"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, January 18, 2014

A Nice Walk In The Wild? Boring

On a business trip to Madagascar not long ago, I was invited by my local American colleagues to go with them to see the lemurs, a mix of squirrel, raccoon, and monkey  found only on the island. 

I had no interest in lemurs, was aware of the international reputation of the local foie gras, and thought that my Saturday would be much better spent at the Restaurant Malgache for a civilized lunch followed by a siesta, an afternoon at the pool, and an evening at the hotel bar.

My colleagues persisted, explaining the uniqueness of the animal, its remarkable adaptation to the local environment, its particular intelligence, and special place in the phylogeny of the animal kingdom. This might be my only chance, they said, to see this remarkable creature.

I again politely demurred, and did indeed eat lunch at the Malgache - foie gras accompanied by an excellent Beaujolais, grilled sole, and Salady Voankazu, vanilla-flavored fresh fruits with lychee nuts. 

I was asked many times by many people to see the lemurs, and each time I excused myself.  One colleague explained that in the park where she was taking her family, the lemurs roamed freely, were approachable, and visitors could better appreciate their grace and agility. 

I had lived in India many years, and free-roaming monkeys (a revered animal because of Hindus’ reverence for Hanuman, the Monkey God who battled Ravana and rescued Sita from his Sri Lankan kingdom) were rabid pests. 

They perched on temple doorways, swung from banyan trees, cadged nuts and fruits from pilgrims, and pulled their hair.  They were aggressive, ugly, and scary.  I hated them. The lemurs, I assumed would be no different.

Antananarivo is an interesting city with a mix of Africans, native Malagasy (close relatives of Malays), and Europeans.  Situated at 5000’ altitude, the climate is temperate and ideal.  There are churches and mosques, bazaars, African, European, and Asian quartiers, great street food and festivals.  A far better place to spend the weekend than in a lemur park.

I have spent many months in Africa and have visited over 20 countries. Never once did I visit a game park or zoo.  I have vivid memories of the Hotel de la Paix in Bamako and the Ile de France restaurant in Nouakchott, watering holes of ex-colons, the French who stayed on after Independence.  I would drink Pernod with mining engineers back from Tuareg country, eat lobster and oysters flown in from Paris, eat on the terrace of the Il Forno, a Kigali hilltop restaurant run by expatriate Italians, have long, civilized lunches by Lake Tanganyika in Burundi, enjoy three-hour lunches by the ocean in Dakar…But never, ever leave the city to see wildlife.

I turned down trips to silverback gorilla country near the Congolese border in Rwanda, drank gin and tonics by the pool in Harare while my colleagues flew to Victoria Falls and rafted down the Zambezi.  I gave James Corbett National Park, the Indian preserve of the Bengal tiger, wide berth on my way to the famous hill stations of the British Raj – Nainital, Manali, Dalhousie, Dehra Dun, and Shimla.

                                  Shimla

I preferred the night life of San Jose and never bothered with Costa Rican rain forests.  I spent days and nights on the beaches of Copacabana and in Rio nightclubs, and never once set foot in the Amazon. I was shanghaied once to the Bolivian jungle on a meat flight from La Paz and was impressed on steamer for a day trip up and down the Rio Beni. There was nothing but a solid mass of green on both sides of the waterway; nothing in the muddy, sluggish river, and I wasted 8 hours on a noisy, smoky reconverted tugboat that somehow had made it down from New Orleans.

When asked why I should I bother with wildebeests or elephants, colleagues read from a prepared speech about the dignity of wild animals, the beauty of unsullied nature as God created it. There was some transformative power in lions, tigers, elephants, and rhinos, they said.  Lions were more than just animals.  They were symbols of a more savage, but pure, and now endangered existence. When my friends went off message, they were unconvincing.  “You’ll understand”, they said, “once you go”.

I hated zoos as a child, but my parents never gave up on trying; and I was hauled to big and small zoos up and down the East Coast. Whenever we visited New York City, the Central Park and Bronx Zoos were always first on the list.  I could never understand my father’s fascination.  They stank, the animals shat and pissed everywhere, and feeding time – the highlight of any zoo tour – was a disgusting affair of animals gobbling, grunting, and scraping the piles of fruits and meat chunks dumped in their cages. I was told many years later that zoos had become less confining and more appropriately respectful to the animals, but I still could never see the point of a visit.  Especially with the advent of wide-screen super HD resolution television; and nature documentaries shot with micro-cameras, high-tech wide-angle lenses, and impossibly intimate shots of mating and hunting, why would anyone bother with a zoo?

