Dispatch #124 - A smelly little monkey called Spazz
Our guidebook enticingly called the next phase of our travels "one of the most adventurous journeys in Thailand". It involved using little-travelled roads from Mae Hong Song south to the town of Mae Sot, where we planned to visit a private gibbon sanctuary nestled in the hills along the Burmese border.
The first day we travelled in an air-conditioned bus, but the hilly, winding roads took their toll and I spent half the trip with my head down on my knees and a barf bag at the ready, a condition shared by at least half my fellow passengers. We were grateful to pause for the night in the pretty little town of Mae Sariang, where we found two large rooms in a guest house for only $6 each.
This was the first -- but not the last -- of our accommodations in Thailand that didn't feature western-style toilets. From my recent trip to Borneo, where I had stayed in the homes of local people, I was now quite used to the typical Asian squat toilet, but our oldest son Michael was positively aghast at the prospect of having to use one. Earlier on this trip he had emphatically proclaimed that he would never, ever, use a squat toilet. Now, having no alternatives, he was faced with a real dilemma, and after the long bus trip, his need was acute.
After due deliberation and a careful analysis of the offending item, a scientific panel (consisting of Herbert and me) came to the conclusion that since the ceramic fixture was actually raised several inches from the floor and was very much different than a hole in the ground, it really wasn't a squat toilet at all. We thus solved the problem by officially renaming it the "Squee Toilet" (after Michael, whose nickname lately has been 'The Mighty Squee'), and in the end The Mighty Squee was convinced to begrudgingly avail himself of his namesake, his personal vow intact, his honour preserved, his relief visible.
The next day we left Mae Sariang and the Squee Toilet behind for a six hour ride to Mae Sot. After the previous day's ordeal in air-conditioned comfort, we were a little apprehensive about this next leg of our journey, because our mode of transport was no longer on padded seats, but on the hard benches of an open songtao, a modified pick-up truck.
Leaving Mae Sariang we were the only passengers, but the songtao stopped frequently, picking up and discharging many interesting people. None of them travelled for more than an hour or so, and some for only a few kilometres, from one little thatched village to another, often lugging large bags of vegetables or rice. The best were the colourfully dressed hill tribe people, wearing costumes in neon colours of orange and lime green. Although clearly interested in us, they were uncomfortable coming too close to such strange looking foreigners, preferring to hang off the end of the truck rather than sit in the vacant spots right beside us.
We realized we really were in a different world when we began noticing huge brown deposits of the cow-pie variety in the middle of the road. Soon we passed the source of the deposits -- a real, working elephant, plodding along the road with a driver on its back. This beast had been moving and towing logs in the rainforest just as men and elephants have done in these parts for centuries.
By the time we arrived at Mae Sot we were windblown and covered with a layer of fine brown grit. A beautiful and elegant Thai woman, Pharanee Deters, was waiting for us at the bus station with her air-conditioned car, to take us onwards to the gibbon sanctuary.
We wound for almost 50 kilometres through the picturesque hills that separate Myanmar from Thailand, passing prosperous farms and beautiful homes owned by a pantheon of wealthy and successful Thai generals and staffed by illegal Burmese workers earning less than $2 a day. Finally we came to Highland Farm, its 35 acres perched prettily on top of a hill, looking down over orchards, rose gardens and a small forest.
There we met Bill Deters, Pharanee's husband of 25 years, a gruff man in his seventies who retired to these beautiful hills nine years ago after a career in the American foreign service. Although we had some considerable differences of opinion with Bill and ended up engaged in several heated discussions around the dinner table, there is no disputing the soft spot reserved in his crusty old heart for gibbons, those endearing and endangered animals, the smallest of the apes.
The 22 gibbons and assorted other animals being cared for at Highland Farm have been rescued from the most appalling of circumstances. One had lost the use of its left leg and arm, paralyzed after having grown up squashed into a tiny bird cage. Another lost its leg, arm and eye through electrocution. Another gibbon was blind. Yet another was crippled after being kicked in the back by a soldier. There was also a large and very friendly Asian bear that the Deters had rescued from a restaurant -- his other two siblings had already been stewed and served for dinner.
