Somewhere a cockerel starts crowing. It is 3 am and barely an hour since the passing of the last “booming bass” tricycle. Not to be outdone a dog starts barking, then another and another and another until there is nothing but a cacophony of noise in the darkness.
On the ceiling a house lizard scuttles towards the door where a moth is oblivious to the danger, “zap” goes the sticky tongue – moth dead and then there is a squealing pig, headed to market and the first sounds of human life.
It is not just hot it is oppressively hot, 44 degrees with 99% humidity and still another two weeks to the rainy season. The fan tries to cool the room but fails. There is no air conditioning just a stiff upper lip and a constant craving for cold drinks. At 4 am I take a shower, at 4:10 am it is like I had never been under the cold water. I dress and sit outside on the rattan rocking chair to watch the womenfolk heading to market, which has now been open for an hour. For want of something to do I venture out too.
On the corner is a man preparing coconuts. He has a machete, a stack of plastic bags and a machine like a cement mixer with a rotating spike. He dispenses bags of coconut milk and desiccated coconut at lightning speed. I have watched him for about fifteen minutes, swinging the machete, plunging the white flesh onto the spike, before I realise he is blind and just marvel at the fact that he still has all his fingers.
Behind him is a beauty salon doing a brisk trade at 4:30 in the morning. Manicures, pedicures, shampoo & set, haircuts and scalp massage, unisex services at prices so ridiculous that I almost have to blush. A shave, a haircut, a manicure, a pedicure and a scalp massage for £2.00.
The woman at the bakery asks me if I am a missionary, on account that the only westerners they ever see are Mormons. I laugh and she smiles.
Back at the house a maid arrives. I have never had a maid before & have absolutely no idea of the etiquette involved. She has a bag of food for breakfast, speaks little & disappears into the kitchen. She returns with a plate of smoked & salted fish, two fried eggs, some salty bacon, a basket of hot bread & a yellow mango. She lays out the cutlery, a plate and a glass of iced water and bids me to eat. She has sad eyes & refuses to eat with me.
I have scarcely finished breakfast when a man arrives to tell me that the visit to Avalon will take place the day after tomorrow. He is very affable and eager to learn about England. He tells me that he supports Chelsea, is enamoured with 60’s music and informs me that the Beatles once performed at the “Cubao stadium” before being extradited for blasphemy by stating they were more popular than God. I have subsequently checked these facts and found them to be incredibly accurate. He also knows more about the “War of the Roses” than I do and we talk for ages. He tells me that he would like to go to Stonehenge and Cornwall, which is rather surprising, but he is well learned and I am rather taken by his ambitions.
We have lunch of grilled fish and salsa, served by the maid, who he largely ignores. We talk about politics, America and the faults of man. He tells me that he is sad about how people see his country.
In the afternoon when the sun is at its hottest he falls asleep mid-sentence and I follow suit.
When I wake up he is gone but has left a message to say that he will return the next day and take me to Wa-wa.
I have no idea what he means.
The maid makes me boiled sour pork with long string beans, corn on the cob and potatoes. She takes my laundry and tells me she will be back in the morning.
I am in bed and fast asleep by 9 pm. Having no internet, no television and no access to the outside world is somehow very refreshing. Why did we ever complicate things? Tonight the cockerel and the dogs do not wake me!
I discover that Wa-wa is a dam above the town. It is the domain of the legendary giant Bernardo Carpio, who is mentioned in Don Quixote. It is also the only place in town to cool down. Across the bamboo stilts we go until we sit in the torrent, super massaged by the force of water.
I do not think I have ever been so astonished with anything in my whole life. It is as though God took me there.
Avalon Zoo is a 20-minute journey by air-conditioned car. It is affiliated to London Zoo & other zoos, like Chicago as part of the endangered species breeding programme. The entrance hall has the air of Butlins circa 1960 and opens up onto a veranda, overlooking a green lake which is full of eyes.
On the first terrace, zoo staff are laying out the pythons to warm in the sun. I am told that they have been fed so at present there is no danger and that if I want I can stroke them. As children are indulging, I feel it would be churlish to refuse and I am rather surprised to find they are very cool and softer to the touch than I had envisaged.
In the next pavilion there are crocodiles and alligators, most of them lying in the shade with their mouths wide open and their eyes seemingly unfocused. For the most part they do not move, silent throwbacks from the mists of time, as they patiently wait for food to be delivered negating any need for effort.
A little further on is a viewing platform set at fifteen foot above the ground. It is reached by a dark staircase and opens up onto a veranda. For a few pence you can buy a platter of carrots and assorted vegetables. You are then issued with a long stick with a metal spike on the end on which you place a morsel of the food. It is here where you get to see and feed the giraffes. It is quite fascinating to see these graceful creatures eye to eye and watch as they delicately fold their tongues around the treat to remove and eat it. There are two adults and two adolescents, who being only fourteen feet high, you have to lean over the barrier to feed. They are however very timid and the slightest noise can see them back away.
The adults however are old hands and are unperturbed by such things, even daring to stretch their heads and tongues into the platform if food is not coming quickly enough. The only noise comes from the biting and chewing of their food. They are truly magical animals and if the meek shall inherit the earth I feel sure the giraffes will be there representing the animal kingdom.
So far I have been enamoured by the incredible honesty of the place. It is not overindulged with money but it tries its best to make things happen that are just that little bit different. What happened next wasn’t just different it was positively magical and will stay with me forever.
I came across a circular pavilion completely devoid of animals and was about to leave when a keeper came in with a huge fish eagle on his arm. The place I found myself in was a “meet the animals” enclosure & I could not resist sitting down to see some of the exotic creatures.
My favourite though was undoubtedly Trixie, a 13-year-old female orangutan who had come to the zoo as an orphan. She is used as a photo prop for people, especially children, to have their pictures taken with her. This involves her bearing her teeth in a mock smile every time the shutter goes off, which for the sake of making money makes her look hideously grotesque.
Between takes I stand at the end of the bench and talk to Trixie. I am pretty convinced that she is far more sassy than she lets on. She listens intently and once or twice even manages a natural smile. I tell her I live in England and that there are other orangutan there in London Zoo.
Perhaps I am sufficiently different from the Asian visitors as to mark me out as worthy of interest, or perhaps it is because I take the time to talk to her but there is empathy to the point that at times I think she is framing her lips to actually speak to me. Her face is expressive, as if she is working out that there is more to life than party tricks for the tourists. It is difficult to know who is learning the most.
All at once the peace is shattered by a girl who runs into the pavilion and on seeing Trixie screams loudly;
“Mommy, mommy can I have my picture taken with the monkey, please mommy, please, please let me, please!”
Trixie looks at me and rolls her eyes heavenwards. It is a gesture of sheer poetry, an action that says, “See what I have to put up with.”
When it is time for Trixie to go she shuffles along the bench and reaching up rests her hand on the side of my face. I can feel the hairs rise on the back of my neck and as a parting gesture Trixie pats the back of my hand with hers in what can only be described as a touch of velvet.
Two years after my visit Trixie was retired from her public role to be introduced, under the endangered breeding programme, to Ban-ban an 18-year-old male orangutan from Berlin Zoo. They must have got on because she gave birth to Sanji, a son in 2017 and Mimi a daughter in 2019.
God bless her!
Avalon zoo is in Rodriguez, Rizal, the Philippines.
© AÑO NUEVO 2022