Here is a short sample from the beginning of my first book, ‘That Bear Ate My Pants!’. It covers my arrival in Ecuador, and my first day at the Santa Martha Animal Refuge. I hope you enjoy it! The same sample is available to download for FREE on your Kindle HERE.

 

 

 

THAT BEAR ATE MY PANTS!

by Tony James Slater

This edition published 2011 by Various Things (ADT)

Copyright © Tony James Slater 2011

Tony James Slater has asserted his right to be identified as the author of this Work in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved. This eBook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, or licensed in any way except when specifically permitted in writing by the publishers. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights.

www.TonyJamesSlater.com

Author’s Note

It’s true. A bear did eat my pants. Luckily I wasn’t wearing them at the time, or this book would be called ‘That Bear Ate My Balls And My Ass’ (not to mention my legs and my feet) and I’d probably be writing it from hospital. In fact all of these stories are true; only the occasional name has been changed because some of them know where I live…

This book is dedicated to the hard work, bravery and sacrifice of my fellow volunteers all over the world. What you do makes a difference every day. And to those poor souls who worked with me – especially those who grace these pages – thank-you so much! Without your constant help and protection… Well, let’s face it, I’d have been eaten. Enjoy the book. Please don’t sue me.

Prologue

“MONKEY!” I shouted, as a brown blur swung out of the cage and onto the path.

The chase was on.

He skipped away with incredible speed, dodging around the corner and heading for freedom as though he’d thought of nothing but this moment for years. I bolted after him, grabbing the edge of a cage to swing me round in hot pursuit. The monkey was a good way ahead of me, and far more manoeuvrable. But I was faster on the straight. I accelerated down the narrow corridor between enclosures, and was closing the distance between us when he reached the steps down to the main road through the farm. This was my chance – if he paused, if he found the stairs confusing, I’d be on him. But no. Being a monkey, he didn’t have much use for stairs. He just jumped.

He made the ten foot leap to the ground with ease, landed on all fours, and scurried off down the road. Pounding along behind him I had less than a second to make the choice. If I slowed to negotiate the stairs even part of the way down, it would all be over. Once he reached the trees by the first bend in the road he’d be gone for good.

Time was up. I reached the top of the steps at a dead run and launched myself over the edge.

In the seconds I was airborne my entire life flashed before my eyes. I seemed to have spent a disproportionate amount of it chasing monkeys.

Somehow I landed on my feet, with bone-jarring force. I was only a step behind the monkey – my leap had taken me considerably further than his – but my body was moving too fast for my legs. I managed to push off with my feet at the same moment as I started to fall headlong on the ground. The result: I bounced forwards another metre, sailing high above the form of the fleeing monkey, then crashed to earth and flattened the fucker.

The impact knocked the stuffing out of me. It temporarily turned the monkey two-dimensional. Pain shot through me. I felt like I’d fallen ten feet onto a small primate. For the monkey it must have been like being beaten around the head with a banana tree. For a split second neither of us could move.

He recovered quicker than I did. Amazingly he wriggled out from under me and leapt towards freedom, just as I, still lying prone, reached out with both arms and caught him.

Unfortunately I could only catch him around the middle. Which meant that while he wasn’t going anywhere, he wasn’t particularly happy about it.

In far less time than it takes to tell, the monkey writhed around in my grasp and sank his fangs into my hand.

“ARGH!”

The monkey switched his attention to my other hand and bit down hard.

“Arrr!” I shrieked. I let go with the recently bitten hand, but I had no other options – I had to grab him again or lose him. As I tried to grab his neck he bit me again, puncturing the thick leather glove easily and scoring my vulnerable flesh. Again and again he bit down, faster than I could even register the damage.

I lay on my belly, flat out on the floor, both arms outstretched in front of me and both hands wrapped around a frantically flailing ball of teeth and rage. There was sod all I could do – without my hands free I couldn’t get to my feet, and without standing up I had no way of controlling the beast. It was not the first time I had the thought; what the hell was I doing in Ecuador?

Seeking Refuge

All I’d asked for was a little more adventure in my life. Now, I appreciate that in hindsight this was obviously a huge mistake. There’s even a proverb designed specifically to warn against it. It goes something like ‘Be careful what you wish for – you could end up with your fingers in a monkey’.

The thing is, I’d spent several years trying (and failing) to be an actor. I’d been forced to give up when, after a lot of soul-searching, I realised I wasn’t getting anywhere because I was crap. It was not my happiest hour. But to console myself I bought a book called ‘Work Your Way Around The World’.

