The very year Michael Herr went to Vietnam to begin the reporting that would form the basis of Dispatches (1977), and twenty years before Mike Tsalikis was convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to 27 years in prison, Herr visited Tsalickis and exquisitely captured his essence in this exceedingly rare and obscure profile for the old travel magazine Holiday.
A hundred miles from Bogota, south of Villavicencio, the plains of Colombia end and the jungles begin, running in unbroken density for more than 600 miles to the Amazon River. Colombia’s eastern border forks, like a snake’s tongue, and meets the river at two points. Leticia, on the southeastern tip, is the fourth largest town along the river, after Belem and Manaus in Brazil, and Iquitos, two hundred miles upriver, in Peru. A few steps out of Leticia will put you near the Brazilian army garrison just over the border, and a few hundred yards across the river, beyond the Colombian gunboat somewhere anchored in the harbor, you can see a Peruvian island. Leticia is the capital of Amazonas, a Colombian territory so remote that it has been called the world’s last true frontier.
In spite of this remoteness, a lot of Americans have turned up here, washed up, passed through: types out of dated boys’ books; entrepreneurs with schemes for taking out fortunes in lumber or minerals; anthropologists or medical researchers; occasional big-game hunters; strays who’ve come down nonstop from some obscure outpost by dugout, half-sleeping in the river’s drift until they reach Leticia, where they bathe and burn their clothes, keeping you well upwind until they’ve finished. Of all these, only one has stayed, a forty-one-year-old Greek-American named Mike Tsalickis.
In his fifteen years here, Tsalickis has worked as agent for five different airlines; as manager of the town’s small movie theater; as postal inspector; as owner and foreman of a brick factory, a trucking outfit and a lumber mill; and, for the past two years, as United States Consular Agent in Leticia. But all of this, even his current dabbling in the tourist business, has been more out of excess energy than the profit motive, and, even more, out of his almost obsessive desire to see the town of Leticia and its people prosper. His real work, the work that has made him moderately rich and extremely famous the length of the Amazon, has been the capture and shipment of wild animals, particularly snakes. He is the Amazonian equivalent of the White Hunter, and it is probable that in his own unscientific way, he knows more about snakes than any other man alive. The very fact that he is alive, after 60,000 catches, indicates the special nature of his knowledge.
Tsalickis may not always know the names in the herpetology books, but he knows the snakes, has the kind of rapport with them that other men are said to have with bulls or big cats, and he has worked with them for thirty years almost without incident. Once, while he was posing for pictures for a missionary, an anaconda got him into deep water and nearly drowned him, and a few years ago a bushmaster, largest of the New World’s poisonous snakes, hit him at night, but its mouth was closed. The odds of a bushmaster striking with its mouth closed run about one in a million.
Tsalickis is what Colombians call a practico, a completely effective, entirely self-educated man. Except for the occasional reference works on animals, which he’ll look at to confirm what he’s already learned in the bush, books have never interested him, and his speech sounds like Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus. “We’s movin’ up along this tributary there,” he’ll say, “when who’d Ah see but ol’ brother gator. Ah started gruntin’ for’m t’git his haid up. Ah grunted more’n twenty minutes. That’s a long damn grunt.”
Even as he approaches middle age, the way he talks and the open ingenuousness of his face indicate a much younger, less experienced man, and this has led people to underestimate him. Leticia has some of the good guy-bad guy feel of a John Wayne movie anyway, and because Tsalickis is so blatantly one of the good guys, competitors in the animal business have gone so far as to write him off as an amateur. They have found themselves out of business and well downriver past Manaus, en route to other parts of the jungle, before they knew what hit them.
The fact is, Tsalickis is smart, smart in ways that go beyond the savvy of the Florida swamps and the hard hustle of his Depression boyhood. He is shrewd and tough, but he is constitutionally honest, devoid of brutality, and so kind that much of his income disappears among the local Indians, the townspeople and whatever down-and-outers find their way to Leticia.
Tsalickis prizes the purely functional. Except for trips to Bogota, where he suddenly becomes fastidious, he pays minimal attention to the food he eats and the clothes he wears. He is tall and spare and moves with determined grace, in the casual glide that high school lettermen have, his walk so loose that you think he’d fly apart at the joints if he went any faster. Even his nose, which is prominent to begin with, seems to be geared for effectiveness in the jungle, with a slight broadening at the tip for taking in scents. Instead of the sharpness that you would expect in his eyes, there is an almost trancelike look about them, although they miss nothing of importance.
