Frigate Birds

We are sitting on the beach of Majugual watching frigate birds gliding far overhead. Their silhouette is unmistakeable: a long crucifix shape, wings raked back to a point. They are motionless as they circle the thermals, but when they dive then their tail opens like a swallow’s, so they can fine-tune their trajectory, finding the optimal angle to hit the water and seize the fish beneath.

We’re not the only ones watching the birds. Every time they leave their distant circuit and start their long dives, an old man emerges from a patch of shade above the beach. Fishing rod in hand he bounds down the scorching sand. He is surely some way into his sixth decade but he still has an impressive turn of pace. He charges straight into the water, wading out to where the waves are breaking and starts casting lures into the area that the birds have indicated. He reels them in furiously and casts again, and the again, until he is rewarded.

We’ve watched three ventures so far and each time he’s landed at least one fat fish – they look like bass from where I’m sitting. He then runs back up above the water line and buries the still-flapping fish in the sand, before returning to the breakers. On this cue, a little old lady comes trotting down in her apron (they are all so energetic!). She digs up the catch and whisks it back up to the little taverna tucked up in the tree line, the simply, but appropriately, named Foods-Drinks. Sometimes there’s a man with a net who jogs down too if the shoal looks abundant, but he’s a less urgent runner and always seems to arrive too late.

This is quite a show and I sit there watching for a while. There is a mildly slapstick element to the sprint down the dunes, the fully-clothed plunge into the sea, the frantic speed of it all. Over time it becomes apparent that this is serious work though and smiles give way to admiration. The silent crouch under the palm tree reading the frigate birds, the sudden explosion of energy in the midday heat. This is a family team, I decide, they have fished these shores all their lives. They use the wisdom of their ancestors, following the birds to find the shoals, grilling their fresh catch on charcoal fires with wild garlic and lime. This interplay between man and nature feels primordial, maybe it has beeen passed down generational lines over hundreds of years. I can imagine indigenous tribesmen, squatting high up in the meagre shade centuries ago, squinting into the blue, twining nets between their fingers, ready for the abrupt shift from stillness into motion. The sparse landscape around them would be exactly the same as it is now.

I try to talk to the fisherman as he trudges back up after one foray, but he is taciturn and unwilling to talk through his ancestral history with a random gringo in the heat. In any case the birds are falling again, right at the other end of the beach, and he’s got a long run to do.

We decide that we must go and eat some of that fresh fish at Foods-Drinks. When we sit down for lunch however we discover we have made an unfortunate misunderstanding about who was supposed to bring the bankroll (Menna for sure), and of course they don’t take credit cards. We managed to stump up about four dollars in change and so the family ends up sharing a quesadilla and some patacones for lunch. We cannot participate in the fish-to-plate ritual. We must remain voyeurs, observing the ancient tradition from the outside, uninitiated, reduced to writing about it in blogs. I saw little old lady delivering a plate of fresh sea bass to a nearby table though and it looked really good.

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