The Vainest Chameleon

This blog is transforming into one of a recreational naturalist.  I promise, I do more than stumble across mongooses and petrified hedgehogs here!  It must be good karma from those tiny lizards I saved from sticky traps last year.

So.  I was on my way out of the office headed to lunch.  Now, I have an uncommonly beautiful walk to the lunchroom nearly every day, walking through the blooming splendor of the gardens. There’s always some gem to discover, whether it is a tree snowing petals in February, the yellow snapdragons lit up by the sun, or a colorful songbird.

But this day my encounter with nature was super duper extra special.

There I was, on my way out, when I noticed something green sitting on the white marble steps. It was a chameleon!

Chameleon on the steps

Already preparing to tip over.

Imagine my delight at seeing this odd creature unleashed from the confines of a pet shop terrarium.  Its eyes oscillated in different directions. Its feet were cloven into two sets of two toes each. Its tail was curly. It was a true wild chameleon.

I was getting pretty close to the chameleon because, technophobe that I am, I don’t know how to use zoom on my phone camera. The lizard seemed slightly nonplussed, then sort of tipped over and plopped off the edge of the stoop onto the next step, where it landed gracelessly on its side. I felt guilty, assuming I had caused its flop, but then it slowly picked itself up and walked to the edge of the step and proceeded to do the same, this time tilting over onto the gravel.

Preparing for the next dive

Gathering momentum for the next dive

It was truly the most unapologetically graceless animal I’ve had the privilege to watch. I don’t know how it even got up the steps in the first place, but I’m not sure that it had any options for descent besides letting gravity do the work.  Furthermore, it was clearly a slave to vanity, choosing to pose against the backdrop of blinding whiteness rather than the inconspicuous safety of camouflage against any of the abundant surrounding greenery.  If this was an Aesop’s fable, it would probably have been scarfed up by a fox.  

Instead, clever creature, it decided its willowy figure was best accented with a vertical pose.

2014-04-06 12.10.30

And then I had to go to lunch and resist the urge to make him my pet.

Office star

Dear rock stars of the world,

While you might feel pretty cool shredding your guitars onstage, I’m rocking out admin style, shredding these papers…like Jagger?



Actually, when it comes to office tasks, I’m anything but a star.  A simple trip to the shredder reminds me that while my Mount Holyoke BA covered everything from the epidemiological paradox to sestinas, it failed to educate me on the finer points of office supplies.  So I find myself once again repeatedly jamming the shredder with an overload of documents.  The shredder chokes for the fifth time in the past four minutes.

I kneel down and tell it, “Hey, you should know I’m not such a dunce–I graduated summa cum laude, alright?”

The shredder considers, wondering how my fancy diploma would taste, and how it would look digested into strips of Latin.

A colleague asked me how I was doing with my new duties.  I hesitated, considering how much time I had spent struggling to fix a stapler or to coerce the photocopier into submitting to my will.  (It won.)  Or how difficult it had been to find that room where according to legend there would be stacks and stacks of bond paper.  After wandering around one building, asking everyone I encountered about “the room with lots of paper,” I found one sympathetic soul who joined me for my quest.  Up the elevator, down the stairs, I got my first thorough tour of this building.  It was an actual paper chase.

Does anyone know where I can find the big boxes of bond paper?

“Enough with this Socratic nonsense.  Does anyone here know where I can get ten reams of bond paper?”

There are these simple tasks that aren’t so simple for a newbie.  And then there are the bug traps–or, as Catchmaster calls them, “adhesive pest control products”–and the unfortunate lizards that stroll inside.  I saved that first one, yes, and a few more.  One of them I only partially saved, as in his eagerness to escape me, he abandoned his tail, which flailed around on the ground in front of me until I tossed it into the bushes.  But there are those tragedies when I’m too late.  Or the ancient bug traps I’ve found when I explore the creepier passages of my building, that were set out years ago and have been collecting diverse little bodies since.  I enacted the story of Pandora’s box with one such trap.  I just had to know its contents, so I unfolded the box cautiously and found a desiccated gecko and what I swear was a fossilized tarantula.  Shiver.

Oh, Pandora...

Oh, Pandora…

But these brushes with kingdom animalia have endowed me with a certain prestige in the office.  One day I was doing something administrative, possibly wrestling with some staples, when I heard a cry for help: “Is anyone here not afraid of lizards?”  Already excited, I stood up: “I’m not!”  My colleague led me into the ladies’ washroom where a tiny lizard was hiding behind the toilet.  I got down on the floor and after a little graceless scrambling around caught it by its tail and, cradling it in my palm, took it out to the garden to release it.  When I returned, the women I had rescued greeted me as a hero.  Literally, “You’re so brave!  You’re our hero!”

Really, folks, it’s nothing.  All in a day’s work.