The jungle, the bush as he calls it, is his element; he spends as much time in it as possible. He travels light, wearing sneakers instead of boots, doing without extra food, a hammock, or, unless someone going with him makes a point of it, a snakebite kit. He has never even needed a compass. Once, when he first came to the area he went into the jungle with the chief of the Yaguas. The chief, who had spent his whole life in the area, got them lost, and Tsalickis had to bring them both out. He shrugs this off as a good sense of direction, a “pretty fair idea of how the rivers run,” but like his ease with snakes, there is something a little uncanny about it.
He seems to remember every animal he’s ever caught and the exact way he caught it, from the first reptile he took working for his Reptile Badge in Boy Scout camp to the sloth he and his men got last week. His one indulgence is storytelling. They all begin with, “This one time…[,]” are interlarded with bits of lore (“You ever start to fall in the bush, jes’ go ahead an’ fall. Don’t take an’ take hold of no damn tree cut up your hand”), and end with Tsalickis dropping limply back into his chair, his eyes wide with relief, saying, “Ah’d like t’ve dahd!” as though the events described had just happened. As you’d imagine, the stories are not boring.
At nineteen, he’d already opened Tarpon Springs Zoo with the help of a woman named Trudie Jenkins, who is still his partner there. He’d do a number for the tourists in those days, walking barefoot through a pit of 200 rattlers without looking down. For a finish, he’d milk one of the snakes into a glass and drink the venom.
He hunted in the Florida swamps, the Mexican deserts and the jungles of Guatemala and Nicaragua. In the days of the tropical fish fad, he came to Belem, at the Amazon’s mouth, and then, eventually, upriver to Leticia. He had not planned to stay, but coming up to the dock he saw the biggest snake he’d ever seen, a twenty-two-foot anaconda curled up in a crate. He bought the snake on the spot, establishing both a “bush value” for game and his local reputation.
It can take weeks even for him to get this much of his story told. There is no way for him to talk for more than ten minutes without some interruption. Even in the middle of the jungle, there are people who know him and who need something from him; some bit of business to handle, some sale to complete, some favor to negotiate. In Leticia, his average day is so busy that long talks are out of the question. While I was there, a party of Ohio bow hunters arrived. They came into the house, back from five days of hunting the Putumayo River, delighted by the fact that they’d actually eaten grubs and maggots. Their trip was a kind of package deal, and they wanted to talk to Mike about the rest of their stay. Mike took them by motorized dugout to Mari-Acu, in Brazil, the village of the Ticuma Indians. They bought bows and spears and bark cloth, which they all insisted on calling “artifacts.” One of them wanted to be photographed struggling with Mike’s pet anaconda, so the snake was hauled out of her cage in the compound and wrapped docilely around the man. I asked Mike if snakes ever get bored. “They should,” he said.
There is a steep grade running up from the harbor at Leticia, lined with small stores and ending at the main street. The road here is straight and paved, running parallel to the river from half a mile. At one end, the street stops abruptly where the jungle begins. The other end dwindles into a narrow footpath leading into Brazil; there Tsalickis built his house.
The house is small but adequate. Behind it there is a sloping trail that goes to the animal compound, beyond the tropical fish tanks. The compound is large, well lit and scrupulously clean, and even though Tsalickis usually ships twice a week, it is almost always full. Between the house and the compound, there is a new medical research lab, and a fourth building, the largest, which is divided into three sections. There is the shop where tourists can buy spears, masks, beads, nets, bows, ceremonial carvings, bark cloth paintings or the phallic staffs used by the Ticuna Indians in their puberty rite. Next to the shop is the Office of the United States Consular Agent to Leticia, lined with split bamboo, looking like a corner of a Honolulu cocktail lounge. Even though Tsalickis had acted as unofficial consular for years, paying countless fares for stranded Americans, he was especially proud of his appointment.
Across the hall, there is Tsalickis’ office, the small room where most of the work gets done, all of the orders are recorded, the books kept, the invoices arranged and the letters filed.
A list of every species of mammal, reptile, bird, fish and insect that Tsalickis has captured would run into thousands of names. The invoices in his office include monkeys (his biggest source of income now, with over 6,000 a year sold, mostly to laboratories), piranhas, capuchines, egrets, rufous-breasted hermits, tarantulas, iguanas, geckos, caimans, tapir, eels, ocelots, pumas, jaguars, coatis, sloths (two-and three-toed), giant armadillos, bushmasters, fer-de-lance, coral snakes, Cooke’s tree boas, rainbow boas and anacondas.