It seemed like the answer. All the dead-end jobs I’d done whilst pursuing my theatrical dream suddenly revealed a glimmer of potential; translate any one of them to a different country and they became a lot more exciting. Why work in my local pub when I could do the same job in a bar in Bondi Beach or Miami?

And so I set out on my grand tour, aiming to do a different job on every continent. I would visit the far-flung corners of the world, explore their secrets and discover all there was to know about life in the process.

I got as far as France. After three months of picking prunes on a baking hot plantation south of Bordeaux, having lost the ability to walk normally due to spending sixty hours a week on my knees, I decided to give up.

It wasn’t that the place broke my spirit, though it came perilously close; it was when the boss got drunk with us one night and confessed to drugging a gypsy who worked for him, and feeding him into the prune-drying furnace. That made up my mind. By daybreak his entire workforce had evaporated. By midnight the next day I limped through the door to my parents’ house, exhausted, malnourished and penniless.

All in all it had been a bit of a shitter.

So on my list of preferred career choices (the one they get you to make in school) I’d already crossed off ‘Actor’ and ‘Explorer’. Number three was ‘Astronaut’ and to be honest, I didn’t fancy my chances. So I did what I usually do when I get depressed; I bought a book. This one was about volunteering abroad. And that is how I found Santa Martha Animal Rescue Centre in Ecuador, South America.

Santa Martha’s website described it as a volunteer-run wildlife refuge perched high in the mountains of the Avenue of Volcanoes. At any given time it was home to monkeys, parrots – even big cats – plus dozens of other creatures I’d never even heard of. All of them had been rescued from cruelty; chained up in market places, kept illegally as pets or destined for the black market. The job of the volunteers was to accompany the police on raids, rescue the animals, look after them and eventually release them into the Amazon rainforest! It was the most amazing job description I’d ever read.

I signed up instantly and Toby, the English co-ordinator of the refuge, approved my application despite me having absolutely no relevant experience. I convinced myself that this was the shadowy hand of Fate, rather than a blanket policy of employing every idiot that sent them an email. Surely there would be some kind of training programme before they sent me in to feed the lions…

And before you could say ‘eighteen hour flight’, there I was in Ecuador. Heavily in debt to my credit card company and strapped into a rucksack the size and weight of a chest freezer full of dead rhino. I wish I could say I was happy about it.

Nestled into a hollow in the Andes mountains, Quito is the highest capital city in the world. Even the airport is over nine thousand feet. Planes that land there don’t need to make a descent, they just go straight on. It’s a banana of a place, curving halfway around the side of a gigantic active volcano. And nestled into the centre of Quito is the ugliest bus station in the world. Terminal Terrestre it’s called, which has a disturbing ring of finality about it. This is where I found myself on Day One of my adventure.

Through clouds of exhaust fumes I could just about make out… well, nothing actually. Visibility was about three and a half feet. Petrol was clearly not too expensive in Ecuador, as the drivers seemed keen to leave the buses revving the whole time they sat in the station. Or maybe they were just afraid that if they ever turned them off they’d never start again. A squint through the haze told me this was the more likely of the two reasons. Thick black smoke was coming out of the back of every bus. In fact thick black smoke was coming out of the front of quite a few of them.

Their destinations were displayed on little signs in the windscreens, ranging from a ‘proper’ plastic thing to bits torn off a cardboard crisp box and scrawled on with a felt-tip pen. I was looking for somewhere spelled ‘Tambillo’ – though how it was pronounced could be anyone’s guess.

The central island of the station was filled with dingy little shops and stalls. It must have been fairly obvious to any casual observer that the added weight of a carpet on my burden would have snapped my spine like a twig, yet that didn’t deter the carpet stall owners from bawling the benefits of their carpets at me as I passed. I was alone, downcast and dangerously overburdened. Even if a colourful woolly carpet had been just what I needed to brighten my day, what the hell was I supposed to do with it, shove it up my arse?

A little way ahead of me I spied a whole gang of young guys hanging out, doing nothing. They had the look of people who did that a lot. Their clothes had started to take on the colour of the atmosphere. Maybe I should ask them, I thought. What’s the worst that could happen?

“Um… Tam-bee-low?” I ventured.

Tambeejo?

“Yes! Yes, Tambeejo!” I’d studied Spanish intensely for almost an hour on the flight over and it was already starting to pay off.

