Friday, April 13, 2007

Wolfgang And The Four Macaques

Suneth had informed me that my new passport would arrive at the consulate in five to seven working days, so early in the morning on the eighth working day Talia and I left Unawatuna for Colombo. She went in search of a new backpack, and I went back to Galle Face. I presented myself at the U.S. Consulate security desk at 9 am, and the same staunch receptionists gave me the same discouraging looks. I explained what I wanted, and one of them called back to Citizen Services where somebody told her they'd look around for my passport and call back. There being no chairs, I sat down on the concrete floor to wait for the call. 20 minutes later, Suneth, in his cheerful, efficient manner, told me to come back next week. I was annoyed. I wanted to take my new, Indian visa-eligible passport to Kandy, the second largest city in the country, the location of the other, reputedly more efficient, less crowded Indian High Commission, and our next stop; but no, I'd have to come back to Colombo, again.

procession, Kandy

I had a few hours until my rendezvous with Talia, so I went to Barista for several cups of the best Americano in town, where I happened across a shocking article in the Daily News, Sri Lanka's national paper. Apparently, Australia is leading an energy conservation trend by aiming to eradicate the use of incandescent light bulbs by 2010. I associate their cold output not with the charming Victorian houses around Bondi Beach, but with 24-hour convenience stores and developing countries; in the former, I try to get in and out as quickly as possible, and in the latter I try to ignore it. Unfortunately, Wal Mart plans to increase its sales of compact fluorescent bulbs from 40 million, the number for 2005, to 100 million by 2008, and Phillips will stop producing incandescent bulbs by 2016. Compact fluorescent bulbs use 20% less energy to produce the same amount of light as incandescents, and they last five to ten times longer, but zombie light is zombie light, no matter how efficient it is. The photo that went along with the article, an Australian woman installing fluorescent bulbs in a chandelier hanging from an ornate, pressed-tin ceiling illustrated the aesthetic disaster of it all.

That sea turtle I saw in Unawatuna impressed me, and after our encounter, I read a little bit about its kind. They have a lifespan exceeding a hundred years; females lay their eggs in the same place they themselves hatched, navigating huge distances (the Atlantic for example) using the Earth's magnetic field to locate their natal beaches; and each of the seven existing species are endangered. It's difficult to draw direct lines between specific human behaviors and their environmental consequences, which makes it hard to create clear solutions with measurable results that everybody can contribute to; and I felt the futility of individual conservation efforts when I considered my own relationship to the disappearing marine turtles. I can try to create less trash, walk more often, and use things that are made locally, but even if I go live in a cave, species will continue to decline around me as the world whizzes on past. I keep doing what I'm doing, trying to remember to switch off the light when I leave a room, going without air-con, getting out the quilts in the winter, knowing all the while that none of it is enough. I could trot out the fact that I can't even remember what a hot shower or a soft, tumble-dried t-shirt feels like, but then I have been on a whole lot of planes lately, and everybody has those things that they don’t want to live without. I'd gladly support a program to eradicate the use of private cars to save sea turtles, but lighting is where I dig in my heels.

Talia and I finally ended up in Kandy around 10 pm on the same day we’d left Unawatuna. It’s a relatively calm city and it has quite a few sights, even a temple that houses a tooth alleged to have belonged to the Buddha, but the difficult thing about following your attractions around is that they change, so you have to be alert. Somewhere along the line I became over-saturated with architecture. I should have noticed what was going on when I bought that bird book back in Ooty, but I kept looking in the wrong direction for a while, until I spent all that time underwater in Unawatuna, and it dawned on me just how much nature (and here I'm talking about the green stuff) offers to the watchful. Perhaps I ignored the shift because it’s so difficult to write about. I’m intimidated by it; supplying scale or context for a thing that is basic, saying anything specific about a thing so primary, is beyond my abilities. Anyhow, by the time I reached Kandy my new leanings couldn't be ignored, and the only things I really wanted to do were take advantage of city-speed internet connections, and visit the Peridiniya Botanical Gardens.

