There’s a stingray in my pool!

stingray shorts

We live in the desert and things fall into our swimming pool –all the time.

A desert turtle fell in once and we found it lying at the bottom. At first I thought it was a brown hat. We fished it out and sat it on a rock and I was about to declare it DOA, when lo and behold the creature opened it’s bleary eyes, coughed up a tablespoon of water and shuffled off into the rocks.

Another accidental fall-in was a wee baby bat with a cheeky face amazingly like a Chihuahua. Batty was revived with milk fed with a Q-tip, kept in a dark shoebox in the laundry room (the closest thing I could find to a cave) and released at dusk. Bats probably send out a sonar signal like they say, because only seconds after I set him out on the patio, a whole bunch of aunties and uncles, cousins and friends showed up en masse, and Batty joined them after a rather drunken take off that almost landed him in the pool the second time.

Baby Chuckwalla lizard rescued from the pool
Baby Chuckwalla lizard rescued from the pool

Rescue#3 was a baby Chuckwalla lizard – which had ingested so much water, its stomach was bloated and tight like a Ping-Pong ball. After reviving in the run, Chucky waddled off to live another day. Hurrah!

This wild bobcat (the size of a large dog) lives up by the rocks in my backyard and sometimes pays us a visit. It recently had 3 pups.
This wild bobcat is the size of a large dog and lives up in the rocks behind my backyard. Recently it had 3 pups.

Other pool visitors include a beautiful bobcat that pays us the occasional visit. It has striking markings and elegantly tufted ears.

A young Sonoran king snake once jumped into the pool to grab a juicy chlorine-marinated mouse and probably nursed a stomach ache for the rest of the day. King Snakes (they can grow up to three feet) are harmless to humans and it’s a good thing to have them around  because they kill rattlesnakes.

Baby King snake slithering off after eating a mouse
Baby King snake slithering off after eating a mouse (note bulge).
This mallard duck flew in to romance with our plastic chlorine tablet holder (seen pouting in the far corner.)
The mallard duck that flew in to romance with our plastic chlorine tablet holder (seen in the far corner.)

Then, there are surprise drop-ins. An amorous mallard, veered off its migration course to crash-land in our pool looking no doubt, for a last summer fling. But sadly, the coy female lounging in the corner, turned out to be only a plastic chlorine tablet holder. Mally flew off with a disgusted ‘quack’.

Another time, a not-so-lucky raccoon was found floating belly up, eyes rolled back with  its ghastly teeth showing. My sister who was visiting from India the next day, heard all about it. Sis, if you must know, has little knowledge of raccoons.

Talking to her friend in California, Sis says. “I missed all the excitement, yesterday. A moose fell into Shona’s pool.”

“A MOOSE!” shrieked the friend, “My goodness, what did they do?”

“Oh it was already dead so they just threw it out into the desert,” Sis replies, casually.

“But HOW?”

“With a shovel.”

(More shrieks from the other end)

Sis covers the mouthpiece and tells me. “She can’t believe the moose fell into your pool.”

“Not a moose – a raccoon,” I correct her.

“Sorry, it was a raccoon,” Sis tells her friend, “Not moose. I got the animals mixed up because of the two ‘o’s in the spelling.”

“Then it could be a baboon, too, for that matter, ” says the friend, dryly.

Giving all creatures falling into our pool, it was hardly surprising when hubby looking out the patio door, one morning, declares. “Something large has fallen in the pool.”

I grab my glasses, “What is it? A raccoon? A moose? A baboon?” Anything is possible after all but I’m stunned at what he says.

“Very strange,” says hubby, slowly. “but it looks a little bit like a stingray.”

I can hardly believe my eyes. The creature is HUGE, with dull mottled markings and it’s flapping away at the bottom of the pool, obviously alive, because its large wings, fins or whatever they are, move up and down. In the refracted light of the pool it looks sinister and threatening.

“A stingray!” I scream. “Oh my God!”

Hubby is less prone to theatrics. “That’s ridiculous. We live in the middle of the desert! I’m going out to take a look.”

“No!” I pull him back. “You will scare the thing. It might jump.” The thought is too terrifying.

Suddenly, I have an idea. “Wait here, I’m getting the binocs.”

I peer through the binoculars, hands shaking, unable to focus. I almost drop them when the automatic timer on the pool pump suddenly comes on and the creature jolts forward and flaps around furiously, looking agitated.

“What?” Hubby grabs the binocs from me and adjusts the focus. He stares through them, opens the patio door and goes outside. He is laughing. “Come here, you’ll never believe what it is.”

