Island Notes 49
Over 40 years ago, I was spending a steamy summer in Columbus, Ohio, taking an intensified Portuguese course for my language requirement at the Ohio State University. It was three courses packed into one that spanned a ten-week period. At the end, I would complete three-fourths of my language requirement for a Bachelors degree in Arts & Sciences.
The routine was grueling. We started at 8AM. Class ended at noon. Afternoon demanded three more hours in the language lab, listening and responding to the beautiful romantic language of Portuguese. Then in the evening, another two to three hours of written assignments completed the day. This repeated itself five days a week. Our Brazilian instructor, Ricardo, the best teacher I ever had, stated, “If you miss one day, don’t come back. You will never catch up.”
It was an amazing experience. After the second day, no English was spoken. Well, perhaps, only in dire straits. We learned about Ricardo’s country of Brazil—about the food like feijoada, a stew of beans, beef and pork; the various provinces with exotic names like Minas Gerais, Parenà, and Bahia; and the people gumbo made up of Africans, Portuguese and jungle Indians. I was overwhelmed with the far-south-of-our-border land of rhythm, samba and Rio.
These were the days of Sergio Mendes & Brazil 66; a Brazilian-American group that brought that smooth Bosa Nova beat to us Yankees up north. I hung on their every word, textured instrumentals, and the voices of the two lead singer babes that sang the language like angels of the Amazon. It was also the days of Vietnam, Martin Luther King, and civil unrest. I was clinging on to a meager grade-point average, trying to avoid an all expenses paid trip to the rice paddies of Vietnam. I studied like hell to get a good grade in my Portuguese course. Anything below a “C” would send me to Southeast Asia in a heartbeat. I was in Year Two of academic probation.
One Thursday afternoon, I was sitting in the grass studying the day’s Portuguese vocabulary list, 100 new words, when a friend pulled up in his car. Six beagle puppies were playing at my feet. I was taking care of the k-nines for a buddy who had left the steam of Columbus for the aquatic wonders of Lake Erie. The newly arrived friend offered me a ride to a music concert that was taking place in upstate New York that weekend. It would be splendid—two days of music from some of the best musicians of the day—Santana, the Who, Jimmy Hendrix, etc. I said ‘no’ due to puppy duty and pending Portuguese responsibilities. My friends went ahead without me and experienced the seminal event of muh-my generation, Woodstock.
Flash ahead forty-one years and I am sitting on a turtle research boat off the southern coast of Bonaire telling my new Brazilian friend, Breno, about my Portuguese class experience. I bumble out the few words I still can repeat and he smiles. Not many Americanos know even that much Portuguese. We are heading to the waters off of Red Slave to begin two, one-hour snorkel session in search of sea turtles. It turns out that Breno left his thriving advertising agency back in Brazil for a year to travel the world and as he says, “get as far away from the desk as I can”.
And so he has. As we enter the gin-clear waters off a ridge that drops fathoms, we spot a large hawksbill turtle perhaps sixty feet below. Funchi, the Sea Turtle Conservation Bonaire’s field expert, starts the dive down fueled by a mini-oxygen tank. Breno, clad only in surfer shorts, mask and extraordinarily long fins, also dives below to capture the turtle’s attention. While the hawksbill intently watches Breno in front of him, Funchi snatches the turtle from behind.
Back on the boat, it has been a good morning. We hauled in two other hawksbills and a tiny green turtle. We get busy measuring, weighing and tagging the turtles—recording all the vital data for the long-term study. The big hawksbill weighs in at 65 kilos, 143 pounds. I ask Breno about his tattoos that cover much of his upper torso. “These on my chest I got when I visited Polynesia. They represent the sea and the land. The one that covers my back is a samurai warrior. The fish are koi. They are symbols of love and friendship.”
Breno can freedive to 100-feet depths. Freediving is deep diving by breath alone. At the top of the freediving heap is Karoline Meyer, also from Brazil, who holds the Guinness world record for holding her breath underwater, an astonishing 18 minutes 32.59 seconds. Karoline is returning to Bonaire in a few weeks for an attempt to break that record and also teach a course on freediving. I am tempted to sign up.
Breno has even though he is already quite an accomplished freediver. I saw him go after a green turtle during our day in the water. With a rapid dolphin kick, he descended into the indigo blue coming within inches of grabbing the turtle. Breno was under nearly two minutes. I am amazed by the different people I meet on this tiny speck of land in the vast Caribbean Sea.
By the way, my four friends who did leave for Woodstock that weekend long ago had promised to deliver me back in time for my Monday morning Portuguese class. Three of them returned two weeks later with stories that made me envious. The fourth? He never returned to Ohio State. He remained at Woodstock and, to my knowledge, still lives there today. By August of 1969, I had completed my Portuguese course with a ‘B’. The rice paddies of Vietnam were avoided once again.