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Hitchhiking Vietnam
the animal trade
MUGGLING ANIMALS TO FREEDOM

Only a Miraclephoto
We split our forces, Jochen plying his golden tongue amongst the upper-crust expats while I cruised the backpacker hangouts in the forlorn hope of finding a generous spirit willing to take charge of our menagerie.
Kim Cafe was overcrowded, the chatter of a dozen languages mingling with smoke and unwashed bodies under the harsh fluorescent lights. Everyone, it seemed, was discussing tours and travel plans. The few conversations I dropped in on weren't promising; A Danish nutritionist on her way to Dalat by minibus the following morning, giving detailed advice to a pair of shaggy Australians who planned to take a slow boat down the Mekong. A French couple in a tight huddle at the end of a crowded table, exhaling clouds of smoke and wanting only to be left alone. I stood and tapped my glass with a spoon. No one paid the slightest attention. I sent a brief prayer for forgiveness to the gods of the jungle and pulled the smallest leopard kitten out of my pocket. All conversation stopped. Even the French couple lent a covert ear.
They heard me out in utter silence, every eye fixed on the ball of fur nestled in the palm of my hand. Then, like an auction, people raised their hands with dates and places, and had soon forgotten me to pass the leopard kitten from lap to lap and organize its social calendar for the next few weeks. A brawny German was utterly captivated by the tiny kitten nestled in the crook of his bulging biceps and immediately canceled his intended visit to the famous Cu Chi tunnels, or "Ze dirty, veasel holes in ze ground," as they had suddenly become. An English carpenter was returning from a Mekong tour in three days, and would be happy to host the little dustmops for the weekend. If his guesthouse owner didn't approve she could jolly well find a new boarder. Two unkempt Canadians promised the orphans a permanent home in their awesome new digs, available a week hence.
I sat off to one side and watched a miracle gradually unfold. People who would haggle for hours over a fifty-cent discount, who had scrimped and saved for years to see Vietnam, were fighting for the opportunity to give it all up on behalf of a sleepy ball of fur.
It's not so surprising," a voice said in my ear. "You've given them the opportunity to do something extraordinary. That's worth a few tourist traps." He was American, scraping by teaching private English classes while he looked for more permanent work. "Will you be buying more?" he asked, and handed me a hundred dollar bill.


My room was momentarily silent. The gibbon lay fast asleep, its long arms wrapped around a pillow twice as large as itself. The two youngest kittens were quiet after hours of entertaining antics. Unlike their older brethren, they actively courted human contact; lying in wait until I came out of the shower and playing Tarzan with my bath towel until I gave up trying to hold it in place. For the first time in my life the monsters under the bed were real, and when I put my bare feet down a playful set of claws wrapped itself around my ankle. As I drifted off to sleep I felt a feather-soft tail across my face and four tiny paws kneading a depression on my pillow.


I floated up through layered dreams to the rapid pitter-patter of rats running across the roof beams. I awoke to find that they had turned into leopards, dancing on the carpet. I watched their shadowy forms slither around my pack and burst into a pool of moonlight, where they pranced and sparred. I fell asleep to the cottony thud of velvet paws and dreamed of jungle nights, of braided vines and dark green leaves, and mottled shapes that flowed from space to space.


The next morning - a wild, worried rush to the airport, standby on an empty flight and I found myself sitting next to two sleek businessmen from another planet. They chatted loudly about the stock market, the NBA results and their favorite ski resorts in Aspen. I looked out the window at the earth-brown Mekong flowing smoothly towards the sea, and tried to remember why I had been so afraid when I first flew over this strange and complicated land.
I heard the man beside me say, "It's an opportunity, there's no doubt about that, but it won't be easy." And I thought, you have no idea.

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