The most tantalizing part of the brochure was its title.
Its provocative use of the word “when” rather than “if” or, the even more proactive, “to avoid being,” offered a certain daring inevitability to the adventure.
This was Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil. People get attacked by jaguars here. It’s something to do at Iguassu National Park, between gawking at the world’s largest waterfall (by volume) from Devil’s Point and inflicting your curiosity on the privacy of an innocent anteater. At Three Borders Landmark you can be bored in Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay–all at the same time!
In the previous month a park ranger’s son had actually been killed by a jaguar that had decided to abruptly live in the immediate vicinity. Jaguars are endangered so the locals weren’t going to hunt it. Foreign visitors were even more rare at the time so they weren’t going to close the site. So with that certain reckless synergy infused into any visit to South America, they decided to endanger the tourists instead. But they would prepare the hapless sightseers first–with a photocopied quad-lingual pamphlet.
In keeping with my impressive practice of going to all the right places at the wrong time, I was there for the dry season and missed viewing the Falls at their most sublime.
On the positive side, I did not get attacked by a jaguar–until a week later.
Step One: Remain Calm
I was taking a dump in the middle of the Pantanal at 2AM. I was armed with my jacket, John Grisham’s “The Testament”–ironically set in the Pantanal, a flashlight, a roll of toilet paper, and the most intensely-relevant, yet ultimately unhelpful, brochure in the history of world tourism.
For purposes of brevity, I will greatly abbreviate how I came to be there. It involved an illegal border crossing (I didn’t know it was illegal, there was nobody at the gates so I just wandered on in), an attempted coup by Lino Oviedo, the assassination of Paraguayan Vice President Luis Argaña, and the election of his opposition replacement, Julio Cesar Franco, who was probably responsible for the assassination.
Paraguayans practice politics at a terminal velocity. The Tea Party are amateurs.
The American embassy, after an enthusiastic discussion, suggested I leave on the then once-a-month caravan through the Pantanal and Andes Mountains to Bolivia. Something close to a road has since been completed, but at the time, it was considered one of the most difficult border crossings in the world and it was optimistically estimated to take about 72 hours.
The embassy wanted to be clear about two points. First, I had to leave immediately using the Trans-Chaco Trail. Second, I would definitely be killed by the Trans-Chaco bandits.
“You are telling me two conflicting things,” I objected.
“No, Mr. Junnier, we are telling you only one thing in two different ways. There is a difference.”
I knew then that my writing ability would be too linear for the Georgetown School of Foreign Service.
I resigned myself. “When does the bus leave?”
“Today, at 7AM.”
“But it’s 2PM now!” I anxiously gestured toward the clock.
“This must be your first trip to South America.”
It was. I was nineteen.
When I arrived at Terminal de Ómnibus de Asunción (Spanish for the somewhat less-grand sounding “Asunción Bus Terminal”), the bus was still stationary and the driver and porters looked unhurried to begin an 800 mile journey through the mud and slop swamps of the Chaco.
The ticket cost $8.
I sat next to the driver in the front. The words “closed due to Cholera” were neatly printed in Spanish and English on a sticker slapped over the handle of the bus bathroom. The only meal service began within the first five minutes of what would be a multi-day journey. The protein wasn’t immediately identifiable.
“Moo?” I plaintively asked.
The driver laughed with an animated shaking of his head.
“Oink?” I was getting increasingly nervous.
More laughs and shakes.
“Quack?” I was desperate.
“No!” The driver laughed manically–“Arf!”
It had been days since I had eaten. I wouldn’t eat that day either.
Despite it being the dry season, the rain began almost the second we left the asphalt. It was a heavy all-consuming rain. It was the kind of rain that just sends you back to bed on a Sunday morning.
But there was no time for sleep. We would get stuck, everyone would get off the bus, including two pregnant women, and push the huge coach through the oozing muddy mire. Eventually the vehicle regained traction and we would reboard. It seemed like we would repeat this every half-mile.
