviewing dangerous people in dangerous places.

My Spirit Beast - part 2
22 February 2013 @ 11:31

For several seconds nothing happened. Then the water seemed to boil as dozens of small, snapping silver fish thrashed about, trying to get the bait. As a reflex action I pulled the hook and bait from the water. Several piranha sailed clear of the water after it. They were only small, but seemed to be all sharp, pointed teeth. I suppressed a shudder as I contemplated what would happen if I fell in. At this point, life in the Amazon looked vicious and deadly. 


  Now it was me who was hooked though. I fished frantically, pulling a fish from the water at every attempt. Soon all the bait was gone and it was getting dark. Time to find the crocodile.  


   Night fell surprisingly quickly on the Amazon. It seemed like, one moment we were fishing in broad daylight, the next it was gloomy and the very next moment darkness was upon us. We climbed back into the boat and pushed out into mid-stream. At the direction of the boatman, Jorge made his way to the prow and pulled back a tarpaulin. Underneath was a large battery similar to the ones in cars. He fiddled about for a couple of seconds and then a powerful beam of light shot out, lighting up the river in front of us.   


  Crouching over the light, Jorge directed it back and forth, first lighting up one bank with its beam, then lighting up the other. In between, the river was revealed to be an unrelievedly black mass.


  The effect was quite surreal. Almost like a picture projected on a screen, the lit up section of the bank revealed every detail. “Won’t that frighten everything away?” I whispered to Dan. 


  “Jorge knows what he’s doing, mate”, he replied. “The idea is that the light paralyses them. It’s a thing with crocodiles. They look into the beam and freeze. You’ll see.”


  Up until this point, it had all been something of a jolly outing. I hadn’t felt that I was in much danger, unless, of course, the canoe sank. Suddenly though, during one sweep across the river, two deep yellow lights lit up about 50 yards in front of us. They weren’t as bright as car headlights, but their deep yellow glow had an intensity that you might find in car sidelights.


  “What the fuck’s that, Dan?” My tone was curious rather than frightened. Dan exchanged words with Jorge, who focused the beam right on the centre of the river. Once again the two yellow lights lit up the darkness.


  Now there was a distinct tone of caution in Dan’s voice. “It’s a crocodile”, he said hoarsely. He paused to exchange a few more words with Jorge. “A big one”, he added, his voice dropping a couple of octaves.


  Under power from the outboard motor, we had been flying along at a good rate of knots. Dan had already warned that traveling on the river at night was dangerous, because of the many, partially submerged logs. These were trees felled by loggers and allowed to float downriver. Dan had cautioned that to hit one of these at speed would be disastrous. The canoe would shatter and we would all be thrown into the water. Previously I had only been concerned about having a few chunks bitten out of me by the piranha. Now I would be breast-stroking with a large crocodile.


  My thought process was disturbed by a shout from Jorge. Quite involuntarily, I jumped. What could it be now? The beam was fixed on the right-hand bank and Jorge was pointing at something. I followed the direction of his finger and saw, right in the middle of the beam, a baby crocodile, frozen into inaction.


  We coasted into the bank. As we neared land, Jorge motioned me towards the front of the canoe. Explaining through Dan, he handed me the light and told me to keep it focused firmly on the baby croc. Whilst it was gazing fixedly into the beam, Jorge would circle around behind it. 


  As much as I tried to focus my attention on the baby croc, a small part of me was asking where its mother was. Surely this was incredibly dangerous. It must be close by and all animals attack when they think their young are threatened. Knowing what the answer would be though, I didn’t bother to ask. 


  Suddenly, out of the darkness, Jorge could be seen in the beam. The baby croc was oblivious to him. He crept up on it and grabbed it just behind the jaws with one hand, whilst holding its hind quarters with the other. Then he held it up to show us. This croc-in-miniature bared its teeth for Gary’s camera. Now it was my turn.


  My thoughts firmly with big, mummy-croc, I gingerly made my way up the bank and into the glare of the beam. I stood and took baby-croc off Jorge. Partially blinded, I did my piece to camera. “Could my spirit beast be that of the crocodile?”  I posed the question, whilst fervently hoping that the answer was ‘no’. After that, the rest of the journey home was something of an anti-climax. 


