Sometimes when husbands go on outings without their wives and families, they get up to all sorts of monkey business. In my defense, on this particular outing, monkey business was never my intention. When you read this tale you may wonder: “Is he making all this up?!” Trust me! You can’t make up this kind of stuff! This tale will indeed be a bizarre story of survival, but I assure you it is all true, as I don’t have an imagination sufficiently fertile to concoct such a tale. By way of general disclaimer, at this point I will interject that all of the stories in this book are true, for the most part. I only deviate minimally from the truth where I portray myself as stronger, smarter or more handsome than I might otherwise be attributed by the impartial observer. This is only natural, since I am the book’s author. I read somewhere that you can even get an “artistic license” if you know the right folks.
I digress. Back when this bullying occurred, I really wish I hadn’t digressed. Alas, it seems I am always going off the beaten path, finding detours, constantly in search of new discoveries, thus the title of this book. How else would an erstwhile and otherwise practical-minded MIT Sloan School of Management candidate end up living on a remote Chinese island far from most technology? Furthermore, how else can you experience coming face to face with a large wild boar on a remote mountain top of said Lantau Island, unless you crawl through a very tiny pathway in the shrubbery in search of the yet another shortcut. If I’m not mistaken, the compass bearing would have described my movements as a Northwest Passage of my own making.
Admittedly, I screamed like a little girl when I found my nose was just inches away from the boar’s big hairy snout. He screamed too, after a fashion. On second thought, “he” might have been a “she”, but I didn’t have the luxury of time to ascertain the gender. Thankfully the boar retreated, while I set a new world backwards crawling record as I too retreated to safety—to be reunited with my concerned little family of hikers, and so here I am alive today to tell you this other tale. This next detour, however, almost proved deadly.
Now the Hong Kong you probably most readily recognize from all of the usual movie and travel channel shots is one that bristles with skyscrapers clinging to steep mountain slopes like the five o’clock stubble on a giant’s bony great chin.
But that uber-urban image is really only the tip of this land’s subtropical iceberg, as it were: the 10% most people see where the vast majority of the Hong Kong folk live and work. Meanwhile, the remaining 90% of Hong Kong is made up of islands, mountains, forests, farms, streams and waterfalls and lakes (reservoirs) virtually untouched by the developers, just beckoning the intrepid explorer. That’s my cue.
As I looked out the tiny window of my tiny 13th story office, I could see the raw hillside behind this housing development. There were all these gravesites where the ancestors were treated to the best possible ocean views. I occasionally walked among those graves, enjoying the views thus afforded and getting some needed exercise and fresh air. [There are other, safer ways to get exercise in Hong Kong, albeit with less fresh air.
[See “No Third Turkey”.] One day my eye spotted a narrow trail that led off enticingly into the woods. What I could not see was that a mile away, at the extreme other end of this dense, dark and cool, shady forest trail there was a very graphic warning sign.
As a child growing up in rural upstate New York in the picturesque Hudson River valley, I spent much of my free time hiking through the forests or riding along the country roads which surrounded our quiet little town. I could walk or pedal my bike for miles, enjoying the constantly changing landscape: rugged wooded hills whose hardwood trees erupted in a blaze of color each autumn; the pine forests which looked so serene in winter with their sugar-frosting of fresh snow; rolling fields dotted with cows, and one particular black bull that gave me a good chase one day; the stony babbling brooks with their cold water; the mysterious rock piles with all forms of geological specimens heaped together.
I imagine my love for exploring nature never really left me and yet now here I was in Hong Kong, in an extremely un-natural, noisy, crowded, concrete maze. Like the sirens of Homer’s Odyssey, that unexplored trail on the edge of the hillside graves beckoned me irresistibly. Thus my adventure began, as I responded to my innate boyish curiosity.
Mind you, I was not totally irresponsible—not by a long shot! I was equipped with my prescription sunglasses from the Yu See Nau optometrist shop on steep Wing Wo lane above Central district. I also possessed a 375 ml wax carton of Vitasoy green tea drink. Clever Chinese discovered soymilk to be a viable alternative for the lactose-intolerant long before westerners discovered this condition even existed. Google search it for yourself if you don’t believe me, since I don’t think I have a Vitasoy story in my arsenal that I will be relating to you. You can see exactly what that carton looks like if you thumb ahead to the chapter “The Lady Who Planted Trees,” where there is a photograph of Jenny’s then-young son Angus clutching one himself.
