Monday, March 29, 2010

Living With House Geckos - The Dark Side

With big, wide-set eyes, stubby little noses and adorable suctioned fingers, who wouldn't find the common house gecko insanely cute. In Tahiti they are omnipresent after dark, lingering on walls, munching pesky mosquitoes, stalking moths and making their soft monkey-with-hiccoughs calls. Many a tourist has become enamored of these seemingly peaceful critters and come home with a tattoo of one on their arm or derriere; ancient Polynesians included the small lizards in many legends.

But here's the truth: geckos have a dark side - a cavernous dark side. My love for them plummeted the moment I first saw a big gecko swallow a smaller one, the tail of the victim waving like a white flag until it disappeared down the bigger guy's gullet. I began to question my like for them when two fighting geckos fell on my face in the middle of the night while I was sleeping, scaring the living daylights out of me and smearing me with mushy battered lizard skin. Cleaning house I began to realize that the majority of the crud on the floor and windowsills is gecko poo. It's commonplace here to have gecko crap fall from the ceiling right into your drink or onto your forehead while watching a movie. Gecko pee pretty much sucks too - it's just a slight dribble that always lands on you as a surprise till you look up and see where it came from. I swear geckos get enjoyment out of their spectacular long-distance aim; I hear them laughing on the ceiling with their funny monkey chuckle.

The worst is what they do to appliances. Geckos have ruined several of my printers by climbing into them and dying. By the time they start to stink (and you'd be surprised how bad one little dead lizard can smell) the machine is jammed up beyond repair. Once a gecko climbed into our air-con unit and died, like geckos do, and we couldn't find the damned thing. We had to suffer stink in the office for a good two weeks. Luckily, the gecko eventually decomposed in the dry pumped out air and the air-con unit survived.

Sometimes I'll casually pull out a book from my bookshelf and a gecko springs out wildly into my lap. This wouldn't be so bad except that the friction of the book has usually removed most of the skin from the gecko's back, which makes him look like some raw, Golum-like beast. They get in the cereal, eat the tops off my ripe bananas and knock stuff over while we're sleeping and wake us up.

It sounds like I must hate geckos by now but really I don't. I admit to enjoying it more than I should when the cat catches them, but overall I think the guys have spunk. It's enthralling watching them hunt bugs (or each other), moving so slowly it's imperceptible except for their tails that swirl like a lion's on the prowl. I like that they can still throw off the cat with the 'ole eject-the-tail trick and I appreciate that they eat so many insects. Every now and then I find a tiny baby gecko and think he's so cute that I try to save him from the harsh gecko world by moving him to a spot in the house where I know the big guys, who would want to eat him, don't hang out. Yes, geckos are a pain but they are also a constant source of entertainment and give our household more depth of character. We have spent many an evening getting entertained by the cat trying to jump up the walls to catch them. My son has raised geckos in a giant fish tank, has incubated their eggs and it's become a nightime family sport to scamper around lightbulbs catching bugs for our reptilian pets.

To close, here's my favorite gecko love story via a Thai commercial for ceiling boards - you might need a hanky.

The opening gecko photo on this post is by my talented photographer friend Vincent Devert

Monday, March 22, 2010

Frog Spotting in Suriname

Do you see him? I'll give you a hint he's slightly left of center and looks exactly like the jungle floor he's sitting on. I have no idea how I found this expertly camouflaged guy as I was tromping through Brownsberg Nature Reserve in Suriname. I do love frogs and always keep an eye out for them but I think this beauty represents my best eagle-eyed effort. The most specific name I could find for this critter is "leaf frog."

Brownsberg is about 100 km south of Suriname's capital city Paramaribo. I was only able to visit the preserve on a day trip but it was well-worth the drive with its endless deep-Amazon jungle walks and views over Brokopondo Reservoir. You can also stay over-night in the park in huts or dorms, which looked clean, comfortable and made me wish I could have stayed longer.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Jumping Off a Cliff in a Tunisian Oasis

Mid-July heat in the Sahara is enough to make anyone want to jump off a 10-meter high cliff.

This desert oasis is just south of the village of Tamerza, a few hours drive from the oasis town of Tozeur. There are several surreally lush pockets like this scattered throughout the area and we'd invariably find them deserted save a few local kids swimming and some sleeping vendors. But then tour buses would come through, 40 or so tourists would meander around for about 20 minutes, more vendors would appear out of nowhere then everyone would leave and we'd have the places to ourselves again.

These local kids practice their jumping when no one is around then get tourists to pay them to jump when the tour buses are in. We watched a few scared kids jump for the first time during the quieter moments, getting nudged on by their older brothers. The water here was skin-piercing cold. It was wonderful. I didn't jump (I'm actually in this picture on the shore near my kids) but my husband Josh did.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Photo of the Week: Ua Huka, Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia

Dried coconut meat, also called copra, makes the world go round on nearly all of French Polynesia's outer islands. Coconuts are harvested off the ground in their ripest pre-germed stage, are cleaved in two with a machete then left out to dry in the sun. Next, the meat is extracted with a curved knife, called a pana in Tahitian, and the meat is dried again. This is the stage you see in this photo. Lastly, the coconut bits are stuffed in a sac, sold by weight to the local supply ships (known as "copra boats") and shipped to Papeete where the oil is extracted.

