Emma Fiza Jacobsen, a graduate student in ornithology, couldn’t believe her eyes as the plane took off for her maiden voyage to the Mecca of birders, the forests of Colombia. Emma and birding had a love affair from their first encounter. She was then the shy little girl in social purgatory, receiving incessant ribbings from her classmates due to her front snaggleteeth. A time when she used to suck her thumb, and her classmates bestowed the name “toothy” upon her, much to her chagrin. That nickname alternated with “wabbit,” made famous by Elmer Fudd in the Bugs Bunny cartoon. This putdown made her sad, and she became withdrawn and distraught because nobody cared to play with her. She felt like an outcast.
She first realized there was a price to pay for looking different than the other students. A permanent bull’s-eye came writ large on her forehead for standing out. She was the only biological child of a mixed couple; yet each parent had a child from a previous marriage. The eldest was a blond boy; the next was a Sudanese-born girl. Her father was a third-generation Dane, and her mother was from the Sudan. Her first name is common in Denmark, whereas her middle name came from her mom’s Sudanese culture. The spontaneous love at home was very soothing; she learned that the inner soul, rather than the outer shell, ought to represent the essence of a person. Her family lived in a mostly Caucasian community in a Connecticut suburbia. Nonetheless, solace against the misery endured away from home during the day couldn’t arrive soon enough. It came by happenstance and from the least likely place.
Her teacher once brought a National Geography magazine that featured birds galore. The stunning display of bright hues worn by these creatures struck a chord that had yet to stop vibrating since. The kaleidoscope of tints, the magistery of a diving peregrine falcon, the fastest animal on earth, and the steadiness of a hummingbird feeding off the nectar of a flower in midair just kept her in awe. The concept and the mechanics behind the propulsion and stability of an airborne animal riveted her mind. This opened a heretofore-closed door and exposed it to a fascinating set of facts ready for discovery, easily observable. Hence, her ego moved from the pulverizing pestle of her classmates’ tart tongues to the exhilaration of feel-good satisfaction as it gained more self-assurance in acquiring more knowledge.
Instead of licking her wounds or nursing hurt feelings from ostracism, she went full throttle into the world of birds. Far from a simple passive observer, she embraced the whole experience. She begged and obtained a parakeet at home, which became her burden to feed her, clean the cage, and make sure the bird returned to the cage after a time out of it. She started learning about birds by perusing pamphlets from the local Audubon Society. This newfound passion helped her in more ways than one. She learned about the longstanding relationship between humankind and birds. Carrier pigeons predated the regular postal service. Falconry served as a means of survival and leisure that went back centuries. In the first instance, it provided a source of nourishment as meat to its trainer after a successful hunt. In the second instance, falcon hunting rings more like a sporting event. This popular custom carries a different meaning in diverse societies like impoverished Mongolia or wealthy Qatar. Pushing this indulgence to an extreme, this wealthy nation has built falcon hospitals. She became “a guru on birds,” as her siblings would say later, once she decided to be at her pet’s beck and call to spark the pent-up passion bursting at the seams.
From the onset, her reading ability expanded by leaps and bounds. Listening to the audio tapes while visualizing the text accelerated her fluency. That allowed her to leapfrog her classmates. Jealousy displaced disdain as the motivation to dislike her. Hence the heckling wouldn’t stop. Therefore, she changed from a frail, fearful youngster into a tomboy able and willing to mix it up and use her brawn to fend for herself. Of course, behind her back, the same wicked tongues would label her, “lumberjack.” Quite a few times, she gave a licking to her peers when she would catch them red-handed spewing such insults. She resented such negative judgment. She never harbored any desire to be manly; she was very much into girlie tastes and aspirations. Albeit such minor miscues, her alpha disposition rewarded her immensely.
She learned to construct bird feeders and benefitted quite a bit from this simple food prop. It became a vantage point of attraction for birds. She would climb a tree and put a fallen birdie back into her nest. She would, at times, venture to watch birds from unusual spots. A significant milestone occurred when she received a set of binoculars as a birthday gift. Be it beginner’s luck, she caught a not-so-common species, the fork-tailed flycatcher, when she first used them. The long tail split in the middle mesmerized her, and that species reached the top spot on her favorites’ list. She became inseparable from the binoculars and treated the tool with a kid’s glove. Birding over the years grew into learning the different aspects of avian life: signature warbling, habitat, migrating pattern, sight identification, and most of all, patience to wait for a good sighting. This learning process was a lifelong endeavor and a very humbling one at that. As good as her proficiency had developed in recognizing different calls, she couldn’t mimic those calls well. That was a science in of itself.
