By Jennifer D. Munro
The crocodile slipped out of the underbrush that strangled the opposite shore and eased into the water. He shoved off with webbed paws incongruously small for steering a barge loaded with muscle and teeth, like tricycle tires on a hearse. He moved slowly, as if he had all the time in the world to wreak havoc upon humanity. No hurry, must scrutinize the menu before making his selection.
The freshwater lagoon teemed with local families diving headfirst into crystalline water. They hurtled themselves into the boulder-encrusted pond from a frayed rope swinging from a rickety tree. Standing on a small dock downstream, I’d hesitated to join the splashing crowd. With the croc’s grand entrance through the curtain of mangroves, the terrified mob scrambled from the water. We didn’t speak their language, and the Mexicans didn’t speak ours, but we got the message: get the hell out of the water, pronto! In a country where the national motto seemed to be, I’m reconciled to death, the translation rang loud and clear: Not like this.
“Felipe,” scolded the poolside café’s bartender, shaking his head at the cold-blooded critter who had crashed the party.
Although Felipe apparently pub-crawled here often enough to earn himself a pet name, the bartender had kept mum while the croc remained out of sight. The café had the market for refreshment cornered, perched at the edge of a shady headwater deep in the Mexican jungle. Bad for business, this errant croc who bellied up to his bar with growing frequency, so the bartender wasn’t going to give away the marauder in the back booth as long as the Uzi stayed under the table.
If ever God needed to knock back a stiff one, Tovara Spring is where He’d rap his knuckles for a double shot of Cuervo. Here we could chug an ice cold bottle of Tecate with a lime wedge, then leap into aquamarine water to cool off in the muggy heat. Which my husband, friends, and I were about to do when Felipe took his cue and cruised into the spotlight. Despite his lack of Shakespeare monologues or juggling tricks, he had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand. There was nothing to stop him if he decided to eat our hands. If Felipe chomped one of us in mid-swig, he’d get the lime, beer, and salty sweat all in one gulp.
We had nowhere to run if Felipe left the water, since the only way in or out of this place was by boat. He idled in neutral about ten feet from where we jammed together on the dock at the lagoon’s base. At the pond’s head, about a hundred feet upstream, a cliff towered. The dock jutted from a narrow strip of paved shoreline along one side, mostly hogged by the café. A handy set of stairs descended into the water so that Felipe could easily emerge from his bath to sip his piña colada with cartilage garnish. On the opposite shore: a solid mass of impenetrable brambles, probably littered with the remains of other tourists.
Too close for comfort, we backed up on the dock. Our friend Mark and our guide Nicho argued about Felipe’s vital statistics. Eight feet long, snout to tail, Mark estimated. Twelve feet, Nicho countered. We agreed on ten, but of a massive girth, solid as skyscraper girders—well-fed. Nicho’s quick calculation: 450 pounds. We settled on 500. Fifty years old, everyone agreed, judging by Felipe’s size—a crafty survivor who knew a thing or two about the food chain.
The bartender wrung his apron, likely hoping Felipe would realize that he’d forgotten his SPF 30 and return to the shade. But Felipe didn’t move an inch of his cement-hard muscle (not bad for a middle-aged bald guy, he’d obviously been disciplined about his Pilates). His scales looked as dense as the concrete pier we stood on. Unimpressed with his admirers, he sunbathed like an aloof Hollywood starlet. An imperceptible current rotated him gently in the limpid water. Squat legs, thick and short as old-growth tree stumps, were motionless. Those feet were made for bitch-slapping as sure as any evolutionary tool, but Felipe didn’t look like he’d bother breaking a fingernail.
Sizable fish tra la la’d under him, and turtles cruised past his snout. If the mood struck, the jaws that made up a remarkable portion of his overall length would widen and then snap shut, with the strongest bite of any animal on earth, and he’d ingest a crunchy tortuga like a taco. Just a snack, more out of boredom than hunger—a television commercial break to interrupt a documentary yawner in which the seasoned killer does absolutely nada. I suspect he hummed an Alice Cooper tune under his breath.
The lagoon beckoned, now peaceful and empty. Truly paradise—except for the crocodile—this idyllic spot that we’d toiled to get to.
