The One with the Orangutan

Last weekend I left cold New York City and headed for the perpetually sunny climes of San Diego. (Seriously, the cushiest gig around must be that of meteorologist in San Diego.) I went to visit dear friends who had the good sense to Escape from New York some years ago a la Kurt Russell.

It was a whirlwind, but an absolute treat to spend time with friends I hadn’t seen in years. (Hello!) The cherry on top of the sundae that was my trip involved a stop at a dog beach in Del Mar. Dogs! Frolicking! On the beach! Yes, please.

San Diego Dog Beach

San Diego Dog Beach

For much, much better photos of San Diego, check out fellow bloggers Carole and Scott.

Side note: Reggie has only been to the beach once. The small waves on the Coney Island shore scared the beejezus out of him and he wouldn’t go in the water.

Gratuitous shot of Reggie on the beach at Coney Island.

Gratuitous shot of Reggie on the beach at Coney Island.

While this trip was rather low-key, a previous visit to San Diego wasn’t as uneventful. That trip was dual purpose: visiting friends and attending a writer’s conference. (Check out Susie Lindau’s eye-opening post on what it’s like to attend one of these conferences.)

We’d had some fun-filled excursions to the Hotel del Coronado, La Jolla and Old Town.

San Diego Sunset

Sunset at the Hotel del Coronado

Hotel Del Coronado San Diego

The Hotel del Coronado, built in 1888. (Like my Lomo filter?) 

The day before the conference, my last free day, we were going to the San Diego Zoo. I was looking forward to seeing the California condors. Another side note: In 1982, only twenty-two birds remained in the wild, and they were in imminent danger of extinction. The zoo began the first breeding program in the country which has been quite successful. Now 413 birds are in the wild.

That morning I went out for an easy run, winding my way through suburban neighborhoods with no sidewalks. About one mile away from the house, I fell. Not a sort of graceful swaying into a swan dive. Not even a tripping over my own feet Three Stooges style. Nope. To this day, I can’t even tell you how it happened. One moment I was running and the next moment I’d nearly face-planted on the pavement. Somewhere in the primitive part of my brain, where language doesn’t exist, I pushed my hands in front of me and likely managed to save all of my teeth and kept my nose in one piece.  What I didn’t save was the skin on the palms of my hands. I’ll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say, I was on new, intimate terms with road rash.

I managed to return to the house where my friends helped get me cleaned up. (They were real troopers because the wounds on both of my palms were stomach-churning.) Afterward there seemed to be nothing left to do but go to the zoo. I wasn’t going to let a little thing like deep abrasions and blood stop me from checking out the condors. And they were impressive. These birds have a ten-foot wing span and measure nearly fifty-three inches from beak to tail, but, how should I say this, they aren’t the most attractive species at the park. That award goes to the baby orangutans. You be the judge:


Um… Not the most attractive animal at the San Diego Zoo.

Baby oragutan

Aww. Look at his hair!

So we stopped by the orangutan enclosure. Some of the babies were playing and the adults were sunning themselves about twenty-five feet from the glass divider. They seemed to be oblivious to the throngs of people snapping photos. Then one orangutan broke away from the group and ambled toward me. We regarded each other through the thick glass. He pressed his hands to the glass and, even though mine were throbbing and bandaged, I did the same. I looked into his eyes and I saw recognition and compassion and understanding. There was a level of depth I’d never seen in another animal’s eyes. There were my eyes looking back at me. I felt like I had connected in that same primitive part of my brain that had reacted without speaking when I fell.

I know this isn’t a National Geographic photo. It’s grainy and out of focus and dark, and you can even see bits of the bandages on my palm, but it represents the beginning of a reorganization of how I viewed myself and the world around me.

San Diego Zoo Orangutan

Have you had a transformative experience on vacation?

Have a great weekend, everyone! 



  1. Ouch. I had a bad bike accident once in Dallas. God, I still have the scars. Sorry to hear about your “trip.”

    Let’s see–I’ve had so many transformative experiences while traveling, I don’t know where to begin. I suppose the most life-changing occurred in Haiti–post earthquake.

    Hugs from Ecuador,


    1. I can’t imagine going to Haiti after that terrible disaster and not be transformed. Through your writing, you really brought all of those experiences to life. And you continue to inspire me with your adventures in Ecuador! Have a great weekend.


