Okay… hands up if you thought this would never happen? Yes folks, I am here to bring you the FIRST in a series of blog posts dedicated to the fabled ‘Missing Chapters’ – the ones I cut from ‘That Bear Ate My Pants!’ (and all the other books) for a wide variety of reasons.
I’ve been promising to release these for what seems like years… What’s that? It’s BEEN years? Oh, right. Yes, well… um, sorry about that!
But at long, long last, here they are! And I have to say it’s been quite exciting for me, lifting the lid on all these stories I wrote so long ago, none of which have ever seen the light of day. Some are short, some have no discernable end, some ended up irrelevant in the grand narrative of the book… and some I loved dearly, but had to cut out simply because the Powers That Be decreed my book was WAY too long to ever get published… Ha!
So, here’s how we’re going to do this: I’ll introduce each new chapter with a brief explanation of what’s going on, perhaps adding some insights as to why it ended up on the cutting room floor. And then I’ll unleash the chapter in question, with very little editing…
I apologise in advance for the crudeness of the writing. I haven’t looked back at ‘That Bear Ate My Pants!’ for quite a while, but I hope the final version was more polished than these early excerpts. Still, I’ve written and learned a lot since those days… perhaps it’s time for a thorough going-over?
Anyway! Without further ado, here is what could have been the very first chapter of ‘That Bear Ate My Pants!’. Reading it, I think you’ll see why I opted for the current, cut-to-the-chase version. Actually, the real reason is: Mum convinced me it was better that way! My original intention with this start was to set the scene, to describe my journey to Ecuador and some of my encounters along the way. Whereas Mum’s opinion was, “Bollocks to that! Start at the good bit!”
Which of course I did. Eventually… Right! Buckle up. Here goes 🤗
Chapter One: Almost Certain Death
pantsn.pl. Brit. Undergarment for lower trunk; underpants, knickers. (ooh la la!)
bearn. large, heavy mammal that walks on the soles of its feet, with thick fur and a very short tail. Omnivorous. (i.e. will eat anything. No matter how disgusting.)
A bear really did eat my pants. Luckily I wasn’t wearing them at the time, or this book would be called ‘That Bear Ate My Balls and My Ass’ (not to mention my legs and feet), and I’d probably be writing it from hospital.
There were quite a few times in Ecuador when it seemed like a lengthy hospital stay was inevitable. I mean, I’d been in the country for less than an hour when I nearly died for the first time.
My mistake was a simple one; I told my taxi driver that I wanted to learn Spanish.
How was I to know?
To say that he was excited by this prospect would be the grossest of understatements. He was so delighted, he no longer felt the need to look at the road.
“Football!” he exclaimed proudly, waving both hands in the air to illustrate his point. His expression was one of joy at having found so willing an audience. His eyes remained fixed expectantly on mine, despite the fact we were doing at least a hundred miles an hour, speeding along bumper to bumper with other cars on all four sides of us. I could feel my bowels loosening inside me.
“Yes, s-same in English,” I stammered. “Football!”
The driver was ecstatic. Which was kind of appropriate, since we appeared to be only seconds from meeting God.
“Mi nombre es Roberto!” he declared, patting his scrawny chest and raising a knee to nudge the steering wheel.
It’s true, so they say, that most victims know the name of their killer…
When I’d first agreed to travel to South America, to volunteer at the Santa Martha Centre for Animal Rescue, the potential for disaster had weighed heavily on my mind. I could get lost. Get robbed. Get taken hostage by freedom fighters, tied to a goat and fed banana leaves until I died of dysentery. Or be forced to appear on TV with a Kalashnikov pointed at me and a bag over my head. And that was even before I considered what the wildlife could do to my soft, pink flesh.
I’d never considered, even for a moment, that my desire to learn Spanish could prove deadly.
And thankfully, it didn’t… at least, not this time. We cut across three lanes of traffic and screeched to a halt beside a darkened alleyway that apparently led to my hostel. A humming neon sign bore the legend ‘The Secret Garden’. The glow gave an eerie, green cast to Roberto’s manic features as he shook my hand with gusto. The fingers of my other hand were still embedded in his dashboard. I staggered out of the taxi, shaking and sweating, and tried in vain to lever my gigantic rucksack out of the boot. No chance. The drive had left me with all the strength of a well-used tissue.
Roberto, of course, was unfazed. Reaching in with one hand he hefted my bag and swung it smoothly out onto the pavement – in spite of the fact that it was considerably bigger than he was.
“Uh, gracias…” was all I could manage.
Five dollars for the journey, and the nightmares thrown in for free.
Roberto pulled back out into the traffic without looking, whilst giving me a cheery wave with both hands.
