A Moment of Zen

Rock Squirrel (Spermophilus variegatus)I had a moment of zen the other day on the porch at the office with one of these guys.

I was taking a break from the utter mind-numbingness of modern American business culture at our offices here in Austin. Our offices are out on Loop 360, where the Colorado River snakes through the last vestiges of a vast 250 million year old limestone escarpment. What used to be the bed of a large inland sea is now one of the most beautiful places in Texas. Cyrpess trees soldier down the banks of crystal clear streams, fossils litter the hilltops and cattle low in the fields. Sadly, much of the Hill Country around Austin (and even worse on the northern outskirts of San Antonio) has been obliterated by a flesh consuming bacteria of concrete, mirrored glass buildings and McMansions.

Until a few weeks ago I’d never seen the mostly black furred rock squirrel in Texas. At first I thought he might be an invasive species. Then I thought he might be a misplaced one, not unlike the Lost Pines outside of Bastrop. So I googled him.

Sure, I’ve seen other, more common squirrels, in San Antonio and Houston, but this was a first. It made me feel good inside.

Usually I see the little guy, or maybe one of his cousins, as I am driving up the hill towards our offices, which are next to a wildlife reserve. Austin is deservedly famous for its greenbelts–to prevent ex-urbanization.

Anyway, I’d see the guy or gal sitting there near a storm drainage, on his haunches, looking up at me querulously, “dood!” I imagine him saying, “why you keep disturbing my serenity with your loud car and louder music?”

But Friday, whilst sitting on the back porch in the shade of a cedar and oak grove at the back of our building I saw him scampering around, picking up the acorns that are just beginning to thump and thwack down from the trees. He was just as curious about me as I was him. So curious, in fact, that he came within arms reach of me. I sat, mesmerized.

I didn’t learn any profound lessons from the little guy. It was just a moment. But in that moment universes expanded and collapsed upon themselves as the squirrel and I simply observed.

Monkey Business

So, I’m sitting at a table in a rooftop restaurant, deep in thought. Writing away in my travel journal about the day’s experiences in Mamallapuram. I’ve a half eaten plate of fruit in front of me, which I am kind of nibbling at half-heartedly, after all, tropical fruits aren’t my thing. I prefer a nice sour Granny Smith apple, if you know what I mean. Mind you, I’m in deep concentration mode, trying to bring out the words to describe my day and all of a sudden there’s a loud thump on my table, tea spills from my cup and I’m scared shitless when I look up and see a thirty pound bull monkey looking at me, reaching for my fruit plate. I try to shoo him away, but he bares his fangs, and my what fangs he had, at me and hisses. So, I look at him and say, “have it your way, brother. Fruit’s all yours.”

It was almost as if he understood me. He then set about sitting down on the table like a proper monkey should and for the following few minutes ate what remained of my fruit, staring at me the whole time, daring me to do something. And when he finished the fruit he jumped back up the thatch roof covering my table and then on to the roof and disappeared.

What is it with monkeys and me?

A Good Day In The Jungle

Jungle TrailI’m certainly feeling much better. I took a rather vigorous hike in the Taman Negarra Pulau Penang today (Penang National Park). As a matter of fact, it’s the most vigorous hike I’ve taken since I injured my back in 2003. This is a damn good sign to me. My back doesn’t hurt, nor do my ribs–although my muscles are tight as I type this and I will be sore tomorrow, but these are all good signs.

(About two dozen new photos can be found here from today.)

Mind you, it wasn’t like I went hiking up a several thousand foot mountain, just a moderate hike in a hilly jungle setting. Good stuff. I’m ready to move on, ready to hit the Cameron Highlands tomorrow and I reckon by the time I get to the Himalayas I’ll be up for some decent hikes. After almost six months of walking everywhere, losing 30 pounds–I’m at a trim 185 once again–and eating lean Asian cuisine I’m in pretty good shape. Now, the real test will come when I am on the ship to India when I plan to quit smoking. But I digress . . .

I grew up hunting and fishing half of the time in the Brush Country of South Texas and the other half in the Hill Country of Central Texas. My father taught me how to spot wildlife and to this day it’s one of the greatest gifts he ever bestowed upon me. (I prefer not to hunt now, but just to observe, although I have no animus towards hunters–so long as they eat what they kill.) Now, searching for game in South and Central Texas is pretty easy. I’ve got the ‘eye’ for it. Most of the flora is either russet colored or Prickly Pear green. The key is to search for movement and I can spot a rabbit, bobcat or white-tail in a second.

But, as I learned in Belize in 1999, looking for wildlife in the jungle is something of a much more difficult task. Everything is green or bizarre colors that still manage to make the jungle overwhelming. The jungle is always moving. Leaves, coconuts falling, animals with brilliant camouflage make spotting wildlife, even birds, in the jungle quite difficult.

And today was no different. I managed to see two birds, one a a type of heron, the other I assume is a type of plover, or shore bird of a sort. I saw three beautiful monitor lizards and got good photos of two of them (here and here). But the real joy came about halfway through my jungle trek. I sat down to have some water and lit up a smoke. A few minutes later a small nut hit me in the head. I looked around and assumed it fell from a tree. Stuff is always falling from trees in the jungle. But then a minute or so later it happened again. Puzzled, I looked more closely. Focusing my eyes and letting them adjust to the dense foliage around me. And there he was: a young Long-Tailed Macaque not eight feet away from me getting ready to hurl another seed at me. I fancy he smiled at me, as I was now in on the joke. But still, it was an odd encounter. There I was, face to face with a cousin both of us intelligent and inquisitive creatures and I can only assume he clearly wanted some tobacco. (I’ve been told they like it by several people here in Malaysia and in Indonesia.) Soon his mom showed up and shooed him off.