When we were on the bus I volunteered my services as the consummate buffoon. I entertained the driver, porters, and passengers with public silliness, grotesque attempts at dance, and by playing perpetual charades with myself. I made everyone laugh and shared pictures of my home and family. Then they shared theirs. It was pretty awesome. We couldn’t speak each other’s language, but we passed the time by trying.
After the promised 72 hours, we were still in the drudges of nowhere.
I was starving in that authentic way of not feeling hunger because my body had already begun to eat itself. Every muscle I had was destroyed by ineptly actually trying to push the bus–before I decided to pretend to push the bus like seemingly everyone else. I hadn’t slept because the driver kept himself awake by blaring music at decibels normally reserved as a police tactic to end a hostage crisis. I hadn’t had an opportunity to make a bowel movement in three days.
I wasn’t at my best.
Then, at 2AM, the axle broke off.
We were a hundred miles away from anywhere and it was time to go to the bathroom. I simply decided I would carefully navigate my way into some adjacent jungle and find a place of privacy.
For the sake of my public reputation, let’s assume I went to the trouble of digging the required trench.
I was hovering over the trench, squinting my eyes, and wishing for a life that didn’t presently resemble my own–when I spotted, at a distance of thirty yards, passed some brush, a suspicious nocturnal twinkling of two beaming gold orbs.
I stared. Moments passed as my eyes struggled to focus. I continued to stare. Abruptly, my situation was processed and understood.
It’s a good thing my pants were already down because my reaction was expressed biologically–first I thought the noun and then I verb-ed it.
Next, I remembered the contents of my jacket pocket. I thought to myself, “now would be a truly excellent time to review the brochure, ‘What to do When Attacked by a Jaguar.'”
Step one–remain calm–struck me as imminently practical. It was better than the advice the embassy gave me generally, which was to panic.
So I kept calm. I even cleaned up a little, moving very deliberately and slowly. The cat, which wasn’t moving, seemed so unthreatened by me that after twenty minutes I pulled up my pants. I was relaxed. The cat was relaxed.
I can’t believe I didn’t just walk away.
Step Two: Make loud noises while waving your arms aggressively to look as imposing as possible; throw any available article of clothing at it.
I blinked many times as I reread “step two” to ensure it was a correct translation. This seemed like pretty bad advice.
Despite my belief that this was in sheer disregard of “step one,” which had thus-far led to some promising results, I shrieked like a ten-year-old girl, threw my jacket vaguely in the direction of a resting two-hundred pound death machine, and outstretched my arms to embrace the results of bad judgment.
Due to the laws of aerodynamics, the jacket missed the cat by about, well, thirty yards.
The John Grisham novel which flung out of the jacket pocket however, faired better, scoring an undesirable direct hit on the nose. It responded with a bone-tingling roar–and by getting up.
The damn thing had been asleep this whole time.
It trotted within twenty feet of me and abruptly turned. Relief swelled over me. I had demonstrated such grotesquely ridiculous behavior that I had confused it into being afraid of me. Then I saw it turn again. And again. And again. I believe the technical term is circling.
Step Three: By now you have scared the jaguar away, so immediately proceed to the nearest ranger station to report the incident.
My eyes darted repeatedly from the pamphlet to the stalking jaguar. He continued to spiral around me. (I assume it was a he; I felt it impolitic to check.)
I needed to improvise a “step four.”
Step Four: Though you were viciously bullied in primary school for an inability to do pull-ups as a child, inexplicably discover a latent ability to climb trees quickly and to dizzying heights.
Having proceeded with “step four” I learned an important thing about jaguars.
They can climb a tree faster than me.
Constantly losing my grip, banging my head, and scraping my stomach against jagged bark, they are also infinitely more graceful about it.
I was about to resort to what I did before “step one,” but my pants were on.
Luckily, in a moment of genius, I implemented “step five.”
Step Five: Have a more competent person than yourself rescue you with a loaded gun clenched in his hands.
The bus driver had heard my child-like screams and came running. Since we were fleeing a revolution, it was understandable why he was armed.
From the time I implemented “step two” to the time he pulled the trigger, only about twenty seconds had passed–but it seemed like a year.
