TO CATCH A CROC
Manuel Sanchez, was a man to reckon with. As one of Panama’s Inspectors of Education in the early 1900s, it was his duty to travel the breadth and width of the country and visit the schools to ensure that they were complying with the established education curriculum. And if there were any problems with the schools or the teachers, he had the authority to deal with them.
Back in those days, there were few roads and Manuel had to travel by horseback. There were bandits to contend with and since his journeys often required several days of travel, choosing a safe place to spend the night was important. Manuel discovered that no one ever threatened or bothered him if he spent the night in a cemetery. He would string his hammock between two trees, hobble his horse and let it graze on the rich grass growing around the tombstones. He would then cook a simple meal of beans and rice over a small fire, and turn in as soon as it got dark. His frequenting the cemeteries at night more than likely perpetuated some of the local ghost stories.
The most difficult aspect of Manuel’s journeys was crossing rivers, which were often swollen due to torrential rains. There was a dry season in Panama from mid-December through March when this was not a problem, but the rest of the year Manuel would often have to wait until the rivers receded before he was able to ford them.
It was late October when Manuel headed west toward Los Santos Province in the Azuero Peninsula. It had been nearly two years since he last visited the schools in that area and rumor had it that one of the teachers was a drunkard and was spending more time in the local cantina then in the classroom.
It took Manuel five days of steady riding just to reach the Azurero Peninsula and already there was heavy rain almost every afternoon. Following one of the trails, he soon came to the banks of the Rio Lagarto, a river appropriately name for the numerous crocodiles and cayman that inhabited it. The last time Manuel had forded the river the water was low enough so that he didn’t have to worry about encountering any of the reptiles. However, he shook his head in dismay at the level of the water that was almost overflowing its banks. He knew he would have to wait two maybe three days before the water was low enough to allow him to cross.
Manuel was in no hurry since his school inspection tours were always unannounced. Glancing up at the sky, he saw dark clouds in the distance and heard the rumble of thunder. A storm was brewing so he turned onto the path that paralleled the river, hoping to find nearby shelter. A few minutes later he signed in relief when he spotted a campesino hut near a field of maiz. Manuel dismounted from his horse when he reached the hut and called out a greeting.
An old man emerged from the doorway. “Como esta Señor?” he said cheerfully. “How may I help you? Are you lost?”
“No,” answered Manuel. “An aguacero is headed this way and I am looking for shelter until the storm passes over. May I take shelter in your casa?”
“Como no, senior,” replied the old man and added. “Esta en su casa.” The old man was saying you are welcome, this is your house.
“Muchisimas gracias for your invitation. If I hadn’t come across your casa, I would have been soaking wet in no time. Permit me to introduce myself. I am Manuel Sanchez, Inspector of Schools for the Department of Education. I am on my way to the Los Santos province to visit several schools. I have been riding for several days, but the going is slow with so many swollen rivers.”
“I am happy to meet you, Señor Sanchez,” said the old man, gesturing for Manuel to enter his humble abode. “My name is Antonio Gomez and I am pleased to meet you. I don’t get visitors very often. You can shelter your horse out back under the lean-to next to my burro, but you had better hurry, the aguacero is almost here.”
By now it had began sprinkling and Manuel could hear heavier rain approaching. Manuel quickly led his horse out back, unsaddled it and tied the reins to a post next to the burro. The burro looked up at the taller horse and accepted his presence. Manuel entered the hut and the old man gestured for Manuel to sit on one of four taburetes in the single room.
The taburete is a traditional straight-back chair made of wood with a leather back and seat. Taburetes are durable chairs and last for decades. Some are handed down from father to son to grandson. Manuel thanked the old man and sat down, glad to rest his weary body after a long day of riding.
The intensity of the rain increased and the noise of the raindrops pelting the thatched roof crescendoed into a roar. The noise of the falling rain was interspersed with flashes of lightning and explosive thunder and made conversation nearly impossible unless one yelled. Both men waited patiently for the storm to pass. In another 20 minutes, the rain began to diminish along with the noise.
The old man stood up and asked Manuel, “Quieres café? I always have a cup in the afternoon. It gives me something to do when it is raining.”
Manuel said he would love a cup and watched the old man as he broke some kindling and laid them on the still glowing coals of an earlier fire. As the flames began flickering at the added wood, the old man filled a metal pot from a large earthenware jar standing in a corner and set it on a metal grill over the fire. When the water began to boil, he scooped several spoonfuls of coffee from a jar and let the concoction boil. Soon the aroma of fresh brewed coffee filled the air. Using an old rag, the old man lifted the pot from the fire and grabbing a framed cloth filter, held it over a chipped cup and poured the piping hot coffee. He repeated the process using another old cup, then set down the pot and asked Manuel if he would like sugar. When Manuel indicated that he would, the old man spooned a generous amount of brown sugar into both cups.
