Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Wedding breakfast and the tale of Ducks for sale

26th Oct 2017 Nyaung Pin Thar

Today we hit the road with our trusty driver U Yei Win, our guide Lay Win and head off for another interview in a jungle village called Nyaung Pin Thar.

On route, Lay Win, our guide, says he has a surprise breakfast laid on for us. Not more than a couple of miles past the military checkpoint at the end of Lonton, we come to a busy little village on the shores of the lake called Naung Pin. Children are running around barefooted, their faces smeared with a milky cream called 'thanaka' made from a ground tree bark, applied to protect them from the fierce sun which also functions as a method of beautification, perfume and skincare product, much like the women of the West use foundation and face cream. 

Child with traditional Thanaka

Nearly all the women and children and even some of the men use 'thanaka'. I wondered, how long has this tradition been going on for. I imagine it has been going on in this part of the world since mankind decided to colonise this tough terrain. 

A local family
The frenetic existence of village life was augmented with the sights, sounds and smells from lazy eyed free-roaming cattle. They have the demeanour of rightful owners of this madness and the people were just an annoyance like the flies buzzing around their proud heads. 

The goats, pigs, red jungle fowl (the ancestors of our domestic chickens) are all relaxed and going about their days unaware that any moment their short lives could drain away from the kiss of the butcher's blade or the falling of the housewife's axe. 

The ground is the shop front for this local trader

Irresistibly handsome, scabby and intelligent looking dogs are everywhere we go, always on the lookout for an opportunity to fill their aching stomachs but with an independent nature and display of pride that never allows them to beg for food. If no scraps were available to forage among the village detritus, a vacant dusty corner was always there for an opportune nap in the shade. 

All these creatures weaved their paths of life among the small shops and stalls selling everything imaginable and the smell of exotic foods from the ramshackle homes and huts fill the musty, jungle air.

It would be easy to be depressed seeing how the people live in these villages. There is no escaping the dire sanitation and lack of any real 
infrastructure and basic amenities that we in the west take for granted. But to be truthful they appeared happier and healthier than most of the people I know in the west. The only thing that separates us all is the fortune of where we are born. We all require food, a place to lay our head, friendship and health. The man riding through the dusty jungle lanes with a bike loaded with handmade wicker baskets feels the same emotions as I and puts his trousers on in the morning, one leg at a time, the same as I do. Although, I have the privilege after pulling on my Levi’s in the morning, followed by with clean socks and a pair of shoes, of which I’m spoiled by my range of choice. The man on the bike with the baskets has no shoes. Most of the villagers wear no shoes, or if lucky, a pair of flip-flops, their feet are hardened to leather by a lifetime of pounding the jungle ground.

The surprise that Lay Win told us about was that our team were to be guests of honour at a wedding breakfast for a handsome young couple from the village. A colourful marquee had been erected at the end of the village with a small stage, loud music and a dozen dining tables. Everyone was wearing their finest clothing. The white shirts were sparkling white and the beautiful longyis, elaborately embroidered with golden thread made these paupers transform into radiant princesses.

Lay Win, Pilar Bueno, Errol Fuller, Richard Thorns guest for a wedding breakfast
Shy smiles and giggles, hidden behind hands greeted us from the young girls and excited stares from the handsome men as we were escorted to our pride of place table settings where the bride and groom's parents were seated. Almost immediately a cue started to form to have photos taken with us. There we were, not looking our best, to say the least, sweaty and red-eyed from the lack of sleep and coffee, dressed in our field clothes and walking boots in a feeding frenzy of photo ops. The irony made me smile because I was more than honoured and privileged to have ‘my’ photo taken with these beautiful people.

Parents of the bride with John Hodges & Errol Fuller
An endless selection of spicy dishes with rice was laid out on the table for us to eat. Thankfully many were plant-based with ingredients taken out of the adjacent jungle. All were delicious and very welcome. Anyone who personally knows me is aware that I adore spicy food, in fact at home I use cayenne pepper and turmeric mixed with black pepper as condiments on all my meals, and you should try my ‘spicy toast recipe’ for a kick start in the morning, I’m drooling now just thinking about it as I write. Some of our team, no names mentioned were perspiring with bulging eyes; I loved everything I tried.

