Lazy Sunday

November 13, 2006

It’s our winter so dawn doesn’t come until around 6, which gives me an extra half hour in bed. 5 am and it’s 25 degrees in the house and about 19 outside. It’ll be closer to 15 up the hill so better wrap up warm. Time for two glasses of water and a banana; let the cats that are in out and the ones that are out in and make sure each has the right food, mackerel and rice for one, ‘tab tim’ fish and rice for another, prawn and salmon out of a packet for the third and a mixture of all for Miou. It’s a 30 minute drive up the hill and the road winds its way in the darkness past three small villages, each dwarfed by a majestic temple. The village shops are just opening and a few elderly folk are emerging to sweep away the leaves in front of their houses. Other than that, there’s not much activity. I slow down at the entrance to each village to slalom round the dogs that are lying in the middle of the road and refuse to budge and dodge the chickens that decided to cross the road in death-defying scrambles. I get there just before six, perfect timing, it’s still dark but the first birds are beginning to call. There’s always a dawn chorus up in the mountains, lots of trill peeps and whistles from flycatchers, hoots and squawks from larger birds and a melody or two from the White-rumped shama. It’s not as cold as I thought but I keep my jacket on nevertheless. I drive for about ten kilometres along the track that has small coffee plantations set in the forest on one side and a sheer drop overlooking more forest on the other. Whenever I hear or see anything interesting I stop and get the binoculars and recording gear. There are a few birds I don’t know this morning that I’ll have to check when I get back but the one I want to call, the gruff-voiced Blue-bearded bee-eater stays obstinately silent. After a couple of hours I head home- all the time I have not seen another vehicle or encountered another human being. Wonderful! On the way down, though, things have livened up, little groups of people are sitting chatting or making their way to the village shop and they’ve already put the freshly-picked coffee beans out in the sun. A cycle ride round the village before the sun gets really hot, a quick breakfast of muesli, then it’s time to reverse the cat situation again, Saddam deciding he’s going to curl up in a cardboard box and Bua khao taking over the microwave. Then I drive into town to see a Lahu friend and practise my fledgling language skills. This morning I’ve decided on some revision so I’ve worked out a few questions to ask her. She’s a very good interlocutor as she remembers the words I know and uses them in her answers. But she still manages to catch me out- like when she tells me she’s a hundred and twenty seven years old, has five husbands and always goes for a ride on an elephant before breakfast. We have lunch at our favourite stall on her street. It’s frequented mostly by tuk-tuk drivers, office workers, some labourers from a nearby building site, a family who drive a rubbish truck and a few ‘ladies of the night’ who have just woken from their morning slumbers. They use a range of fresh vegetables and herbs, it’s not at all greasy, the rice is cooked so it’s a little firm rather than being a sticky lump and the portions are enormous. We both have chicken with ginger and Chinese mushrooms at 30p each. Then home for a snooze. As I was feeling a cold coming on I took a couple of pills and slept like a log for an hour. Then I collected my moth-catching gear and, along with a couple of friends, set off back up the hill. Usually there are a few evening cicadas singing but now the cold weather is here they are silent. I count four different owls but they are all a long way away. This shouldn’t be a good time for moths as it hasn’t rained for a while but we are pleasantly surprised by the number. No time to sit and wait as the moths arrive like the planes coming in at Heathrow. Nothing spectacular but lots of new ones, some with striking patterns and colours. At about 9 o’cock we decide we’ve had enough and head for home, stopping to buy a bowl of noodles outside the village. Time to watch the ten o’clock news and catch up with all the latest follies, blunders, mishaps and misdemeanours affecting the rest of the world then I’m sound asleep as my head hits the pillow.



November 10, 2006

Just finished editing a CD of the sounds of Thai wildlife. The birds, insects, frogs and squirrels were easy as I have literally weeks’ worth of recordings to choose from. For most of the mammals, however, I had to resort to recording in wildlife sanctuaries as you don’t often hear them in the wild. The last one I recorded was the binturong, or bear-cat. I had been visiting this group in the early morning when their food arrived expecting to hear them call then but day after day they remained stubbornly silent. Then one day I was passing around midday and I heard them yelling (of course I didn’t have my recorder with me). I went back yesterday and they obliged with a series of cat-like mewing, shrieks, growls and wails that far exceeded my recorder’s ability to cope with the decibel range. I had already recorded a number of big cats including the tiger, clouded leopard, leopard panther and leopard cat and listening to some of the extraordinary sounds they made got me thinking about the noises my own cats make. One day I must get round to recording them, too, as I am a long way from understanding what they mean.

