Cricket Diplomacy Abroad

Feeding the boat’s pet gecko leads to an unexpected cultural exchange.

Bandy the Gecko

Leopard geckos are nocturnal, so forgive Bandy if she appears sluggish; it’s the middle of the night for her.Marianne Lee

The musical voices interrupted my explanation of past participles. “Ween-dee?” My son, Kaeo, and I looked up, happily distracted from the grammar slog, to see three young Guatemalan girls standing on the dock. They held up a filthy looking jar crawling with critters. They smiled hopefully. This transaction had ice cream on the line.

"Grillos?" I asked. They nodded eagerly. I waved them onto Osprey, and they came below, looking around, as always, in a kind of awe. At what, I wasn't sure. That we can all live in this small space? That we have so much stuff? That it's so different from all that they know? While they touched things tentatively and whispered to one another, I bustled around in search of the little plastic container I use to house crickets—grillos, in Spanish—for my son's pet gecko.

Other boats have dogs, cats, parrots. We have a lizard (and also my daughter’s two hermit crabs, but that’s a whole other story). Granted, she’s a very pretty, domestically bred leopard gecko, but she’s still a reptile, an animal only a boy could find cuddly. Bandy the gecko has sailed with us since the beginning, living in a palatial habitat. For cool weather, she has a heat pad and lamp, both of which drive my husband to distraction because of the sheer amp suck. In warm weather, she gets spritz-bottle rain showers. She spends her days doing that lizard thing, hanging out with her eyes half shut like a Holiday Inn lounge singer.

The first time we took Osprey sailing up the U.S. East Coast, everywhere we stopped I asked the same two questions: Where's the laundry? Is there a pet store nearby? Question number two invariably led to follow-up questions, which eventually got around to the real issue: I needed live crickets. "Crickets?" one marina manager in New Jersey asked, her eyebrows nearly reaching her beehive. "Well hell, honey, come on over to my garage. You can have all the damned crickets you want!" I've walked miles for crickets. I've spent money on taxi rides that cost four times as much as the bugs themselves.

Bandy also eats live mealworms, which I can keep in the fridge. They go dormant in there, but after a few months they just croak, and so I’ve had to learn how to grow worms on my boat. Think of it: The Royal Navy spent generations trying to rid itself of weevils on board, and I’m happy when I have a thriving colony. Still, I draw the line at the other approved gecko food source: cockroaches. No way I’m inviting them for dinner.

As we've sailed Osprey farther afield, the challenge of feeding the gecko has grown. Visiting friends are happy to bring books, DVDs, and boat parts, but they get funny tones in their voices when you ask them to stuff worms into their luggage. In many countries, lizards are for lunch, not the other way around. By the time we got to Guatemala, I was out of everything but canned crickets, a rather greasy and quite dead option that the gecko completely rejected—not unreasonably, if you ask me.

But then, when my daughter started fishing with some of the local kids, an idea bloomed, and I dug out my Spanish dictionary. Who knew that a lizard’s nutritional needs could lead to a common cultural experience, some of it hilarious? The kids have delivered grasshoppers the size of breadsticks and brilliant green worms big enough to choke a dog. “Más pequeño!” I beg, asking for smaller ones, and they nod, disappointed. All this for a lizard, they must think. So odd, these gringos. But then they show up with a grubby jar of lively crickets, and while I ooh and ahh over the bugs, they do the same over our boat, and then we all go and get ice cream at the marina store. Any flavor they want. Even grillo.

Wendy Mitman Clarke and Osprey_ are in Panama's San Blas islands._