Kandy lake

That's exactly what I did, and on our third and last day in town, underestimating the distance and walk time from the town center, I arrived later in the afternoon than I'd planned, but I still had over four hours to spend in the 150 acre park. At first I treated it as a visit to the library, browsing a living field guide, acquiring names for trees and plants I'd been seeing in the wild. But after a while I left the greenhouses and structured gardens behind for a walk through a shady, enchanted area inhabited by a variety of grand, twisted, old, trees. I found a massive trunk among whose gnarled roots to nestle, and opened Gulliver's Travels, but soon it began to sprinkle. The slant of my tree offered adequate shelter, so I sat and enjoyed the fragrant, cooling air, but when the volume increased, I stood up and flattened myself against the trunk, which was enough until the deluge began, at which point I resigned myself to being soaked through and formed a lean-to with my back against the trunk in order to shelter the electronics in my backpack.

Soon, I had a wet t-shirt, so you can guess what happened next. Two respectable looking young men had sought refuge against the trunk of a nearby tree, and now, as the rain came so fast it was hard to hear, one of them ran over to me and shouted, "do you have an umbrella?" I really didn't think such an idiotic question merited an answer, so I just turned the other way. He kept shouting things, trying to get a conversation going, or maybe just trying to get me to turn around, and I eyed a far off pavilion sheltering a crowd. There came a point of decision, and I pushed off from the trunk. As I sprinted away, the man shouted, "Why don't you talk? We are not the aliens, Madame."

scorpion in the grass

Once under the pavilion, the occupants, clumped together to avoid leaks in the roof, stared at me as I stared at the rain. When it stopped, some minutes later, I stood for a while watching droves of fruit bats reestablishing their perches on limbs silhouetted against the clearing sky. The pavilion emptied, and only a few boys remained, chattering about something on the ground. I joined them to observe a blue-green scorpion moving slowly through the grass. One of them held it up on the end of a stick and asked me to take a photograph. After that, I walked around until sunset, taking a break on a long, low limb of a 100 year old Giant Java Willow, its canopy sprawled wide on the support of secondary trunks dropped from its branches, and by the time I left the gardens, I was mostly dry.

Giant Java Willow

Kandy is a picturesque, blue-toned town with pleasant weather. There is even a small lake at its center hosting Cormorants, Egrets, and Kingfishers, but there are still rickshaws and hassling to be contended with. What it came down to was that neither Talia nor I wanted anything to do with cities at the moment, and so, not so many days after we got off the train from Colombo, we got on another one to Ella. This time, we bought first-class tickets for a glassed viewing car. It was the most beautiful train ride I've ever taken, and that's coming from someone who has difficulty with superlatives. We rose up through the range of greens, from the yellow tinged, tropical lowlands to the blue and violet heights, over tightly curved tracks. The first class car is at the end of the train, and we were at the back of the car, the very last passengers; we entered fairy-tale tunnels with egg-shaped mouths and birds often followed, silhouetted against the receding spoon of light until they were swallowed in the darkness of a curve. Occasionally, one kept speed with us all the way through, bursting out of the brick mouth and into the light of our wake, like a diver coming up for air.

Ella itself is as lovely as the route there, and due to my preference for solitary walks, I had no intention of looking up a man I’d met on the previous train ride, from Colombo to Kandy. Talia and I had taken second-class tickets on a train so crowded that I stood for the first hour, sat on the floor for the second, and finally took as conventional seat for the third and fourth. That seat was next to Wolfgang, a deeply creased German expat. I'm guessing he was east German, based on the heaviness of his accent (east Germans of his age would have studied Russian, not English as their second language), and the heaviness of his disposition, but I sensed that questions about his origins would not be appreciated. He had been living abroad for at least 20 years, from what I could put together, and didn't seem to identify himself with Germany, Europe, or even mankind really. He mentioned that he was going to Ella to take care of his babies, and there was something about him and the way he said, "my babies" that made me ask what species they were; it turned out they are monkeys, macaques to be exact. Before Talia and I disembarked in Colombo, Wolfgang gave me his phone number and invited me to look up him and the monkeys when we arrived in Ella.

On my first morning there, I set out for a walk down the only road through town. The village dissolved into a pine forest within minutes, and after a while I turned off the road and wound up through hillside tea plantations. Later, resting on a rock at the summit of Little Adam’s Peak, watching the blue hills level out to in the distance, and closer, the waterfall I planned to walk to the next day, something hummingbird-sized wobbled across my peripheral vision and landed in a nearby patch of tall grass. I tiptoed over to find an insect so colorful it seemed to be a parody of itself, a child’s Halloween costume of a bug: black and yellow-spotted wings, black and yellow-striped head, and black and red-striped torso clinging to a swaying green stalk. When it flew, it went short distances with a laborious whirring. Shortly after it had disappeared in a series of clumsy flights, I ambled down through the tea plantations, skirting a dense forest with a stream running through it in an uncultivated bowl between hills, searching for a sunny patch to nap.

