Category Archives: Animals

Wild Animals in Sikkim

Sandeep and I were both up all night in our freezing tent in Dzongri. We had trekked for three days to a height of 14,000 feet and altitude sickness started to get the better of us. Following the eight our uphill trek that day and very little oxygen, were starting to feel delirious. Our guides, porters and us chose a camping site in a small valley in Dzongri. Our tent (the yellow one), our kitchen tent (blue) and our bathroom tent (green) were the only structures in sight. Here’s the blow by blow starting at about 1 A.M.

Sandeep: D. D… D!!!! Do you hear that?

Diya: Huh, yeah. It sounds like a horse.

Sandeep: It’s not a horse. The horses all wear those bells.

Diya: Well, maybe this is a good horse. Maybe the horseman knows he won’t run away so he let him free without the bell.

Sandeep: I doubt it. Anyway, it’s moving around but I don’t hear it breathing. Don’t horses breathe?

Diya: Yeah. But maybe he’s just relaxing.

Sandeep: Then why is he walking around like that? No it should be breathing. Animals breathe. This one is not breathing.

Diya: Ok, maybe it’s not an animal then.

Sandeep: What is it? It’s moving around. S$!1! It’s borrowing under my head.

Diya: Turn on the torch! Shine the torch at it.

Sandeep: It’s still there. It’s not a good sign that we are pointing a light at it’s face and talking but it’s not scared of us.

Diya: Well, if it’s small enough to burrow and it isn’t scared of us then it’s probably not going to attack.

Sandeep: Do you know that?

Diya: No.

Sandeep: You’re always rationalizing everything. It is not normal for an animal to be around us for so long.

Diya: You’re always paranoid. What do you know about normalcy and animals? Anyway, I still think it’s a grazing horse.

Sandeep: Then why is it burrowing under my head?

This goes on for about an hour while we each accuse each other of being too paranoid and too laid back…

Diya: Listen, if it’s been here for an hour and hasn’t attacked then I am sure it’s not going to. Anyway, the only wild animal here is a snow leopard. But I don’t think snow leopards graze.

Sandeep: Snow leopard? That’s not good. Not good at all.

Diya: Ok, let’s call Thupten (our guide). We’re not getting any sleep.

Sandeep and Diya: Thupten. Thupten! THUPTENNNNNN!!!

Thupten (sounding startled): Yes? Wait, wait. What is it? Are you sick?

Sandeep: Yes, but that’s not why we called you. There is a wild animal here.

Thupten: Inside the tent?

Sandeep: No, outside. Behind our heads I think.

Diya: It’s a horse.

Thupten: There is no wild animal here.

Diya: Is there a horse?

Thupten: No. Are you sure it’s not the wind?


more silence

Sandeep: Huh. Maybe.

Diya: I don’t think it’s the wind. It sounded like it was grazing.

Sandeep: No, it was burrowing.

Thupten rustles our tent cover, which was hardened with ice. Sure enough, it sounds like an animal moving about. He kicked the mat behind our heads and it definitely sounds like an animal burrowing.

Sandeep and Diya: Sorry Thupten.

Sandeep: We’re from the city. We don’t know anything about animals or sleeping in tents.

By this time we were almost at our 4 A.M. wake up to view the sunrise over the mountain range. Sandeep and I stayed up, agreeing we need to work on our outdoorsy skills.


Filed under Animals, India

Family Holiday Mishigas

We’re in Goa, India, at my parents’ idyllic retirement abode.

The holidays are meant to be a time for family. For some of us, this means spending time with family we don’t necessarily like.

Meet Marcus Aurelius Brutus. My parents’ Boxer – Dalmatian child.

My family, as in the one I was born to, adores dogs. So I shocked even myself when I married a man who is a dog-o-phobe. And I’m embarrassed to have created offspring who don’t go ga-ga over every puppy.

The only reason our family had our dog, Chaiya, was that Sandeep agreed to adopt her in a moment of weakness (I had recently found out I had MS and he was willing to do anything to make me feel better). Chaiya was old – she didn’t bark, lick, or jump. She was obsessed with me and ignored anyone else, which suited the entire family just fine.

Marcus is everything Chaiya was not. He’s full of affection for anyone that crosses his path. Unfortunately, his Boxer strength and Dalmatian energy betray him. His displays of affection have broken an ankle, shattered a glass door and torn several pieces of clothing. His eagerness to defend the property was proven when he killed a four foot rat snake.

This has led to plenty of mishigas at the Malarkar – Luke household. If Kayan so much as sees Marcus he screeches and cries, which sends Marcus into an excited frenzy, which sends Sandeep running out of the room, which panics Ava, which upsets my parents who just want their family happily together.

I suppose like all families that have been apart for a while, or have new family members added, it take time to get used to each other. For now, Marcus, Sandeep and the kids continue their games of hide and seek around the house.


