July 12, 2008
Oh Those Tropical Sounds
Still in Fiji, I open my eyes to a lizard on a pillar near my bed. He’s rather low I think. Okay, so he’s not a lizard. He’s one of those geckos that used to plague my ceilings and walls when I lived in Florida, Arizona, Australia, South Africa, Kenya, Greece. They’re everywhere, following me to every tropical destination.
While I know that they’re not only harmless but eat other insects I don’t necessarily want to wake up with, my heart still jumps quietly whenever I see one, even the small ones.
There’s another one scrambling up my thatched door. The windows have those wooden slats that close using a side latch and behind them, screens. Screens always have small holes though and geckos aren’t the only creatures to get in.
You’d think with the amount of third world countries I’ve traveled to and lived in, I’d be far far beyond a heart skip from a gecko on the wall. I always used to think that moving to California would make me soft – and forget – and perhaps it has.
I do find it hard to write there for some odd reason. “No edge,” someone once told me. “Not enough inspiration,” said another. “No creatures on the walls,” I wonder. Never mind. Let’s hope for other reasons.
The sounds outside my windows are remarkably tropical, sounds we simply don’t have in the states, except for perhaps one remote Hawaiian bungalow where the bedroom I slept in nearly twenty years ago, was near the tree tops and far away from a city.
Africa was where those sounds became very real for me and left a lasting imprint on my senses. I was still a teenager when I first went to southern Africa and the journey was a long one – a year in total. I moved in with an English South African family, who lived in a one story adobe-like house in a nice Johannesburg suburb. They had two daughters, two dogs and I think a bird and a cat. There was also an amazing sprawling garden that wrapped around the house like wild but well-manicured Ivy.
Feels like so long ago and yet…….I was adult enough to wake up to jungle-like sounds outside my bedroom window on my first morning at their house and remind myself, “you silly sod and sod, you’re not anywhere close to a jungle. You’re in a South African suburb and are starting school in a few days, one with formal uniforms. Where’s your mind at?”
Keep your windows closed, my host mom would say and check your shoes before you put them on. “Why?” I asked. Snakes love to hide in the closets of course, something she grew up with, first in Zambia and later here. Snakes, deadly spiders, and other hairy monsters would fill my early dreams. The same thing was told to me when I lived in Sydney and later in more rural areas in both countries.
Later that same year, I was living with farmers in the northern Transvaal, sharing a thatched hut with their son Richard, a few years older than me. He was a white South African who I often called "Bush Man."
His accent wasn’t like other white South African I had met along the way and he knew the African bush as well if not better than the black South Africans who had been working the same land for the last two generations. He spoke their language too and then some.
One morning, while I was wiping my eyes from the morning sun and not quite awake, I see out of the corner of my eye Richard grab his shotgun from over his bed, move into action and take a shot towards the window. Dead on. He nailed it.
Dumbfounded and bleary eyed, I saw that a snake had made its way in from a tree branch outside our open window. Monster snake. I couldn’t bare to look so instead just screamed.
This kind of thing happened again and again over the years although the circumstances were always different. In Egypt in a third class train carriage, while walking through an Indian market near Bombay, a Nepalese wilderness park where a snake made it into our hut but not inside the mosquito nets.
And so on.
Then there was that small sparse room in Uganda, Wally and Dizzy’s farmhouse in Zambia, and a school classroom in Lamu Kenya where I taught small Kenyan girls how to do silly line dances. Could have would have in northern Guatemala in that tropical jungle had it not been so damn cold at night.
The noises always bring me back. It would be better if they didn’t exist perhaps or that I just learn how to change the connection between those jungle-like tropical noises and crawling creatures I don’t want to share a bed with. The former is such a treasure though and not something you’d want to give up.
The noises go with the brightly colored flowers you only see on tropical warm balmy islands. Birds chatter and sing louder here, particularly in the mornings like they did today.
Jetlegged on the first morning, I was up reading at 4:30 am and it was serenely quiet. Ah solitude. By 6 am, the Fijian birds had started their chorus. By 7, they were so loud, I needed to close the shutters if I stood any chance at all of a peaceful read.
Their calls were so addictive though that it was hard to resist not tuning into their calls. I wanted to find them and call back – “how do I sing out so beautifully like you? What’s a mating call versus a morning hello, how are you? What does your dance look like?”
Not a morning person even at the best of times, I found myself on my patio by 7 in an Adirondack-like chair with old fashioned busy printed cushions, lurking with colors from the early seventies. I made a cup of tea, boiling it twice just in case, put my feet up on a curvy handmade Fijian wooden table outside, nestled back into my chair and watched, waited and watched. Waited and watched.
I didn’t see the birds, but I could clearly hear them as I’m sure everyone on the island could regardless of where they lived. I leaned my head back and thought of all the tropical sounds and birds I had met along my life journey so far. And then I just listened for a really long time.
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