Saturday, November 04, 2006

Elephant Woman (III)

Ho Chi Minh City Zoo (such as it is)

Beware the Elephant Handlers. The two grandmother pseudo handlers that is, clucking and whistling from the crowd at the elephants. It is clear the elephants know this language for they amble over to the edge of the pit and extend their trunks towards them in swaying, wavering, silent anticipation. Not unreasonably you conclude these are the rightful owners of the elephants since they seem to be intimate with each other. So when the old girls offer you plastic bags of sugar cane to feed the elephants you accept. Only in hindsight do you realise these women only appeared on the scene when the actual handlers took off for their afternoon siesta. And what a pair they are. Once the cane has been dispensed and the bags are empty the women demand money. The scam is revealed. Neat, seductive and complicit for you have readily taken the cane from them and handed it to the elephants. Only the locals were clever enough to decline, also something you only see in hindsight.

She wants 3000 dong. You react in dismay and offer 2000 which she accepts. Her colleague on the other hand is a mix between witch and evil pixie, with a hide of tanned leather and a voice to stir the dead. And a persistent streak that Tojo would envy. She insists on 50,000 dong. You are again indignant, point out her friend accepted 2000 and theft is being undertaken for even 10,000. She shrieks and flaps her empty plastic bags and insists the other woman is not her friend. She does this twice before the friend realises she is not helping by hanging around and reinforcing the precedent. She silently vanishes into the growing crowd which is drawn by the noise of our newly unearthed harpy, and clearly anticipating some entertainment.

The scenario is re-shrieked for anyone who can hear. So we insist on 10,000 dong or nothing. She shrieks 50,000 so we start a slow walk back to the front gates where there are a number of uniforms who will hopefully see her off. As we walk she alternates between flapping her bag, shrieking at us, then yelling at anyone who shows the slightest interest in what is going on. As we walk the crowd slowly drops away (it is hot and very humid so people are reluctant to move too far from shade) so she redoubles her efforts to get assistance. She nearly manages to enlist the help of a film crew, using the zoo gardens as a location for an advertising shoot. They half heartedly shout after us before giving up and falling behind.

Finally, at the door of a museum we find the guards we need, although we decline to initiate any conversation, going through the motions of checking the ticket prices and hoping against hope that she would be deterred by the presence of so many uniforms. No such luck as she got the ear of them pretty quickly. An older guard with good English heard us out, clearly sympathetic and wanting her out of his hair as quickly as possible. We eventually settle on 10,000 dong ($1) but as I pull the appropriate note from my pocket another 10,000 is caught up as well. She spots that very quickly so I am forced to surrender that also. The actual amount is of course meaningless but the fact that she was so persistent in her artful dodge was what became the sticking point. Her colleague had accepted being found out and was prepared to haggle. This harpy had another agenda altogether.

Picture yellow black patterned pyjamas, a tan headscarf covering most of her head, a stamping slap of a walk accentuated by loose sandals, a pinched leathery brown face with glittering black eyes, a nasal, high pitched voice unlike any bird you can imagine and all packaged in a slight diminutive frame about five feet high. Ouch!

November 2004

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