Tuesday, January 20, 2009

hope at highland farm

Fuzzy little balls with spindly arms, their actions shine a mirror onto us. At the same time there are some gibbons that are inexplicably hostile and others so sweet you'd think sugar'd be pouring out of their pores. When we first arrived at Highland Farm Sanctuary it was dinnertime and we walked into an American built ranch style house and Janet, our fellow volunteer, was gabbing away as baby gibbons snuggled in her lap. They immediately pulled me in with their buggy eyes - so big you could see the world in them. This was going to be wonderful.

Our days here operated like clockwork: chopping, feeding, cleaning, touching, grooming and bottle feeding all done according to plan - as it must be in a place with one woman running grounds with 45+ gibbons, monkeys, dogs, cats, geese and two foxes. At dinner the volunteers and Pharanee - the Thai woman in her 60's who created all this - come together to discuss the days' triumphs and tragedies, and usually they were as grandiose as all that.

Yet, as always, it's the moments between the routines that alter reality as we know it. Like when six month old LJ finally clung to me for motherly security as I pushed him to grow and play on his own; or when we met Noi, the gentle gibbon who always asks with a little wimper and a point of his finger to have his back touched when we come around, and got to rub his fur and hold his hand just because he wants love.

And forever after these moments, the world is now a place where gibbons tug at my heart and ask me to save them. To stop their habitat from being destroyed, to keep them from being hunted for meat or sold as pets, to keep them from the abuse of the owners who buy them (like the owner of Jerry who kicked him and broke his back, leaving him deformed for life), and to save the air they breathe and the climate they live in. Once I got a look into those big round eyes, I saw the world in them, I knew there would be no going back.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

reality in ranthambore

The reality is that there probably won't be any wild tigers when my children grow up. They will be in zoos, pacing back and forth in their tiny cage-prisons, and slowly losing their ability to hunt as they're fed slabs of meat everyday. Their ancestors, like the ones I saw in Ranthambore National Park, will have all been diminished by human selfishness, lack of foresight and greed. Many of the tigers are poached by local villagers who are tempted with enormous sums by the Chinese who like to eat Tiger penis, they think of it as an aphrodisiac. Right. They are also being encroached upon by the endlessly expanding human population and their endlessly expanding sets of domestic animals which need places to graze. Too many, too much, too big, too thoughtless. After having used every tiny bit of earth that exists for human habitat, and killing every other creature that lives around us (expect for rats and cockroaches and pigeons who live among us), eventually there won't be enough room for all the people, either. What a future I have to look forward to.

With this in mind, it is especially moving to see what is the last of a dying breed. To witness this majestic being tramp slowly through its dying home is just astonishing. I am seeing the last of what was lost of this earth, and watching it walk towards certain destruction is both awe-inspiring and immensely difficult to confront.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

at the end of the world in western rajasthan

Continuing through Rajasthan, we visited Jodhpur. Famous for its saffron lassis (a tasty sweet yogurt drink) and its blue houses piling up toward the fort in the center on a hill. We spent lots of time eating on rooftop restaurants looking over the city, and one day learning about the amazing Mehrangarh Fort. Jodhpur was the capital of the region of Marwar, the land of death, as it is an arid region butting up into modern Pakistan. Mehrangarh Fort is a castle, a palace and a military stronghold all at once. Its enormous measures of fortifications ranged from spikes coating all the doors to lines of cannons atop the fort walls to sheer walls on top of sheer cliffs forty stories high. Needless the say, Mehrangarh has never been taken.

We spent the next day on a safari to local Bishnoi villages. The Bishnoi are people who believe in conserving trees and plants and local animals. Their beliefs are held with such vigor, once the Indian Government tried to come and cut down some trees and each of the villagers threw themselves on the tree to stop it from being felled and the loggers killed dozens of locals. The Indian Government then recognized its folly and granted the Bishnoi area a protected area from development and hunting. We saw nilgai (a large antelope), chinkara (a type of gazelle that bounces as it runs), a jackal and wild peacocks.

We moved on via night train to Jaisalmer, the furthest edge of civilization smack dab in the middle of the Great Indian Desert (also known as the Thar Desert). Wanting to get into the desert landscape, we decided to sign up for a camel safari. We headed out by jeep into the middle of nowhere, where we were dropped off with an incredibly aged-looking 30 year old and some surly camels. We rode atop the camels for hours, across windy plains and soft rolling dunes. We set camp for the night in an area tourists are not supposed to go due to its proximity to Pakistan (maybe 20 miles from the border). We sat and chatted by the warming fire, laid our blankets under the half moon and used all our strength to keep warm and fall asleep with only the sky as our shelter.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Royalty in Rajasthan

Our introduction to the Indian state of Rajasthan (meaning literally land of kings; raja is short for maharaja) came in the form of Jaipur. The newly created (18th c.) pink city was one of wide perpendicular avenues and famous bazaars. It became the pink city to impress the Prince of Wales on his visit to the town a few centuries ago, and the idea stuck.

We had to work to enjoy the city as bits of what we now ironically call "incredible India" started to creep back in: amazingly incompetent rickshaw drivers, running the obstacle course of feces and trash and corpses in the streets, avoiding getting relieved of all your money by touts, and trying not to get trampled by the immense crowds of people everywhere. But we did it, and managed to see the royal palace - where the current maharaja still lives. Then we scrambled through the madness to an odd and intriguing astronomy observatory built by a former king with an interest in the stars. On a day trip thirty minutes out of town, we saw the Amber Fort, a place we could wander and get lost in a maze of open-roofed pale yellow walls with the big blue sky shining above.

A major improvement in the "incredible" category, Udaipur is the lake city of Rajasthan with opulent wedding cake buildings piling up on one another towards the sky. Finally letting my breath out, relaxing and being able to see my surroundings, we wandered through the hilly meandering alleyways, catching brightly-clad Hindu women with gigantic golden nose rings skirting around every corner. I took a cooking class with an Indian Renaissance woman, Neena, who cooks, stitches, raises the kids, teaches aerobics and is cute too. We saw the opulent City Palace and the Lake Palace (the Raja's summer home) in the distance hovering on the water.

We took a day trip to the giant Kumbalgarh - the most fortified fortress I could have ever imagined. We walked up layers and layers of giant walls that spiraled up and around the palace that sits atop the highest of the hills. Then we saw Ranakpur, a Jain temple held up with a forest of pillars - no two of which are exactly alike. Returning to Udaipur for New Year's Eve, we started the evening on the rooftop of our hotel, which we had to ourselves, drinking Indian Savingon Blanc and watching the fireworks pop sporadically in the sky. Then to a romantic dinner on another rooftop surrounded by hipsters of all kinds, overlooking the floating confection called the lake palace and waiting for a new year to come.