Damien Enright: Noise and nature find it difficult to co-exist in the Far East

Dr Dorman's dispatches are a reminder of our good fortune, writes Damien Enright

MY FRIEND, Dr Dorman, the much-travelled marine biologist mentioned last week, is in China and opens his latest letter in an environment very different from that of fair Ireland, and salubrious west Cork, whence he hails. His dispatches are a reminder of our good fortune.

“Picture a city of grey skyscrapers stretching up into a permanently grey sky, a road of never-ending traffic, trees on either side, but no birds, and the population, every one walking with one arm outstretched, eyes fixed on the screen that controls their lives. I saw a man the other day talking to his watch. I have found myself in the middle of a science fiction film, except there is not much of a story yet.

A marine biologist travelling in China came across a stall selling the skins of tigers

“This city is just one gigantic shopping centre; it couldn’t be further from Chairman Mao’s ideals. I did manage to find an almost interesting place: an old canal with weird trees from which hang immense aerial roots, and little shops — a woman with a sewing machine, a few tiny restaurants, and even some old people — there doesn’t appear to be anyone over thirty anywhere else. But should one fall into that canal, the results would not be pleasant.

“My apartment is on the seventh floor, 20 storeys up. I pay $200 a month for a tiny room, mostly just a bedroom with a minute kitchen and bathroom, and a small balcony. I’d be happy were it not for the road below - quiet when I found the place but, after dark, transforming into an open air market and all-night restaurant and bar. I sleep with ear plugs. The yaps of small but strident Chinese dogs echo through the building, and a chap seems to be building something in his bedroom.

“Every meal time, the staccato hammering of choppers starts up as neighbours prepare meals and, below, we have the unremitting roar of traffic, tooting horns, ringing bicycle bells. No birds — not surprising; they couldn’t communicate —no insects. No stars or moon; unreal city, colonising the sky.

“But then things improved - I found the library, with an English language shelf, and a small park with five different bird species, a wagtail of some sort, a magpie-robin, a very impressive shrike; the other two were a total mystery. I have no Chinese bird book. Perhaps I’ll ask one of the hillbillies (my fellow teachers seem all to be prairie Americans) to order one on line.

“Today, a magnificent orange beetle with black spots - I’ve never seen the like - landed on my balcony, long enough for me to photograph it. Last week, I even saw Orion, once.”

In January, 2006, elsewhere in China, Dr. Dorman was very put out, and no wonder. “Last week” he writes, “I saw a brand new stall had appeared in the market, with music playing and women in colourful attire that I would guess came from the far west of China. and a large display of fur coats, gloves and the like for sale. And, hanging from the canopy, several complete skins of large wild felines.

“Two were tigers, or if not, something I have never seen before that very greatly resembles a tiger. Whatever they were, they were all protected species.”

Planning to challenge the stall holder, he came back, two days later, with a translator, but the stall was gone. “Back to mountain,” explained the translator, “Get more. Return next year...”

Most of Jeremy’s letters underline bring home lucky we are to live in Ireland. Only 21 of our rivers achieve EU water quality rating but consider his 2013 report from Phnom Penh, Cambodia: “I walked beside the river, with difficulty - the pavements are rarely free from cars, motor-bikes, food stalls or rubbish - and watched water hyacinths, polystyrene lunch boxes and nappies float by on the sewage coloured river, sat at a cafe with a view of a huge traffic jam, in the company of several unpleasant-looking tourists with vests and tattoos, then took your advice and had lunch at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club. The same tourists seemed to be there, and over a meagre fish curry, I could now look down on the traffic jam and not breathe in as much carbon monoxide. Upon emerging, I was accosted by the one of the tough looking women who plod around all day selling steaming snails and tiny bivalves, or unidentified, motorbike exhaust fume-infused fried organisms.”

Other letters recount his search for Livingston’s grave by country bus and bicycle taxi in the heart of Africa, narrow escapes from riots in Kenya and No Sherry police in Saudi Arabia.

How wholesome is Ireland. He should write a book!

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