I was in Lisbon a couple of weeks ago attending the World Championships in slow pipe smoking. I didn’t win. And to be fair, Lisbon was a bit disappointing too. However, I did get one of the best experiences of my life out of the trip.
My room mate and travel companion went down with the strange sickness that had gripped some of the others of our group of twenty and decided to spend a day in the hotel. Not wishing to get involved with the great party of people that were off to see something I’d already visited, I decided to go and see the Lisbon Zoo. Not the world’s largest, nor the world’s best, but a pleasant zoo to visit and well worth the price of the entry ticket.
The zoo enclosures are made of the usual stuff. Wood, wire and concrete. The more dangerous animals are enclosed by stone walls and one is provided with a safe area to stand and view at one end of the enclosure. The walls of these enclosures are fitted with armoured glass windows where they are adjacent to a pathway. Such it was, with the chimpanzees. Having found one of these windows, I stopped to view the chimps in action. While watching them, I decided the time had come for my midday pipe and placed my pipe bag in the window on the ledge, if one could call it a ledge. The alpha male chimp saw me there and came charging across the grass, showing me all his teeth and making a great show of his strength, not to mention his size. He sprang up onto the window ledge behind the glass and sat down in the window, inches away. An impressive animal. His underarms the size of my thighs. His fur, or is that hair (?) coal black and shining. Shoulders like Schwartzenegger. I have never been this close to a chimpanzee, let alone the alpha male in a flock. He was huge. Powerful. Awesome.
Not wishing to antagonise the creature, I decided not to make direct eye contact with him. I wanted him to stay there so that I could get a good look at him. Instead, I rummaged in my bag and found a pipe, unpacked it from its glove and stuck it in my mouth. This was followed very closely by my chimp observer. Then, replacing the pipe glove into my bag, I pulled out my tin of tobacco, took my pipe out of my mouth and filled it, returning the pipe to my mouth when I had finished. The big chimp studied all this and then, suddenly, he was gone.
Oh well, I thought, it was fun while it lasted.
Another chimp immediately took his place in the window. I returned my tobacco to the bag and suddenly the big fella was back. He chased off the interloper and reclaimed his position in the window. To my absolute surprise, he had gone to fetch a short piece of a branch which he then stuck into his mouth, imitating my pipe!
Chuckling softly to myself, I struck a match while hiding the flame from him, and lit my pipe. Once I was puffing smoke his interest seemed to go up a notch. He leaned forward to study me more closely.
I obliged him by sitting up, as he had done, on my side of the window ledge. Now we were facing each other diagonally across the window each leaning up the sides of the window and the glass, opposite each other.
And there we stayed, much to the amusement of passersby, for about a half hour. Me puffing on my pipe and him gnawing on his stick.
We nodded, exchanged glances and occasionally our hands met on the glass. Two contented souls sharing the afternoon break, separated only by a sheet of armoured glass, a 2% difference in DNA and about two million years of evolution.
I know people took pictures. I hope they put them on the internet.
Finally, there was some disagreement among the other chimps in the enclosure. His presence was required. He looked at me as if to say, “Oh well, back to work.” and then, he was gone.
I decided the interlude was over, picked up all my belongings and ambled off up the hill past the enclosure. There were lions and other things to be seen, but that half hour with my simian cousin will stay with me forever.
I wonder, who was studying whom? And will he remember the time he spent with me…?