There are two types of travelers in this world: one who’ll jump into the ocean and swim with the whale sharks and one who’ll stay safe on the boat. When I went to Donsol a few years ago to see the world’s largest fish in its natural habitat, I still wasn’t sure which kind I was. I just wore the proper swimming gear so that I could position myself for a last-second decision on the boat—one that would largely depend on how many scenes from the movie Jaws come to mind.
A splash of saltwater brought me back to the decision at hand. It also brought to mind Gion, the Asian elephant that I rode while getting drenched by unusual summer showers in Cambodia just the previous month (please refer to my article in the October-November 2010 issue entitled, “Always There to Remind Me”). I concluded that the best way to immerse myself in the 9th century world of the Angkor kings was to ride an elephant up to the mountain temple of Phnom Bakheng just as they used to do. Sitting atop the pachyderm as she lumbered up the ancient trail was definitely the authentic way to experience this animal—as opposed to merely posing beside one on the streets below with noisy tuk-tuks zipping all around.
Suddenly, the booming engine of the boat fell silent and our spotter yelled, “butanding!” Screaming the whale shark’s native name signaled that we were finally near one. As I stood on the bow, I drowned out the unnerving theme from Jaws playing in my head by constantly repeating my personal travel motto, “When in Rome!” Just as there are local customs you must try wherever you go, I was reminding myself that there are indigenous animals you must encounter in the proper context as well.
DONKEY BUMPS AND CAMEL HUMPS
I don’t mean simply visiting giant pandas in the Beijing zoo. I’m talking about choosing to ride a donkey up the steep cliffs of Therasia in the Cyclades Isles despite the risk of getting bumped over the edge by an oncoming ass (I’m referring to another donkey, not an obnoxious tourist riding one). I’m alluding to cresting the scorching dunes of the Rub’ al Khali Desert on a dromedary even if an SUV is available.
The luxurious appointments of an off-road vehicle may keep the invasive sand from aggravating your asthmatic bronchitis, but depriving yourself of the Bedouins’ traditional means of locomotion when you’re in this part of the world is unforgivable. Besides, riding the single-humped Arabian camel isn’t that uncomfortable—just be sure you’re sitting on a thick pillow or you’ll be cursing loudly in your native tongue when it abruptly transitions from a standing to a kneeling position.
It’s all about leaving your comfort zone in order to fully appreciate what the animal kingdom has to offer. Of course, there are lines you shouldn’t cross and they are generally drawn between life and death. I, for example, will never again get front row seats to a live show featuring uncaged exotic animals like that of Siegfried and Roy in Las Vegas. I strongly suggest not looking a 500-pound tiger in the eye when there’s nothing stopping it from having you for dinner.
TO JUMP OR NOT TO JUMP?
A tap on my back meant that it was time to decide. Despite being aware of how fortunate I was to have this chance, I was still hesitant to swim with a whale shark. In the end, it wasn’t my surviving the yak, elephant, donkey, or camel that gave me the courage to take the plunge. It was the fact that my pint-sized female cousin dove in without even batting an eyelash. As I floated face-down in waters so murky that you could only see a few feet ahead, I felt silly for being afraid and congratulated myself on being the kind of traveler who knows how to properly experience the local wildlife.
Then, a large gray object the size of a city bus appeared from nowhere and headed straight for me—its five-foot-wide mouth fully agape. It was at this point that our spotter on the boat reported experiencing something for the first time: despite being a good fifty feet away, he heard loud cursing in the native tongue coming from my snorkel tube.