Tarzan and Shirley Temple Climb Cusuco
February 27, 2012 § 2 Comments
“Today’s going to be an adventure? Isn’t that right, Uncle Mikey?”
I smiled and nodded at my boss, Ana Luisa, a woman of thirty years who was speaking to me in her high-pitched puppy talk. At Ana’s ankles an adolescent mutt with a golden coat and an oversized tongue hanging out of its mouth was hopping around with excitement. The formerly stray dog’s name was Chimi Chewy, and Ana had rescued it from starvation and abuse on an island off of Honduras’s north coast.
I tried to respond to my houseguests with as much enthusiasm as possible, but I was exhausted. The seven-month-old Chimi, who was almost fully dog sized, had kept me up all night while she whimpered in her crate on the first floor of my loft. Evidently Chimi, who was accustomed to AC and her own spot on Ana and her partner Mechie’s cushiony queen-sized bed, found my un-air conditioned oven of an apartment too uncomfortable for her liking. Either that or she missed the proximity of her mommies.
Chimi was just as excited as Ana was to get out of my apartment that morning. The two raced out of the door, with Chimi overshooting the car by several paw prints before she bolted back. I shotgunned Chimi for the front, a seat that was normally reserved for her – even when Ana’s human partner was in town. And then we were off, driving through the busy streets of El Progreso towards our next adventure in Cusuco National Park.
The previous night Ana, Chimi, and I had watched the movie Up. Enthralled by the tale, Ana and I stuffed our faces with popcorn while Chimi barked whenever one of the talking dogs came on the screen. We were all sobbing after the first five minutes when Pixar decided to go and kill off the female protagonist, who we had been certain would entertain us for the rest of the movie. That left us with the main character, a stumpy and crotchety old man who set out to fulfill his departed wife’s childhood wish of traveling the world and filling the blank pages of her book of adventures until reaching Venezuela.
Venezuela wasn’t really an option since Ana, Chimi, and I were in El Progreso, so we had to make due. I can’t remember who it was…Ana or Chimi…who decided that we should go to Cusuco, but it sounded like a good idea at the time. The national park is a huge nature reserve in the mountains of San Pedro Sula and is the host of an abundance of tropical flora and fauna. With so many strange creatures in the area, Chimi was sure to get herself into mischief, as was Ana since outdoor adventuring was one of her life’s passions.
An avid watcher of the Discovery Channel, Ana seemed to know absolutely everything about every animal…ever. She was happy to share fun facts about numerous creatures from the wild with me, including that hippopotamuses produce their own natural sunscreen to protect their skin, the skin of sharks is covered in millions of sandpapery denticles that can cut your hand if you pet one (not that I would ever pet a shark), and – perhaps the most fascinating fun fact of all – male snakes have two penises.
This last revelation was something so shocking to me that I was sure Ana had to have made it up. She proceeded to explain that snakes had two penises in order to maximize their chances of fertilizing a female. When one penis grew tired, she said, the male snake could use the other one on another female to help boost the probability of spreading its serpentine seed.
The more I thought about the ways in which male snakes produced their bastard snake progeny, the more brilliant the tactic sounded. From an ecological standpoint, it seemed to make perfect sense, since a male snake could double, quadruple, or even octuple its chances of producing an offspring, provided the snake timed the use of its digits properly. Suddenly, I found myself wondering why male humans didn’t do the same thing.
“Why do you think human males have two testicles,” Ana said. “They’ve evolved from having two penises to one. I mean, why else would they need two testicles for one penis?”
“I guess I never really thought about it that way before,” I said. “So does that mean as human males evolve they’ll eventually lose one of their testicles?”
Ana shrugged. “I wouldn’t be surprised.”
I couldn’t help but think of an acquaintance of mine who was quite open about his single testicle. The situation was cause for much personal grief and self-directed loathing. If only he knew that all human males were going to lose one of their testicles in the future anyway, then he’d be able to see that he didn’t have a problem at all. In fact, he’d come to realize that he was simply ahead of his time.
“Snakes are so fascinating because you can actually observe signs of evolution in their skeletons,” Ana said. “If you look at certain snakes’ bone structures, you can see tiny vestigial claws that the snake once needed before natural selection led them to move without needing limbs.”
“That’s so cool!” I said, slapping my hands to my cheeks a la Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone.
“I know,” Ana said. “I really hope we can find a snake today so I can show you.”
