Language lessons

By James Hehre

Lying on my back, looking up at coconut trees, I remembered reading somewhere that more people are killed annually by falling coconuts than by sharks. Doing research about the impacts of seaweed farming on coral reefs, the kind occasionally frequented by sharks, this kind of statistic would normally be comforting. But as I stared at the green fronds and large clusters of coconuts above me, I had to wonder if it was really true. At the moment it somehow seemed important.

The droning of a nearby motorbike broke my reverie. The sound brought to mind someone trying to fight off a swarm of angry bees with a chainsaw. Back in the bustling city of Cebu, I was used to holding on to the back of small motorcycles as we weaved through traffic at breakneck speed. They were loud, cheap, and great at cutting through traffic. But riding on the remote islands where I do my research was a completely different ballgame.

There are no cars on Jandayan Island, so motorbikes are the preferred form of transportation. The driver greeted me at the pier by pointing to the back of his well-used ride. Like most locals, he was used to people from Project Seahorse coming and going for various research projects over the years. He knew my destination without my saying a word.

The only road on the island is a four-foot strip of uneven concrete that winds down from the dock to a village on the far end.  We covered the first mile pretty quickly, swerving around goats, chickens, pigs and coconuts.  Along the way, the driver decided to act as a tour guide, turning completely around to face me as he pointed to something and then carefully pronouncing the word in Cebuano (the local dialect) for me to repeat. I did my best to keep the names in my head, hoping that a quick answer would give him more time to watch the road. But the combination of trying to keep my muddy feet on the pegs so I wouldn’t burn against the muffler, and wrestling the huge equipment bag that threatened to flip me off the back with every bump, pothole, and turn was making it really hard to concentrate.

 Apparently, the local custom for taking the many blind curves along the road is to honk the horn and then enter the corner at full speed, trusting that whoever, or whatever was on the other side had the good sense and speed to get out of the way.

For the most part this system seems to work fairly well for almost everyone involved. Water buffalo, however do not seem to hold on local custom. This may be due to their somewhat relaxed nature, or it may be that over time they’ve been conditioned to realize that all they really need to do is stay put and people eventually move around them. Either way, the water buffalo standing in the middle of the road as we rounded the corner at full speed did not seem particularly inclined to move one way or another and simply stood fast in the center of the road. I swear he was smiling.

In a split second, the driver veered to the right, dumping the bike and after a brief flight we landed in a heap in a muddy coconut grove, which is where I now found myself, sprawled awkwardly, tangled up with my bag, contemplating the palm fronds rustling gently above me in the morning breeze.

Arms? Check. Legs? Check. Head? Possibly but not necessarily. I'd been saved by mud, sticky, orange mud, which now covered me head to toe.  The driver popped up and with a “happens all the time” shrug, righted the droning bike. The water buffalo looked over its shoulder, curious about all of the fuss. Flashing a gapped-tooth grin the driver pointed toward the buffalo and said, "caribao" the Cebuano word for water buffalo.

“Caribao,” I repeated to him, climbing back onto the bike behind him. “Caribao. I’ll try to remember that one”.

Project Seahorse team member and PhD student James Hehre is studying the impact of seaweed farming on reef ecosystems in the Danajon Bank, Philippines.