Gender determination by sight was also another mountain to climb. She could talk about and or describe with effusive persuasion various tidbits. Ergo, the varying shades of lapis lazuli of a lazuli bunting, the vermilion plumage of an adult flycatcher, or the dazzling effect on the tints of a finch from yellow to bright red depending on the carotenoid content of its diet would be typical fare. Yet she would be hard-pressed to reproduce with her vocal cords the sonorous melodies these tiny creatures can grace us with. Be that as it may, Emma’s infatuation with birds, “the best example of the permutation of vibrant colors, vocal repertoire imaginable,” she would readily remind one, has refined and defined her life.
Emma has deftly mixed her feminine tendency with practical or pedestrian necessities. Hence at ease with hiking boots and shorts or cargo pants to engage rugged terrains, she could just as easily wow in a low-cut gown as a lithe buxom. She had long ago made sure that her effete self wouldn’t suffer. She had those snaggleteeth filed many moons ago and relied on avian species’ natural taming of tones to improvise awe-inspiring makeups. In a maddening reality, either her sharp wit or her café au lait hue discouraged suitors. Unlike the universal attraction among humans for the variegated colors in nature, skin tones didn’t benefit from such relish. Her complexion sometimes became a victim of others’ racial sensibilities. Some found her too dark, while others recoiled at her lack of melanin. Not fitting into a homogeneous crowd became her bane.
Juggling her way into such a crowd had become her lifelong adaptation, just like accepting polluted air as a condition of staying alive. Her father had insisted on all siblings reading the book, The Color of Water by James McBride, a physician who doubled as a writer. It’s an autobiography chronicling the pitfalls of marrying outside one’s clan. In this case, his white Jewish mother chose an African American, and her family spurned her. Since Emma’s fancy entailed the visual world, she had the added duty of reading The Island of the Colorblind by the late Oliver Sacks, the renowned neuroophtalmologist. The book deals with people with congenital absolute color blindness who then rely on other senses and the detection of textures and slight variations of tones. As a family, they had all watched the CBS 60 Minutes profile on architect Chris Downey. He lost sight at age 45 and continued to design based on a new awareness of one’s surroundings based on aural perceptions. She researched the topic, including the life of the famed crooner Ray Charles, who became blind in early childhood. All this preparation took place under the tutelage of a dad who wanted a proactive disposition to face our not-so-kind world. “Humans are complicated, mirroring the complexities of our body’s functions. One needs to avoid the two extremes, naiveté and cynicism, and burnish our understanding of behavior that can be unpredictable in so many ways. Be always prepared to avoid surprises,” her father and mother would keep reminding her.
By choosing birding as a pastime, that recreation carried the distinction of a rarefied environment, a field barren of diversity among its aficionados. While tolerated in such circles, she has had slim pickings socially throughout the years. By a twist of events, nothing prepares one for Tantric sensations more than observation of bird behavior. The long and twisted phallus of a duck and a video of the sublime mating ritual of satin bowerbirds, endemic in Australia, influence the observer. Emma has overheard birders opine on the erotic repercussions of this act of voyeurism. The balsamic nature of watching two cooing doves is notorious. Her longstanding adventure with birds made her a perfect fit for a foray into ornithology, garnering her excellent grades. After graduating from Cornell University, which she attended on an academic scholarship, it devolved into a cinch to win a Smithsonian Fellowship and research into the avian haven on earth, Colombia. She was salivating at the treasure trove awaiting her. The planning of the trip occurred as a collaborative effort with the Smithsonian Institute. She did research that dovetailed with the institution’s resources of a network of reliable agencies to guide their Fellows on foreign soil.
Emma wanted to kill many birds with one stone, no pun intended. Her research has pointed to Colombia, gifted with numerous terrains and tropical microclimates, as the ideal place. It holds the ranking of hosting the most endemic species of birds and their largest population. Its flora also deserves recognition. Many of its cities built on plateaus evinced the nexus of a cool climate, rain, and sun on the growth of flowers; Medellín reigns as the poster city of such reality. Their horticultural propensity rivals the best gardens in London. In the northern part, not far from the famed Cartagena, a sizable population of Afro-descendants had established roots and a distinct culture in the Palenque region, and she wanted to venture into that zone to see birds and local customs. The Aviario Nacional de Colombia ranked high on her radar.
