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

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Doing Good and and Living Well - Animals

I would rather eat animals than look at them, so I have never visited a game park or reserve, went to the zoo only because of my children; and despite the blandishments of my colleagues, never traveled to see the lemurs in Madagascar; the lions, elephants, and wildebeests on the South African veldt or the Tanzanian and Kenyan high plains.

Every time I visited Madagascar, I was asked if I wanted to see the lemurs. The invitations were persistent and insistent. Was I sure that I didn't want to see the lemurs? Why don't you come with us to see the lemurs? You really must see the lemurs. I realized that seeing the lemurs was some kind of affirmation of the expatriate experience. Refusal was more than just demurring on an animal visit; it was a rejection. I could understand. Pictures of lemurs were everywhere. Stuffed lemurs were sold in every gift shoppe, at the airport duty free. Photographs hung in every hotel room, office corridor, and restaurant wall. Madagascar had been branded - the lemur country.

I was subjected to the same pressures in East and Southern Africa. "Why don't you come with us to the game park this weekend. It is only an hour away"; or "Mbwane from the office will arrange everything for you travel to the game park"; or "Why don't you take a few days at the end of your trip and see the game park". I have always been bored silly by animal programs on PBS. However, I just heard of a Chinese zoo in which a live goat is sent into a pit of hungry Siberian tigers and you can watch the feeding frenzy from behind a plexiglass shield. Now that would be interesting.

I have many memories of animals, however. One of my most vivid is of the wild dog packs in Bucharest. There were so many of these dog packs, that I would have to change my route to avoid them, circling around them or completely changing my route. They were nasty - mangy, snarling, open sores and bloody back bites, drooling and rabid; and collected in packs of 20-30 dogs. They were all over the city - near the orchestra hall, outside hotels, in crumbling old European neighborhoods, outside of Soviet housing blocs. Everyone I knew had been bitten. It was unavoidable. I always walked with a big stick and carried rocks in my pockets.

I hated them and was scared shitless of them. This came because of my experiences in Latin America where street dogs, like here, had no fear. I also remember the collective fear of rabies in India where the treatment was still Medieval - 12 shots on consecutive days of a cannon-load of horse serum jammed into your stomach muscles with a 6" needle. The paranoia about rabies in Delhi was such that the wife of one of my colleagues went through the treatment because her cook had been bitten.

Another permanent memory is of the goat herds in the streets of Bombay, especially near the Mosque on the way to Juhu beach. There was an abbatoir there for Muslims, and the already crowed streets were often jammed with goats. These were the days before air-conditioned cars, and driving with the windows down in the dense and saturated air before the monsoon, crowded in by cycles, pedestrians, rickshaws, and foul, rancid, matted, ugly goats was almost unbearable. The smell was putrid, powerful, sickening, and lasting. It took miles after the goat gantlet to air the car out; and still the smell clung to the cilia of my nostrils, leaving me with putrid goat for hours. To this day I can't eat goat cheese because of the virulent memory of those rancid goats.

Camels were almost as bad. I had many meals in the desert in Mauritania, romantic affairs under colored tents, surrounded by dunes, eating a Moorish banquet; but if the wind shifted and blew over the tethered camels outside, the same disgusting, rancid smell made me breathe through my mouth, stop eating, then clearing all airways when I sensed the wind shift back.

My favorite memory is lions in Zimbabwe - not because I saw them or went to see them in game parks, but because of the concerns of our driver. We had gone to Bulawayo and given my impatience with field trips wanted to get back to my four-star hotel and the pool before the end of the day. I asked the driver if we could leave late in the afternoon after our meetings. I didn't want to spend any more time than I had to fighting mosquitoes and tossing on a lumpy bed. "No, bwana", he said. "If we travel after dusk we may get attacked by lions". In all my many years of travel in the Third World, I had had my share of danger - disease, robbery, assault, kidnapping, and revolutions - but I had never run the risk of getting eaten by an animal.

I also remember the story of an American colleague in India when I first went there to live. He was bragging about going tiger hunting with his Assamese girlfriend and Indian army colonel friend. I was impressed with the romance of it all - how Kipling, I thought. How Raj. What they did was to climb into a platform built high in a tree and wait for a tiger who would be attracted by the smell of blood from a goat which had been tethered below and hat its neck cut enough to attract the tiger, but not kill it. When the tiger appeared my colleague and his army colonel blasted away from the treetops. As I have said, I am not an animal lover more animal rights advocate, so it was only this absurd posturing which got me. How ridiculous. No tracking in the jungle, no British fair play, no Ernest Hemingway machismo - just laying down withering fire from the banyan tree.

There were all other kinds of encounters with animals, either close or far. "Watch out", said an Australian on Batu Ferenghi, the foreigners beach near Penang, as he saw me ready to take a dip. "Sea snakes'll bite ya". Not until many years later did I read an article about sea snakes, one of the most poisonous varieties of snakes alive. The krites of India were well know. Their local name was Five Steps - get bitten and you have five steps before you keel over. I once traipsed through the monsoon-soaked banana plantation near a Peace Corps friend's hut, in sandals and without warning of the krites and tarantulas. There were the always too late warnings of black mambas, snakes with the same killing power of sea snakes and krites; but I suppose I always got out of bed before the snake crawled in with me.

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