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Everyone likes birds. What wild creature is more accessible to our eyes and ears, as close to us and everyone in the world, as universal as a bird?”
Handan and I liked to spend our weekend days touring Saigon by scooter. There was so much to discover, and once I had the general lay of the land in my head, I wasn’t worried about getting lost, as I could always find my way to a familiar street or landmark. One Saturday in November, I picked Handan up from her office (they worked half a day on Saturdays) and we scootered off in search of adventure. Okay, look, I wasn’t strictly looking for adventure. It was lunch time. I was looking for food. Hey, a man’s gotta eat, right? If I left it up to Handan, I’d be a talking rib cage. That woman can go until dinner with nothing but coffee. But that’s another story. So there we were, cruising the streets of Saigon and looking for
adventure food. I must have zigged when I should have zagged, because instead of finding a street full of delicious food that I could stuff into my face, we found a street full of cages filled with birds and dogs and all sorts of exotic pets. We had discovered the pet district. I slowed, so we could look around. Parrots and parakeets, cats and dogs, snakes and lizards, fish and frogs: if it crawled, slithered walked, flew or swam in Vietnam, it was on this street. We spotted a shop that had beautiful bamboo cages hanging from the ceiling filled with colorful birds. I turned to Handan, sitting behind me on the scooter. “After lunch, we’re coming back here!” She flashed a big smile, gave me a thumbs-up and nodded her head.
After lunch, we found our way back to the pet district, parked our scooter and entered the shop with the bamboo cages. We looked over the selection. There were parrots for sale, but they were too expensive. There were little budgies, but they didn’t seem very interesting. In the end we settled on a pair of slatey-headed parakeets, brilliant green and gorgeous. We wanted a big bamboo cage, but there wasn’t room on the scooter for me, Handan and a huge cage. We decided to take them home in their small metal cage, and then I would return to buy a big bamboo cage. The problems began at once.
I know now that birds born in captivity form loving bonds with humans, while those captured from the wild usually never take to captivity and never show affection. I wish I knew this before buying our two parakeets. Our birds, like almost all birds in Vietnam, were captured and caged, and they weren’t very happy about it. Their true colors emerged when we tried to transfer them from their crappy little pet store cage to the damn fine bamboo palace we bought for them (at considerable expense, I might add). We opened the door to the bamboo cage, then placed it against the open door of the metal cage. Any sane bird would have deduced that he was being offered a larger home and immediately hopped into the bigger abode.
Not these jerks.
Noooooo, they just sat on their crap-covered perches and stared at us. I tried nudging them with chopsticks.
At last, I decided to reach in and man-handle them into their new digs. No sooner had I stuck my hand in their cage than one of the grey-headed beasts latched onto my finger with an avian death chomp that punctured my flesh. I howled as the green monster tried to devour me. After some time, I think he realized that I wasn’t one to be eaten so easily, and he let go. I yanked my hand from the cage and looked over at Handan.
“He bit me! The little bastard!” I said.
“Well, you poked him. Let that be a lesson to you,” she said.
“Whose side are you on?” I said and sulked off to find a bandage.
Handan gave no reply.
We decided to leave the two cages open to one another. In time, one of the birds (the one that didn’t try to kill me) figured it out and hopped through into her new home. Handan said, “She’s the smart one! That’s my bird! I’m going to name her Zazu.”
My attacker stayed in his cage for another hour or so, but then he, too, made the move. By the process of elimination, he became my bird. He didn’t like me, and I didn’t like him. I named him Jerkwing, and it was the beginning of a painful enmity.
For all their personality faults, Zazu and Jerkwing were beautiful birds, and they looked fine in their bamboo cage.
But Jerkwing never mellowed. He never softened a bit, and his hatred of captivity grew with each passing day. It wasn’t long before he discovered that his thin bamboo enclosure was no match for his razor-sharp beak. Like a prisoner in for life, he worked on the bamboo bars, a little each day, until one day, he had enough room to escape.