Can you guess what it was? Hint: look at the first picture. Now wouldn’t you think it was a stingray if you saw it flapping  away at the bottom of your pool – that too, first thing in the morning, before drinking your first cup of tea?

Life is never dull, I tell you.  Cheers, my friends!

Update“What were the shorts doing at the bottom of the pool?” is the sneaky question I am getting. I hasten to explain – they were drying on a deck chair and got blown in by the wind. 🙂

 

Elephants in Tea

A herd of wild elephants stray into a tea plantation and cause irreparable damage. Photo courtesy: Ambereen Yousuf. Here is an interesting tidbit from veteran tea planter Davey Lamont: “In the early years , tea bushes were planted in triangular patches, creating a zigzag path instead of rows. This allowed tea pluckers to escape from elephants!”

Assam is prime elephant country. It’s a land of big rivers, dense bamboo groves, rain forests with long, drooping moss and startling orchids. In the jungle clearings, elephant grass shoots up to over 10-feet to shelter a teeming wildlife. Assam Tea–the finest tea on earth– chooses to grow in this wild terrain and nowhere else. Not surprisingly “elephant trouble” a frequent complaint in the tea plantations.

Tea garden elephant with company logo

Every tea planter has a plethora of elephant stories and I have a few of my own. When I seven, a semi-domesticated elephant grabbed me by the ankle and almost got me but luckily I was yanked back by a nearby adult. I still have bad dreams about that one! Another time a baby elephant came floating down the flooded Koilapani River. For two weeks he lived in the taro patch behind our bungalow and played peek-a-boo with a hen before he was shunted off to Calcutta zoo, much to our heartbreak.

Elephant pulling car out of monsoon mire (1920’s). Photo courtesy: Fettes Falconer

Along with owning their tractors, trucks and trailers, most tea gardens own an elephant or two. Domesticated elephants are invaluable to the tea industry.  They are trained by special elephant trainers called mahouts. Elephants render a multitude of services that range from forest logging to rescue missions for tea garden residents stranded in the flood. Assam is the wettest place on earth. The monsoons hit with a fury each year; rivers overflow, bridges collapse and tea plantations are marooned for weeks without power or supplies. Elephants are called to the rescue when river currents get too strong for a boat.  My favorite story is about my Aunt Baruna who dropped her high-heeled slipper in the  floodwaters when she crossing on elephant back to get to the gala at the Planter’s Club. All evening she hobbled  on one shoe while standing tiptoe on the other foot and nobody could tell anything was amiss under her long saree!

Tea garden kids get a joy ride outside their bungalow. Historical photo: source – koihai.com

Tea garden kids are the envy of their friends. Town kids have puppies and kittens but guess what we had as pets? Monkeys, elephants and the occasional leopard cub! On birthdays and special occasions the garden elephant made a grand appearance to give us  kiddies fun rides. Old Jumbo also showed up all tinsel-decked at the Club Christmas party with (an often slightly inebriated) Santa perched on top.

Elephants help to rebuild the Mariani Planters Club after it was destroyed by the fire of 1960. Historical photo courtesy: Alan Leonard. Alan says although the club burnt down the original teak wood floor which was “tongued and grooved” was still intact. It was lifted very carefully, nail by nail, refitted and relaid in the new building. Amazingly it was as good as new.”
Logging elephant in tea garden. Courtesy Davey Lamont.

Elephants are useful during shikar (hunting) to track down game, mostly man-eating leopards and tigers that prowl the tea plantations to prey on humans.

Elephants in herds are usually harmless but they can create plenty of damage. A herd of elephants  often invaded the sugarcane patch behind our bungalow and  had to be chased out with lighted torches and the beating of tin cans. I still remember the sound of their wild trumpeting in the night: it is the most eerie, bone-rattling sound on earth!

A bull elephant in “musth” is a very dangerous animal and can sometimes attack without provocation.

Encountering a rogue elephant in the wild is very bad news. Rogue elephants can destroy everything in their path with mindless fury. There is the horrific incident of a local postman who was cycling through the jungle road to a tea garden when he came face-to-face with a rogue. The elephant picked him by the feet and smashed him into a tree and (this is really gross) the poor man had to picked off the bark like putty. That is the fury of a rogue.

With increasing deforestation in Assam, elephant problems in the tea gardens continue to be on the rise. Here is a National Geographic article about Elephant problems in Assam. Please share your elephant story, if you have one. Thanks and cheers!

Other related articles: The Story of the Elephant Boy of Tea

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Teatime for the Firefly is Shona Patel’s debut novel. It is a love story set in a remote tea plantation in Assam, India. You can read the SYNOPSIS and the FIRST CHAPTER by clicking on the red links. Shona Patel is represented by April Eberhardt Literary.