Today, we get part two of the sneak-peek from Tony Slater’s hilarious book, “That Bear Ate My Pants.” If you missed part one, you can read it here.
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LANGUAGE ADVISORY: For our more sensitive readers, I must point out that some of the language used in the book tends toward the more colorful end of the spectrum—the sorts of things one might hear said by construction workers or a man who just had something dropped on him by construction workers. To protect your delicate sensibilities, I am putting the text below the fold. As for the rest of you stout-hearts, read on:Baptism of Fruit Juice
The view that was to greet me every morning in this country never lost a smidgen of it’s impact. This first sight of its rugged beauty took my breath away. Before me the land fell away dramatically, lush green pasture plunging out of sight down the mountainside. Beyond rose the far side of the valley, at once seeming impossibly distant yet almost touchable; scruffy white wisps of cloud decorated the space between us. A tangle of trees straggled here and there across the land, dividing rough fields so steep that it would defy all laws of gravity to work on them.
I hardly paid any attention as the taxi executed a smart three point turn behind me, and totally unfazed by the incline of the driveway, sped off in a cloud of dust. I only had eyes for this storybook panorama. It beat the snot out of London.
Unlike most of the houses I’d noticed thus far in Ecuador, the building in front of me looked finished. Deliciously so in fact. Three stories with real stucco on them gleamed white in the afternoon sunlight, topped by a wide flat sun deck. There was no doubt that this was an expensive dwelling. Next door sat a cheery yellow cottage with a certain homemade quality to it – and a sheet of what looked disturbingly like asbestos for the roof. A path connected the two, and the most pointless fence I’d ever seen separated them. It was three strands of wire running on a series of posts around the entire cottage, an obstacle only mildly more forbidding than the long grass beneath it. I struggled for a few seconds trying to think of any animal on earth to which this would form a barrier. A really big penguin was the only thing that sprang to mind.
Plonked seemingly at random into the surrounding grass were a couple of more typical buildings – a tiny breeze-block shed with a washing machine outside it, and behind me a rusting sheet of corrugated metal on stilts, which seemed to serve as a carport.
A skinny white guy in a stained t-shirt was just coming out of the cottage. I could tell it was Toby as soon as he opened his mouth. He was one of the few people I’ve ever met that types an email exactly the same way he talks.
“Alrite mate!” He called, and threw me a casual wave as he closed the gate behind him. I looked him over as he walked towards me. Average height. Relaxed. A bit dirty. But better looking than me, damn it. He was wearing a pale red baseball cap, so faded that it verged on the pink.
“Hi!” I greeted him enthusiastically. “Nice place you got here.”
“Yeah. Sweet, innit? Did you have a good trip?”
“I, err…” Suddenly it didn’t seem right to launch into a massive rant about the shocking inadequacy of his instructions.
“Yeah, not bad.” I told him instead. I shook his hand vigourously and grinned back at him. It was infectious. I could afford to wait a few days before explaining just how close I’d come to being shagged up the bum by a sasquatch.
“Good to meet you mate. Right, well I’ll show you around shall I?”
As Toby was leading me back towards the pointless fence, a middle-aged Ecuadorian man emerged from the back door of the main house. He was tall, nearly my height, and powerfully built – practically a giant compared to the locals I’d seen so far. His black hair was thinning and closely cropped, and he wore a watch that looked big enough to control the national nuclear defence.
This had to be the legendary Don Johnny Cordoba, who had founded Santa Martha on his own land, and with his own money, after realising just how widespread the problem of illegal animal possession and maltreatment was in Ecuador. The website made him sound like one part humble animal lover, three parts crusading superhero. The man himself looked calm and confident – indisputably in charge, yet approachable. A sly smile and a gleam in his eye told me he was finding something amusing. It was a fair bet that that something was me.
“Johnny, esto es Tony,” Toby explained. Then “Tony, this is Johnny,” he added helpfully.
“Mucho gusto,” Johnny greeted me with a manly handshake.
Words danced in my head. My chance to make a first impression!
“Me Gusto Mucho!” I responded enthusiastically.
Johnny’s arm froze mid handshake. Just for a second. A slight confusion quirked his bushy brow, and then was gone. He smiled widely and surrendered my hand. He glanced over at Toby, and some unspoken jest passed between them. Then he cleared his throat, looked back at me and rattled off a few comments in rapid Spanish.
“He said, good to have you here, and he’s off to do something with the cows,” Toby explained. “He’ll be back later.”
Johnny waited for the end of Toby’s translation, gave me one last measuring glance, and strode off down the path.
“That went well,” said Toby.
“What did I do? Did I say something?”
“Nah, mate. It’s all good.”
“He said, Mucho gusto… that’s ‘Nice to meet you’, right?” I asked.
“And I said…?”
“Me gusto mucho. Slightly different.”
I could tell he was trying not to laugh. It was the first phrase I’d learned from my one-hour audio course. Actually it was the only phrase I’d learned. But something wasn’t quite right. “Toby…”
“Ha!” He couldn’t resist any longer. “It means, ‘I like you a lot.’ I think you surprised him.”