Having gone eco-touring before with Ana, I knew first hand how adventurous she was…especially when it came to snakes. One time when we were in Cayos Cochinos, she spotted a pink boa constrictor in the forest, removed it from its tree, and started dancing around with it over her shoulders like she was Britney Spears at the 2001 VMAs. Though Ana’s dance had been highly entertaining, I secretly hoped she wouldn’t find another snake in Cusuco – especially when I imagined her having to gut it just to show me its skeleton.
My mind flashed back to a time when I, as seven-year-old, went fishing with my father, brothers, and Texan cousins on a lake in the Poconos. We had been fishing for fun, throwing back all of our catches into the water, being the eco-friendly fishers we were. But the single fish I had caught ended up ingesting the entire hook, which turned out to be nearly impossible to pull out. That was until my pro-wrestling father decided to rip the fish in half with his bare hands – an act that successfully removed the hook while causing me to purge that day’s colorful blend of breakfast and lunch onto the dock.
But Ana wasn’t one to do things like gut snakes. She loved all animals equally – with sea creatures being more equal than others since she absolutely refused to eat anything from the ocean. That combined with her fondness for nature and her Jungle Book spirit garnered her the nickname Tarzan from our mutual friend, Mahchi, the artist.
As with Ana, Mahchi deferred the opposite gender when selecting my nickname: Shirley Temple. I had acquired the name after a series of events that showcased my incapacity with cars and mechanics. Once, while driving with Mahchi to crash a wedding in Copan, Mahchi’s beat up truck broke down halfway there. Mahchi had been using pure H2O instead of oil to magically run his car for weeks, which may have had something to do with it. It didn’t help that I was absolutely useless in auto-repair – a skill that can come in handy in a country where every single automobile seems to have something wrong with it. By the time two of Mahchi’s mechanics came to pick us up in a different pick-up, a torrential rainstorm had welcomed us on the windy road towards Copan. To make matters worse, the windshield wiper of their car stopped working. Again unable to do anything that be considered helpful, I simply watched as mechanic number 1 swerved through the blinding storm and mechanic number 2 stuck his arm out the window and used his hand to manually make the broken windshield wiper wipe. That incident, along with failed attempts to fix a broken door that wouldn’t shut (a rock had gotten in the way) and turn on an engine that wouldn’t start (I had forgotten to put the key into the ignition) garnered me a nickname that was as close to the opposite of Tarzan as one could get.
So off Tarzan and Shirley Temple were to Cusuco Park, with Tarzan behind the wheel and Shirley in the passenger seat. I felt like I was in good hands with the adventurous Ana, who both drove and navigated, which meant I didn’t have much of anything to do except find shapes in the clouds or challenge Chimi to staring contests through my rearview window.
We undoubtedly caused a few heads to turn along the way as we picked up locals who had been making the long trek by foot from the bottom of the mountain to their remote homes higher up. Few were probably used to seeing a woman driving and a man in the passenger seat…let alone a woman with a short crop of spiky hair and a man with a head of bouncing curls. Even fewer were used to seeing a street mutt with multiple stuffed toys, a wardrobe, and an expressed preference for two percent milk (“I can’t stand any of that watered down crap!” Chimi would often say.)
As we dropped off locals near the entrances of their small villages, shaving kilometers off their blistering uphill voyages, I couldn’t help but think about how many karma points Ana was racking up. One of the people we gave a lift to, a 96-year-old man with coppery skin and crow’s feat that looked like they had been chiseled into the corners of his eyes, told us were blessed souls and that God would always be with us. Ana and I thanked him, but the rebellious Chimi said nothing, as she seemed to be going through an angsty atheist phase at the moment.
Upon arriving to the park, a kind guard decided to wave our entrance fees. As a legal resident, Ana didn’t have to pay the local fee, nor did Chimi since she was Honduran by birth (Garifuna technically, though she can’t speak Spanish or Garifuna…how embarrassing!). Since foreigners have to pay to get into the park, I batted my blue eyes at the guard and allowed the wind to rustle through my brown curls, hoping that I’d somehow manage the miracle of passing as a Honduran. I think the guard was so shocked by our non-traditional little family that he just let us go with the hope that he might not have to see us ever again.
We parked the car outside of Cusuco’s information center. Chimi underwent one of her temporary losses of sanity and started darting around in all directions, pivoting unexpectedly before she’d dash off at some other unpredictable angle. That kind of behavior might have been cute when Chimi was a puppy, but that wasn’t how a grown dog should act in public. It didn’t matter how many times I told her though, since Chimi simply refused to listen.