Handan and I came home one evening, and the cage was empty. Zazu and Jerkwing were perched halfway up the high ceilings on a light fixture, just out of reach. We tried to shoo them, and they flew into the kitchen. When they landed on a curtain rod, we were able to capture them, one at a time, with a net. Jerkwing again bit through my finger in another attempt on my life. We put them back in their cage, and I endeavored to repair the damage that they had wrought on their beautiful (but fragile) home.
Handan was making progress with Zazu. The bird tolerated her intrusions into the cage when she attempted to pet her. For some reason, Jerkwing tolerated it as well. He never attacked Handan. That honor was reserved for me. But neither did he submit to petting. That was beneath him.
Perhaps you don’t believe me when I tell you that Jerkwing was evil. Perhaps you think I’m embellishing the story a bit. I want you to look at this picture.
Is it not obvious that they were plotting something against me? Can you not see it? No? Then what the hell happened to me? I’m missing from the next photos! Clearly they had done something to me. I would never leave a beer behind like that!
Those lifeless eyes were full of hate. Jerkwing was always watching me, looking for my weakness.
It all came to a head on December 1, 2011. It was a Thursday morning, and when I came downstairs to make coffee, I again found that Jerkwing had escaped, though Zazu was still in the cage. This was his fourth escape. I spotted him in the kitchen, perched on the curtain rod over the window that looked out onto the pasture behind our house. His baleful eye watched me as I approached. We stood there in the kitchen, two adversaries taking each others’ measure. How would this play out? Would more blood be shed? As we stood regarding each other, I realized that his keen and incisive hatred for me would never abate. No bribe of sunflower seeds or melon balls would temper his resolve to escape and be free. I called Handan downstairs and instructed her to open the window where he was perched. He never broke eye contact as she slowly walked to the window and slid it to the side. The escape route he had so long sought was right there below him. He flicked his head down and saw. With one last hateful glance, he hopped off the curtain rod and flew out the window into the bright Saigon morning, never to be seen again. He was a bastard, and he left behind a broken cage spackled with bird shit, but I wished him luck.
Shortly after Jerkwing’s departure, I found myself again riding through the pet district. This time, a little puppy caught my eye. He was a tiny thing, really just two big eyes with four legs and little tail.
He was nervous, but sweet and friendly. When I stuck my fingers into his tiny cage, he didn’t try to bite me. Instead, he licked my fingers and wanted to be pet. He was awesome. I snapped the crappy pics above on my old iPod and sent them to Handan when I was next connected to WiFi. She agreed that we could get him, but first I needed to find a veterinarian and see what else the dog would need and how much it would cost. I searched online and found a vet not too far from our villa. I rode to his clinic to speak with him.
Doctor Nghia met with me, and I told him about the dog I found in the pet district.
“You don’t want to buy any animals from there. Very bad animals. Very sick. They all die very soon.” he said.
“Oh….” I said. I wasn’t expecting that reply. I thought about that poor dog, living a short and miserable life in that cage, and my heart broke a little.
“But I have dog for you!” Doctor Nghia said.
“Yes, yes, I rescue three dogs from mountain village. I have two here. One I give to American Embassy. I show you one.” And with that he disappeared into his clinic. He returned a moment later with a tiny little thing that looked a little bit like a miniature deer. He told me that he had rescued the dogs from the same litter from a family in a remote mountain region. The family was going to eat the dogs. Now, eating dog is not uncommon in Vietnam, especially in rural areas, but these dogs were on the menu for a different reason.
Among the less-educated in Vietnam, it is believed that eating certain animals or animal parts confers special powers or abilities to the eater. One such practice is to consume the horn of a deer to gain virility (I’m not entirely sure how one prepares horn. Boiled? Baked stuffed? horn beef hash?). Now, these were dogs, not deer, but since they looked like miniature deer, the rather uninformed villagers thought that they too would confer virility to the consumer, even though, you know, there were no horns to be found.
So Doctor Nghia bought the three dogs from the village family. He gave one to someone at the American Embassy in Saigon, and he gave another to his elderly mother in another village. When she became too infirm to care for the animal, he again took it back, and that was his situation when I met him. He had two dogs for adoption living in his clinic.
