Quin's Progress


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Freebird

She saw me coming a mile away.

She saw me coming a mile away.

In the streets of Yangon, and at temple gates in various cities in Myanmar, there are girls with baskets full of finches. Perky little finches, cheeping cheerfully and hopping about. For 500 Kyat (about 50 cents USD), the girl will reach into the basket, bring out one of the wiggling birds, and place it in your cupped hands. Then, you make a wish and set the little birdie free.

finchesBuddhists believe that such small acts of kindness give them extra merit points in their karma banks, to be totaled up with all their other good deeds and weighed against all their bad deeds when it comes time to be reincarnated. Every little bit helps, especially if the balance is already tipping toward reincarnation as a dung beetle or one of those birds that picks dead meat out of crocodiles’ teeth. And, although superstitions are generally inconsistent with Buddhist beliefs, many people consult astrologers to tell them how many of these little birds to set free to balance out a bit of naughtiness, or give extra power to especially important prayers.

You go, little finchy!

You go, little finchy!

It’s quite an uplifting feeling to watch that little creature flutter into the sky from your outstretched hands, carrying your good intentions into the world. The first time I tried it, I was so exhilarated, I ended up buying out the girl’s whole basket of birds. At 30-something finchies, it was the best fifteen bucks I’d spent in a long time. If it keeps me from being reincarnated as a Muni driver, so much the better.

Finch LadyThat girl was waiting for me on the same corner the next day. I knew I was being had, but I was happy to go along with it, and cleaned out her finch inventory again. It really puts you into a good mood to release those little guys and watch them streak off to freedom. That and a good breakfast pretty much ensure that you’re going to have an awesome day.

Girl with finches-2Then some killjoy told me that the birds are trained to return to the owners, and they end up back in the same basket the next day. I didn’t want to believe it, so I asked around, and it’s apparently true. I have no idea how you train a finch, but I guess it’s doable. So, perhaps I released the same bunch of birds two days in a row. But, I say, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! It’s still magical to hold that quivering little body in your hands, feel it pinch you impatiently with its dainty beak if you take too long formulating your wish, and see it take off and reclaim its liberty. Setting it free is all I can do; if the bird has been trained to surrender itself again after being emancipated, that’s on someone else’s karma account. And, maybe one or two of those tiny guys took advantage of the chance to make a real break for it, and didn’t come back. I hope so.  Unless they get eaten by bigger birds or lizards or something.  If so, then I hope they were back in the safety of their basket by nightfall.

Basket of finchesI was so entertained by this finch thing, that I even took some requests from friends back home, and made wishes for them by proxy when I would encounter the finch girls at a temple. I was running out of things to wish for, anyway, so it worked out.

One day, at a temple in Bago, after I had made finch wishes for health and happiness for all my loved ones, strength to those I know who are going through something, peace in places of conflict, and all the selfless, benevolent things I could think of, and placed the special orders given to me by folks back home, I figured I had earned a selfish one that I could use for something vain.

A bird in the hand.

A bird in the hand.

So, on my last birdie of the day, I cupped him lightly in my hands and wished to drop a couple of dress sizes. Now, I’m normally pretty sorted out about being on the fluffy side, but I’ve been traveling in Asia for almost a year now, and I’m here to tell you, if you aren’t built like Olive Oyl, you will be told several times a day, by well meaning, smiling people, how fat you are. It isn’t malicious, but it isn’t exactly a compliment either, and it kinda gets to a girl after a while. So, there I stood, fervently wishing on a finch that my booty be a little less…well, just less.

Go on, little guy!  Please?

Go on, little guy! Please?

I stretched my arms up and opened my hands to release the finch to the sky…and he didn’t budge. I brought my hands down and had a look at him. He just sat there. I shook my hands a little, to encourage him, but he just looked at me and cocked his head to the side.

Nothing doing.

Nothing doing.

The girl, probably concerned she would have to give me a refund for this one, got up and tapped pretty hard under my hand to boost him into the air.  He just hopped down to the cage and got back inside. He wasn’t going anywhere with that wish.

So much for that. Looks like I’d better hang on to my stretchy pants!


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Zali’s Babies

Love has been on my mind a lot lately. Not in a dopamine-soaked, romantic comedy kind of way, but more in the sense of grammar. I know, sexy, right? Let me explain.

People v Animals

Sorry kid, the kitty comes first.

I’ve been accused more than once of having more compassion for animals than for humans, and I can’t deny it. It’s not that I don’t have compassion for humans. I do. Plenty. I just have more for animals. Incidents of human suffering upset me deeply, but my heart twists into the most exquisitely painful knots when I so much as hear about animal suffering, much less witness it. I can’t help it, I just love animals.

But, that feeling, that love, is a noun. Love(n.) It’s a thing that I experience. It means a lot to me, but it exists only in my head and my heart. It’s my feeling, relevant to, and affecting, no one but me. I don’t mean to minimize it–such feelings are what animate us–just to clarify that when people casually talk about loving something or someone, they usually mean Love(n.), as in, the experience of a feeling with respect to that thing or person.

I Love(n.) this Kitty Shirt!

I Love(n.) this Kitty Shirt!

We can Love(n.) all kinds of things—people, the ocean, kitties, corndogs, your country, go-go boots, God—there is a limitless capacity for Love(n.) in the human heart. It’s not like a pie, where the more pieces you cut it into, the smaller each piece, and thus the less love there is to go around. No, with Love(n.), the more you do it, the more Love(n.) you experience. It’s boundless. Remember? It’s all in your own head. You’re the only thing limiting it.

Love(n.) it!

