Sunday, 1 April 2012
Thirty Years in the Jungle -Ch 3-5
This continues the story from the book, Thirty Years in the Jungle, an autobiography by A. Hyatt Verrill, 1929. Previous
Chapter 3 Marooned in the Forest
Leaving the bird-skins with the chief, who promised to send them on to Laudat, we resumed our interrupted journey towards Morne Diablotin.
There, at nearly a mile above the sea, on the upper slopes of this loftiest peak in the Lesser Antilles, we spent nearly two weeks, searching the former haunts of the mysterious Devil-bird. It was not pleasant work, for we were constantly in a cloud, our garments were never dry, and, although in the tropics the temperature fell to below 50° F. at night and a bitter cold and chilly wind swept across the mountain. Often, for days at a time, we were isolated from all the rest of the world. Below us was a vast, undulating, billowy sea of clouds; above us clouds hid the mountain top from sight. Our visible world was a few square rods of rough, almost bare rock and tufa as silent as the grave.
Possibly one or two Devil-birds survived on Dominica, but our most careful search failed to reveal their presence, and even the trained dogs could not smell one out. So, abandoning all hopes at last, we packed up, descended the mountain, and headed for the interior of the island, for a locality where, my companions assured me, we could find many rare birds. It was a delightful spot after the cold and dreary mountain top, a tongue of partly cleared land with a flashing mountain stream flowing around it in a horseshoe bend, and with the high bush extending for countless miles on every side. A small but fairly comfortable hut had been built upon the little peninsula to accommodate a Government survey party several years previously, and here we established ourselves. It proved a very rich and promising collecting ground, and my specimens accumulated rapidly. In fact, it was such an excellent locality that I decided to extend my stay, and as provisions were getting low I despatched Rolles to the nearest settlement—a two days' journey away—to secure a fresh supply of food. Agoutis, pigeons and other game were abundant, and we still had enough flour, cassava and other provisions to serve Leon, Beche and myself for four or five days, so we felt perfectly safe on that score. But we had not thought of unforeseen contingencies arising. On the second day rain fell in torrents from morning until night, and by the morning of the third day the stream was a raging torrent roaring around the little point of land, tearing at the banks, sweeping great trees along with it, and filled with branches, logs and tree-trunks that were tossed about like match-sticks upon the turbid flood.
Even then we did not realize the danger that threatened us. The hut was dry and comfortable, it was high enough above the stream to be safe, and though I chafed at the inclement weather, which prevented me from collecting, we were not worried. The fourth day found us practically out of food, but Rolles we felt sure would be back in a few hours, and all was well. But Rolles did not appear. Then for the first time matters began to look serious. We had eaten our last provisions, but as the rain had slackened Leon suggested that he should go on a hunt for game while I gathered the plantains that grew about the house, and waited for Rolles, whom we felt sure would be back, even if a little delayed by the rains.
But ten minutes after Leon set out he returned, a strange expression upon his face. And as in broken English he explained matters I felt we were in a dilemma. Unsuspected by us, the river had cut across the neck of land at the back of the house and we were on an island completely cut off, and surrounded by a raging, impassable torrent. Our only food was the few green plantains; and Rolles was still absent! But even had he appeared it would not have helped us in the least, for he could no more reach us than we could escape from our temporary prison, and there was no sign of the rain ceasing or the river falling. That day we dined on green bananas and land crabs, and very few of these. The next day our rations were reduced to snails, a couple of stray lizards and an unwary snake. Snails, snakes and lizards might sustain life and satisfy hunger if in sufficient numbers; but our supply was woefully limited, and three half-famished men sat gloomily speculating on whether we would be forced to resort to cannibalism in the end.
The next day we carefully gathered the remains of previous meals; parrot and pigeon bones, plantain and yam rinds, and any other garbage we could find and, quite oblivious of the thick mould and the numerous insects feasting upon it, we used the offal for a soup which, I must confess, tasted better than any soup I have ever had before or since. That day, to add to our misery, Rolles appeared on the opposite side of the stream. There he was, not five hundred feet distant, laden with food and yet as far from us as though on another planet. We shouted to him, told him our plight and, after a time, decided to attempt to get the provisions by means of a liana or "bush rope" as a last resort. Working feverishly, we gathered lengths of tough vines, knotted them together, and attaching one end to a billet of wood we waded into the eddies and threw the stick as far as possible into the rushing waters. Leon had calculated the flow of the current to a nicety, and as the bobbing billet rushed down stream and the coil of lianas unwound it moved steadily nearer and nearer to Rolles, who was waiting for it up to his armpits in the river. With a wild hurrah we saw him seize it, and, a moment later, he had fastened his basket to tin-improvised line. We were elated. At last food was within our grasp, and we were already licking our chops in anticipation of the feast we would have. The food was well covered and tightly bound in plantain leaves which were practically a waterproof covering. But even if the provisions were wet, what did it matter? The cassava could be dried or made into cakes, the salt meat and codfish would not be injured by a little wetting, and the canned goods and lard were impervious to water. Lustily we hauled in the precious cargo. It was more than half-way across. It was almost within reach when, just as we felt sure that it was safe, a huge log came leaping, hurdling down the stream, and with horror we saw it launch itself upon our rope. It was all over in an instant. Throwing its length half out of water, gyrating madly as if in demoniacal joy at what it had done, the log went careering down stream, carrying our precious food and the severed rope with it.
Utterly discouraged, feeling more famished than ever, we sat down regardless of the pouring rain and gazed hopelessly across the river. Rolles shouted to us, waved his hands, and turning, vanished in the forest. He, too, was foodless or nearly so, and it behooved him to make the best speed back to the settlement in his own interests.
For the next three days we were marooned on a desert island. Not even a snail nor slug could be found; not a nut, root, fruit nor tuber that was edible, and I learned then what hunger really is. But the third day was clear, no rain fell, and on the morning of the fourth day the river had appreciably fallen. To be sure it was still high, it ran like a mill-race, and branches still covered its muddy surface. But it was as well to drown as to starve, and with stout staffs to aid us we took our lives in our hands and waded into the stream. Slipping, bracing ourselves to the rush of the current, dodging floating limbs by hairbreadths, half-swimming at times, we forced our way across and at last clambered safely out on the opposite shore.
