With an address and a mobile phone number scrawled onto a piece of paper I jumped into a taxi and headed towards the Singaporean suburbs. Away from the glossy façade of the CBD and the bizarre spectacle that is herds of businessmen, complete with neckties and suit jackets, galloping hurriedly around the humid tropics. Away from the ever expanding waterfront and labyrinthine shopping centers with super-powered air-conditioning units hell bent on bringing about the next ice age. I headed to the land of sprawling high-density buildings, or ‘HDBs’ as they’re more affectionately known, the Singaporean government’s solution to housing the exploding population of their over achieving isle.
On an island nation, smaller in area than Las Vegas city, and a population of over 5 million (and growing!) space is a diminishing treasure. With no space left to spread the only way to build is up. Towering high-rise apartments rocket forth from the ground in tight clusters. Each cluster forming its own small community with shared gardens, playgrounds, hawker centers and convenience stores. Around seventy percent of Singapore’s population now lives sandwiched amongst each other in HDB apartments. Standalone ‘landed’ properties are mostly reserved for the super wealthy or lucky inheritors.
As our car followed the valleys between these mountainous high-rises my taxi driver gestured into the distance and told me he doesn’t live far from here. He boasts about his humble HDB and how lucky Singaporeans are. Despite being a staunch supporter of the Peoples Action Party he is still amazed at their political integrity. He admitted that when you have a single political party in power for over 50 years people are likely to start crying foul and cast suspicions of corruption and suppression. However he proudly asserted that this is not the case in Singapore. The PAP, he declared, have maintained their position of power simply because they are so damn good at running a country. A statement he refreshingly justified with his catch cry, ‘I have my job, I have my HDB, my children go to good schools, what more could I ask for?’ After my brief introduction to Singaporean politics the taxi driver pulled over and pointed to the nearest cluster of HDBs. ‘There, that one,’ he said and wished me a good day.
Once out of the taxi I rang the mobile phone number and arranged to meet my host outside his apartment building. His name was Shaik and he came accompanied by his brother. We exchanged pleasantries and he introduced me to his brother who, confusingly, was also called Shaik. ‘He doesn’t talk much,’ said Shaik number one pointing to his brother. This was confirmed with a bashful smile and a nod from Shaik number two.
The Shaik brothers led me into the building and we shared an excruciatingly long and silent elevator ride up to level goodness-knows-what of his impressively vertical apartment building. With apparently beaming pride he welcomed me into his home. I was rushed through the living room and out onto the balcony, as he apologised for the cramped conditions of his humble HDB. I couldn’t help but think that his ‘humble’ public housing was bigger, newer and much better furnished than my overpriced Sydney apartment. Once out onto the balcony I was met with two impressive spectacles. Firstly, the nauseating view from this high-rise balcony onto the community gardens below finally confirming just how high we had travelled in that elevator. And secondly, I bore witness to the pride and joy of Shaik number one, his labour of love and the reason I had come to visit him. Here on the balcony of a small suburban apartment sat an extensive invertebrate zoo. Mesh cages and Perspex boxes stacked neatly on shelves enclosed a menagerie of cockroaches, mantises, stick insects, spiders and scorpions. I was in the presence of a truly word-class ‘invert nut’.
Many live blissfully unaware of a certain class of people that find themselves inexorably drawn to the niche hobby of invertebrate husbandry. When in the presence of a cockroach, spider or fly, it is generally accepted that a reasonable persons response would be to squish the creature out of existence with the nearest newspaper or thong (read ‘flip-flop’ for those of a North American persuasion). We load our supermarket shelves with canisters of insecticide spruiking their ‘Super-Kill-Technology’. We line our windows with tropical grade fly screen and encircle our homes with ant killing powder, like some sort of pagan circle of protection guarding out souls from invasion by miniscule six legged demons. The desire to avoid the odd case of malaria and a fatal spider bite here and there is all well and good but it seems that our over exuberance in ridding our lives of small black living dots has created an extreme degree of animosity between ourselves and the invertebrate world. Invertebrates (worms, spiders, flies, wasps, crabs, you name it!) make up over 97% if all animal life that we know of. Isn’t it strange that we live our lives in denial that it is their world that we live in? The fact that they are even considered animals in the first place comes as surprising news to some people.
