During my earlier post on fishing (A Fishing Expedition) I mentioned the hairy moments we spent during our short trip up the inundated Paraguay River. While writing it I recalled the experience I am writing now, as it also is related to floods and what they may bring to our latitude in Uruguay.
The River Plate Estuary is the outlet into the Atlantic Ocean of the River Plate basin that drains water from over four million square kilometres of land in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay. The start of the River Plate is the meeting of the Paraná and Uruguay Rivers at a place known as Punta Gorda (“Fat Point”), a few kilometres down river from Nueva Palmira, which is today a very important deep water harbour. The Paraná and the Uruguay Rivers, before meeting in Punta Gorda, collect a number of important tributaries aside from the Paraguay River such as Pilcomayo, Bermejo, Salado, Iguazú, Mocoretá, Gualeguaychú, Negro and Samborombón Rivers to name a few.
Perhaps once a year, floods take place and a lot of debris comes down the River Plate as a consequence of heavy rains that fall in areas where some of the smaller rivers mentioned are located. Brown, muddy water points towards the Paraguay River while a brick red colouring to the Bermejo River. Floods bring huge water hyacinth islands drifting past at high speed and, during severe flooding, it is not strange to see colossal trees floating past as well. Not surprisingly then, animals are also seen populating them and I have heard stories of monkeys holding on for dear life. Sometimes the animals land here. I remember a pair of Anacondas seen by a friend at Punta Gorda last year! I also remember the famous 1959 floods when dried exotic insects and small animals such as snakes and mice could be seen stuck on the walls, indicating the how high the water reached on the walls of flooded houses.
In order to tell you about the real event that a member of my family lived through, we need to go back in time to the end of the 19th Century. My father, who was one of the nephews of the main protagonist, called Manuel, told the tale. His family lived in Nueva Palmira at the time in a Spanish style house composed of several rooms around a central patio that opened behind to the backyard where fruit trees and poultry were kept. The only toilet of the house was located there. A large Ombú (Phytolacca dioica) provided abundant shade in the main central patio. It was there where the family congregated in summer to drink mate and entertain visitors. As the household was located in the centre of the town’s social hustle and bustle, it was not strange for several characters to pay a visit. Among these were business people, politicians and the town’s Priest, as the family also belonged to the Catholic Church.
The time of the event was April and the town was undergoing one of its periodic floods, although I have no further details of its severity. It was a cool autumn evening and the family was congregated indoors, in the large kitchen. The daughters were probably doing crochet or embroidery and the adults, drinking mate, gossiping or talking about the events of the day. It was before dinner and probably a “Puchero” was being cooked. The arrival of the Priest was expected and, after the formal greetings, he went in to see the grandmother and to take her weekly Confession. Voices were lowered and the conversation switched to more formal issues. His task completed, the Priest returned to the kitchen and he was, as usual, invited for dinner that, as usual, he declined. He did politely accept the offer to drink a few mates before leaving though.
After a while, probably as a consequence of mate drinking, the Priest excused himself and went to the toilet. Although it was dark outside, he knew the place and, with the help of the ubiquitous oil lamp he got there. After about 20 minutes of the Priest’s absence, one of the daughters made a comment about his delay but they decided to wait a bit longer before checking on him “to avoid embarrassment” as the mother put it. A few more minutes passed and then suddenly they heard strange sounds outside. Manuel stood up and rushed to investigate.
Once outdoors he heard moaning. Nothing prepared him for what he saw next as it was as unexpected as it was shocking. The priest was leaning against one of the patio wooden columns, holding it and as pale as a ghost. He was the source of the cries Manuel had heard. Manuel ran towards him and just managed to reach him before he fell. He heard a soft “Tigre!” before his companion went limp and almost fell despite Manuel’s hold. He felt the unmistakable slippery and sticky blood on the Priest’s back while the word the priest had uttered sunk in! They were in grave danger in the dark so he made a supreme effort and rushed with the Priest towards the door that he kicked open to enter. He dropped the apparently lifeless Priest inside the house, shouted for the door to be closed as soon as he managed to enter and while cleaning his hands on his trousers he rushed to fetch his gun.
His arrival in the kitchen with the bloody and inert Priest created great confusion. The girls froze in horror but his wife immediately reacted and, together with the house staff, they placed the Priest on the large dinner table. It was clear that he was badly mauled, particularly on his back. While Manuel fetched his gun, his wife, staff and daughters, started to remove the Priest’s cassock to be able to stem the bleeding and clean the wounds. Although the Doctor lived a few houses away, there was no chance of going out to fetch him while the thing responsible for such an attack was still at large!
Armed with his Mauser rifle, Manuel went out. He forbade the ladies to leave until he returned. Before he went, the Priest came to and let them know that he had been attacked while leaving the long drop by a “Tigre”. This was confirmed by the severity and depth of the claw marks. He was lucky that it did not bite his neck and kill him. The Jaguar was probably stalking the chickens at the time the unlucky Priest’s nature call brought him out!
Either Manuel was brave or he did not think much when he left the house to gain his vantage position up the large tree. He knew the tree so he chose a good spot and waited. Not long after, the first light helped him and he saw the unmistakable silhouette of the jaguar, still near the log drop. Although the light was not yet ideal, afraid of the animal running away, he took aim and shot. The Jaguar fell and, without waiting he shot it twice again. He waited for a few minutes and, seeing that the cat did not move, decided that it was safe to climb down. The cat, a young adult, had found its demise thousands of kilometres away from its home range.
Once the outcome of the hunt became known, the Doctor was fetched and with him came the whole town, which had been woken up by the loud shots, wanting to find out what had happened! The animal was skinned and his head was displayed at the History Museum in Montevideo for many years where I saw it while visiting the place with my father in the late 1960s. It took a while for the Priest to recover from his infected wounds but he survived.
 A traditional dish made up of boiled vegetables and tubers with pieces of mouton or beef.
 The name Tigre was given to the Jaguar (Panthera onca) by the Spanish Conquistadores as they found it similar to the Asiatic Tiger. The name has stuck in large parts of its area of distribution.
Julio, I love reading your tales! Do you now live back in South America or will you share your time between there and Zimbabwe?
We commute between Uruguay/Argentina and Zim to avoid the winters! COme and live the tales!!!