Friday, March 21, 2014

Days 18-19: Gorillas in the Brist(ol)

I did a fair bit of reading on Day 18. It turns out the punctured tire I had a week ago was an actual punctured tire. I've not had the time to go get a new inner tube, so I took the train to work, thereby allowing plenty of time to read. This is how things used to go with me: I got most of my reading done on the train.

Woe to me that it is cheaper, easier, healthier and less frustrating to cycle to work. I miss having all that time to read. But at least I got a little done on Day 18. And that was the only thing I got done. A particularly mental-energy-draining day at work made me unwilling to do anything else. 

Day 19

I turned 38 years old on 20 March. And one generally doesn't work on one's birthday. Jenn and I went to Bristol for the day because in my view there are no six words more depressing than: "I spent my birthday in Cardiff."

We went to lunch at Grillstock, a barbecue stall in St. Nicholas Market. Barbecue is suddenly the "in" thing these days in Britain. Bristol has a few good spots and even Cardiff has Hang Fire, which is a strange sort of pop-up BBQ experience that takes place at the Landsdowne in Canton. Bristol's St. Nicholas Market is really cool. There is a section of it that consists of two long rows of stalls selling really good food: pies, Middle-Eastern food, Indian, Caribbean, pasta, sausages, Portuguese, pita wraps, and Grillstock. On a weekday at lunchtime the place is packed with people, the smell of delicious foods almost overwhelming.

Jenn and I both had pulled pork sandwiches covered in barbecue sauce. The Texan in me is keen to point out that it lacked a certain authenticity but I think you just have to accept these sort of things when you are 5,000 miles away from a cuisine's regional origin. Barbecue in Britain by nature is going to suit British tastes. And for me, any barbecue is better than none. Besides, this was really good. I mean, really, really good. So good that it again stirred up my desire to move to Bristol.

That became the running theme for the day. Jenn and I started this year talking about moving to the city but soon agreed we should park the idea until summer, after we have returned from visiting the United States. My grandfather's 90th birthday will be in June and we are focusing all resources into being able to pay for the trip (if anyone has £400 they want to give me, t'would be much appreciated). So, we can't even really think about the cost of moving until after that.

But wandering around Bristol, and having its superiority over Cardiff effectively waved in our faces (Unique shops and restaurants! Unique pubs! A really beautiful, posh part of town! Zoo! Clever street art! Fewer chavs! Thoughtful accommodation of bicycles and motorbikes! It's not Wales! It's closer to Jenn's family! It's closer to the few friends I have in this country!) reminded us of why we had decided to move there.

After barbecue we walked up the hill to Bristol Zoo, home to the seagull-throwing gibbon. Any gibbon that throws seagulls is alright by me.

Bristol Zoo is a clever little place because they tend to feed animals when people are actually there. Which means the animals are often moving around a bit, which is what you want to see. No one wants to see a gecko just sunning itself, you want to see a gecko slowly, meticulously tracking a bug with its weird eyes and catching the bug with its tongue.

Jock, the gorilla.
The zoo has a new gorilla space called Gorilla Island, which is the bee's knees because it sort of places you in a large plastic box amongst the gorillas. So, you're there face to face with them and you find that they stare at you as much as you stare at them.

Gorillas are interesting things because they are obviously more cognizant than any other animal you'll see in a zoo. They are clever enough that a zookeeper can verbally ask them to move into one part of the enclosure so she can close off the other part and tidy it up a bit. Just that bit was blowing my mind.

The enclosure has a load of different little sections that can be closed off with big metal gates. No doubt to keep the gorillas from fighting over food, each of them is fed in their own private section of the enclosure. The gigantic male of the group, it seems, prefers to eat in a main part of the enclosure, where the whole family likes to hang out. So, in order to place food out for him the keepers first had to ask all the gorillas to leave that room. Which they did.

