Parrot Fever

part 1

It was seven a.m. and Steve was in the kitchen, blearily preparing atole* for his newest baby. The latest arrival in our growing family was perched on the back of a wooden chair across the table from me, teetering dangerously as it screamed its fool head off for breakfast. Lorena was still in bed, refusing to lift her head from a deep pile of pillows until the morning sun thoroughly warmed the front porch. I was nursing a dull headache with a cup of strong Guatemalan coffee, trying to figure out where our latest brilliant scheme had gone wrong.

Guatemala, 1970: “Let’s buy a bunch of parrots and take them back to the States. People pay hundreds of dollars for parrots that aren’t half as beautiful as these in Guatemala. They’re cheap and we can sell them for a fortune!”

The record is unclear on exactly who came up with this historic brainstorm, but the results are known: With no further delay or second thoughts, Steve was dispatched to the huge central marketplace in Guatemala City to buy some of these fabled birds.

He returned three days later, grinning like the cat that swallowed the canary. In this case, however, the ‘canary’ was a full-grown Double Yellow Head Amazon parrot that paced Steve’s shoulder like the poop deck of a pirate ship, shouting grotesque Spanish obscenities at the top of its lungs. “Poop deck” wasn’t off the mark — a gruesome stain down the back of Steve’s shirt was ample proof that the bird wasn’t housebroken.

It was obvious from the moment he stepped through the door, however, that Steve’s delight in this parrot knew no bounds. Every time it cut loose with another volley of ferocious obscenities, Steve clutched his belly and trembled with laughter.

“Carl and Lorena, I want you to meet Arturo. Isn’t he neat? Man, you won’t believe what I paid for him. Four dollars!”
As I approached the bird it scrambled warily around Steve’s head and surveyed me suspiciously from his other shoulder. Steve winced as the parrot’s long talons bit through his thin cotton t-shirt.

“He likes me,” Steve said wonderingly. “He rode on my shoulder on the city bus, all the way from the market to where I’d parked the van. I don’t know... it’s almost like... it’s almost like we knew each other at first sight. Isn’t that right, Arty?” He teased the bird by pursing his thick lips into an exaggerated kiss.

Arty? On the other side of the kitchen, Lorena’s eyes rolled in the first signs of panic.
“We only had one little problem, didn’t we now?” Steve scolded the bird in baby talk, bobbing his head playfully. “Arty pulled a little trick on Steve, didn’t you? You were being naughty, weren’t you?” Steve shook his head in mock disapproval.

Misinterpreting my look of horror and disbelief, Steve released a huge laugh. Turning his head carefully away from the bird, he said in a near whisper, “I was repeating everything the parrot said on the bus. Then it turns out that he was actually teaching me to say, ‘What a prick!’” Steve laughed appreciatively. “Man!” he choked, “You know how conservative some of these Guatemalans are?”

Yes, I suppose I did. On the other hand, try as I might, I couldn’t quite imagine the reaction of the average Guatemalan bus commuter to the sight of an extra-large Jerry Garcia-look-a-like trading hard-core groserias with a bird.

Swiping away tears with the back of his hand, Steve dismissed the incident passengers with a huge snort of disdain. “I guess somebody got a little tense and said something to the driver. Can you believe it, he actually pulled over and made us get off a couple of blocks early! Cost me two cents.”

Steve swiveled his head and looked the parrot right in the eye. “You think you’re pretty neat, don’t cha?” he cooed.

The parrot responded by snuggling up against the side of Steve’s head, nibbling intimately at his earlobe. Ruffling up its brilliant green feathers as though plumping the pillows for bed, the bird gradually settled into a cozy crouch. With its eyes closed sleepily, the bird began humming a throaty, off-key lullaby. Steve beamed lovingly.

I felt the hair prickling on the back of my neck.

“Steve,” I began carefully. “What do you think a bird like this is worth in the States?”

Steve blinked nervously, dismissing my question with a vague, ‘who knows?’ wave of the hands.

“No, really.” I persisted. “Do you think we can get three or four hundred bucks for him. Maybe even five?”

Lorena, washing half a bushel of spinach over at the sink, was all ears.

“Oh, man!” Steve writhed. “Couldn’t we, you know... ” He glanced meaningfully at the parrot, then lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Couldn’t we talk about it later?”

I looked over again at Lorena. She shrugged her shoulders helplessly and took refuge in a series of deep breathing exercises. Not prepared to give up the struggle quite this early, I followed Steve into the living room, where he readied the parrot for bed. 'Bed' for Arturo was a fancy 4-foot high wire cage outfitted with everything from a tiny mirror and tin cup of fresh water to a plate of sliced fruit. A circle of bright cloth covered the floor like a miniature carpet. There was even a tiny brass bell dangling from the center of the cage.“In case he needs me in the night,” Steve joked weakly.


*Atole is an ancient drink made from finely milled corn or grain. It is mixed with hot water or milk and taken as a drink or thick gruel. In Guatemala, atole is sometimes laced with chili peppers. You won’t find it on the menus of 'better' restaurants, but travelers who’ve been served this stuff as often as we have firmly believe that the use of atole contributed significantly to the Mayan Collapse.

Continued with part 2 .....

Excerpted from
The People's Guide to Mexico
©1972-2000 by Carl Franz & Lorena Havens
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