Whales! Monkeys! Lions!
“Attention passengers, there is a pod of killer whales off the starboard bow”
My legs started to move before my brain had fully processed the announcement over The Spirit of British Columbia’s public address system. I wasn’t running, per se, but walking as quickly as an adult human can while still being in enough control to avoid kneeing a small child in the face. It helped that I wasn’t the only one, as hundreds of passengers lept out of seats at the promise of glimpsing an orca.
The scene along the railings on the boat’s deck looked like the front of a concert, with enough people pressed up against the one side of the boat to warrant serious worry about the risk of capsizing. The concern quickly evaporated though, replaced by the sheer joy of seeing a long, slender black dorsal fin break the water. Two more followed, and as I took in the scene, whales swimming towards the horizon and the crowd of people following them with eyes, fingers and camera lenses, I started to think about monkeys.
People in Durban, South Africa, have serious opinions about monkeys. During the time I spent in the city in 2011, it seemed like everyone I met had a story about vervet monkeys, the notorious little grey primates that lived among the city’s parks, trees and rooftops. Some stories involved monkeys stealing food, others were about monkeys attacking children and pets, or about monkeys breaking into homes, cars and business. One of my favourite stories told the tale of one sinister simian one using an open kitchen window to sneak into a house and leave a steaming dump right on the touch screen of someone’s iPhone.
I got the sense that these stories were meant to align me with the general disdain for the monkeys I heard from so many people, but instead I just found them endearing, so much so that when I had my first real run-in with a group of vervets, I stopped dead in my tracks, pointed and screamed “monkeys!”.
I stood there, alone, looking like an oversized child – backpack, ear to ear grin and all – for a full minute. I was only shaken from my trance when a passing car slowed to a crawl, lowering it’s windows to unveil an entire family staring at me, the gaping 6 foot 3 giant man-child, with a shared expression of “what the hell is wrong with you?"
After that ocular rebuff, I tried to be nonchalant about the monkeys, but I just couldn’t do it. Something about seeing real live monkeys overruled my logical brain, rendering it to mush and pushing me into idiotic, childlike glee with each primate encounter.
Monkeys turned out to be just the beginning. I still shouted monkeys! a lot, but I started spelling a lot of words exclamation points. I nearly fell off a cliff when I first spied baboons! during a five day backpacking traverse across the Drakensberg mountains, and then narrowly avoiding being pancaked by a bus in Cape Town as I watched police shake their fists at another baboon! that had escaped them by climbing up the side of an apartment building, and used his safe perch to urinate on their squad car. I saw elephants!, zebras!, cheetahs!, water buffalo! and even saw two lions! having sex on an early morning trip into Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.
While I still smile when I see videos of monkeys and get a pang of nostalgia flipping through National Geographic spreads about elephants, I don’t point, shout and instinctively grin like an idiot. Instead, now I mostly use exclamation points to describe things I don’t like. I have way too many emails! to answer, I get stuck in traffic! almost any time I try to leave the city and, when Donald Trump can make a legitimate run for President of the United States, there might finally just be too many fucking idiots! in this world. Sometimes it can seem like the only thing that really gets me and other “adults” excited, is things that we hate or things that we’re afraid of.
If it bleeds it leads is no longer just a newspaper’s editors mantra. For a lot of us, it’s how we filter our day to day thinking, and a good descriptor for the way I spend too much time and mental energy on things that suck. But, maybe it doesn’t need to be that way? Maybe we can start to get excited about the amazing things in our daily lives, so much so that we spell them with an exclamation point the same way I do with monkeys! and lions!. Sure, I could have a cup of coffee to help wake up, or I could get some coffee! and marvel at the magical alchemy of this tiredness obliterating elixir of life. Instead of grocery shopping, a pretty tedious chore, I can go for a bike ride! and fly around the city on two wheels, picking up some food along the way. Instead of the banality of exercise or going to the gym, I can go climbing! or find a stretch of forest to run through. Sure, it’s a bit ridiculous, but no less so than getting mad at the internet.
Back on the ferry, just before the orcas disappeared out of sight, one leapt from the water, breaching as if to pose for the cameras on the boat’s deck. The entire boat took a collective breath and a wide, toothy grin stretched across my face. Beside me, a small boy dropped his jaw, widened his eyes, and, almost inaudibly, mouthed the word “whales!”.
Yeah dude. Whales!