For those imbued with the crassness to be more concerned about the welfare of the jaguar than my own, the driver missed it by ten feet–though the bullet did wiz passed my face. The miss was presumably purposeful. It is an endangered species and a miss had accomplished the goal of frightening it away.
I never got to ask him. I jumped down (fell, actually) from the tree and I profusely thanked him in two languages.
He responded by robbing me at gunpoint.
He was kind about it. He didn’t ask for the money belt he surely knew I had. It became fairly obvious how the Trans-Chaco bandits were so thorough in finding the foreigners on the route–they drove the busses. He must have known that if I reported him to the authorities they would find him easily. There was paperwork as to who was driving.
Maybe he took a risk. Maybe the local authorities were being bribed and it wouldn’t matter what I claimed to have happened.
In any event, he stared at his goofball passenger who had shared pictures and cracked jokes in a language he didn’t understand.
Then, after a pause, he didn’t kill me.
Without comment he walked away. I felt a general expected understanding that I was to wait where I was until he was gone. I did, and upon returning to where the bus had been, I found my pack and a hysterically crying German. He was the only other foreigner. I wasn’t sure if it had always been the plan to rob us or if the driver was just giving me a companion for the long walk ahead.
Even though the driver left us for dead, I still rank his company’s customer service above that of Greyhound.
Two days later we crossed the border and the German reported his robbery. I decided to remain silent. I know that was morally wrong–inconsiderate of potential future victims. I was a kid. I must have felt a degree of loyalty. The rational thing for him to do was kill me, but he chose to let me live and risk the consequences. I wanted to reward his risk.
Always a student of economics, I like to incentivize people not to kill me.
Also, I couldn’t be sure that he was one of the actual bandits. In total he took my wallet, a camera (left on the bus), and about $40. In my money belt which he let me keep, there was a few hundred dollars in cash, a credit card, an airplane ticket, passport, pictures, and a bank card. He also saved me from certain death–before relegating back to a near-certain death.
It didn’t matter. My impromptu travel companion explained everything to a serenely disinterested police officer who typed out a report pressing one typewriter key at a time. I entertained myself in the rustic lobby area before asking the desk sergeant if I could go into the courtyard. He nodded smiling rows of gold teeth.
I immediately reentered when I saw that the courtyard was actually a prison yard.
“No, no, it’s safe,” he gestured. He started to lead me on what I thought was a tour. He would unlock a gate, usher me into a hallway, unlock another gate, and so on.
At the last gate, he closed it on me and I found myself in a crowded cell. I did a pirouette. The guard smiled at me as if to ask “Did I do good? A story to tell if you ever get home?”
I turned back to look at my cellmates. There was the worrying sort of animated response to my unexpected presence usually associated with the introduction of a pretty woman to a flock of construction workers. At nineteen, I was a situationally ill-advisedly good looking dude. A particularly burly man with a tear-drop tattooed under his eyes stomped forward to hover over me. I could feel the warmth of his breath on my cheeks.
He proceeded to try to sell me handcrafts.
Prisoners are responsible for their own room and board and those without family or friends on the outside depositing money into their jail accounts, rely on selling trinkets to tourists who occasionally visit prisons on so called “reality vacations.”
As it happened–I was in the market for a new wallet.
The German and I went to the nearest bus station to book a ticket to the nearest airport. We had both had enough travel. We were both too hungry, too tired, and too annoyed to even enjoy the Indiana Jones aspect of our adventure.
Burgers from a street cart while we waited–our first food in days–were ten cents a piece.
“You know, Richard, I don’t see too many cows around here and I’m not sure that beef prices fluctuate this much.”
Two rats ran between us and the cart and the seller with no teeth cackled aloud.
Whatever. It was food. We each had two more burgers and went home.
*The more skeptical of you may question the veracity of the above tale. I only say that all of it is true–except for the parts which are not. To find those committed to the accurate reporting of world events, I recommend the Washington Post. Like the class clown, I merely endeavor to entertain my audience.