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Asia’s Zoos

IMG_4274Much like Singapore, whose name “Singapura” meant “Lion City” after a Sumatran prince saw a lion-like creature upon landing on its shores, Surabaya is also a place that got its name in reference to some animal. For Surabaya, it’s actually two – “Sura” from “shark” and “buwaya”, the crocodile. Some ancient Javanese myth had these two creatures fighting over the territory, so the story goes. As such, a giant sculpture of a shark and a crocodile in deadly combat grace the entrance of one of Asia’s biggest, and oldest zoos located in Eastern Java.

I had always made it a point to put local zoos on my list of tourist attractions to visit during my travels abroad. I already got to visit the Singapore Zoo and Night Safari in July 2006 after attending a Legal Pluralism conference. In August 2006, I went on a month-long Applied Study Program on Sexual Diversity in Indonesia. While my first time in Java in June 2006 mainly kept me in the Western area of Jakarta and Depok, this 28-day training would bring me to Surabaya which was in East Java. Besides being known as a popular international port area and playing a significant role in the independence of Indonesia from the Dutch, Surabaya also had the honor of having a historically significant zoo.

Established back when the European Colonials still lorded over much of Asia, it was meant to have the most extensive collection of animals in Indonesia. Because it is already old, some of the cages and animal’s living spaces still seemed cramped compared to most modern-day zoos. But the actual area the zoo covered was one of the largest I’ve ever seen and my legs ached from walking the distance from one enclosure to another.

Surabaya Zoo had the usual “large” animals – elephants, giraffes, zebras, camels, ostriches, a couple of lions, some tigers, a cheetah, Malaysian Sun Bears, as well as some gorillas and monkeys. But there were at least two creatures I needed to see because they were indigenous to Indonesia; and that was the orangutan from Borneo, and the Komodo Dragon from Papua.

Orangutans were said to be even smarter than gorillas and could communicate with humans better. They had facial expressions and their hands can grasp you like a real person. But the adult orangutan I saw looked so depressed and turned away as we approached to view it. Komodo Dragons, on the other hand, are notorious “meat-eaters” that will not spare humans if given the chance. Their bites are lethal because their saliva is full of bacteria that can cause infections on a wound. If you don’t get eaten right away by a “pack” of dragons, you can probably walk away but you won’t have much time left. The Komodo Dragon is a “patient” predator and will wait until you get so weak, you can’t fight it off anymore as it begins to feast on your flesh.

A few years later, after having visited our own Avilon Zoo in Rizal, I would say it was the only local zoo that could rival its foreign counterparts both in size and its menagerie of animals. It was only in Avilon that I got to see the Malaysian tapir, a capybara, an Australian wallaby, a meerkat, a gibbon, and an Indonesian fresh-water crocodile with a very narrow snout.

Like all modern zoos, it considered bigger spaces for the animals. Instead of steel bars and wire fences all the time, deep moats were built around their living areas to separate the animals from the viewing public. At least, this gives the animals a less “claustrophobic” environment. There are also more of those “petting zoo” features which Manila Zoo also offers. At the ponds, you can throw the “giant” Amazon river fishes some raw chicken heads and watch them scramble for the food. You can also feed the gibbons and orangutans by throwing them a few bananas over the moat. You can have a hawk and a falcon perch on you. You can hold the boas and pythons and have your picture taken. You can even have a photo with a “smiling” orangutan named “Trixie”.

For the long drive outside Metro Manila via the San Mateo national road, Avilon Zoo is worth the trip, even with the rather “pricey” entrance fee. For kids who have seen Manila Zoo, the Ninoy Aquino Parks and Wildlife, and even the Malabon Zoo, Avilon would be quite a treat.

Speaking of “petting zoos” and safaris, the Philippines already has many to boast about such as Subic’s (Zoobic) safari. Yet it is ironic that I saw my first safari in another country, particularly the Night Safari in Singapore. After a women’s rights follow-up training in Bandung in 2007, my good friend and officemate, Atty. Dash and I decided to stay awhile in Indonesia and do a little more sight-seeing. Through her distant relative based in Jakarta, we got to visit Bogor’s famous safari.

Bogor is just outside Jakarta, and like Bandung, it’s slightly elevated location gives it a rather cool atmosphere much like Tagaytay. Bogor’s highly popular safari allows you to bring your own vehicles to the track, and you can get close enough to actually feed the animals from your car windows. But given the dirt roads you must traverse, it is advisable that you bring a four-wheel drive. You can also purchase some fruits and vegetables from the vendors lining the road right before the entrance. Hawking their wares, they remind you that you need something to feed the animals with.

