I’m talking about a man of a different sort. A bird whisperer. The Bird Man of Conquest. I prefer the latter name because it evokes the cramped, sparse living conditions of Alcatraz. That’s closer to a crew’s experience than, say, comfy suburbanites with enough expendable income for professional pet counseling. I’m not judging, but rather reminding that American attitudes towards animals are puzzling to the majority of the world. American pets are part of the family, receiving the same affection and accommodations as our children (certainly mine, anyway!). But many people around the world coexist with animals in a way I can scarcely conceive. I saw some of it on Conquest.
We were docked in Montego Bay. The sun shot through the clouds in bold shafts, I remember, and the air was heavy with moisture. Those of us in the Lido restaurant denied shore leave were consoled by the nearby presence of damp green tree tops, mottled with shadows yet lively with colorful birds hopping to and fro. It was a quiet afternoon of dazzling beauty. Apparently we were not the only ones dazzled. A solitary bird, perhaps lured by the scent of food, had flown into the restaurant.
He was a small, gaily-colored little bird. The poor guy fluttered about, unable to find the exit, confused by the overhanging mezzanine that refused to act like a jungle canopy. He zig-zagged through the dining room, zipping this way and that, growing more and more agitated by the minute. We gleefully kept the doors open and tried to herd him towards freedom. There was much laughter, but we were ultimately unsuccessful. After a while, now flapping in pure desperation, the bird disappeared deeper into the galley. Suddenly we realized the little burst of joy that gave us a much-needed break in an otherwise rigid, exhausting routine had probably done so at the expense of his life. It was a sad moment.
“I’ll get him,” said a waiter confidently. He was from Indonesia. His name was Bambang.
“If he couldn’t figure out how to escape through all these open double doors,” I said doubtfully, “How can you expect to herd him through the small doors of the galley and the corridors?”
Bambang just smiled and asked, “May I go after him?”
Like I would say no. But then again, this could easily have been an excuse to sneak a cigarette while on duty. (I’ve had waiters literally claim their mothers’ death just to get an extra smoke). Nary five minutes passed and out from the galley came Bambang. We clustered around him, but he gave us a silent head-shake to keep us at bay. For perched upon his finger, tiny chest heaving, was the bird. Bambang strode to the nearest exterior doors, whispering softly to his new companion. He even caressed it with gentle strokes of the back of his fingers. Once outside, the bird flew off to its native Jamaica.
“I’m from a small village in the jungle,” Bambang explained simply before returning to soiled plates and silverware. I was awestruck. Could I have made the transition Bambang had? Before ships he had not only been one with nature, but likely lived entirely defined by its caprice. How utterly different his life must have been, before this one of tight metal walls, recycled air, and artificial light. I was reminded that each crew member, regardless of duties or labels, was indeed an individual treasure. And it gave me hope that I could maybe, just maybe, hope to someday control my cats.
By Brian David Bruns, author of national best-seller Cruise Confidential.
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