The Great State mascot

When I finally got back to Ella’s main street it was nearly dark and I was hungry. I stopped at a little place near the train station and ordered a full course, traditional Sri Lankan meal, so I was feasting on an assortment of curries, shredded coconut, chutney, and rice when two Australian ladies came along, fresh off the evening train. They stepped onto the porch where I was eating and asked me if the food was good. I said, “it’s delicious.” Then they asked me if the service was good, and I said “yes.” Then they asked if there were mosquitoes. Again I responded in the affirmative, but added that there are mosquitoes everywhere. The owner had been standing there the whole time, and I saw his expression fluctuate during my last answer to the ladies; he gave me a grateful smile as they took a table.

They ordered whiskey, which wasn’t on the menu, and the proprietor disappeared. He came back about 10 minutes later, red-faced and panting, with a bottle. After he served their drinks, took their dinner order, and went back to the kitchen to whip up a feast, the ladies laughed, and one of them said, “Oh, that cute little man must have run to get a bottle!” There was something repulsive about the pair, the way they laughed too loud, with an edge of cruelty, talked too much, dragged too hard on their cigarettes. They were at that age where women sometimes get discarded, and I imagined they were recent divorcees, on a bitter vacation, creating enough noise to smother their betrayal. Soon, I finished my meal and as I was turning off the paved road and down the dirt one running to my lodgings, Wolfgang waved at me from the platform of a restaurant. He invited me to join him and the monkeys for an outing to Rawana Ella Falls (the ones I had seen from afar earlier) the next day. I was reluctant; I wanted to walk there, not ride on the back of a motorcycle, but Wolfgang said it was a long walk and the purpose of the trip was to expose his monkeys to wild ones; I thought this could be an interesting meeting, so I agreed.

Around noon, I went to Wolfgang’s home at The Highest Inn, a guesthouse run by an Australian couple who are collaborating with Wolfgang on Eco Project Sri Lanka, an effort to use eco-tourism to fund the protection of untouched habitats in Sri Lanka. Charlie, Bimbo, Coco, and Baby, Wolfgang’s macaques, are the first wards of one aspect of the project, an orphanage for wildlife left parentless through human encroachment. Two of the four macaques clambered around a large cage at the end of the porch while the other two, on long chains looped attached to a harness around their waists, sat on branches of a nearby shrub. We had some tea, and then, because Wolfgang hopes to repatriate them into the wild some day, we set off for Rawana Ella Falls. Rather, we began the process of setting off for the falls, because those monkeys are, well, a barrel full of monkeys. After getting them together, we mounted the motorcycle; I wrapped the chains around my left hand while one of the macaques wrapped its arms around Wolfgang’s waist from the front, the second clung to his left arm, the third sat on his right shoulder, and the fourth grabbed bunches of his shirt in her dark, wrinkled fists, seating herself between him and I.

macaques at the falls

As we wound our way along the road, the curious macaques shifted positions effortlessly, vying for a better view, and when Wolfgang unfastened their chains at the base of the falls they shot into the trees, flinging themselves along, tumbling through air and limbs until something stable appeared. Strangely, we didn’t encounter any wild macaques while we took in the sunshine near a bowl of pooling water on a shelf halfway up or as we hiked back down, but at the base, near the road, we crossed a band of five. They were all about the same size as Bimbo, Coco, Baby, and Charlie, so Wolfgang held their chains as they tentatively approached the wild bunch. Everything went fine and the wild ones made room for the newcomers among themselves until all the chattering attracted more monkeys, among them a big, fierce male. This hissing, crouched creature was not at all cute; frankly, I was scared of the thing. The tame macaques retreated, clinging to Wolfgang, and we left.

