Crocodile Attack Survivor Tells His Story
Saturday, July 28 2007 @ 09:11 AM EDT
Contributed by: Don Winner
Visiting Puerto Caimito - How to Get There: Puerto Caimito is located just a short 35 minute drive from Panama City. If you want to go check it out drive toward Panama's interior along the Pacific coast. At the end of the autopista you pay your .50 cent toll and then take the next exit before the overpass bridge that's right after the toll. At the top of the ramp turn left and follow the main road past the hospital in La Chorrera and follow the road straight for about ten minutes down the coast. You really can't get lost but if you're feeling unsure you can just ask anyone who is walking along the road and they will tell you to "just keep going straight."
Tight-Knit Coastal Fishing Village: Puerto Caimito has always made its living from the sea. Now it's the home to Promarina S.A. fish flour factory. Practically all of the economic activity in the town comes from the ocean, one way or the other. While there I saw a couple of vehicles that seemed to be somewhat out of place (because they were "too nice") potentially indicating drug related activity. Any little town along the Pacific coast in Panama is potentially a route for drug trafficking so there's really no surprise there. Puerto Caimito is a very small community and literally everybody knows everybody. The "crew" that Adrián Alvarado runs with were all born there and they are now in their mid-20's. They've been running around these streets their entire lives and know one another intimately. In short, you are either born in Puerto Caimito or you're an outsider. There's not much middle ground.
Looking for Adrián Alvarado: I knew he'd be locally famous. His story was running in La Critica the day I was there and everyone was talking about him. So we just drove into town and started asking around. The first place we stopped happened to be a field position established by Panama's Health Ministry (MINSA), manned by two nurses who work at the local Centro de Salud de Puerto Caimito, Yadira Brown and Carmen Solis. They happened to be the nurses who have been attending to Adrián Alvarado's crocodile bite for the past week, changing the dressing every day and helping him heal. Of course they know him and where we can find him, but are your shots up to date?
Thank You Very Much, Ladies: It seems they have received marching orders from MINSA headquarters, and have been assigned a quota of administering shots to 300 people by the end of the week. They said often people won't go out of their way to get their shots so they have to go to the people. They had this table set up by the "mini-super" and there was another nurse who was going door-to-door. So, they gave us flu shots and tetanus boosters (free) and we helped them get one step closer to making their quota. Panama currently has a nation-wide push on to improve preventative inoculations and the program reached Puerto Caimito.
Hey! Go Get Porky! It turns out that we had turned the wrong way (right instead of left) when the road took us into downtown Puerto Caimito, so the nurses directed us back to the other side of town and told us to "go to the end of the road, and ask anyone under the shade tree -- they will know where he is." Sure enough, we ran into this character under the shade tree who dispatched a runner to fetch "Porky" Alvarado for our interview. While we were waiting he told us stories of a huge 20-foot plus crocodile who lives somewhere up the Rio Caimito but who has "girlfriends" in other rivers up and down the coast. He said he's seen this very large crocodile swimming down the river and through the ocean in search of mating opportunities. "That's what he does, no doubt." He also showed us a box of crocodile teeth from a large animal he had killed a couple of years ago, the largest tooth about three inches long. "Just the head alone was this big," he said, indicating a croc-noggin' of about three or four feet in length. So, crocodiles can swim in the ocean. Got it.
Somewhat Embarrassed By The Attention: After a couple of minutes Adrián "Porky" Alvarado (center, in the yellow shirt) and the rest of the guys he works with came down to where we were waiting for them. They had been unloading some fish they had caught at the Promarina S.A. factory but were now done for the day and had the time to talk. Adrián had been taking a serious amount of ribbing from his friends about the attention he was receiving over the crocodile attack and was a little hesitant to appear to be doing anything more to draw attention to himself. At the urging of his friends he opened up and told us what happened that night.
Late Night Fishing Trip: Adrián explained he had gone out fishing last weekend on Saturday night in "my sister's boat" the Maria B. and returned at around 2:00 am on early Sunday morning. They had been fairly successful and had a good catch, and they motored back up to the shore and tied the boat off at the end of the rusted hulk of an abandoned ship that ran aground there some fifty years ago. Hot and tired, Adrián dove into the water to cool off. It was low tide at the time. He was swimming on the surface when he felt more than saw a crocodile grab him by his right shoulder and begin to drag him down to the bottom. He said "it was about as long as me, maybe a little longer" which would put the crocodile at about six or seven feet long.
