The man’s name is George. Once he was an adventurer, making expeditions along remote rivers in Amazonia, but that was a long time ago. He’s old now. Seventy six. Still pretty fit and strong but these days it’s qualified by ‘for his age’, he’s fit and strong, for his age, not like he used to be thirty or forty years ago. After the adventurous years he returned to South America and settled in Surinam. He has a boat and takes tourists on river trips. A night or two under canvas in the forest makes them think they’ve been on a proper wilderness expedition but it’s safe stuff really. Except when it goes wrong. Take what happened a few years before, the first occasion on which he led a tourist trip.
The Giant Armadillo and the Last Supper
George was in the dining room of the Torarica Hotel in the city of Paramaribo at a table near a party of tourists. As he tucked into his fragrant rice and hot, spicy side dishes and pickles he was faintly irritated by the conversation from the next table about wonderful food served in this hotel in France and that restaurant in California, as if by comparison the food they were eating was inferior. Anyway, suddenly this guy with a big blonde moustache and a fiery red sunburned face turned to George and said
‘What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten, friend?’ And right off without thinking George said, ‘bananas’.
Fireface looked puzzled and everyone was quiet and thoughtful. Well it was true. On a river trip in Peru George and his companion ran out of food, except for some rice. It was the rainy season, wild food of any sort was difficult to come by and all they ate for ten days was rice, less and less each day until there was none left. They were nearly back at the frontier and in no danger of starving, but hungrier than they’d ever been. And then they arrived at a village and the people gave them bananas. As many as they wanted. A boatful of bananas, and they sat on a sandbank eating bananas and drinking water.
‘Bananas,’ repeated Fireface, like a talking bird trying out a new word.
‘Yes. Only bananas, nothing else, and it was the best meal I’ve ever eaten because I was very hungry at the time.’
Then everybody relaxed and laughed and Fireface shook George’s hand and thumped him on the shoulder saying ‘You’re a funny guy. A funny guy.’
By chance a few days later George ran into Fireface with a friend. The sunburn had mellowed to a less startling hue and he introduced himself as Steve, a trainee missionary with a linguistic institute and his friend Adam, a food writer for a magazine. The banana story had intrigued them and as they questioned George about the details he had an idea.
‘I’ve got a boat. Four hours upriver is a banana plantation near a deserted village. This is what we could do. You’ll eat your evening meal same as usual, then tomorrow you skip breakfast. About midday I’ll take you upriver and late afternoon we’ll reach the plantation and have a banana banquet. After a day-long fast you won’t believe how delicious they’ll be.’
Both were keen, a modest price was agreed and they parted, though George, being a mischievous old man was already planning to make the adventure even more rewarding for them by faking the failure of the outboard engine before they reached the plantation. That way they’d have to spend a night in the jungle, hungry. Next morning they’d have their bananas and really enjoy them.
On departure day along with three hammocks George secreted a bag containing bread, cheese, hard boiled eggs and dried fruit, all for him alone. After all, he reasoned, he was doing this for his companions, there was no particular reason for him to join in. He’d been hungry before. He knew what it was like.
Three hours after the outboard engine had inexplicably spluttered into lifelessness and with equatorial dusk rapidly darkening the forest, George realised his first mistake had been to underestimate the reaction of the men to the prospect of a night in the jungle with empty bellies, after an entire day with nothing to eat. When he tried to lighten the mood by jokingly suggesting to Steve that he should view the experience as a test of his religious faith, that God would provide, the response was instant.
‘Don’t you dare tell me about goddam religion, I’m the one training to be a missionary, not you.’
George almost gave in then, almost revealed his secret food store to share with them, but soon enough the anger disappeared to be replaced by miserable acceptance and with the onset of darkness George crept off among the trees with his picnic. He was pretty hungry. He’d eaten nothing since breakfast.
Such is the resilience of human spirit that next morning they were in pretty good humour, and when the outboard engine roared back to life there was laughter. A little too much laughter, in fact. Bordering on hysteria perhaps, induced by the prospect of eating bananas.
They didn’t reach the plantation until mid-afternoon. This hadn’t been part of George’s plan, it happened because in the weeks since he’d been there the trail had become overgrown and he couldn’t find it. By the time they arrived he was almost as relieved as his companions. And there they were. Gigantic clusters of bananas hanging almost to the ground. Steve and Adam didn’t recognise them at first because they were a small fat variety with rusty red skins.
‘There are your bananas.’ Said George, and thirty seconds later he knew he’d made a second and more serious mistake. Steve and Adam were ripping the skins off the fruits and consuming them one after another at truly terrifying speed. Adam was at least chewing a bit but Steve appeared to be swallowing them whole, inhaling them almost.
‘For Christ sake slow down!’ George yelled. ‘You’ll make yourselves ill, you’ll choke.’
But it was no good, they couldn’t have slowed down had they wanted to. If he’d offered them a hundred dollars each to pause for a count of five between bananas they wouldn’t have taken him up on it.
‘You were right ....’ Between gulps ‘bananas are ... The best meal ... Ever ... Ever ...’
That evening with Steve and Adam in their hammocks, doubled up with stomach cramps, moaning and farting and leaning out every few minutes to retch and vomit, George wallowed in guilt and considered the options. He dared not travel back in the darkness with them so ill, and with no means to communicate with the outside world he could only wait until morning and hope that neither of them died in the night.
George opened his eyes in the predawn glow. Adam snored peacefully, Steve’s hammock was empty but for his clothes, folded neatly, boots on top. George woke Adam, who seemed to have recovered, told him to stay where he was in case Steve returned, and set off to search, terrified he might have wandered off and become lost or worse, stumbled into the river and drowned.
George stood among the trees fifty metres from camp, mind revving like an outboard on full throttle, trying to slow his thoughts and devise a sensible plan. That’s when a miracle occurred. A rustle of trodden leaves announced the appearance of Steve walking towards camp, naked, covered in insect bites and scratches, staring straight ahead as wide-eyed as a zombie out of a 1950’s horror movie. Walking just two metres ahead of him was a giant armadillo. Giant armadillos are the size of small pigs. They’re rare, extremely shy, solitary and nocturnal. George had never seen one before. Not many people have, in fact he’d once met a party of zoologists who’d spent weeks searching for giant armadillos and never encountered one. And here was a giant armadillo, in daylight, ignoring George and leading a man to safety. The pair walked slowly past. It was the weirdest thing and scared George rigid. In camp, Steve strode up to his hammock, tipped his kit onto the ground without a word to Adam who was greeting him excitedly, climbed in and fell asleep. The giant armadillo had gone, George didn’t see where it went and Adam didn’t see it at all. Hours later George explained what happened but Steve had no memory of any of it.
‘So you don’t remember seeing an armadillo?’ Said George.
‘Armadillo?’ I’ve seen them in zoos, and I used to eat at a place in Mexico where they were on the menu, and while we’re on the subject of food, I’ll never eat another fucking banana.’
‘Glad to hear it, the banana supper was nearly the last supper.’
‘The last supper,’ said Steve, ‘I get it, The Last Supper.’ And he laughed and thumped George on the shoulder saying, ‘you’re a funny guy George, a real funny guy.’