Authors: J.A. Kalis
When The Jaguar Sleeps
A jungle adventure
Text copyright © 2016 J.A. Owczarczyk
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner.
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
For my parents
arly that Tuesday morning, the airport in Quito was drowned in a sea of light ashen mist. High above, dark clouds, swollen with rain,
rolled sluggishly across the pale blue sky
in ominous clumps. A small aircraft with six people aboard manoeuvred for a few minutes on the asphalt runway, then, gaining speed rapidly, took off as scheduled and headed east.
In the first row of seats, directly behind the pilot and Carlos, the group’s tour guide, sat a Swiss couple, Sandro and Anna. In the back were a Belgian man, named Florent, and a Frenchman, Didier. The single-blade propeller Cessna did not have a separate compartment for luggage, so their backpacks, all stuffed to the brim, were crammed into the narrow space between their seats and the cabin door.
They were flying into the depths of the Amazonian rainforest, into the vast and still largely unexplored areas of the Ecuadorian region known as El Oriente, which stretched from the foothills of the snow-capped Andes to the Peruvian border. It was to be a five-day, all-inclusive tour, and they were going to be accommodated in some comfortable eco lodges.
Although still a little dazed from an early start, they all glowed with excitement, impatient to get to their destination and start their jungle adventure. The travel agency had promised an unusual wilderness experience, each day filled with different activities: wildlife and bird watching, trekking tours through the jungle and, the highlight, meeting one of the last wild Indian tribes. The flight would take only about forty minutes, but then they would travel for another couple of hours in a dugout canoe.
Florent, twenty-eight, tall and blond, was squirming in his hard and uncomfortable seat trying to decide on the best position in which to spend the rest of the flight. Nothing really suited his lanky body – his long legs barely fit into the narrow space between the rows, and the safety belt restricted his freedom of movement. Exasperated, he gave up twisting and turning, closed his eyes and tried to take a nap. He was tired, having gone to bed very late the night before, and was still adapting to the climate change. He had only arrived in Quito three days before. After this tour he would travel farther still: first to Peru, then Bolivia, and ending in Chile.
Didier, thirty and dark-haired, was a handsome, wiry and athletic young man with olive skin and big, brown eyes. His short stay in the Ecuadorian tropical forest would mark the end of a month-long holiday that had started in Brazil. Afterwards he would be taking a long flight back home to France.
This trip to South America was not so much a holiday for Didier as a much-needed break, an attempt to escape a life that had become too overwhelming and too painful. In the last few years, he’d had his full share of sorrows. Less than three years ago, his father had died of a heart attack. For months afterwards, Didier had found it extremely difficult to accept that he was gone. He still missed him a lot.
And then, about a year and a half ago, he had lost his girlfriend, Marie-Claire. Though he knew it was simply a tragic accident, it had left him stricken with guilt that he could not overcome. Both passionate nature lovers, they had gone hiking in the Pyrenees. On the third day of their trip, they had quarrelled. The argument was over something trivial; but it had made him angry enough to leave her and head back to the village they had left half an hour before. Marie-Claire had continued walking on her own. It was a nice, crisp autumn day. The hiking trail was clearly visible, and she was an experienced hiker. He’d thought there was no need to worry that she would miss it. He was going just to cool down in a local café and then join her, later in the afternoon, in the next village.
He had found her two hours later. She had slipped on loose stones and fallen down a steep, rocky slope. She was still alive but unconscious, lying on her back, eyes closed. Her breath was weak and shallow. So helpless. He couldn’t do much for her apart from calling for help on his mobile. She was quickly transported to the nearest hospital but died, without regaining consciousness, four hours after being admitted. Afterwards, he’d had to deal with not only her loss but also the guilt. He was hurting inside and blamed himself for her death. If only they hadn’t quarrelled. If only he hadn’t left her. But he couldn’t undo any of it. What’s done was done.
On top of everything, the police had also attempted to blame him for her death. A few days after the tragic accident, they took him into custody, suspecting him of pushing her down the slope in a fit of anger. But despite an extensive investigation they could not find any evidence of foul play, and they finally had to let him go. Although he had escaped incarceration, he was not free from the tormenting feeling of guilt and was unable to cope with it. There had been quite a few days when depression threatened to engulf him, days when he didn’t feel like going out or talking to people. As a consequence, he had lost his job in an architect’s office. A few months later, he sold the flat in which he and Marie-Claire had lived and moved in with his mother. She took care of him. Thanks to her, he had slowly been able to recover, to regain some of his old self. Although the grief and guilt did not go away, he felt ready to move on and had started looking for a new job.
It was his mother who convinced him that going to South America would be a good idea. She thought the change of setting would help him forget what had happened, get some distance from the past. And she was right. It seemed to work. Having spent a few weeks travelling in Brazil and French Guiana, he felt much better already.
Sandro and Anna sat huddled together, talking quietly to each other and holding hands like newlyweds. They had planned this unique trip to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary: first a few days in Quito, then the adventure in the jungle, and finally a week relaxing in the Galapagos Islands.
‘No luck today with the weather, it is too cloudy, but I hope you will still be able to catch a glimpse of the peaks of the Andes and the Cotopaxi volcano on your right,’ Carlos announced as they settled into the flight. ‘This is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world, at 19,348 feet. Local people have worshipped it for centuries, calling it the holy mountain or the rain sender. They believed it was where the gods lived.’