Love(n.) it!

Love as a verb is a very different story. Love(v.) is not, I don’t think, the act of having a feeling of Love(n.). I think that’s better described as an adjective—Love(adj.)—as in, having the condition of being blessed (or afflicted) with Love(n.) for something or someone (it’s not perfect, I know, just bear with me). Nor am I talking about sexy fun time in this instance. No, Love(v.), in my view, is the action one takes specifically for the benefit of the object of the Love(n.), whatever or whoever that may be. Not actions taken with the motive of obtaining or retaining possession of it, getting the feelings reciprocated, or any other intention that relates to our own needs. Acts, big or small, that are done, not for gain of some kind, but because you know that the object of your Love(n.) needs it. You don’t even have to be right, just genuinely motivated by the belief that what you are doing will bestow a benefit, no matter how small. That’s Love(v.) in my dictionary, and it’s the only way that the Love(n.) we feel inside can become relevant, mean anything, to anyone but ourselves. And, unlike Love(n.), it’s limited. Love(v.) is limited by our time, resources, creativity, energy, inhibitions, etc. There are only so many hours in the day, dollars in the bank, places we can be, and a hundred other things competing for our finite attention. That’s why most of us—myself included—don’t do it, or at least, not very much. That’s not the end of the world, I guess, as long as we confine our Love(n.) to those who will do just fine without us. The problem is, not everyone is going to be just fine without us. Not by a long shot.

I saw this pygmy elephant in the wild in Borneo.

I saw this pygmy elephant in the wild in Borneo.

Take the Asian elephant. Between poaching and habitat loss, fewer than 1,200 wild elephants remain in peninsular Malaysia. They are critically endangered, and I recently met a man who Loves(v.) them with everything he’s got.

Zali and his babies. (Photo courtesy of Zali)

Zali and his babies.
(Photo courtesy of Zali)

I read about Zali in a Tripadvisor forum about the Malaysian National Elephant Conservation Center in Kuala Gandah. The Center is run by Malaysia’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks, and is the base for the elite “Elephant Unit,” a group of expertly trained elephant cowboys that responds to reports of elephant-human conflict, and relocates the elephants to safer habitats, such as the Taman Negara National Park, to keep them out of harm’s way.

The Elephant Unit at work.  (Photo courtesy of Zali)

The Elephant Unit at work. (Photo courtesy of Zali)

When the Unit finds elephants too sick or injured to survive on their own upon relocation, they take them back to the Center for care.

Trained elephants in the Unit keep the wild ones calm during transport. (Photo courtesy of Zali)

Trained elephants in the Unit keep the wild ones calm during transport.
(Photo courtesy of Zali)

If, for any reason, an elephant cannot be nursed back into a condition allowing it to be released back into the wild, it remains a resident of the Center, and is then trained to be part of the Unit, assisting the rangers by going along on missions, and using their trunks, bodies and voices to calm and guide the confused and angry wild elephants during capture and transport to the new habitat.  The Unit is, thus, a true man-elephant collaboration.

Zali has been part of the Elephant Unit and a volunteer at the Center since the 1980s. A staunch military man with a special forces background, he is the sort of man you involuntarily say “Yes, Sir” to when he addresses you.

Zali giving us orders.

Zali giving us orders.

He has been chased, kicked, thrashed and had bones broken by wild elephants, and has forgotten more about the pachyderm ways than I could hope to learn if I studied them religiously for the next ten years. He is one tough dude. But, when it comes to his elephants, this tough guy has a big marshmallow heart.

The Elephant Unit men, saving a baby elephant stuck in a ravine.  (Photo courtesy of Zali)

The Elephant Unit men, saving a baby elephant stuck in a ravine. (Photo courtesy of Zali)

The Unit occasionally finds orphaned baby elephants. Elephants are totally dependent on their mothers for the first three or four years of life, not weaned until about 10, and not fully self-sufficient until they are about 16 years old. So, the Unit cannot relocate a baby or juvenile elephant on its own and expect it to survive. The Center, however, has little to no budget for raising orphans. Enter Zali.

Every day, Zali makes the two-hour trek from Kuala Lumpur out to the Center to feed and care for the orphaned babies, at his own cost. To defray the expense, he occasionally brings private elephant enthusiasts along with him, provided they are willing to kick in to the kitty and roll up their sleeves.

Load of loaves for the babies.

Loads of loaves for the babies.

I was happy to do both, so Zali told me to buy a bunch of packages of baby formula and loaves of bread for the babies, and meet him and a couple other volunteers at the end of the monorail line on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.

Rangers bathing the elephants in the river at the Center.

Rangers bathing the elephants in the river at the Center.

Now, you can visit the Center on your own, as a tourist, and see a few of the older elephants, watch the rangers demonstrate their skills and take them into the river to bathe, and, depending on the level of the water and swiftness of the current, maybe even go in the river with them, under supervision, of course.

Rangers riding the older elephants down the road back to the paddock after bath time.

Rangers riding the older elephants down the road back to the paddock after bath time.

The tourist program is designed to educate visitors about what the Center does, and how they train resident elephants to help in the conservation efforts to save wild elephants.

I got a Backstage Pass.

I got a Backstage Pass.

But, if you want to go behind the scenes, actually get in there and take care of the elephants, see the babies, and stay longer than the couple hours that the Center is open to the public, you have to go as one of Zali’s minions. And you’d better be prepared to follow orders.

There will be no lolling about and leisurely exploring the grounds. You will go where you’re told, do what you’re told, and you will keep up. Zali’s got work to do, and you’re there to help him get it done.