It’s quite amazing seeing these animals approach the vehicles and “demand” to be fed. The singular experience of actually having wild animals such as zebras, impalas and gazelles eat “right off your hand” is incomparable. Sometimes they even continue following the cars to ask for food. However, at the enclosure for the “big cats”, we were advised to keep our windows closed and not get out of our vehicles. A gamekeeper armed with a tranquilizer gun is on stand-by and sat in his own jeep a few feet from the animals. An adult tiger cut in front of our vehicle, simply taking its time in crossing the road, as lions lounge away at their treehouse. Seeing them up close like this was indeed a little scary considering their size and strength. Bogor will always be my “ultimate” safari experience!

At my age, I am still quite fascinated by zoos and the animals one can see there. Wherever I go, zoos and safaris will always be on my itinerary. That’s why I can never forgive myself for missing out on the Giant Panda Bear at the Beijing Zoo in May 2007. Oh well…maybe next time.

Singaporean Sojourn

PIC42006 was an exceptionally difficult year for me, and I was only momentarily distracted from my pains by the occasional trips that came my way via international trainings. The first of these was in June through a legal pluralism conference in Indonesia. An old friend who worked in the field of alternative lawyering had regularly heard about it, but this was the first time that “gendered perspectives in law” was to be an actual panel. We both threw our hats in, sending abstracts in the area of sexual orientation law. When our acceptance letters arrived, they even came with a full scholarship. Our plane fare, accommodations and lodgings were to be fully sponsored and reimbursed!

I was both excited and afraid. It had been more than a decade since I last traveled outside the country – at least 15 years in fact. And there would be some plane transfers during a stopover in Singapore. Of course that shouldn’t be a problem since I could read and speak English, but I was really, really poor in navigation and in getting directions. Plus, I would be traveling all alone this time. My friend was also accepted to a special pre-conference training and would be leaving ahead of me. I was following him to Indonesia two days later.

My problems were slightly eased when the office allowed me to go “on official time” to this international conference. Hence, I got to have an official (red) passport and free travel tax at the airport. But I had to get tips from my stewardess sister about other airport decorum – immigration requirements, terminal fees and check-in procedures especially for baggage. The tedious security checks and other pre-departure rituals seemed simple enough until I got into my seat on the plane. On the flight, all I had to deal with was airline food and the claustrophobia-inducing toilet.

The minute we landed in Singapore, I knew I was on another planet. It was too clean and orderly. And the airport was HUGE! Changi airport was really one of those terminals where you can actually set up residence. Besides the many restaurants, shops, lounging areas with cable TV and movies, there were massage chairs for weary travelers, free internet service for the extremely busy and even a gym with a shower room for those with enough time to kill. All this I learned from the map I got from the information booths. I mean, I am just in the airport and I already need a map? I haven’t even been outside the terminal to see the rest of Singapore!

While I was thoroughly amused by the different indoor gardens they had set up for a little “natural and outdoorsy” atmosphere (there was a cactus, orchid, and fern garden), I began to realize that such a big space would also mean longer walks to farther departure areas. Of course, they already made this easier by providing “walka-lators” (the horizontal equivalent of escalators) for passengers en route to their departure gates. I had seen, and used, one these before in Kai Tak airport in Hong Kong and thought they were just for the elderly or the extremely lazy. But in Singapore’s Changi airport, one would be smart to take advantage of this contraption.

As if that wasn’t enough to awe me, I was instructed to ride the “train” for the other terminal where I was supposed to get my connecting flight. Take note, it wasn’t a bus or a shuttle, but a high-speed train on a real railway system connecting the two terminals. I walked, got on the “walka-lators”, tried both the stairs and elevators, before finally boarding the train which will take me to the other terminal.

Eventually, I managed to get on my flight for Jakarta. I was somehow comforted by the thought that on the way back, I would be traveling with my old friend, Gary, and meeting up with my Mom and stewardess sister in Singapore. Problem was, my Mom and sister had booked flights and accommodations already, while my friend and I only had our return tickets via Jakarta-Singapore-Manila with delayed flights. But we were assured there were many backpacker hostels and really cheap bed-and-breakfasts in Singapore.

Three days of the conference passed like a blur to me. From Jakarta international airport, we were whisked by our student guides to Depok, an area just outside the capital. We were cooped up at the University of Indonesia (UI) campus both for the conference and lodgings, so I didn’t really get to see much, although it did remind me a lot about my own alma mater, the University of the Philippines in Los Banos. And except for a quick pasalubong shopping spree in one of Jakarta’s biggest malls, that was as much of Indonesian culture that I was able to soak up at the time.

Meanwhile, my stewardess sister, Giselle was already preparing to visit Sentosa Island. Unbeknownst to us, my Mom had her own contacts in Singapore and was also making plans to see them. Besides shopping, our mother had a mind to visit some friends from our parish.

Gary and I arrived in Singapore late in the evening and discovered the free airport shuttle only drops off travelers near the big hotels like Raffles. Since we also didn’t realize it was the Singapore Holiday Shopping Spree week, the really cheap places were all fully-booked. Fortunately, the lady at the airport information desk was really helpful and found us reasonable lodgings for our limited budget. Interestingly, it was in the red light district.

