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THE CUSTOMS OF THE COUNTRY

When you have a large collection of animals to transport from one end of the world to the other you cannot, as a lot of people seem to think, just hoist them aboard the nearest ship and set off with a gay wave of your hand. There is slightly more to it than this. Your first problem is to find a shipping company who will agree to carry animals. Most shipping people, when you mention the words "animal cargo" to them grow pale, and get vivid mental pictures of the Captain being eviscerated on the bridge by a jaguar, the First Officer being slowly crushed in the coils of some enormous snake, while the passengers are pursued from one end of the ship to the other by a host of repulsive and deadly beasts of various species. Shipping people, on the whole, seem to be under the impression you want to travel on one of their ships for the sole purpose of releasing all the creatures, which you have spent six hard months collecting.

Once, however, you have surmounted this psychological hurdle, there are still many problems. There are consultations with the Chief Steward as to how much refrigerator space you can have for your meat, fish and eggs, without starving the passengers in consequence; the Chief Officer and the Bosun[453] have to be consulted on where and how your cages are to be stacked, and how they are to be secured for rough weather, and how many ship's tarpaulins you can borrow. Then you pay a formal call on the Captain and, generally over a gin, you tell him (almost with tears in your eyes) you will be so little trouble aboard that he won't even notice you are there – a statement which neither he nor you believe. But, most important of all, you generally have to have your collection ready for embarkation a good ten days or so before the ship is scheduled to leave, for a number of things may happen in some ports that will put the sailing date forward, or, more irritatingly, backward, and you have to be on the spot to receive your orders. The end of a trip is, then, the most harrowing, frustrating, tiring and frightening part. When people ask me about the "dangers" of my trips I am always tempted to say that the "dangers" of the forest pale into insignificance[454] as compared with the dangers of being stranded in a remote part of the world with a collection of a hundred and fifty animals to feed, and your money running out.

However, we had now, it seemed, surmounted all these obstacles. A ship had been procured, consultations with the people on board had been satisfactory, food for the animals had been ordered, and everything appeared to be running smoothly. It was at this precise juncture that Juanita, the baby peccary, decided to liven up life for us by catching pneumonia.

The animals, as I have said, were now in a huge shed in the Museum grounds, which had no heating. While this did not appear to worry any of the other animals unduly (although it was the beginning of the Argentine winter and getting progressively colder) Juanita decided to be different. Without so much as a preliminary cough to warn us, Juanita succumbed. In the morning she was full of beans,[455] and devoured her food avidly; in the evening, when we went to cover the animals for the night, she looked decidedly queer. She was, for one thing, leaning against the side of her box as if for support, her eyes half-closed, her breathing rapid and rattling in her throat. Hastily I opened the door of the cage and called her. She made a tremendous effort, stood upright shakily, tottered out of the cage and collapsed in my arms. It was in the best cinematic tradition, but rather frightening. As I held her I could hear her breath wheezing and bubbling in her tiny chest, and her body lay in my arms limp and cold.

In order to husband[456] our rapidly decreasing money supplies two friends in Buenos Aires had rallied round and allowed Sophie and me to stay in their respective flats, in order to save on hotel bills. So, while Sophie was ensconced in the flat of Blondie Maitland-Harriot, I was occupying a camp-bed in the flat of one David Jones. At the moment when I discovered Juanita's condition David was with me. As I wrapped her up in my coat I did some rapid thinking. The animal had to have warmth, and plenty of it. But I knew we could not provide it in that great tin bam, even if we lit a bonfire like the Great Fire of London.[457] Blondie already had a sick parrot of mine meditatively chewing the wallpaper off the bathroom in her flat, and I felt it was really carrying friendship too far to ask if I could introduce a peccary as well into her beautifully appointed[458] flat. David had now returned at the double[459] from the Land-Rover whence he had gone to get a blanket to wrap the pig in. In one hand he was clasping a half-bottle of brandy.

"This any good?" he inquired, as I swaddled Juanita in the blanket.

"Yes, wonderful. Look, heat a drop of milk on the spirit stove and mix a teaspoonful of brandy with it, will you?"

While David did this, Juanita, almost invisible in her cocoon of blanket and coat, coughed alarmingly. Eventually, the brandy and milk were ready, and I managed to get two spoonfuls down her throat, though it was a hard job, for she was almost unconscious.

"Anything else we can do," said David hopefully, for, like me, he had grown tremendously fond of the little pig.

"Yes, she's got to have a whacking great shot[460] of penicillin and much warmth and fresh air as she can get."

I looked at him hopefully.

"Let's take her back to the flat," said David, as I had hoped he would. We wasted no more time. The Land-Rover sped through the rain-glistening streets at a dangerous pace, and how we arrived at the flat intact was a miracle. While I hurried upstairs with Juanita, David rushed round to Blondie's flat, for there Sophie had our medicine chest with the penicillin and the hypodermic syringes.