I turned around to the downstream side of the dock, my back to Felipe. I stuck my big toe into the water. Here in this pond, disaster wasn’t lurking around a corner, ready to catch me unawares, but stretched out in the water, big as a pontoon bridge.
We had journeyed half a day from Puerto Vallarta to get to this mouth of water, appearing by magic at the base of a verdant cliff. The still and cool freshwater turned to murky saltwater farther downriver—if you could call the maze of channels hacked through the swamp a river—before meandering to the Pacific Ocean. We had hoped to sight crocs as we journeyed up the swamp from where it emptied into the sea, but we never intended to swim with one. Our guide had assured us that crocodiles never crossed from salt to fresh water. So when we putt-putted from brine into the sudden miracle of clear water at the head of San Cristobal Estuary, we stripped down to our bathing suits, eager to take a refreshing dunk in the carnivore-free pond.
A hundred miles from any cash machine or English-speaking waiter, we were the only white folks there—three middle-aged, married couples, all pushing the upper limits of height-weight proportionate and more interested in testing tequila brands than in testing our mettle. We had traveled all morning on rough roads pockmarked every blink by a white roadside cross commemorating a gory death. Buses passed compact cars on blind mountain curves, and the left hand blinker on the car ahead could signify a polite “okay to pass, the road’s clear,” or, “I’m turning left, so don’t pass.” Take your pick, brake or gun it, ’sup to you. You’d find out in a minute what the driver ahead was trying to tell you.
We navigated the tricky Mexican highway system of turning left from the right hand lane. We followed instructions like, “Park at the El Conchal landing. Get out of the car and wait. Eventually someone will come get you.” Fortunately this turned out to mean boat guides, not drug runners or kidnappers.
We spent two more hours puttering up the estuary in a flat panga with no life preservers. Our rented skiff squeezed through the tunnels of trees; in places we ducked to avoid low-hanging limbs that would knock us into brackish tributaries. Covered in bugspray and sunscreen in high humidity, we hunted crocodiles with our digicams and binocs, but they remained elusive. We spotted tortugas, owls, and herons, and the disintegrating remains of a Hollywood movie set, all well and good, but not what we came to see. An hour after we forked over 200 pesos (twenty dollars) apiece and journeyed up the dank estuary without seeing any reptiles, our guide Nicho admitted that it was the wrong season. At this time of year, late in the spring, the parent crocs hid with their newborns deep in the tangled mass of shrubbery and roots. We glimpsed one or two juvenile crocs, a foot or so long, errant adolescents out on the prowl, revving their engines. At sight of us, they startled like teens caught smoking and thrashed away through the undergrowth with an unexpected swiftness from clumsy-looking bodies. So by the time Felipe took the watery stage, I understood his capacity for speed. Looks were deceiving. He was a Sherman tank with a Maserati motor. His fire hydrant legs could move like redlining pistons.
Calm as driftwood, Felipe was an impressive beast, especially given the lack of barbed wire fences, nets, guns, and Peligrosa! signs. A depressing ecological reason must account for Felipe’s emigrating to a new ’hood, where he was as welcome as an oil tanker in the Galapagos, but at the moment, who cared about global environmental crises?
I’d risen before dawn while on vacation and traveled all morning for a dip in this swimming hole. I was an inch shorter than when we’d set off that morning, my spine compacted by our tin van’s thunking through never-ending potholes. I’d worn my swimming suit under my clothes to save myself the hassle of changing. No teeny-bikini, this total coverage bathing costume. I suffered the swamp in a girdle of cling wrap. Felipé would need some serious dental floss to pick this hellacious spandex stuff out of his incisors. The turquoise water glinted. I moved to the empty head of the pond. Felipe did the dead man’s float, the distance between us about the length of a few stretch limos in a funeral procession. I sat on a boulder and dangled my legs into the water. Nirvana, if I ignored the fact that I was flashing my knees at a butcher with a fondness for knuckle sandwiches.
The crocodile has remained unchanged for 200 million years. I’d remained unchanged for forty. Time to shake things up.
