Looking For Adventure
Where Do They Get That Hair-Raising Thrill Stuff? Asks Veteran Explorer of Tropical America
by A. Hyatt Verrill
The Washington Post; Jul 6, 1930; pg. MS5. Collected by Alan Schenker, digitized by Doug Frizzle, September 2011
Whenever I read narratives relating the astonishing, thrilling, not to say hair-raising, adventures of explorers who have ventured for a brief time into some untamed portion of tropical America, I wonder how they do it. Is adventure, like art or music a gift or a talent with which one is born? Or is it like so many things nowadays, a specialized profession? Is real adventure pure luck or—perish the thought—all imagination?
For the better part of 35 years I have been knocking about in the jungles of South and Central America, in the high bush of the West Indies, on deserts and pampas, on the bleak snowcapped Andes. I have tramped hundreds of miles through jungles supposedly infested with wild beasts, venomous serpents, noxious insects and hostile savages. I have traveled for weeks on tropical streams filled with rapids and whirlpools, my craft a frail bark or dugout canoe, my boatmen, native Indians. I have journeyed thousands of miles on horseback, muleback and afoot through the wildest country in South America. I have dwelt among: scores of Indian tribes, who were as primitive and wild as in the days of Columbus. I have hunted and killed every four-footed creature of South and Central America. I have voyaged several hundred thousand miles by: sea in steamships, windjammers, fishing smacks, dugouts and leaky cattle boats. I have traveled and camped, eaten and slept with chance companions who were murderers, bandits, outlaws, escaped convicts and out-and-out scoundrels, black, white, red, brown, yellow and all intermediate shades. But never yet have I had what I would call a real adventure.
Of course I've run risks. I've been in tight places and have had close shaves and have had my full share of hardships and the inevitable results of tempting the tropics—such results as yellow typhoid, dengue, blackwater, breakbone, chargres and ordinary malarial fevers. Such things are all part of the day's work for an explorer in the tropics. But I have never been, held up, threatened, robbed nor molested by any one. I have never been attacked by a wild beast; never bitten by a poisonous snake; never treated with anything but friendliness by Indians; never shipwrecked; never held for ransom nor inconvenienced by revolutionists (although I have been in the vortex of several revolutions); have never been obliged to keep my men under control at the point of a gun; nor have I ever slept with a revolver under my pillow while plots and counterplots buzzed about my camp.
Possibly I've missed a lot. Very probably many persons will feel that in confessing to the above I have knocked the romance out of tropical exploration or will assume I am lacking in imagination. On the contrary, I possess a highly developed imagination and an intensely romantic disposition. But as regards adventure in the accepted meaning of the term, I take much the same stand as the countryman who for the first time gazed at the giraffe.
Yet perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps after all I have had adventures. Possibly what I consider experiences might be classified as adventures by others. Honestly, I would like to know, and the best way of finding out may be to relate a few of my most interesting experiences and let the reader judge.
There was Jose and the jungle trip, for example. I was in the interior of Costa Rica at the time. My headquarters were in a frontier settlement in the midst of the jungle. As there was no other habitable building available, the alcalde cleaned out one-half of the jail and informed me that the house and all it contained were mine.
As a rule I carry my own guide and servant with me on my expeditions, but on this occasion I was without an A. D. C. for I had expected to find a satisfactory man in the village. But none of the able-bodied males could be induced to work and I turned to my friend, the alcalde, in my dilemma. He scratched his nose in perplexity.
Then a brilliant idea came to him.
"There is Jose, senor!" he exclaimed. "He knows the jungle like an Indian; he knows the ways of the birds and beasts and he is an honest man.”
“Excellent!" I agreed. "And who is Jose?"
"He is only a murderer,” the alcalde assured me. "He is here awaiting the police, who are to take him to San Carlos, where he is to remain in prison for life. But the police will not arrive for two weeks. In the meantime the senor is welcome to him. The senor need pay him no wages, and each night he will sleep in the jail, so he will be of no expense to the senor."
Jose, a stocky half-breed, grinned when the alcalde explained matters. The tiny jail was vermin infested and crowded with rascals each night, and he was overjoyed at the idea of spending his days in the jungle. He proved a veritable treasure to me. Never have I employed a better bushman, and he was as faithful as only a dog or an Indian can be. From dawn until dark we tramped and hunted the jungles, Jose, the condemned murderer, carrying my loaded rifle and alone with me in the heart of the tropical forest.
