Monday, 31 March 2014

O voador (or the story of an alternative taxonomic system)

Santo Antonio, Príncipe. 7 pm. After carefully pondering the vast possible choice of eating venues, one evening I decided to eat at “Bella’s”, since it was the only restaurant open (out of the two existing). The term “restaurant” has to be read here in its more etymological denotation i.e. from the French restaurer 'provide food for' (literally 'restore to a former state'). Bella’s is, in fact, a rather ramshackle wooden kiosk selling a minimalistic menu of grilled fish and salt-less fried bananas.
I approached the generously sized owner, Mrs. Bella herself, while she was ungracefully grilling some fish on a couple of charcoal stoves, right on the street, and politely I asked my rhetorical question:

-          Tem peixe?
(Excuse me Madam, do you happen to have, by any chance, some fish tonight, although I know you have since you are cooking some in front of my eyes?)

But I was rather surprised by the answer I received:

-          Não!
(Good evening to you Sir. I am very sorry but I am afraid we don’t have any fish tonight)

As she was finishing her sentence, she was turning a fish on the grill, in order to burn it evenly on both sides. Thus I was pretty sure my question had been misheard or misunderstood…or both.
I repeated my question only to receive the same, but slightly more annoyed answer. Incredulous and confused, I mechanically asked once more, but by now she had already lost interest in answering. There were a few seconds of perplexed silence. I then summoned my courage and, pointing at the now evenly charred fish, I asked:

-          Que é isso?
(I am sorry to disturb you once again, Madam, would you be so kind to tell me what is this delicious looking black animal which you are so skilfully cooking?)

She looked at me with patronising despise, as if I had just asked her to help me to count up to two, and then grunted:
-          Isso é voador.
(Of course, Sir, you don’t disturb at all. To the best of my zoological knowledge, this is a Flyer

Flying fish (© Pearson Scott Foresman)

I suddenly realised that I had just discovered a whole new animal classification, and defeated by the extensive evidence I had been presented with, I didn’t argue any further and ordered a voador (a flying fish for western science) for my dinner.

Intrigued by this incident, I  then spoke to other people who confirmed that animals are classified differently here in Príncipe. Even if I can understand how whales can be mistaken for fishes, I am slightly more surprised by the fact that, despite the striking anatomical differences, turtles are also considered fish simply because they swim. So in that case, I wondered, how would the local taxonomy describe the voador? I had my best chance of finding out, just a few days later, while I was having a chat, in another “restaurant”, with the veterinary of the island - surely a man who best knows his animals…The man seemed to fully adhere to the criteria of the local taxonomy and confirmed once again what by now many others have told me, thus I asked him:

-          So what is a voador if it is not a fish?

I sarcastically filled the few seconds of embarrassed silence that followed my question with yet another ironic and rhetorical question:

-          A bird?

By now, I should have known better…
A light shined in his eyes as he answered:

-          Yes! Most probably yes! It flies after all….  

Monday, 17 March 2014

Meat at the Market

The market in Santo Antonio, Príncipe, is the bustling heart of town where it all happens, where business is made, and where you can buy each of those five or six vegetables available on the island. The structure is a small warehouse half full of very loud and argumentative women all selling the same minimalistic selection of expensive vegetables. Other goods available are: a staggering variety of plastic flip-flops and the little fish that fishermen didn’t manage to sell on the way from the port.
But today something different was happening. The excitement was tangible. Word had spread that today there was beef available in the market, a true rarity and an event itself.
It’s not that cattle are rare, but there seems to be an inexplicable resistance by the local people to actually kill them and sell the meat. And they are definitely not raising them for milk, or as pets.
Lured by the novelty, I too decide to try my chance and go to buy some meat to spice up my fish-and-rice-only diet.
Once I managed to penetrate the noisy crowd I reached the object of the general desire, but if I was expecting some more or less neatly arranged stacks of meat cuts, I was soon disappointed…

The market in Santo Antonio, Príncipe (Photo: Nuno Barros)

There, on one of the market’s concrete slabs, lay a full cow. The body had been disassembled into five or six recognizable pieces, which now lay in a heap under the attentive eyes of the potential buyers. To one side the head of the poor animal seemed to be observing with glassy eyes the customers buying its body. Potential buyers argued cuts and prices amongst the general confusion, then, once the deal had been settled, the seller selected a piece of the cow, laid it on a wooden block and with a blunt machete hacked meat and bones alike till the desired portion of meat had been parted from the rest. People around seemed hypnotised by the scene, so much so that they didn’t notice the squirts of blood and pieces of meat landing all over them. The same can’t be said about the pack of excited stray dogs that mobbed the scene, licking blood from the floor, catching flex of meat in mid-air and continuously risking decapitation to steal bits of gristle from the block. Once in a while someone remembered to chase them away, but they were never gone for long. More difficult was the titanic battle against the swarms of flies which kept on landing on the meat, totally unfazed by the helpless attempts to brush them away.

I'm not a squeamish person and living in the tropics has taught me to lower my expectations on hygienic standards, nonetheless today the whole “pulp film” scene convinced me to stick to my fish-and-rice-only diet for a little longer…after all it is very healthy.