Handing Manuel one of the cups, he warned, “Cuidado, the coffee is very hot.” Both men carefully sipped the sweetened coffee enjoying its rich taste.
“So Señor Gomez, this is your finca and you are raising maiz I noticed,” commented Manuel referring to the old man’s farm and cornfield.
“Si, this is my finca, although it is not so big. Besides corn, I grow some yucca and frijoles, enough to get by. The finca is a lot of work for an old man like me, but when I have any spare time, I catch lagartos and sell the hides. The meat I dry and salt so that it keeps for a long time. The meat tastes very good, especially when I add some frijoles. I sell some of the meat in town, but the hides are precious. They bring a pretty good price and when I sell a hide, I can buy a few things. I bought my burro with three of the hides,” he added.
Lagarto was the common name used by campesinos for the crocodile and cayman, the latter being smaller and more numerous. There were no alligators in Panama. Manuel was impressed, not only by the fact that the old man hunted lagartos, but that the hides were worth a lot of money.
“Isn’t that dangerous work to catch lagartos?” asked Manuel. “I won’t even cross a river with lagartos unless the water is low.”
The old man chuckled and shook his head. “It may be dangerous if you don’t know the lagartos like I do. I have hunted them for many years and I know all their tricks. The river won’t be low enough to cross for two or three days. If you would like to spend the time here in my casita, I will show you how to catch a lagarto.”
Manuel knew he had to wait and the old man’s offer to put him up until it was safe to ford the river was a Godsend. He nodded his acceptance but added, “I will stay only if you allow me to give some oats to your burro.”
“Pancho, that is my burro, loves oats, but I rarely have the money to buy any for him. He works so hard and oats are like a reward for him."
The daylight was beginning to fade and Manuel walked out to his horse. He pulled a small sack of oats tied to the saddle and poured a generous amount into the burro’s trough. There was enough for both animals and they eagerly consumed the treat. Antonio had followed Manuel out to the lean-to and smiled as he watched the animals eat. He remembered that the animals would need some water and grabbed a bucket and walked out to an old oil barrel that he used to collect rain water. Filling the bucket, he brought it back to the lean-to and set it down between the two animals. When they had finished the oats, they took turns drinking their fill from bucket. Manual untied his waterproof bag from the saddle and then he and Antonio returned to the hut.
Manuel, noticing a hammock already strung between two of the supporting posts, strung his hammock the same. It was now almost dark and the two men climbed into their hammocks.
“Hasta mañana Señor Sanchez,” said Antonio. “At daylight I will show you how to catch a lagarto.” “Hasta mañana, Señor Gomez,” answered Manuel. He had no idea how this frail old campesino was going to catch a lagarto, but tomorrow he would find out.
* * *
Manuel opened his eyes when he heard the sound of Antonio breaking kindling to light the fire. The coals from the night before had nearly died out, but Antonio gently blew life into them. A small flame ignited and began burning the wood. Antonio added bigger pieces of wood and soon the fire had grown enough to light the inside of the hut. A faint glow could be seen on the distant horizon and Manuel slowly got out of his hammock and stretched. He walked out the door to the edge of the cornfield and relieved himself. It was getting even lighter outside and his stomach rumbled to alert him that he was hungry.
Walking back inside the hut, he knelt before his bag and pulled out a package of tortillas wrapped in wax paper. He offered them to Antonio who had finished putting a pot of coffee on the fire to boil. Antonio thanked Manuel and placed a couple of tortillas to warm on a flat rock next to the fire. Antonio added another small pot containing some frijoles and lagarto meat. In a few minutes, the meat and beans were ready and he spooned some into the tortillas. After pouring cups of coffee, he offered coffee and a filled tortilla to Manuel. Both men ate slowly in silence, enjoying the food and coffee. The sun had risen by the time they finished their meager breakfast and after Antonio had rinsed the cups and scoured the pots with water and sand, he began gathering the things he needed for the lagarto hunt.
“There is a bend in the river a short way from here that has a deep pool, the kind that the big lagartos love. The other day a neighbor passing my place told me he had seen a large one on the bank basking in the sun. I am going to catch him.”
As Antonio talked he collected an assortment of objects that looked strange to Manuel. There was a cylinder covered with an animal skin at one end and open on the other. It resembled a drum. In addition, there was a hodgepodge of ropes, wooden poles, a machete, a long knife in a sheath and a couple of short thick sticks with a knob of leather affixed to one end. Antonio slipped the sheathed knife over a long leather strap and tied it like a belt around his waist.