Alone at last on the shadowed street, I took a few calming breaths. Then I started to wonder if alone on a shadowed street was a good place to be. It was time for me to admit it; this was going to be a very strange, very tough, very scary three months…
And there was no way out. So I shouldered my rucksack and, bent nearly double under it’s crippling weight, staggered down the alleyway beneath the sign.
Ah, the Secret Garden! It wasn’t secret, and it didn’t have a garden. It did have a rooftop barbeque area where (I was reliably informed) the other guests had only recently finished a delicious complementary diner. Damn it. Instead, I stood drinking a ‘Pilsner’, overlooking the rag-tag rooftops of downtown Quito. Everywhere I could see, rusted steel reinforcing rods protruded from the flat roofs of upper stories. Crumbling walls divided the chaotic jumble of terraces, jealously guarding a pile of derelict machinery here, a mound of rubble there. The sun had just set, and the sky still displayed a riotous profusion of colours from the crimson bordering of the horizon through odd patches of pale green and pink, fading up into the deep purple evening overhead. The last of the light cast mysterious shadows across the carefully hoarded stacks of junk. I took a sip of my beer and considered my first sunset in this strange new country.
Man, it was an ugly sight.
I’ve come to the conclusion that looking for ‘adventure’ is sort of asking for trouble. In trying to escape the nine-to-five, two-point-four kids, car loan and a mortgage type-existence that had been claiming my friends one by one, I’d devoted most of the last five years to acting. I’d studied and pushed and studied and pushed – striving with every ounce of my ability to make that elusive big break. Until one day I realised I was never going to be the next Brad Pitt because, basically, I was crap.
So instead I’d tried France.
It seemed a perfectly logical alternative. World Fame would be replaced by World Exploration; either way I was sure to find excitement. Visions of parties on the Riviera and mega-yachts filled with swimsuit models dominated my dreams. France would be a staging post from where I would unleash myself on the world; unstoppable, insatiable, inevitable!
Or… not, as it turned out.
After three months of picking prunes on a baking hot plantation south of Bordeaux, having lost the ability to walk normally due to spending sixty hours a week on my knees, I decided to give up.
It wasn’t that the place broke my spirit, though it came perilously close; it was when the boss got drunk with us one night and confessed to drugging a gypsy who worked for him, and feeding him into the prune drying furnace. That made up my mind. By daybreak his entire workforce had evaporated. By midnight the next day I limped through the door to my parent’s house, exhausted, malnourished and penniless.
All in all it had been a bit of a shitter.
But all that was in the past! This time I was determined to do it right. This time I had a plan. I’d even done my research. Santa Martha’s website described it as a volunteer-run wildlife refuge in the Avenue of Volcanoes, Ecuador, South America. At any given time it was home to big cats, parrots and monkeys plus dozens of other species I’d never even heard of. All of them had been rescued from cruelty; chained up in market places, kept illegally as pets or destined for the black market. The job of the volunteers was to accompany the police on raids, rescue the animals, look after them and release them into the Amazon jungle! It was the most amazing job description I’d ever read.
As a young boy I’d dreamed of being Tarzan. Now, years later, I was still dreaming about it. Which is a little worrying. Maybe it’s the loincloth. Anyway, Santa Martha seemed like exactly the kind of place I’d been looking for. The fantasy came a step closer to reality on the day that Toby, the English co-ordinator of the refuge, approved my application despite me having absolutely no relevant experience. I convinced myself that this was the shadowy hand of Fate, rather than a blanket policy of employing every idiot that sent them an email. Surely there would be some kind of training programme before they sent me in to feed the lions…
And before I knew it, I was on a plane. Winging my way towards a country that a week ago I couldn’t have pointed to on a map. Actually, I still couldn’t point to it on a map. The only reason I could even spell ‘Ecuador’ was because I’d had to type it into Google to find a cheap flight. The closer I got to my destination, the more I realised quite how unprepared I really was.
The woman in the window seat didn’t help.
She was like the anti-me; in her smart black trouser suit she exuded confidence and power. I fidgeted nervously with my mp3 player and tried to arrange my jeans so the holes in the knees were less obvious. Close to half the world’s oceans had slipped by beneath our wings before she deigned to speak to me. As she twisted slightly in her seat I caught a waft of perfume. She even smelled expensive, like a delicate rainforest flower, whereas I was visibly sweating out all the complementary alcohol I’d consumed on the first half of the flight.
“So, what are you listening to?” she enquired.
“Eh?” I pulled an earphone out while I sought clarification.
“What are you listening to?”
“Oh, um, it’s a Spanish course. Yeah, I’m trying to learn some Spanish.”
She was clearly quite surprised. “Oh! So you don’t speak any Spanish?”
“No. Not yet. And you?”
“Of course! You have to, really, going to Ecuador.” She paused for a guilty glance my way at that. “I brushed-up for a few days before I left.”
“How long did it take you to learn?”
