off the cuff

La Paloma, La Cucaracha and a balcony

The pest experts themselves had visited my apartment only two days earlier with La cucaracha in mind and a promise to put an end to any sightings of it ...

Kevin Martin,Special to Gulf News
16:46 April 12, 2018

Even as a little boy growing up in southern India, the influence of foreign languages was constantly around, especially via the radio and music — more especially Radio Ceylon. Not that this influence did my own ‘foreign’ vocabulary any good, I have to say.

I spent years listening to La Cucaracha thinking it was a song about a beautiful bird. The entire song being in Spanish, this conclusion may be forgiven. I think it’s fair to say that not many of the elders in the household knew what ‘la cucaracha’ meant either, though, in all honesty, I should let them speak for themselves.

Una Paloma Blanca was another favourite of Radio Ceylon’s playlists and this one I kind of guessed correctly as being a bird — a dove in fact. This in turn was only due to the fact that many years preceding Paloma Blanca there used to be a rather nice sentimental instrumental that the ‘oldies’ in the house (read mum and dad and an assortment of aunts and uncles) used to play with monotonous frequency on the record player. It used to be called La Paloma.

I remember an uncle rather inaccurately telling me that paloma was Latin for pigeon. Well he was close, for it really means ‘dove’ as we all know and as I learnt later, too, it derived from the Latin ‘palumbus’.

I find it interesting how sometimes a sequence of threads from one’s past will suddenly find their way into present day life and, in some odd way, make a connection. I say this because quite recently I walked out onto my balcony (where I generally sit facing the breaking day and have a bowl of cereal) and what do you think I espied out of the corner of my little eye? Not a paloma! But La Cucaracha! On its back, and perhaps in the last stages of life here on earth.

With one look I could tell that this was one that the pest experts would call ‘Blattella Germanica’ and what I, the layman, simply knew as a German cockroach.

The pest experts themselves had visited my apartment only two days earlier with La Cucaracha in mind and a promise to put an end to any sightings of it and its ilk anywhere in my apartment. This, after I had spotted one come sliding through the split air conditioner vent after making its way up the fan unit that sat on the balcony.

I have to say at this point that I have a healthy respect for science and all things scientific. So, when I read some years ago that La Cucaracha was likely to outlive us all — every living species — on earth and perhaps even survive a nuclear holocaust, my own helplessness when confronted by a threatened invasion by this species categorised as ‘vermin’ can be understood.

A quick call to the pest control guys, an even quicker agreement on a figure that I was later told was a tad too exorbitant, and that was that. Simple. War was declared on La Cucaracha even though the one that had crept in through the air conditioning piping may have been the lone sighting.

And then, when I wandered out on the balcony, as mentioned earlier, it was only to espy yet another — albeit in its death throes.

“Some cockroaches will take refuge under the fan outside because of the warmth,” warned the pest control guy, and he was absolutely right.

Before I could decide what to do with it, a rustle of feathers broke the silence and in flew Maximus, my name for the neighbour’s pigeon, who visits me every morning, happy for a few breadcrumbs I throw his way. Today, he seemed more interested in this bigger morsel on offer and, not wanting to watch him gorge himself, I decided to leave La Cucaracha with this distant cousin of La Paloma.

When I revisited the balcony hours later there was no sighting of either.

Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.