Half-drowned, wholly famished as we were, yet we made better time through that forest than ever men had made before. Bad as the trail was, and made inexpressibly worse by nearly a week of steady rain, we scarcely noticed it, for before us, shutting out all other thoughts, all other sensations, was the vision of food. Once Leon stepped upon a thorn that penetrated an inch into his bare foot. But he scarcely hesitated. With a curse he jerked the thorn from his flesh and hurried on. Twice I barked my shins against rough logs, but I did not even feel the pain and was utterly unaware of the fact until, at the end of the journey, I discovered my trouser legs red with blood.
Five hours of this, and with a wild shout Leon pointed ahead to where bright sunlight showed through the trees. Breaking into a run, we raced forward towards a solitary hut in a small clearing. No one was at home, but within the deserted house we found a jug of molasses and a slab of rank salt codfish. And never, in all my life, has any food tasted as delicious, as welcome as that odorous salt fish and black, sticky treacle that we gulped down like ravenous wolves. Then, the first pangs of our hunger satisfied, we took matters more calmly. A single coconut tree towered above the hut, and Beche climbed this and threw down a dozen or more green nuts. Having finished these, and having thus completely exhausted the edible resources of the place, we headed for the nearest settlement in the Layou Valley, arriving at the estate of Mr. Alec Riviere at sundown.
It was while I was staying with Mr. Riviere that I heard of some of the inexplicable occurrences I have already mentioned. Unlike most of the coloured islanders, he had absolutely no faith in the supernatural and scoffed openly at Jumbies and Obeah. Neither could his veracity and trustworthiness be questioned, and yet he told me of events which he had personally witnessed which were positively uncanny. For example, there was the story of Papá Kali, an old African Obeah man who dwelt in the near-by village. Riviere was a cacao planter, and for a long time he had been greatly annoyed by thieves who had helped themselves almost nightly to the finest of his ripe cacao pods. Every effort to catch or even to discover the rascals had failed, and Riviere had about made up his mind to stand the losses as best he might when one of his friends suggested employing an Obeah man.
"Even if he doesn't find the thieves he can frighten them," the man argued. "They all believe in Obeah, you know, and if they find an Obeah man is on the job they'll be too jolly well scared to steal any more pods. Just call in old Papá Kali, and see if I'm not right."
Rather averse to apparently recognizing the Obeah man's powers, Riviere decided to try the experiment, and the old African was duly summoned. Having heard the case, he asked that all the employees of the estate should be called. When all had gathered about the front of the house, the wizened, big-footed (to be a proper Obeah man one must have a foot or leg affected by elephantiasis) old negro mounted the high front steps and peered with his red, ape-like eyes at the sea of black, brown and yellow faces of the thoroughly frightened crowd before him. Then, mumbling some unintelligible words in his African dialect, he waved his horse-tail wand (another essential part of the Obeah man's equipment) and fumbling in his wallet (supposedly made of human skin) he drew out a little bundle of red rags and feathers. Holding this up so that all could see, he cried, "Garde bien! Garde bien! See what Papa Kail holds. Eh, Eh, some one here is the thief. Papá Kali knows but will not tell. No, no, if Papá Kali told, M'sieu Reviere would not believe. But Papá Kali will throw this little friend of the devil into the air and the one it strikes will be the thief."
As he finished he tossed the charm forward, while a terrified half-smothered cry arose from the assembled people. Riviere was watching every movement and smiling to himself at such tomfoolery. But as the Obeah charm left Papá Kali's hand he uttered an exclamation of amazement and stared incredulously. As if endowed with life and purpose, the bunch of rags veered to one side, sailed over the heads of the people, and struck the mulatto overseer who unexpectedly appeared from beyond the building at that moment. With a curse he leaped aside and then broke into a hearty laugh. Picking up the charm he hurled it back at the old African. "That much for you and your Obeah," he cried in patois. "Try it again, you old humbug!"
Papá Kali cackled, nodded his head and stretched a claw-like hand towards Riviere for the half-crown he demanded as his fee. "Eh, eh, M'sieu," he exclaimed, as he turned to hobble away. "Papá Kali knows. Papá Kali never fails."
"The old rascal!" cried Riviere as the overseer joined him and the assembled labourers dispersed. "Pocketed a half-crown just for tossing a few rags into the air. And hitting you, Noel, at that! Wonder what he would have said if you hadn't bobbed up and his rags had fallen on the ground."
But the next day Noel, the trusted overseer, was missing and a week later Riviere received a letter from St. Thomas. "Papá Kali was right," were the words Riviere read. "I was the thief and I have left Dominica for ever. I could not be easy until I confessed to it.—Noel."
"I don't know what to think," Riviere replied when I asked him how he accounted for it. "I suppose it was just a coincidence, but it was a most astonishing coincidence that Noel should have appeared at the precise moment he did, that the charm should have veered so far out of its course and should have struck him, and that he should have been the thief. I don't believe in Obeah, but sometimes I feel that perhaps, after all, Papá Kali knows something of which you and I know nothing." Then, after a few moments' thought, "I suppose you have heard of the showers of stones?" he asked.
"More or less," I replied. "But I've never believed the yarns—all the natives' superstition, of course."
"I wonder," he observed with a laugh. "I thought so myself until I actually witnessed one of the showers."
"The devil you did!" I exclaimed, my interest aroused. "Where was it, and what was it like?"
"It was in Roseau," he replied. "About three years ago. I was walking along a side street one evening when I noticed a crowd gathered at a corner and all watching a little hut a few rods away. Wondering what had happened, I pushed my way into the throng and was told that a shower of stones was falling on the house and that the same house had been showered several times previously. Laughing at the idea, I pushed forward until I had an unobstructed view of the house and—well, you may believe me or not, I gasped. It was a perfectly clear moonlight night, not a cloud in the sky, not a breath of wind, and yet stones or some solid objects were pattering down from somewhere upon the shingled roof of the house. I could hear them, and what is more I could see them. They glittered in the moonlight, bounded off the shingles, and fell tinkling on to the cobbles of the street. It was the most uncanny, most incredible thing I have ever seen. I felt much as I expect I should feel if I saw a ghost, and I had a strange tingling of my scalp. It was incredible, absolutely impossible, but it was happening just the same.
