Shades of Jaguar
By Francisco Alejandro Mendez
A Couple of Days Before
Tristan no longer observes with his eyes. Instead, he uses the lenses: a 28-105, 28-70 or 80-200 millimeters. Yes, it seems like the two Nikons have become a natural extension of his eyes. He has even told me that he would like a developing machine somewhere in his brain. He would rather have a dark room in his house than his stuffed garaged.
When we go out for news coverage, he carries his camera as a devout catholic carries a rosary. He kisses his camera. He whispers to this camera. I would even say he makes love wearing his camera. He takes it everywhere. He has even sprinkled it with holy water from the Cathedral. I’ve even seen it stained with blood. It happened the day we were covering a student protest. I was dictating my notes to a small tape recorder, as a group of students were throwing rocks at the cops. Tristan took cover behind an old Chevy. He was carrying, as he used to in his days of combat, two cameras. One had multi-speed film. The other had ASA 200 black and white film. A cop fell, wounded, at his feet. The cop had his faces busted. A rock had left its mark in his nose and his moustache. One of the students got near the cop to finish him up with another rock. Tristan looked at him. His finger remained tight on the camera button, and talked to the student, with authority:
“Pal, you’ve got him bad enough. Let him be. I’m gonna help him out of here”.
The young student agreed. But he picked up the blood stained rock that laid besides the cop, and said: “I’m going to hit another cop with this same rock”.
Tristan asked for my help. We dragged the wounded cop to the parking lot of pizza place. The Nikon, with the black and white film, was stained with blood. Tristan then ordered me to go back to the scene, since we had not finished our assignment. The front cover picture of the following day, to my surprise, showed a student carrying a wounded cop to an ambulance.
Each assignment with Tristan was a lesson for me. Those assignments were far better than a college class. My partner was convinced that photojournalism was an issue of the heart, not of the eyes. Many nights, as we dined in those cheap Chinese restaurants, after the dangerous hours of protests and riots, we dreamed of a piece that would bring us fame; a fame worthy of The Washington Post, El Pais, Le Monde, not the fame that we had as small time reporters from a small third world country newspaper. We’d toast for a better future.
One afternoon, we found ourselves on the archeological site of Dos Pilas, located in the tropical jungles of Peten. We were covering two things at once: a recent discovery by some American archeologist, whom we interviewed, and the land take over carried out in the vicinity by destitute peasants. They even had signs that said they were being supported by the guerrillas. We couldn’t get in to the site they had taken over. Tristan climbed up a Ceiba, the national tree. I saw him shoot three rolls of film with the Apo-Teyt-R 2, 8/400 millimeter, with a Leica. I gathered information on the peasant’s protest. One of them asked me to tell the camera man to stop taking pictures of them, because pictures stole a part of their spirit.
When we were done with the interviews, a boat took us down the Naranjo river. We relaxed and had some beer in a local hangout. The waitress there was a young, brown skinned and dark eye natural beauty. She offered to bring us stakes of tepezcuintle, deer or pecari, which we refused. We stared at each other but did not say a word. The walls were covered with heads of hunted animals: jaguars, margays, white tail deer and armadillos. There were also some stuffed animals: parrots, toucan, a wild turkey and a saraguate monkey.
With a spice of journalist’s malice, we asked the young woman where had they found all those animals. She did not answer but started flirting with us as she brought us our next round of beer. At one point, she asked us, with some flirtation malice, if we were foreign journalists. We emphatically said no. Then she asked us if we were national journalists, which we emphatically denied. So she asked us what did we do, and we answered, with journalist’s malice, that we were in the animal trade business.
“We take animals to the United States”.
Journalism had taught us when to tell the truth and when not to. It all depends on the lens you are looking at things: if it’s a big angular, a 200 with ultra-violet, a rotator f/2.8 x 28 mm.
The truth is that we did look like a pair of animal handlers. I, in particular, was always been taken for drug dealer or a pervert, while Tristan’s appearance was more ambiguous. Some said that he was Bob Marley’s or Tecun Uman’s relative.