Her itinerary would land her at the airport in Cartagena. This sea-coast city emulates the slave trade heritage: poor descendants of enslaved people at the bottom of the social ladder, providing a workforce for menial labor. A bustling town dependent on tourism with many historic edifices from the colonial era. She polished her Spanish to converse with the locals and carried a conversational booklet; a translation app added the icing on the cake. She wanted to be able to get out of any bind. While in the plane, Emma was reviewing some of the heralded species from the country, a true smorgasbord of offerings: large beaks like the toucan, the aracari, large sizes like the king vulture or the osprey; magnificent gliders like the frigatebird, the caracara; the puny American pygmy kingfisher. Of course, the wide varieties of flycatchers, probably the largest in the world, exist in this part. The thought of that made her drool. High on the list of birds to see included parrots, macaws, and parakeets, to name a few. Enough to keep her busy for days on end. Finding a reliable guide would come in handy, especially for a single woman in a macho environment.
Emma’s experience in Colombia became a life-changing adventure. The traveling agency provided a driver to pick her up at the airport. He was a bubbly lad, barely older than her, with typical Latin American mannerisms of hand gesturing, somewhat touchy-feely, and very talkative. He looked like a bodybuilder and kept singing along with the tunes playing on the radio. Intermittently, he would also whistle with ease and precision, reminding her of Bobby McFerrin, who epitomizes the voice as a legitimate instrument. “My name is Cholo. Are you here to admire our birds? I can definitely help with that! You will see.” He said it with a good-natured smile. “I have always liked birds and have been playing with them since I was a boy. I have a way with them. You will see.” He dropped her off at a hotel near the city’s Old Section. Before leaving, they had this exchange haltingly, he in English and she in Spanish. “I can pick you up anytime tomorrow. Let me know. I will be your guide. I know this whole area really well. I can definitely take you to Palenque, where I am from. We have lots of birds there too. You will see.”
“Palenque, you said? Whoa! I do want to visit that. Come at eight and be on time.”
“On time? No need to remind me of that. I am a pro! You will see.”
She wasn’t sure what to make of this last statement. Was it hubris mixed with bluster or a genuine offer? All the same, his liking of birds brought the bliss of fresh air. After a long flight from JFK airport, she decided to rest a bit, and she ate at the hotel’s restaurant, located on its top floor, with a stunning view of the city. The food was delicious. Far from luxurious, the accommodation was adequate. The next day, Cholo came fifteen minutes before eight. His car radio played an upbeat tune, and he kept bobbing his head, snapping his fingers, singing, and whistling, a tapestry of carefree disposition à gogo.
“On time, not CP time! You see.” He gleefully stated when she came down. She had spotted him from the roof where she was finishing breakfast. His good humor became contagious, like good- karma spreading. “Nothing better to start a day,” she thought. His biceps bulged through his tee shirt, and his skin was lustrous. Emma caught herself paying attention to his physical attributes, a surprising departure, as she usually went for the mind first in gauging a fellow. She went sightseeing in Old Cartagena, a marvel of well-kept colonial architecture. She insisted on walking the narrow streets. She wanted to bask in the look and feel of the city and not just see it from a tourist’s angle. She quickly noticed a tale of two worlds gliding past one another: a butler’s in the streets and a patrician’s in the stores, with strict racial demarcation. She also swooned at the sight of so many mestizos like her. She saw something new: vendors selling tropical fruits carved with designs rivaling a topiary display. She marveled at the pain of sculpting them so artfully to beckon one’s taste buds into high gear. That new environment was unfamiliar. Back in the States, sanitary rules would keep them indoors, but their operation in the open air carried a verve and a pulse, adding a bit of excitement. Folks seemed more lively and far less confined.
For the well-heeled, many quaint shops offered the gamut of luxury goods. A dearth of Afro-descendants among the operators of businesses clashed with their preponderance as menial workers, ubiquitous in the streets. Her mind kept reverting to the spectrum of skin shades among the passers-by that mimicked the United Nations demonstration of her siblings. With combos playing, shops blaring Cumbia music, and its rhythmic pulse, this made for a joyful celebration of a people indulging and enjoying life, regardless of economic hardships. Cholo made a demonstration that pleased her. While taking a breather from the heat, perspiring profusely at a small, shaded square, she sat at a table and relished a delicious coconut ice cream; birds were flocking to him because he was imitating their calls.
