On Saturday, Jenny and I drove up to the Bronx Zoo, my first visit since early childhood. The zoo in winter is a relatively quiet place, with many of the animals gone to warmer climes, but there was still plenty to see, and plenty of families out to see it on this balmy day of bright sun and temperatures in the fifties.
Entering at the Asia Gate, we were greeted by the unmistakable smell of animals, a fecund mix of hay and dung, which we soon discovered was wafting from the pen of a solitary dromedary, right across from where they do the camel rides in season. We moved quickly from Asia to the African “Somba Village” of faux mud huts with thatched roofs. Most of the African animals were on holiday, but there were a few interesting herd beasties. Then it was on to the bears, where a polar bear paced unhappily — polar bears in zoos always look unhappy — and the grizzly bears were up and about, which surprised us. According to Wikipedia, however, there is some debate about whether grizzlies actually hibernate, or merely enter a state of false hibernation. Either way, there hasn’t been much cold to hide from this winter, and I suppose there’s no reason for the food supply to disappear in winter, as it does in, say, the Rockies.
Eventually we made our way to the Monkey House, which Kurt Vonnegut must have had in mind when he wrote his famous story. It’s a neoclassical building complete with columns and Parthenon-style frieze, except that all the sculptures are of monkeys, which is very Planet of the Apes. Inside were exhibits of a variety of mostly South and Central American monkeys, including some tiny and fantastically coifed species, along with the more familiar, endlessly playful capuchins. Another simian highlight was the Congo Gorilla Forest, where we were able to watch several gorillas up close through the glass. They are magnificent animals, powerfully built and so nearly human that it’s eerie.
After visits to the Mouse House, which made Jenny shudder, and the World of Reptiles, where we saw giant pythons, deadly cobras, poisonous frogs and huge turtles, we finished off with a visit to Tiger Mountain, where we were able to catch a few glimpses of the elusive big cats, and then a quick pass through the Himalayan Highlands, which were less steep in the Bronx version than when we visited them in Nepal.
As we headed for the exits, Jenny pointed out the way that different cultural activities give you bits and pieces of the experience of travel: the zoo shows you the animals of other places, the museum shows you their art and artifacts, at concerts you hear their music. In many cases, the narrowing of focus gives a clearer view of things that can be difficult to see when you’re actually traveling. The tigers are a case in point: our guide in Nepal’s Royal Chitwan National Park, John, had spent years exploring the jungle but had never actually seen one of its tigers, whereas we had to wait maybe 15 minutes at the window of the exhibit to get a full-body view. But there is nevertheless something unique to the immersive, whole-body experience of travel — a sensation that, though often pleasurable, is not wholly different from nausea in the way that it seems to affect one’s whole being and to send every thought reeling.
On Sunday, we dived into New York’s best simulacrum of that experience, Manhattan’s Chinatown, for the New Year fireworks display. Packing into a dense crowd at Chatham Square, we waited through the interminable introductions of city council members, assemblymen, etc., as the crowd grew restless. All around, people were firing confetti guns into the air. As a light rain began, people’s patience wore thin, and the emcee wisely skipped past the last few speeches and the promised drum performance to get to the good stuff: fire. Long strands of firecrackers and a few flame-throwing spectaculars set off a giant racket that lasted probably ten minutes and is almost certain to have sent any evil spirits scurrying away (Xinhua has some great photos).
Our plan had been to find dimsum after the fireworks, but the crowds made that impossible, so we maneuvered to Baxter Street and decided to try Jaya Malaysian Restaurant. For all you hear about Asian fusion cuisine these days, few people realize that the Malaysians have been doing it for centuries. Certainly we didn’t know. We were pleasantly surprised by this savory blend of Chinese, Southeast Asian and Indian cuisines. We started with roti, which was almost like an Indian puri and came with a rich, mussalman curry-like dipping sauce with potato and chicken. For main courses, we had the sweet and delicious Char Sew Mee, or roast pork with noodles, and a dish of slow-cooked, curried beef that had a smoldering chili heat to it.
After our delicous meal, we headed for home along the streets coated in confetti pulped by the rain.