Sunday, May 27, 2012

Reality bites

The trouble with having too much time on your hands during long-distance air travel is that boredom and - in my case, an inability to sleep - inevitably finds you creeping around the choice of television channels on offer.

On these occasions one of my many complexities comes to bear: there is usually, out of a choice of plenty, only one brand new film that I'll want to watch, and maybe one or two if I'm lucky that I'd want to watch again.

That means only four hours or so can be ticked off by Hollywood. I know there are plenty of other things I could do to fill the void of sitting in a cramped seat for longer than I would normally spend at work in a day - read a book, for example, or ask for the children's pack and do some colouring. But no.

On this most recent flight I succumbed to the dizzying choice of channels which, no matter who you fly with, and to which destination, you can guarantee will include episodes of Friends, 30 Rock, Everybody Loves Raymond and Mr. Bean. So, in desperation of wanting something slightly more nourishing for the brain (not that 30 Rock and Friends aren't exhaustingly funny), you turn to the Documentaries channel. And here depression sets in.

Because for 'Documentary' read Manly Individuals Doing Manly things: my choice was a thing featuring someone called Bear Grylls.

That's right, he's called Bear. And he sounds like a place: ("Drive on another 30 miles until you reach Bear Grylls. What's it named for? Well there was this old grizzly we called Cyclops, 'cos he only had one eye and....").

Bear is, however, English, which was a shock, as I could have sworn that the only people called Bear are large American gentlemen who ride motorcycles.

Bear isn't, thankfully, Bear's real name. His real name is Edward, but somewhere along the way he had the chutzpah to man-up and rename himself Bear. This particular Bear has generally done a lot of crazy things, like been a member of the SAS, climbed Everest, walked the Himalaya and spent entire days in rivers.

So, already feeling inadequate watching Bear do stupid things in a jungle in the interests of 'entertainment', I switched to a contemporary of his, Ray Mears. Although permanently clad in army fatigue-green, Mears isn't as interested in walking across the backs of crocodiles or arm wrestling piranha up the Orinoco.

Ray's speciality is survival. Handy skills to have, you might argue. Except the last thing you really want to be doing at 36,000 feet is watching a documentary about surviving in the wilderness after a plane crash.

Don't get me wrong: it is truly impressive to see Ray fashion a four-bedroom house with running water and sanitation out of bamboo using just his pocket knife, but it does serve as a timely reminder that worrying about air travel doesn't just involve the take-off and landing bit, but what you fly over.

Eager to find something of relative interest to my destination, I discovered a program called Swamp People. Tempting, as it was, to expect a program about dentally-challenged banjo players, it turned out to be a show about dentally-chalenged Louisiana hunters, whose passion, it would appear, is catching alligators.

Now we're talking. Given that the south-eastern states of America are teaming with around five million alligators, from the wetlands of North Carolina down to the mouth of the Mississippi, here was a nature documentary I could get my teeth into, so to speak.

Thus I discovered that these incredible creatures - who descended from the animals that survived whatever killed off the dinosaurs, whose bite can equate the same pressure of being crushed by a truck, and who can grow, on average, up to 11 feet in length - are also dumb enough to get caught, shot and piled up like fish on these hunters' boats. Or is that these hunters are dumb enough to spend their days wrestling these magnificent creatures into their boats?

Armed with a new-found respect for Wally and his brethren (that's Mr. Gator, rather than the swamp dudes), and being the restless holidaymaker that I am, I drove out of Miami and into the Everglades National Park, keen to experience one of the endless sources of natural wonder that America has nestling alongside its most densely populated and urbanised regions.

Over a million square miles of swamp, marsh and sawgrass, the Everglades represent the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, and it is home to one of the most incredible biodiversities on the planet.

Famously, most tourists - or at least those not interested in sport fishing - come in the hope of seeing an alligator and nothing else. It is quite reassuring to see helpful signs next to lagoons instructing you on what to do if you do encounter one of the creatures.

Firstly, you are advised not to venture any closer than five metres. OK, I'm cool with that. Secondly, if they open their mouths in your direction they may just be yawning, but it could also be the gator equivalent of drawing a finger across one's throat, pirate-style. Check that one. And thirdly, if they start hissing at you, run. None of that stand-still-and-pretend-you're-dead nonsense you're supposed to adhere to if you meet a bear in Yosemite. No, plain and simple: leg it.

Throughout my day in the Everglades I was somewhat disappointed to only see one alligator, and from a distance, its eyes breaking the water in a stream alarmingly next to a main road. Walking through dense vegetation at one point, there were other things to be conscious of. The Everglades are home to the Florida Panther, a relatively shy big cat and a close cousin to the mountain lions that exist on the West Coast, including suburban parts of California. There are also American crocodiles, another endangered species, along with other exotic reptilians. I was particularly wary of snakes, but apart from seeing the tale of one disappearing into the undergrowth, there were not going to be any Indiana Jones-style encounters for me.

That said, one piece of information did make me somewhat nervous: in the last ten years there has been an explosion in the Everglades in the population of non-native Burmese pythons.

Like the plot of a particularly cheesy horror movie, these snakes have proliferated as a result of urban owners keeping them as pets and then releasing them into the wild when they become too much. These are large animals and have been known to attack some of the Everglades' largest fellow predators, causing concern amongst park officials about the area's natural ecosystem being changed as a result.

Alligators, crocodiles, panthers, snakes - the stuff of your worst nightmares. However, these threats not withstanding, I was relatively happy trail-walking by myself. Bring the beasties on, I said to myself. I've seen this stuff on TV - Bear Grylls would just stare a monster constrictor down, tie it into a bow and present it to his momma for Christmas.

I could be like that. Hell, I was being like that - no fear that around every corner lurked teeth, fangs and other instruments of death. What I hadn't banked on, unfortunately - and here my delusion of alpha malehood reaches its nadir - is the mosquito.

In Africa, mozzies are a serious pest, transmitting malaria and causes the deaths of more than half a million people every year, with Africa bearing the brunt - 91% - of all global deaths from the disease.

In south Florida, I discovered to my cost, the mozzies are the size of small birds, hunt in swarms reminiscent of the marauding beasts in Aliens, and no amount of repellent, Kevlar and windmilling, Pete Townshend-style, will prevent your body from looking like the top of a LEGO brick.

I thought I'd taken all the right precautions in minimising exposed skin, but just a 15-minute encounter with the world outside my sealed, air-conditioned car was enough to render parts of me that I didn't know could be exposed resembling a relief map of the Pyrenees.

One uncomfortable night later, I have abandoned thoughts of becoming the next Bear Grylls. Rarely do you see the television adventurer complaining about insect bites the size of anteater mounds. Filming of an encounter with something large and snappy has never stopped to administer more cream. The conclusion, then, is that I'm not the outdoorsy wannabe alpha male I thought I was, but a cityfied comfort junky who, when confronted by a simple insect, is sent scurrying back to the city for a chilled mojito and a large cigar.

1 comment:

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