Somehow it’s like I was never in Thailand or Malaysia or Indonesia. There’s all these photos, much more writing to do. But settling back into your typical existence, of not simply learning for yourself, is a strange fallout. Really it’s a mild personal melodrama, but I have a strong suspicion others can relate.
Today I stood on an overgrown road through a high severity burned forest in the Northern Sierras. My index finger displayed a dainty dollop of tepid, chartreuse bear dung. Across a noisy, snow melt gorged creek, a cinnamon phased Black Bear browsed on new growth, while I greedily enjoyed its presence. This was my moment with the bear. No one else knew about it, not even the bear. I felt like I was discretely, selfishly picking around the raisins in the trail mix, taking only chocolate. When I got back, I related the encounter to my co-workers.
“Would you like some raisins?”
Giving up the stories of your trip isn’t as easy as it sounds. Finding ways to make them interesting, easy to relate to, especially if you haven’t been to Borneo or Northern Thailand, is a challenge that sometimes one can get selfish about. I’m not sure if sharing all your stories means you are a good story teller or if you are simply handing out the recorded notes from a meeting.
In simple, bird nerd terms, I saw plenty. 438 species of birds I’d never seen before. I never hired an official bird guide, I learned what I could on my own, and did reasonably well (although there are several thousand species in the region). Though I’m loath to bean counting, dropping my observations into the bucket of life listing, when I get around to counting up I’ll probably have surpassed seeing 2000 species of birds in the world. Let’s see – 584 birds in the US, 498 species in South America, some 400 in Australia, 438 in Southeast Asia, an additional 60 odd in England and Ireland, and 24 in Northern Mexico – adds up to 2004.
“Hi, my name’s Brendan, I’m 25, and I’ve seen 2004 of around 10,000 species of birds in the world.”
Not exactly a line from speed dating, but I’m pretty satisfied with those stats. I’ll never see all the birds but if I keep it up, I bet I could get to 5000 by middle age.
But who cares about that stuff? I’m way more excited about the Black and Yellow Broadbill (Eurylaimus ochromalus) I spent thirty minutes taking photos of in Borneo. The bird sat two arm lengths away, engaging in eeriely slow movements while searching for phantom insects. It reminded me of an animatronic creature from an antiquated theme park. Suddenly it would burst off to catch an insect I couldn’t see. My heart would quicken pace momentarily thinking the bird had flown for good. But, I’d continue to relocate the grumpy looking character (their plumage is quite comical), on the same branch, face level in the canopy.
There’s always regrets from any trip and I wouldn’t say mine are major. Possibly it isn’t necessary to admit shortcomings but I wanted to say a few things about best and the worst. The most disappointing thing from my trip was that I failed to connect with any scientists. Attempts were made but they never got all the way. Honestly, that was just a part of the learning experience. Next adventure I’ll be ready and I’m sure it’s not that far around the corner.
An excellent experience was on Samosir Island in Lake Toba, Sumatra. I just stayed put. I didn’t make huge intellectual leaps in my understanding of Sumatran ecosystems or conservation biology, I just watched common birds. I don’t think you can beat that. Nothing is more valuable to a naturalist than familiarity. Yellow-vented Bulbuls (Pycnonotus goiavier) chortled in alarm at a passing Besra (an accipiter species), the Asian Palm Swifts (Cypsiurus balasiensis) turning from their aimless circling, building to a dark cloud of fury around the fleeing hawk. A Scaly-breasted Munia (Lonchura punctulata) attempted to secret away fresh green grass fronds twice her size, looking like a mini airplane flying a banner interminably between the marshy shore and the palm tree near my room. Two Black Eagles (Ictinaetus malayensis), yellow talons beaming, would circle over the town of Tuk-tuk, likely looking for cats, small dogs, or chickens of which all were plentiful. Sharing these and tantamount other simple observations with friends that weren’t necessarily there for birds, made it all the more valuable.
There were so many insects, reptiles, and mammals I’ll never forget too.
Speaking of mammals, I can’t ignore the people, friendly and frustrating. Douglas Adams said it best about Earth: “Mostly Harmless.” Yet there’s a few human lessons I gleaned that will help me navigate in the future. I’ll never underestimate the value of learning about the culture of the place I’m visiting, even if I’m there for nature. I’ll never take the cheapest bus anywhere again. I’ll always be sure to chat up the locals as much as possible, even if they do try to sell me Meth, I’ll always find out something interesting and make friends. I’ll never take the first price I’m told. I’ll never again be alarmed, offended, or startled by strange things people ask me, like:
“Are you a rapper?”
“Hey are you guys going to go relax and eat bananas? Do you like bananas?! I like bananas! Bananas!”
I learned a lot and I want to thank a few people before I finish this up: First and foremost, my parents, who put up with my humming and hawing, crashing on their couch pre and post trip, made many indirect financial investments, and always support my interests and idiosyncrasies. My friends, young and old, for their emotional and intellectual support. My primary travel companions, Nick, Ellen, Scott, and Sam for being great friends and even better company. And most of all, the folks who supported me in my fund-raising campaign on Kickstarter – you made the larger extent of the trip possible and have given me validation in my professional interests, (you’ll get your photos and writings soon!). I hope you all keep visiting Wingtrip and will look for my work elsewhere in the near future.
And though it may sound disingenuous, I’ll also never stop smiling.