The year of feathered foes
According to the Chinese zodiac we are in the year of the rooster. But for this traveller, 2016 was the year of the feathered fiend. I am terrified of birds. Apparently it’s the fourth most common fear, after spiders, snakes and the dark. Or so I’m told, possible unreliably. I don’t mind birds flying through the air, paddling on lakes, or tweeting in trees, but around my ankles, indeed anywhere near me, something happens and I go from rational to crazy as involuntarily as a cock crows at the first rays of daylight.
Spectacular photography of the Hawaiian island of Kauai featured in the pages of Travel & Indulgence grabs our attention as a perfect destination last year for an active family holiday. Hiking, swimming and boating sound just the ticket. Further research shows that The Descendants, starring George Clooney, was largely filmed there, and tickets are promptly booked.
Minutes after landing it becomes apparent Kauai is the island of the rooster. They are strolling the rental car lot, the supermarket carpark, every scenic spot, the beach, the walking tracks, indeed everywhere you look there’s a chook. Legend has it that a cargo ship, with crates of fowl aboard, was shipwrecked on the island and, with no natural predators, the chickens fled their cages and with a shake of their tail feathers, began to breed. On T-shirts, caps, postcards and tea towels you’ll find an image of a rooster with its chest puffed out; the island’s radio station is KTOH: Rooster Country.
Meanwhile, in Asia, the river vessel RV Mekong Pandaw cruises from the middle of Cambodia to Vietnam’s delta regions, stopping frequently for passengers to get up close to village life along the banks of the Mekong. Not surprisingly, there are chickens everywhere, enjoying a very free range lifestyle (until they are eaten). The mar- kets display dangling birds, complete with heads, as live ones scamper about, oblivious to both their future and the terror they strike in this poor fool.
My most absurd bird experience takes place in Vietnam at the floating village of Cham tribal people, where Muslim families have created woven silk goods for centuries. In the retail section of the village a shimmering array of scarfs of every hue lines the walls and a weaver works her loom, surrounded by the waters of the mighty Mekong delta. For many this scene would be a vision of tranquillity, an edifying display of industry, an enlightenment of sorts. But as a mother hen and 10 chicks scurry across the wooden floor in my direction, I am so terrified I mount the loom. I wish myself to be on another planet, as I am sure the startled weaver does too.
With a certain sense of relief I farewell the Mekong villages and arrive in Ho Chi Minh City, with its chaotic traffic, glamorous hotels, clamour of noise and four mil- lion people. No place for chickens, I reason. But I am wrong. We climb 10 flights of stairs to get to a highly recommended rooftop restaurant, where both the view and vibe are on trend for this hip and happening 21st-century city. The waiter directs us to our table, with a smile and sweeping gesture and then, I lose it. Right beside our table in a cage on the floor is a rooster.
So far 2017 has presented no rendezvous with roosters. Nor have there been too many embarrassing pigeon incidents. (Am I the only one who thinks San Marco Square in Venice is a living hell?) In Beijing in March I expect the worst, feeling sure there will be pigeons everywhere. But I spot only a handful and they are up atop bell towers and pagodas, not behaving menacingly in the streets.
“Where are the pigeons?” I ask my guide on a food tour. “You probably won’t see them down here on the streets,” he says as we lean over a counter of cooked and skewered chickens. “I hear they taste delicious.”