We drank until night fall. The car we had rented was parked in a deserted lot besides the restaurant. Yet, a very old man came to look for us, claiming we owed him a parking fee and asking us to pull our car out of the lot because it was closing time for him. We were really taken, since the only thing in the lot, besides the car was mud, grown weeds and a goat. However, I walked with the old man to the lot and pulled the car out. Then I have him a couple of bucks and watched him as he disappeared into the night. As he was walking away, I heard him say something about how funny it was how we pretended not to be journalists. I sensed that he had just flown away, but I thought I was just drunk.
When I got back to the restaurant, Tristan was already making out with the waitress. He told me, with journalist’s malice, that Dalila’s, the waitress’ husband was a jaguar hunter. “He’s out hunting today, but she claims that he’ll take us with him next time, if we pay his fee”.
When Dalila went to get us more beer, Tristan told me that this could be the ground breaking piece we had been waiting for. He was probably right. Tristan had a great news instinct. An instinct that could only be compared to a falling cat: he always lands in its four paws.
I told him about how the old man had flown away as he said that we were really journalists.
“I think it’s time to go, because you’re drunk. If you want to become a writer, that’s fine with me, but go easy on the imagination side” he told me.
Tristan ordered some beer to go. Before leaving, he hugged Dalila. And then we left.
The Following Day
The river was quiet at dawn. I, however, had a horrible hangover. I suffer from hangovers. Sometimes it’s enough to just open my eyes. I see humming birds all over. I run to the toilet and vomit. I even vomit blood. I’ve already told Jose Maria that I only have a couple of years more of life to do what I like: taking pictures. More than intuition or, as my friends says, journalist’s instinct, it is the certainty that soon my guts will explode and I will leave this world.
Sometimes, like today, I get up with a smile on my face. I whistle and sing a little tango, or a cowboy song, or even Luna de Xelaju. Even though beer has ruined my stomach, the certainty that this will be a great day beats my hangover.
Jose Maria went out for a walk. That young man is a real son of a bitch. I meant that as praise, not as an insult. I’ll never forget our first assignment. He was very young, recently married and with ambition to become a Mayan Graham Greene. We traveled to a volcano were the guerrillas and the army were engaged in battle. It was Jose Maria’s debut: an excellent exclusive. Since we didn’t have a car, we rented a taxi for a very high price. As soon as he heard the gun shots, the taxi driver stopped. We got out running while the taxi ran away. An army officer approached us. Before he said anything, I told him: “take us to the scene. I have to take the picture that will circle the world tomorrow”.
At that time, I was working for a European news agency, besides my usual job for the local paper. The officer asked if his face would appear in the picture. I said yes and he gave us a ride in his tank. I told Jose Maria to question him about the combat, but he was quite uneasy. I remembered that Jose Maria had been part of a University Student Union and he probably sympathized with the guerrilla. But he had to hold strong and get the information. Even though I don’t like to use it, I shot some pictures on automatic while on the tank. I felt than we had not moved very much, when the officer ordered us out. We had reached almost the neck of the volcano. Smoke was coming out from the peasants’ ranches. There were bodies of dead indigenous all over. You could hear people weeping.
“Look at what these bastards did”, the officer lied to us. Jose Maria ran to the bodies. I took some pictures of the smoke and of the night. For almost an hour I shot pictures, until I heard the footsteps of the officer. He took his helmet off and, with a gesture of regret and pride, crossed the M-16 over his lap as he sat on a big round rock. One of the children approached the officer, with fear. He let the kid approach him, with a mix of terror and shame. The kid put the helmet on. I captured the scene in my last ASA 1600 picture. The image I saw expressed more than what death all around us could.
