I don't hate ducks, I promise - it just seems that the world thinks that they taste delicious and in some cases, I just take the pictures. The other day we were traveling from Nha Trang to Hoi An, Vietnam via a rented car (and driver- US$120 10 hours). Along the way we were sure to tell the driver when a picture needed to be taken and before long, he was pointing things our for us. Looking up ahead, he turned to us and smiled and said "good picture coming up". We saw a motorcycle and a mass of something hanging off it. A bit like this...
Then, as we got a bit closer, it became clear what was hanging off the motocycle: live ducks who seem to be somewhat calm considering the circumstances.
On a more more scenic note, the trip offered a few chances to see the Vietnamese countryside. The Vietnamese really do wear the conical hats, called a "nang".
The farming, in some places, is more traditional than I expected.
A village decided to create a salt farm about 10 years ago and it is now a success story in rural Vietnam.
And the boats in Vietnam seem to be painted the same everywhere - perhaps from the communist/collectivist days?
So, I don't hate ducks, but I do think they taste good and for those of you who have told me to stop eating them- it aint gonna happen soon as China is coming up and they serve ducks-a-plenty.
I return from 3 days of learning about elephant training more of an elephant lover and with more mixed feelings about the life of the domestic elephant.
The Thai Elephant Conservation Center offers a multi-day mahout training course that enables a tourist to live at the center for 3 days to learn about elephants and elephant training, their relationship with their trainer (the mahout) and general elephant/mahout life. The course includes accommodation for 2 nights, 5 meals and all instruction for about $125. Below is one day in the mahout training program.
: Awake from our basic bungalow style houses and don our very flattering mahout uniforms- blue denim pants that tie at the waist and a button-down shirt. I remark that I look like a prisoner.
: Me, Yuri (from
: The mahout “Tit” and I reach Lu Khan, my elephant for 3 days. The 50 feet of chain that kept her in place overnight is stretched to the full length and she shows excitement as we approach. much of the vegetation surrounding her is either flattened or eaten. Lu Khan is covered with dirt that she threw onto herself overnight to cool down and keep the flies away. Tit has Lu Khan lay down with the command “map long” and he uses his machete to scrape away the dirt and unchains her from the tree.
: I mount Lu Khan for the trip home. During the trek she willfully veers off course to grab some greenery just off the trail. She is graceful in the mud, taking every step carefully and never slipping down hills. I think that she is the best all-terrain vehicle ever.
: Between the jungle and the
: We arrive at the center and Lu Khan gets fresh water and sugar cane while we scrub her even more. Tit and Lu Khan disappear and Yuri, Kristine and I have breakfast after a quick change of clothes.
: We meet back at show grounds for training. I practice with Tit and Lu Khan. A command of “Song Soong!” causes Lu Khan to pick up her right leg, enabling me to climb up her using an ear and handful of tough skin. “Tag Loong” enables me to slide off the front of her head. It’s obvious that my commands don’t matter- she only really listens to Tit, her mahout for the last 9 years. After practice she eats bananas and more sugar cane with me on her neck along with dried bananas. As soon as I get the package of dried bananas, her trunk appears in front of me, begging for some and breathing elephant breath on my face. Mmm elephant breath.
: All the elephants and mahouts (including us students) meet near the back of the center for more eating. The elephants steal food out of one another’s mouths with no protest. The mahouts lounge on their elephants so comfortably it looks like they could take a nap. I’m not quite so comfortable.
: A crowd of spectators gathers near the river beside the center and we ride the elephants into the river for bath #2. This one is mostly for the crowd, but it doesn’t matter to Lu Khan. I get soaked again as I do my best to throw more water to clean her hide. Some elephants spray each other and the mahouts are pre-occupied with a snake that has been sighted on the other side of the river. We appear in many pictures.
: The elephants and mahouts ride through the crowd to the show grounds where they show the crowd a few tricks, how they move logs and some cheesy things like painting and playing music. The next day I will be part of the show, but not today.
: The show ends and I mount Lu Khan while she eats more. Then more practice. The elephants are chained by the foot near food if they are not currently involved with the mahout.
Eat Lunch- Home cooked fried rice.
: We walk to the elephant hospital with an English speaking guide. I am grateful to have access to him as Tit knows little English and I had many questions. The hospital has about 10 elephants. 3 with deformities, one with a gunshot wound, a couple in “poor condition”. The biggest problem for elephants is constipation, which can easily kill them. Judging from the amount of pooh they create, this is not surprising. We learn that the numbers of Thai Elephants are declining and the hospital does not have the money it needs.
: We meet the mahouts to return the elephants to the park where they stay overnight. A few lengths of chain is placed around Lu Khan’s neck and she knows what is happening and is visibly excited- ears flapping, tail wagging. I mount her and off we go.
pm: It’s time for the 3rd bath of the day on the way to the jungle. Once again, I get soaked to the bone with a huge smile on my face.
