Headed to our place in Playa de Estero, Baja to get some writing done. The sequel to Almost Human is close to finished. More Than Human will continue the adventure of what happens when the lines between humans and apes are mysteriously blurred. I’m not sure when I will have connectivity so will be unplugged for awhile. That’s not such a bad thing sometimes.
There are certain events in our lives that, at the time, we may or may not realize how important or how defining they are. One such event happened with my first meeting with a chimpanzee named Dar. I was being interviewed as the linguistic research assistant on a very special project that was funded by […]
There are certain events in our lives that, at the time, we may or may not realize how important or how defining they are. One such event happened with my first meeting with a chimpanzee named Dar.
I was being interviewed as the linguistic research assistant on a very special project that was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and located at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR). This project was known as the Washoe Project and focused on teaching American Sign Language (ASL) to chimpanzees to determine if they were intelligent enough to possess language. I have to say, that on the flight up to interview, I was skeptical but as I was in need a position, I was willing to give it a chance.
Upon arrival, the interview began as expected but only at the beginning. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I was met at the airport and taken to the research compound south of town. The facility was a converted 1950 style dude ranch. It consisted of usual the array of research scientists, graduate students and student assistants scurrying around with clipboards in hand. But that was where the normalcy ended. I was ushered into a large, converted barn where researchers were exercising several chimpanzees of very ages and sizes. I say exercising but it looked more like wrestling and playing. The chimps were having a grand time swinging from ropes and tumbling in piles of hay. The place echoed with hoots and laughter.
After a while, I was escorted to large two-story ranch house that had been remodeled into the headquarters of the project. In a large reception area, I met the senior researchers, Drs. Alan and Beatrix Gardner. The interview went well and I was offered the job. I asked for a little time to decide which they understood and were agreeable to extend. This position would require me to relocate, leave my university to use my sociolinguistic skills in a very different and unusual context. I was encouraged to tour the compound on my own while I was deciding. In other words, they gave me free reign of the place.
I took a walk towards an apple orchard behind the main buildings. It was getting late as the interview had taken most of the day. There was a Fall chill in the air and all was quiet which was a marked contrast to all the bustling activity of the day.
As I made my way down a graveled lane between two buildings, the silence was broken by a series of hoots above me. To my surprise, I looked up to a chimp ambling down the roof towards me. The chimp swung effortlessly off the eves and dropped next to me. Startled, I stared into two deep, chestnut eyes. There was an intelligence in those eyes that was mesmerizing. Dar was a young adolescent with a broad white face accentuating two big floppy ears.
Before I could say or do anything, he signed, “Who You?”
Shocked, I gave my ASL name sign and asked, “Name?”
The chimp hooted and replied touching one of his big floppy ears. I later learned that was his name sign for “Dar”.
Dar panted and bounce up and down hardly containing himself and signed, “You, me, play, hide-n-seek?”
I looked around unsure that this was really happening. I was actually communicating with a species other than my own. I did what any researcher would have done and signed, “Who, it?”
Dar loudly hooted making a classic chimp, open play-face, and answered, “You, chase—me hide.” He bounded back on the roof and disappeared over the ridge.
This interchange only lasted a few seconds but it defined the direction of my life to this very day. I was, for the next several years, to spend every waking hour in the company of chimpanzees. In my novel, Almost Human, I have attempted to capture what that world looks like.
The vehicle of American Sign Language, allowed me to perceive the world through the wise eyes of a different species and I grew to be a better person as a result.
Last year, my good blogging friend, Dawnliz, posted some great insights on giving, or more importantly, the fact that we don’t give because of our fear of giving to “fake charities or cons.” This reminded me of an incident that happen on one of my adventures in the state of Chiapas, Mexico. I felt compelled to share this story during the holiday season.
Many years ago while motorcycling through Mexico toward the Guatemala border I came down with the famous intestinal malady know as Montezuma’s Revenge. I was incapacitated to say the least. I held up in a small pension slowly getting sicker. After several days the innkeeper, a kind lady, took pity on me and procured a doctor who sent me to a pharmacy just down the street.