  The following morning I discovered that there was a make-shift zoo barely half a mile from the hotel. All the animals were kept in wooden-fenced pens or rough pits in the ground. It was a whole lot easier to see them here than it was to chase all over the Amazon on the off-chance of seeing one. And a whole lot safer.  However, there wasn’t much of a selection.


  The crocodiles lay, three-quarters submerged, in the mud of their large pool. They seemed as if they were asleep but, in fact, were ever watchful. As you moved near the fence surrounding the pool you could see their eyes following you. 


  An Indian threw a chicken onto the bank. It fluffed up its feathers and pecked at the ground, oblivious to the danger. Silently, without a ripple to give it away, the crocodile slid in close to the bank. Then, it came out of the water accompanied by a spray of droplets, its jaws snapping on the hapless chicken and it slid back under the surface, all in one swift, smooth movement. There was something inherently evil in this merciless creature. Once again I prayed that it wasn’t my spirit beast.


  In a pen nearby were several tapirs. They seemed to be a cross between a furry pig and an elephant. The size and shape of the body was definitely pig, but the elongated snout belonged to the elephant. It was friendly though and, as I massaged its neck, it closed its eyes in ecstasy. Suddenly it brayed, flinging the snout upwards to reveal long, curved teeth. It looked absolutely ridiculous, like an animal cobbled together out of the parts of several others. It better not be my spirit beast. Rather be a crocodile and feared than a tapir and laughed at.


  In a murky pool lay two anacondas. Because of the mud it was difficult to see how big they were. An Indian keeper in his street clothes reached into the pool and grasped one anaconda around the head and neck. With his other hand supporting its middle he lifted the creature clear of the pool. It was still partially curled up so it was difficult to determine how long it was, but it seemed to be well over nine feet. In places, it was as thick as a man’s leg.


  The Indian beckoned me closer. I didn’t have any phobias about snakes and anyway, the creature looked quite docile. With a swing of his arms, the Indian draped the anaconda around my neck. Whilst still keeping hold of the head, he motioned me to put one hand just below his and my other to hold the body of the snake. More than anything, I was conscious of the green slime from the pool running down my neck.


  Gary filmed away whilst I did my bit to camera. If one had to be an Amazonian animal one could do worse than to be an anaconda, I was thinking. Growing more confident now, I was aware that, although the Indian was out of shot, you would still be able to see his hand, just above mine, holding the snake’s head. I gripped the head tightly and motioned for him to let go.


He shook his head determinedly. I was sure I’d got the hang of this and I motioned for him to let go again. He adamantly refused and, if anything, gripped tighter. 


  Dan was watching the whole episode and shook his head, a rueful smile on his face. “You do make me laugh, Norm”, he said afterwards. “You come over here thinking you can do anything the natives can do. See that Indian. He’s grown up around anacondas. He’s been handling them all his life. He wasn’t just holding its head. He had two fingers pressed against certain muscles in its neck that paralyses it. If he’d let go it would have bit half your head off. Its jaws open incredibly wide and it has very long, sharp fangs. If the bite didn’t kill you, then the poison from its fangs surely would.”


  I took this all in and told myself that perhaps I should slow down a bit. Dan was right, of course, but I so wanted to do a good piece that I was ignoring many of the dangers. Anyway, I consoled myself with the fact that I had done a good piece to camera with the anaconda round my neck.


  That evening we looked through the footage we shot on the day. I smiled with satisfaction when we reach the anaconda sequence, then gaped in amazement. Half-way through, the anaconda disappeared and there I was, stroking the ridiculous tapir. It was the legacy of Dan’s little tin. I had thought that Gary looked a bit off his face during the day’s shooting. Quite obviously, he taped over the anaconda sequence by mistake. 


  He dropped his head as I went into a spontaneous rant. I shouted that we’d come thousands of miles to get that sequence and others like it and we wouldn’t get another chance, so would he kindly shape up and stay straight until we’d finished filming. Dan sat in a corner, quietly, knowing that it was as much his fault for giving Gary the stuff.