By midday, she had seen enough of the Old Section to venture elsewhere. She looked at the area map and saw that San Basilio was a short distance. “One-hour tops,” Cholo said. “Vamos nos,” she suggested. Cholo became elated when she asked him to go there. He spontaneously started a history lesson about the whole slave revolt and their relocation into this region, akin to their maroons in the West Indies, except that their isolation remained permanent, and they developed their own language. “In the Americas, a similar cultural event happened in Belize with the Garifuna and in South Carolina with the Geechee.”
“Which university did you attend?” She inquired as he impressed her more and more.
“University? Not for people like me. Born in Palenque? Not a fat chance. We have limited opportunities. We are nonexistent. We only get support for playing in the national football team. You will see.” He remained sad for a minute and then started whistling again. This time he put on a virtuoso performance just like McFerrin did in that seminal recorded performance with Yoyo Ma, where his voice, as a separate instrument, pitted against the cello made for a beautiful aural experience. The whistling only got him started. “You should also know that our cuisine is world famous and I venture to say the best! You will see. A cookbook is written in our language, Kumina ri Palenge pa tó paraje. It was written by 38 cooks in my town, San Basilio, and competed against more than 15,000 recipe books submitted from 184 countries. It won a competition in Beijing in 2014 held by Gourmand Cookbook Award.” As he was riffing, Emma did a Google search and verified everything to a “t.” That book is available on the UNESCO website with translations in French and English. Once she arrived at San Basilio, she entered a time-suspended world holding a loose link with the modern one. San Basilio de Palenque, a UNESCO world-heritage place with its language, Palenquera, is barely 30 miles south of Cartagena. This small agglomeration of no more than a few thousand souls resembled any small village in Africa, with domesticated goats and hogs running free and rummaging.
Unstated was the fact, so commonly observed in Latin America, of government neglect of black communities, their existence nesting off the national conscience grid. She couldn’t wait to sample the gastronomic wonders whose existence she had never heard of till now. When they reached their destination, folks flocked to Cholo, many of them young women. Some elders came also, and it was apparent he told them he had an interested client he wanted to impress. Soon after his arrival, Cholo took Emma to the edge of the forest, and he made a special effort to show off his unique way with birds. He made no fewer than eight bird calls, and before long, birds on the branches first and then on the ground milled around him, feeding off breadcrumbs he was dispensing. Emma felt like a child at a candy store. Her beloved flycatchers in all hues and varying sizes and shapes of tails came as if greeting her on cue. One would think they had an inkling she would come to visit them from a long distance. The birds seemed to relish Cholo’s presence as if he had been absent for a while. Several landed on his head and forearms like pets welcoming their human friend.
The varieties of birds, species, and subspecies, as well as the evolving shades of a given species as an age-related factor, astonished her as she had never seen such numbers or such a palette at once. “Such beautiful creatures; if I can’t go to them, I must find a way to have them come to me, as you can see.” He said this with the glee and satisfaction all animal lovers can relate to. Emma admired his vocal skills, a feat she compared to the ability to make the click sounds of the Xhosa language of South Africa, whose most famous member was Madiba. That admiration is all the more warranted when one experiences the frustration of trying to make the sound. Emma shared Cholo’s enrapture with the flock of birds. She clicked many pictures. The birds were so close that she had no use for the binoculars. She and Cholo went from one feast to another. “Food is ready,” announced a middle-aged lady in Palenquera. But it needed no translation. As they came closer, the aroma of the meals wafted through the air and created an irresistible pull that one spells “only one option.”
It didn’t take long for the feast to start after thorough hand washing. Emma had the following 3-course meal: sweet cassava mash as an appetizer, for main course Macaco fish stew with ripe plantain rice, and for dessert, coconut candy with panela (brown sugar) and pineapple. Of course, an excellent lime juice accompanied that. Emma had never experienced spices that so thoroughly titillated her taste buds or instilled such a desire to eat more. Ordinarily, she was a finicky eater, like one with a bird’s appetite. Today it reeked of gluttony out of nowhere. Cholo’s portions were quite sizable, and many times, he would repeat delicioso, or sabroso, with such a convincing mien and flattering ring that incited further indulgence and blessed or excused any excessive gratifications. In a segue, several young women came and started playing music, and of course, Cholo joined them in stepping with fleeting feet in a cadence that swirled them rhythmically and sensually. Mixing food and music retained an allure spanning large swaths of the diaspora. A conclusion she would draw again and again during her stay.
Emma immediately observed that with Cholo around, “birds and young women suddenly appear.” That reminded her of a song she used to hum as a youngster. Therein started her exploration of a foreign culture, rich in tradition, even bereft of financial success. This handsome Cholo guy began to intrigue her. (To be continued.)
Reynald Altéma, MD