Hand chopped by yours truly.

Hand chopped by yours truly.

Zali peeling sugar cane so the babies can chew it.

Zali peeling sugar cane so the babies can chew it.

There are bushels of papayas to chop, sugar cane to peel and cut so the babies can chew it, poop to scoop, and sheaves of grass to haul.

“When you sweat on the food,” Zali instructed as we stood in the sun, hacking up wheelbarrows full of papayas with a machete, “the elephants will learn your smell, and accept you faster. So, sweat! It’s for your safety!”

Elephant poop, scooped by yours truly.

Elephant poop, scooped by yours truly.

By the time you’re done with the morning feeding and cleaning, it’s time to start over again for the afternoon feeding and cleaning. If you wander off, don’t do what you’re told, don’t pull your weight, or otherwise disobey Zali’s orders, be prepared for an army-style dressing down.

All those bundles of grass need to be hauled to the elephants for lunch.

All those bundles of grass need to be hauled to the elephants for lunch.

It’s as much for your benefit as his, as Zali is not only trying to get his work done, he’s also responsible for the safety of his volunteers while they are inside the Center, working around beasts that could kill you in a flash if they took a mind to. So, be prepared for some Tough Love(v.). If you can take it, you’ll be rewarded a thousand fold.

A haulin' and a scoopin', I was.

A haulin’ and a scoopin’, I was.

Zali knows every elephant at the Center, and the stories he told us about them revealed not only his deep regard and respect for the animals, but also his sense of humor. One of the older female elephants, he told us, figured out how to lie on her side and shimmy under the electric fencing of the large paddock to escape and plunder a nearby tapioca root farm, bringing the spoils back to share with the other elephants.

Nom Nom Nom!

Nom Nom Nom!

“Ooh, the farmer was so pissed at us!” Zali exclaimed, as he demonstrated how the old dowager elephant had wiggled under the wires. “She is so cheeky,” he said with obvious affection. “We had to put in an extra strand of wire down by the ground to keep her in.”

Zali, next to the elephant transport truck.

Zali, next to the elephant transport truck.

“Miss Tiger Proof,” Zali beamed with pride, introducing us to another adult female in the main elephant barn. “She got attacked by a tiger, but fought him off, and got away only losing her tail. How embarrassing for that tiger, eh, to have to face his friends after catching an elephant and only getting a tail!”

Miss Dara

Miss Dara

Dara is just a few years old–too old to be in the nursery with the little babies, but too young to be out in the paddock with the big guys. So, she hangs out with the teenagers in the front barn, who protectively look after her, stroking her with their trunks and cooing to her when she gets upset or spooked by a noise.

She's about to chuck that stick at me.

She’s about to chuck that stick at me.

Zali showed us how to train her to use her trunk to grasp, and how to communicate with her by making sighing sounds as you offer her food. Like any kid, she is given to moods and spells of naughtiness.

Zali and Dara.

Zali and Dara.

When she decided it would be fun to throw sticks of sugar cane at me—which she did with surprisingly accurate aim—Zali scolded her like any dutiful father would, teaching her manners, and reassuring her afterwards with a loving pat to the shoulder. And it worked. Just one stern word from Zali, and Miss Dara behaved herself like a proper little lady.

Many of the elephants still bear the heartbreaking marks of the injuries that lead them to be at the Center in the first place.

Miss Tripod.  Notice her missing front foot.

Miss Tripod. Notice her missing front foot.

Several have rings of scars around the entire circumference of a leg, showing where they were caught in a snare by poachers looking for tusks or elephant feet to turn into decorative table bases or umbrella stands. One of the Center’s residents lost one of her front feet in a snare. She is alive because of the Center, but they could not save her foot.

Miss Tripod with her prosthesis.  (Photo courtesy of Zali)

Miss Tripod with her prosthesis. (Photo courtesy of Zali)

Zali nicknamed her “Miss Tripod,” and she is a functional member of the troop, because of the prostheses he fashions for her. The design of the prosthesis is an ongoing project for Zali and the Center.  Miss Tripod figured out how to take off the first few iterations, but Zali fixed that glitch. She still goes through them every few months, though, because she’s a growing girl, and outgrows them just like a kid outgrows shoes. And, well, she’s an elephant, and she wears them out quickly. Zali is currently looking for someone to manufacture the latest design of the prosthesis so he can accurately determine the production cost, and then try to crowdsource the funds to keep Miss Tripod in shoes.

(If the video does not show above, click here.)

By far, the most visceral memory I took away from my day working with Zali, though, is of Lepar, the littlest baby in the nursery. Little Lepar is just barely a year old, and is covered with copious amounts of bushy black hair. She stands about as high as my hip. Far too young to survive after losing her mama, Lepar would not be here if not for Zali.

(Photo courtesy of Zali)

Baby love.  (Photo courtesy of Zali)

As I was feeding her chunks of papaya and sugar cane, she coiled her trunk around my hand and pulled it toward her mouth. “Relax your arm,” Zali said. “Put your thumb out for her.” So, I did. And Lepar put my hand in her toothless mouth…and sucked my thumb. “Now you see why I call her ‘Miss Thumbsucker,’” Zali laughed. I hummed to her softly, like he taught me, and she closed her eyes, leaned against me, and made whimpering baby sounds as she suckled my thumb, just like the sweet, innocent baby she is, with her velvety trunk wrapped around my wrist. I could have cradled her like that forever.  “She likes you,” Zali smiled approvingly. “Mother’s touch.”

