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….  

1 comment:

  1. Your Portugese is beautiful, neighbour. Who knew so few words could say so much...