It’s hot and humid in Hong Kong in July, thus I was wearing only a thin t-shirt, shorts, sandals, and of course my glasses—not exactly proper body armor for the attack that awaited, unbeknownst to me. The trail started off peacefully and fascinatingly. The hillside I had left behind was pretty much scraped clear of most vegetation in order to build all of the concrete skyscrapers, gravesites and pathways.
The hot glare of the subtropical sun soon gave way to cool green shade as the trees grew ever taller and denser. It suddenly was quite dark and quite still. One would be forgiven for mistaking the location as something akin to a cross between the Black Forest of southwest Germany and the Rainforest of Manaus. I was enthralled! I didn’t know where this enchanted narrow wooded detour led, but I was momentarily unconcerned. I had stumbled upon a beautiful treasure of nature’s richest foliage, just a few steps from the edge of one of the world’s densest populations, one of Hong Kong’s great contradictions!
I was also about to stumble upon something entirely different. You know that feeling you get when you sense someone is watching you, but you can’t see them? I suddenly had it. But no other humans were (stupid enough to be) in this forest watching me.
It’s called a “troop”. That’s what a bunch of baboons is called. The premonition I had was entirely accurate. There they were, way up high in the trees, glaring down at me malevolently. I froze. I knew you weren’t supposed to run from dogs, so I extrapolated that the same must be true of a troop of baboons. Suddenly a large female literally (not figuratively) dropped from the tree just a few meters away from where I stood, doing my best imitation of a statue. She was carrying a nursing little one.
The infant—I checked and that is indeed how you properly refer to a baby baboon: “infant”—was probably adorably cute but my vision was growing fuzzy right about now. I had read about how viciously mothers will protect their young in the wild. Why couldn’t this baboon have been a young single? Well, maybe not, on second thought. For a few tense moments we stood staring at each other. Then my worst fear began: Mama Baboon charged at me, bully-style!
I assumed my best defensive posture, viz: I closed my eyes as tightly as the orbicularis oculi muscles would allow. For some reason, during that brief window of opportunity to reason, I had decided that the thing I wanted most to avoid was having my eyeballs scratched out. Now without vision, as my eyes were scrunched tightly closed, I had to rely on my other senses to inform me of my circumstances. I could hear and smell danger rushing at me. Then I sensed my arm had been jolted. Then all was calm. After some hesitation, I slowly opened my eyes, one at a time, not entirely certain that I really wanted to survey whatever damage I had sustained. Amazingly enough, there was none!
Did you forget that small detail I mentioned earlier? I did too, until that exact moment when I heard the baboon rendition of laughter. I dared myself to glance upwards at the sound and there I beheld Madame Baboon finishing off my Vitasoy drink, deftly sipping through the tiny white straw. It seems that she was a vegetarian, or at least fortunately for my sake, she was at that particular moment. She had skillfully scooped that drink right out of my hand while running past me at full speed without ever touching a hair on my hand.
The definition of “relief” was never as crystal clear to me as it was at that precise moment! I skedaddled out of that enchanted and dangerous forest before the baboons’ next course (me) could commence. Fortunately for my shaky legs, civilization was a mere hundred meters or so away. As I emerged from the dark forest into the broad daylight I encountered a nice paved road, by the side of which was a large red government signboard with a frightening full-color picture of a toothy baboon, warning all sane individuals to beware. Needless to say, I took the long way home.
I wonder how Mama Baboon learned to pilfer a hiker’s drink so expertly? Perhaps there is a support group out there somewhere I should contact. Sure enough, decades later as I wrote this story in the comfort of my office, I came across a wonderfully informative article entitled: “How to Survive a Baboon Encounter.”
From reading it, in retrospect, it seems I did all the correct things without the luxury of having had this prior knowledge, except for one critical point of advice I had not heeded: “Do not walk through a troop of baboons; instead, wait for an opportunity to walk around them, or wait for them to leave before you proceed.” You should read the following article yourself before wandering in the woods alone. You have been warned.
The picture greeting the reader at the article’s opening says it all.