I’d spent four decades in my well-defined female role: shopper, navigator, time watcher, reservation- and list-maker. I was a clucking hen, not a wildlife tamer. I blundered into rare exploits by mistake, ignorance, or indifference. I tagged along on other people’s adventures so that I could carry the First Aid kit. Like today. I’d almost stayed back at the hotel with my book, in close reach of the fridge and bottle opener, but I went along to ensure that everyone wore their seatbelts and sunblock. I wasn’t out to wrestle a tooth-crammed predator that would outlive a nuclear holocaust (I hadn’t read any such crocodile prognoses anywhere, but, looking at him, I was certain that cockroach genetics had nothing on his). This sucker’s DNA was all about survival. Obviously unlike mine, since I, sporting cellulite instead of armor, was flaunting my gams at a pilgrim with a penchant for drumsticks.
My idea of daring was eating just-expired yogurt. I’d faced my brand of peril earlier in the shallow end of the hotel swimming pool; I slipped off a child’s inner tube, a too-small frame for my large culo, and cracked my head on the underwater stairs. Did I want to meet my maker in such an inglorious manner, floating ass up in one foot of heated water? Or did I want to go down as the woman who swam with crocodiles, the inspiration for Waltzes with Felipe, an overbudget Costner epic? Just me and Baryshnicroc starring in a memorable pas de deux.
Always too fearful and uncoordinated, I’d never done a cartwheel, never climbed a tree, never did the splits, except once when I slipped on my brother’s Hot Wheels. The primary definition of my life so far was what I had not done: bear children despite repeated attempts. Always an over planner, stocking up on maps and emergency supplies, things had not gone as planned. After seven miscarriages in ten years, I was aimless, drifting like Felipe in the trickling current, uncertain about my next step. My husband and I could not agree about embracing childlessness, further medical intervention, or adoption, so we often ended up discussing divorce. Adopting a child felt as scary as swimming with a crocodile, a leap of faith if ever there was one. My husband was ready to take the plunge, but my reluctance persisted. I wanted to feel whole and complete first, without a child, before I moved forward on adoption—not as if I was missing a puzzle piece, a woman without substance or value until she replicated herself. What I had become was paralyzed. Faced with twelve brands of pickles in the grocery store, I left empty-handed. My future was not nearly as clear as Felipe’s shadow, stretching dark and ominous below him on the pond bottom.
But this decision was miraculously easy. I was sweaty. I was grumpy. I was sore and tired. I was an idiot American with a charge card. I endured hardship for a dunk in this water and damn it—after being denied time and time again the thing that I most wanted—a dunk is what I’d get. I didn’t want to leave this pond adding one more thing I had not done to the already lengthy list. If it was my time, then I couldn’t imagine a better place to go. My demise would be quick. I’d be beheaded like a Cabbage Patch doll snatched by the school bully. (A friend assured me later that in reality the croc would drag me to the rocky depths and toy with me until I drowned in slow agony.) Regardless, we were so far from any hospital that I couldn’t be saved to live out my days with no arms and legs, just a head and torso sipping meals through a straw. No fuss or muss for my family, no choosing cremation or burial, no debating my final resting place, just a wake with margaritas and alligator boots all ’round.
Here, I wasn’t afraid of the unknown, an ambush against my body by my own body that surprised me every time. This was my one and only chance to swim with a crocodile. In the States, a SWAT team headed by Bruce Willis would close the place down before you could say New York Sewer. If I lived through doggie-paddling with a homicidal lizard, I would have this knowledge to carry me through the rest of my life: for once, I didn’t overthink. I finally did something really, really stupid. At long last, I took a risk.
Mostly, though, it was hot, and the water was fine.
So, with a smidgen of a second thought, I eased my body into the water a decapitated head’s throw away from a ferocious reptile. I tooled around my end of the killer-infested pond (I assure you that one large crocodile equates to infested), about as far from Felipe as a baseball catcher from a dirty player on third. I enjoyed myself but tried not to splash and attract Felipe’s attention. This wasn’t about committing suicide. I was simply tired of being afraid. Of course, I was also hyper-aware that I frolicked with a wide-jawed trespasser who could make toothpicks of pelvic bones.