He was booked for lifelong incarceration in San Carlos Prison—there being no capital punishment in Costa Rica—and it would have been the easiest thing in the world to have shot me in the back. Provided with my gun and ammunition, he could have lived for months in the jungle without fear of capture; he could have escaped to Nicaragua or to Panama, and even had he been taken and his act proven he would have been no worse off. But I don't believe the idea ever entered his head. At any rate, I never gave it a thought and I never considered it an adventure.
From Costa Rica the scene shifts to the Guianas. I had been traveling by canoe for weeks up one of the big jungle rivers and had penetrated far beyond the last outposts of civilization, where only the primitive Indians dwelt in widely separated villages and where few white men had ever been. I had been visiting an Indian village in the jungle-covered hills and had returned to my camp beside the river with my five Indian boatmen, my half-breed captain and my Negro camp boy. Darkness had fallen; we had finished our dinner of broiled monkey and cassava bread when the grizzly headed Boviander captain raised his hand warningly, listened intently and remarked:
"Bateau she been comin', chief."
"Maybe an Indian family coming downstream," I suggested.
The captain shook his head.
"No, chief," he declared, "she not Buck (Indian) bateau. She been white man or mebbe black fellows."
The rattle of paddles on gunwales was now plain, and a moment later a large boat filled with men appeared silhouetted against the pale shimmer of the river. Our campfire threw a ruddy light, and from the strange craft came a hail in broken English, asking if we were Indians. Then the voice inquired if he and his comrades could camp with us. Seeing no reason to refuse and knowing there was no good camp site elsewhere for several miles I assented.
A moment later a big bateau grated on the bank and fully twenty men scrambled ashore. Who or what they were I could not be sure, but by the faint light from the fire I could see that some were black, others brown and one of two white, that all appeared to be ragged and wild looking and that they jabbered among themselves in patois French. The fellow who had first hailed us—a big, gaunt, bewhiskered fellow in short canvas breeches and ragged shirt—strode forward, thanked me for permission to camp and asked if I could spare any tobacco. I did not have an oversupply, but knowing how a smoker craves tobacco in the bush I told Sam to open the provision chest and give the fellow a couple of tins.
As he watched Sam, he unquestionably saw the other tins of tobacco, the trade goods, the supplies, the matches and other articles. He knew, too, that we had arms and ammunition, fishing tackle and money. But he asked for nothing else and, expressing his thanks, joined his comrades, who had lighted a fire and were spreading palm leaves for beds. Wondering at this, for no one dreams of going into the Guiana bush without hammocks, I strolled over to their camp and, to my surprise, I noticed that there was no sign of the inevitable rice and coffee being cooked. Only a miserable bony sunfish was being prepared. The leader evidently read my thoughts and remarked that he and his friends were short of provisions, having journeyed a long way. In the bush one shares what one can with the other chap and, returning to my camp, I had Sam break out sugar, coffee, rice, beans and pork, and adding a haunch of peccary to this, I sent the food to the strangers.
The food put them in gay humor, and far into the night they sang, laughed and joked. Our supplies, our arms, our equipment remained unguarded and unwatched as we slumbered in our hammocks, until, as usual, the first streaks of dawn, the clattering of toucans and the squawking of parrots and macaws aroused us. Our unknown companions of the night had already broken camp and were embarking in their big battered and patched canoe, which looked as if it had reposed beneath the water for years.
Never have I seen a tougher appearing crowd than they, but they were good humored, they shouted thanks and farewells, and noisily pushed off and vanished around a bend of the river, not an article of ours was missing, not a thing had been disturbed—and yet, as I knew, the fellows must have been desperately in need of provisions, arms and equipment. Already I had begun to suspect who and what they were, and later I found my suspicions confirmed. They were escaped convicts from the penal settlement in French Guiana, the most desperate and ruthless Apaches and thugs, and their bewhiskered leader was thrice a murderer. Poor devils! They never won through. Ignorant of the treacherous river, its currents and its rapids, they took a wrong turn, went over a cataract and perished to a man within a few hours after they had left our camp. It was the great adventure for them, but hardly an adventure for me.