Well, it only took one look for me to be sold on the idea. I phoned Handan and got the green light. I put the dog in his cage, tied the cage to the scooter, and drove him very carefully home. He was the tiniest thing we’d ever seen. We named him Thor.
I did some research online and determined that Thor was a Miniature Pinscher probably mixed with some Chihuahua.
A few days later, I went back to Doctor Nghia’s clinic to pick up some supplies for Thor and also to have a word with the Doctor. While I waited for him to come to the reception and waiting area, I kept hearing the most pitiful cry coming from back in the clinic. It never stopped. It was one of the saddest and most disconsolate sounds I’ve ever hear in my life. When the doctor came out, I asked him about the sound.
“Oh, that your dog’s brother. He been like that ever since you take his brother away.”
I felt like I’d been shot through the heart. That poor dog had been back there, alone, crying for days. I left the clinic feeling like my soul had just been ripped from my body and beaten with clubs. When Handan got home that night, I told her the story, and she, too, felt terrible.
“We have to take him.” she said.
“I know.” I said. “I’ll go get him tomorrow.”
I returned to the clinic the next day and told the Doctor I intended to take the brother as well. He was so happy to hear it! He went back into the clinic and returned with an even smaller dog. This runty thing made Thor look like he deserved his name! I didn’t know dogs came this small! I put him in the cage I had brought with me and drove him home to meet his brother.
The reunion was like no other. The little one cried and yapped and ran to Thor. He peed all over the floor, his stubby tail wagging furiously. Thor was not immune to the moment, as he too was yapping and crying and licking the little one all over.
Those dogs captured my heart just then and never let go.
The little guy needed a name as big as his love for his brother. I called him Zeus.
I loved those dogs. They were my constant companions at home.
We had a housekeeper during our time in Vietnam. She was with us every weekday from 8-5. Her name was Xuan (the closest pronunciation for English speakers would be “swan”), and she spoke almost no English. When I first brought Thor home, I had the following conversation with Xuan.
Xuan: What hit nem? [what’s his name]
Xuan: [repeating after me] Store
Me: You got it.
I had (and have to this day) a policy which states that any animal that crosses the threshold into our house becomes our pet. So you can imagine Handan’s disappointment when she discovered a crab in our house one morning, but then learned that she couldn’t eat it. It must have been driven in by the heavy rains. It was hanging out where we keep our shoes by the front door.
It was covered in dust bunnies and dirt. Over Handan’s protestations, I picked him up and carried him out to our fish pond, where he was immediately attended by a group of curious goldfish.
Okay, sometimes even I had to draw the line when it came to pets. Knowing that Handan is mortally terrified of any and all snakes, I had to remove this guy and return him to nature after I found him on our kitchen floor one morning. Thank god Handan wasn’t home! Hoooo Boy, she would have flipped her lid!
Actually, I don’t think she ever knew about that particular snake 🙂
This next housemate was less of a pest and more of a specter. I discovered her one day as she was lurking above the kitchen.
I named her Shelob after the giant spider from Lord of the Rings. The scariest part about her was that she could probably run faster than I could. Now, that’s not saying much, but still. I’m not normally one to be afraid of a spider, but Shelob was just so damn fast, and you never knew when or where she’d pop up. There were a few times when she legitimately scared the crap out of me. The first happened when I was standing over the toilet bowl answering the call of nature. She jumped out of the toilet. I almost answered a different call from nature!
The second time happened when I was showering. You’ve seen the movie Psycho, right? Remember the shower scene? This was like that. I was merrily minding my own business when I noticed a flash of movement out of the corner of my eye. I looked, but it was gone. I turned back to my shower, but the hot water couldn’t melt away my goose bumps. Again, the movement. I turned off the water and peered out.
There! On the floor!
And gone in a flash. That was when I learned Shelob could outrun me. I grabbed a towel and hightailed it into the bedroom to dress.