: Tit picks out a spot of the hillside where Lu Khan will spend the night (he uses a new spot each night). He ties the chain to a tree and also attaches her front feet together with a small amount of chain. She can walk and move around, but not aggressively. This prevents her from breaking the chain and is the hardest sight for me to bear. For the rest of the night she will graze in the area until she lays down to sleep, when she will yawn and dream, just like us.
pm: Tit invites us back to his house in the mahout village. His family lives in a modest home that he built himself. I can see through the floorboards to the dogs and chickens below. In addition to being a mahout, he fixes motorbikes. He has a proud picture of a young 4 year old Lu Khan displayed on his wall, like a proud father. Tit repairs a motorbike while we are there. We walk back to the bungalow and rest until dinner. This is Tit- notice pictures of Lu Khan in the background.
This is his house in the mahout village:
This is his house in the mahout village:
: We meet at one of the homes and start chopping vegetables over shots of home made rice whiskey that one of the mahouts made. It is red and tastes like cough syrup. We eat a basil chicken dish along with rice and stir fried veggies. Very good food served on the floor of the open air kitchen area. After dinner we watch world cup soccer and play cards with a few mahouts before going to bed.
: Retire to bed and wait for the rain to come, as it does every few hours. Look forward to waking at to collect the elephants back in the jungle.
The experience at the
Though they are very well cared-for at the center, their size and potential for destruction requires that they lead a life in bondage- chained to a tree or the floor consistenly. Being domesticated from birth, this lifestyle is a reality to the elephant in the way that a dog is kept in a kennel or a rabbit in a cage. I left with the feeling that the elephants at the center are quite happy, but there are many in the country (and world) that are not so happy and it pains me to think of the life they lead. Thankfully, organizations like the
Though they say that the classes are sold out until August, I somehow got myself into a three-day "homestay" elephant mahout training course, starting tomorrow. It's through the much-respected Thai Elephant Conservation Center, which offers 1 day, 3 day and 10-30 day courses where you learn to care for, bathe, ride and train a single elephant. This should be really, really interesting. I do love those beasts.
Sachi isn't going to join me, so she is going to party solo in Chaing Mai for a few days- our first (even hours) apart in six months.
More info on the course here.
We were really excited to go on Sri Lanka’s version of a wildlife safari in Uda Welawe Park, home to over 400 elephants on 75,000 acres of park. The wildlife was great, but looking back, the most memorable experience was our “tracker” who rode along with us over 2.5 hours in the back of a land rover.
When he got in the truck, it became quickly apparent that he was a skinny, partially toothless, jovial guy who spoke only broken English. This was the first sign that he may not be the tracker that we imagined. I had pictured someone who made a profession of understanding wildlife and could interpret everything before us. This was not the case- not by a long shot.
One of our first indications was when we saw some monkeys in a tree. I asked the tracker about the species – “what kind of monkey?” After conferring with the driver, he turned to us and said “black monkey” with a semi-confident nod. It was a Gray Hangar Monkey and our tracker didn’t know.
Soon after, we heard birds in a tree. He turned to us and said “bird noises”. All I could say was “yeah, thanks” before Sachi me and the tracker burst out laughing. I’m not sure he knew why.
The most commonly sighted bird of the day was the peacock- they were everywhere. For the first few he pointed to them and said “peacock”. At least he knew a peacock from a spotted dove. What he didn’t know was when to stop. After about the 30th peacock and the 30th identification by our tracker, we just began to laugh each time. So did he- though I’m not sure if he knew why. To this day, “peacock” is our word for something we see over and over.
As it turns out, the trackers are not hired based on expertise, but political favors. Our tracker was someone who might have otherwise been unemployed. The park was helping with the unemployment problem in Sri Lanka and our tracker was a likely beneficiary.
In the end, we didn't learn a lot, but saw many great animals and laughed a lot between the three of us. He is a good man that has a good time and laughs a lot, even if he's not much of a tracker and for that, he got a nice tip from us.
We thought it was a coincidence, we thought it might be different in other countries. But no, she is universally attractive to all things that bite and sting. Today it even happened underwater via jellyfish. Twice even, when no one else got stung. I guess they don't make bug spray or lotion (as pictured above) for that.
You can't really come to Australia and not want to see a Koala and Kangaroo and strange birds right? Of course not. Luckily, Brisbane offers a beautiful urban setting and a place to see local wildlife called "Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary". Basically, it had a lot of koalas and kangaroo. Here is the required oh-so-cute picture of the koalas:
What we didn't expect was to get so up close and personal with the Kangaroos. Those claws on the ends of freakishly small arms are scary.
I think we got a little more Discovery channel action than we paid for, or even wanted, when these roos decided to make joeys in front of us. Parental Guidance is Suggested.
Back in the city, our favorite part of Brisbane was South Bank, on the other side of the Brisbane River, where like everywhere else- we found these critters, which seem quite at home in urban settings - in parking lots, on top of tables, cars, etv. It is the Australian White Ibis.