"I stood there fascinated for fully five minutes, and then the shower of stones suddenly ceased, a sigh of thankfulness and relief arose from the onlookers, and very quietly and swiftly they dispersed. As I turned to leave, feeling as if I had been dreaming and wondering if I and the others had been subjected to some hypnotic influence, I glanced at the pavement. Little objects glistened on the cobbles, and, stooping, I picked up a handful of them. Just a moment and I'll show them to you."
Rising, Riviere entered another room and returned with a small paper box which he handed to me. It was filled with clear quartz crystals, which, as far as is known, do not occur anywhere upon the island. I could not, and never have been able to, offer any theory in explanation of the phenomenon. I could not doubt Riviere's word—and yet; but later I had an almost identical story of the shower of stones related to me by the resident British doctor, and the Governor of the islands assured me that he too had witnessed such showers in Grenada. More, he actually had spent a night in company with his brother in a house subject to the mysterious showers. But in this case the stones fell inside the house instead of on the roof. Several times in one night the two were awakened by stones falling upon them and, so numerous and large were the stones, that the Governor and his brother were forced to beat a hasty retreat and to seek refuge in the open. When morning came they re-entered the house and gathered more than a peck of pebbles.
Finally, there was a most mysterious and inexplicable occurrence that came under my own observation on a subsequent visit to Dominica.
An elderly gentleman who was suffering from chronic asthma had come to the island for his health. He lived at the only hotel, a few blocks from the market place, and was somewhat eccentric. He invariably wore tweed clothes, knickers, a Panama hat with a pugaree, and hence was a conspicuous and well-known figure. And as he was fond of conversing with the negroes, and was given to bestowing pennies upon every ragged beggar he met, he was a great favourite with the natives. It was his custom to leave the hotel each morning, take a short walk to the market, the water-front or the post office, all within three or four blocks of the hotel, and, when the condition of his health warranted he would sometimes stroll as far as the Goodwill Bridge, the fort or the library. So, when on a certain morning he remarked to the proprietress of the hotel that he was going to the post office, it occasioned no comment. But as it was rather later than usual for his stroll she cautioned him to be back in half an hour for breakfast. As he started up the street she remarked to her son that he appeared unusually feeble, and she wondered if she should not have sent a boy along with him. Then the matter dropped from her mind, until at breakfast time he had not returned. Even then she was not worried; but, thinking he had absent-mindedly forgotten the hour, she sent a servant to find him. The servant went to the post office, walked the length of the water-front, searched the market, hurried to the fort and library, and made inquiries of every one she met. But there was no sign of the missing man, and no one had seen him. Alarmed, she hurried back and reported matters. Feeling sure her guest had been taken suddenly ill and had sought refuge in some house, the proprietress of the hotel reported the matter to the police, and a house-to-house search was at once started. But without result. Then the search was extended.
There are but three roads leading out of the town, one passing over the Goodwill Bridge, the second passing over the Bath Bridge, and the third passing the fort, which is used as a police barracks and where a sentry is constantly on duty. The constable here knew the missing man well, but he swore he had not passed the fort. At the Goodwill Bridge an aged beggar, to whom the missing man had frequently given pennies, insisted he had not been that way, and his statement was substantiated by a constable on duty and by other persons. On the last road a truck laden with limes had broken down and had completely blocked the approach to the bridge since six o'clock. A bevy of labourers had been working there since the accident and not one of them had seen the man, although, had he gone that way, he would have been forced to clamber over the spilled limes in order to reach the bridge. It appeared as if the missing man had vanished into thin air; but the search was continued diligently until two o'clock. Then, utterly at a loss, the searchers, myself included, together with the inspector of police, met in the fort and discussed matters, trying to form some theory to account for the mysterious disappearance. While we were talking, a policeman arrived and, saluting the inspector, reported that he had just come in from Rosalie, a town on the opposite side of the island, whence he had been transferred to Roseau. Then, having made his report and having been dismissed by his inspector, he hesitated.
"There is something I would like to mention, sir," he said. "Just as I was passing the Mountain Lake I noticed a gentleman standing by the lake's edge, and poking at the water-weeds with his umbrella. Thinking he was a stranger and did not know the danger, I shouted to him, warning him not to go too near the edge of the lake. He looked up and nodded, and just then a cloud drifted by and I lost sight of him and came along. I've been feeling I should have made sure he heeded my warning, sir."
"What time was that?" asked the inspector.
"At 7.30, sir," replied the constable promptly. "I had glanced at my watch as I came over the ridge by the rest-house and it was then 7.25. It would be about five minutes later that I passed the lake."
"What sort of a man was he? How was he dressed?" I demanded the inspector.
"An elderly man, sir. He was dressed in tweeds—short trousers, and wore a palm hat with a pugaree, sir."
We looked at one another and gasped. Here was this policeman, just in from Rosalie—a man who could never have seen the missing man, who did not even know he was missing—calmly giving us an exact description of the man we sought and claiming he had seen him at a spot a full four hours from Roseau by horseback, and that he had seen him within ten minutes after he had left the hotel that morning.
It was absolutely impossible, incredible and uncanny. No human being, much less a weak, sick man scarcely able to walk a mile, could have gone from Roseau to the Mountain Lake in less than five hours, not to mention ten minutes.
And yet, so obviously sincere was the constable, that we set out at once for the distant Mountain Lake. Needless to say, there was no sign of the missing man, and from that day to this no trace of him has ever been found, despite the fact that his family offered huge rewards for any information regarding his fate.