When we got back to the paper, Jose Maria started crying. I developed the rolls of film and wired the European agency I also worked for. I talked to the chief and presented him with the pictures, with the dead bodies. I also showed him the picture I had sent the agency: the one with the kid. I asked about the written report. The editor told me that Jose Maria had quit and disappeared as a ghost to Francisca’s bar, a strategic hangout for journalists. I took my equipment and got out of the paper. Jose Maria had drunk two thirds of a rum bottle in a single shot. A pair of red eyes invited me to sit next to him. “Don’t worry, my son”, I told him while I ordered a drink. Since then, I knew he would be a good partner in the street, in the bars, wherever we were sent.
Whenever I woke up in some hotel or camp, in the country or abroad, Jose Maria’s bed was already empty. Sober, with a hangover, angry or whatever his emotional state, he was always an early riser. He would get up early to read a novel or short stories. I don’t like novels or short stories, but I know that kid will get somewhere reading from them. What I found out later was that Jose Maria always hid his weed in the book he was carrying. And that was what got me close to his reading habit.
That explains the reason why now that I am having breakfast and I don’t see him around, I know that he must be on some personal trip. I am sure he’ll be here before I finish my scrawled eggs with black beans, cheese, cream, hot tortillas and a tall glass of papaya juice.
More than two hours later, Jose Maria has not yet shown up. However, Rosario, Dalila’s husband, the hunter, has. With the same slickness that he must use hunting, he approached the table where I was having breakfast. He introduced himself and then asked me about what sort of deal I was offering him:
“Look, son, it’s very simple. We need to hunt with you. You’ll get your pay and in exchange, we won’t shoot the jaguars. Get it? We want pictures of them. That’s all. How much would it be for your trouble?”
“I knew this was some kind of trap. That Dalila bitch is going to pay for this”, he said as he got up from the table.
“Sit, my friend”, I told him while I held his arm and walked to him to a bench. “It’s simple. Tell me your price. We need a good news piece. Your name will never be mentioned, but we won’t allow the jaguars to be shot. How much do you charge for a skin?,” I asked while I showed him my billfold full of dollars; well, full of one dollar bills.
He told me that he hunted those animals for survival. He used to work the nearby fincas for a miserable wage. That’s why he rather work with nature and see what it would offer him. “I understand completely”, I said with kindness. I asked him to save his explanations. “I am not here to judge you”, I insisted as Jose Maria showed up with a couple of beers, a plate of jocotes, a novel and his smiling face.
“Let me introduce you to Rosario, the man who will takes us to the jaguars”, I told him. He, as usual, greeted him very kindly, tapped him on the back and asked him: “when are we leaving? By the way, you are going to make some money without killing any animals”.
Rosario felt pressured. He refused to take us over and over. He told us we were setting a trap for him or that we were part of an ecological group seeking vengeance. “None of that”, explained Jose Maria, who went to get more beer. We then explained our idea to Rosario. We offered him some good money and we assured him that we would never reveal his identity. Rosario asked about how we would sell the article, how would we write it and so forth. We answered all of his questions with journalist’s sincerity, until he asked us if he could sleep on it. He would tell us the conditions and price in the morning.
A Year Later
Tristan and I traveled to Cuba. Were we covering the Pope’s arrival in Havana? Or were we covering the beatification of Fidel? Well, the first topic actually but, to tell the truth, neither. But the event sure got a lot of international attention. We had visited the island before. We had interviewed Fidel a couple of years back. We had also interviewed a lot of public officials, musicians, dancers and sport personalities. With the years, we would meet them again, no longer in Cuba, some of them no longer speaking Spanish but English. However, we had a lot of “exclusive” moments in Havana.
One afternoon, after drinking a couple of “mojitos” in a park down town, we decided to buy some books. We met a couple of Cubans offering their priced books.
“Alejo Carpentier”, a man offered. When Tristan asked who he was, I replied I’ve already read all his work.