Scene Of The Crime: The attack happened in salt water. The Rio Caimito empties into the Pacific ocean right at Puerto Caimito and the water along the coast is a mix of fresh and salt depending on the tides and amount of rainfall. Adrián was attacked at low tide and said when conditions are like that the water is more fresh than salty. But he wasn't thinking about the water as the crocodile pulled him toward the bottom for a late-night snack. He said he fought the crocodile off, saying "I brought my arm up, like this" and basically whacked the crocodile under the head and in the throat. He also said he swam down at first and then broke for the surface once he was free of the crocodile. Then, he swam hard for the shore which was only about ten meters away and got out of the water. Only then did he see the extent of his injuries and that he was bleeding heavily.
Several Stitches, Antibiotics: Adrián only went to the hospital the following day at the instance of his family members and because the bite "really started to hurt" and he couldn't move his arm well. They sewed him up and gave him some antibiotics as well as pills for pain and swelling. When we were there almost a week had passed and much of the smaller cuts and scratches had practically healed. The larger and deeper puncture wounds from the bite were still readily visible, and I drew the red line to "connect the dots" in order to get a better idea of just how large the crocodile was that attacked Adrián.
Let's Go Up The River: By now a small crowd had gathered to listen to Adrián tell his story. And - more ribbing. "He didn't fight his way free, the crocodile spit him out because he's ugly," one of his friends joked. They're not calling him "Porky" anymore, he is now officially known as "Coco" after the "cocodrilo" that bit him. I asked some of the kids in the crowd if they swam in those waters, and one girl said "sure, well we did, not any more though" because they are afraid of the reptiles in the water. I'm sure that after awhile the memory of the crocodile that bit Adrián will fade and they will be swimming again with confidence. We loaded up into a couple of boats and buzzed up the Rio Caimito for awhile in search of crocs on the shore. But they tend to come out more at night so we turned around and headed back. The boat handling skills of these guys is impressive and they were hopping back and forth from one panga to another while underway to balance loads and weight. They are perfectly comfortable in these small boats and practically live on the water.
"Coco" and his Crew: This is only a handful of the guys from Puerto Caimito that Adrián considers to be his friends. They make a fair living, fishing in the Pacific and selling their catch to the seafood buyers that come to town every morning before dawn. Thanks to the crocodile attack, Adrián is currently Puerto Caimito's second-most famous citizen, but he knows the attention will fade quickly. If you want to grab a panga and spend the day fishing, I'm sure these guys would be more than happy to take you out for a few hours. And of course wearing a New York Yankees hat will score points.
The Promarina S.A. Fish Flour Plant at Puerto Caimito: The steaming stacks indicate the presence of the industrial plant located in the center of town. The company owns a fleet of fishinig vessels that go out every night and return with tons of fish which are turned into 50-kilo sacks of fish meal, made of pulverised, dried fish or fish parts. Fish meal (or fishmeal) is a commercial product consisting of the waste from fisheries after the human-consumable material is removed, or from whole fish which are not suitable for human consumption. Fish meal is a brown powder or cake obtained by pressing the whole fish or fish trimmings to remove the fish oil. The major use of fish meal is as a high-protein supplement in the feed for livestock.
Indescribable Smell: If you've never been close to a plant like this then there is no way I could ever describe the smell. Thousands of pounds of raw fish and parts are cooked down to fish meal every day in this huge oven. The smell was "off the chart" bad. Whew...
200,000 Kilos Per Day: The factory puts out about 40,000 sacks at 50-kilos each, every day. The fish meal sells for about $51 per sack so the cost is about $1.00 per kilo. So (doing the math) this factory is pulling a million dollars out of the ocean every week, the big business in Puerto Caimito.
Goodbye, Puerto Caimito: There are literally hundreds of little towns and villages like this all over Panama. Each one has its people, story, history, and local heroes. Mariano Rivera has built a very nice house in Puerto Caimito and he returns during the off season when he's not walking onto the field to the tune of Metalica's "Sandman." My thanks to Adrián "Coco" Alvarado for taking the time to tell me his story and the rest of the people we met in Puerto Caimito for showing us around. I'm sure we will be back sometime, maybe for a booster shot, some very fresh fish, or to take a swim...
Copyright 2007, Text and Photos by Don Winner for Panama-Guide.com. As usual, go ahead and use whatever you want as long as you credit the source. Salud.