No doubt there are some perfectly natural and perhaps simple explanations for these and many more seeming mysterious, even occult, occurrences in the islands. But no one has ever been able satisfactorily to explain them, and it is little wonder that the credulous and superstitious coloured people attribute them to Obeah, witchcraft and supernatural agencies. And it is not strange that, under the circumstances and conditions, the Obeah men and women thrive and prosper, for anyone who has lived long in the islands must admit that they do perform some remarkable feats.
Personally I am convinced that they are usually, if not always, natural hypnotists capable of greatly influencing the coloured folk, and by auto-suggestion and hypnotism causing them to do, see and hear things desired by the Obeah practitioner. And equally there can be no doubt that they are past masters of poisoning and possess a wonderful knowledge of poisonous native herbs, roots and seeds, many of which are unknown to science.
But somehow their charms, their spells and their powers appear to be utterly worthless when applied to white persons. I never found an Obeah man who could tell me where to secure a certain species of bird I desired, nor did a most potent charm—presented to me by a most horrible-looking old Obeah man to whom I had tossed a shilling out of pity for his big feet and ulcers—prove efficacious in protecting me from illness and harm, as he had claimed it would. Despite the fetish, I contracted yellow fever, although the natives of course felt convinced that it was the amulet that saved my life. But I prefer to think that it was the kind, unremitting and tender care of the Laudat people. Realizing I was suffering from the dread malady—contracted in the swampy land near Prince Rupert's Bay—I hurried to the little village in the mountains.
More dead than alive after the arduous trip made despite my high fever, I threw myself upon my hard bed in the humble hut, fully expecting that my bones would find a resting-place in the little cemetery on the mountain-side. Too ill to care what happened, tortured by burning fever and bursting head, I stared dully, half-consciously at the hewn rafters and thatch of the roof. Poised ready to spring, an immense wolf-spider was directly above me, while a few inches distant a huge "drummer" cockroach was waving his long antennae as if suspicious of his mortal enemy lurking so near. Listlessly wondering whether the cockroach in his fright would fall upon me or whether the spider would miss its mark and drop on to my face, I closed my eyes. When I again opened them and glanced up to where the insect tragedy was being enacted, neither spider nor cockroach was there. A faint sound near me caused me to turn my head. Le Brun stood beside my bed, her face beaming and holding a bowl of steaming broth in her hands.
"Eh! Eh!" she exclaimed. "M'sieu is well; le Bon Dieu has heard our prayers. Oui, M'sieu, every day have I prayed and so hard, so very hard that M'sieu should live. And now M'sieu is better; he knows Le Brun and he must eat. Oui, M'sieu, it is the will of God and the fever has gone."
It was true. I was weak, weary, emaciated, but free from pain and fever, and I marvelled at the miracle, for not until later did I learn that six weeks had passed since I had seen the spider and its prey above me. Six weeks of oblivion for me; six weeks of delirious ravings, raging fever, sleepless nights, unremitting care and constant prayers by the kindly Laudat people among whom fate had cast my lot. Yet after all it was Le Bon Dieu who held my fate in His hands and—well, I like to think that He did hearken to Le Brun's "so hard" prayers.
Many a land have I visited since then. I have roamed every fair island in the Antilles, and jungle and jungle life have become old stories. I have had many an adventure far more exciting than any of my experiences in Dominica, and I have come nearer to death's door than when I lay for six weeks unconscious with "Yellow Jack." But still my first trip to the jungle remains most vivid in my memory, and I have a warm spot in my heart for lovely Dominica. Many times have I returned to the island, many times have I gone hundreds, thousands of miles out of my way to again visit it. And always I have been welcomed like a king by the Laudat people and the golden-skinned Caribs. Old Andre and his wife passed away years ago. Smiling Beche is a dignified chief. Rolles is grey-headed, and Leon's broad shoulders are bent with the years that have passed. Laudats whom I first knew as naked brown kiddies have grown to men and women with kiddies of their own, and buxom Le Brun is a stout but still beaming grandmother. But despite the changes that forty years have wrought in the island, and the people, Laudat remains almost unaltered. The same houses are occupied by members of the same families as of old; the mountain stream still tumbles in a flashing cataract into the rocky pool where the girls frolic and swim like wood-nymphs in the shade of the drooping tree-ferns and Bois Riviere trees. The people still gather of evenings to tell Jumbie tales and singe the wings of the hapless "La Belles," and, when we meet, Leon, Rolles and I again live over the old times and laugh together over my Carib girl "bargain," and the meal of mouldy bones and plantain rinds on which we dined when marooned in the forest. And good-hearted, jolly old Le Brun, who nursed me back to life and health, declares that she still "so hard" prays to Le Bon Dieu that M'sieu may live for ever. But I am afraid that even her Bon Dieu cannot grant that prayer.
Chapter 4 Off to Central America
THERE is a strange, mysterious lure to the tropics; an irresistible fascination to the jungle. Rare indeed is the man who does not return again and again, once he has breathed tropical air and has tasted jungle life.
So, once having got the tropics in my blood, having experienced the mystery, the fascination of the jungle, I longed for the dazzling sun, nodding palms, dim, cool forests, rank jungles and the indescribable feel and smells of the tropics. And I again set sail for lands where civilization was but a form, where Nature was in the raw, where vast untamed jungle was still untrod by human feet, and where danger and death lurked behind the smiling mask of Nature.
This time, Central America was my destination, my object zoological collections as before. I sailed on a Spanish ship, a bark-rigged steamship that, whenever the wind was fair, spread her broad white wings and sailed far more knots than she steamed.
To the easy-going Iberians time and schedules meant little or nothing. We were supposed to remain in Havana harbour two days; but a week slipped by before the Panama steamed out past grim old Morro.