Filed under Animals, India

Eating Our Way Through Penang

We came to Penang to eat. There is no more profound reason that we chose to spend 10 days here other than to eat as much as we can of as many dishes as possible.

Penang’s colonial history and geography have made it a fabric of cultures from all over Asia and Europe. In addition to the Malays, the Chinese and Indians make up the majority of the population. Each of those cultures have fabulous food in their own right, but the fusion of their co-existence for centuries in Penang makes for some very special meals.

We can see the floating mosque, Masjid Terapung, from our new home and decided to take a walk there and pick up dinner along the way. The floating mosque was built after the 2004 tsunami destroyed a nearby mosque and village, and the residents of our neighborhood, Tanjung Bungah are very proud of its existance.

We came across Kafe Tsunami Village. The restaurant was packed with people focused on picking through fish bones and dining family style. Right on the water, with a view of the lighted mosque, it seemed too good to pass up.

The kids immediately took to playing in the sand and making friends. Our only worry was whether any of the 20 or so cats lingering outside the kitchen were rabid. I was verbally wondering why there would be so many cats when Sandeep (not the animal lover) disgustingly replied “cat’s like fish bones.”

We thought the fruit drinks in Chiang Mai were fresh, but Penang takes liquid fruit to another level. The green apple juice is frothy perfection, watermelon juice tastes like a summer picnic and the lemon water strikes the perfect balance between sweet and tart. Ava decided she couldn’t choose.

We had no idea what the menu said, even though it was in English, so we took our server’s suggestions and the food was fabulous.

These little guys were fried to a crisp and we consumed them skeleton and all. I’m usually squeamish about whole fish, but these were just too good.

The fried shrimp came in a crispy batter, which was delicious topped over the crab fried rice.

Most of the prices on the menu simply said ‘market’ and we weren’t sure how much we’d have to cough up. The bill came to 69 Ringgit, or 23 US Dollars. It’s a shock compared to Chiang Mai, but oh so worth it.

The weather report for the our 10 days here says 60% chance of precipitation. We couldn’t figure out why since our first day had been perfectly sunny and dry. On our 20 minute walk back home we were introduced to the tropical night storm. Rain drops as fat as the lemons in my juice accompanied us all the way home. The bright side is that the kids needed a shower after their sand exploration, so we were able to multi-task on the way. Kayan even decided to hydrate himself. Here are the soaking kids in the elevator home.

Over the next several days, we’ll be sampling Penang’s hawkers, or street foods. I’ve been told that the best cooking classes in Penang are the ones observed over a Hawker stall. Stay tuned.


Filed under Animals, Food, Malaysia

Elephant Lessons in Chiang Mai

Elephants are revered in Thai culture as symbols of royal power and spiritual features. They have also been exploited and neglected in many ways. When Thailand banned logging in 1989, thousands of logging elephants found themselves out of jobs and unable to return to the wild. Their upkeep proved too expensive and many were abandoned or neglected. Some ended up begging with handlers on the streets of cities such as Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Elephants faced abuse at the hands of inexperienced handlers who saw them only as a sources of income. Many elephants lucky enough to remain wild were poached or killed for infringing on precious crop land.

At the turn of the century there were an estimated 100,000 elephants in Thailand. Today that number is about 3,000. We spent the day with 36 of them at one of the many elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai. We chose Elephant Nature Park because it seemed intent to offer elephants the most natural habitat possible, and stayed away from forced shows such as elephant painting and elephant soccer.

Our day was spent feeding, bathing and generally observing the elephants.

The most lasting impacts, however, were what the elephants taught us about our own nature.

Friendship. At the park, we were lucky to meet an Australian gentleman who provided the funds to buy elephant Mae Tee’s freedom from a logging camp. He told us that Mae Tee had been addicted to methamphetamines, which were given to make her more productive. The drugs caused calcification in her joints and she is unable to sit or lie down. While many elephants sleep standing up, the inability to lie down for years has ulcerated her feet. Another elephant in the park, Mae Kham Geao, befriended Mae Tee and the two of them are now inseparable. Mae Tee has to stay by the park clinic to care for her ulcerated feet. Mae Kham Geao did not leave her side for the entire day we were there. We were told that since befriending Mae Tee, Mae Kham Geao hasn’t sat or laid down. That was over two years ago. I wish I could honestly say that I would stand in solidarity with a friend like that.

Family. We observed a family of seven elephants – two babies and five grown females. Wherever they went, their bodies moved together as if in one giant tangled knot of limbs, trunks and tails. During feeding time, a fifteen month old baby slid on mud and let out a long trumpeting sound. Within seconds, the other six members of the family sprang into a tight circle of protection around the toddler. Most of the members of this family are not biologically related. Yet, in the park, they have formed the bond of a loyal family. Watching this group rekindled our appreciation for family, whether the one we are born with or the ones we form along the way.