  It was now the morning of the day. I woke early and lay there thinking about what I had committed myself to. The dangers from the various Amazonian animals seemed as nothing compared to the upcoming experience with the jage. From my research and from what others had told me I knew just how powerful a potion it was. 


  I had never been much of a drugs person. I had ‘puffed’ cannabis occasionally and, a few times in the mid-seventies, I took LSD. From the latter I got experience of hallucinogenics. But that was something called ‘California Sunshine’ and, as its name implied,  was all warmth and light. Even so, people still had bad ‘trips’ on it. So much so that some had ended up in mental hospitals. For myself, it brought about a major personality change. So I was in no doubt about the effects and dangers of hallucinogens. 


  Jage however, was something else entirely and had another order of magnitude of strength. Again I kept coming back to the fact that I was far from being a normal person. Some of my experiences in life had been pure horror; some of my previous states of mind pure  purgatory. 


  I had been advised not to fight the jage and to go with it passively. But what if the visions of my personal demons sent me crazy? What if I ran screaming into the jungle and got lost? What if the near-death experience was so real that it brought on a heart attack? 


  However, I was nothing if not a realist now. I always assessed a situation and, if it couldn’t be avoided, I dealt with it. It had got me through the 24 years of incarceration. I knew that I was committed to take the jage now. It was far too late to back out. So I put all the fears out of my mind and told myself that I would just have to deal with it.    


  Once I was up and moving I felt much better. Food interacts with the jage, colouring the visions and increasing the vomiting, so it was necessary for me to fast for most of the day. I ate just a light breakfast of scrambled eggs. By the time I took the jage that night, my stomach would be empty.


  Jorge was waiting outside the hotel with a driver and his four-wheel-drive jeep. Once we hit the outskirts of Leticia all the roads disappeared, leaving only rough tracks. The jeep navigated across water-filled holes and around fallen trees. A normal vehicle wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in this terrain.


  We drove for about half an hour then stopped in a clearing at the edge of what seemed to be impenetrable forest. Quite clearly, even the jeep could go no further. The rest of the journey would have to be made on foot. But how? All I could see was thick jungle vegetation surrounded by viscous, muddy swamp.


  Jorge walked to a fallen tree and climbed onto it. Dan followed. I wondered what they were up to, but followed in their footsteps. We all walked along the trunk of this massive fallen tree. To my surprise, at its end was another massive fallen tree. And after that, another. It was a log ‘road’, made out of fallen trees. 


  Walking was very difficult though, the surface of the trees was covered with slime. Dan called out to be careful. The shaman’s wife had fallen and broke both wrists recently and the shaman himself often fell. So saying, Dan skidded on the slippery bark, over-balanced and had to jump into the swamp. He stood there, up to his knees in mud, and we all laughed.


  Then it was my turn. The surface was absolutely treacherous. One foot slipped and I over-balanced. Next minute I too was standing, knee-deep, in the swamp. Although we laughed, I was aware that it was very dangerous. A bad fall could result in broken bones and the Amazonian jungle is no place to break a leg! I focused my full attention on the act of walking. 


  I couldn’t help but remark on how expertly the log ‘road’ had been made. The end of each log virtually touched the start of the next. Yet it would have been impossible to get heavy equipment in here to move the trees once they had fallen. Clearly, they had been cut exactly right so that they had fallen in these positions. I marveled at the skill and knowledge that this must have involved. 


  Half an hour and several falls later, we emerged into a wide clearing. Right in the middle was a large hut made out of trees. It was perfectly circular, each straight, upright tree trunk closely abutting the next. About ten feet above ground level the sloping, conical roof started. It had been thatched with great care. Dan told me that this hut was called a ‘miloca’ and that it served as a meeting place for the local community. 


  The shaman walked out to greet us. Wilder was 46 years old, but was bald and his face  prematurely aged. He looked twenty years older. Life in the jungle must have been hard. He was very friendly though and welcomed us whilst shaking our hands vigourously. 


  He invited us into the hut and introduced us to his wife. She looked up and nodded to us, her hands full with the meal she was preparing. I noticed some unfamiliar vegetables and, nearby, a dead monkey, its fur all blackened and singed. Quite obviously, it was monkey for dinner. I was thankful that I had to fast for the jage ceremony……


part three is on the way...

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