National Geographic Moment: Gecko Vs. Praying Mantis, Bungalow Porch

Alicia got the shot; I can't take credit.

So I love traveling sola. You know that by now. But one of the great things about traveling with friends—and fucking cool friends at that—is that they open your eyes to things you’d normally never notice. You end up, say, in a towel at 11pm on the porch of your bungalow in the Kep hillside, watching a gecko and a praying mantis the size on your middle finger in a life-and-death stare-off amid the rafters.

My best friend Alicia is a science lady. She’s a taxidermist and has a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of animals and insects. I know shit about science, skirted through classes in high school with charm and wandering eyes. All bird calls kind of sound the same to me, but Alicia will pause, listen, then tell you all about the species that made the noise, usually some cool anecdote to go along with it. It’s kind of like having your own personal nature guide.

So when she stopped in her tracks along a dirt road outside one of the Angkor temples, I knew it had to be something good. She brushed off a frenzied pile of ants, stared at the dead body that had caused the swarming excitement. “Oh, rad!” she exclaimed, carefully picking up the insect, an unhatched cicada. She explained the reasons behind its rarity while sliding it gently into used film canister. She was bringing it back for a co-worker at Academy of Science.

And so when she tapped gently on the door to my bungalow as I was stepping out of the shower, I knew I’d better open it. “Hey,” she whispered in the glow of the porch light, “check it out.”

It was the biggest praying mantis I’d ever seen. Which isn’t saying much, since I’d only seen my first a few hours earlier. But it was big, is the point. It was near-frozen, its head bobbing gently as it stared at a small moth.

“Look,” Alicia pointed to a green head peeking out behind the rafter. It was one of the big geckos, the kind that makes the belly noise you hear in the night all over this region. I’d never have seen a big one before.

“A stare down?” I asked.

Alicia nodded. “They’re both ambush predators, so they’re waiting for someone to come close.” The praying mantis was waiting for the moth, unaware that the gecko was waiting for him. “They could sit like that all night.”

I shrugged, clutching the towel around me. “I’ll give it a few minutes.” We stared, surrounded by the buzzing blackness of a tropical evening.

Suddenly, a huge moth swooped by. The praying mantis forgot the tinier moth sleeping on the rafter, which darted away, and lunged towards the larger moth. They danced like that for a few flurried seconds—nimble bright green chasing a flurry of grey and black wings. “Oh damn!” we exclaimed. It was like a nature show, gone live.

The praying mantis leapt toward the mammoth moth, not realizing it was landing within reach of the gecko, who’d held still throughout the chase. One swift dive, and the mantis became nothing more than thin green neon hanging out of the mouth of a darker, reptilian green.

The gecko slunk behind the rafter to consume its prize. Both moths had disappeared into the night.

“Well,” I said, nodding, “that was fucking cool. Thanks for the heads up, dude.”

“No problem,” Alicia laughed. “Little excitement for your evening.”

We said good-night and disappeared behind adjoining doors.

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7 Responses to “National Geographic Moment: Gecko Vs. Praying Mantis, Bungalow Porch”


  1. 1 Nick April 26, 2011 at 8:59 am

    Jealous! Cool thing to witness.

    And – say hi to Alicia for me!

  2. 2 Bill April 27, 2011 at 2:27 am

    The gecko was one of a cast of thousands that accompanied us during our tours of duty in the Vietnam War. It makes a noise that sounded to us then distinctly like a certain commonly used expletive. Upon hearing it for the first time right by our ear at night out on the perimeter, it gave us the startling impression that Charles had just snuck up on us to say F.U. just before wasting us. So we called him the F.U. Lizard. I mean, everybody else in Vietnam was cussing at us, so why not the lizards?

    About Kep, if you were to travel a little further down that road you would come upon Sihanouk’s beachside villa. There’s a friendly guard who directs the yard crew that takes care of the villa grounds. The villa itself is little better off than the others and pocked with bullet holes where the Vietnamese navy fired away at KR defenders from the sea. Even after renovating and developing that little town, Kep will never be what it once was before it all came to an end. All that is forever gone, an unrepeatable moment in time. However that may be, it is today a laid-back slow paced kind of place and good for unloading one’s mind of all the stuff that accumulates in there.

    • 3 laurenquinn April 27, 2011 at 7:48 am

      Amazing! This is my fate with this trip: finding out about cool shit after I’ve left a place… Will for sure check that out in the likely event that i return. Thanks!

  3. 5 LEAH April 27, 2011 at 8:43 am

    Love it! Like something from a NatGeo nature show.

  4. 6 Lauren May 9, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    It’s strange to think that life and death battles like this are going on just outside our ‘bungalow doors’ all the time.

    Very cool story.

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Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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