Suddenly the youths were racing around me in all directions, shouting constantly to each other as though it was some form of echolocation. A couple of them dodged right into the traffic and flagged down a pair of shuddering buses. A quick glance in the windscreens and they started shouting and gesturing wildly at me. This could only be good news! The guys were standing in front of one of the buses and not letting it move. I took my life in my hands and sprinted between the cars. Arms reached down through the doors and I was simultaneously dragged and pushed on board. My helpers banged on the side of the bus as though to reassure the driver that no more walking rucksacks needed crow-barring through the door. Then they generously stepped out of the way and the bus lurched off.

It had worked! No matter the difficulty, I had overcome. I felt elated. Or possibly I was going into toxic shock from the smog. But I was on my way!

It was a lovely journey. It would have been lovelier if I hadn’t been wedged between several kneecaps and an armpit, but with about two hundred people on a bus built to hold forty you really have to appreciate the small things. I had a turn at breathing every so often, and the involuntary motion of my nose against the filthy window cleaned a spot through which I could see a tiny part of the scenery I was travelling through. The foothills of the Andes mountains were thick with vegetation. Their sharply sculpted flanks were tamed into fields despite ridiculous, near vertical slopes.

I saw a land so wild, so incalculably vast; I saw tin-roofed concrete shacks, sprinkled liberally throughout it; and occasionally I saw a piece of tinsel hanging from the roof of the bus. It draped itself across my face every time the driver flung us around a hairpin bend. I never did figure out the Ecuadorian urge to decorate the inside of a bus like a Christmas tree. I even saw one with a mirror ball in it once, which begged the question: just what part of my anatomy had room to dance?

After forty minutes of the most intimate bodily contact I’ve ever had with half a dozen strangers simultaneously, my journey neared its end. I caught a glimpse of a sign saying ‘Tambillo’ and the bus skidded to an almost stop. The door flew open, and I was helpfully rolled out of it by the driver’s assistant. Further up the bus another door had opened and people were leaping courageously out, as more people from the bus ‘stop’ matched their jogging speed to the bus’s and grabbed for outstretched hands which hauled them on board. “They don’t waste much time around here,” I said to myself as I picked myself up out of the dust. Only I said it with a few more four letter words. I’d landed on my stomach, which was lucky, as if I’d ended up on my back I’d quite likely have died of starvation before managing to turn over. I dusted myself down and gazed across the road at my new home town.

And was very nearly cut in half by the next bus. It thundered along hot on the heels of the one that had so casually dispensed me. A few passengers fell out of the door in my general direction and the bus accelerated onwards towards the horizon.

I’d never seen so many buses. And never a single bus so crowded. Where the hell were all these people going? Not to Tambillo for the most part, which was fine by me. The place seemed small and deserted, quite a relief after the Mad Max intensity of Quito.

I was standing at the base of a mountain which rose majestically behind me. A road in fairly poor repair veered off upwards at a crazy angle, past a few half-finished buildings that clung precariously to the slope. They gave me the impression that someone had started to build one, then realised he’d never be arsed to walk all that way up to his house every day. When he’d abandoned the project halfway through, most of his neighbours thought ‘bloody hell, he’s right!’ and they all buggered off to the pub.

Tambillo town proper began on the other side of the Quito road (which is actually part of the Pan American Highway, and is probably the main reason that road is described as ‘of variable condition’). Marking the turn-off for Tambillo was a shop full of payphones. Which struck me as a bad idea. I mean, twenty people on the phone in one room? How hard can you push your finger into your ear before you hit brain? And what the hell do you do if you need to make a call after closing time? Obviously someone was making money out of the racket though – parked outside the ‘Telecabin’ was the biggest 4×4 truck I’d ever seen. It gleamed white and chrome, like a poster child for the Size Does Matter campaign. 4x4s were popular over here I’d noticed – by my calculations they were the third most popular vehicles on the road in Quito, after knackered buses and the boxy little yellow taxis made by some company too embarrassed to put a badge on them.

I needed a taxi for the next leg of my journey. It wasn’t long before one of the battered yellow things rattled into view. I flagged it down and half expected to see the driver’s feet shoot out the bottom of the car and skid along the road to brake it. Instead it coughed to a halt in front of me and stalled.

In the driver’s seat was a tiny, weather-beaten man. In the passenger seat was an equally tiny, equally weather-beaten woman. They looked two weather-beaten kids short of a family outing. I almost mistook her for a paying passenger until she began to bark at me in Spanish.