His words were drowned out by the growing roar of the engine, running now with redoubled force. The passengers, not wanting to miss such a unique sight, hurriedly turned their heads and with a newly awakened interest looked out of the small windows shrouded on the outside in a light transparent mist. Closely packed rows of leaden clouds swirled beneath the aircraft wings. Then, suddenly the sky turned blue tinged with pink and, as if on cue, the majestic and almost perfectly symmetrical cone of the volcano emerged, brown at the base, and sprinkled with snow at the top. Beyond it, further on the horizon, appeared the slightly blurry shapes of the jagged peaks of the Cordillera of the Andes. It was all a sight to behold, the whole view breathtaking. Everyone gazed in wonder at the silhouette of the magnificent volcano.
After a while it began to recede and turned into a rapidly diminishing dark spot that finally completely disappeared from view. Gradually, in places, a lush green canopy of trees pierced the thick blanket of charcoal grey clouds. But then the haze surrounding the plane thickened and turned dusky.
‘We’re already over the tropical jungle,’ said Carlos, ‘but these damn clouds do not allow us to see anything down there. I hope the weather clears later.’
As if in response, and dashing his hopes, gusts of wind started to blow, rocking the aircraft as if it was a child’s toy. And it began to rain. Even through the thunderous roar of the engine, they could hear the furious drumming of rain drops on the metal roof and the windows. The plane began to shake, groan and rattle as if it was about to fall apart, and more and more dark rain clouds pressed in on it with increasing force.
The pilot took the machine down, as if trying to avoid the clouds, and then flew on evenly, crossing the sky just like an arrow in a perfectly straight line.
He turned to Carlos and said something animatedly in Spanish. The other passengers, unable to understand what he was saying, looked on in silence but with a sense of anticipation that something out of the ordinary was about to happen. Tucked uneasily into their uncomfortable seats, they held on tight, not daring to move. The tension in the small cabin became almost tangible, the air so close and oppressive that it was difficult to breathe.
‘We entered only a big rain cloud and hence the turbulence, but it will soon be over,’ Carlos explained, attempting to calm them down. ‘Do not worry. The pilot is very capable and knows what he is doing. It is not the first time he is flying in such a bad weather, and as you can see, up to now he has always survived it. I am certain he will manage to get us all safely out of it this time as well. There is nothing to be afraid of,’ he added reassuringly.
Another sharp movement drowned out his next words. Anna screamed in horror and clung tightly to Sandro.
‘Does he really know what he’s doing?’ she whispered in his ear, her voice full of fear and doubt. ‘I do not believe it. Sandro, I’m scared.’ Sandro said nothing but put his arm tightly around her shoulders and gave a reassuring squeeze.
Luckily, they did not have to wait too long before the plane regained its balance. Now it was gliding smoothly on again, straight ahead. Dark clouds outside began to recede, moving away lazily, as if a bit reluctant to leave. Eventually they all dispersed, giving way to a thick, pearly white fog, which in a few minutes began to thin. Below, here and there, the dense, green canopy of trees reappeared. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief and started to release the tension that had built up imperceptibly in their bodies. It seemed that the dangerous passage was over; they were safe now.
‘Wow! It’s been a really rough flight,’ said Didier to Florent. ‘I even wondered for a moment if we were going to make it. The pilot himself seemed to be scared. I’m glad it’s nearly over. The plane does look rather old and not very reliable. I thought it was going to break into pieces when that strong wind began to blow. But I guess people in these South American countries are used to a rough play. Life is hard in this part of the world.’
‘Yes,’ said Florent, ‘that was really something, a very, very bumpy flight. Awesome. Quite unexpected. However, I personally didn’t mind. I hope we’re in for some more tough experiences. I didn’t pay all this money just to have a quiet stay in a luxury resort with standard tourist attractions. A bit of risk and a tough jungle challenge, to get off the beaten track, that is what I’m looking for. I would truly love it. What about you?’
Didier scrutinized him for a moment in silence. Florent did not look at all like a sporty, outdoor type despite the top brand outdoor clothes he was wearing.
‘Me? No, I’m not looking for any tough adventure in the jungle. I just want to see wildlife in its natural setting. That is quite enough for me.’ He leaned his head back in his seat and closed his eyes. He felt a bit nauseated and light-headed: too much tension and the violent swaying of the plane. But the flight should soon be over.
Florent ran his hand through his hair, then wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead and reached for his backpack, digging inside for a bottle of water.
The plane continued its flight, going sometimes slightly up and then down again, but without any other bigger disturbances. Its body was swaying faintly in the air. Instinctively they could feel that the pilot had regained control and was handling the conditions with skill. Everyone was quiet; there was just the constant roar of the engine penetrating the silence.
Then, without warning, a powerful rumble tore the air, and the plane lurched violently forward and then almost immediately fell towards the ground, trailing behind it a thick plume of black smoke.
The brutal realisation of what was inevitably going to happen hit them all like a lightning strike. The plane pitched nose-down. An overpowering terror seized everyone, making their bodies quiver. The iron bands of panic tightened their chests. Horrible screams of anguish filled their ears, their own screams. There was no escape now, they knew it. They could only passively wait for the final moment, which came in a blink of an eye, not leaving them any time for other thoughts. The plane hit the ground and exploded with a mighty whump. Then they were surrounded by silent darkness, cold and impenetrable without even the tiniest speck of light shining through.