Sunday, 25 August 2013

Alaskan dangers.

With my Alaskan trip fast approaching, I have become slightly obsessed with looking at videos on youtube. Not just any old stuff... I'm looking at footage of the Alaskan wild. More precisely, the wildlife going wild... bears attacking humans, bears attacking moose, bears attacking bears, moose attacking humans, wolves attacking moose, and so it goes on.

Alaska has some of the most dangerous animals in the world... Black bears, grizzly bears, wolves, cougars, mountain lions, moose, bison and coyote. And they will all be within half a mile of us at any one time. When we get further north, there is also the cuddly polar bear. Ahhh. Of these beasts, the ones known to attack most often are bears and moose. This is not something they do just because they feel like it though... it usually happens when they are hungry, if they feel threatened, or when they are mating or protecting their young. And what months to they mate and breed, I hear you ask? Well, they mate in September and they give birth in Spring. Oh joy! So we're going in full-on rutting and bonking season!

I do understand them getting slightly irritated at this special time, I mean no one likes coitus interuptus. I imagine bears and moose getting pretty stroppy when they are making their smooth moves with their particular love interest, a Barry White track playing in their heads, when an annoying tourist totally ruins the mood by taking a flash photo. I watched a youtube video of a woman getting head butted by a moose in Anchorage. The moose was minding its own business, eating some leaves off a tree, in a park, when this stupid woman creeps forward, standing about ten feet away from it and starts snapping away. The moose turns around, a little camera shy, and carries on eating. So she then walks around it and starts taking photos from the front. Ok, so now the moose is peeved. It snorts at her and still she carries on. But then it suddenly charges forward and head butts her. It must have been like being hit by a car... She falls to the ground and then the moose just stands over her and gives her a kick. It actually looks quite funny because the moose sort of looks over its shoulder, making sure no ones looking before giving her the boot. She was soooo annoying, I would have done the same. Poor moose.

But my God, that would have hurt. Both grizzly and moose adults can reach a weight of 1500 lbs. So, just imagine 7 of me, tied up in a bungee cord, and then thrown at you. Ouch! But at least moose are herbivores, bears eat meat. They eat humans. So if you come across an angry bear in the woods, it's not going to just give you a kick, it's going to eat your face.

There is varied advice on how to survive a bear attack. The first and most important rule is... try not to bump into one in the first place. But if you do, your defence will differ depending on if its a black bear or a grizzly. Black bears are smaller, are very fast runners and can climb trees so you won't be able to get away. Therefore the advice is to either: play dead or fight back. Oh great. Playing dead means they might bite you a bit and then get bored but it says 'don't even make a noise if its attacking you, you must really play dead no matter what it does'. So don't be pathetic and scream as it chews your arm off. Just be quiet! I'm not sure that's possible... So the second option is fight back. Hmmm. Really not sure about this either. I could do the same moves I've learnt in self defence. Spray them in the face with mace, knee them in the balls whilst sticking your fingers up their nose and gouging their eyes out. It could work.

Grizzly bears are more dangerous however. They are slower, but larger. They are always grumpy and will get even more irritated if you spray them in the face or attempt some amateur 'tae kwon do' moves on them. According to one hunters blog, even shooting a bear will just 'tick him off', unless your aim is really good and you get him right in the head. In fact, the last paragraph of his website says, "If you are unarmed and attacked by a grizzly then chances are, you will end up as bear poo." Great!

But my favourite piece of advice was on a tourism website, and I have to say, I love their sense of humour. They advertise Bear Insurance... and when you read the paragraph underneath, in small print , it says:

Alaskan Bear Insurance: Finding someone in your group who is slower (and usually fatter) than you.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

The man that is Alaskan.

It seems Alaska has a reputation for a particularly unusual phenomenon. I'm not talking about the stunning scenery, the wildlife, the history, the folklore... I'm talking about the abundance of men. Whenever I tell friends, family and the occasional stranger, about my planned visit to Alaska in two weeks time, the most common replies seem to be: "Ooh, are you going to find yourself a husband?" or "Ooh, I hear there are a lot more men than women over there, lucky you!", as if my prime reason for going is to nab myself a native male. 

But my curiosity was piqued, so I decided to do a little research, purely for scientific reasons you understand, and it's true... hallelujah. Alaska has the highest man-to-woman ratio of any state in America, or as the Alaskans call the rest of the US, the lower 48th. Very intriguing. So I dug a little deeper and found out why there were almost five men to one woman. Very simply, the biggest industries in Alaska are Timber, Oil, Gold, Fur, Fishing and Hunting. So, even in our progressive, equality-driven modern times, these are still very much male dominated work places. It's not that we can't do those jobs (eek!), more likely, it's that most women aren't stupid enough to do them. We don't really fancy getting tossed around in the deepest coldest ocean in the world, developing frost bite and losing fingers to ferocious King crabs in the Bering Sea; nor do we really like the idea of standing in a field, in the middle of nowhere, waiting for crude oil to explode all over us; nor do we want to spend our summers, smelling like dead ferrets in a forest inhabited by wolves and grizzly bears, whilst skinning rabbits for breakfast and shooting things. They're just jobs we would simply rather not do. But these jobs are hard. The men that do them are tough, so if you want a manly man, maybe you'd better come with me.