Snack Stand

On the drive back to Kuala Lumpur, sunburned, scratched up, exhausted and exhilarated by a long day of hard work, and hearts overflowing with Love(n.), we stopped at a small village to have some tea and a snack at a stand owned by one of Zali’s friends.

Having tea on the way home.

Having tea with Zali on the way home.

As we chatted, I asked Zali what he would like me to say to all of you about the Center, or him. “Just tell them what is happening to the elephants,” he said. “Tell them what we do here. That’s all. Just tell them about the work we’re trying to do.”

Now, that’s Love(v.).

 

  * * *

If you would like to contact Zali to arrange a day volunteering with the elephants, or to find out any other ways to help him take care of his babies, you can email him directly at jungletrekker69@gmail.com.

IMPORTANT NOTE: There is apparently a website—www.myelephants.org—and related Facebook page, that purport to solicit donations for the National Elephant Conservation Center at Kuala Gandah, but the Malaysian Department of Wildlife and National Parks has officially disclaimed any affiliation with that websites or the bank account for donations listed on the website. Please contact Zali or the Department of Wildlife and National Parks directly if you want to support the elephants.


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A Hardworking Monkey is a Sexy Monkey

A man and his monkey...and their motorbike.

A man and his monkey…and their motorbike.

I was hanging out on Koh Samui in Thailand for a few weeks, at a pleasant little retreat on the west side of the island.  One day, this man showed up on a motorbike with a monkey.  (I assume the man was driving, but I have to confess, I didn’t really notice one way or the other, as I was too busy thinking that the monkey, at least, should have had on a helmet, and then designing said monkey helmet in my mind.)

CocoMonkeyThe monkey was a beautiful, very healthy macaque, with some fearsome fangs on him.  He also liked to pull his penis out and play it like a banjo.

Mr. CocoMonkey, on the job!

Mr. CocoMonkey, on the job!

The man quietly spoke a few words in Thai to the monkey, who then scampered up a coconut tree and started chucking coconuts down.  Apparently, this is his job.  He’s a CocoMonkey!  He was very efficient.  The man said he could pick about 500 coconuts per day.  This is handy, because coconuts are an important commercial product in Thailand, and it would take a human a long time to pick 500 coconuts.  A monkey can do it in a few hours.  Most farmers have two or three monkeys, who take turns picking coconuts, so no one gets overworked or too tired.

See him up there working?

See him up there working?

The monkeys are trained to go up, find the coconuts, spin the coconut until it snaps free from the tree, and then drop it on the ground.  The farmer usually takes it from there, and gathers them up.

There’s actually a coconut-picking “Monkey Training College” in Surat Thani, Thailand, just across from Koh Samui on the mainland.

Don't drive your shiny black Audi under where Coco Monkey is working. Coco Monkey don't give a shit.

Don’t drive your shiny black Audi under where CocoMonkey is working. CocoMonkey don’t give a shit.

The monkeys are trained with concepts from Buddhism, using kindness and gentleness to teach them their trade, never force or violence.  There are three levels of schooling at the Monkey Training College.  Elementary School teaches the monkey basic coconut picking, and how to free himself when his line gets hung up in the tree.  It costs about 6,000 Thai Bhat ($184 USD) to put a monkey through elementary school.  This is the extent of most monkeys’ training.  But, there is also Secondary Monkey School, where the monkeys are trained to gather the picked coconuts, put them in bags, and take them wherever they are instructed.  This extra training is expensive, though, at about 25,000 Thai Bhat ($767 USD) per monkey–a little beyond the budget of most farmers.  Then there is Monkey High School, which is customized to what the owner needs, and priced accordingly.

Koh Samui

Koh Samui

You can visit the Monkey Training College, and even stay overnight, so you can see the students in action:  http://www.firstmonkeyschool.com/index.html.  Or, you can just hang out on the beach in Koh Samui and wait for coconut picking day, and watch the Monkey College graduates, quite literally, throw down!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Get Down In Jellytown!

Turn up your speakers and make sure you’re in a place where you can get a little funky without anyone calling security, my friends, because now is ze time on ze QP ven ve dance!

(For my email followers, if the video doesn’t show above, view the post on the main site, or click here: http://youtu.be/yhyf60Spz9o)

Whoo!  All right, ladies and jellyfish, here’s one for all you groovy foxes born before 1975, and yes, it’s an ALL SKATE!  Watch out for the big, fat Disco Jelly who’ll crash into you at 0:06 if you’re not careful!

(Or, click here: http://youtu.be/n0U1rPscYd8)

Ooh yeah, and who can resist a little baby boogie–work it, baby jelly!  Shake that thing!

(Or, click here: http://youtu.be/WZnmJ1uWjd8)

Pibb Right on!  Okay, that was fun.  You know I had to start with the Jellylicious song, for obvious reasons (and if they’re not obvious to you, listen again), but then it all just took a decidedly roller disco turn, because who are we kidding, those jellies were totally doin’ the Hustle and zooming around like roller disco gods.  519672_2All that was missing was the satin jackets.  Anyhoo, let’s get a Mr. Pibb and a box of Ludens Wild Cherry throat lozenges (my standard snack choice at the old Ups ‘N Downs Roller Rink in Escondido, California circa 1974), and I’ll tell you how I came to be shakin’ my groove thang with these far out funkadellyfish.

Rock Islands of Palau

Rock Islands of Palau

Jellyfish Lake is in the southern rock islands of the Republic of Palau.  There are actually three or four jellyfish lakes, but to protect the environment and the jellies from too much stress, they restrict access to one at a time.  The lake is in the center of one of the larger limestone, mangrove-covered islands, and it is completely separated from the surrounding ocean.  Over the centuries, without any ocean predators bothering them, the jellyfish have evolved their stingers off.  So, they’re totally harmless blobs of disco goo.

