Flight in Fear

Vimla Sriram

I decided to walk each day of quarantine.  I had to coax my days apart, to get away from a sink that never emptied, to sort the tangled mess of uneasiness in my head. I started with my neighborhood P-patch. It was early spring. The farmed squares were littered with dead leaves and rotting stems but perched on a driftwood trellis in the middle was a hummingbird, with its head poised for a song.  Since then, I walk with my gaze on pine tops and branches looking for a squiggly that I hope is the needle-beak of a hummingbird pointing to the sky.

Faced with an unknowable uneasiness, I had pinned my hope on a bird weighing three grams. Even on days that felt blanketed by hopelessness, I held onto one thought—that if I dressed up and got out the door, she might show up. Fluttering her wings into a blur.

Birds draw us away from distractions and bring us back to the present while also gently reminding us of our insignificance. If we care to notice them. I don’t remember much about the house where I grew up in New Delhi, or the color of the walls or even if I had a mirror in the room that I shared with my three siblings. But I remember a sliver of unhurried time in my hurried mornings when I sat with my bowl of mushy cornflakes on the steps of the lawn watching parrots as they munched chunks of wormy guavas from our lone tree. I’d like to think that was the beginning of my awareness of birds and of a universe that extended from where I sat to beyond the guava tree. I would get married, move from a country of parrots to that of bald eagles, but my peripheral vision stayed sharp, ready for bird sighting. I am not a serious bird watcher, but I am prepared in case they appear serendipitously in my horizon.

We were in Malaysia, on a tram moving gently down the slopes of Langkawi when I spotted the expansive wings of a Great Hornbill gliding over the trees. I held my breath for the seven seconds that the great bird was within my sight and only returned to normal when the tram arrived at the station. As bird sightings go this was unorthodox but less surprising than finding wild parrots roaming the skies above Telegraph Hill in San Francisco or the surprise at finding the reclusive quetzal on an avocado tree in Costa Rica.

To find birds serendipitously was a gift but I wondered if I should seek them out. It would be many years before I mustered the courage to go on a trip that would take me out of my comfort zone and introduce me to the magnitude of the bird species.

In retrospect, Colombia happened suddenly but I think the urge to look for colorful birds had taken root long before. An image of a hummingbird on my search engine while I sat in my suburban beige house led to a night of online research and many months of pondering and procrastination. I had learned that Colombia is home to the greatest number of bird species and that it was just a hop away from my home in Seattle, yet the country’s reputation overshadowed its natural beauty. It took weeks of online research and an excellent roster of guides to convince my family that I would be fine. Flanked by the Andes on the west and the Amazon rainforest on the east, Colombia’s six distinctly different regions provide enough variety for its birds. I was to spend time in the mountains of Medellin, in the neighboring province of Jardin.

“It is not Medeyin, but Medejin,” corrected my co-passenger as we spoke about the city and my plans. Armed with a list of Spanish words, I landed in a city that looked surprisingly familiar. Medellin has the energy of a city waking up to its potential. Bikers pedal gracefully on the side even as my guide weaves between the traffic that feels like New Delhi without the road rage.  It takes us four hours on muddy roads to reach the garden city of Jardin that is surrounded by mountains on all sides. This tiny city with a plaza at its heart and a church as the focal point is the perfect setting for tanagers. Colombia is home to around 200 species of these colorful birds. I found my first tanager even before I checked into my hotel in the plaza. In the next two days my guide and I would drive into the cloud forest with its lush green ferns and mossy trees smothered with climbers. I spotted more birds than I could jot down in my journal—a quetzal quenching its thirst from a puddle in the middle of the road, toucans casually crowing on a branch while an emerald toucanet waited at a distance. I saw tanagers in every color of crayon that I had used as a child—ruby red, emerald green, ash gray, sea blue, bright yellow and some in combinations of two or more. I heard hummingbirds in jewel tones buzz close to my ears.

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As I type now, I find myself referring to my journal frequently to aid my memory. I am surprised by the birds on my list. I remember that I was lost in the color and beauty of the birds but I can’t recollect the details. I turn to my list, in surprise and puzzlement. But not scribbled in the journal or on my list are unforgettable moments. I remember all the times I sat to eat alone, first with some trepidation later with more confidence. Ordering passionfruit juice along with arepas. Ordering plain arepas for breakfast, no huevos. I remember the night of the power shut down and I was the lone guest in the hotel. I remember first wondering what would happen to me if there was a war with Venezuela, and after dispensing with that notion, I remember opening the windows of my high-ceiling room that had pictures of New York in the walls, inhaling the sweet smelling breeze, and then sleeping. I remember the friends I made while waiting in line for my turn at the arepa stall. Two women, too impossibly young to look 30 who said in unison, “We are happy, so we look young.” I remember wondering why I couldn’t type fast enough on Google translate so I could converse more fluidly.  I remember the grandfather kissing my cheek after he celebrated his birthday at the plaza.

What I remember most is not being afraid.

During Quarantine I look up news from places I have visited. Medellin Tribune has an image of two people in masks taking pictures of birds with the caption, “Medellin leads Colombia as world champion in ‘global big day’ bird-survey competition.”

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BIO: Vimla Sriram is a Seattle-based essayist. She writes about women’s silences. She is also interested in exploring the boundaries of home and identity through her essays.


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