“Lezama Lima”, said another while shoving Paradiso in my face. I’ve read it, I said. And the men continued with the official list of writers of the Cuban Revolution. I got tired of the harassment and asked: “Who has books by Reinaldo Arenas or Virgilio Pineira?”. They all ran away as if I had threaten them. One of them, however, stayed behind and asked me to go to a little bar down the corner, he’d meet us there. About fifteen minutes later, he showed up and said:
“Chico, I have the best book you’ll ever get. This book that you see here is half of the original. It so happens that my house is next to the house of the Czechoslovakian Ambassador. One afternoon, Che shows up. I was smoking a cigar in the garden, when I heard Che going over the Ambassador’s book next door. What is the book of that asshole doing here?, shouted Che. He grabbed the book and started tearing away the short stories that he disliked, leaving only the ones he cared about. Then, Che left the house. The Ambassador threw the book in the garbage. When it was night, I pulled it out and here it is: Pineria’s book exactly as Che left it. The stories that are missing certainly aren’t worth the trouble”.
I asked him how much was he asking for the book, and he said: fifty dollars. I said I would pay that amount if he got the whole book. But I had liked the guy, so I invited him to some beers. After the fifth beer, he gave me his book away.
Fifteen Days Later
Tristan prepared his gear as he would be preparing for death. While I finished drinking a bottle of gin, he put away cameras, lenses, film, flashes, batteries, tripods, a source of cold light, a Virgen of Guadalupe T-shirt and some survival gear. Rosario asked us not to bring insect repellent, since that smell would warn the jaguars away. We purchased an odor called Bobcat Urine, which we order through Cronk’s Outdoors Supplies, a mailing address located in Maine. The hunter had warned us that once in the jungle, we had to kill a couple of monkeys to use for bait, and in case we got hungry. I couldn’t think about eating monkey, so contradicting Rosario’s order we took some cans of tuna, beans, and sweet corn. I took a digital and a mechanical camera. A tape recorder, some whisky, gin and cigars completed my gear. My younger brother made me take his gun; “you never know”, he said. Tristan also brought two tear gas bombs, God knows why.
The plane tickets were ready. We had reserved two vehicles in Flores, Peten’s main town. There was a boat, three horses and a couple of mules ready to take us into the depths of the jungle.
We had even joined a gym some weeks before, to prepare. I made a promise, which I didn’t keep, to quit smoking and drinking. But when I saw that my partner was actually in good shape, I threw away all the liquor I had in my apartment, and I gave away all my dope to a poet I know. I even stop visiting a lover I had.
I can’t explain what was happening to me. All those weeks prior to our trip, we kept it as a secret. Tristan had left the news agency, so his family was all he had left. He would ask his little girl what jaguars eat. She looked it up in some books. She would answer pecari or iguana, and my colleague would say cold, cold, cold. One afternoon, as she came back from school, she told him: “I know dad. They eat journalists”. Tristan smiled kindly.
Eight Days Before
The flight to Flores was horrible. We boarded the plane. Tristan has always been scared of flying. He’d get drunk before boarding a plane. During all the years we worked together, he always behaved in the same manner. Once we flew a small plane to take pictures of the forest fires in Peten. The pilot was a good friend. So I winked to him and the followed my lead. We wanted to tease Tristan. All of the sudden, the pilot stared at us, surprised, and asked if we knew where we were, because he had gotten lost. My friend became transparent. His hair was even turning white. So we had to tell him it was just a joke. He became angry. A couple of days later, he scared the heck out of me. He hid inside my room closet while I was out. When I returned, I thought I was alone. I opened a beer, and started watching TV. He stayed still for a very long time. A bit later, I got up to pee. As soon as I turned my back on the closet, he let out a huge yell and jumped out. I jumped into the shower and screamed like mad. Tristan had a huge laugh and called ourselves even.