That hole lets in the bad guys, so the jellies in the lake in this shot are armed with stingers.

That hole in the limestone lets in the bad guys from the ocean, so the jellies in the lake in this shot are armed with nasty stingers…which that snorkel dude on the left is about to find out the hard way.

There are similar lakes on other islands where the limestone separating the lake from the ocean has eroded away enough to let other sea life in, and the jellyfish populations in those lakes have stingers, so you really need to make sure you go to the right one, or you’ll be one unhappy critter (albeit, with some very interesting scars to showcase at cocktail parties).

IMGP1281It’s not easy to get to the Jellyfish Lake.  You have to get a permit, then take a boat about an hour south of Koror, and then, after washing your feet so no tiny sea creatures can come in with you and disrupt the ecosystem, you have to haul your ass up, and then back down, a super steep ridge.  It’s so steep up near the top, they carved steps into the rock, and put a rope next to the path to pull yourself along.

The camera was half in, half out of the water.  Look at those jellies just under the surface!

The camera was half in, half out of the water. Look at those jellies just under the surface! Click to enlarge so you can see!

When you climb back down the other side, there’s a placid, aquamarine lake sunken into the limestone bed.  You can’t see a thing in the water at first, it just looks bottle-glass green.  So, on goes the snorkel gear, and in you go, with instructions to swim toward the middle, and not to touch or grab the jellyfish.

IMGP1389Suddenly…they’re everywhere.  Jellyfish!  Kajillions of them!  Swarming in slow motion like corpulent, flaccid bumble bees.  Big ones, little ones, middle-sized ones, all glorping along, swimming in all directions–up, down, diagonally, sideways–bumping into each other and into you.  Clearly, the jellies don’t get instructions not to touch you.  It’s like jellyfish bumper cars in there.

IMGP1286Having been conditioned my whole life to avoid contact with jellyfish, I did a lot of involuntary flinching and shuddering at first when they bumped into me, slithered along my neck, plowed into my face, and even got caught under my arm or between my legs as I swam (!!!).  It’s impossible to avoid when diving in jellyfish soup.  But, after about five minutes or so, when I hadn’t been stung, I relaxed, and just started laughing and giggling in wonder at it.  Because, it is wonderful in the most literal sense of the word.

IMGP1377I have several hundred pictures, even after I culled out the bad ones.  They all look sort of the same, but not.  (Please click them to enlarge, so you can really see!)  There’s something special and/or hilarious about each one.  I actually felt a sense of relief when the battery on my camera died, because then I was released, free to just gambol about with them, without worrying about missing a good shot.  All I had to worry about was accidentally sucking one up into my snorkel when I dove down deep into the jelly party.

Bonk!  Right in my face!

Bonk! Right in my face!

There were a few other people there at the same time as I was, and they all had on full-body wetsuits.  I saw them suiting up on the edge of the lake before I jumped in, and I asked my guide if a suit was necessary, as I knew the water wouldn’t be cold.  He said no, but a lot of people don’t feel comfortable without it.

The photo is right side up, it's the jelly who's upside down.

Jellyfish Upside-Down Cake.

I understand that, I do, but I also feel sorry for those people now that I’ve had the dizzying experience of being licked all over on my bare skin by scads of jellyfish puppies.  Those suited-up folks missed out on that, and I think it’s one of the most viscerally memorable parts of the experience.

IMGP1342IMGP1358Once you adjust, and realize the jellies are not going to hurt you, swimming amongst them really has a similar kind of playful, silly, childlike energy as rolling around on the ground with puppies jumping all over you.  Well, puppies with freaky, glowing electric coils visible through their transparent skulls.


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The Yapese Welcome Wagon

Yap

Yap

Airport Greetresses

Airport Greetresses. Sorry, all I can give you is a shot of side-boob.

The first thing I saw after passing through the customs booth into the open shelter that is the Yap airport, was two smiling girls of about 18 or so, gleaming rosewood skin, tropical flower tiaras, and completely naked but for the rustling raffia skirts, full as a square dancer’s petticoats, barely clinging to their hips.  No coconut shell bras or bikini tops here.

Welcome Garland.

Welcome Garland.
(My boobs stayed covered.)

They welcomed us to Yap by draping around each of our necks a garland of fresh green, braided reeds, accentuated with delicate, watermelon-pink blossoms.  I had read that, in Yap, women are expected to cover their thighs, but not their breasts, so I wasn’t exactly surprised by their attire, but, not having had a chance to acclimate yet, my default social programming compelled me to respectfully avert my eyes from the exposed boobies.  Yapese Granny2Although I really did want to stare (you know what I always say:  everyone loves boobs), or at least, get a good photograph to share with y’all, I was just too tired to muster the nerve to ask permission, unsure if that would be considered rude.  Yapese Granny3(I wish I had, though, because except for those beauties at the airport, the only other native folks I saw in that particular state of traditional undress while I was in Yap were more on the elderly side, and as you can imagine, decades of gravity and sun exposure had their venerable chi-chis resembling tanned spaniels’ ears.

It's hard to stalk people from the front, sorry.

It’s hard to stalk people from the front, sorry.

Stealing more souls.

Stealing more souls in downtown Colonia,  Yap.

Even then, I was rendered a bashful, inwardly giggling idiot, stalking topless grannies in the grocery store with my camera, trying not to get caught photographing them, as it is, especially by the older generation, considered a theft of the soul.)