So the adventurous spirit in Gary and me kicked in; we believed it won’t be so bad. It would mean the area would be still alive and kicking even in the late night. And given its 24-hour nature, surely there would be some really cheap eating establishments as well.

True enough, the streets were still littered with people when we arrived past midnight. At the reception, we saw couples coming and going, alighting and boarding the elevators to the privacy of their rooms. Once, a pair of Asian-looking girls came in, looked at us and started talking in Tagalog. “Sige na, kunin mo na yung isa o…”, the older one said, gesturing at poor old Gary. It was then we realized the truth behind the rumors about domestics in Singapore moonlighting in the skin trade on their days-off. I was both saddened and shamed by the hard realities of daily life of fellow Filipinos abroad.

The next day, we rode the famous inner-city trains and got a view of the rest of Singapore. We met up with my family at their swanky hotel beside a nice park. Even with the clear use of infrastructure and industry by the Singaporean government, they were equally deliberate about keeping some “green space”. Besides the parks and gardens intentionally inserted within housing and business areas, street pavements were lined with trees and shrubs to maintain that “environmental” look.

I realized that for such order and cleanliness to have been possible, the Singaporeans would have to be so “disciplined” as a people. That wouldn’t be so difficult in a country where autocracy and dictatorship was a by-word for many years. They can even attribute their apparent economic success to that kind of leadership as well.

There were at least three things we needed to see in Singapore – the aquarium, the zoo and the botanical garden. We took a cab for Sentosa and rode the free tour bus around the island. First stop was the famed Underwater World which rivaled Hong Kong’s own Ocean Park aquaria. But while Ocean Park had ceiling to floor glass windows to view the various sea creatures (at least that was what I saw in 1990), Singapore’s Underwater World actually features a long glass tube where tourists are moved by a walkalator to view various fishes and sea mammals swimming above and around. Their collection of water animals was also quite extensive, including sea horses, jellyfishes, squids, cuttlefish and other crustaceans. My Giselle, who used to dream about becoming a marine biologist, absolutely loved it and was in complete awe. Last time I saw her get so excited was when we went to Bais City, Negros Oriental in 2005 and she saw live dolphins. My Mom, on the other hand, was quite fixated on the deep-sea, spider-like Giant Crab. As she stared lustily after it, I knew other things were on her mind since crabs were her favorite seafood after all.

The nearest attraction after the aquarium was Fort Siloso. Much like our Corregidor Island, Singapore’s Sentosa Island played quite a role during the Second World War. At Fort Siloso are remnants of the old encampment, it’s guns and cannons, and look-out towers. Inside are various photos of World War II as it happened in the Asian region – the battling Japanese and American soldiers, the European and Asian civilians caught in the crossfire and imprisoned in the underground tunnels, the ships and aircraft carriers that dominated these waters. There is even a life-size diorama of how the Japanese Navy surrendered to the joint Allied Command that retook Singapore and other Pacific islands. Although it was quite interesting to know about such historical facts, it was too much like our own Corregidor for anything else to impress us.

Somewhere along the way, we got that token visit and photo session with the Merlion and the Carlsberg Tower before Mama started acting up because she was already getting tired. She insisted we take a taxi back to the city proper instead of the cable car or the shuttle bus. Fortunately, Giselle and I were still in high spirits and we managed to visit the Botanical Gardens. Being graduates of UP Los Banos, we greatly appreciated the “nature trek” through the gardens which had a great display of orchids and other ornamental plants, as well as the herb and spice gardens which featured “basic” ginger, garlic, and onions, as well as basil, oregano, sage, tarragon, rosemary and thyme. The Botanical Gardens covered a great area and except for a few photos and a walk by the lagoon, we had to rush off to see Singapore’s famed zoo. Since it was along way off, we got there pretty late and missed the last tour.

By some happy coincidence, however, we were right on time for the Night Safari. Much like our own Subic (Zoobic) Safari, there was a ride that allowed you to get close enough to the animals, provided one did not get off the vehicle. The Night Safari of course featured most nocturnal animals, and once more Giselle got so excited. There were some big cats and predatory birds, like that panther which flashed its eyes at us as we passed by, and that big owl swooping down on a small rodent that will serve as its meal. Meanwhile, we also caught some animals during their feeding time and watched them drink from their waterholes.

By the time we finished, we weren’t very interested in the cultural show that followed and simply wanted to go back to our hotels to rest. Giselle finally caught up with Mama at their hotel after dinner, since Mama had finished visiting her own parish friends. On the train, I was already falling asleep on my feet, so Gary left me at our humble accommodations to do some “Singapore nightlife” by himself. I spared myself that since we had an early flight back for Manila the next day.

Indeed it was a hurried, and harried, tour of Singapore after all. But it had served its purpose well – some international traveling and quality time with my Mom and sister. And for a moment, I was taken away from the realities of my troubles. It was a “sojourn” in every sense of the word.