Post 262: the gift (re-edited)

Mandarin ducks don’t occur in Western Nebraska, not naturally. There are people who raise exotic birds who sometimes breed these handsome little Asian birds, and one time (October 1992) one managed to land at Laing Lake, where he spent the winter among a small flock of six male and female wood ducks.

A woman visiting from Arcata, California, a birder, spotted the Mandarin duck. She was very excited to see this life bird, but hesitant to count it because she didn’t think they occurred here.

She contacted the local newspaper and talked with the managing editor, who sometimes wrote about birds in his column. He suggested she contact me since I had some notoriety as the person who had the first and only ever Nebraska phainopepla appear in his backyard.

The phainopepla stayed a couple of months, used the bird bath for water but found food elsewhere. I took photos and reported the sighting to the Nebraska Ornithologists’ Union, the organization that reviews rare bird records in this state and determines what class of record to accord each one. Mine got a Class 1 – Photo, just about as good as it gets.

The managing editor felt I probably was sufficiently competent to answer her question because of the phainopepla, but it was just a matter of dumb luck that it chose my backyard and is an unmistakable bird for purposes of identification!

Margaret called me, told me about the duck, which I hadn’t yet seen. I knew wood ducks were up there, having seen them earlier in the season, but the Mandarin duck…! Though I had no doubt she’d see the real deal because they are unmistakable, I told her it probably was an escapee from an exotic bird farm. I promised to go up to the lake and verify the sighting just the same.

After verifying the sighting, I called Margaret back to let her know she was right about the bird, and had she taken any birding outings since coming to Nebraska? She hadn’t, so the next few months I introduced her to the areas and birders that make this part of Nebraska a great place to bird.

The story of the friendship that blossomed is long. It turned out we shared identical tastes in hobbies, books, and music. As far as birding was concerned, Margaret was super at shorebirds, my weakest area for identification, and I was stronger in Eastern birds, many of which occur here along with their Western North American counterparts and, of course, local birds. We were a complete team in the field, though she found the Western Nebraska birding by car method strange enough to comment on! (You have to move around to find the little buggers!)

She had personal family reasons for being here, reasons I needn’t discuss. By late spring of 1993, she returned to Arcata. She came back here for a short time later, but by 1994, she returned to California for the rest of her life.

It turned out that her daughter’s boss at the time was a hobbyist who made decorative duck and shorebird carvings when he wasn’t tied up with his work as an attorney. Coincidentally enough, he also was from Alliance, Nebraska, where I live! Margaret asked him to make a Mandarin duck as a gift for me. He’d never seen one before, but, working from photos created this:

Picture 256 mandarin duck

Margaret died in 2006 from cancer. Her gift is one of my prized possessions, a remembrance of a friend who was good company, a great birder, had excellent taste in new authors she shared with me (and I shared my favorites with her), and classical music (she liked late Romantic and Modern; I like Baroque, Classical, and Early Romantic). What we shared in person and in our letters made Margaret the best of friends, even though she and I spent most of that friendship 1435 miles (2310 km) apart.

One idea she had and shared that really stuck with me had to do with fate. She was a daughter of Polish immigrants. She wrote a brilliant commentary back to me about a Rameau opera I shared with her (“Les Boréades”), noting that had her family not come to America, she’d be a farm woman pulling potatoes out of the ground, unaware of this exotic music only the upper class heard and enjoyed in Rameau’s time. “We live in the best of times to have access to such beauty!”

RIP, Margaret. I think of you each time I see this little carved duck. Oh, yeah, same with blue-winged teals in all those little puddles and lakes in the Nebraska Sandhills. That little puddle duck you were so excited to see, that I found too common to get excited about every time you pointed another one out along the road now is “our bird” as much as the Mandarin duck that brought our paths together in the first place.

Yeah, blue-winged teals are special, too.

comparisons: a brief walk through two cultures

I used to write an Indonesian guy. Over a thirty-five year correspondence, the one thing he never understood was that while Americans make more per year than the average Indonesian, the prices we pay for a given item here reflect that higher income level. I tried to explain this using costs of common items.

“A knit shirt costs X dollars here, and you pay X Rupiahs for the same or similar shirt there. Your price is very cheap to me, but proportionately equal to what I pay.” He informed me that imported items there had a stiff luxury tax, and told me that his boss bought a new Jeep Cherokee for $52,000 there at a time a Jeep Cherokee here cost roughly half that amount!

He wanted things made in America, though, and when I did send him a knit shirt, it was a terrible fit on his slender Indonesian body. Never mind: It was “Made in America”, something none of his friends had!

Among the things he wanted (“gifts”, which he itemized in letters…!) was a telescope, an item I regarded as a luxury at almost $400. He researched the availability and cost with an American company, even “pre-ordered” the telescope, telling them I’d pay for it with my credit card! Helpfully, he gave them my address so they knew where to send the pre-order invoice.

