About a month ago, I introduced readers of this column to a few adventures I had while participating in a medical mission trip in the jungle of Brazil. I started the story by describing a simple fishing trip at Cowan Lake with my boys, and ended it by describing how to fix piranha for dinner in the jungles of the Amazon.
A few readers have talked with me about those experiences. They wanted to know more, especially after I mentioned that after fishing for piranha, we went on a night hunt for caiman. In most of the world caiman are called alligators; in the Amazon basin, they are called caiman.
Our group had not traveled to Brazil to enjoy jungle adventures: we were representing the University of Cincinnati on a medical mission trip. Many of our members were third- and fourth-year medical students.
Dr. Keith Holten led this annual mission trip. Our mission was to deliver medical care to the indigenous people that lived deep within the jungle. It was a wonderful, fulfilling experience.
On this trip, we just happened to be in the jungle over the Easter holiday. Rather than working from sunup to sundown, as we usually did, we took that Sunday off. Our morning started with a hot, messy, muddy hike into the jungle. That was followed by piranha fishing. After our dinner, many of us were looking forward to a night trip on the river to hunt for caiman.
I asked our jungle guide, Bagode, how the hunt was going to work. Through an interpreter he explained that we would use a spotlight to find them. When the spotlight hits their eyes, their eyes shine in the darkness.
I laughed and told Bagode that’s how we go frog gigging in Ohio. He laughed and said, “Well, this will be a little different. I doubt that a frog ever bit your finger off.”
I thought that was a good point.
The sun sets very quickly in the tropics. There is little twilight. Within minutes it goes from sunny to pitch black. As soon as it got dark, we loaded into the small boat for our adventure. Seven or eight people could sit comfortably in the small boat. That left room up front for Bagode to sit and shine the spotlight on the water.
The spotlight was as big as the headlight of a car and just as bright. Ado, one the Brazilians who knew the jungle very well and helped us every day with our clinics, sat in the back and ran the boat motor. When we came near a caiman, he would step over the other passengers to get up front to help Bagode.
That kept the “civilians” out of the way and made it easier for them to get their job done.
About a mile from the boat, we headed for a grassy shore. Bagode turned on the spotlight and shined the beam of light toward the shore. Small eyes started twinkling in the light. You could tell from the distance between their eyes about how big the caiman might be. Ado set the motor to idle and came up front.
My seat was immediately behind Bagode. I was glad about that. I was hoping to get a really good view of the action.
Ado spoke a little English. Through a thick accent, he told me that our first catch was going to be on his side of the boat. He said that he wanted to grab the gator just behind the head so he could control him.
Ado leaned forward. We sat quietly… waiting. Suddenly, out of the dark water came a thrashing caiman. Bagode put down the spotlight to give Ado a hand.
In the flurry of action, somehow the caiman snapped at Bagode and bit him on the shoulder. It must have been a “catch and release” day on the caiman’s part because he immediately let go.
Bagode said it was no big deal. He had been bitten much worse. Ado controlled the big reptile and allowed several of us to touch him and stroke him.
On to the next catch …
This time, the gleaming eyes were on Bagode’s side of the boat. He had the spotlight in his right hand. As we approached our target, Bogode leaned forward. He stretched out. He quickly caught the caiman, but instead of grabbing it just behind the head, he pulled it out of the water while holding him just in front of his back legs.
It was thrashing like wild. I expected Ado to help him then I realized that Ado had a lap-full of our first caiman. I leaned forward and asked Bagode if I could help.
I fully expected him to hand me the spotlight. Instead, he swung his caiman-filled left arm back toward me.
Fear, instinct, reflex or watching too many episodes of “The Crocodile Hunter” — I’m not sure which — but I moved my left hand under the gator’s belly up to his neck and hung on. My right hand and arm were on his back to keep him from squirming.
The next thing I knew, I had a 4-foot caiman cradled in my lap. I told Bogode, “I meant the spotlight.”
He had a hardy laugh and an ornery look in his eyes.
I guess the moral of this story would be, “In all circumstances, be careful what you ask for.”
Randy Riley is a former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.