Pilar Bueno & our other guide Zwaezawzaw Hein
After our breakfast, we mingled some more to be polite, posed for photos again, Errol purchased a traditional hat for his daughter, Pilar a Longyi (traditional Burmese skirt, only she chose a male design) and we made a grateful but hasty retreat. The heat of the jungle was already starting to sizzle, the cicadas and birds were calling at the top of their voices from the towering canopy and impenetrable wall of vines, and we were in danger of slipping into post-meal lethargy if we didn’t get out fast.

Errol Fuller purchasing a tradition hat for his daughter
Another 40 minutes of potholed jungle roads, weaving around the roaming beasts and villagers, we arrived at Nyaung Pin Thar village, which looked more like a small farm settlement consisting of half a dozen thatched and bamboo structures. Lay Win made enquires to the location of the villager (witness) that we had arranged to interview. A man was sent out to find him for us while Pilar and I went into a photographer's frenzy capturing the floating butterflies moving around some flowering shrubs, like coloured tissues carried around on the wind. Stalking among the shrubs and flowers was also a beady-eyed Oriental Garden Lizard, a miniature dinosaur hunting among his garden jungle.
The Cornelian - Deudorix epijarbas
Eastern Blue Sapphire - Heliophorus oda

Oriental Garden Lizard - Calotes versicolor

Peacock Pansy - Junonia almana
Chocolate Pansy - Junonia iphita
I counted at least a dozen species, some familiar, but many new to my butterfly nerd brain; I was like a kid at Christmas. Duck or no duck this was always the bonus for being here in tropical South East Asia. If the Lepidoptera (butterfly) gods smile upon me I might even stumble across a new species, a boyhood dream could come true. All this magic was orchestrated with a distant chorus of Hoolock Gibbons, somewhere hidden from naturalist's eyes deep in the jungle. Their calls can carry many miles and they are a critically endangered species. I made a mental note, at some point during our journey I must and need to photograph these rare and beautiful primates, I suppose it won’t be a walk in the park to find them, more like a leech-infested muddy trek through a slippery and inhospitable forest, but if I don’t try I know I will always regret my lazy excuses.

Lay Win translates
 Eventually, our man turned up. A table and chairs were laid out in the sun so that I would have light to film, cards and batteries were checked, cameras rolled and the interview began. With Lay Win’s patient and indispensable help as the translator, we asked the man his story about the Pink-Headed Duck.

The long and short of our conversation is this: The boatman/fisherman, Ko Tan Aung claims that 18 months after a Birdlife International expedition left in 2003, he had caught two Pink-Headed Ducks (male and female or possible juvenile) and kept them alive. He contacted the late Tony Htin Hla and offered the living birds to Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association (BANCA) for the discount price of 80,000 Myanmar Kyat (approx USD $48.55) which they refused with the apparent excuse "they wanted wild specimens and not captive ducks". So the disappointed fisherman subsequently caved in their pink skulls against a door frame and served them to his family for lunch. A rare delicacy indeed, if the story is to be believed. The ducks were no more!

All interviews were captured on film

His account seemed genuine, although I couldn’t for the life of me explain why BANCA would so easily dismiss such a claim and turn down such an offer. It should have been easy enough to verify. Simply get one of the local and expert, local birder guides to take a look at the birds and confirm the story, then jump on a plane with a fistful of greenbacks and history is made.

Richard and I had also decided to start offering a reward, $1,000.00 for a confirmed photo of the bird sent to us (they may live in medieval conditions but they all had smartphones) and $3,000.00 for a safely captured and retained living bird. At this point and in retrospect not surprisingly, our driver U Ye Win of all people spoke up and stated that he had actually seen the living, captured birds with his own eyes all those years ago. My cynical but usually correct brain started twitching. If the driver had seen the birds then why hadn’t he said something previously, after all, he was the official, paid driver of the Pink-headed Duck 2017 Expedition; you’d think such an important detail would have been forwarded to us the moment he first met up with us.