In the crowd that had turned out to meet the Saturday night plane (Yap only gets flights on Tuesdays and Saturdays, both late at night), I located Al, the owner of the Village View cottages where I would be staying (and, as it happens, the younger brother of one of the Grand Poobah chiefs of Yap).

Village View on Maap Island.

Village View on Maap Island.

He had come to fetch me and one other guest, a young Japanese woman who had come for the fantastic diving.  There are no lights along the long road to the northeast side of Maap island—one of the main islands that comprise Yap—and the road is not even paved after the turnoff to where Al’s five rustic beach cottages are located.

My cottage on Yap.

My cottage on Yap.

When we arrived, Al gave us each our keys, pointed out which cottage was assigned to whom, and aimed the truck’s headlights down the dirt trail so we could see where to find the only restaurant on that side of the island—the Moon Rize Restaurant and Dive Center—where we would be taking our meals.  He then left us, saying he’d be back the next day.

Village ViewIt was too dark to see when we arrived, but Al’s little cottages are right on the prettiest, most remote beach on Maap, have wrap-around porches, and are appropriately rustic to the locale—no TV, no phones, no cell signal, no internet connection.  NightShotThey do have power and plumbing, and air conditioning, though, which is all I really care about.  I threw my bags down and made a beeline for the bathroom, having forgotten to go at the airport before we set out through the jungle.  As soon as I was ensconced with my shorts around my ankles, I saw it:  the unholiest, most diabolical, hook-legged bulb of arachnoid evil, at least the size of the palm of my hand, giving me the multi-eyed stink-eye, not even a foot away from my knee.

Our beach.

Our beach.

I’m not sure how I managed to levitate my not-insubstantial form off the toilet and onto the sink vanity, still hobbled by my pants around my feet, and scramble crab-wise out of there without ever touching the floor, but I did.  You see, spiders are the things I am most terrified of in the world.  Call it irrational, I won’t argue, but when I seem them, my thoughts cease to form in words, coming instead in splashes of primary colors and alarm sirens, like the emergency broadcast system on steroids, and the only mental command I can obey is the primal directive to flee.  It’s not something I can control or reason my way around.  I have, over the years, begrudgingly developed the ability to dispose of smaller ones on my own (though not without hopping up and down and yelping like an overstimulated Pomeranian), but if they are bigger than, say, a dime, all I can do is run screaming.  Which is what I did in this instance.

This is where I found them.

The scene of the birthday party, the next day.

So, there I was, pulling up my pants in the road, evicted from my cottage by a big-ass spider in the middle of the night, with no ability to call Al to come back and save me.  The only other lights on in any of the cottages were in the one belonging to the Japanese girl who had come in from the airport with me, and somehow I didn’t think she was going to be much help; she was a shy, dainty little bijou, and didn’t speak any English.  I walked down the path toward the closed restaurant, hoping to find someone, anyone, who could help me exorcise the beast.  Or, preferably, just do it for me.  Thankfully, the heavens smiled on me, and I found a group of drunks smoking and laughing by the beach not far down the road.

The Moon Rize.

The Moon Rize.

A German-accented “Hallo!” greeted me out of the dark, and when I approached, a wild-haired, bare-chested Austrian stepped up to usher me into the circle.  “I am Sebastian,” he said, “but everyone calls me ‘Basti,’ or ‘Busty,’ because of my beautiful busen (German for ‘bosom’).  You can touch them if you want.”  He jutted his fuzzy, sunburned chest out for me to pet.  I reached up and gave his left nipple an affectionate tousle, and he recoiled with an expression mixed with surprise and delight.  “Ah! You can stay,” he announced, and introduced me around to the group.

My cottage, from the road.

My cottage, from the road.  In the daytime, obviously.

In addition to the aforementioned Basti, there was his stunning girlfriend whose birthday they were all celebrating, his adorable, hilarious friend and coworker in a documentary film company from Vienna, who he introduced simply as “Überfloof” (“because he has the softest, fluffiest hair…here, feel it!”  He was right, it was very soft), a golden Finnish guy who was a dead ringer for one of my friends from high school (assuming my friend has aged extremely well), and four or five Yapese locals from the village who had provided the “tuba” coconut wine on which all of them were bombed out of their gourds.  Well, that and some other things that were being passed around.

Some random pictures I took on Yap, because this part of the story takes place at night, and it was too dark to photograph anything.

Some random pictures I took on Yap, because this part of the story takes place at night, and it was too dark to photograph anything.

When I explained my spider predicament, Basti gallantly jumped up and accompanied me back to my cottage to help.  As we walked, he told me about a gargantuan furry, black spider he had encountered while filming a documentary in the rainforest of Brazil, and said that, unless this spider in my bathroom was truly, spectacularly large, he was going to be disappointed.  I was actually worried for a moment that my spider wouldn’t measure up.  Then he said, “unless it’s a…schwarze witwe…I don’t know how it’s called in English.”  He was talking about a black widow.  I answered him in German:  “Es ist keine schwarze witwe.”  He stopped and turned to me in surprise.  “Was, du sprichst Deutsch?  Das gibt’s doch wohl nicht!”  And, just like that, instant kinship.  (It always surprises Germans and Austrians to find a German-speaking American, but for some reason, it really blows their wigs up to run across one in a far-flung place, and Yap is about as far-flung as it gets.)

This can of Shasta Tiki Punch was bottled in Hayward, California, so it traveled just as far as I did to get to Yap.

This can of Shasta Tiki Punch was bottled in Hayward, California, so it traveled just as far as I did to get to Yap.