I floated, as near to a prehistoric killing machine as I’d once gotten to Roger Daltrey backstage before my nerves failed me. The water so clear, I saw the tips of my toes five feet below me, and farther. So clear, I would see an underwater torpedo, dark shadow of death, streak through the depths a millisecond before I become dinner. Me, a frothing bubble bath of crimson, red tendrils snaking to the surface as the predator worried me into extinction. The huddled mass of frightened bathers onshore would witness Chef Croc shredding my sinews and tendons like fajita fixin’s. My eyeball might float to the surface before the croc snagged it for dessert, a tasty macaroon. Or my ear a vanilla wafer, my diamond stud twinkling in his teeth like a rap star’s.
Felipe did… absolutely nothing. We each remained at our end of the pond, avoiding eye contact like brooding tennis opponents mid-match. The locals on shore looked from Felipe to me and back again.
Felipe appeared oblivious, off in a daydream, yet I sensed his awareness of every dragonfly that flitted past his snout. When he chose to strike, it would be with the speed of a Daytona finish line. He was the size and shape of a drag racer, poised at the start, wheels spinning, ready to peel out and burn rubber. But he didn’t. He hung out, considering the shapes of clouds.
My husband, the daredevil who’d never left his teens and kept emergency rooms in business, watched me from shore, arms crossed over his shirt. Damp stains spread under his arms and sweat dripped down his forehead. Without children, we often had nothing in common, other than his tendency to set things aflame and my ability to douse them with one of my several fire extinguishers. I had followed him on countless of his spontaneous escapades, more to pick up the pieces in case of catastrophe than to enjoy the moment, nagging him the whole time about safety equipment, safety courses, safety belts, safety goggles. But this tale would be mine alone, my gamble, my glory, if not my funeral.
The crowd grew bored with tossing Felipe tortillas that he left for the fish. One by one, the families returned to the water. A father tossed his two kids in; the toddler couldn’t swim and wore inflatable arm bands above his spindly elbows. A pregnant madre slipped in, cradling her infant. For the first time in my life, I’d been the fearless leader, venturing into the face of menace and proving it safe for the rest of grateful humanity. Me, Bruce Willis, with breasts and hair. Job done and credits rolling, I heaved myself out of the water, cool and slick as an arctic seal and just about as graceful.
Truthfully, I’m sure the locals would have returned to the water without my bumbling example. I couldn’t pretend to sum up their culture after a week there, but I witnessed a willingness for risk that’s absent in the States (except by teenaged boys). The bull-riders at the local rodeo had no ambulance or nearby hospital, the beaches no lifeguards or warnings about riptides, and the taxis no seatbelts, with grannies in rockers riding in the back of open-bed pickups. They exhibited an acceptance of fate that I rarely glimpsed in the U.S. I’m sure they would embrace a pension plan and a teaching hospital in a First World minute but had no choice other than to shrug at whatever nature and providence handed them. Nobody said boo to the bartender for keeping his trap shut when he should have divulged the fact that Felipe had U-Hauled it into a family neighborhood.
In the States, we insist on insurance, assurance, or recompense for what nature or mankind dishes out. We want doctors to fix our ills and demand that lawyers avenge what’s broken. We weigh statistics before we make decisions. I knew the precise odds for each of my pregnancies and thought each of my doctors would eventually cure my problem. I tried to shrug and “let nature take its course” but could not, carrying on an argument about where nature’s path led me. Adoption carried a different sort of risk, with a good chance that alcohol and drugs had been abused during the pregnancy and that the child had been abused since birth. But if I didn’t take that plunge, I would surely lose out on one of the richest experiences of my life.
We climbed back into our panga and began the long journey home. My husband put his arm around me. Felipe still hadn’t moved a pinkie.
But we did. We signed up for foster care and adoption certification training shortly after we returned home. Someday I’ll be able to tell my son, “Mommy once swam with a crocodile.”
Then, “Don’t ever let me catch you doing something so stupid.”
JENNIFER D. MUNRO is a freelance editor whose blog, StraightNoChaserMom.com, is a Top Three Finalist in the 2015 National Society of Newspaper Columnists blog competition. She was also a Top Ten Finalist in the Erma Bombeck Global Humor competition. Her numerous publishing credits include Salon; Brain, Child; Listen to Your Mother; Literary Mama; Best American Erotica; and The Bigger the Better the Tighter the Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty and Body Image. Her humorous stories about sex and the sexes are collected in The Erotica Writer’s Husband. Website: JenniferDMunro.com.