More than work together, we had the common pastime of doing interviews and taking pictures. Tristan disliked flying and I disliked rats. He couldn’t stand homosexuals and I couldn’t stand politicians. I couldn’t tolerated the military and he couldn’t either. I loved bars and he loved young women. I hated mediocrity and he hated the mediocre journalist mercenaries, which was the same. I loved bar pools and he hated taking pictures with flash. I loved interviewing a great writer but he hated interviewing some guerilla leader in an Oxford suit. I loved the sunrise in the Pacific coast, and he hated taking pictures ordered by an editor that had never being a street reporter. I rather interview a madman than another presidential candidate and he loved Chicken Curry from the sleaziest Chinese restaurants. Tristan loved taking pictures and I craved for writing a news story in which every sentence rang true.
The pilot ordered to buckle our seat belts and told us the flight to Flores would take 45 minutes. Tristan got weary. I asked for a shot of rum. We didn’t speak to each other for the whole flight. The sky was full of clouds. The plane shook. Tristan yelled that we’d better return to the city, but the pilot said we did not have enough fuel to do so. We had to land. When we were about to, a cow crossed the landing strip. We had to try to land once more. We had not gotten over the scare, when we got into the rented vehicle. We had to stop for some beer. Then, we drove for eight hours. The heat was everywhere. The Mayan jungle welcomed us with maximum deforestation. Tristan and I started drinking from a bottle of rum. He asked me if I was totally sure of this coverage:
“I know we are going to put ourselves in great danger, but we have to do it.” After I told him so, I grew quiet. I remembered the afternoons we had spent at the Aurora zoo watching the tigers, the lions, and the jaguars. We had a friend who worked as a veterinarian, who advised us on cats. One afternoon we walked into the panther’s cage. Even though the feline stayed behind an iron cage, its force appears sufficient to brake free at anytime it wanted to. I thought I’d be the first to be eaten. I had had a Pepian for lunch and I was sure the cat could smell my fear flavored by chicken, pepitoria, sesame seeds, garlic, tomatoes, vegetables and cacao. Tristan never feared. If someone would have been testing us, I’d have flunked. I was covered in sweat. Even my shoes got wet. Tristan even dared to get close to the panther to take a picture with a 28 mm, the one used for portraits. The vet told us that the panther’s favorite food is pecari, an animal that leaves a strong smell behind. The panther likes to hunt it down near muddy waters. It also preys on coati, a dumb animal that goes through the leaves, sticks and stones with its large nose; sometimes it’s able to run up the trees, but sometimes it serves as desert.
It was weird. Now that we were heading to the jungle, to the real home of the jaguars, I thought about my terrifying experience at the zoo. When I was in the panther’s cage, I thought about the jungle. None of the relations that my brain made coincided with each other. Maybe the only place they could converge would be in literature. Reality, as Huxley used to claim, is stronger than fiction.
Tristan took the bottle of rum and said he was happy we had decided to do the report. We were still a couple of hours away from the river, when we started talking about who would pay for such report. Maybe this was our best opportunity to reach fame. I wish Jacques Cousteau would’ve come with us, Tristan said.
Rosario greeted us, happily. We boarded his small boat, with a little regret, since my partner demanded to use a lifesaver, but Rosario had never used one in his life. I had a smoke while the night begun to fall. Crocodiles, invisible splashes, mosquito and a little breeze became part of the scenery. Rosario was standing up, lighting the way with a flashlight. It was also a courtesy for other boat drivers.
We reached our destiny by dawn. We paid the boat driver and asked him to come back for us in ten days. A group of local dwellers came out to greet us. Their skin was burnt by the sun. They showed us hospitability. They even had some front page pictures taken by Tristan. We were shown to a ranch. We had fish and tortilla for breakfast. Underneath the table, a couple of dogs fought for the fishes’ spines. I’ve always been amazed how common dogs eat fish with more precision than cats, but pedigree dogs have trouble even with their dog food.