Once they were all out of the room, its doors were automatically shut and a keeper was able to walk in and tidy up some of the wood shavings and such before setting out an enormous tray of fruits and vegetables. Then she left the room and the door was opened to allow the male, Jock, to saunter in. The door was closed behind him to allow him to eat in peace.

He went up to the pile of fruits and vegetables and peered at it the way you might when shopping. I'm pretty sure he didn't actually put his finger to his chin in a "Hmm, let's see now, what shall I have?" pose, but that was very much the nature of his body language. Eventually, he tossed two apples, a banana and a pot of yogurt into his massive left hand before shuffling to spot that was right next to the glass.

Yeah, a plastic pot of yogurt with a peel-back lid. This item was blowing the minds of those of us watching. Is that a mistake? Surely you don't give an animal a plastic container –– they'll eat it. Is that what he's going to do? Just eat the pot? Or will he squish the yogurt out like Popeye eating a can of spinach? And the banana. How is he going to eat that banana? He has enormous gorilla hands, how could he possibly have the dexterity to peel a banana? Or even the mental wherewithal to know to peel a banana?

He ate the apples in two bites: one bite perfectly splitting the fruit in half. And yet there was delicacy in his eating, measure and appreciation of the food. He wasn't just shovelling crap in. He had chosen specific items and was enjoying them. With the banana, he peeled it with an almost grace. He ate the banana then ate the peel, holding it up for us to see –– as if to say: "I could have eaten the thing whole but I peeled it to amuse you."

You wonder if zoo gorillas have a sense of performance. Obviously they understand that they are being watched. They get their situation on some level. Freedom is a subjective and high-level concept that the vast majority of humans even struggle to understand, so I don't think the gorillas of Bristol Zoo have any complaints about their situation or are wholly cognisant of it. But you wonder: how relevant to them are the hairless underfed apes that squeal with delight when they peel bananas? And do they make that connection? And do they have any appreciation for that? Does Jock know that peeling the banana rather than just chomping through the thing will make all the sickly apes go nuts?

Maybe he has an element of showmanship, because he saved his best trick for last. He produced the yogurt that had been nestled in his massive palm and... I don't know, did he look at us? Did he offer a sly glance? Maybe. Either way, he deftly peeled back the lid –– knowing to hold the cup upright. We went nuts. He licked the lid. We went nuts again. Then he used his enormous forefinger as a spoon. He ate the cup of yogurt in two or three fingerfuls, then held the cup up and licked the inside. Then he set the cup and lid aside, knowing those things are not food. Compare this to the meerkat I watched later who kept trying to figure out how to eat a rock.

After the yogurt, Jock returned to the food pile and selected three heads of lettuce, a broccoli stalk and two red peppers –– all of which fit into his right hand –– and picked another vantage point from which to eat. And on and on through his whole meal. Jenn and I were transfixed. It is amazing to think of an animal as making choices, as deciding: "I'll have this, then I'll have those..." And you wonder what those choices are based on. Did he go with the stuff he liked most first? Or is lettuce actually his favourite?

Anyway, gorillas. Them things is awesome. As were the meerkats and red pandas and gibbons and other monkeys and penguins and seals and lions and lemurs and so on. The typical thinking is to see zoos as a place for kids but I find them to be far more enjoyable as an adult, now that I am capable of watching and pondering all the little things an animal does.

Oh, another thought on the gorillas: are they English? Jock was born in London Zoo; all but one of the other gorillas were also born in English zoos, most in Bristol (one female was born in France). So does that make them English? Compared to many football fans, they're certainly better representatives for the country...

After the zoo Jenn and I walked to a pub for a few pints before heading to the Relaxation Centre, which is a wee spa tucked into the Clifton neighbourhood. Cue more pining to move to Bristol for stuff like this. For me, the highlight was a sauna right next to an outdoor plunge pool. So you could get intolerably hot then fling yourself into icy cold water. On paper that probably sounds like no fun, but I assure you: it's amazing.

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