I laid the by now completely unconscious Juanita on David's sofa, and although the flat was warm with the central heating, I turned on the electric fire as well, and then opened all the windows that would not create draughts. David was back in an incredibly short space of time, and rapidly we boiled the hypodermic and then I gave Juanita the biggest dose of penicillin I dared. It was, almost, kill or cure,[461] for I had never used penicillin on a peccary before, and for all I knew[462] they might he allergic to it.[463] Then, for an hour, we sat and watched her. At the end of that time I persuaded myself that her breathing was a little easier, but she was still unconscious and I knew she was a very long way from recovery.

"Look," said David, when I had listened to Juanita's chest for the fourteen-hundredth time, "are we doing any good, just sitting here looking at her?"

"No," I said reluctantly, "I don't think we'll really see any change for about three or four hours, if then. She's right out[464] at the moment, but I think the brandy has a certain amount to do with that."

"Well," said David practically, "let's go and get something to eat at Olly's. I don't know about you, but I'm hungry. We needn't be more that three-quarters of an hour."

"O. K.," I said reluctantly, "I suppose you're right".

So, having made sure that Juanita was comfortable and that the electric fire could not set fire to her blankets, we drove down to Olly's Music Bar in 25 de Mayo, which is a street that runs along what used to be the old waterfront of Buenos Aires. It is a street lined with tiny clubs, some of which have the most delightful names like "My Desire", "The Blue Moon Hall of Beauties", and, perhaps slightly more mysteriously, "Joe's Terrific[465] Display".

It was not the sort of street a respectable man would be seen in, but I had long ceased to worry about respectability. With my various friends we had visited most of these tiny, dark, smoky bars, and drunk drinks of minute size and colossal price, and watched the female "hostesses"[466] at their age-old work. But, of all the bars, the one we liked best was Olly's Music Bar, and we always made this our port of call.[467] There were many reasons for liking Olly's. Firstly, was the walnut-wrinkled Olly himself and his lovely wife. Secondly, Olly not only gave you fair measure in your glass, but frequently stood you a drink[468] himself. Thirdly, his bar was well-lit, so that you could actually see your companions; in the other bars you would have had to be a bat or an owl to observe clearly. Fourthly, his hostesses were not allowed to irritate you by constantly suggesting you bought them drinks, and fifthly, there was a brother and sister with a guitar who sang and played delightfully. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I have seen the hostesses at Olly's, when their night's work was done, kiss Olly and his wife goodnight as tenderly as if they had been the girls' parents.

So David and I made our way down the stairs into Olly's and were greeted with delight by Olly and his wife. The reason for our depression being explained the whole bar was full of commiseration; Olly stood us both a large vodka, and the hostesses gathered round us to tell us they were sure Juanita would get well, and generally tried to cheer us up. But, as we stood there eating hot sausages and sandwiches and consuming vodka, not even the gay carnavalitos[469] the brother and sister played and sang specially for us could cure my depression. I felt sure that Juanita was going to die, and I had grown absurdly fond of the little creature. Eventually, when we had eaten and drunk, we said goodbye and climbed the steps that led to the road.

"Come tomorrow and tell us how the animal is," called Olly.

"Si, si" said the hostesses, like a Greek chorus, "come tomorrow and tell us how the pobrecita[470] is."

By the time we had got back to David's flat I was convinced that we should find Juanita dead. When we went into the living-room I gazed at the pile of blankets on the sofa, and had to force myself to go and look. I lifted one corner of the blanket gently and a twinkling dark eye gazed up at me lovingly, while a pink plunger-shaped nose wiffled, and a faint, very faint, grunt of pleasure came from the invalid.

"Good God, she's better," said David incredulously.

"A bit," I said cautiously. "She's not out of danger yet, but I think there's a bit of hope."

As if to second this Juanita gave another grunt.

In order to make sure that Juanita did not kick off her blanket during the night and make her condition worse I took her to bed with me on the sofa. She lay very quietly across my chest and slept deeply. Though her breathing was still wheezy it had lost that awful rasping sound which you could hear with each breath she took to begin with. I was awoken the following morning by a cold, rubbery nose being pushed into my eye, and hearing Juanita's wheezy grunts of greeting, I unwrapped her and saw she was a different animal. Her eyes were bright, her temperature was normal, her breathing was still wheezy, but much more even, and, best of all, she even stood up for a brief, wobbly moment. From then she never looked back.[471] She got better by leaps and bounds,[472] but the better she felt the worse patient she made. As soon as she could walk without falling over every two steps, she insisted on spending the day trotting about the room, and was most indignant because I made her wear a small blanket, safety-pinned under her chin, like a cloak. She ate like a horse, and we showered delicacies on her. But it was during the nights that I found her particularly trying. She thought this business of sleeping with me a terrific idea, and, flattering though this was, I did not agree. We seemed to have different ideas about the purposes for which one went to bed. I went in order to sleep, while Juanita thought it was the best time of the day for a glorious romp. A baby peccary's tusks and hooves are extremely sharp, and their noses are hard, rubbery and moist, and to have all these three weapons applied to one's anatomy when one is trying to drift off into a peaceful sleep is trying, to put it mildly. Sometimes she would do a sort of porcine[473] tango with her sharp hooves along my stomach and chest, and at other times she would simply chase her tail round and round, until I began to fell like the unfortunate victim in The Pit and the Pendulum[474] She would occasionally break off her little dance in order to come and stick her wet nose into my eye, to see how I was enjoying it. At other times she would become obsessed with the idea that I had, concealed about my person somewhere, a rare delicacy. It may have been truffles for all know, but whatever it was she would make a thorough search with nose, tusks and hooves, grunting shrilly and peevishly when she couldn't find anything. Round about three a. m. she would sink into a deep, untroubled sleep. Then, at five-thirty, she would take a quick gallop up and down my body to make sure I woke up in good shape. This lasted for four soul-scaring nights, until I felt she was sufficiently recovered, and then I banished her to a box at night, to her intense and vocal indignation.