Hell, I thought, here goes.

“Um, Santa Martha, centro por animales?” I enquired.

The couple exchanged astonished looks.

“Um, hacienda Don Johnny?” I tried. It was what I’d been told to say.

The man squinted at me, as though checking I was not a mirage. Then he waved me towards the back seat. Finally! I opened the door and manhandled my rucksack inside. Both of them regarded it sourly. There was a creak of protest from the car’s rear suspension. And I hadn’t gotten in yet.

The driver craned his neck to look at me as I sat in and closed the door. He looked at me for quite some time. I started to feel a little self-conscious, and his head looked like it was going to fall off at any minute. Then he spoke, which must have been difficult with his windpipe twisted at such an angle. I was thrilled that I understood his question, though a little concerned about the need to answer it.

“Where you want to go?” he’d asked.

“Um,” I tried again, “la hacienda de Johnny Cordoba. Refugio des animales?

I got a blank look.

God damn it! I knew this would happen! Ask for ‘la hacienda Don Johnny’, Toby had told me – they all know it. What a load of bollocks! As soon as I’d read that phrase my blood had run cold, just at the potential for complete disaster inherent in relying on such a dubious piece of advice. Now I was stuck in a taxi with no way of explaining my desired destination beyond repeating the same useless statement and shrugging my shoulders.

Hacienda de Don Johnny,” I said, and shrugged at him.

Inside I was starting to cry.

Cerca de aquí?” the driver asked. (Near here?)

“Yes,” I said, for want of the ability to say “I haven’t got a bloody clue mate.”

So he fired up the engine and we sped off in the same direction as the endless stream of buses. As we charged down the highway the driver occasionally twisted round in his seat to ask me “Here?” I could only shrug.

Then he spied a little track branching off to the left, and with a cry of triumph he headed down it at top speed. Neither track nor car were particularly well suited to this, as the top of my head discovered immediately. It was a painful way to travel, but I had a feeling that the roof of the car would give out long before my skull. Thankfully after a couple of minutes we came to a group of tumble-down buildings surrounding an open expanse of concrete. We pulled up in the middle and the car shuddered into silence.

We had arrived at a farm of some kind, and one that didn’t get many visitors from the looks of things. The car had barely stopped shaking when an enormous bearded man emerged from a corrugated iron barn and approached us at what must have been his top speed. For which I was grateful, since I was on the meter. I glanced at the dashboard. No meter. This crappy car didn’t even seem to have a speedometer. I guess I was paying whatever the driver thought his time was worth. Oh-oh…

By the time I’d had this uneasy revelation the fat farmer and the driver were conversing at volume. Every so often one of them would glance at me as though expecting something. There was something in the farmer’s gaze that made my buttocks clench involuntarily. It was time for my broken record bit.

Hacienda de Johnny Cordoba?” I pleaded.

They both just stared.

Santa Martha!” I begged.

They exchanged puzzled looks, then returned to staring at me. Not making much headway, I thought. This clearly wasn’t the place, and even if it was there was no way I was staying here. To gain a gut that size, the farmer must have eaten his whole family. I was not going to be next on the menu.

They’d started to jabber at one another again, punctuating each rapid burst of dialogue with a gesture in my direction. I felt a cold trickle of sweat run between my shoulder blades, and prayed they weren’t negotiating a price for my anal virginity. I waited for a natural pause, and interrupted them.

“Look, this is the wrong place, let’s go,” I told the driver.

No response.

“Do you speak English?” I asked the farmer.

Nothing.

“Okay,” I addressed the driver in my mother tongue, “we’re not going to find the place like this, because you don’t have a clue where we are. I want to leave before this fat bastard tries to rape me and eat me. Please take me back to Tambillo, and if your car doesn’t disintegrate or explode before we get there I’ll give you five dollars just for being brave enough to drive the fucking thing.”

¿Qué?” he asked.

Tambillo,” I said, making ‘let’s go’ motions with both hands. He got the picture. He started the car, a minor miracle in my opinion, and with a few parting words he screeched away, leaving the farmer still standing there with his mouth hanging open. What a sight. Thank God it was receding.

As we bounced back up the dirt track at top speed I could tell my driver was in a bad mood. This was pretty much confirmed when we shot out onto the main road again. The car skidded to a halt and died.

Tambillo?” I asked tentatively.

He helpfully pointed back up the main road.