Only one makes the traditional miaow and that is when she is trying to tell us something. One has a plaintive miou with a rising tone when she wants to be let out or in. One tries to miaow to us but no sound comes out but she wheezes and snores like a trooper when she’s sound asleep. Saddam makes a mixture of duck-like quacks and waaa sounds when he calls us and a gargling sound when he wants to play with one of the other cats. He is the loudest purrer but the others do on occasions when they are stroked. The purring seems to be a sound reserved for humans as they don’t purr when, for example, they are preened. One of them growls like a tiger if a stranger or enemy cat approaches the house. If play gets too rough they hiss, again just like a small tiger. Miao has a loud insistent call when she’s anxious (if I go for a walk away from our usual route, for example.) Finally there are the eerie wailing sounds they make when threatening or defending themselves against another cat. One day I will stop trying to learn people languages and attempt to understand some cat language.

Thailand does not have a great reputation when it comes to caring for animals: there are plenty of horror stories of elephants being mistreated (and later wreaking revenge on their mahout or an unfortunate tourist); many visitors to Thailand are upset by the number of stray dogs;  you can still buy intimate parts of tigers and other protected animals for use as ‘exotic foods’ and ‘longevity potions’. There are numerous private zoos where the animals may be kept in atrocious conditions. The recently opened Night Safari in Chiang Mai shocked animal lovers around the world by some shady deals on wild African animals, by failing to prevent an alarming death rate amongst animals that had newly arrived and proposing to offer exotic animal steaks on the restaurant menu.
I have seen a wide variety of attitudes towards pets ranging from adulation to complete neglect.  Some Thais I know regard their pets with as much love as they do their children. It’s common, in fact, for a pet owner to refer to themselves when talking to their pet as ‘Dad’ or Mum’. One expatriate friend of mine was ranting about pet owners, saying that it would be better if some of them adopted a child instead of a pet. I would tend to look at it the other way round and think it preferable that some people raised animals rather than spawning more children. Some Thais regard their pet rather as a sergeant-major would some particularly scruffy conscripts- one I know spends his whole time barking (almost literally) orders at his dog: ‘Sit! Come here! Go away! Stop!’. Some take pity on strays without actually wanting or intending to look after a pet. The friend of a friend had a python that she slept with until he died, at which point she put him in the fridge as she couldn’t bear to dispose of him. I can’t help feeling that pets like these are an attempt to gain staus or fill out your identity. The worst pet owners, I think, are those who get a dog simply to guard the house. The owner shows as much affection towards his pet as he does towards the safe he keeps his money in. A Thai Chinese man I know keeps huge fish with bulging eyes and slobbery mouths that he raises to win prizes and sell at a profit. The hilltribes keep them for very practical reasons: cats to catch rats, dogs to alert to approaching strangers, chicken and pigs to eat. In any hilltribes village the animals mingle together, run in and out of houses and scurry from under your feet with only the occasional squabble between them. Ever since I stayed with a French family who kept rabbits in cages who would sooner or later find their way into a civet I have been very uncomfortable with the idea of a pet that you serve on your dining table. The other day I was about to sit down to lunch with a hilltribes family when the man picked up a sling and stunned one of the chickens that were scurrying around. I found it hard to swallow the very tasty chicken curry that appeared a few minutes later.  It’s strange that what pets provide for most Westerners, companionship, doesn’t seem to figure much in the Thai scheme of things. Far too many pets are turned loose ot just ignored but the worst two cases in our area were the work of two Malaysians. One keeps a Rotweiler permanently in a tiny cage and never takes her for walks- something that shocks his Thai neighbours. The other kept a young gibbon, which is illegal- when I pointed this out to him he assured me he had friends in the Forest Department. Shortly afterwards the Malaysian and his gibbon disappeared.
Thinking about why I keep pets, the first reason is that they just showed up and I couldn’t turn them away. After that I enjoy watching them do their own thing and seeing how they interact with me. It would be nice to think that the need for pets is an indication that  biophilia is an inescapable part of the human condition and that the deep affiliations humans have with nature are rooted in our biology. But some people seem hell-bent on denying this. One of my sons’ friends in London- a computer programmer- is terrified of the countryside and turns green at the sight of any animal. Thai children who don’t actually own pets seem to learn about nature very much as an abstraction and I sometimes fear that aberrations like the Tamagotchi might lead to generations that are increasingly biophobic. I can feel this has drifted away from pets and I’ll save a few broader comments on attitudes to nature to a later post.