Eventually Chimi ran herself into exhaustion and passed out under a tree, which gave Ana and me some time to see what was in the information center. There we learned about things like armadillos, iguanas, and exotic flowers in the area. I noted a particularly interesting exhibit on snakes. It didn’t say anything about multiple penises or vestigial claws, but it did have photographs of people who had survived bites from poisonous species of snakes that lived in the forest. Some of the swollen and discolored limbs in the photos were so disgusting that they looked like they had been inflated with air and then char-grilled multiple times over.
After looking at the disturbing photos, Ana and I decided it was time to enter the forest. Inside the park, we were overwhelmed by the beauty of our tropical garden path and the abundance of wildlife wherever we turned. Ana had the uncanny knack of spotting things that I would never have been able to locate on my own. She pointed out an owl-spotted butterfly, the largest butterfly I have ever seen in my life, which had a huge circular dot on each of its wings that looked just like an owl’s eye. Apparently, said “eye” was meant to frighten away any potential predators that happened to be on owls’ lists of things to eat.
Next, Ana made the miraculous discovery of a small, emerald-colored scarab beetle. This was an extremely rare creature that only existed in the Honduran tropics. It looked like a green jewel, and its eyes – which came with prominent blue irises and black pupils – appeared more human than arthropodic.
The last astonishing thing Ana discovered was what looked like a fuzzy black rope on the forest floor. After looking more closely at it, we realized that the rope was actually a long chain of caterpillars that were attached at the head and…well…ass. Never before had Ana or I observed such strange behavior in caterpillars before. After all, shouldn’t caterpillars have been roaming the trees for leaves, fattening up before they turned into cocoons and prepared for their butterfly-filled futures? What were they doing hanging out with each other in one big chain in the middle of the day? Were they playing red rover against the leaf-cutter ants? Or holding some type of occult ritual to protect themselves from scorpions? Which caterpillar initiated the massive chain and how? And more importantly, did caterpillars really like shoving their faces in each other’s butt holes?
I removed my camera to take a picture of the fascinating display. I was just about to press the button when I felt something big and wet slap across my cheek. When I opened my eyes, I saw Chimi frolicking about, stomping up and down on the scene of biological wonder that had been the caterpillar chain, squashing the tiny creatures beneath her paws.
Ana and I looked at each other, at the squished and struggling remnants of the caterpillar chain, and then at Chimi.
“Chimi!” Ana yelled. “You just destroyed a phenomenon of nature!”
I don’t think Chimi cared. She swept her chin over her shoulder in that coquettish way of hers and took off running down the trail, undoubtedly destroying more miracles along the way.
By the time Ana, Chimi, and I had exited the forest and made it back to the car, we were exhausted and hungry. Ana was also a bit disappointed that she hadn’t found a snake.
“I guess I’ll show you the vestigial limbs some other time,” she said, her spirits clearly lowered.
After taking a few pictures in front of Cusuco Park’s main sign, Ana, Chimi, and I loaded into the car and started making our way back down the mountain. As we had done before, we stopped to give a lift to several pedestrians who were making the downhill trek. When we picked up a family of four that had to squeeze into the backseat, we had no choice but to throw Chimi into the trunk. She put up a fight and whined about how that wasn’t the way princesses were supposed to be treated, but we figured it would toughen her up a bit.
Things were going as fine as could be until Ana mentioned that there was something funny going on with the brakes.
“Those are the things that make us stop, right?” I asked.
Ana didn’t even bother to acknowledge my question.
“This isn’t good,” she said. “It’s starting to take a really long time to make the car stop.”
I looked back at the innocent family of four, who were oblivious to the content of our conversation given that they didn’t speak English. Chimi, on the other hand, let out a nervous yelp from the back.
“Shut up, Chimi!” I yelled.
I don’t know if the mother figured out what was wrong, but she tapped the back of Ana’s shoulder and told her to stop at the next village.
I turned to Ana. “So do you think you can stop it?”
“Yeah, it’s just going to take a bit.”
After pumping her foot against the brake several times, Ana managed to slow the car down until we were safely stopped near the entrance of the woman’s village. A small group of people was there to welcome the grateful family whose members gave Ana, Chimi, and I one last curious stare before walking down the hill to their home.
As Ana and I waved our goodbyes from the car, Ana’s attention shifted rapidly to something on the ground, like a cat’s upon spotting a mouse or a fly.
“A snake!” Ana yelled with delight.
It took less than a second for Ana to jump out of the car and leap on top of what I could hardly believe was a snake in the road. I watched with a mixture of shock and awe from the passenger’s seat as Ana bent down, disappeared from sight, and then stood back up with a snap.
“Ow!” she said, shaking her hand.
“What happened, Ana?” I asked. “Did it bite you?”