Hmmm, I sensed some well-planned jungle mind games being aimed at us. We concluded the interview and moved in out of the searing sun. We drained a cold beer to rinse out the dust in our throats and mulled it all over. Pilar took names and gave contact details to our storytellers and I snapped a few photos in natural light of the men assembled.

Pilar gathering details for our archives
Errol scowled and gave me another knowing look; there is no pulling the feathers over his eyes, even mystical pink ones. He’s heard it all before during his long career as the world most eminent expert on all things endangered, missing or extinct. At this time, I was piecing together a new theory as to what had happened to our duck and why no-one had found or seen it. Dead or alive the mists of birding history were starting to evaporate in my mind and I shared my first inklings and thoughts with Errol Fuller’ rational and scientific brain. He really liked the way I was thinking and concluded it made more sense than the known accounts and history of the missing bird.

I really want this bird to be alive and to quote Pilar in our Associated Press interview, “we want to give this bird back to the world”. But we can have no room for romance or fantasy; we need to apply hard analysis to every piece of evidence. If anyone could pick holes in my theory “the Fuller” could, he shoots straight from the hip, no niceties, just the truth. As I like to say, “don’t wrap me in cotton wool” to save hurting my feelings”, I’m a big boy, I just want the facts and the truth, it’s the only way progress can be made and the truth found. More about my theory later, maybe much later as I need to call on all mine, Errol’s and the GWC’s resources and contacts to collate solid evidence to prove my theory.

I know, another tease but I am certain I’m onto something and if I’m correct the chances of the Pink-headed Duck still hanging onto this spinning piece of dust we call earth has just gone up considerably.

I have to admit that for a while we all wanted to believe the ‘tale of the Ducks for sale’ we discussed why BANCA would ignore such a claim, made some excuses to keep the story alive and credible. But in reality, the story had more holes in it than a holey thing made in a hole factory. This was turning more into a lesson in human psychology than a duck hunt and many disciplines would need to come into play.

My heart sank a little for Richard as I saw his initial reaction to my theory. He so wanted this enigmatic species to be clinging on in the marshes and lakes of Myanmar. But I could see in his honest and trusting eyes that he was also realising the truth to my findings and theory. I pang of guilt tightened my chest. I certainly didn’t relish popping the bubble on his dream quest but the uncomfortable reality was starting to slap us in the face. The habitat was no longer here and the testimonies we had collected so far were worthless and worse, I feared manipulated to our wishes.

We said our thanks and goodbyes and followed Lay Win along a jungle path to a collection of fish ponds bordering the jungle at the edge of the wetlands. The ponds were full of carp, approximately 5-7lb in weight and were being bred to sell to the locals and the growing restaurant trade.

Carp being bred for the table

Idyllic looking fish ponds
As we walked to the end of the pond complex, Richard pointed out across the horizon to the elephant grassland marshes of Naung Khwin where tomorrow we would start exploring by elephant and hopefully flushing a duck or three, you never know one just might be pink, heading for the blue skies, like Lazarus rising.

The pond looked like ideal duck habitat but not a bird was seen except for the occasional pond heron, frozen in the reed, waiting for a passing fish fry, frog or invertebrate. Good luck Mr Heron.

Errol and I continued chewing over my theory, playing devil’s advocate and strengthening the case. My cameras were kept busy by the huge selection of dragonfly species. Ancient and fast, delicate, winged killers in all shapes, colours and sizes, darting around our feet and heads, checking us out and testing my photography skills to the limit. If ever I was to discover a new species it was most probably among these four-winged killers.