Time did not hang heavily upon our hands. Havana in those days was a very different Havana from the Havana of to-day. The "blood and gold" of Spain flew above forts and public buildings, the houses were pink, blue, mauve and buff; there were no cinemas, no electric signs, no trams, no motor-cars, no tourists and no sanitation. The narrow cobbled streets were sinks of iniquity and filth, an occasional sputtering oil lamp glimmered faintly at the corners, leaving the surroundings in inky blackness. And when one strayed from the vicinity of the plaza and its gay night life of the cafes, one carried a ready pistol in hand and kept to the middle of the street if one did not wish to be found a huddled, stripped corpse with a dagger thrust under the collar-bone when the morning dawned. Havana, in short, was redolent of Old Spain where romance, adventure and vice stalked hand in hand, where thugs and yellow fever were equally prevalent, and where blindfolded patriots and firing-squads were far more regular occurrences than daily papers. But, taken as a whole, I found Havana a far more fascinating city then than it is to-day.
The same could not be said of Santiago de Cuba, for it was an unspeakably filthy, unkempt, fever-ridden town; steaming hot, odorous beyond words, and festering in the sun like some foul ulcer. Few spots that I know in the tropics have so greatly changed in the past forty years, for to-day Santiago is a model city in as far as cleanliness and sanitation go, although still as hot during the summer months as of yore.
Crossing the azure Caribbean, our next port of call was La Guaira, where our accommodating skipper offered to hold his ship for an extra day in order that some of the passengers might journey across the mountains to Caracas.
At Cartagena we took on a deck-load of negroes and negresses, together with their chattels, livestock, fruit and vegetables which they were taking to the Colon market, for a disastrous fire had almost completely destroyed the Isthmian port, and the dusky Cartagena profiteers were taking advantage of their next-door neighbours' distress and intended to make hay while the sun shone. Unfortunately for them, we ran into rough weather after leaving Cartagena, and men, women and children, fruit and vegetables, fowls and pigs, cattle and parrots, monkeys and goats, steamer-chairs and household utensils, were hopelessly, inextricably mixed.
Colon at that time was a smouldering mass of charred ruins, with less that a dozen buildings left standing. Among these was the stone customs house, the stone church, De Lessep's house, and a flimsy native restaurant which, by some miracle or freak of fate, had remained unscorched as the flames roared on every side of it. But even without the fire, Colon would have been a sad-looking spot.
The French had abandoned their efforts at digging the Canal, great skeleton-like dredges lay rusting and deserted beside the banks of the big ditch; rank jungle had overgrown workshops and railway lines; hundreds of thousands of pounds' worth of machinery lay neglected and abandoned everywhere, and endless rows of tiny crosses on Monkey Hill testified to the appalling number of human lives the ill-starred attempt had cost. No white man cared to stop longer than he was forced to in a spot so notorious for yellow fever, and while I had no fear of the malady, being of course immune, yet I was not sorry to leave the devastated town. Little did I think that I would yet see the great Canal completed and would see Colon rise, phoenixlike, from its ashes to become a bustling, important port; that I would ever see the miasmic swamps and rank jungles replaced by asphalt roads, delightful parks and gardens with immense modern docks and imposing buildings where the forsaken machinery had lain rusting in the sun; that I would ever see the pestilential Isthmus transformed to one of the most healthful localities in the world, with dread Yellow Jack stamped out for ever.
Twenty-four hours after leaving Colon we came to anchor off Port Limon, and my voyage was at an end.
Few railways can compare with that of Costa Rica in as far as scenery and engineering feats are concerned, and as we crossed the level coast lands, with their dense jungle and teeming wild life, and climbed steadily up the foothills of the Cordilleras, there was plenty to hold the interest of the most blasé traveller. Parrots, macaws, parroquets, tanagers of gorgeous colours, humming-birds, orioles, troopials, toucans, kingfishers, cotingas and scores of other tropical birds of gaudy plumage were on every side. Spoonbills, herons, egrets, boatbills, ducks and waders rose in clouds from jungle pools and lagoons. Gorgeous amazing flowers blazed amid the greenery. The vegetation was a riot of palms, ferns, bamboos, strange trees, vines and tropical plants. Troops of white-faced capuchin, long-limbed red spider-monkeys and tiny squirrel-monkeys raced chattering through the trees at the approach of the snorting locomotive and roaring train.
Frequently, graceful deer would dash a few yards from the tracks and stand gazing curiously but unafraid at the passing train, and over and over again, as we roared over a bridge or swung around the borders of a dismal black bayou, huge alligators would scramble from their resting-places on logs and banks and would splash like amphibian tanks into the depths of the water. In such places, too, where the surface was freckled with lily leaves and water plants, we caught glimpses of the dainty jacanas—trim, brown-bodied, yellow-winged birds whose long toes enabled them to run nimbly over the floating leaves until, taking flight, they fluttered off like great yellow-winged butterflies. Insects were not lacking, either. Immense blue or emerald-green morphos sailed majestically through the shadows, velvet-black butterflies with wings splashed with scarlet, green or orange flitted about, immense brown and steel-blue owls'-heads, phantom-like ghost-moths and other gorgeous Lepidoptera were ever in sight, and among them were the strange, piebald butterflies that, alone of all the butterfly tribe, emit a curious, musical, clicking note.
As the train climbed higher and higher, struggling up long steep grades, swinging about sharp hairpin curves, rumbling over spider-web-like bridges spanning torrents hundreds of feet below, or roaring through long tunnels, and ever with the vast green sea of jungle on every side, I realized for the first time what a real tropical wilderness was like. I had thought Dominica's high bush marvellous, but the whole of that island could have been dropped bodily between any of these Costa Rican mountains and would have been completely lost to view. Seen from the train the jungle appeared like a solid wall of green of a thousand shades, set off here and there by towering trees gorgeous in masses of bloom forming splotches of orange, gold, magenta, lilac, scarlet and while against the green background. Hundreds of acres of crimson and orange wild plantains blazed like tongues of flame at the forest edge, and wherever there was a cleared space beside the railway there was spread a dazzling carpel of scarlet salvais.
Upon my first visit to Costa Rica things were pretty primitive, and one took the "rough with the smooth," as my Jamaican camp-boy used to put it. And most of it was rough!