Wolfgang and his babies

When we got back to The Highest Inn Wolfgang had some trouble getting all the macaques untangled and back into the cage. They were running helter-skelter all over the porch when one of the cackling Australian women from dinner the night before showed up. Apparently, she was a guest, and Bimbo promptly climbed up her, clung to her arm, and peed. “It just piddled on my arm,” she said, bristling with indignation. “Zat happen to me tousand time every day,” Wolfgang, his back to her, replied. I stood off to the side, trying not to laugh while she held her arm in front of her like some repulsive foreign object.
“What do I do,” she demanded.
“Wash it.”
“Any water source,” Wolfgang said as we exchanged a smirking glance. She stood there helplessly for a few more seconds and then protested that she didn’t want to take her dirty arm in the kitchen. Nobody responded, and she finally stomped in to find a faucet. Over the course of the day, while running over me as if I were a rock formation or picking through my hair and my pockets, the macaques had done their share of piddling on me too, so I went back to my room to shower off their stink.

I decided to catch a 9 pm train back to Colombo on the evening of my third day in Ella, so that morning I packed my bag, stored it at the reception of my guest house, and went for a walk along the railroad tracks in search of a small waterfall. I don’t know if the tracks attract a lot of birds because of the nutshells, fruit peels, and sugar coated paper cups flung from windows of passing trains or if whole forests are so densely populated and the tracks just offered me a clear swath into the busy bird world. Eagles and Kites turned and turned overhead; dark, glossy Drongos, with long, cleft tail-feathers hanging in the air like musical notes, sharp-beaked, electric-blue Kingfishers, and modest, buff-toned creatures perched along the power lines; and tiny, quick birds of the underbrush shot from the tracks to the tangled shrubs and grasses in bright blurs where they twittered and rustled unseen.

At a slow, graceful bend in the tracks a tiny creature hopped into the tangled vines covering a slick, mossy rock wall on my left. I stood still, hoping it would reemerge, but after a minute of silence I gave up and lifted my foot to walk on. At that moment, a round, rollicking call issued from the vines, so I stopped and waited again. Still nothing. After this happened several times, standing there riveted by a rock wall, I realized there must be a group of birds in the nearby bushes, amused by their power over such a big animal; the trouble with the damn things is that they’re tricksters; they can fly and they can throw their voices. This was when the backwardness of my approach occurred to me; a pair of binoculars would have been a lot more useful than a bird identification book.

As I walked on, I wondered how the birding community came to agree on a Romanization system for birdsong. When I lived in Japan and Korea, the first thing I did was learn their alphabets. So, although I never made it past the basics, I knew enough to recognize the absurd results of transcribing foreign words into English characters. Birdsong is as diverse as human language, and it contains the same difficulties for me; first of all, it’s hard to remember something if you don’t have an alphabet, or at least some kind of suitable marker, and second of all, I even if I managed to remember it, I’d never be able to match what I’d heard with a string of vowels punctuated by consonants.

In the Ramayana, a seminal Indian epic, Sita was whisked away against her will to the isle of Lanka by the demon lord Ravana. While wars were waged over her, Sita remained faithfull to her husband Rama, but it must have been difficult; Sri Lanka, in its fertility, is seductive, and it’s hard to imagine staying commited to any idea while being courted in this perpetually blossoming land. I like to think Ravana took Sita to the hill country, to a place like Ella. I can only imagine the parade of luxuriant creatures and luscious fruits marshaled in the temptation of a goddess; as a mere tourist, I was wooed; I found myself thinking that maybe I should bear children, just because I can.

Returning from the tracks just after sunset, fireflies decked the foliage surrounding the unlit lane to my guesthouse. I recovered my bag with enough time left to have a quick meal and use the restroom at the restaurant to wash-up and change clothes in preparation for the night on the train. That done, I walked down the paved road toward the train station. Once I left the town center, the way before me was pitch-black; briefly, a dark moth was illuminated in headlight beams, each of its soft wings the size of a woman’s hand, lilting along the embankment ahead.


Anonymous Jef said...

1.) I like monkeys.
2.) When are you coming back to the USA?
3.) The new florescent bulbs - the curvy ones that you can put into regular (incandescent) bulb sockets - actually emit a (in my opinion) much less offensive light than one would expect. Not like a cubicle-filled office at all.
4.) I like photos of monkeys.
5.) I am going to see a therapist on Tuesday, so you might want to put off that return to the USA as long as possible. America drives people crazy.

8:31 PM GMT-5  

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