As you can imagine, I am not the first person to have discovered this. Women have known for years! Organised tour groups, full of hungry females, fly in from all over the world to find themselves a husband. They arrive in Anchorage and then spread out, covering huge areas, like a lusty forest fire. Even Oprah Winfrey got in on the act several years ago, and flew 20 single Alaskan bachelors in for her show, to see if she could find them a wife. There are also many, many dating sites, but the best one I found, has to be If you like a full figure and a beard, you're in luck ladies! 

But it seems Alaskan men have different priorities than most males we're used to. They don't want attractive, funny, sexy, intelligent women, with soft skin, big boobs and white teeth... Actually, they do want all that, but what is more important to them is if you can wield a chain saw, chop wood and catch a fish. It helps if you are also a fabulous cook, great in bed and won't scare the wildlife without make-up, but having practical skills is the main priority. The kind of woman who could wrestle a coyote while downing a pitcher of beer... now that's wife material. I read an interview with an Alaskan woman about dating, and her advice was to go 'au natural'. Her claim to fame was coming first in a hairy-legs competition in her local bar. All the guys thought it was awesome, she said! And her prize was a date with any guy in the bar and some moose meat! Now that's my kind of place.

Some Alaskan men do sound like they have a few wolves short of a pack, though. I'm not referring to city dwellers here, but the men that make their living off the land and sea, bullied by nature in unforgiving conditions, for months on end. Fishermen and hunters, especially, lead very isolated lives, slugging their guts out for two thirds of the year, and then returning to so-called normalcy for the long cold winter, trying to keep sane until Spring comes again. It's got to make you a little nuts. 

I found this joke which sums it up perfectly...

Three Alaskan men are sitting around a blazing campfire, exchanging tall tales about how tough they are. "I was hiking through the forest," began the first, "when a 10-foot tall bull moose with a 90-winch rack stormed out of a thicket and charged me. I grabbed him by the antlers and wrestled him to the ground and beat him senseless."
"That's nothing," said the second. "I was fishing, when a 2000-pound grizzly bear came after me and my catch. I ducked as he swiped at me, jumped on his back, strangled him and then skinned him with my own teeth."

They all turned to the third man, waiting for his story. He didn't say anything - just sat there stirring the coals with his bare hands.

If you are imagining George Clooney right now, all handsomely rugged in a lumberjack shirt and big boots, tough and mean on the outside, but underneath it all, a sweet, charming, warm-hearted, sensitive soul who just wants to be loved, by you... aahhhh. Think again! These men are hard through and through! I read about an American woman meeting a guy in a bar in northern Alaska. George, she said, was wearing a wolf-fang necklace and a freshly skinned racoon hat. But what had really put her off, was a large red scab on his face. When she asked him about it, he told her it was where he had burned off what he thought was a cancerous mole, but rather than go to the hospital which was hundreds of miles away, he just did it himself using some kind of acid. 

It reminded me of one of the best quotes I have read about Alaskan men:
The odds are good, but the goods are odd!

Friday, 16 August 2013

Turning into my mother.

Well, as of this afternoon, I have officially turned into my mother. 

As we get older, we start to recognise certain behavioural tendencies in ourselves. Habits that once incurred eyeball-rolling and embarrassment when our mothers did them, we find ourselves adopting with more frequency. In my case, talking to strangers for no apparent reason, using particular expressions in conversation, physical mannerisms and even strange noises escaping my body, all seem to be creeping up on me. But today I did something that only my mother would do. 

I was happily minding my own business, sitting on the top deck of a London bus as I travelled home through south London, when I noticed a good looking, clean cut, well dressed pair of young men at the next bus stop. As they boarded the bus and came upstairs, I looked them up and down and whispered to myself.... Mormons!

It's quite easy to spot a Mormon these days. It helps that the musical, "The Book of Mormon" is currently the hottest ticket in town, and the poster advertising the show depicts a handsome young man with short cropped hair, wearing black trousers, black shoes, white shirt and black tie, jumping euphorically in the air, grinning a white toothy smile and holding a bible under his arm. For years, they have been wandering through London, always in pairs, stopping to talk to strangers while seducing them with their all-American good looks and lovely manners as they brainwash them into joining their Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But now, the notoriety of the show has made them a curious intrigue and much more recognisable. 

They walked past me and headed for the back row of the bus. Annoyingly, they were just out of earshot as they began to chat to each other and I knew I had to get closer.

