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Published: December 16th 2015
At age 62 I became a mom. Again. But this time, my child had a hard shell, retractable head, and four feet. And I have to admit that it was unplanned. Here’s how it happened:
Mamallapuram is best known for its remarkable carved rock temples scattered throughout this small coastal city. But about 20 kilometers north of town is The Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, where thousands of crocodiles representing nearly 20 of the world's species are given safe haven in murky pools. Snakes lizards, turtles, and land dwelling tortoises join the extensive collection of all things reptile. In addition, men from the Irula caste demonstrate the fascinating work of extracting venom from poisonous snakes.
A shady path skirts pools lined with high walls. Signs warn visitors not to stick their hands over the top, because crocs can jump! I wasn't tempted, however, to test the warning as I strolled the grounds with Sanjay, who drove me there on his motorbike.
Next to the cage with the reserve's biggest croc was an enclosure with a handful of Aldabra giant tortoises, native to the Seychelles islands. A big sign indicated they were available for "adoption." A generous
Extracting the venom
The men from a particular caste called "Irula" catch the snakes, bring them to the center for four weeks. They extract the venom from each snake once a week.
donor had already adopted the huge croc, giving enough money to feed the big guy for a year. And since he eats emus and chickens and other meat, the diet can get expensive. I asked one of the staff nearby, "How much to adopt a tortoise for a year?" I've always had a soft spot in my heart for turtles and tortoises, so I was curious.
"Three thousand rupees," he replied.
I did the conversion in my head--only about thirty dollars. I looked in my wallet, and without hesitation, said, "I want to adopt one." I even knew which one I wanted to feed, the smallest one in the pen, who probably weighed 300 pounds.
He smiled, called the reserve's business manager, and I was happy. A tortoise! My very own...They would put my name on the sign, "Proudly adopted by...." right outside the pen.
In fifteen minutes I was talking with the young business manager.
"He said it was three thousand for a tortoise, right?"
"Actually," he said slowly, "it's forty thousand for two." I didn’t think, I was just elated that I was adopting a big
"Okay, I can do one." We went to his office, sat, and I pulled out my calculator...let's see, 20,000 rupees divided by 66 at the current exchange rate...I kept punching the numbers in the calculator, but it kept coming up $303.00. My breathing grew shallow, and again not thinking I said, "Oh, that comes to over $300. That's a lot..." knowing full well I wasn’t carrying that much money and, that was like, let's see...ten times more than I thought initially!
The manager was going on about how great it was that I was adopting a tortoise, and how badly they needed people like me to donate because most people would rather adopt a cuddly tiger. Meanwhile, I was getting this sinking feeling. Then I stopped and scolded myself. For goodness sake, here I was traveling in India for five weeks and I thought I couldn’t afford to feed a tortoise for a year? It was a question that every traveler should ask herself...
"Do you take credit cards?" I asked.
"Not here in the office, but online we do."
No problem then. I pledged to complete the paperwork
and forward the money to feed the Aldabra giant tortoise. I was feeling good about supporting this non-profit reserve that plays a critical role in reptile conservation in India. And, there were perks! I’d get a tee shirt and a photo of me and my tortoise! Really cool...and maybe I could visit my tortoise, work with it perhaps (maybe I could train him/her to do sit ups or play fetch??), and do a number of activities at the reserve.
I was so proud and excited that I went directly to the most expensive place in Mamallapuram for a celebratory lunch. I ordered the catch of the day and a lime soda, and settled at my seaside table. Then I checked my wallet. Not enough cash. I was drumming my fingers, listening to the waves crash in the ocean, feeling the cool breeze, but repeating the turmoil that I had just experienced at the reserve. I distracted myself by recalling all the cool movies where the suave leading man, through some clever ploy, gets out of paying his bill at a fancy restaurant.
Except this was real--I really didn't have rupees, and I would soon
receive a hefty bill. But I had some dollars—could I pay with those? The restaurant manager approached my table and said they only took rupees. I was getting more embarrassed by the second, confided that I was a couple hundred rupees short, and joked that I must have been confused because I was carrying some Cambodian bills that I thought were rupees. The manager wasn't laughing. He instead rolled his eyes, and tried to decide whether he should kick me out right then. Meanwhile, my catch of the day was cooking. I started looking around at other well-dressed resort guests with their gold chains and silk saris, wondering if I could ask someone if they could change some dollars for me. I was painfully aware of my baggy pants, floppy hat, wind-tossed, tangled hair and sweaty blouse—having just ridden a motorbike for 20 kilometers from the reserve.
Then I remembered. I had this wonderful thing called a credit card in my wallet. I pulled it out. The manager and the head hostess standing there waggled their heads, indicating they’d take it, and suddenly all was well. But the crashing waves weren't really as soothing as they had
been when I first sat down.
After I left the grounds of this posh resort, my excitement grew. A tortoise! Even though it would never call me ‘Mom,’ congratulations were in order, yes?
Choose one: Congrats for (A) becoming a new tortoise mom, or (B) figuring out how to pay for the catch of the day.
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