In those days there was no extradition treaty in force between Costa Rica and the United States, and as a result every crook and criminal who had found Uncle Sam's territory too hot for comfort, and who could get away, had turned towards Costa Rica as a safe spot in which to be free and unrestrained. Among the men I met were Mississippi River professional gamblers, train robbers, "Wild Western" gunmen, highwaymen, murderers, and a member of the famous Jesse James gang. To their credit be it said that the majority had reformed and were peaceful and honest citizens. Several of the most notorious bandits and gunmen were employed by construction companies as guards for their pay-cars and cashiers; others had become ranchers or had taken to railroading, while a few lived a life of ease on their ill-gotten spoils. The ex-member of Jesse James's gang was the most thoroughly henpecked man I have ever seen. His diminutive wife ruled him with an iron hand, and, on one occasion, when in a fit of boisterous hilarity he began shooting bottles off the shelves in a bar, his better if not bigger half arrived on the scene, seized him by the ear, and cuffing him like a misbehaving small boy, led him off to bed.
San José, when we arrived, was rather the worse for a recent earthquake, and a good portion of the facade of the cathedral, many walls, the larger part of a church, and a few houses had been demolished, giving the really charming city the effect of having been subjected to shell fire.
At that time, too, Costa Rica was one of those comic-opera republics where revolutions are served with morning coffee, and almost as regularly. During my stay at San José we had three revolutions within three months, but they were far more amusing than serious, although to the outside world they were pictured by the Press as riotous insurrections accompanied by fighting and bloodshed.
The first of the trio was so quiet, peaceful, and so thoroughly well organized that very few realized it had taken place until it was over and a new President was occupying the palace.
It was the custom for the President of the Republic to attend Mass in the cathedral on Sunday, accompanied by a body-guard of picked troops and the officers of the army in full fighting equipment, rifles and all. On this particular Sunday, as the troops passed out of the church they found themselves confronted by a crowd of rough-looking campaneros (countrymen) with cocked pistols, who immediately disarmed the surprised soldiers, whose guns were not loaded, and with profuse apologies made the President a prisoner. The cuartel or barracks, the palace and other Government buildings had already been seized, a new executive was already enjoying his predecessor's wines and cigars in the palace, and without a shot having been fired the Government changed hands, and every one seemed satisfied.
The second revolution was more noisy and obvious, but almost as innocuous as the first. A few desultory shots were exchanged here and there without visible results, and the federal and insurrecto troops met face to face in a small plaza near the centre of the town. One side of this plaza was occupied by the Hotel Frances, the opposite side by the remaining front wall of a church which had been demolished by the recent earthquakes. Instantly firing began, and for nearly an hour there was a continual fusillade of musketry. Just how many rounds the rebels fired will probably never be known, but the federals succeeded in discharging something over two thousand cartridges. Then, the ammunition of both sides having been exhausted the two factions cast aside their useless rifles, and drawing machetes, engaged in a hand-to-hand, free-for-all fight. The net result of the fireworks exhibition was one waiter in the hotel shot in the knee, and the entire annihilation of the stucco on the church wall from ten feet above the earth to the summit. Half a dozen soldiers slashed and cut, several score uniforms torn to ribbons, and a few fingers chopped off, were the total casualties of the second phase of this "desperate battle," as the Press called it.
Throughout these disturbing (?) times, foreigners were never threatened nor molested, and with few exceptions were free to go where and as they pleased. Indeed, the officers of both sides were most solicitous for the safety of foreigners in their midst. During the third political upset my wife and I were stopped by an officer, who might have been a brigadier-general or a field-marshal judging from the magnificence of his uniform, and who, with the most profuse and abject apologies, begged us not to enter that particular street, explaining that a machine-gun was trained on the thoroughfare in expectation of an attack by the opposition, and that, should we be in the line of fire when the raid took place, we might be injured.
In short, the Costa Rican idea of warfare savoured far more of entertainment than of hostilities, while the "army" was a perfect farce. The soldiery was entirely composed of conscripts, mainly young Indian or half-caste boys who, previous to being drafted, had never worn shoes, had seldom worn what might be called clothing, and who had never handled a gun in their lives. They had no idea of politics, no interest in presidents or governments, and could never be made to understand why they should be expected to shoot, bayonet or otherwise injure or kill some friendly young paisano just because some ambitious Caballero wished to feather his nest with the fat pickings of a corrupt and easy-going Government. They were miserably fed, more miserably housed, and were never paid, and their only "outfit" consisted of a cheap shako, an ill-fitting "uniform" of blue drill and a pair of heavy cowhide boots which were so uncomfortable that they were usually worn suspended by a thong over the shoulders.
Far too considerate of their magnificent attire and highly polished boots to walk in the streets, the officers would stroll along on the sidewalks, twirling their moustaches, clinking their spurs and ogling the women, while the little "calico army" would come trotting along a block or two behind, guns at every angle, bare feet pattering through the dust, talking and laughing like schoolboys on a holiday, and making no attempt at keeping time with the diminutive drummer and even more diminutive fifer who invariably played or attempted to play two different tunes, and whose chief object in life seemed to be to drown the other out. Discipline, of course, was non-existent.
But despite this, the little "calico army" could give a mighty good account of itself when it came to guerrilla warfare against an hereditary foe. Personal courage was not lacking; the soldiers, like all Indians, were intensely patriotic and cherished hatred of an enemy, and in the jungle they were thoroughly at home. In repeated set-to's with the Nicaraguans they had come off with flying colours, and, in later years, when a few years ago there was a brief state of war between Costa Rica and Panama, the one thought of the Panamanians was to put as much space as possible between themselves and the Costa Rican troops.
Moreover, even if Costa Rica at the time of my first visit could not enforce peace and could not maintain a stable Government, it could and did enforce sanitation and cleanliness, which, in a tropical land, arc far more important matters. I have never seen a cleaner nor more orderly city. All the streets were swept, scoured and flushed daily, and anyone who by accident or design dropped a fruit skin, a bit of paper or any other litter in the street was liable to instant arrest by the lynx-eyed secret police. And it was in striking and delightful contrast to Cuba and Venezuela in as far as law and order were concerned. The city was well lit by electricity; thugs, footpads and robbers were unknown, and a man or woman could go anywhere at any hour of the day or night in perfect safety. Despite the presence of many notorious foreign crooks in their midst, the Costa Ricans were the most honest and unsophisticated of people. I have seen a countryman, in the market, place a roll of bills amounting to hundreds of pesos upon a table and wander off to gossip and dicker with friends and acquaintances, feeling perfectly sure that his money was as safe as in a bank, as was the case.
