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.


Portrait of a cat 5

November 11, 2006

I have had pangs of guilty conscience for not including in the portraits our fifth cat, who died last year, and who for reasons too complicated to explain, I will just call O. O, who looked like Saddam’s twin brother, arrived when there was a strict ban in force on new cats. For a while he hung hopefully around the house eating any food that was left outside but denied an entry permit. Then one day he sneaked into the house when my attention was distracted and climbed up onto my chest where he lay with a pathetically appealing look in his eye. I realised the poor fellow was not well so shipped him off to the vet and a week later he was back with his extradition order rescinded. One of the mitigating factors in his favour was the remark of the vet that O was one of the friendliest cats he had ever treated. O would always make friends with visitors but if anyone appeared near the house that he didn’t know he would growl threateningly. He was the most playful cat we’ve had, he would make anything into a game, chase anything and if anybody so much as touched a piece of string or paper he would appear from nowhere and demand to play with it. His true talent, however, was for football. He would practise with a ping pong ball for hours, shooting expertly against the furniture and catching the rebound. He and Saddam would often enjoy a game together, with Saddam keeping goal and O taking the penalties.He got on well with Saddam and if they weren’t playing together they would be nestling up to each other on a bed somewhere. But O had a stormy relationship with Miou, on whom he doted. Miou’s affections were placed firmly on Saddam and O’s constant attentions simply irritated her and aroused O to jealous frustration.But they always patched it up after a brief squabble and Miou would occasionally condsecend to give O a cursory lick. O’s favourite tactic when playing was to hide on or behind my feet and I have permanently scarred toes as Saddam, making a wild leap for O, would use my feet as a landing pad and sink his sharp claws into the flesh to bring himself to a halt. This practice also, on one occasion led to a potentially more serious injury. I had bought O a fluffy pink ball on a piece of elastic which he would leap acrobatically to catch. I had just had a shower and was only wearing a sarong when O decided he wanted to play with the fluffy ball. One of his leaps took him under my sarong, whereupon he looked up and saw what he concluded to be his toy dangling a few feet above his head. Never one to resist a challenge, he leaped up and sank eight razor sharp claws into a rather sensitive part of the male anatomy. The fluffy ball was kept hidden in a drawer for while after that. He was always getting into scrapes- once he got a huge fish bone stuck across his mouth, another occasion he jumped on the back of a motorbike just as it was speeding off and twice we locked him in the car by mistake overnight. Although O had a restless energy he was the one cat who would lie absolutely still in your arms when you picked him up. Unlike the others, he would also lie motionless when he was allowed to sleep on my bed, normally snuggled up against my stomach. He appeared always in a cheerful mood, never sulked or resisted attention and was never ill until one day we noticed he was having difficulty peeing. We took him to the vet but it didn’t clear up, so we took him to another and it still didn’t clear up. We took him back to the first vet who kept him in his clinic but told us the infection was gaining ground. I paid O a couple of visits when he would stagger to his feet and rub himself affectionately against me before sinking down again. One evening the vet called and said he was much worse and when I went to see him he was barely conscious. He died the following day and we buried him in the garden with his favourite ping pong ball. That day, someone trying to cheer me up with a joke said I must have kicked him too hard in the bed one night. That was one occasion when I did not appreciate Thai humour. Still, she later told me that she had shed more tears at the death of her pet dog than for her father so I forgave her.


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.

I was wondering the other day why people sing in the shower and whether more people sing there than in the bath. (Well, now Richard Dawkins has disposed of God and it looks as if the US friendly Iraqis will dispose of Saddam Hussein, what is there left to think about?) My own experience suggests it is the shower that wins- I admit to singing frequently in the shower but never in the bath. Reading in the bath, yes (which is something it is more difficult to do in a shower), daydreaming and drinking a glass of Chardonnay, plenty, listening to Wagner, too, but never singing. A search in Google seems to confirm my theory that more people enliven their shower with vocal renditions- 215,000 results as opposed to 11,300 for singing in the bath.
It appears, however, that singing in the bath has a respectable history, going back at least to Ibn Khaldûn, the philosopher, historian and politician, who was born in Tunis in 1332. In his major work, the Muqaddimah, he writes:
“Joy and gladness are due to expansion and diffusion of the animal spirit. Sadness is due to the opposite, namely, contraction and concentration of the animal spirit. It has been shown that heat expands and rarefies air and vapours and increases their quantity. A drunken person experiences inexpressible joy and gladness, because the vapour of the spirit in his heart is pervaded by natural heat, which the power of the wine generates in his spirit. The spirit, as a result, expands, and there is joy. Likewise, when those who enjoy a hot bath inhale the air of the bath, so that the heat of the air enters their spirits and makes them hot, they are found to experience joy. It often happens that they start singing, as singing has its origin in gladness.”

ibn_khuldun.gif Ibn Khaldûn

In my view, this is wiser than most of the Koran and it’s a shame that the North African sage is not followed more closely by Muslims today. Nice to think that while the peasants in England were revolting and the Popes of Rome and Avignon were locked in a bitter power struggle, Ibn Khaldûn, as well as being Prime Minister for Hafsid sultan of Bougie, was able to devote his time to daydreaming in the bath.
His explanation is certainly more appealing than the modern “scientific” one that the acoustics of a shower adds reverb and bass boost so that my out of tune warblings will sound like Pavarotti. I don’t think the people (sorry, person) in the shower cares what they sound like*. Others have speculated that it is about being naked with water running over our bodies, the result of some kind of chemical reaction that takes place when were are exposed to steamy water or simply that we have nothing else to do. I know that if I have an awkward letter to write or a decision to make there’s nothing like a shower to focus the mind. All of which leads me to have some sympathy for Australians after EnergyAustralia has started discouraging people from exercising the vocal cords in the bathroom. Apparently “non-essential activities” in the shower are adding 9.08 minutes to a normal scrub, and this is contributing to global warming, EnergyAustralia says. At the very least, they say, if you have to sing you should sing short songs, no complete acts from La Traviata, for example. When it comes to songs that last a long time the Lisu people must hold the world record. I asked the other day how long a song I was recording normally lasted and was told ‘one week, day and night’ (with alternating singers, though). Just as well there are no showers in Lisu villages. Not that I go along with EnergyAustralia, though. For a start how is itthat in China, one of the worst contributors to global warming, there is no tradition of singing in the shower and baths are practically unheard of? I believe that if world leaders spent a little more time soaking in their baths they might be better disposed towards one another as well as finding a solution to the problems of climate change.

showerradioset_1.jpg technology for the unrepentant ablutionary vocalist

* I might be wrong on this. One blogger has written: “When you go home and sing ”Everything’s Coming Up Roses” in the shower, you can elevate your own personal life to an art form. This can be very affirming.” And empowering, no doubt as well.

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.

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.