Once again, she visited me in the shower, that time, scurrying across the wall.
A day or two later, Handan and I came home after an evening out. I entered the dark room first and reached over to flick on the light. Shelob was on the wall right next to my hand. A frisson of fear ran through my body.
“Babes. Look.” I said.
If I weren’t there with her, there’s no telling how deep into madness she would have descended. She was terrified and wanted me to kill it. As I said, I’m not normally afraid of spiders, but I sure didn’t feel manly as I stalked that eight-legged thing with a can of Raid in one hand and a garbage can in the other. With Handan’s help, I managed to trap it under the can, whereupon I emptied almost the entire can of Raid into a small crack I made between the floor and the rim of the garbage can. I slammed the can back down, and we went to bed.
In the morning, we carefully lifted the can. It was there, and it was quite dead. I felt bad. It was a beautiful spider.
I came to find out that it was perfectly (well mostly) harmless. Know variously as Cave Spider, Giant Crab Spider, Huntsman Spider, Wood Spider or Clock Spider, its most defining characteristic is its speed. And its speed is what scares the bejeezus out of people!
It’s been a long post, but I think I can fit in one more pet-related story for you. Since we’re close to Christmas, I’ll tell a little tale of the Christmas season, 2011.
Though we had a bathroom on the first floor, just off the kitchen, we didn’t use it much, because the plumbing was such that it tended to back up easily. One day in mid-December, as I was minding my own business, I heard a loud gurgling belch sound come from the downstairs bathroom. I went to investigate and discovered that the toilet had just burped up raw sewage all over the floor. It had done this entirely on its own. Disgusted and worried about further intrusions, I phoned the landlord and described the situation as best I could, given the language barrier.
That afternoon, the owner arrived with a small squadron of plumbers to rectify the matter. At first, they sat on the kitchen floor and pow-wowed like (American) Indians. This lasted many moons. Abruptly, they departed with a promise to return in thirty minutes. When they returned, their numbers had swelled, as did their accouterments. They entered the kitchen and stared at the floor, yammering about this and that in Vietnamese. Presently, a little man with a cigarette dangling from his mouth switched on the circular saw that he was holding and started cutting through the kitchen floor tile. Dust flew everywhere. Zazu the parakeet was in the line of fire. I ran to grab her cage, as Zeus and Thor howled in theirs. I took the terrified bird outside, then opened the dogs’ cage and ushered them outside. Zeus promptly pissed on the bird, followed by Thor. I sat outside with the disconsolate animals until the sawing finished. I ventured inside with the animals and saw a square hole in the kitchen floor, three feet to a side. Men were now applying themselves to the dirt below with long metal staves. Dirt was flung from the hole in my kitchen floor, piling up on the surrounding tiles.
The dogs’ discontent manifested in Thor puking on the bed inside their cage. Zeus quickly moved to investigate. I had to wrestle both dog and vomit-filled bed in order to extract the latter from the cage. I took the small beasts upstairs to the bedroom and laid on the bed for a moment to relax. I got up a short while later, locked the dogs in the bedroom and went back downstairs, whereupon I observed a hose running from our kitchen floor to a honeywagon parked outside. Ghastly fluids coursed and pulsed through the hose, leaking onto the living room floor at stress-weakened couplings. I grabbed my keys, tossed a spare set to the owner and fled the scene on my scooter. I drove to District 1, found a bar and drank a beer while I waited to pick up Handan from work.
When we returned that evening, the men were gone, as were all signs that they had been there, save for a scar in the kitchen where the tiles had been replaced. They had fixed it!
A week later, we were getting ready to host a Christmas party for Handan’s bosses and co-workers. I was in the kitchen preparing food, when a great explosion made me jump in startlement. With a sinking feeling in my gut, I approached the bathroom and pushed open the door. The toilet hadn’t just belched sewage, but rather sewage had exploded from it. Literally. Raw sewage covered the walls, the ceiling and the floor. Our Christmas party was seven hours away, and our house was a biohazard site. I grabbed the phone and dialed the landlord.
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