There followed a few seconds of uncomfortable silence. During which, Disc 1, Lesson 1 droned on in my right ear.
“So, what brings you to Ecuador?” I ventured. Rather lamely.
“Environmental conference,” she replied, “and you?”
“I’m gonna work as a volunteer. In an animal refuge.”
“Really! You’re a veterinarian then?” She suddenly seemed genuinely interested.
“Oh, no. I just… like animals.”
“So you work with them?”
“Well, no. But I’ve eaten a lot of them lately and I wanted to give something back…”
She wasn’t amused. At this point I realised there was no way to salvage the conversation and surreptitiously slipped my earphone back in. I’d love to have explained my reasoning to her, but I didn’t think, ‘Chicks dig guys who work with animals’ would impress her overly much. Come to think of it, it wasa pretty tenuous reason for flying halfway around the world.
Perhaps I should have put a little more thought into my motivations. I was a twenty-four year old bloke; meeting a hot woman had been my number one priority for as long as I could remember. But there was definitely more to it than that. Concepts like ‘being a part of something greater’ and ‘finding myself’ sounded great in my head, but if spoken aloud they became so cheesy there were probably EU restrictions on exporting them.
Mostly, I just wanted to see if I could do it. Cope with the language. Survive in a totally foreign country. Break free of my boring little life, of the very ordinary and somewhat insecure person I was in danger of becoming, and forge myself anew in the fires of experience. Return home a strong, confident adventurer with a fistful of stories to impress my mates. And possibly a pet tiger. And if the local girls felt the need to throw themselves at me, well, what could I do? I’d just have to shag them all.
And so it came to pass that I landed in Quito airport, with close to two hours’ intensive language training under my belt.Everywhere I looked, strange people were doing incomprehensible things with peculiar foodstuffs. Weirdness was on sale in the kiosks, and floating through the air disguised as conversation, and written on posters fastened to the brightly lit walls. The floor was normal; the roof was normal – I mean, it wasn’t made out of reeds and branches or anything. I think that was the most disturbing thing. It looked exactly like any other airport. It was just full of crazy shit.
The urge to shriek and run away was building strongly within me. Only, there was nowhere to run to. It was one of those moments when I realised I might have made a slight mistake. I’d felt so brave back home, planning this trip from behind my keyboard…
And then I was given a Sign.
And it said ‘TAXI’.
And I saw that it was good. So I shuffled towards it.
Beneath the sign was a desk, and behind that was a woman – my first female contact in the country. She was pretty, in that cheerful-yet-severe style effected by airport staff the world over. Dark hair, dark skin, dark eyes that twinkled as she smiled up at me. And the top of her head just about came up to my nipples.
“Hola!” I tried bravely. And then I lost it. Because to be honest, that was the only word I could remember.
“Hola!” she responded. Which didn’t get me a whole lot closer.
I took a deep breath. And did nothing with it. And stood there.
“Would you like me to book you a taxi?” she asked.
I should have guessed she’d speak better English than I spoke Spanish.
Probably better than I spoke English.
“Oui!” I replied. In French. “I mean, Si! I mean… oh, bollocks to it.”
She took pity on me. Because I was, without a shadow of a doubt, the most clueless person to have crossed her path that day. She came around the front of the desk – climbing down off her box and losing another six inches of height in the process – and with the expression of someone rescuing a bird with a broken wing, led me carefully through the confusion of the arrivals hall. It was touching and demoralising in equal measure, to be an object of sympathy for a bilingual midget.
I followed her out through the main doors, into the heat and the smell of exhaust fumes and around the corner to the taxi rank.
And that was where she introduced me to the equally diminutive man that had spent the next forty minutes trying to kill me.
Still, it’s hard to bear a grudge. After all, I was still alive… And Roberto? Well, the odds weren’t great for him to be honest. But I think he meant well.
A few hours later I’d convinced myself that this had been my first and last near-death experience in Ecuador, and that it was bound to be plain sailing from here on.
How little I knew!
But my survival against the odds comforted me, and reinvigorated my sense of purpose. I was here in search of adventure after all! And I’d found plenty of it in my first hour in the country. Surely, I was a stronger person already?
If there were more challenges to come, I would rise to meet them.
And with that thought, I could finally relax a little.
I spent a pleasant night safe and sound in a tiny yellow room at the Secret Garden. I even had a window with a view of the motorway…
That was the last time I felt safe in Ecuador.
END OF CHAPTER ONE
I hope you all enjoyed that! As I said, my writing was a little raw back then, and whilst I loved this opening when I wrote it, in the end I decided it was too much of a ‘slow burn’. Some bits still make me chuckle though!
And for those of you still interested, here’s the second of the Missing Chapters – about one of the strangest days of work I did at Santa Martha…
Let me know what you think in the comments 😉