Finally, there was what looked like a boat made of a framework of tree branches and hides to form the hull. The boat was collapsed so that it could be carried easily, but even assembled, Manuel didn’t think it would be seaworthy. He wondered if the boat would float if the water became rough.
Seeing the doubt in Manuel’s face, Antonio explained, “This is my boat, not a beautiful one I know, but she floats and has never capsized even when I am struggling with a lagarto.”
With a gesture of his hand Antonio pointed to the cylinder. “And this is my drum. I place the open end into the water and use these sticks to pound on the stretched hide on top. The sound will drive a lagarto crazy if it is resting in the bottom of the pool. It can’t stand the noise and sooner or later it will surface. When it does, I snare it around the snout and the tail with loops of rope, pull it ashore and kill it with a jab of my knife at the base of its brain. See how simple it is? I bet you could do it after I show you how.”
Manuel had no desire to test Antonio’s method, but he was curious and wanted to see if he could actually catch a lagarto, especially a big one. Antonio loaded his materials onto the back of his burro while Manuel saddled his horse. With Antonio leading the way, they headed toward the bend in the river and the rendezvous with the lagarto.
Antonio signaled with an up raised hand when they reached the bend where he wanted to stop. Manuel noticed the bend was very wide and the water had formed a deep pool; however there was little current and the water surface appeared calm and almost still. Manuel helped Antonio unload his gear and carry the items to the water’s edge. With a hand gesture, Antonio indicted that all the gear was to be placed in the makeshift boat.
With that done, Antonio carefully climbed into the craft and with a wooden pole, shoved away from the bank. When he reached deep water, Antonio placed the drum over the side of the craft, lashed it to the side with a thin hemp rope and began beating with a steady rhythm on the stretched hide top.
Manuel sat down under a shady tree to watch and perhaps learn something. After several minutes, Manuel noticed a disturbance in the water surface and was startled to see the snout of an enormous lagarto break the surface. The creature growled its disapproval at the annoying drumbeat. Antonio calmly stopped the drumbeat and picked up a long pole with a rope snare lashed to one end. He carefully and slowly slipped the rope snare over the lagarto’s snout and then yanked the rope to tighten the noose. The lagarto reacted predictably and began to thrash about, turning over several times in an attempt to free itself. Antonio let the creature struggle for what seemed an eternity to Manuel. He wondered how Antonio was going to get the lagarto ashore.
Gradually the lagarto began to tire and when it lay quietly seeming to catch its breath, Manuel slipped another noose around its tail. Again, the lagarto thrashed itself into a frenzy, but its movements were hampered by the nooses secured to its head and tail. Antonio let the creature struggle until it was exhausted. He was then able to pole the craft back to the riverbank where he dragged the lagarto ashore. Antonio tied the ends of the two ropes to a tree to ensure that the lagarto could not escape. Unsheathing his long thin knife, he quickly straddled the exhausted lagarto and with a swift, deft motion, he jabbed the knife into the base of the creature’s skull. The blade penetrated, slicing into the lagarto’s brain. The creature shivered for a few seconds and then was still.
Antonio stood up, wiped the knife blade on his trousers and sheathed his knife. He turned to Manuel and smiled while nodding his head, as if to say there was nothing to it. Manuel stared at Antonio in awe, marveling at how this old man had dispatched the large and powerful lagarto with such relative ease. This would be a tale he would be relating to his friends.
Turning back to the dead lagarto, Antonio untied the nooses and then using his knife again, he began to skin the creature. He swiftly removed the hide and then carved up the carcass, throwing the entrails and unwanted pieces into the brush. He knew the scavengers would enjoy the free meal. Antonio folded the skin and filled several gunnysacks with the meat.
“Well my friend,” asked Antonio, “What do you think of my method for catching lagartos?”
It was a rhetorical question, because Manuel had seen quite a performance. Glancing up at the sky, Antonio observed that no clouds were forming and that the afternoon would likely be rain free. They began the trek back to the hut. Antonio hummed softly to himself, happy that he had bagged another lagarto. He would have some extra money when he sold the hide and the meat would supplement his diet for a month or more.
The next morning after breakfast Manuel and Antonio walked to riverside to check the water level. It was obvious that the river had lowered considerably. After packing his saddlebags, Manuel thanked Antonio for his hospitality and for showing him how to catch a lagarto. They shook hands and Antonio stood in the doorway of his hut watching Manuel ford the river and head toward town. Antonio sighed and then turned to the task of preparing the hide. He was a content man.