FOREWORD: The below story happened well over a month ago when I entered Brazil with little Portuguese and even less knowledge about the Pantanal, a swamp region near the Bolivian border with the highest concentration of large animals in South America.
The security guard slunk low across the gravel in three foot intervals. At each pause, he sniffed the air, then slowly scanned the bushes that ran the length of the road toward the feed silos and tractors he was paid to protect. His one-room station at the entrance seemed tiny compared to the massive structures that stored the grains plucked from the surrounding fertile lands. The faint outline of each tin silo was an export-hungry continent; Asias, Europes, and Africas waiting in line in at the cafeteria. Moon illuminated nearby tree tops; the rest was dark, flat, deceptionally calm; a typical windless Pantanal night.
When he finally stepped back into the lamp light that glowed like a life raft around the station I could see his index finger and thumb now formed a circle. With careful precision, he sponged imaginary spots across his torso so artistically that I began to see black stains where his hand landed on skin, each unique, with a personality of its own. I gathered he meant ‘leopard.’ His open face, sucked back eyes, and gaping mouth was an obvious attempt to scare, but the daintiness of his show, his comical pauses to pull the night into his nose, the way he walked back to our orange glow with an expectation of gratitude, like an actor who milks standing ovations with unhurried bows, did not paralyze me with fear. It had quite the opposite effect: my mind became an Animal Planet re-run, snow leopards pouncing across a tundra, a romp of cute kittens with clawless paws.
“Pantera negra”—that was an easier one. Seeing that I understood and knowing that my chances of meeting this mythical creature were slim, he didn’t bother to scratch the air or paint himself black. Satisfied with our successful communication, we looked out in silence at the night that seemed to increase the panther’s size, strength, and hunger, as if imagining it made it so.
The next charade proved more difficult—something about “ounces”—complete with growls and aggressive stares, but frankly I was losing interest. The moon was a nightlight upon the road that all day had been striped construction barrels and cars impatient with their one-lane progress. Now the highway was empty, not even a headlight on the horizon. I wanted to explore; the silence called to me like a siren.
With my gear tucked inside the security post where I had been given floor space for the night, I walked from the gravel road to the main highway. The asphalt was noticeably warmer; its heat rose to head level, erasing the deep chill that only minutes before made me question my decision to give away all my warm weather clothes before entering “tropical” Brazil. To my right, about half a mile down the highway, a generator pumped electricity into a single light bulb fastened to a stop sign, the capital letters like an alien omen in a low-hanging sky. A person was propped against some object, smoking or swatting at insects; no other details were decipherable from so far away.
To my left, without lights for depth perception, the Pantanal stretched to vanishing points as numerous as atoms. Where moonlight mixed with the scenery trees were grey; bushes were objects of questionable existence, their outer layers a lighter shade of obscurity, their insides hollow and ghost-like. The harder I stared, the more ephemeral they became, until differentiating between plants and animals and imaginary things became impossible.
It was during this eye-game that I noticed an object moving on the road; a large muscle mass that was definitely not bush. The release of fight-or-flight chemicals was a cool trickle at first, then spiraled out of control, spreading toes upward, as the distance between the animal and I narrowed from a safe anonymity to a few intimate yards. Fight, it seemed, had been decided as I waited for the whites of its eyes with clutched fists.
“Oi,” said a shadow.
Oi, I replied.
His name was Roberto, an eighteen-year-old construction worker whose job was to slow approaching cars with high-powered glow sticks, the same ones used to direct airplanes on runways. In the darkness his tools hung from each hand like pistols; he was saving batteries since cars were few and far in the morning hours. After some smalltalk with he on one side of the road and I on the other—this the appropriate personal space when meeting strangers on highways past midnight—, a coffee break was the only next reasonable thing to do. In Brazil, strangers don’t stay strangers for long. Roberto and I walked together toward the opposite end of the highway, toward the human outline below the make-shift lighthouse, his glow sticks clicking on, off, on, off in rhythm with our steps.
Roberto’s co-worker, João, who it turns out was both smoking and swatting insects, poured me a small cup of coffee from a plastic Thermos so big in comparison that it looked like a fertilizer container. Immediately, with a motherly concern uncommon in men, especially men of his macho position, João began to list all the animals that could kill me in the Pantanal.
“There are lots of snakes,” he began, then, as if working through a math equation, provided proof by listing different species in order of deadly to most deadly according to their venom. “We have bugs that your doctors have never heard of”—a proud smirk, the smile of David retelling Goliath’s fall to bar buddies—“but they only kill you years after being bitten.” João had mastered living in the present. He looked around. “Big cats are everywhere too, especially ‘onzas.'”
“Onzas?” I asked. My only way to contextualize his attempt in Portuguese to save my life was the Spanish equivalent: ounces. Roberto, now aiming the enormous Thermos at a thimble-sized coffee mug, added that each week ranchers lose cattle to these quiet killers. This got my attention, but no matter how many adjectives they used to describe this specific big cat, no matter how many times João kicked dust in desperation to make me understand, I still could not envision any feline powerful enough to tackle a bull, not on this continent anyway.
“Look here,” Roberto said, pulling a cellphone from his jacket pocket. “This is an onça.” There in the middle of nowhere, on an island of light in an ocean of black, on a tiny screen, we watched the following jaguar video. It perhaps saved my life but killed my plans of camping on the tranquil riverbanks of the Pantanal, a fishing rod stuck in the mud and plenty of onça-attracting food simmering on the camp stove.