Chapter 5 In the Costa Rican Jungles
HAVING conferred with a number of people—both native and foreign—who were familiar with the country, and having studied the collections in the really excellent Museo National in San José, I selected Jimenez as the most promising locality to start collecting.
Jimenez was surrounded by jungle. On one side was the jungle of the level land bordering the river, on the other the jungle of the mountain-side.
The lowland jungle was dense, almost impenetrable, a true jungle of tangled vines, saw-grass, thorny shrubs and palms growing breast-high beneath the immense trees with their wide-spread, sprawling roots and dangling network of lianas. Close to the river it was thicker than anywhere else, with growths of great canes so strong, tough and dense that they formed almost a solid wall. But in spots there was some open ground beneath the trees, and here was a splendid collecting ground. Here, too, were deer, ocelot, peccaries, jaguar, puma and tapir; there were crocodiles and boas, and here I first came into contact with the army-ants.
I had noticed an unusual number of ant-thrushes and flycatchers hovering about, and having shot two that I wanted I hurried forward to retrieve them. The place had been roughly cleared, and the felled tree-trunks, the branches and broken limbs littered the ground.
Stepping upon a log the better to search for my specimens, I glanced about and caught sight of one of them lodged among some dead branches a few yards away. Never dreaming of any danger, I jumped from the log and the next instant fairly howled. I felt as if I had sprung into a pot of boiling lead. A thousand red-hot pincers seemed to be searing the flesh of my ankles and legs. Yelling with pain, I glanced down to find my legs almost hidden under a moving black mass, while between the branches and trash underfoot the ground seemed to heave and move and undulate. Instantly I realized what had happened. I had jumped into a column of army-ants! And I lost no time in jumping out. Fortunately for me it was only a small army—scarcely a regiment—perhaps two feet in width, and yet, although scarcely ten seconds elapsed between the time I leaped from the log until I was back on it again, ants were swarming over me from feet to waist, and my legs were dripping blood from thousands of bites. Fortunately, too, the bite of the army-ant is not poisonous, and aside from the pain of the innumerable wounds no ill results followed. Of course I made no further attempts to secure my birds, which, within five minutes, were unquestionably reduced to a few feathers and clean-picked bones. And to add to my troubles I had to watch hundreds of birds which I particularly desired as they flitted from perch to perch above the ant army and snapped up the insects that rose in swarms at the ants' approach. I could have shot scores of birds which I had never seen previously, and which I never saw again; but to do so would have been needless, inexcusable slaughter, for once they fell within the range of that resistless, ravenous column of ants they were gone for ever.
Later I had many encounters with the army-ants, and on one occasion, while spending the night in a shack on the mountain side, the hut was visited by an army of the creatures while we slept. As we were in hammocks we were not molested, for an ant will not travel over a rough hair rope. But every living thing within the house was utterly destroyed. Not a roach, fly, moth nor wood-ant remained, and a good-sized tapir, which we had killed in the afternoon and had hung up outside the hut, was completely devoured. Only the ragged hide and bones remained to tell of the ants' visit. As silently as they had come they had vanished, and I shuddered to think of what might have been our fate had we been sleeping on cots instead of in hammocks. Personally I have never known of human beings being killed and devoured by army-ants, but I have heard well-authenticated reports of such cases. One was in Brazil, where two Brazilian officers of a river gunboat, returning to their vessel after an hilarious evening in a village, decided to take a rest by the wayside, and fell into a drunken slumber. When they did not put in an appearance in the morning the crew of the gunboat started to search for them and found only their skeletons and clothes, mute testimonials to their horrible fate.
To anyone not familiar with the army-ants and their habits, such things may seem incredible. But it must be remembered that these ant armies are often several hundred feet in width and extend for miles across country. They are strictly carnivorous and will devour anything in the way of animal matter, and they arc as thoroughly well organized and trained as any human army. They have scouts, shock-corps, engineers and even a hospital-corps. Although blind, they act with perfect precision and coordination, and nothing but a good-sized stream or fire will check their advance.
In case an obstruction, a gulley or even a small stream, is met, the engineers hurry about seeking some spot to surmount the obstacle, tearing down obstructions and even forming living bridges of their own bodies over which the army crosses. In case of an injury or a wound to one of the members the hospital corps hurries up and examines the disabled ant. If his wounds are slight, he is taken to one side or the rear and cared for. Broken legs are amputated, and in case of serious injuries which render it impossible for the individual to proceed, he is promptly put to death. Just what sense guides them, or how they communicate with one another, is not known; but apparently they are devoid of the sense of smell, for frequently some insect, such as a walking leaf or walking-stick insect, or even a reptile or toad, when unable to escape from an army of the ants, will remain motionless, and the voracious ants will crawl over the creature without injuring it, and without realizing that it is a living thing and legitimate prey. Needless to say, after my first experience with these insects, I looked before I leaped in future, and proceeded very cautiously whenever I noticed unusual numbers of birds gathering in one locality.
It was not long after my painful experience with the ants that I came very close to putting an abrupt end to my adventures through another piece of carelessness on my part.
I had been collecting in rather swampy ground near the river and was watching a bird feeding in a tree-top near. Close to where I stood was a good-sized palm tree of a species which is entirely supported by a truss-work of roots springing from the trunk several feet above the earth. Wishing to study the bird through my glasses, I reached back and rested my gun against the palm tree. Presently, having made sure the bird was a species I wished to secure, I replaced my glasses, and without taking my eyes from the bird, reached behind me for my gun. Something, some sixth sense or intuition or "hunch" or whatever one might call it, warned me that something was wrong and forced me to turn. And just in time. Coiled among the roots of the palm, his broad, arrow-shaped, flat head drawn back to strike, and less than six inches from my outstretched hand, was a huge moccasin snake, one of the most venomous of reptiles. An inch more and his fangs would have been buried in my hand and, without antidotes and miles from any human being as I was, my case would have been hopeless. But as a rule snakes of any kind are by no means common in the jungle, and are probably the least of all dangers one must face.
