Frigate Birds and Cordia Trees

posted in: Travel, Childhood | 1

Castles of clouds, huge turrets and domes against brilliant blue–we stared into the towering white and found the scissor wings of frigate birds. They soared so high we sometimes lost them, then two or three would reappear, wheeling together, never flapping their wings, so perfectly constructed that they remained aloft with almost no effort at all.

When the fisherman returned each morning with their catch, we watched from a breakfast place on the harbor while frigate birds and pelicans and gulls fought over the guts. Diving straight down into the green-blue water, making waves with their plummeting, the huge black birds pierced their catch with their red beaks and lifted off, now rather slow and awkward, trailing guts which pelicans and gulls tried to gobble from the other ends.

Maybe we were too besotted with langor to care, but the language difference kept us in ignorance of many things. Even though I’d studied Spanish in high school and many individual Spanish words resembled Italian, it took many visits for us to figure things out. For instance, “cara quinze.” A waiter leaned over us repeating the phrase and I stared at him in entire puzzlement. We’d been mixing English and Spanish rather comfortably, a phrase here, a word there, then all of a sudden, “cara quinze.”

The question was, how often did movies change in the theater on the main square. Not that we intended to step next door from the Super Mercato and take in a film. The theater with its fly-spattered glass and littered entrance suggested a fetid interior, and we had come to Isla to be outside in the evenings, walking slowly along the harbor after dinner, after the tropical sun dropped into the ocean. We stared across the dark water to the necklace of lights draped along the mainland and were entirely happy. Neapolitan songs from years before came to mind, their rhythms undulating with the soft plash of waves.

I was a girl again walking the harbor in Charleston, an ice cream cone in one hand, my father’s warm fingers in the other. We were singing together “Now neath the silver moon, oceans are flowing,” from Santa Lucia. The immediacy of the past I’d left so far behind could not be matched by anything on the silver screen, but we were mildly curious as the gentle-mannered Mayan man paused beside our plates of huevos rancheros. “Cara quinze,” he said, in answer to my question about the frequency of movies. “Cara quinze.”

Most of the Islenos who worked in hotels and restaurants spoke enough English to understand and answer the usual questions, and we could nicely respond, “Gracias.” But all sorts of phenomena they took for granted completely stumped us: like the trees, unlike anything we’d ever seen except for the huge rubber trees. With their boats of dark gleaming leaves, they spread enormous limbs across the sand, and eventually their air roots caught hold of the earth, giving the sense of an entire village gathered to support one enormous trunk.

Slowly with the aid of little books purchased here and there–their covers faded from waiting in sunny racks for years–we identified cordia trees with their small orange blossoms, and the traveller’s palms, their fronds arranged in fans awaiting the appearance of celestial “Aida.” We identified the Australian pines with their feathery branches, planted in the square and cropping up elsewhere, probably volunteers helped along by birds.

It turned out that the local people didn’t have the same names for these trees as the ones we learned in books. There’d be a startling awareness as I said the name from the book, and they immediately replaced it with something “foreign.” Who were the natives here?

Fran called his favorite bush which grew on the ocean side among the rocks, the “honey plant” because its tiny sprigs of white flowers had such an intense perfume it almost put us to sleep. We tracked it along the rocks, bending to inhale the fragrance and standing up, reeling with delight. Then after the hurricane, it almost disappeared. Fran was distraught: we searched hither and yon, under the wrecked palms and down on the huge rocks above the now mild ocean. Finally just south of the square on the rocks below Rocamar, we spied it again, though approaching was quite difficult, the rocks had sharp high edges, and this was not, after all, a public beach. No Isleno we ever asked, even showing them a sprig Fran had picked and stuck in his hat band, ever gave it a name. It was simply local, part of the scene where they worked and lived and probably struggled more than we could imagine, we with our gringo curiosity about what was an exotic escape from our exhausting dark and winter cold.

Finally, not far from the turquoise beach, one mystery was resolved. It was in the elegant restaurant named for another Maria, attached to a new colony of time-share apartments which had risen between one winter and the next. Here, facing the gentle lap, lap of the waves, we were served the best Cesar’s salad either of us had ever eaten. It was made by a waiter who was not one of the Mayan natives, but like us something of an import–he from Mexico City. Tall and curly-haired–all the local people had straight Mayan hair and the most beautiful noses in the world–this waiter performed his magic over the salad bowl, and joked with us about words and names and dishes. “What does it mean, ‘cara quinze?'” I finally asked him.

He looked mildly amused: “It’s Spanish for every two weeks, you know cara, meaning every, and quinze meaning fifteen.”

“Oh,” I marveled, now completely unable to recall what the same expression would be in Italian, but finally grasping that the movie theater changed its offerings twice a month. In fact, the learning had far more to do with understanding how much we were outsiders than with allowing us to penetrate deeper into real Isleno life. Now, looking back, I suspect that we were meant to know any more than the filaments we slowly acquired. Isla had to protect her mystery from us, and we did not truly want her unveiled.

  1. Anonymous

    I’m just catching up on your blog. Now I must add Isla to my list of places to see!
    Barb P

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