[A taste of Indonesia…]

As you can guess, when I got the notice from the company, I wrote a letter saying my Indonesian friend hadn’t told me he was doing this, that I couldn’t afford a $400 telescope, let alone pay to ship it to Indonesia.

Further, I told the company, even if I could come up with cost to ship the telescope (almost the same as it cost, within a few dollars!), there was no way I could afford the luxury tax (again in the 100% range for a telescope) that Indonesian customs would charge.

I told them to cancel the order. I’m glad my Indonesian friend didn’t have access to my credit card information!

I wrote my Indonesian friend a letter, too, noting I couldn’t afford the telescope, which was a base model that had accessories one could order later. That is, I could order later since he couldn’t afford these more modestly priced accessories, either. I pointed out the cost of shipping it by air (the only practical way, for safety) was nearly the same cost as the telescope itself.

I brought up the tax matter. I mentioned how packages I’d sent him in other times arrived there rifled by Indonesian post office employees, sometimes with items of value removed for personal use.

[The national emblem of Indonesia features the Garuda.]

He’s the one who brought that to my attention when I mentioned a postal clerk in Surabaya wrote me a letter, noting he got my address from a letter I sent my Indonesian friend. He also noticed I mailed packages to this friend, contents of which the customs tags applied by me at my local post office helpfully itemized and gave the price of. That’s what caught the postal clerk’s attention, made him think I must be rich. He, in proper Indonesian fashion, listed some “gifts” he’d like to receive from America, too!

“Don’t write him back,” my Indonesian friend warned. “They take things from packages, and when I report it, they charge me [some fee in Rupiahs I don’t recall, but a bribe in fact] to search for the missing item in the post. They never find it because they steal it for themselves. He’s a thief.” Plus, he noted, if I sent the postal clerk gifts, I’d have less money to send him gifts…! I’m sure my eyebrows arched at that mention.

My Indonesian friend had a BS in geography from a reputable Indonesian university. He came from a family that had a rice farm, a batik factory, and some connections. His father was a tailor who’d fought against the Dutch in the war for Indonesian independence. He’d left his son with his wife, my friend’s mother, in a secure area in East Java. She died, and my Indonesian friend went to live with his father’s family. His grandmother is the person with the rice farm. She had him till he went to university. The father sort of disappeared, and I never learned his fate other than my friend felt his father deserted him.

[Making batik by hand. Again this is longish, almost 17 minutes, but it shows how involved and arduous this process is. The cousin whose father owned the batik factory send me a batik sarong with a Garuda theme.]

A degreed Indonesian in the time we wrote was one of very few in the country, where most people were lucky to graduate high school, if that. I never understood why he seemed so needy for things when his position, his education seemed like a key to success in his country. His personal history could account for part of it, but I also wrote another Indonesian, a cousin whose father owned the batik factory, and she was needy for things, too.

In time, money came between us. I couldn’t afford the friendship or the endless requests for gifts. The camel’s back broke when I got a neatly written letter in perfect school English from my Indonesian friend’s oldest child, who’d taken a few of her friends to the local KFC to treat them to her “Sweet 17” birthday! The money spent, the family in none too solid a financial circumstance, the father having given his daughter the go ahead to do this then write Uncle Doug for the cost, I definitely felt used and obligated. I sent enough to pay for the party plus a small amount more, and wrote my friend a letter noting I no longer could continue the correspondence. I claimed health issues, which, ironically, did come to pass: Be careful when telling lies!

I had one more letter from him. He enclosed several Indonesian stamps, a brief letter, and a request for a $50 bill, because he’d never seen one before! (Hell, I rarely see them myself fifteen years later! Ha!)


Balinese horse carving, one gift from my Indonesian friend.

Balinese horse carving, one gift from my Indonesian friend.

Epilogue: I had an opportunity to talk with an Indonesian exchange high school teacher who came to teach in my town one year, an unlikely event. I told her about my Indonesian connection, and how I enjoyed things Indonesian, including Gamelan music. I put on one of the Gamelan records the cousin whose father owned the batik factory sent me. The teacher, a young woman, seemed stressed. With some effort I got her to admit that she was proud of her heritage, but the music was “old fashioned”, like you or me listening to J.S. Bach. I took it off, and she was grateful!

I mentioned the gifts my Indonesian friend asked for. She was appalled, “Indonesians don’t ask for gifts!” I guess I met, by mail, the only three who did!

I don’t regret the contact. I treasure the experience. We grew up together. I learned a lot about his culture, his Muslim faith, and even got a few nice gifts in exchange from him over the years, though the exchange never was equal in monetary value. The payback was in something I carry with me even to this day.