This particular part of the jungle was a favourite haunt of tapir, for these beasts are fond of water and spend a great part of their lives in the streams. They are almost amphibious in habits, and when pursued or frightened invariably seek refuge in the water. As a rule they are very shy and wary, and although so large and apparently clumsy, yet they can move with astonishing quickness, travelling rapidly and noiselessly through the thickest jungle. I often saw their trails, but as it is almost hopeless to track a tapir and secure a shot, unless aided by trained dogs, I paid no attention to them. In the type of jungle inhabited by the tapirs, sun-bitterns are abundant, and the natives claim that the tapirs are warned of man's presence by these birds. Whether or not this is so, I cannot say, but as the sun-bitterns usually flit off like huge butterflies when they see a human being, there is no reason why an animal as intelligent as the tapir should not profit by the signal conveyed by the birds’ flight. The only trouble is that, as a matter of fact, the tapir is even more shy than the sun-bittern, and possesses far keener eyesight and sharper ears than any other denizen of the jungle.
Although I have since shot many a tapir, I shall never forget my first hunt here in the lowland jungles near Jimenez. On that particular morning Juan and I had been hunting near the bank of the river, and as we approached the water Juan suddenly halted, beckoned to me and pointed to a patch of soft bare earth.
"Danta" (tapir), he whispered. Sure enough, clearly imprinted in the soft ground, were the deep marks of a tapir's feet. Also, they were evidently very fresh, for the water had not yet oozed into the impressions, and in whispers Juan assured me the beast had passed within ten minutes.
Here at last was a possible chance of coming upon the beast unawares, and with cocked and ready weapons we set off along the trail, which led towards a dense growth of canes and bamboos a short distance away.
Every few yards we could pick up the tapir's spoor, and at any instant I expected to catch sight of the big beast. At the edge of the cane-brake the tracks led into the dense growth along a narrow but well-marked game trail.
How such a big-bodied, clumsy creature as a tapir could have traversed that narrow pathway was a mystery to me, for it was barely wide enough to permit us to pass, and I felt sure that, if the tapir were near, we should presently hear him crashing through the canes ahead. But a query to Juan brought only a caution for silence in reply, and with all my senses and energies devoted to avoiding stepping on dead canes or causing the close-growing bamboos to rustle, I followed in Juan's footsteps.
That the beast was only a very short distance ahead of us was obvious. In one spot the leaves pressed into the mud by the tapir had not begun to wilt, in another a big black and yellow beetle, crushed under the tapir's foot, was still feebly struggling. And where the animal had crossed a tiny rill the water had not yet smoothed over the imprint of his feet in the sandy bottom of the brook. But no sound of the big beast's passage, no cracking or rattling of canes was audible, although Juan, sniffing the damp heavy air, declared that he could smell the creature. For fully an hour we trailed that elusive tapir through the cane-brake. A dozen times I saw birds that I wished to add to my collections; but I refrained from shooting in the hope that we might eventually bring down the tapir. Twice, small brocket deer sprang up and fled like shadows into the depths of the labyrinth of giant grass, and once a small herd of peccaries rose from their wallows and, grunting and squealing, trotted off.
At last Juan stopped and pointed to the trail. There were the footprints of two tapirs instead of one, and beside them the imprints of a human foot and a boot. We were going in circles and following the same tapir over the same trail we had travelled before!
Evidently this was an endless job, and we conferred in whispers as to our next move. A short distance back we had passed a small open glade, and I suggested I should take my stand there and wait while Juan continued along the trail, the expectation being that the tapir would continue to move on ahead of Juan and would eventually arrive at the opening again.
This seemed an excellent plan, and one I had often found successful with deer and other game that use regular runs, and so, retracing my steps, I entered the glade, seated myself on a log well hidden in the canes, and prepared to wait for the appearance of the tapir.
It was very quiet and very warm. Insects chirped and trilled among the canes; a tiny, red-crowned mannikin uttered its odd grunting squeak as it sought industriously for food among the bamboos; a black and white ant-thrush complained querulously as it minced about; and a saucy flycatcher scolded at me from a trail tag vine. Slowly the minutes dragged, and no sound of either tapir or Juan came from the impenetrable depths of the cane-brake. I was getting decidedly drowsy, and was on the point of shouting to Juan and abandoning the hunt, when something caused me to turn my head. With a startled exclamation I sprang to my feet, tripped, and sprawled backward among a bunch of dead canes. Within six feet of where I sat, appearing gigantic to my amazed eyes, the long-snouted head and heavy forequarters of a tapir had burst from the canes! It was so wholly unexpected, so surprising, that it seemed more like a dream than a reality, and while I knew perfectly well that the beast was harmless there was something decidedly terrifying in his appearance.
His little red-rimmed pig-like eyes gleamed viciously, his proboscis was drawn up and wrinkled, exposing yellow ugly-looking teeth, and the ridge of stiff hair on his neck fairly bristled with anger. I had but the fraction of a second to note all this, for the tapir, far more surprised and frightened than myself, was rushing directly towards me.
Struggling to extricate myself from the tangle of canes and to cock my gun, I regained my feet only to be knocked backwards by the snorting, fear-maddened beast, whose mud-caked body seemed as big as that of an elephant as he tore past me. Rising to one knee, I levelled my rifle and fired twice as the beast vanished in the canes on the opposite side of the glade.
The next instant Juan appeared where a moment before the tapir had materialized. Hurrying forward, we soon found blood-stains on the earth and leaves, and hoping to come upon the wounded creature and finish him, we cautiously followed the ever-increasing red splotches. Suddenly Juan, who was in advance, gave a triumphant shout. Lying upon its side, sprawled across a projecting root, was the tapir—stone dead.
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- Jungle Chums -Chs 1-3
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- Thirty Years in the Jungle -Ch 9-11
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.