The kids were disappointed that the gibbons were in cages, but we learned that as gibbons mature they develop large fangs and become quite unpredictable. As we visited each of them, we learned which ones were friendly, and which weren't -- the friendly ones would extend their hands out of the cages and allow us to stroke their hands and scratch their backs, and the others would shoot their long arms out and try to grab us or steal our sandals.
The funniest one of all we dubbed "Bumface", because every time we came near her cage she turned around and mooned us in an unmistakably rude and graphic gesture. Herbert was greatly touched by a gentle blonde gibbon named Sugar, who sulked in a corner every time he stopped stroking her hand. Michael and Jonathan's favourite was Bobo, a male gibbon who amazed us with his athletic performances.
But the closest bond was formed between Christopher and a gibbon we called Denny, who had been so unhappy in her previous home that she had neurotically plucked out all of her beautiful fur. It was now slowly growing back, but in the meantime, she slept inside the Deters' house each night. In the evenings Christopher would sit next to his beloved Denny on a sofa, holding her hand and gently stroking her poor hairless arm. When it was finally time for Christopher to go to bed, Denny would tighten her grip on him, willing him to stay a little longer.
In these nightly sessions, the rest of us were entertained by another little creature we nicknamed 'Spazz'. Spazz was a tiny baby monkey of some unknown kind that had been orphaned days after his birth. When he had first been brought to them, the Deters had been certain he would die, but now he was a few months old and thriving.
Spazz was, however, the ugliest baby you have ever seen. Pink, virtually hairless and wrinkled, he had the grimacing, half-human face of some ancient subterranean goblin. He was also extremely smelly, even fresh from a bath. There was an Australian volunteer staying at the farm, a wonderful woman named Kerrie Grant, who is also an archeologist and aircraft engineer. Kerrie had adopted Spazz upon her arrival and was mothering him lovingly. Every time she tried to disentangle herself from him, however, Spazz would scream bloody murder, which is how he earned his nickname.
As we all sat together each evening -- Christopher next to Pharanee, holding hands with Denny, Bill in his big easy chair, perhaps with a diapered baby gibbon nestled on his lap, Kerrie in a chair with Spazz, and the rest of us scattered around on furniture or on the floor -- Spazz would run in his manic, nervous way from Kerrie, to Herbert, to me, and then back, sitting pungently on our shoulders or scrabbling up and down our legs, never sitting anywhere for long. Michael was frustrated that Spazz would never come to him, except to use him as a bridge to climb between Herbert and me. All but one of us grew to love that smelly little alien creature; Christopher, however, was scared of Spazz's demonic shrieks and goblin face and wanted nothing to do with him.
We stayed for three days at Highland Farm in a beautiful little guest house of our own. Every morning, before the sun rose, we woke to the sound of the gibbons, and learned for ourselves why they are called 'the singing ape'. The cool pre-dawn air was vibrant with a chorus of primate voices chanting "whoop-whoop-whoop, wuccka-wuccka-wuccka", gibbon songs that made you grieve for the jungle homes that are lost to them forever.
Since we first learned about gibbons in Borneo, we've discovered that it's much more difficult than we thought to reintroduce them to the wild. First of all, in heavily cultivated Thailand, there are now few unpopulated places left, but the problem goes much deeper than that: when deprived of their maternal training, gibbons, like orangutans, have a very low chance of successfully reintegrating into the jungle. Once kidnapped as babies, they are virtually condemned to life in captivity. About the best they can hope for is to end up at a place like Highland Farm where they are treated humanely. But gibbons live forty or fifty years, and Denny, Bobo and Sugar will need homes long after Bill and Pharanee Deters are gone.
The more we travel the world, the more we despair about the prospects of so many of the earth's creatures, crowded out of their habitats at every turn by an onslaught of humanity. We may be only a generation away from the virtual extinction of all the world's jungle animals, except in tiny captive pockets in zoos and wildlife sanctuaries.
As irascible old Bill Deters said to us before we left, "I don't know the answer, and I don't know if there even is an answer. But what I do know is that I'm doing all I can, which is to save one animal at a time."
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