I was so flustered, I accidentally lead him to the wrong cottage at first—the one belonging to the Japanese girl.  As I futzed around unsuccessfully with the lock, I heard movement noise inside, and I thought it was the spider, in my mind, trashing the place like a Hell’s Angel in a bar fight.  “Oh my god, do you hear it?” I hissed at Basti, who just laughed at me.  I don’t know why she didn’t just open the door to see what we wanted.  But, then again, it was the middle of the night, and she’s probably sitting in Tokyo right now writing a blog post about how she narrowly avoided an untimely death when some crazy, Teutonic marauders tried to break into her cottage on her first night in Yap, as she cowered under the table, praying for them to go away.  Which we did as soon as I realized my error.

Once inside the correct cottage, I pushed the bathroom door open with my foot and jumped back out of the way.  Basti went inside and said, “Where is it?  I can’t even see it!”  I crept to the doorway and saw he was looking up, at the upper part of the wall.  “It’s down there!” I squeaked, pointing at the creature perched on the baseboard like it owned the place.  When he stepped back and asked if I had a Tupperware or something to put over it, I knew the thing had met his rigorous spider standards.  He grabbed a cup next to the sink and went in to capture it, while I uselessly leapt about out in the foyer, shrieking like I’d been run through with a spear.

EEEEK!!!

EEEEK!!!

“Get the camera ready!” he called to me.  “Come in now!”  But, I couldn’t do it; the trauma of too many mean boys over the years, pushing spiders into my face on their palms after purportedly rescuing me from them, has rendered me permanently distrustful.  And if he tried to put that octo-goblin in my face, they were going to have to airlift me to the psychiatric hospital in Guam.  “Come on, bring the camera!” he insisted.  “It’s safe, I promise!”  He said this last part in a reassuring enough tone that I fished my iPhone out of my bag—hands shaking, unsteady ululations of distress streaming nonstop from my constricted throat—and peeped around the doorjamb.

My hair still stands up just at the sight of this.  Yeesh!

My hair still stands up just at the sight of this. Yeesh!

He had the spider trapped under the glass on the wall, with his ear to the bottom, like he was eavesdropping on someone on the other side of the wall.  I practically climbed the door, just seeing the thing jerking around frenetically inside the glass, trying to climb inside Basti’s ear.  But, he ordered me with enough Austrian authority in his voice to “take some pictures, godammit,” that I managed to compose myself just enough to snap a few shots before my feet involuntarily conveyed me out of the room.

OhGodOhGodOhGodOhGodOhGodOhGodOhGodOhGodOhGodOhGod!!!!

OhGodOhGodOhGodOhGod!!!!

“I need something flat to slide underneath…no, not that, it’s convex…a flyer or something,” he instructed me, the top of his head just visible in the doorway.  There was nothing suitable anywhere in the room, and I was starting to panic afresh that the monster might get away in transit to the outdoors.  Then, I spotted a package of cookies I had bought earlier, and I started to frantically tear at it, so I could flatten out the box and give it to Basti to slip under the glass.  “Oh, good, perfect time to have some cookies,” he drawled at me derisively.  “I know you’re stressed out, go ahead, Schatz, have a cookie.  Have two!”

He's so lucky there wasn't a hole in the bottom of that cup.

He’s so lucky there wasn’t a hole in the bottom of that cup.

That made me laugh, which calmed me down enough to disassemble the cardboard package and reach it through the doorway to him.  I listened in a ridiculous, full-body clench from the other room as he cooed and apologized to the spider for pinching its leg, and gingerly, like he was removing a soufflé from the oven, carried it outside and pitched it into the yard.  “There.  Now, let’s go back to the party.  I think you could use a drink,” he said, unaware that what he had just done was, to me, the equivalent of slicing our thumbs open and binding them together in a blood brother ritual.

Now you know what it takes to earn my eternal devotion and gratitude.  Basti can now call on me to come bail him out of jail in Chiapas or Burundi or wherever, and I would totally do it.  And, after getting to know him a little better over the following week, I think there’s a decent chance that circumstance could actually come about.

He convinced our skipper to hand over the wheel of the boat.

He convinced our skipper to hand over the wheel of the boat.

There’s also an equal likelihood that, by the time I got there with the bail money, Basti would have already charmed the pants off his jailers, have the keys to his cell on a chain around his own neck, have them in stitches with his vivid accounts of, oh, say, the tiny eels that swim up the bums of unsuspecting sea cucumbers for safety (it’s a real thing, look it up).  They’d all be drinking and smoking and laughing in the jailhouse together, making fart jokes and naming their armpits after famous singing duos of the 60s and 70s (arms over his head, “Say ‘hallo’ to Ike and Tina!”).

Oh, it’ll happen.


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Thankful In Taiwan

Kenting National Park, Taiwan

Kenting National Park, Taiwan

Gobble, Gobble, everybody!  Happy Thanksgiving wishes coming to you from Taiwan!

This year has brought me a bounty of things to be thankful for.  Not the least of which happened yesterday.  I was strolling through Kenting Forest on the very southern tip of Taiwan.  It was quite hot and humid, and I was being feasted upon by the most ravenous mosquitoes.  I was not feeling grateful at all for the experience.  I felt like the mosquitoes’ Thanksgiving turkey.  butter2Then, out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw a stray Kleenex float by on a breeze.  When I focused on it, I realized it was a butterfly.  The biggest butterfly I had ever seen in real life, just drifting delicately through the air in slow motion.

She lighted on a nearby cluster of blossoms, and I crept silently toward her to get a closer look.  butter3Gossamer velvet of the purest white, calligraphed with inky black flourishes, upon lacquer spindle legs.  Achingly beautiful.