  2. I swear- I’m on a mission. The use of palm oil in everything is wiping out the orangutans in Malaysia- they’ll be gone soon if we continue to support companies that use their habitat. How can you not want to save that sweet baby? We saw them in Malaysia and they are disappearing rapidly. So sad.


  3. Lucky you to be in San Diego! I was there this past summer on my roadtrip, and it is an incredible place. About ten years ago we went to the San Diego zoo as a family, and I felt precisely the same way. It was remarkable. We spent a significant amount of time with the orangutans and gorillas, each of us having a very similar connection with one or another of the animals — and watching as others did too. It was an incredible highlight of our trip that left all of us moved. (p.s. I’m so sorry for your fall and hand injuries — hope they’re feeling better now.)


    1. San Diego is a great place. It’s easy to see why people live there. I’m so glad that you had a wonderful experience with the orangutans and gorillas too. I remember watching this one silver back gorilla. He was enormous. When it was lunchtime, he went over to the zookeeper’s entryway and just sat there, waiting for them to come out. If I was that zookeeper, I would certainly make sure he got fed first!


  4. Thanks so much for the mention, Jackie. 🙂 You have some great photos here!
    So glad you visited last weekend, because it’s cool and rainy now.
    Very sorry to hear about the fall. You probably hit some uneven pavement. Hope the hands are healed by now.


    1. My photos really don’t do San Diego justice. But yours are always so colorful and bright. They could be an advertisement for the tourism board!
      PS — I should have been clearer — my fall was on my previous visit, not this time.


    1. It did heal, good as new. 🙂 The human body is amazing, isn’t it?
      The conference was everything you described in your post. It was my first and I’m naturally shy so I sort of slinked around all of the editors and agents, but it was wonderful to be with a tribe for a little while. 🙂


      1. I’d agree with you there. There were quite a few writers who had no qualms about going right up to an agent or editor and describing their stories. I’d need to take a Valium before I did something like that. 🙂


  5. I love that baby orangutan! How adorable. And you’re right, there is something about the expression of the adult pressing on the cage that looks so meaningful … Or was he fixated on a bunch of bananas you were holding out of fame?

    To answer your question, about ten years ago I accompanied a woman I recently started dating on a short business trip. I was not compelled to blab to my entire posse that I were taking off on a brief rendezvous with my latest inamorata. We spent a night at a Holiday Inn in Connecticut. When we returned I realized that I left behind a tee shirt that one of my longtime friends, Martini Max, had given me a few years earlier. I felt bad about that loss, but I figured “c’est la vie.” The shirt was about an Abbott & Costello event Max hosted (yeah, very sexy). Based on that event, the Holiday Inn found Max, who has known me for decades. I signed the guest registry, but since she picked up the tab, they did not have any of my contact information. I’m unsure why they didn’t contact her. So Max arranged to get my shirt. Then he FedExed it to my office with a note saying, “I believe this is yours when you were with your hot date in Connecticut. Fill me in on the details when you cool down.” We had a good laugh over it and before she and tanked a New York minute later, he did meet her. My transformative experience was to check, recheck and check again every hotel room I’ve been in ever since to ensure I don’t leave any evidence behind again.


    1. Priceless story, V! (Not unlike that t-shirt)
      Of course they would track you down for a t-shirt. Now if you’d left a piece of jewelry or expensive cell phone in the room, you’d never have heard from them again.


  6. What a great experience, not the fall, but “touching” an orangutan. I don’t even know what I would do if that happened. I love San Diego. One of my favorites places of all time, yet I haven’t been in over 20 years. Used to live two hours away.

    I have a habit of falling as well. I think there’s a ghost who follows me and waits for the most embarrassing moment and then it sticks its foot out. I fall for it every time. Sorry, couldn’t help it!


    1. What’s not to love about San Diego, right? Right now I’m thinking about how great it would be not to have to wear snow boots ever again. (Been cold here the past few days!) I hope you get to visit again soon.

      You definitely win the prize for terrible puns this week. 🙂


      1. There’s a prize! Yippie! Last week was really cold in London. Not so bad this week, but not great either. And I hope you don’t ban me from your blog after my terrible pun–is that the prize, have my privileges revoked?


  7. I winced and yelled NO at the fall. I think my biggest fear is knocking out my teeth. I’ve had nightmares about it. Really. Good thing you caught yourself or you would have traumatized the both of us.


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