Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Bird is the Word
Longtime SZ Zen readers may recognize this week's Standard column as recycled material. It's been beefed up with some additional details, however, and may prove worth the read even if you've seen it before. Or maybe not.
So, there I was sitting on a street corner in Guangzhou in the 35-degree Celsius, quadzillion percent humidity, sucking up exhaust fumes with a Chinese newspaper-wrapped blue plastic cage stuffed with eight fledging supposedly-rare birds on my lap.
Just another day in China, I thought. Animal smuggling and heat stroke.
Chirp, chirp, replied the allegedly endangered myna birds, which at that point were more at risk from dying of C02 poisoning than anything me or my Chinese pal, Simon, would do with them. Actually, they were for Simon's reclusive, bird-obsessed foreign wife back in Shenzhen, a woman I'd met briefly only once.
Simon, who held another wrapped cage 'o covert fledglings in one hand while trying to hail a taxi with other, is a grudgingly devoted spouse. He's a fellow who would rather have a drunken chimpanzee perform an appendectomy on him with a rusty spoon than say `I love you' or give her flowers for no reason, but he was eager get out of their apartment for the day to fulfill her request for endangered species delivery. His spouse apparently fancied herself as a lone wolf amateur conservationist -- a quasi-Jane Goodall of birds -- and had fixated on the notion that this Guangzhou market had a stash of endangered Bali mynah birds, of which there are only about 900 in captivity. Her madcap plan was to get as many as possible, raise them in their apartment and then either donate them to a sanctuary or free them. They would join two herons that Simon had previously ``rescued'' and were occupying an extra bedroom and generally stinking up the entire flat.
Simon, who privately admitted that there were, yes, holes in her scheme that you could drive a bus through and never tired of complaining to me about how their place smells like a combination chicken coop-fish market, is also a go-along, get-along kind of a guy.
``Yes,'' he said. ``Maybe she is a little crazy. Maybe I am, too. But it is our fate.''
I'm an avian ignoramus but I had my doubts about what he'd actually purchased. A cursory Internet check for pictures of Bali mynahs I'd made prior to our departure was successful but showed that the real deal is white with black tipped wings and tails. Our 16 were more or less sold brown. Bali mynahs also sell on the bird black market for about US$2,000. Simon's had cost about 12 yuan apiece. Niggling details, but perhaps these were endangered species knockoffs, just like the DVDS, Rolex's and Gucci handbags also on sale at the market. It had taken us two hours by bus and another 30 minutes on a subway until we found the Endangered Species Outdoor Market. There appeared to be some authentic rarities. I spotted one bedraggled caged eagle and some parrots perhaps smuggled from South America or Africa. It also included a small ocean of fish, some scorpions, a slew of dogs and a tarantula or two.
It was either a World Wildlife Fund nightmare or a mainland PETsMART, minus the air conditioning and ambience, but it was worth the trip if you like squalor and enjoy watching a woman pick up scorpions by their claws and place them on her arms and shoulders to show off the merchandise.
After buying the birds and we'd considered returning to Shenzhen using the same methods as we'd come to Goughzou, but it seemed the subway cops didn't look favorably on transporting live animals -- endangered or not -- and Simon didn't want to risk that leg of the journey.
There'd also been a series of those universal no-nos signs on the subway that, due to the poor and puzzling graphics, to me appeared to ban otherwise popular subway riding activities such as projectile vomiting, crucificifixions and cats having sex with dogs. There was nothing about crucifying Bali mynas that were projectile vomiting and having sex with dogs or cats, but we weren't going to risk it.
A taxi was found and the next stop was a bus terminal where Simon decided to use the foreign barbarian curiousity factor as a diversion to get the two cages past the dozing guard at an X-ray scanner that appeared to have last seen use during the break-up of the Soviet Union.
``You put my backpack through and talk to the guard. She won't understand, but it's okay. It's okay. I will go behind you and with the birds pass her very fast.''
So I tossed Simon's backpack on the conveyor belt and made eye contact with the uncomprehending guard and began my spiel.
``See nothing of note up my sleeve! Or in my backpack. And please ignore that guy slipping behind me with two cages full of rare birds! He's harmless. They're harmless and his wife promises to give them better care than the wretches he bought them from at a ridiculously low price. Did you know you can buy a Bali myna here for less than a bottle of beer?''
She smiled and shrugged.
The belt wheezed and belched out the back-pack.
I vaguely heard ``cheep, cheep'' as Simon slithered through on his way toward the buses, cages still in his hands.
I grabbed the pack. ``Thanks! Gotta run!''
We made it to the bus where the attendants seemed to think nothing of a guy hauling two parcels of bird sound effects on board.
The next obstacle was at a checkpoint between Shenzhen and The Rest of the Province where a People's Liberation Army guy who appeared to be all of 14-years-old climbed on the bus to scrutinize IDs and passes needed to enter Shenzhen.
After throwing about six people off -- two of whom was a couple with no IDs -- he studied my passport as if he could read it and then gave Simon's particulars a once over. Meanwhile the birds sang on, something that made me tense. Simon only laughed after I said something about a ``close call'' and then watched the couple with no IDs climb back aboard, apparently after greasing a few palms during their brief interrogation.
``China is very funny, sometimes,'' he said. ``Some rules they ignore all the time. Sometimes only a few times. Not like the USA where everything is a law. We have laws, but nothing is real.''
Including, perhaps, the Bali mynahs.
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