I am sipping on Blue Moon's Harvest Seasonal Ale, and running through a mental catalogue of adventures.
As per the usual, I have procrastinated until the very last minute on this. Travel story, travel story...I need a travel story...I could talk about dining on fried tarantulas and cobra whiskey in Siem Reap, Cambodia, but no, I have done that far too often, and no one wants to hear that tired shit anymore. Well then, I could talk about the attack dogs in a grungy alley of Southern China, but similar thing, we have already heard that one. Motorbike accidents in Thailand? No, that's boring. The international sex trade? Inappropriate. I need something with some grit and suspense, maybe even a little danger.
I sip my beer and look out the window pensively.
Oh yes, I have one.
It was just after midnight in the middle of a central American swamp. The rickety boat creaked in the light wind and swayed piteously. To be fair, describing it as a "boat" speaks to a generosity of spirit that does not come to me often. It could more accurately be described as a "canoe," although "dinghy," or simply, a "piece of shit" would certainly not be far from the truth either.
We were hunting crocodiles. Sorry, there I go lying again. To "hunt" means that we actually had some sort of plan to engage them upon discovery. We were merely looking for crocodiles. Two of us to a boat, with one guide, we paddled softly across the dark water, sensitive to any ripples or movement in the water. Because they are evil, a crocodile's eyes show up a deep, red glow when light is reflected on them at night. As I swept my flashlight across the top of the still waters, red eyes were everywhere.
The guide had explained that you could tell how large the crocodile was by how far apart the eyes were set. Most of them were very small. When we saw eyes just an inch or so apart, we would paddle towards them. These small ones were usually hiding in and around the reeds of the bank, and we could get close enough to see their entire bodies, 1-2 feet long, floating completely still even when we were close enough to reach out and touch them. None of us reached out and touched them.
Now and again we would see much larger creatures, eyes set far away from each other, a good 4-6" across. These would wait briefly while we steered towards it, and then sink under the surface, sending large ripples arcing back towards us, gently rocking the small canoe.
Now and again, small fish would leap out of the water to escape from the roving predators. Perhaps mistaking our canoe for a large croc, these same fish would often jump out of the way of our forward progress, seeking temporary shelter in the air.
Crocodiles are normally nocturnal hunters, often floating motionless on the surface of the water as their prey approaches. When the attack comes, it is lightning fast, and the reptile will snatch its prey and drag it immediately underwater to drown it. Once submerged, this relic of the dinosaur age goes into its famous "death roll," as it attempts to both drown its prey as well as rip the body apart. As we slowly approached the largest of these predators, I thought of such things.
"Hey Onn," I said.
I looked back. My friend Onn was lying on her back in the canoe with her hands over her face.
I tapped her shoe.
"Hey Onn. What the hell are you doing?" I asked.
She peeked out from under her crossed arms.
"This is not what I thought it would be. Just tell me when its over," she said, and re-entrenched herself protectively back under her arms.
I stared at her for a moment, and then nodded. She had a point.
There are two types of Crocodiles in Belize. The first is known as a Morelet Crocodile, and they have a wide snout, and will not exceed 8 feet in length. The second are American Crocodiles, and can reach lengths of 21.5 feet. Wild American Crocs will rarely exceed 13 feet these days. I repeated this fact to myself a few times, comforted. It then occurred to me just what little chance I stood against a 13 foot carnivorous reptile. Onn's approach to the situation seemed suddenly far more reasonable.
Dead silence across the length of the swamp. No red eyes anywhere. We stopped paddling the canoe and stared into the blackness without moving and barely breathing. A light breeze blew over the water, cooling the sweat on my face and neck, trickling down my arms. Our guide tapped me on the shoulder and pointed off to our left silently. I slowly swung the flashlight in the direction. About 20 feet away were two horribly bright red eyes, staring fixed and unblinking in our direction. They were set far across from each other, what seemed so impossibly far apart that at first I convinced myself that they must belong to two different animals. They were not.
Turning the canoe starboard, we set the paddles into the black water and rowed as slowly as possible towards the dark mass just under the surface. From the set of the eyes, the Crocodile looked to be as big as our small boat. Closer and closer we rowed until we reached a point less than 5 feet from the massive creature. Finally, at the last moment, and without the slightest hint of fear, the animal sunk deeper under the gently lapping wake of our momentum, rocking our canoe badly. Exploding out of the water, a small fish leaped away from certain death, passing an inch from my face and spraying me with cold water.
And that was the time I screamed like a girl.
This post inspired by the 20sb.net Blog Carnival for travel writing, and the winners receive a free 1-year subscription to the language course of their choice through livemocha.com.