Endurance. Jokia is a 40ish year old elephant who used to work as a logging elephant. After the logging ban, she was passed onto abusive owners.  Handlers tried to beat her into submission. She lost a pregnancy. In the end, abuse caused her to lose sight in both eyes. At the park, her elephant friend, Mae Perm, guides Jokia around. Despite her past, Jokia is leading as close to a normal elephant life as possible.

When we left New York City, I put my wedding and engagement rings in the safe deposit box and have been wearing the ring Sandeep gave me a year after we started dating. It’s an elephant hair supported by a thin metal band. In Kerala, India, elephant hairs are considered protective. Given the ring’s low monetary value, it’s been serving as my wedding ring on this trip. Until today, when I was up close and personal with thick elephant hair, I was convinced that the black was plastic.

Working elephants were ubiquitous in Sandeep’s youth and I’ve seen many, so our reason for visiting them today was nothing more profound than having another way to explore the area around Chiang Mai. We did not expect to walk away with such a deep sense of connection and appreciation for these creatures. Elephants predate humans by millions of years. Their evolutionary line goes back to when dinosaurs roamed our earth. They deserve our respect. Apart from what they taught us today, they made me place a lot more value on my new wedding ring.


Filed under Animals, Thailand

Earning our Dinner in Chiang Mai

Following our afternoon at the Chiang Mai Zoo, we ventured on foot to a restaurant that seemed to be adjacent to the alternate zoo exit on our Nancy Chandler Map. I love this map. With it’s details and annotations, it’s become my all in one guidebook to Chiang Mai. I am so full of love for this map, that I underestimated the disclaimer on the legend that reads “This scale is approximate only. We consider content more important than 100% adherence to scale.”

Finding the  alternate zoo exit was a challenge in itself. After the hyenas, the only sign we saw was a wooden board than read “Tropical Forest.” That was not an exhibit. We were in the tropical forest surrounding Chiang Mai. By this time it was dusk and I did not want to be stuck in a zoo in a forest with toddlers as bait.  After several minutes of complete solitude a motorbike passed and then made a U-turn. The concerned rider came back to ask if we needed help. “Yes!” The four of us seemed to exclaim in unison. “Do you know the way to Palaad Tawanron restaurant?” She assured us that it was 1 km away, to the right of the zoo exit.

We walked uphill for what seemed like 1 km, by which time it was getting darker. We finally found the zoo exit. The watchman was as surprised as the motorcyclist to see a family on foot. Once he knew our destination, he told us that we were 1 km away.

At this point we saw signs for the restaurant, which should have been assuring, except this is where they told us to go.

Sandeep carried Ava up the steep and windy hills while I pushed Kayan’s chubby body up in the stroller. And just when I had convinced myself that the worst that could happen is we spend the night in the forest eaten by mosquitoes, we came face to face with a very large and very angry looking wild mountain goat. Sorry, no picture. I was in full panic by now.

The goat ambled on his way while I fought  thoughts of him being followed by the Wild Africa exhibit. Another motorcyclist passed us and asked if we needed help. “Yes!” We panted. We explained. “Only 1 km.” With that, he sped off.

And then I saw the light. Quite literally.

We’d never been so happy to find a restaurant. The view was spectacular and the food very satisfying after our adventure. We ordered the house special fried pork leg, which was really an entire pork leg. We thought we’d never get through it, but were famished from our ‘trek’. Even the kids ate everything, including their vegetables.

If you get a chance to go to the Chiang Mai Zoo, go. It’s set on expansive grounds in the hills west of the city. The kids enjoyed the many parks and Kayan even fed an elephant for the first time.

If you go to the zoo, do make the trip to Palaad Tawanron. Just know that it is not as close as your map may say. Anyone who tells you it’s 1 km is using that as some bizarre figure of speech. And it’s all uphill. If you trek it, you will have earned your meal. That is if you escape the wild animals on the way.


Filed under Animals, Food, Thailand

Dogs in Chiang Mai

When we first told Ava we were going to Chiang Mai, her eyes lit up with excitement. Then I heard her telling a friend that she was going to see Chaiya My.

Chaiya was our beloved family dog who passed away in August. Ava used to call her Chaiya My. It took some explaining (and choking back tears on my part) that Chaiya is still in heaven, not Chiang Mai.

We have had no shortage of doggy friends in Chiang Mai. In most developing countries, the stray dogs look like scraggly road terriers. A pale brown color, pointy noses, and forlorn expressions. Here, the dogs all look like purebreds. Even though they don’t live in a home, they seem to ‘belong’ to a store, a hotel, a temple, even a cart. Here are a few cuties that were willing to pose.

And this is the one that belongs to our apartment building.

For the dogs who are even more fortunate, here is our local grooming spa.

And here is the price list. 30B = $1. I can tell you it cost us about 30 times this to groom Chaiya in New York City. Hot oil treatment? Can I get one of those?

But don’t get too close.

Despite it all, we still miss our Chaiya My, even in Chiang Mai.

To learn about dogs displaced by the recent flooding in Thailand, go here.

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Filed under Animals, Thailand