At another time I was in the interior of Santo Domingo, in a wild, unsettled district. It was raining in torrents, the night was coming on, and, having expected to reach a village before dark, I was not equipped for camping. My only companion was a West Indian colored boy and it looked as if we would pass a miserable night in the saddle. Presently to our joy, we came to a tiny clearing with a palm-thatched hut. At our approach a man appeared in the doorway of the hut. He was a swarthy, fiercely mustached fellow with bushy brows and reddened eyes, and was far from prepossessing. He was clad in patched cotton garments, wore a battered sombrero, carried a long-bladed, cross-hilted machete and a heavy revolver at his belt. For a moment he peered at us, and then, as I asked if we could stop for the night, he grinned, doffed his hat and declared that his house and all it held were mine. He was the soul of hospitality. Humble as was his hut, he did his best to make us comfortable. His woman, a plump, good-looking half-breed, fanned the smoldering fire into a blaze, prepared coffee and baked tortillas while our host brought out chicha and cleared a space in one corner and spread a cowhide and palm trash for our beds. With our garments dried, and our stomachs lined, we chatted with our fierce visaged host. At that time revolutionists and bandits were as thick as ants throughout the republic. It was not wise to express an opinion for or against a political party, but as our host appeared to take a keen interest in the situation, and explained he had kept out of sight for fear of being drawn into the forces of one side or the other, I related all I had seen or heard. He, too, had had experiences, and he told of service in the last revolt, showed an ugly bullet wound in one leg and a livid scar made by a machete on one shoulder, and conveyed the impression—though without bragging—that he was something of a firebrand himself. But I noticed he did not mention names or places in his stories.
When I left his home the following morning he refused to accept any payment for his hospitality; gave me directions as to a short cut across the mountains, and with a hearty, "May you go with God, senor," he waved his hand in farewell.
A few weeks later there was great rejoicing throughout the province. The most feared bandit in the country, a murderous rascal named Galvan, but more widely known as "El Lobo," had been taken. He had put up a savage fight and was brought in literally cut to pieces. He was a shocking sight; but I recognized the bloodstained, pallid face of the dying bandit as the face of the fellow who had given me shelter that stormy night.
By all recognized rules of adventure tales he should have cut my throat while I slept, should have held me for ransom, or at the very least should have robbed me. But he did neither, and so again adventure passed me by.
Another time, while in Central America, I was starting forth from a tiny wayside inn long before dawn. My way was over an unfrequented road across mountains, with no houses for miles, and I foresaw a lonely ride. As I entered the patio where my horse stood saddled, the mozo inquired if I would object to having a companion on my journey, explaining that another caballero was traveling in my direction. Presently the caballero appeared—a burly figure whose features were unrecognizable in the darkness. He expressed his pleasure at the prospect of a companion on the lonely road and mounted a splendid white horse. For hours we rode side by side, talking and chatting, and I found my unknown comrade a most delightful and interesting individual.
When, at last the gray light of dawn enabled me to see his face I discovered that he was a gigantic Negro with a huge scar across one cheek which had twisted his thick lips into an evil leer. We breakfasted beside a spring on the mountainside, and an hour or two later reached the summit of the pass. Here the fellow halted, and, informing me that his way led over a trail to the south, he shook hands cordially, wished me a safe journey and rode off through the forest.
Late that evening I reached San Mateo and threw myself with a sigh of relief into a hammock swinging at the inn. The proprietor plied me with questions as to my trip and asked casually if I had met any one on my ride. As I spoke of my chance companion and described him, the face of the easy-going innkeeper paled and he glanced nervously about.
"Madre de Dios! he exclaimed, crossing himself. "The Americano senor bears a charmed life then. Know you not that you rode with the Evil One himself? No other bears such a scar on his face. It was Panchito Gomez, senor—the outlawed leader of the last insurrection. There is a price of 5,000 gold pesos on his head!"
But I can not see that there was any adventure in riding through the hills at night with an outlaw with a price on his head—that is, when one is not aware of it at the time.
Possibly I have been unlucky—or maybe I should say lucky—in not meeting with more thrilling adventures. But judging from my own experiences, the type of adventure we associate with tropical exploration is about the rarest thing in the bush.
Perhaps, too, my grizzled old Boviander captain was right when, referring to this same subject of adventure, he observed: "Taken’ de fac's o' da case in considation, Ah boun' say a man boun' to fin' wha'sever he aims fo', dat is if he lives long ‘nough."
So it may simply be that I have not lived long enough.