Volcano. The heat comes from below and above. I buy a coconut the size of my head from a tiny old woman with a seamed face like crinkled parchment. She is all smiles, and laughs with good nature at my clumsy attempts to find words to make conversation. I have a musician's ear, which is very useful in learning foreign languages. Tends to lead me to near-flawless accents and the ability to follow people. However, it does nothing to improve my vocabulary. (Which makes people want to talk to me: the perfection of my accent and the lack of vocabulary makes me sound and speak like a child. Good vocabulary and poor accent would stamp me as a foreigner more harshly than pale skin and white hair and tattoos - these are a talkative people.)
She stands from behind the wooden box that serves her as table and stand, a limber, fragile-looking bundle of sticks. She wields a machete a third her diminutive size with deadly precision and force, cuts a flap in the top of the coconut. There is a single, perfect hole in the top, which she offers me a straw for.
The coconut water is not what I expected. It is a more complex flavor than the sweetened dried coconut we sprinkle on ice cream in the states. Somewhat sweet, slightly thicker than water, with an odd gliding texture in the mouth. It tastes, maybe, a little like unsweetened cream. It also has a fascinating taste I would describe as somewhere between 'alcohol' and 'sickly sweet'. If ice-cream-sprinkling coconut is a cute little bow, this was a gordian knot to untangle with the tongue, a mess of subtle tastes I could not quite identify. I like it.
She tells me of the parrots (choyocitos)- tiny green birds that live in this volcano and nowhere else. They build nests (!) inside the bowl of the volcano. No predators bother them there, because the fumes from the volcano condense into sulfuric acid in the lungs. The birds leave their safe nests and eat bugs and fruit and such. Their eggshells are 'very very strong' - the chicks require help to hatch, she tells me.
I walk to the edge of the volcano, clamber over rocks (pretending I cannot hear the worried shouts of my companions), peer into the bowl. Far below me, I can see the gaping glowing orangered mouth, see lava moving sluggishly, wierd little pools and eddies. Convection currents. It is very hypnotic - spirals and whorls of fire. The edges of the bowl run, black and thickly ridged, down to the lava, stone hands with far too many fingers holding the lava cupped within.
I wish suddenly that I was from a dark, backwater superstitious people, so I would have proper reverence for this thing, this demon. Instead, I let the litany of geophysical terms running through my mind be my offering to the fires below, worship born of wonder from this child of science: convection magma lahar mantle amygdaloidal mafic syncline igneous plagioclase caldera pyroclastic andesite isoclinal. The words slide off it, burn away. It is hard to make words stick to a thing of such power.
Steams rises in a thick white plume. I taste something very sour, and feel a painful burn on the back of my throat. It's as bad as getting teargassed (during the WTO riots. I get into a lot of trouble, don't I? Heh.) I take a sip of coconut water, and find it helps a lot. The oil it contains is soothing, and the sweetness covers up the remnants of the taste.
The slope of the bowl is populated here and there by what appear to be orchids. They have thick bulbs, and very pale leaves, and grow long green runner roots into crevasses, over ledges, sometimes more than a meter long. Peering closely, I see that the 'paleness' is actually a waxy covering. I wonder if it protects them from the sulfuric acid. I remember my botanist roommate telling me that the bulbs store nutrition.
And then I see the birds. They're small for parrots, and irredescent green. A pair plays games inside the bowl, shooting up and down crazily on the thermals, chasing eachother, diving with their wings folded. They fly like crows in a good mood: they snap shut their wings and roll sideways, they fold their wings and dive, they fly wingtip-to-wingtip, they zip on past eachother, trying to tug at the other's tails. Both members of the pair sing, a lilting melodic chatter, one smoothly picking up whenever the other stops. They seem to have more than two octaves of commonly-used range, and do not noticably repeat themselves while I listen. I watch, enthralled, and attempt to take pictures. After twenty or so minutes of play, the pair heads out of the bowl, circles around a large wooden cross erected at its edge (Christianity, ever vigilant to taming local demons...), and dart about, apparently chasing butterflies, until I lose sight of them.
I return to the old woman, and she splits the empty coconut neatly in half for me, so that I can eat the meat. I also purchase a small baggy of sour mango from her. She tells me that the last dregs of coconut water, rubbed on my sunburned arms, will make them ache less. I am very skeptical about this, but try it anyway. The results are immediate and very good. (Unfortunately, it wears off about thirty minutes later).
I spend the rest of our time at the volcano avoiding someone who wants to lecture me for climbing to the caldera, and looking for the choyocitos again. I can hear them singing, but I don't manage to see that pair, though I do see a solitary smaller one.
Much later, I learn that no picture I took at the volcano comes out - the tropical sun was too bright for my camera, even with 100 film in.
These things I thought of holding a coconut while my roommate hammered nails into it...