Tuesday, 17 April 2012

I killed a man with a frog

In June I will be travelling to Peru to lead a wildlife-watching holiday. This will be my first South American adventure in more than four years since, at the start of 2008, I left behind a decade-long sojourn in Bolivia. After such a long immersion in Latin landscapes, the wildlife on the tour is all familiar to me. However, I'll admit it, faced with the world's greatest avifauna after almost five years away, I'm feeling rusty, so I'm spending time each evening revising the birds of Peru from the books. This itself is a luxury, as when I moved to South America in 1997 there were almost no books. No Ecuador book, no Peru book, no comprehensive Brazil book, no Chile book, a venerable Venezuela book, a lame Argentina book and a fast-ageing book of the birds of a then-inaccessible country far to the north: Colombia.

As I read the excellent Birds of Peru, the product of a quarter-century of research by many of the Americas' finest ornithologists, birds I once held as close friends fly hesitantly from the forests of my memory: trogons, tapaculos, toucans and tyrant flycatchers. I'm reminded too of a life I once lived in Latin America and of things I have felt and said and written about it. So I've hauled out some thoughts I wrote last year for a project which foundered in a sudden and surprising way. They bring back to me my South American life and a happy, creative time more recently.

Here is the first of them, in which I killed a man with a frog:

In November and December the rains came. September was dry, and hot winds from the north stirred the dusty streets and punished your eyes. October was sulky and small rains came, as if scouting a way for the big rains to come. But in November they came with purpose. Once a rhythm had been established, each day was the same: sweaty hot through the morning and at noon, swelling to a climax of rain in the afternoon. And once a week, sometimes less frequently, the whole day would be surrendered to the rain. The streets would flood, the buses wouldn’t run and the cambas would laugh their big laughs and enjoy the green and the sweat and the mosquitoes nature had sent them.

This was a fat time, after the mean dry dust of the tiempo seco. Now everyone breathed. The trees had flowered already during the dry, when no leaves stood in the way of their pollinators. In November they gave their energies to leaves: the sharp green five-fingered hands of the toborochis and the long leathery lobes of the yellow tajibos.

It was a time of noise too. After the all-day-rains each puddle and lank tuft of grass throbbed and clamoured with frogs, each singing his stanza of the song of life. Breed now, breed! On genes, on! The weird, sagging booow! of Physalaemus biligonigerus and the clogged-sinus yowl of P. albonotatus. In the cistern of our loo lived a putty-like Phrynohyas venulosa with burnished eyes. He cannily used the porcelain chamber to amplify his mooing song and was a favourite of mine.

I once, quite unwittingly, killed a man with this frog. Our housekeeper was Aymará, a woman of remarkable grace and beauty, born on the shores of Titikaka. Though Jehovah’s Witnesses, she and her husband maintained an Aymará’s belief in a world of dark spirits, near beneath the surface of our tangible world. And frogs, as everyone knows, are among the darkest of all: portents of evil and bringers of doom.

Their son, a sweet boy, badly affected by hydrocephaly in infancy, loved animals and was my firm friend. One day, while gardening I found a Phrynohyas and, mindful of the toxins in its skin, put it on a leaf to show the little boy. I strode to him bearing this treasure, quite forgetting the Andean fear-world of his parents. His father blenched and pushed his boy indoors, away from evil.

That evening news came from La Paz that the father’s uncle had died. For weeks he wore dark shirts and, perhaps I imagine it, shot me pained looks. I was, from that day on, wary of showing people frogs.

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