Species to be identified
These amazing dragonflies floated and hovered a metre in front of my face, exactly at eye level, darting in and out, coming back again and again, coming in for another look. Did their compound eyes that were sending messages to their brain ever wonder about us, these sweaty, strange creatures before them? Were thoughts being generated in brains made of a few atoms? This is the kind of a natural mystery that makes me drool. Science for years has said ‘impossible’, but the more we observe the animal kingdom the more we discover that consciousness may not be limited to just a few select higher mammals, such as ourselves, some primates and whales. We are finding that many bird families, octopus, and let’s not even start with our family dogs, have advanced communications, share ideas and even pass on knowledge. This means they have an idea of whom and what they are, also planning and manipulating the world around them through tools and even teamwork. By discovering we are not the only smart ones here, we are also evolving to be smarter ourselves. My dream would be that one-day humans could emulate the fictional character from the 1967 movie Dr Doolittle and talk with the animals. If that day ever happens though, humanity will recoil in horror when our fellow life forms and ultimately our family on the planet will shame us with horror stories about our behaviour and treatment of the creatures of this world. It would change humanity as a species forever and could save us from a self-inflicted oblivion.

Species to be identified

Species to be identified

Common Flangetail - Ictinogomphus pertinax
As John Lennon famously sang “I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one”. As humans evolve to become more conscious, surely we must stop this abuse of the natural world and the wholesale torture and destruction of species. Whether it’s a farmyard animal, processed and carved up for the dining table or the blatant destruction of rainforest for palm oil for our white bread, junk food diets. This is the only place we all have to live, the rent is going up and there is no more parking. Mankind it’s time to grow up, stop soiling ourselves and clean up our act. Rant over…..for now.
Richard Thorns and I checking photos
 Another hour passed in the hot sun before Lay Win gathered us up for lunch and a beer back at the ‘wedding village’. I’d completely forgotten about food, lost in my world full of flying dragons.

We had one more stop though. Lay Win earlier had promised to take us to a dirt path running parallel to the jungle where if we're lucky we might get a glimpse of the elusive Hoolock Gibbons we had heard earlier in the day, finger crossed.

When we arrived our driver pulled over and we walked along the edge of the jungle. Again we were surrounded by butterflies but unfortunately, the Gibbons were nowhere to be seen or heard. Oh well, it just means I have to add more butterfly photos to more expanding archive.

Asian Elephant - Elephas maximus
While Errol, Pilar and I were totally distracted by the glorious insects, a female elephant ambled up behind us, ridden by her mahout. Lay Win informed us that the elephant will be joining us tomorrow in the marshlands of Naung Khwin and the beginning of our explorations of this habitat.

I just love elephants, always have, and always will. When you look into an elephant’s eye close up you can see into a conscious, knowing being. I can almost imagine their stories full of wisdom that they could whisper in my ear. Stories of hard lives and some torment but also of family and love, just like the human story.

The elephant grass and marshland of Naung Khwin is a historical place for sightings of the Pink-Headed Duck. It all sounded good, we would transverse this hostile environment with the assistance of Elephants trying to flush out resident ducks and hopefully our intended quarry. It was all very romantic and very Victorian but it made sense, these habitats are almost impenetrable and a great place for a lost species to hide from the modern world.

Using elephants is something that didn’t settle well with me, Pilar and Errol and I have actually campaigned against such use of these emotional and intelligent animals for the jollies of tourists. I kept telling myself that this was for science and conservation and if we make important discoveries the future of this whole environment can and will be conserved.

My justification for the greater good, please forgive me Mrs Pachyderm.

We took some photos of the team with the beautiful, grey lady, I kissed her trunk and promised to see her tomorrow.

Meeting with the elephant I'd be working with
We then finally left. We had a much hungered for and delicious lunch in the ‘wedding village’ before heading back to Lonton and our lodge. What awaited us were cold, insect-filled showers and a couple of hours downloading photos, archiving, writing up notes, charging camera batteries and then an evening out with Richard and Errol who are both football addicts. They’d located a bar showing some English soccer games much to their joy. A bottle of Mandalay Rum had been purchased; it could and would get messy.

I leave the story here, mostly because I can’t remember too much of the evening. But apparently we all behaved with class, style with lots of suave sophistication; well that was me, not sure about the other two. At no point did anyone fall over in a ditch, no one died and we didn’t make the local news.

I still don’t know the football results!