Today, most of what Tsalickis ships is brought in by others. He has many fishermen working for him in Leticia and in Villavicencio, and a small staff running his tropical fish store in Bogota. Hundreds, maybe thousands of Indians know about him and the prices he will pay for animals. He has a large personal staff, including his brother George and a half-Ticuna Indian named Max Oldenburg, a guide and general foreman.
Sometimes, sitting in the office with the door locked, we had a chance to talk. The bow hunters had gone, their plaid bow cases and their artifacts packed, their arrangements for next year’s trip all made. The Tuesday shipment for Tarpon Springs was loaded, and there was a two-day breather before the next group of tourists came.
“This one time,” Mike begins, and tells about his closest call, when he and the Archbishop of Leticia were blown up together, sent “twenty feet apiece” up in the air after an inboard-outboard they were on exploded. They both suffered third-degree burns and spent weeks in the hospital, their only consolation (a considerable one) being the fact that a barge anchored next to them, carrying thousands of gallons of gasoline, was somehow untouched.
Another time he and a bush pilot named Sam Poole were flying a priest, four nuns and a little girl from El Acanto to Leticia. They crash-landed on the Putumayo River. Poole was able to repair the plane so that it would move, but the rudder was jammed. They could neither fly nor steer. Mike had to stand on one wing, and one of the nuns had to stand on the other. They moved at thirty miles per hour on the river, and for a right turn Mike would run to the wingtip while the nun inched in toward the cabin, and for a left they’d reverse the process. When they finally camped for the night, the mosquitoes were so thick that you couldn’t open your mouth without a swarm of them flying in. Sam Poole had a carton of cigarettes on board; the smoke would keep the mosquitoes off, but the priest wouldn’t permit the nuns to use them. “Okay, Father, now look,” Tsalickis said. “See, Ah don’t smoke, an’ here Ah am smokin’. That l’il girl girl don’t smoke, an’ she’s smokin’. The sisters here, they gonna smoke, an’ Father, while you’re in here with me, you’re gonna smoke….” The plane, a Grumman Duck, is still off to one side of the airfield at Leticia, nose down. When they got it back and took the inspection plate from the right wing, all the bolts were sheared off.
The Amazon River, passing Leticia, runs swiftly, losing speed only after it broadens and enters Brazil. Between the piranha and the uses to which the Indians put the river, it is not a good idea to swim in it here. The clear, still, inland lakes are better for that. Because of the swift current, the Amazon is brown and murky, yet certain sunsets on special afternoons can make it look suddenly pale blue and inviting. Most of the shoreline is clogged by jungle, lined with rubber trees and mahogany. On the Brazilian side, the banks rise as high as forty feet, sloping gradually. But mostly the jungle grows out onto the river. The branches clot together, forming weird shapes over the water, obscuring the view inland. Small Indian dugouts move along the bank and disappear into the reeds through passages so narrow you wouldn’t think a snake could get through them.
Mike Tsalickis admits that there is probably something a little odd in an American making this his home, although he himself never really felt the incongruity. He knows that there is something special, even romantic, about what he does here, and he frankly revels in that. He has seen a mud-front trading post turned into a civilized town, its population quadrupled, its living standards immeasurably improved, its remoteness reduced to a four-hour plane ride from Bogota, and he knows exactly how much of that he is responsible for. But finally, it is a matter of his finding it beautiful here. He never expects to live anyplace else.
Once, in Bogota, where he is an authentic celebrity, I met him for dinner. He was wearing a coat and tie, sitting against the wall of the restaurant, with his thumb hooked onto the cleft of his chin. His eyes were closed as if he’d just wanted to rest them for a second, but he was actually asleep. He looked like a Greek businessman on the verge of middle age, a little frail and so unlike himself that for a moment I didn’t recognize him. Dressed for dinner, sitting in a good restaurant, he seemed as out of context as I would have if I’d turned up on a jungle trail wearing a three-piece suit. On the river, he never looked his age. In fact, he never looked any age at all. It was something that never occurred to you. He had come to Bogota for a few days of relaxation. By the second day his complexion looked almost gray, and he was sleeping badly. He would do a few errands and then sit over coffee, staring uneasily at nothing in particular. On the third day, after a few phone calls, he found out about a plane that was leaving in the morning for Leticia, canceled his appointments in Bogota, and left.