Then, her friend joined us.  He was an extrovert; he fluttered softly around my head for a few seconds, so closely, I thought for a moment he might land on my shoulder.  buttersAs I watched him fly about, so languidly and leisurely, I noticed three more of these big, lacy, white angels perched upon blooms in the foliage.  Every few moments, they would lift off and float slowly around for a bit, barely having to flap their broad wings at all to stay aloft.  butterI wanted to laugh out loud, but I didn’t dare utter a sound for fear of breaking the spell.  I had landed in the middle of a giant butterfly jamboree.  For once, too, I was keenly aware of the blessing it was as it was happening.

Giant Autumn Maple in Kenting Forest

Giant Autumn Maple in Kenting Forest

I read later, at the visitor center, that these beauties are “Milkweed Butterflies,” and that they fly slowly, because they are so big, they have no natural enemies, so they have the luxury of being pokey.  My kinda critters.

Finial on a bridge post in Taroko Gorge

Finial on a bridge post in Taroko Gorge

I have been getting back to nature quite a bit this week, actually.  I’ve been visiting some of Taiwan’s natural wonders in the southern and eastern parts of the island.  I am spending Thanksgiving this year in the marble mountains of Taroko National Park, named for the Taroko Gorge.

Taroko Gorge

Taroko Gorge

The Taroko Mountains are made of luminous, white marble, striated with ribbons of jade and green schist.  A milky river cut the gorge in a jagged pattern through the mountains, and the porous stone has erosion pockmarks throughout that make it look like a the cross-section of a bone.  taroko3It’s not the easiest place to get to, but the effort is generously rewarded.

Our American holiday of Thanksgiving obviously isn’t celebrated here in Taiwan, of course, but there is still a certain symmetry to being in Taroko Gorge on this holiday.  tarokoMuch of the eastern side of Taiwan, where Taroko Gorge is located, is still peopled by indigenous tribes, who were moved to reservations here after their ancestors’ lands were taken from them by Chinese colonialists hundreds of years ago.  Sound familiar?  Throw in a turkey and a pilgrim hat, and we’re almost there.  The few hotels and concessions in the park are operated by the local tribes.

Shrine of the Kind Mother in Taroko National Park

Shrine of the Kind Mother in Taroko National Park

So, even though there was no turkey on the buffet in the hotel tonight, my Thanksgiving feast was prepared and served by the local indigenous folks.  I may not sleep tonight.  Liberal white guilt is worse than heartburn.

Suspension Bridge Across Taroko Gorge

Suspension Bridge Across Taroko Gorge

Nevertheless, it is impossible not to be thankful for this place, and for the opportunity to be here to see it with my own eyes.

Happy Thanksgiving, gentle friends.


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Eagles and Reindeer and Bears, Oh My!

Alaskan Brown BearHe looks like a "Gus" to me, what do you think?

Alaskan Brown Bear
He looks like a “Gus” to me, what do you think?

As a city denizen, the closest contact I have had to wildlife in recent years was that raccoon that stole my Shamrock Shake while I was taking pictures up on Twin Peaks in San Francisco a couple weeks ago.  Cute as he was, the experience didn’t give me chills.  Well, I’ve got them now, and it isn’t just because of the temperature.

One of Three Bald Eagles I Saw Near the Portage Glacier

One of Three Bald Eagles I Saw Near the Portage Glacier

Anchorage is surrounded by vast wilderness that is home to the kind of wildlife most of us have only ever seen in zoos or on TV.  Between the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, and the Chugach State Park and National Forest, a day trip out of the city will make you feel like you are in an episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom (or, insert name of more timely TV show reference here, for those who are too young to remember the 1970s).

Caribou aka Reindeer

Caribou aka Reindeer

Just keep the telefoto lens on your camera at the ready, and don’t be an idiot and try to get close to, pet or feed the animals, and the Kenai Peninsula will reward you handsomely.  I had an amazingly lucky day, in part, because we hired a local guide to show us to the best spots to see these magnificent creatures, and to keep us from getting ourselves killed by, oh, say, an avalanche or a grizzly bear.  (He also happened to know of a truly memorable little donut shop tucked away behind the only gas station on the Seward Highway.  The maple bars were puffs of heaven glazed with sin!)

Girl Grizzly Hanging Out, Munching Some Kind of Bone (Hopefully Not Human)

Girl Grizzly Hanging Out, Munching Some Kind of Bone (Hopefully Not Human)

Ohhh...More Bears...Easy Fellas

Ohhh…More Bears…Easy Fellas

But, although I took all the photos in this post out in the wild hinterlands, you don’t actually have to leave Anchorage city limits to have a wildlife sighting.  Believe it or not, the city of Anchorage itself is home to not only 300,000 people, but also about 1,600 moose, and scores of black, brown and grizzly bears, linx and other species of wildlife.  Inside the city.  Urban wildlife.  Seriously, moose just walk down the street like sulky teenagers and pick through people’s trash bins.  Bears saunter around and nap on people’s back decks.  Most of them wander into the city from Chugach State Park.  The prevailing attitude seems to be:  (1) Moose are stupid and dangerous, so stay out of their way; and (2) Bears are cool, just don’t corner or threaten them.  In fact, more people are hurt each year by moose than by black and grizzly bear attacks combined.

Bear Fight!

Bear Fight!

Anchorage locals are eager to point out that the only bear species that will actually hunt a human being is the polar bear.  The rest of the bears, they say, are happy to just share the space with us, as long as they get the fishing spot they want, and people don’t mess with them.  I don’t think that’s too much to ask, do you?