I have travelled to over sixty countries in my many years of international development, and I have enjoyed each and every one.  Even Angola, a pestilential, corrupt, and lawless place had its moments.  A Ilha, a long spit of land on the Atlantic Ocean not far from Luanda has great restaurants, beaches, and music.  I fought my way out of the city every evening to get some air, fresh breezes, and relief from the hostility and menace of the city.

Pakistan, a country in many ways far worse than Angola because its corruption has been institutionalized over nearly 70 years of military rule, tribal and ethnic politics, religious extremism, and big power politics, still had something to offer.  The book stores of Lahore, for example, Afghan tandoori and grilled lamb in Rawalpindi, and Sufi vocals.

I visited Haiti over 20 times during the calm days of the Duvaliers when foreigners could eat excellent French food in the hills above Petionville, dance in the clubs in Carrefour, and drink rum punches at the Oloffson. The Duvaliers, like Cuba’s Batista, may indeed have been very bad for their people, but they certainly made life easy for foreign visitors.

I felt privileged to be part of Eastern Europe’s transition to democracy, review drafts of new constitutions, discuss civil rights and liberties, explain the basics of capitalism, and watch the evolution of a market economy from street vendors to kiosks to stores to superstores.

I loved West Africa because of its spirit, music, and energy.  People are always frank, direct, extremely open, and politely blunt.  Women are tall, proud, and elegant; and everyone loves to talk.  I spent hours in clubs, drinking tea, arguing Derrida, lineage, African kingdoms, and local politics. Animals never entered the picture.  Nor did treks, nature rides, boat trips, or excursions into the bush. 

I am no different in the United States.  I couldn’t wait to get back to Bozeman, small and insignificant Montana town that it is, and leave Yellowstone and bear-watching. I never understood the attraction of seeing a tame bear eating berries along the roadside; or seeing what might or might not be an elk through 100X binoculars.  On a trip South I got shanghaied again, this time to go into the Louisiana swamps; and spent four uncomfortable, hot hours on a noisy diesel launch with nothing around but cypress trees, water, and a few pelicans.  Everyone had their cameras out waiting for a sighting of an alligator or some exotic snake, but all they got were vireos, crows, and herons. 

I see no allure in camping – fighting to get the tent up, swales dug, and the fire made. Cold showers, canned food, and long walks on monotonous forest trails.  Hiking is not much better. Before setting off on an enforced hike in the Crazies near Paradise Valley, Montana, I was told to be sure to make a lot of noise – singing, talking, whistling – and to wear bells on my arms and legs. “Be sure that you are especially loud when you go around turns”, my sister-in-law advised, “so you can let the grizzlies know you are coming”.  I hiked up there once, but for the rest of the trip drank beer and played Keno in local Livingston bars.

I know people who are whale-watchers, dolphin rescuers, and birders.  They not only want to see wild animals, but somehow need to be engaged in their lives.  They boycott tuna fish companies because of indiscriminate netting; soft-drink manufacturers because of six-pack plastic that can strangle mergansers; and furriers for their inhuman treatment of mink, fox, and chinchilla. These friends are more than simple observers. For them wild animals are an identity, a cause, and a purpose.

Perhaps the most exaggerated example of someone who was engaged with the wild was Timothy Treadwell, the subject of Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man.  Treadwell spent so much time in Alaska with grizzlies that he actually believed he was one.  Because of his schizoid fantasies, he got too close to a bear which ate him and his girlfriend.

I am surprised to see foxes in my residential DC neighborhood, unhappy to see deer nibbling the petunias, and afraid of rabid raccoons in the alley.  Squirrels dig up the roots of newly-planted flowers, eat tomatoes, and get into attics and crawl-spaces.  I would like to do away with all of them.

My friends still keep after me, especially now that I am retired.  I have the time to visit our national parks, they say.  I am always polite, but choose to visit New York, San Francisco, Boston, Miami, and Savannah.  Restaurants, theatres, galleries, bars, cabaret, and endless people to meet. Why would I ever go off into the woods?

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