Portrait of a cat 4

November 6, 2006

Last, but not least… Well, no, in some ways last and least. Tua lek (little one) got her name more or less by default. As she is the smallest cat around and no one knew what she was called we just referred to her as ‘the little one’ and it stuck. She’s an original native Thai cat (not Siamese) with a stumpy tail and thick soft fur. We thought she was the youngest but it turns out she’s probably older than the others and she’s already a grandmother. For a while lived in the lane by a neighbour’s house who was not interested in her. I used to take her food twice a day but she would often disappear for days on end. On on occasion, while the neighbour was away we found her lifeless and wheezing so we took her off to the vet. On her return she decided to move in and as she was then a rather pathetic little creature we made an exception to our ban on new cats. Once in, Tua lek decided that was where she wanted to stay and even now will only venture outside for very short periods and always within a 10  yeard radius of the house. For months she was not in good health, her main problem being an infection of her mouth so she found eating painful. She also pulled great lumps of her fur out. A succession of vets simply gave her an injection or two and told us to come back when it reoccurred. Between monthly visits she would lie still, a miserable malodorous little bundle, her normal resting place being my lap or chest as I worked at the computer. For a long time I was reduced to typing the manuscript for a book with one hand, the other holding Tua lek in place. Then one day we went to a new vet who took one look at her and said’ right let’s have all her teeth out’, which he did, except one Since then she has been a new cat, playing all day like a kitten. She’s obsessed with a piece of string, she pulls it down as soon as I appear in the morning and waits by it for me to drag it along for her to chase. She races after it, ending with a series of skips and a skid into the nearest wall. Every so often she will do a vertical take-off and land on the string which she will attempt to chew with her one remaining tooth.  She doesn’t really run, but hops like a rabbit. Sometimes when she wants a attention she will do a silly walk and bump into furniture before ricocheting off it onto my leg. She’s still very affectionate. periodically I feel a  slight wobble on my chair which tells me that Tua lek has jumped up and will soon be settling on my lap. When I watch TV she will come and sit at my feet and fix me with a determined stare. After a few seconds she will jump nimbly up and settle herself on any available bit of my anatomy. In spite of this, if you pick her up she will immedately struggle to get down. She tries to miao but most of the time there is no sound apart from the occasional squeak. She does, however, snore impressively. In spite of being the smallest and the least equipped to defend herself she is fearless- when one of the neighbouring toms comes marauding there she is in the front line with the heavy artillery (Saddam) close behind her. She will often push the others out of the way to get to the food first and regularly gives Saddam a sisterly biff. She is particularly partial to titbits from our plates and gets bored with food quite quickly, demanding a change of flavour to her cat food every week. It’s often hard to find her, not just because of her small size but because she seeks out the darkest, quietest corners to rest in.Sometimes it’s the gap behind my computer monitor, or under the sofa, behind the fridge or at the bottom of a clothes basket. If anyone comes to the house she doesn’t know she flees to the remotest corner of the sitting room. If I put on outdoor clothes, she scurries off to safety behind the TV. Her health is still not that good- after a few moments chasing after the string she has violent coughing fits and has to rest for a while. Once or twice she’s managed to climb up a tree in the garden but hasn’t yet mastered the art of climbing down. Like Saddam and Bua khao, she shows no interest in hunting, but, as befits her size, enjoys playing with ants. She seems to have frequented several houses in the neighbourhood before fixing on ours and of all the cats is the one who seems to need most contact with humans.

A tail piece on wobbles to my chair. My computer chair, which I have to periodically reclaim from Saddam, has wheels so I notice it when the cats bump into it while they’re chasing each other around. Two years ago, one Sunday morning, I was at the computer as usual and the chair started wobbling then moved a few inches. Damn those cats, I thought and looked down. No cats- they were all outside. That was the morning of the tsunami.

Thai mirrors

November 6, 2006

Funny thing, Thai politics. Our former leader, Thaksin, was unceremoniously and undemocratically booted out because those behind the coup knew that if elections were to take place he would win comfortably. Thaksin himself had been rightly accused of eroding democracy by muzzling the press and failing to respect the rights of anyone suspected of being involved in drugs or Muslim extremist inspired insurrection. None of which worried the vast majority of rural Thais who voted for him. But once the King had made it clear he was fed up with Thaskin and supported the coup, everyone is happy with the generals and no one wants Thaksin back. What they want back even less is a return to the old corrupt democratic regimes offered by the alternatives to Thaskin. One Thai commentator suggested a way forward. Why, he said was there corruption under the old regimes? Because politicians had to pay people to support them. And where did they get the money to pay their supporters? By dipping into major construction projects and the like. And their supporters had to pay their supporters in turn. And how did they augment their income  to pay them? By dipping into some less major projects. So it’s not surprising that the road to our village still hasn’t been built and the main Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai highway cracks up every time it rains.  And what was the answer proposed? To get the King to appoint some trustworthy politicians to form the government who wouldn’t then have to pay anybody to support them. Not surprisingly, the idea met with the approval of 100% of the Thais I have it discussed it with. So it’s not surprising that the international community’s call for a ‘swift return to democratic government’ doesn’t carry much resonance here. Is it democracy when a people democratically decide not to be governed democratically? Nobody is under any illusions as to what would happen were the old politicians to return. As the speaker of the Thai parliament put it in 1996: “The budget is like a popsicle that is passed around. Everyone gets a lick at it when it comes their way , so that by the time the one at the end gets it, there’s little left.” Democratic elections aren’t the answer. As The Economist commented in 1996 , “Elections … often produce the best government money can buy, rather than a good one.” And not just in Thailand.