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Ana said. “Only one of its fangs got me.”
I automatically found myself imagining someone who had just been bitten by a saber-toothed tiger or Dracula saying the same thing – “I’m fine, I’m fine. Only one of its fangs got me.”
I exited the Kia and walked over to Ana to inspect the damage. Before I could even take a look at her hand, I spotted the small culprit snake, which sported an ominous coat of multi-colored scales.
What was that phrase again? I thought, trying my best to reflect back to seventh grade science class. Red and black…venom lack? Red and yellow…kill a fellow?
The snake remained surprisingly still, allowing me to analyze its color pattern with ease.
Black yellow red yellow black yellow red yellow.
“Ummm…isn’t that the poisonous kind?” I asked.
“Don’t worry,” Ana said, still shaking her hand. “It was just a baby. I’ll be fine.”
A short, elderly man with a gray cowboy hat who had been watching the scene waddled towards us.
“That’s a coral snake,” he said. “A girl died a few weeks back after getting bitten by one.”
I gulped and looked at Ana.
“Maybe we should get a picture of it just in case?” she asked.
I nodded, took my camera out of my pocket, and snapped several pictures of the obedient reptile.
“We’ve got to get you to the hospital,” I told Ana.
The man informed us that the nearest clinic was in San Pedro Sula, which was about a 30-minute ride down the mountain. Ana was familiar with the location, so we hopped back into the car to prepare for the journey into town.
“Do you want me to drive?” I asked.
“No, no, I’ll be fine,” Ana said, her hands clutching tightly at the steering wheel. “Besides, I don’t want anyone else driving the car with the brakes acting up.”
That was Ana’s polite way of saying, “Heeeelll no, Shirley!”
Ana and I buckled our seatbelts as tight as they would go. Chimi barked from the back to ask what was going on, but we ignored her.
“Does it hurt?” I asked.
“Yeah, but it’s sort of coming in waves,” Ana said. “Like right now I’m fine, but after three seconds…”
Ana stopped talking, squinted, and inhaled with a pain-induced hiss.
“After a few seconds there’s a shooting pain all up through my arm.”
“But you’re thinking clearly, right?” I asked.
Ana nodded. “If there was going to be a neurological effect, I would have felt it by now. It’s just physical.”
“Okay, just breathe,” I said, going into yoga teacher mode. “And let me know if you want to switch places.”
Ana nodded and kept her focus on the road. However, it only took less than a minute before she was looking down at her feet, up to the road, and then back down to her feet. Once again her foot was pumping the brake of a car that was showing absolutely no signs of stopping.
“What the hell?” she asked. “The brakes are shot!”
“What?” I asked, still in yoga mode despite the urgency of our situation.
I looked through the windshield. We were continuing down the rocky dirt road, but now with ever-increasing speed.
Ana’s hand went straight for the Kia’s emergency brake. Pulling at it reduced our speed, but it didn’t bring us to a complete stop.
“Mike…pull the brake as hard as you can!” she said.
Nodding, I grabbed the emergency brake with both hands and pulled with all the strength I possessed. I pulled and pulled and the car slowed on the steep incline, but not completely.
“Keep pulling!” Ana yelled.
I yanked with so much force that I thought I might snap the lever. I didn’t know how much time the emergency brake would buy us. Even I knew that riding on an e-brake was damaging to the brake (as my father would often remind me whenever I did that by accident in high school). That meant we couldn’t depend on the brake if we wanted to get safely down the mountain. Ana realized that too, of course, so she decided to do the only thing that she could to save us – crash the Kia into a large mound of dirt that had piled up on the left side of the road.
The vehicle finally came to a stop, with death by over the cliff free fall successfully averted. But that meant we were without a car when we needed one most to get the snake-bitten Ana to the hospital.
We didn’t have much time to contemplate our options when I saw an old pick-up truck uplifting a cloud of dirt as it came rolling down the mountain. Without thinking, I jumped out of the car and into the middle of the road with my arms waving. Thankfully, the truck slowed down. The back was packed with at least twenty Hondurans who were curious to know what was the matter.
“Do you have a mechanic?” I asked.
One man raised his hand.
“Good! Our brakes aren’t working and our driver has been bitten by a snake!”
The people in the pick up let out a collective gasp and proceeded to mumble. I thought I heard one person say, “So why is she driving?”
“We need to get her to a clinic as soon as possible,” I said.
The mechanic hopped out of the truck, ready to help us with our predicament.
“Is it manual or automatic?” he asked.
I deferred all car talk to Tarzan, who had also gotten out of the car.
“Automatic,” she said.