I was weak, shivering from chills in spite of the tropical heat. I paid little attention to my surroundings as I fixated on my goal of reaching the pharmacist and the medicine that the doctor assured me would put me right. After a brief wait and a few pesos, I slowly made my way back towards the bed and toilet of my room. I really wasn’t sure I could negotiate the block or so on account of my light headiness and weakening body.
I had only made it a few steps when a campesino stopped me and asked for 38 pesos. My first reaction was to ignore him as I was in need a toilet and wasn’t sure I would make it back to my room. But there was something odd about him requesting an exact amount, 38 pesos. Further, there was an anxious strain in his voice that seemed urgent.
As I stopped to engaged the man, my mind ran the tape that he was coning me and that besides losing a few pesos I was going to lose something more embarrassing before I reached the toilet in my room. He told me he lived on a rancho near by and that his daughter had disenteria, dysentery. I decided that even if he was making this up, he had taken the time to put together a proper story that was filled wth emotion and even some technical words. In short, I decided he had earned the 38 pesos. I gave the man a 50 peso note. I was so intent on making it back to my room, I never noticed if he entered the pharmacy.
Over the next few days I was able to return to the world of solid foods and cold beer again. Finally, I felt ready to travel and gassed up my moto and began packing. I had all but forgotten the little Indian and his urgent request. Just as I was making ready to point my moto further south, the campesino came running down the narrow cobblestone street waving something in his hand. I immediately thought he was going to put the touch on me again and ready myself for a quick escape.
Something quit amazing happened instead. The little man handed me the change from the 50 pesos and insisted that I go with him to the Pharmacy. He almost dragged me there. It was there with has family waiting to greet me, I learned that his daughter was improving and that according to the Pharmacist the medicine had saved her life. I was stunned that the price of a lunch had saved a life.
I still have the picture of his family standing in front of tiny thatched house beside the river. I still carry the small medallion of Guadalupe his wife gave me in my tank bag. In this holiday season we can lose the spirit by worrying about who is deserving our kindness and who is not. In many villages down South, there is a belief that beggars provide us with the opportunity to follow Christ’s sentiment. That it is better to give than to receive, and that giving will bring us good fortune as we have done His work.
I know, in my travels throughout the world, it has for me.
Like many writers, I often wonder how much of an audience I am actually reaching. This is not surprising when you consider how lonely the endeavor the writing process can be. I feel this mostly in the quiet of the evening when I snap my laptop shut and let the scene and the characters retreat for awhile.
I was encouraged last Spring during an impromptu moto trip in Baja. Some of my friends were going to a remote cove on the Pacific side of the Baja peninsula to take advantage of some perfect, overhead surf. The Spring usually brings a swell that lines up just right and kicks up some huge waves. When this happens, my young friends drop everything and race down to the legendary surf spots of Baja.
After my friends called, I packed lightly and headed south on my BMW F 800 GSA adventure moto to be part of the gran adventura. The ride into the area they had set up camp consisted of a winding dirt trail that crossed the coastal mountains weaving through small settlements and ranchos. Recent rains complicated this ride with mud and wash outs but, overall, it was a typical run to the coast in Baja. Typical, until I accelerated out of a water crossing only to meet a drop off into a ravine where runoff had taken a whole section of the trail.
After picking up my bike and straightening the handle bars, I made my own trail and reached the cliffs overlooking the surf spot. It was amazing and well worth the ride in, as though you really need any reason to ride on two wheels. Huge waves kicked up on the off shore reefs creating perfect sets. I watched in awe as my friends streaked across the face of these racing giants. The juxtaposition between the power of the sea and agile but frail specks of the surfers curving across the face of the waves was mesmerizing. It was beautiful.
I parked my bike next to a small encampment of surfers and made my way down to the beach below to get a closer look. There were clusters of admirers sitting on the beach quietly watching. As I stood on the shore against the cliffs, I noticed a young woman crouched, cross-legged reading a book. It seemed odd to be nosed in a book with all the beauty and acrobatics just offshore. She looked up and briefly smiled at me and returned to her book. That was when I noticed she was reading my book, Almost Human!
She sensed I was starring and looked back up.
“How do you like the book?” I asked.
She smiled and replied, “I love it. I can’t put it down.”
Before she could returned to it, I continued, “You know, that’s my book.”
See frowned and replied. “No it isn’t. I bought it on Amazon.”