I took the hint. I shoved my bag out the back door, then climbed after it. I dug in my back pocket for some dollars, and was grateful indeed that I had several single notes. I didn’t like my chances of getting any change if I’d had to offer this guy a twenty.

He scowled at me as he took the cash, then turned his attention to reviving his vehicle. This left his tiny wrinkled wife to scowl at me while he coaxed some life into the engine. What a tag-team. He favoured me with one more black look before his trademark top speed exit left me choking on a cloud of dust.

The walk back to town was an epic one. Stumbling along a rough gravel bank beside the highway, wearing what felt remarkably like a grand piano on my back, I was for the first time at the full mercy of the sun. As each bus thundered past its slipstream would drag me slightly further from my goal. It was a long, long time before I recognised a café on the other side of the road, signalling my return to civilisation. Soaked through with sweat, bent practically double and breathing in gasps, I staggered over to the payphone shop and collapsed. For a while I just lay in the shadow of the monstrous white truck, inventing choice phrases to throw at Toby when I finally got to meet him.

I mean! Ask for hacienda de Johnny Cordoba? What an arsehole! For all I knew I was asking for a mythical character. I felt like I was standing in London asking for Mr and Mrs Smith – or worse, at Loch Ness looking for the home of A. Monster…

My air of quiet desperation must have intrigued the locals. A couple of guys approached me wearing concerned expressions. They asked me something, and I fell back on the only piece of information I had.

“Please,” I begged, “where is hacienda de Johnny Cordoba?

“Johnny Cordoba?” one asked, looking alert. “You want taxi?”

“Yes, yes!” I told him.

Ah, hacienda Don Johnny. Sí, sí.

He walked back to the gleaming white truck and pulled open the door.

No! Was I about to get a lift? Then I noticed. Numbers on the side. Identical truck parked behind it. And another a bit further down the road. Well bugger me backwards with a greased vegetable… this thing was a taxi! The mother of all taxis. This corner was a taxi rank.

And I’d been dropped off right opposite.

About two hours ago.

And so I set off on a journey which would astound me every time I made it. Pretty much every day for the next three months I would marvel at the tenacity of people determined to live on the side of this mountain. The single track road was more pothole than surface in some places, it twisted and turned across the face of the mountain in a series of hairpin bends and switchbacks, and the gradient was insane. We passed people (and donkeys!) walking up and down, and at one point another massive four-wheel drive taxi swung past us with inches to spare and at least three of its wheels hanging over the precipice. My driver didn’t even bat an eyelid, which was just as well because I was concerned that if he blinked too often we’d end up nose first in one of the half-finished concrete block houses scattered along the route. Amazingly he knew every crumbling chunk of road, every gaping chasm (of which there were several), every protruding boulder and lethal bend. We raced past the lot, making decent speed despite the angle of the truck. Yet about ten minutes into the journey we’d still not arrived. We were so high I was starting to feel faint. Back home this journey would already have cost me £20 – and done at least £250 worth of damage to the car!

If anything could handle this punishment, the truck could. No wonder the taxis here were bigger than most of the houses. All of a sudden it hit me – the insanity of trying to coax a crappy yellow city cab up here! I felt quite glad my previous driver hadn’t known of my destination and tried to attempt it. It’d have been easier to carry his car up there than to drive it!

We crested a long, straight section of road and arrived at a huge pair of rusty wrought iron gates. The driver winked at me as we turned in down my boss’s driveway, and another few minutes of twisting and bouncing brought us to a small cluster of buildings perched tenuously on the hillside, surrounded by fields.

This was Santa Martha.

And it was gorgeous.

Baptism of Fruit Juice

The view that was to greet me every morning in this country never lost a smidgen of its 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.

“Alright 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 gusta 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.

“Yup.”

“And I said…?”

Me gusta 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.”

“Oh shit!”

“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 ladleful 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, 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 switchback 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 its 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 Tortoise 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 tortoise’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 bulletproof.

Toby had helped rescue the tortoise, 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 tortoise 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?”

“Nope.”

“How come?”

“Well, we could see him the whole time. He’d only gotten to the bottom of the field.”

“Ah.”

“We thought we’d give him a decent head start before we came after him. He wasn’t very hard to catch.”

“Oh.”

“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 raccoon-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 bode 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.

“Oh? Why?”

“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.

“Let’s 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 its 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 brainwave, 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 weightlifter, 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 its 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.”

 

End of the sample!

 

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