“Yeah, that’s probably what he’s thinking! Maybe he’ll put it down to bad grammar.”
“So he said hello, and I…”
“You came on to him, yeah. Well you’re the first new volunteer to do that!”
“Oh. Shit. I should probably go home right now…”
“Don’t worry mate. He thought it was pretty funny, I’d say. Or else… maybe he likes you too!”
Toby I did like, and straight away. He was a very smart guy, with a ready wit and a readier smile. His attitude was very laid back, as was his manner of speaking. He rarely seemed worried or annoyed – and even when he did it was amusing. From the beginning I never felt like I had to impress him, or that he was judging me in any way. He seemed genuinely honest, though remorselessly sarcastic, and he became one of my best friends.
But he couldn’t cook for shit.
Especially not an omelette.
That first afternoon he took me with him as he fed the whole menagerie of animals. I was amazed. Surrounding a small garden next to Johnny’s house were a series of smaller cages containing monkeys of every possible description. Black, red, brown, ranging in size from tiny little balls of fluff to something that looked like it could pull your arms off and beat you to death with the wet ends. There were bendy nosed beasties so daft looking they could have been glove puppets sewn by glue-sniffing school kids. I swear they had an E.T. in there somewhere, and at least one of the Wombles.
Toby deposited a heaped ladle full of bright orange slop into each animal’s food dish while I guarded the cage doors against escape attempts. The creatures loved the stuff, although to me it looked like the contents of the toilet bowl the morning after ten pints and a dodgy curry had fought their way back out of my stomach. Toby kept up a running commentary on the feeding process, listing off the names of the animals in English and Spanish and explaining a bit about where each was from. I heard none of it. Somewhere behind me about a million parrots were screeching. Monkeys howled. Things I couldn’t even name turned back flips or poked sticky fingers through the bars at me. More than once I was hit in the back of the head by a monkey flinging something which I hoped and prayed was part of its breakfast.
With the slop bowl finally empty and every animal totally focused on rooting through their food to find the best bits, Toby told me a little about Santa Martha’s larger denizens. The centre was home to big cats that looked like scaled-down leopards, and eagles with shotgun holes in them, a puma with a weight problem, a deer and one chubby bear cub.
And a horse.
“Maybe you can ride him,” Toby offered in an offhand manner. The horse didn’t look up to much. It probably would have been easier for me to carry him. He eyed me nervously as though he’d just had exactly the same thought himself, and edged a little further away. I didn’t feel inclined to intimidate the poor beast, so I filed the possibility of riding under ‘things to consider later’ and followed Toby on down the path.
The path, referred to by Toby as ‘the Road’ (which I still maintain was entirely unjustified) ran from the end of the driveway, past Johnny’s house, then twisted back on itself as it ploughed downhill past a large cow milking shed. Santa Martha was primarily a working dairy farm; that was where the money came from to feed the growing refuge. It was a financial balancing act which, I would come to discover, constantly teetered on the brink of disaster. Johnny used every ounce of his formidable presence to bully favourable deals from local producers. Somehow, it worked.
The ‘road’ was lined with cobblestones and heavily textured in shit. If this was the mess the cows made every morning on their way to being milked, well, I could only be glad they weren’t led past the puma cage first…
After another switch back the road cut a rather meandering line across the hillside, past a series of massive enclosures for the bigger beasties. Sooner or later I’d be getting to know them all, but for now Toby wanted to give me a special treat. Tall trees lined the path for most of it’s length, draping their leafy tendrils across our shoulders as we wound our way deeper into the landscape. He was taking me to meet his favourite animal of all.
I could hardly believe my eyes. Enormous, ancient, placid… the Giant Galapagos Turtle was all of these things. And a cheeky bugger to boot. I knelt in awe beside him as he sprayed me with chunks of his breakfast.
Toby would offer him a peeled banana, and he would slowly, ponderously, stretch out his neck and yawn for it. Toby stuffed as much inside as he could, then pulled his fingers out quick before the beak-like jaws ground shut. The excess – assuming it was banana – would slide down the turtle’s chin and add to the soggy mash of remnants on the floor. After the first time Toby fed him an apple I learned to kneel slightly further away. When he bit into one with crushing force it had a tendency to explode in my direction. I could almost see the old git smirking slightly as I wiped the pulp off my forehead.
But what a magnificent animal! He was almost waist high at the top of his shell, and if I’d had to lug that thing around I wouldn’t be moving too fast either. The mottled green and brown dome of solid bone looked like it could withstand a direct hit from a cruise missile. And a series of shallow indentations scattered across the surface of the shell stood testament that at the very least it was bullet proof.
Toby had helped rescue the turtle, whom he had christened ‘Meldrew’. A six-strong crew of volunteers had brought him back from Quito in Johnny’s truck, knackering the suspension in the process. The turtle had been poached as a youngster, and could never be returned to his natural home in the Galapagos Islands because of their extremely stringent quarantine regulations. Meldrew had been discovered by the Quito police in the back garden of a very bored, very wealthy man, who had evidently been using him for shotgun target practice.