It was the highlight of my day.

As for tonight, I’m going to relax, have another bowl of won-ton mie at the soup stall up the street and some more of this wonderful coffee, then read a book and sleep.

It’s good to be healthy and fit again. And I am ready to move on. Penang, I am happy to say, has grown on me–although I doubt I’ll return. But then again, who knows where my journeys will take me. I’ve given up taking them. They take me. I’m just along for the ride.

Silkworms, Elephants and Snakes in Chiang Mai

I have a short piece in the San Antonio Express-News this morning about Thailand. If you didn’t read my post on the animals around Chiang Mai, Thailand in October, this is a revised version. Enjoy.

A Vietnamese Pastoral

WaterYesterday I drove out into the jungle to see the ruins of ‘My Son’. Along the way I recognized how true it was that Vietnam is still largely a rural nation. It’s currently the 13th most populous nation in the world and in a few decades is projected to become the 10th. There are babies and infants everywhere and pregnant women are a common sight as well. Similar to Iran there is a huge under-30 cohort in the country. This group has come of age in an era of rapid economic growth and reform. But Vietnam is still rural and it was the land, the countryside to which I was drawn. (I grew up on a farm and find rural areas quite fascinating.) The Vietnamese countryside did not disappoint.

In this part of Central Vietnam the flat farm land is found in a very narrow strip–40 to 50 miles wide–between the mountains and the sea. It is land of thick, fertile alluvial soils. As I drove inland from the coast we passed several rivers–it’s no wonder Swift Boats played such an important part in the war (my uncle died on one), but it’s only until you get here and see for yourself that you realize this. Fisherman in conical bamboo hats waded in the shallows along the banks and the islands in mid-river, while many long canoe-like boats paddled upstream and down.

Then came the rice paddies, fields and fields of them–all just recently harvested–with water buffaloes languishing in the muck left behind. Egrets sitting atop the big, strangely calm and silent animals, herons hunting in the muddied waters of paddies, ducks, geese and moor-hens were everywhere. Often I caught the reflection of the mountains in the distance in these semi-stagnant pools of water.

The roads were clogged with bicycles; school children riding home, others with parasols jerry-rigged for shade from the withering sun and women wearing the elegant ‘ao dai’ blowing gently in the soft breeze.

Sometimes a farm house sat in the middle of an immense field of rice paddies, raised up on a dyke-like formation. Shaded by banana trees and other palms, the thatch-roofed houses were made of red-bricks, fired from the luxuriant red soil of the region. Some were surrounded by water-cress fields, and cabbage patches and melons and orchards. And even though it was the heat of the day and all the beasts of the land were laying in the shade the Vietnamese were hard at work. Ceaseless. One man patched a roof with his friends. Another fixed a flat tire on his moped. Women cooked lunch on a front yard grill and the children separated the rice from the chaff or tended to the animals.

The population density here is intense. It’s hard to travel more than a kilometer without passing through another village, much like rural China. Even in the empty spaces farm houses pop up out of the paddies, dotting the landscape all over. Rolling green hills, terraces, duck ponds and pig pens were everywhere to be seen. Humanity has placed a giant footprint here and it was only when I drove on into the mountains that the jungle closed in–and fast.

Soon I parked. The canopy overhead, dense and disturbing, darkened the path forward. Warning signs punctuated the path at key points. One read: “Caution! Unexploded ordinance in the area. Stay on path!” Such portents were a common, if grim reminder of a darker time in Vietnam’s recent past. I continued on for another kilometer. The shade provided by the canopy overhead provided little relief from the heat and amplified the humidity to a stifling level. I continued climbing upwards but my slight pant and heightened heart-rate were soon greeted by the ruins of ‘My Son.’

The bricks looked as if they were fired yesterday–the same hue of ochre as the farm houses further down the mountain. But the architecture was stunning–so very Hindu. The sensual ornamentation of full-breasted Hindu goddesses and the sleek elegance of Hindu warriors graced each temple and building in the ruins. They filled the site with a strange feeling of displacement–as if I were off some untrod path in Kerala instead of in Central Vietnam.

But the jungle rules here, hanging as it does from the tops of temples much as it does at Caracol in Belize. Unlike Central American sites the water is plentiful here. Streams, brooks and small rivers criss-cross the 12 square kilometers of the site. ‘My Son’ was inhabited for close to half a millenium and it is no wonder. ‘My Son’ is strategically placed in an emerald bowl of jungle clad peaks with only a single, narrow, valley entrance. In an age of swords, horses and the bow it was easily defended and not easily besieged. The surrounding land, although cratered and littered with UXOs now is fecund. Farms must have been plentiful then and with plenty of water ‘My Son’ could withstand any attempt at a siege, wholly self-sufficient as it was.

Sadly, like most of South-East Asia and China, excepting parts of Indonesia, the landscape is denued of any large wildlife. The Indo-China tiger is all but gone from the area and so is its prey. I heard half a dozen different song birds, but the jungle canopy prevented seeing any of them. Little is more frustrating than hearing a haunting bird-song whilst unable to see the singer. Loud croaking from frogs echoed all around me but I was unwilling to hunt them out–for leaving the path was too dangerous.

Driving back I watch the country-side pass before me. A lone figure pulls out weeds from a rice paddy. Another tosses a fish net into a river. A black dog tramps through rows of carefully cultivated cabbage, sniffing something out. Pigs wallow in the mud. Water buffaloes are ever present, as are cows. Banana and palm trees fill the low, flat horizon and the green is everywhere except in the sky overhead, pastel-blue, studded with thick white clouds and the sun breathing life into everything.