Eavesdropping is an art... too far away from your victim and you only manage to pick up the odd word or sentence, leading to excessive neck craning or covert lip reading. My mother was once so involved in a couple's dinner conversation at the next table, that she leant back in her chair to hear better. Every few minutes she would lean forward and in hushed tones, relay their conversation back to us... updates on who was having affairs with who, and so on, until she got so overexcited that she pushed her chair further away from our table and tipped over backwards! Eavesdropping is also hazardous if you get too close to the unsuspecting party, because you risk being found out. You may suddenly nod in agreement with something they've said or react verbally, 'Nooo, he didn't do that!', as if you are part of the exchange. 

I judged, by the volume of the Mormon's voices, that I needed to sit about two rows in front of them for optimum aural satisfaction. But how to do it without them suspecting? Aha... and then it came to me. Thank goodness it was a hot day. I quickly looked around for a closed window, spotted one just in front of them and then fanned myself dramatically with my newspaper. I got up, opened the window and sighing contentedly, sat down. Genius. They began talking about their families (very large by the sounds of it) and how much they were missing them; they talked about being in London and how strange it was; about their mission and spreading the word; about what they were having for dinner and what kind of cooks they were; about their flat mates; about God. I was absolutely in the zone... totally transfixed. 

Suddenly they stopped talking. A large black man, wearing a very 'bling' tracksuit, trainers and baseball cap, sat down in front of them, on the opposite side of the bus to me. One of the Mormon guys nudged the other, and quick as a flash, leant forward, proffering a business card and said, 'Hi there, can I give you this?", with a very charming smile. The man took it, looked at it, sucked his teeth, and frowned. I thought that was it, but then the Mormon guy shifted forward in his seat, so he's right behind the guys shoulder, and says, "Are you from Africa... are you Christian?". And smiled again. 

I must have gasped loudly... Oh My God! Not only had he talked to a stranger in public (very odd in London) but he had gone for the double whammy question. Race and religion. This Mormon had balls. I held my breath and sunk down into my seat. The black guy turned around very slowly in his seat and stared at them. And then his face suddenly lit up and with a look of astonishment, he grinned and said, very loudly, "Yessss, I am from Africa. I am from Nigeria. Yessss, I am a Christian". What? This was too much! I turned around and actually gawped. I couldn't help it. Of all the black men in south London, they managed to pick the jovial African Christian. These guys were good.

At this point, I realised I was fast approaching my bus stop and needed to get off. At this point, I also realised I had turned into my mother because instead of getting off, I continued three more stops, going totally out of my way, just so I could see what happened next. The only difference between my mother and I, is that she would have already introduced herself to the Mormons and the African man and joined in the conversation. I'm not quite there yet... but there's still time!

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Modern day chicken rustling.

A few days ago, I was shopping in Sainsburys and noticed an alarming new security measure. In the fresh meat aisle, everything priced over £6.00 had a security tag on it, which meant that if it wasn't deactivated by a cashier at the checkout, you would set off a very loud alarm as you exited the building.

Now, I have heard horror stories from friends in the country who's chickens have gone missing. The usual suspects are ravenous foxes who decapitate the poor things, leaving a horrific mess of blood and feathers as their calling cards. But apparently, as the price of organic and free range meat increases, humans are at it too. Nipping over the back fence in the dead of night and helping themselves to a nice Sunday roast.

In Sainsbury's, a large, free range, organic, British chicken is now priced at an eye-watering £12, (that's $20 for my American friends). So more and more people are stealing them from supermarkets as well as country gardens, hence the new security. The lady at the checkout told me that hundreds of pounds worth of meat go unaccounted for, every single week. Blimey. But where do they put them? A leg of lamb is not small, nor is a juicy 2kg chicken. You can't just stuff it down your trousers and hope for the best.

In our latest heat wave, the residents of London are leaving very little to the imagination in terms of clothing. Crop tops and hot pants are hardly chicken rustling attire, so I can only think that our modern day meat thieves are pushchair-toting mums or modern day bohemians in very accommodating kaftans. Slipping raw poultry under your child's bottom would be the perfect smuggling diversion. No one would question a toddler having a screaming fit... it's an everyday occurrence in most supermarkets. They would never suspect the tantrum was caused by a squidgy cold chicken, shoved hurriedly, under their innocent derrières! Genius. As for kaftans (and burkas for that matter), they hide a multitude of sins. Wearing either, allows lumps and bumps to go unnoticed. Again, perfect for shoplifting.

I bought my chicken for £12 today, sweating slightly as I put it in my bag. I will feel great about it when I roast the damn thing though, won't I? I had the choice of a cheaper chicken, still free range but I know THIS chicken will be more amazing. From the beautifully written short story on the front of the label, I know it's had a wonderful life... running and jumping in green meadows, eating golden corn as the sun goes down behind leafy oak trees, scratching happily in the dirt until bedtime, and then snuggling down in their straw-lined nesting boxes, under the roof of a stunning custom-made coop, all in the wilds of a beautiful village in Wiltshire. Aaaah.

Happy, joyous, perky, yummy chicken. Now where's my damn kaftan?