Monday, December 17, 2012

Pacific Warmth - (May 2011)

Coconut palms are plentiful on the island of Luta
Rota is hot.  Not just hot, but humid.  Like a warm, wet blanket on your shoulders this three-dimensional heat takes some getting used to.  But what really took me off guard was another type of warmth, one I had never quite experienced in North America.

The day began like any other.  Cypress and I struggled out of sleep, hitting snooze a few times before crawling out of bed.  Bleary-eyed, I wandered out to the kitchen to prepare breakfast for our three captive crows and Cypress boiled water for our coffee.

I headed down to the aviary with two bowls of boiled eggs, Triphasia berries, and mealworms.  One portion for Sonny, and one helping each for Latte and Graucho.  With the crows fed, Cyrpress and I focused on our own breakfast of fresh ripe papaya and grilled peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches.  We sipped hot coffee and attempted the Thursday New York Times crossword puzzle.  At 8:30 we were out the door and heading north on our tiny island.  I dropped Cypress off at the golf course to look for Tiger Woods (the crow, not the golfer) who was recently fit with a radio transmitter.  I then headed southeast toward the As Matmos fishing cliffs to locate Roo, an adult female Mariana Crow.  As Matmos is Chamorro for "the drowning place", a fitting name for the precipitous limestone cliffs that receive continuous thrashings from angry Pacific waves.
Artocarpus or Breadfruit Tree

I drove slowly along the sun-bleached limestone road and stopped near the entrance to the ancient Mochong Beach latte stone village (some over one-thousand years old).  A light wind played a papery song through the Pandanus leaves and felt cool against the sweat that had already accumulated on my skin.  The air was alive with the chirps and screeches of Black Drongos and Micronesian Honeyeaters. Fairy Terns and White-tailed Tropicbirds floated silently upon the warm breeze.

I reached into the truck, pulled out an antenna and and attached it to my radio receiver with a coaxial cable.  Holding the antenna high above my head with one hand, I flicked through the frequencies on the small receiver until I found Roo's with the other.  Only the sound of static escaped the speaker.  I adjusted the gain until a faint, steady beep could be heard to the northwest.  I climbed back into the truck and headed further down the road.
On my way I passed a lime-green pick-up parked off to the side.  It was common practice for locals to hunt coconut crabs and fruit doves, and I figured these people were doing just that.

When I reached the Maya latte stone village to the north I tried for Roo again.  This time I detected her to the southeast.  Judging by the strength of the pulse I knew she was close, so I continued on foot.  As I made my way through the thick, tangled underbrush of Eugenia, Guamia and Maytenis, the beeps grew louder.  I paused to get an accurate direction when suddenly, I heard two harsh cries in the direction my antenna pointed.  It was Roo calling to her mate.  I stealthily made my way over to her and sat quietly beneath the large Neisosperma tree where she and her mate were perched.  I marked a waypoint on my GPS and scribbled some observations in my bright yellow Rite-in the Rain notebook while the pair preened quietly.
Mariana Crows are critically endangered - and seriously awesome

A few minutes ticked by and the forest grew silent.  A hermit crab scuttled through the leaf litter and wasps glided sleepily from flower to flower through the humid shade.  I waited a few more minutes to see if the crows would do anything of interest but they seemed to be content in their lazy morning silence, so I made my way back to the truck.

I exited the tangled tropical forest carefully, trying my best not to disturb the myriad wasp nests that littered the trees. Back on the road I began to head for my truck when a voice called out:

"Hi there!" A local man came down the road towards me and I realized he was the owner of the green truck I'd seen earlier.  "Sorry to bother you, are you Fish and Wildlife?" "Not exactly", I replied.  "I'm with the University of Washington - I work with the Aga." "Ah", he said with some recognition then continued, "My aunt and I were out here collecting medicinal plants but our truck ran out of gas.  Could you possibly give her a ride back to Sinapalu so she can get fuel?"

I hesitated for a moment as I looked at him, then at her.  I nodded and smiled, "Of course". The two strangers ran ahead of me to grab something from the bed of the truck.  The man picked up a large machete and my eyes grew wide with terror as they flicked from knife to man.  I stood frozen but remained calm.  Besdies, I had encountered random strangers carrying large knives before throughout my solo field wanderings.  Once while hiking around Mauritius I encountered a group of grim-looking monkey hunters streaked with dirt and sweat.  Since there was nowhere for me to hide, the only thing to do was smile and say, "Bonjour..."   They all broke out in wide toothy grins.  "Allo! Allo! Allo!"  And off they went into the jungle.

I heaved a sigh of relief when this knife-toting stranger proceeded to haul up a large green coconut from the bed of his truck. With one hand holding the bottom of the nut he swiped at the husk and hacked-off the top.  He handed it to me and told me to drink, "Nothing quenches your thirst like a young coconut!"

When I finished drinking the refreshing juice he took the coconut back from me and cut it in two.  He fashioned a scoop from a piece of the exterior shell and scooped-out some white jelly-like flesh and gave it back to me.  His aunt appeared beside me.  She didn't speak English, but her ancient face crinkled into a smile as she pushed a large hand of ripe bananas into my arms.  I was dumbfounded and felt guilty for thinking for a second that these people could do me harm.  I climbed into the truck and blushed as I placed the fruit on the dashboard.  The aunt climbed in next to me and I threw the truck into gear.
Thousand-year old Latte Stones like this one litter the forests of Luta.  They were once the stone pillars that ancient Chamorros built their huts upon
We drove down the dirt road toward town and despite my inability to understand Chamorro the Aunt and I managed to communicate.  I gathered through expressive hand gestures and a few random English words that she had been born here on the island, originally called "Luta" but the name was changed by the Japanese during their brief occupation during WWII because they couldn't pronounce the "R".  She had never left.

When we reached Sinapalu, she directed me to her home. I pulled up on her green lawn next to an old Honda Civic.  We were greeted by a small two-story cinder-block home with rebar poking out all over the roof, as though another story would someday come to pass.  They never did, however.

She motioned for me to follow her and we went around the back of the austere house.  I was greeted by a small outdoor kitchen with several hands of bananas hanging against wood- and stone walls.  She poured me a glass of cool water and looked pleased as I drank it down.  She disappeared into the house and came out with a bag full of freshly-caught squirrelfish.  I couldn't believe she was giving me more gifts for a quick ride to town.  I shook my head and put up my hands.  She looked disappointed and pushed the bags into my arms.  I asked if she had caught the fish herself.  She nodded as she turned around to grab her fishing rod.  She showed me the land crab she used to bait the hook.  The crab was past its prime but I smiled through the awful smell.

She patted me on the back as she walked me to my truck.  "Don't you need a ride back?"  I asked.  She shook her head no and pointed to the old car parked on the grass.  Before taking my leave I took her hands and thanked her.  As I headed back out into the field I marveled at what had just happened. People surprise the hell out of me sometimes.

After I found the rest of my crows, I returned home to cook my squirrelfish.  I paired it with fried bananas and shared them with the rest of the crew.  It was one of the best meals I'd ever be lucky enough to eat, and I savored every bite.
"As Matmos"

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