Rosario asked us to eat in a hurry. He wanted us to get going as soon as possible. Three horses, two mules, Rosario, a helper and we were the exploration crew. Tristan took some pictures of the mules, since they carried some dead monkeys. It was a grotesque scene, but the monkeys were sort of smiling in a weird way. Rosario stopped to gaze at some excrement pile. He even kept some of it inside his pack. He told us the shit is to be submerged in detergent for a day. Then it’s drained and left to dry. If it was fur, teeth, iguana’s scales, armadillo’s nails or feathers, it is jaguar’s shit. I then asked Tristan to take a picture of me in front of the mules. For the first time, looking at shit, I felt inside the jaguar’s hunting ground.
That Very Day
I’m leaning against some tree house, where we have stayed for the past couple of days. Jose Maria is half sleep next to me. Rosario hasn’t slept at all. The dead monkey’s bodies hang from a nearby branch, but the jaguar’s have not shown up yet. We heard some loud roars yesterday. We thought it was jaguars alright, but Rosario said that it could be hollering monkeys angry at the death of their friends. The helper had gone away with the horses and the mules a couple of days ago. That was our last chance to get the heck out. But neither Jose Maria nor I wanted out by now. Yesterday night, we spotted a couple of margays. We got great pictures of them. These cats seemed painted by a great artist. I prayed to the Virgin before I snapped my pictures. As soon as the cats noticed us, they flee. Two nights ago, it was a group of armadillos. Tristan elbowed me. I gave him the lenses he was asking for. Jose Maria shot a few rolls of film then, as practice. The tree house is very uncomfortable and we are not allowed to pee or poop. The smell would give us away.
That Same Day
The time spent in the tree house has caused me all sorts of feelings: happiness, sadness, tears, laughter and panic. I have become a self of multiple emotional states. The animal pictures we have taken, the scarce meals we’ve had. I love my work, but sometimes I grow tired of it. I feel the need to be more like Rosario, a hunter not of beasts but of words. I wish I had Tristan’s gift to capture the sublime moments of sadness, of happiness, of war or peace, the smile of a child or the face of a congressman. I would love to have the freedom of these wild animals. Rosario gives us the signal, the long awaited signal: the jaguars are here…
Tristan and I, Jose Maria and I, observe their gorgeous spotted skin as it flashes in the darkness. Tristan started to shoot pictures. I felt nervous. I watch how Jose Maria moved about and asked him to relax because this was it. Rosario pulled out his gun. We both saw him. His attitude relaxed us, but it also freaked us out. One of the yellow spotted skin jumped towards the dead monkeys and torn it in half. Tristan shot pictures. Jose Maria trembled. We didn’t need a flash. Everything was happening as we had not planned. Rosario threw some meat. The jaguars were feasting. My friend was taking pictures like mad, moving about, moving all over, until he fell. I felt a horrible fear. I saw him smile. I could not see if the jaguars were attacking him or eating him. I tried to grab Rosario’s gun, but fell instead. I was falling towards the ground. I just kept on shooting pictures. A jaguar turned and looked straight at me. I held my breath and shot pictures as the cat jumped over me and was swallowed by the darkness. I’m fine, I shouted. Jose Maria, we got the pictures we wanted.
Four Days Later
Tristan did not want to stop at the hospital in Santa Elena. We flew straight back to the city. When we departed, we asked Rosario not to shoot anymore jaguars. He promised us not to, with a grin on his face. He was happy. It had been the hunt of his life, he told us.
In the city, we stopped at the doctor’s. Tristan needed some stitches. Then we went straight to his home, to the little room Tristan has turned into his lab. When we got home, Tristan and his wife were kind to each other. She even decided to order pizza for us. She just told us we smelled horrible, and begged us to clean up. But we went into the dark room and started developing the films. We came out for pizza and beer. Then we went back into the lab. We started to look at the pictures as they were coming out. Every detail was there, but the animals. There were no margays, no armadillos, no birds, no crocodiles, much less the jaguars. No animal in any picture. We saw that in the negatives and in the pictures themselves another reality, a reality that had escaped us:
“They are all dead by now”, Tristan said with a broken heart.
Translated by Ronald Flores