I had only just pulled Juanita round[475] in time, for no sooner was she better that we got a message to say that the ship was ready to leave. I would have hated to have undertaken a voyage with Juanita as sick as she had been, for I am sure she would have died.

So, on the appointed day, our two lorry-loads of equipment and animal-cages rolled down to the dock, followed by the Land-Rover, and then began the prolonged and exhausting business of hoisting the animals on board, and arranging the cages in their places on the hatch. This is always a nerve-racking time, for as the great nets, piled high with cages, soar into the air, you are always convinced that a rope is going to break and deposit your precious animals either into the sea or else in a mangled heap on the dockside. But, by the evening, the last cage was safely aboard, and the last piece of equipment stowed away in the hold, and we could relax.

All our friends were there to see us off, and, if in one or two people's eyes was a semi-repressed expression of relief, who was to blame them, for I had made martyrs of them all in one way or another. However, we were all exhausted but relaxed, ploughing our way through a series of bottles I had had the foresight to order in my cabin. Everything was on board, everything was safe, and now all we had to do was to have a farewell drink, for in an hour the ship was sailing. Just as I was replenishing everyone's glass for the fifth toast, a little man in Customs uniform appeared in the cabin doorway, rustling a sheaf of papers. I gazed at him fondly, without any premonition of danger.

"Se~nor Durrell?" he asked politely.

"Se~nor Garcia?" I inquired.

"Si," he said, flushing with pleasure that I should know his name, "I am Se~nor Garcia of the Aduana…"

It was Marie who scented danger.

"Is anything wrong?" she asked.

"Si, si, se~norita, the se~nor's papers are all in order, but they have not been signed by a despachante."[476]

"What on earth's a despachante?" I asked.

"It is sort of man," said Marie worriedly, and turned back to the little Customs man, "But is this essential, senior?"

"Si, se~norita" he said gravely, "without the despachante's signature we cannot let the animals be taken. They will have to be unloaded."

I felt as though someone had removed my entire stomach in one piece, for we had about three-quarters of an hour.

"But is there no despachante here who will sign it?" asked Marie.

"Se~norita, it is late, they have all gone home," said Se~nor Garcia.

This is, of course, the sort of situation, which takes about twenty years off your life. I could imagine the shipping company's reaction if we now went to them and told them that, instead of gaily casting off for England in an hour's time, they would be delayed five hours or so while they unloaded all my animals from the hatch, and, what was worse, all my equipment and the Land-Rover which were deep in the bowels of the ship. But by now my friends, unfortunate creatures, were used to crises like this, and they immediately burst into activity. Mercedes, Josefina, Rafael and David went to argue with the Chief of Customs on duty, while Willie Anderson, another friend of ours, went off with Marie to the private home of a despachante he knew. This was on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, so they would have to drive like the devil to get back in time. The happy farewell party burst like a bomb and our friends all fled in different directions. Sophie and I could only wait and hope, while I mentally rehearsed how I would phrase the news to the Captain, without being seriously maimed, if we had to unload everything.

Presently the party who had been arguing with the Chief of Customs returned despondently.

"No use," said David, "he's adamant. No signature, no departure."

We had twenty minutes to go.[477] At that moment we heard a car screech to a halt on the docks outside. We piled out on to the deck, and there, coming up the gangway, smiling triumphantly, were Marie and Willie, waving the necessary documents, all beautifully signed by what must be the finest, noblest despachante in the business. So, with ten minutes to go we all had a drink. I even gave Se~nor Garcia one.

Then the steward poked his head in to say that we would be casting off in a moment, and we trooped on to the deck. We said our goodbyes, and our tribe of friends made their way down on to the quay. Ropes were cast off, and slowly the gap between the ship and the dock widened, so that we could see the shuddering reflection of the quay lights in the dark waters. Presently the ship gained speed, and soon our friends were lost to sight, and all we could see was the great heap of multicoloured lights that was Buenos Aries.

As we turned away from the rail and made our way to our cabins, I remembered Darwin's words, written a century before. When speaking of the travelling naturalist he said: "He will discover how many truly kind-hearted people there are with whom he had never before had, or ever again will have, any further communication, who yet are ready to offer him most disinterested assistance."


Chapter Eight A WAGON-LOAD OF BICHOS | The Whispering Land | STOP PRESS [478]



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