choosing a coffin

November 5, 2006

One of the more endearing customs of Lisu hilltribes people (in addition to cultivating opium, which is done a little more discretely these days) is to order their coffins well in advance of their death. Rather as some people might buy a little cottage in the country with their retirement in view.  The wood for the coffins must be the best  available.  At around 60 pounds it represents a considerable expense for people whose only source of income is a once a year bean harvest, most of the proceeds of which are spent on New Year’s celebrations. The wood has to be carefully stored to avoid warping, which could prove an embarassment when it comes to be used. The Lisu also prepare a small collection of little pieces of pure silver – 9 for men, 7 for women, which are places on the person’s tongue just before they die, to wish them a good journey. At the appropriate time, the coffin must be made without any nails or other metal being used or glue. There are other expenses, too- the body has to be dressed in brand new clothes and, inevitably as when any event of signifiance or festival occurs, a pig has to be slaughtered. Pigs in Lisu villages lead charmed lives. Cremation is only used for ‘bad’ deaths and you can get away with a much cheaper coffin, sometimes just a few pieces of flimsy bamboo. Lisu funerals are different from those of most other hilltirbes in that they don’t allow musical instruments. There are funeral songs but recording or taking photographs is taboo. Having bought a couple of the good coffins (for others) I thought I’d  take a stroll round to the corner coffin shop and see what they had in stock. These were the Thai style coffins, very gaudy in white and gold but probably made of MFI plywood. Thai funerals can be quite jolly affairs. The first requirement is the sort of sound system that would not look out of place at a Pink Floyd spectacular in Wembley Stadium. It’s not a long faces and only saying nice things about the departed sort of occasion. In fact no one seems much concerned by the one who’s passed away once they’ve established who it is. There’s no actual riotous merriment but lots of smiling faces. Thais, like anyone else, will be shocked and saddened at an unexpected death but the initial grief soon gives way to a more fatalistic attitude. There’s an ingrained belief, even in the hill tribes who are only Buddhist in name, that there’s a predetermined departure time for all of us and when that comes there’s no point in making a fuss about it. The idea that the deceased is suffering less now than he or she did in real life seems to comfort most Thais. I’m not sure I go along with this- whenever my time comes it will be the wrong time as far as i am concerned and I woudn’t object at all if there were a few long faces for an hour or two. It seems a good idea to me, though,  to have a coffin in reserve- you never know when it might come in handy.. The coffin maker had a big sign up saying ‘Promotion, down from 1250 baht to 950’. Never one to miss a bargain I asked him if he would do a ‘two for one’ deal but he was less than enthusiastic so I decided to put it off for a while. After all, there were more urgent purchases needed, like restocking the fridge and changing the brake pads on my Mighty X pick up, which if I didn’t get round to doing I might be needing that coffin sooner rather than later. On which subject I have been informed by some of the recipients of the dollops of cash I handed out recently that unless I can keep going for another seven years they might be forced to have discussions with the taxman. It’s nice to know that some people are remembering you in their prayers. Except that none of the blighters are Christian so that won’t do any good. Not that I think a God who would go out of his way to favour me would be worth praying to in the first place. Maybe I’ll stick it out for 6 years and 364 days just to annoy them.

big is beautiful

November 3, 2006

dsc00658.jpg my favourite bird- and moth-watching spot
This morning I went up to my usual spot in the hills half an hour from our ‘town house’ and found the most impressive bird I’ve ever seen in the wild- a rare Mountain Hawk Eagle. Nearly a metre high, it sat out on a bare branch for about half an hour for me to have a good look at it- through the telescope as it was a fair way away. Then, amazingly, it started to call as I had my recorder running. I was expecting a spine-chilling, blood-curdling, marrow-freezing, flesh-crawling, toe-curling screech to make my nostril hairs stand on end but in fact all that came out was the squeak of a rather apologetic mouse. Which just goes to show that if you’re really big, you don’t have to shout.