The mechanic hopped into the driver’s seat and started the engine. He figured out that he could drive the vehicle in D gear though very slowly. And that’s exactly what he did as he weaved the Kia down the dirt road towards San Pedro Sula.
That was about when I began to do what most rational people do in the wake of any life threatening situation. My eyelids started to grow heavy, my head began nodding, and before I knew it I had fallen asleep. My body isn’t built for panic, and during overly stressful situations it either seems to respond by 1) cleaning or 2) going unconscious. Because cleaning wasn’t an option at the time, I did the latter and nodded off, becoming completely useless as Ana continued to suffer shooting pains in her arm and a random stranger drove our broken vehicle towards one of the most dangerous cities in the world on what had recently become a perilous mountain peak.
At least I wouldn’t have known what was going on had it been my time to go…
By the time I woke up we were already back in San Pedro Sula. We dropped off Ana, who was still alive and alert, at the clinic and the mechanic brought me and the car to a nearby gas station. There two men made the necessary repairs so the car would be drivable for at least a few more days.
Once I made it back to the hospital, I found Ana lying in a bed with her arm plugged with tubes. A few of our local friends had shown up to offer her moral support. She seemed happy and was still conscious, though the pain from the snakebite had not yet gone away completely.
Upon observing the photos I had taken of the snake, Ana’s extremely corpulent doctor assured us that the snake was not venomous. Both Ana and I were wary of his claim – me because I had absolute faith in my pneumonic rhymes and Ana because her arm was still searing with waves of poison-induced pain. The doctor laughed off our worries, claiming that the snake was a false coral, for had it been a true coral it would have wreaked havoc on Ana’s neurological and respiratory systems, possibly resulting in death. At the same time, the doctor was absolutely convinced that Ana should spend the night “just in case.” Ana refused, sensing that the misinformed doctor was only after her cash.
After the doctor cleared Ana, I ended up driving her in the repaired Kia back to my apartment. During the ride, Ana received a message from a herpetologist friend of hers in the United States who identified the snake in our photos as a true coral snake – Micrurus diastema to be exact. He said that Ana’s symptoms showed that she had been “envenomated,” which was not good since the venom of an adult coral snake could kill a human in a matter of hours. According the herpetologist, Ana didn’t receive enough venom for the bite to cause effects to her neurological or respiratory systems because the baby coral snake’s fixed fangs had been too small to inject enough of it into her. He said Ana was very lucky.
Chimi, the clueless little canine she was, didn’t even bother to ask why we had taken such a long detour at the hospital. It didn’t really matter though, since she kept herself busy by lathering Ana with kisses the entire way home.
When we made it back to my apartment, the time came for Ana to set Chimi aside, pull out her cell phone, and make the call she had been dreading ever since her release from the hospital.
“You’re gonna call Mechie, aren’t you?” I asked.
Ana nodded, her expression solemn as she thought about what her partner was going to say.
“Can I watch?” I asked. It may have sounded a bit heartless, but I wasn’t about to miss the grand finale after I had sat through the entire rest of the show.
Ana let out a nervous laugh. “I guess…if you want.”
I picked up Chimi and put her in my lap as Ana dialed Mechie’s number.
“This is gonna be good, Chimi,” I said. “I can tell.”
“Hi Mechie!” Ana said after Mechie picked up on the other line. “You’ll never guess what happened today!”
“You got a new job?” Mechie asked, her voice faintly audible through the phone’s speaker.
“No…not that…” Ana said.
“Did Chimi learn a new trick?” Mechie guessed.
“Nope…not that either. I guess I’ll just tell you. So Michael, Chimi, and I went on an adventure today at Cusuco National Park…”
“And…” Mechie said, her voice already accusatory.
“And…we found this really cool snake…that I sort of picked up…and it…well…bit me…”
Ana didn’t even have time to enter into the details about the vestigial claws or the traveling pedestrians before Mechie started yelling “YOU WHAT?” followed by “I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU, ANA!!”
I listened as the downcast Ana responded like a small girl being scolded by her mother, whispering I knows and sorries with the high-pitched voice of a child.
I didn’t know what Mechie was going to do or say to me whenever she found out that I had managed to fall asleep in the middle of the chaos that had been our adventure to Cusuco. She wasn’t slated to be back in Honduras for another few days, which meant that I had a bit of time before I had to face her wrath. Until then, I decided to do what I always did when the reality of things became a bit too overwhelming to handle. I flopped onto my bed, my dusty clothes from the day unchanged, and let myself drift off, sleeping soundly to the song of Chimi’s nightlong whimpers.