As disturbing as his life had been previously, he seemed happy now. Every other morning, Toby explained, he was fed an enormous bucket of fruit. He’d been fed yesterday, so this was really just a get-to-know-you (and-cover-you-in-apple-juice) visit. I would get the chance to see that beak in action plenty more over the next few weeks.
“He’s got a great enclosure,” I mentioned to Toby as we hiked back up the steeply inclined field. We crossed a small stream and climbed a flight of stone steps to reach the main road back to the houses.
“Yeah,” came the reply. “Doesn’t stop him trying to escape though.”
“What? Really? When? I mean, how?”
“Oh, a few months back. We came to feed him and he was gone. He’d walked right through the fence and taken a section of it with him.”
“No way! But you got him back then? How long was he gone?”
“Oh, about a week.”
“Wow! I bet that was a scary time.”
“Ha! Yeah… well, not really.”
“You spent a whole week out looking for him?”
“Well, we could see him the whole time. He’d only gotten to the bottom of the field.”
“We thought we’d give him a decent head start before we came after him. He wasn’t very hard to catch.”
“Trying to roll him back up the hill – that was the difficult part.”
As we passed back through the circle of cages near the house I spotted one of Santa Martha’s weirdest inmates taking a casual stroll across the garden. The racoon-like thing was snuffling his way around a very low log fence, probing every nook and cranny with his ridiculously long bendy nose. A few feet away his mate was giving the same attention to a big rock in the middle of the grass.
“Ah, look!” I pointed at the fuzzy interloper. “It’s one of them… um, whatdyamacallitz!”
Toby glanced round. “Oh shit! It’s the Coatamundis! They’ve escaped again!” He took a long stride over the fence and deftly swept up the first animal mid snuffle.
Not to be outdone, I lunged for one of the furry critters myself. And I caught it! The beast was either too trusting or too stupid to run away from me. I grabbed it two-handed, by the scruff of the neck and the tail. The fox red fur was thick and coarse. It was my first official handling of an animal! It boded well for the rest of my stay. This little guy was as cute and cuddly as a stuffed toy – and seemed about as intelligent. Definitely my kinda critter. I longed to sit him on my knee and stroke him.
“Careful!” Toby warned.
“Cause it hurts like hell when they bite.”
Suddenly I was aware of just how precarious my grip on the creature was. And that he was struggling ever so slightly. His nose was bending up at me as though seeking a target for some unnecessarily long, lethally sharp incisors.
“Lets put them back then,” Toby suggested. I was only too happy to comply. He led the way back around to their enclosure and stopped before the fastened door. “Here mate, take this for a sec,” he said, and thrust the second coatamundi into my arms.
“Woah!” I had to let one hand go on my beastie to take Toby’s off him. I instinctively reached out with my left hand for the new critter, leaving the original dangling by it’s tail from my right. Toby handed it across by the scruff and I took it the same way. Then I stood there as he worked the troublesome door catch. With a wriggling coatamundi in each hand – one upside down, one right-side up. They clearly weren’t comfortable any more. I could tell because both of them decided to put a lot more effort into their squirming. I was already holding them both out at arm’s length in front of me, but it was suddenly not far enough. How bendy were these creatures? Could they still get me? I had a brain wave, and moved my arms so I was holding them out on either side of me. Better. More balanced. But now I couldn’t see them both at once. I flicked my gaze from one to the other and willed Toby to make the door work. Don’t show fear, I thought. They’ll smell it, and fight harder. Damn these things were heavy! Suddenly I had a desperate urge to scratch my nose. I tried to twitch it violently instead.
“You alright there mate?”
Toby had mastered the catch, opened the door and turned around to see me – stretched out like a weight lifter, eyes wide in fear, glancing from side to side and wiggling my nose. In each hand I held a small bushy mammal, and all three of us were twitching frantically.
I could see him suppressing a laugh as he calmly removed one of the creatures from my grasp. And just like that everything became easy again. We deposited the coatamundis in their cage and retreated back through the troublesome door. Toby got the thing shut again and turned to lean on it, a grin on his face.
“So how’d you like that?”
“It was cool!” I was enthused by my victory, and emboldened by my continued survival.
“So, you don’t mind handling them?”
“Nah, they were no problem at all.”
“Great!” Toby exclaimed. He glanced back at the cage behind him and sighed. “Then catch that one again will you?”
I looked where he was pointing. A small red furball was in the process of making another bid for freedom. Behind it was a small hole scraped in the dirt under the edge of the cage.
“I’d better fill that in,” he added.
“Oh shit! They’ll both get out again!” I really didn’t fancy my chances of recapturing them both single-handed.
“Nah, don’t worry,” said Toby. “The other one’s blind – it takes him ages to find the hole again!”
True enough, the poor beast was stumbling randomly around the enclosure, testing the air and the soil with swift bends of it’s nose.
“Do you have anything here that isn’t shot, blind, fat or crippled?” I asked.
Toby adjusted his cap and put a mock serious face on before answering. “Well, there’s you and there’s me. At least until one of the above happens to us.”
“That’s not terribly likely is it?”
“Wait and see, mate. Wait and see.”