Ua Huka is one of the least visited islands in the Marquesas but it's my favorite. Lush valleys are concentrated with fruit trees (including over 20 species of mango) but the hills and coastal areas are open, grassy and decidedly wind-swept. I love that the locals let their copra dry out on the bare ground like this. On most islands people use elevated drying huts but everyone knows each other on Ua Huka and there's so much open space, why bother? There's a greater concentration of expert wood carvers on the island than anywhere else in the country, you can roam the hills on horse back looking for ancient pertoglyphs, fetch knotty tern eggs with the locals or search for the Marquesas-exclusive Ultramarine lorikeet, an electric blue beauty that's one of the world's rarest birds.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The World's Most Mysterious Flower: The Tiare Apetahi

When you see an extraordinary five-petaled Tiare Apatahi blossom rising out of it's bed of dagger shaped leaves, you immediately want to pick it. Or, if you're like me, you get the desperate urge to dig up the whole bush to bring home and plant in your yard. But you can't do either of these things. The Tiare Apetahi was nearly plucked to extinction and now it's heavily protected. Also, no matter how hard botanists and gardening freaks have tried, the plant simply won't grow anywhere except the tropical high slopes of Raiatea's Temehani Plateau. Today the unusual looking flower is the island's emblem.

Of the 182 plant species indigenous to French Polynesia, an amazing 26 of these only grow on the Temehani Plateau. Scientists have not yet understood what makes this area so biologically special or why certain plants like the Tiare Apetahi simply won't grow anywhere else. The plateau is regularly exposed to strong winds and heavy rains so it's a harsh environment for the region and not nearly as lush as the valleys. It's guessed there's something special about the soil or that there's some sort of rare fungus that the plants thrive on and can't live without, but nothing concrete has been discovered.

The only explanation of how the Tiare Apatahi came to grow on Raiatea's highest slope comes from Polynesian legend. Long ago, the beautiful Apetahi fled to the Temehani Plateau after a terrible argument with her husband after she discovered he had cheated on her. She was so sad she wanted to die. In her sorrow she dug a hole, cut off her hand and buried it. Soon after, she died from blood loss. Many years later some locals were out looking for bamboo and heard a strange sound. They followed the noise and came across a small plant that grew right where Apetahi had buried her hand. Immediately they saw the similarities between the delicate five-finger petals of the flower and the lovely hand of Apetahi. Tiare means flower in Tahitian so the flower was named Tiare Apetahi after the woman and her tragic story.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Photo of the Week: Bunaken Island Sulawesi, Indonesia

Bunaken Island off of Sulawesi, Indonesia is known for its world class diving, so I was expecting the diverse, thriving and colorful undersea world we found - what I didn't expect was the plethora of walking trails through friendly traditional villages and a gentle culture where Muslims and Christians live harmoniously together.

Everywhere we walked people would come up and say hello and maybe share a snack. No one was aggressively friendly like you find in some places in Indonesia; on Bunaken everyone was just downright pleasant. One sweet woman about my age walked with me for 45 minutes across the island and gave me a fabulous Indonesian lesson.

This photo was taken by Josh at the Christian graveyard in Bunaken Village - just down the road is the local mosque. While it looks like the boy is praying, he's actually flying a kite.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Surviving Dengue Fever

With all the natural disasters going on lately, I admit I'm feeling a bit dark. I promise I'll get back to colorful, fun, tropical stuff on Wednesday but today, two days after the tsunami siren woke me up at 4am, I'm still preparing for the worst. So today's post is about the joys of dengue fever! No, it's not something we like to think about, but it's certainly something we should be ready for.

I've had dengue fever three times, my husband has had it four times and both my kids have had it twice. Nearly everyone I know on Tahiti has had it - not surprising since WHO estimates that there are 100 million cases of dengue worldwide each year. Usually we don't worry about catching the virus since it comes in epidemics, but when we do start hearing about cases, especially in the neighborhood, out comes the tropical strength bug spray. Aedes mosquitoes that carry dengue bite mostly during the day and the mosquitoes get infected by biting a human with the virus. The incubation period is about a week.

Dengue is not subtle. One second you feel great, then a bit cold; within a half hour you have severe chills, feel extremely weak and know you are seriously ill. The fever rises rapidly and your head and entire body start to ache (this is why it's also called "break-bone fever"). At this point I curl up into a ball somewhere dark and just suffer for two to three days. TV sounds awful, your eyes hurt too much to read or even remain open and eating sounds like too much effort. Hopefully there is some caring person around to bring you liquids. My husband once had a horrible strain of dengue that included vomiting and diarrhea. During this particular outbreak the sick children and elderly were airlifted off the atoll (we were living on Ahe Atoll at the time) but my husband had to get through it with just a bucket and me, his loving wife. Luckily I didn't get it that time but I seriously thought he might die.

I've talked to doctors who believe that dengue is more dangerous than malaria, and many articles I've read concur, but once you get used to having it around, it's hard to think of it that way. We know what to look out for: if you start bruising for no reason it may have gone hemorrhagic and you need to get to a hospital; hemorrhagic fever is a potentially lethal complication that spawns from regular dengue. But otherwise, dengue is just something you have to wait out. Drink lots of liquids and take Tylenol for the fever but NEVER aspirin, which thins the blood and can also make the disease go hemorrhagic. Then there's the aftermath - a bunch of my hair usually falls out and once I got severely depressed for a month or so due to chemical imbalances created by the high fever. Dengue is something that requires recovery and I've never seen anyone just bounce right back to normal.

On a lighter note, here's a video from the Cambodian band Dengue Fever who, besides being awsome, have the best band name ever:


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