On a side note do you even know how fly spray works? It has to do with the transmission of signals along nerve cells. When an electrical impulse is being transmitted from one part of the body to other this signal has to be transferred across the imperceptibly small gap between adjacent nerve cells. To do this, our nerve cells release a chemical called acetylcholine, which is detected by the neighbouring cell thus transmitting the signal from one cell to another. Congratulations you now know what a ‘neurotransmitter’ is! Now this neurotransmitting chemical can’t just stay there otherwise the signal pathway will remain open and the nerve impulse will keep firing over and over and over. Allow me to introduce acetylcholinesterase, the enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine once it is released, thus turning off the nerve impulse. And thank goodness for this little gem of an enzyme, can you imagine a living without it? Well you couldn’t that’s the point, our nerve cells would just keep firing and firing and never stop. Imagine the agony of flexing a muscle only to find you cannot relax it again. Imagine that muscle getting tighter and tighter straining your tendons until you feel they’re about to, tear away from the bones they’re attached to. You try and pull your limb the other way, activating your opposing muscles only to find that they too once activated cannot relax. Every minute nerve impulse intensifies. Your entire body tenses and you writhe in agony as every muscle in your body fights a futile battle pulling every which way with constant unrelenting tension. Panicking you try to gasp for air only to find that your diaphragm muscles have contracted, pushing all the air out of your lungs. Your diaphragm won’t relax, you can’t breathe in any more air. You’re going to suffocate. But lets not forget, nerve cells aren’t all just all about muscles, they’re the wirework of our whole central nervous system. Sensations of pain never subside. You close your eyes but it stays bright, the nerve cells that transmit that light information to your brain wont stop firing. Your mind is riddled as all of the nerve cells that make up your brain start firing and never stop. One can only image what the hellish reality of such a sensation is. Are all of your stored memories relived as they rush into your consciousness to all in a single instant? Every pain, every triumph, and every mundane moment you had completely forgotten about relived instantaneously, unendingly. Add to this incomprehensible flood of neural information the sensation of your body spasming, skin buzzing and internal organs squirming. And you will continue like this until your body is drained of all its energy. Perhaps your brain will shut down as you suffocate from lack of oxygen. Perhaps your will feel your muscles wither and you will be left paralysed as your body squeezes out the last drop of its stored chemical energy.
Can you guess where I am going with this? That’s right, fly spray. Your run-of-the-mill fly spray works by inhibiting acetylcholinesterase. It binds to this chemical and stops it from breaking down neurotransmitters, thus keeping the signal pathway open. Now I want you to think back to the last time you used fly spray. You saw little Mr. Fly and thought to yourself, ‘Oh my, what if he lands on my decorative grapefruit, what will the neighbours think’. So you went to the cupboard, grabbed a brightly coloured canister of fly spray and gave Mr. Fly a little squirt. A little cloud of actetylcholinesterase binding mist fell over the fly. The fly’s trachea (weird insect breathing tube things) sucked in the mist and delivered the chemicals directly to the body cells. After a short pause Mr. Fly gave a little buzz, a little flutter of wings, perhaps a little shudder of his legs. And you said goodbye to Mr. Fly as he writhed in unimaginable agony until certain death. You’re such a jerk sometimes.
Don’t get me wrong I think humans are great! Some of my closest friends are human. Aside from the odd bit of death and torture people are generally fascinated with animals. There are those who surround themselves with as many cats as their sheer sanity can handle, and then add some more. There are those who, at a certain silver haired age, have the desire to sew sequins onto a fluoro blouse and choreograph so called ‘dance’ routines with their beloved and bewildered kelpie. Others decide to spend their entire retirement savings on plane tickets to Africa, all matching khaki coloured exploration attire, a $600 pair of binoculars, a $5000 camera they haven’t figured out how to turn off yet and the biggest goddamn bowie knife money can buy. All so that they can sit in an air conditioned “safari-van”, pull up to a docile looking elephant, snap off a few photos forgetting that they have left the lens cap on and then get back to complaining that their socks are too tight. They’re usually German for some reason.
Then there are the invert nuts. That special class of person that lies at wake at night sleepless with worry over the fate of so many mistreated mosquitoes being thwacked and swatted whilst buzzing around their neighbours’ houses. Well that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but these wonderful people spend countless hours devoted to actions that would seems strange to most others. I’ve known those who snuggle for comfort amongst the prickly exoskeleton of their pet spiny leaf stick insect. I’ve consoled teary battlers following the unexpected passing of their favourite hissing cockroach. I’ve listened to tales from dedicated nutters who have nursed their giant tarantulas back to health after a nasty fall, staying up until the wee hours of the morning delicately suturing exoskeletal wounds back together with superglue. It is these devoted, passionate and down-to-earth people that I, in the most adoring manner, refer to as ‘invert nuts’.
And my new companion (Shaik number one) was an absolute bona fide nutcase. He excitedly started pulling out containers to show me his prize cockroaches, stick insects and giant snails. But it was evident that his true passion was the bizarre and eccentric praying mantises. Praying mantises are arguably some of the most charismatic of insects. Being the only insect that can turn their heads they have the endearing habit of following you with their gaze as you move around them. Their large glossy eyes and enlarged striking limbs seem disproportionate and are unfortunately often described as ‘alien-like’. If you want to see some of the most bizarre and weird looking praying mantises then you would do well to head to forests of South East Asia, where many of Shaik’s prize specimens had come from. He handed me a twisted and delicate specimen of a praying mantis pointed eyes and bright green fronds projecting from its exoskeleton. ‘It’s a lichen mimic!’ he squealed excitedly. I was left holding this unreal twig of walking lichen as he bustled off to grab another exotic creature. As he held it out I could tell it was a Deroplatys, an incredible animal I had only ever seen pictures of. Brown all over with a striking angular body it was the spitting image of a curled up dead leaf. But enough of these distractions, it was time to see what I had come here for. Shaik reached up and took a large enclosure from the top shelf. He held it out to show me its contents. Almost forgetting about the lichen mantis that had made its way up my arm and was making itself comfortable perched upon my ear I peered inside. Unexpectedly I sighed with relief, perhaps I was now assured that these animals actually do exist and are not simply some figment of my imagination, or some grand hoax I had fallen victim to. After reading so many accounts, hearing so many rumours and seeing so many photos I was finally able to look upon them with my own eyes. There in front of me was a real live orchid mantis.
Stay tuned for part 2…