The visiting fisherman would do well to leave his swimming trunks at home. The rivers of Surinam are full of slashing, gamy fish like the tarpon and the lau-lau (a catfish that goes up to 200 pounds), but they also abound in fish like the piranha, the river's own Disposall unit, and the tiny candir�, which likes to pry itself into the urethra of the swimmer with unpleasant results for all. There are wading rivers where unnamed bronze fish will rise to a dry fly and fight like grayling but where one may also step on a fresh-water stingray or get a jolt from an electric eel. The rapacity of the fish life of Surinam may be seen in the way natives fish at Kaysergebergte, one of the government-sponsored landing areas deep in the interior. Each year the floods recede and leave a nearby moat filled with mud. The natives stick their arms deep into the muck until they feel something bite them, whereupon they pull out their catch, wriggling at the ends of their fingers.
In such a place one comes to expect anything and believe anything, and the natives, born and bred in the jungles, are themselves often uncertain where truth ends and hyperbole begins. Their attitude toward the fearful forms of the deep forest is one of propitiation rather than confrontation; and offerings arc often placed at the foot of tall ceiba trees to appease the jungle terrors.
Ironically, one of the most dreaded creatures of the interior is one of the least dangerous: the so-called anjoemara ("big fish") snake, a large water snake done up in black and brown and slightly flattened from head to tail like an eel. When an anjoemara snake is sighted at a jungle fishing camp, all activity stops. An American party was encamped on the Tibiti River recently when one of the snakes was seen swimming lazily into a tangle of rotting hyacinth and vines on the river bank. Instantly every native in the party joined in motionless vigil while one held a shotgun poised and ready. This tableau of watchfulness was maintained for an hour in the gathering dusk until all visibility was gone, and even then a few nervous natives stayed rooted to the spot, watching edges and shadows. An elderly riverman explained the anxiety: "Dot anjoemara sneki, he is the most worst of all. He has poison like the cobra; it travels through your nerves, and it makes the heat in your body go way down till you die. Dot is why we rub victims with soap and turn them over a fire, and even then sometimes they die. The anjoemara sneki, he is most dangerous because he is no afraid. He follow your boat to get you. If you shoot him and miss, he come straight at you. You throw a rock at him and he rise out of the water to get you."
The natives are firmly convinced of all this despite the fact that no poisonous fresh-water snakes are known in South America. The anjoemara snakes, according to ranking naturalists, are misidentified anacondas or South American water cobras, Cyclagras gigas, both nonpoisonous. To this information, the natives of Surinam respond that the ranking naturalists can tell it to the Marines, and merrily continue their traditional roasting of anyone bitten by an anjoemara. The fact that the roastees sometimes die merely shows the natives the extreme toxicity of the snake's venom.
To make such matters even more perplexing, the Surinamers enjoy pulling the legs of outsiders, scaring them half to death and then explaining that it was all a joke. On a recent hunting trip Photographer Tony Triolo spotted a brownish-orange snake, some eight feet long, with a puffed neck like a cobra. "Is it poisonous?" he asked his guide.
"No," said the Surinamer. "Definitely not poisonous."
Triolo advanced on the snake with his camera, whereupon the snake advanced upon Triolo and lifted its head into a high striking position. "Get back!" shouted the guide. "It's deadly poison!"
Triolo executed a magnificent backward broad jump. "That was a close call," he said, and the guide nodded grimly. Two days later he told Triolo that the snake, a reditere, or red-tail, was really harmless.
The most genuinely feared snake in Surinam is the bush-master, whose venom is not so toxic as that of the South American rattlesnake but which makes up for this deficiency by injecting a massive amount of the poison through extraordinarily long fangs. The bushmaster comes in the large economy size, up to 12 feet, making it the longest venomous snake in the Americas. Surinam also boasts the largest snake in the world, the anaconda or water-boa, a constrictor which has been measured up to 37 feet.
Sometimes these big snakes are found in almost dormant states, inspiring neophytes to attempt feats of derring-do not recommended by the natives. A Paramaribo hunter recalls: "Once an American friend of mine was hunting with some Indians when they saw a bushmaster with a head as big as a watermelon. The American shot once and missed. He shot again and the shell misfired, jamming the gun. The American said he would kill the snake with a knife, and the Indians warned him that they would all be killed if he tried it. But Americans are always doing some damned fool thing like attacking a bushmaster. The minute an American gets into the interior he begins acting like a character from an old jungle movie. Luckily the snake began moving its head from side to side, and the Indians hauled the American off. He was highly annoyed that he hadn't been permitted to get himself killed."