Oily lizard

One of my tasks is checking bug traps to assess the building’s number of silverfish, which eat anything with protein, including the glue used in book bindings and paper sizing. On my patrol, I discovered creatures of the six- and eight-legged varieties and one (four-legged) lizard.

That’s right, a small lizard, stuck in the peanut butter scented glue.

At first I took the poor fellow for dead. Every part of him was stuck fast, his little fingers splayed at odd angles. But then I noticed a flickering at his abdomen. Breathing! He was still alive!

I rushed to grab the cooking oil that my predecessor had showed me, labeled “for rescuing lizards.” Outside, I doused him, then carefully pulled up his tail–he started wriggling–then his head, and those delicate digits. Finally, after a second oil-dousing, he was free. I caught the dazed creature and carried him into the shade underneath a bush.

And that is how I accidentally fulfilled my goal of catching a lizard.

Coming in for landing

The view from my room on the thirteenth floor. Good thing I don't have triskaidekaphobia.

The view from my room on the thirteenth floor. Good thing I don’t have triskaidekaphobia.

It’s been five days since my plane touched down in Israel and I arrived in the hilly peninsula that is Haifa. Since then, it’s been a flurry of visits to the shrines of Bahá’u’lláh and the Báb, special devotions and a Holy Day commemoration, and so many new names to learn. While I’m not immersed enough in Israeli culture to experience culture shock–indeed, the majority of people I’ve met are from North America–there are a few things that will take some getting used to.

1. The heat Haifa is sultry, and not in the attractive way. The highs don’t look terrible–mid-eighties so far–but combined with intense sun and humidity, the climate has me gulping water like a very sweaty fish. Thankfully there’s usually a breeze, and while my apartment doesn’t have central air, fans keep me less than feverish. Apparently August is worse. If I stop posting next month, you’ll know that I’ve found a nice corner with air conditioning where I’m estivating (summer hibernation!) until the city cools down. Lest I sound too whiny, I should say that the warmth stimulates vibrant flowers and fruit, like the oblong berry with milky, super sticky juice that an acquaintance picked off a bush and handed to me. “What is this?” I asked. “No idea,” she said, “but it tastes good.”

2. The language An English speaker can get by in Israel without learning Hebrew–street signs are translated, numbers are in Arabic numerals, and most people know some English. But when it comes to decoding a bread package, an advertisement, or a map that doesn’t cater to tourists, I’m confronted with an entirely unknown alphabet. I’m hoping to learn some conversational Hebrew beyond “Shalom” (hello) and “Toda rabah” (thank you).

3. So many Bahá’ís! They’re everywhere! Perhaps this should be obvious, but hey, I’m coming from a college community of five. (In reality, we comprise less than 0.003% of Haifa’s population.)

4. The wildlife Lizards and stray cats are the squirrels and chipmunks of Israel. I keep seeing lizards sunning themselves on the grounds of the Arc (the Bahá’í buildings on Mount Carmel) and at Bahji in Akka, and I’ve so far done a good job of restraining my instinct of giving chase to examine them, wannabe herpetologist that I am. We’ll see how long I can hold out before coming home with a new pet.

Affectionate guy

As for the cats, on my first day I went to the bus stop, where a cat with bright green eyes was waiting, I think for line 36. He was sitting on the bench and I joined him. He immediately avowed his affections for me by climbing into my lap. Envisioning tiny fleas hopping onto me, I stood up, and he jumped down only to wend between my ankles. But surely the most remarkable stray story thus far happened at Haifa Zoo. I was familiar with this zoo from a lecture by Israeli zoologist Avinoam Lourie, but while I knew the story of its fallow deer population, I did not know about its otter-kitten relations. Picture this: four sleek otters, chirping at the zookeeper as he dumps in their lunch of fish; two scrawny kittens in the exhibit, peeking out from behind some rocks. Tentatively, the kittens approached the fish. The otters and kittens seemed equally afraid of each other, and when the otters backed off a bit, the kittens began to snatch fish, scurry back to their hideout, then return for more. Who knows, maybe the otters will embrace the kittens as their own and become a feature on an “unlikely animal friends” documentary.


5. Late-onset adulthood For the first time, I have to think seriously about budgeting, and cook not just for fun but so that I can eat. Life in Haifa is pricey. For example, a falafel sandwich–the “cheap” food of choice–costs around US$10. As far as cooking goes, using a gas stove is proving tricky. Given my absent-mindedness, I have serious concerns about accidentally leaving the gas on and suffocating my flatmates. While the electric stoves I’m used to have clear numbers marking the heat of each burner, here there are only cryptic drop symbols. Before I try to bake anything, I’ll have to convert temperatures from fahrenheit to celsius to the numbers on the setting dial. Needless to say, it might be a while before I make an unscorched batch of cookies. At least I’m used to cleaning my own space…although my attempt to use the vacuum cleaner, a “Vampyr” model that lacks both fangs and decent suction, required a lengthy struggle just to find the power cord. (It retracts  into the body of the beast.)