During a visit to Egypt in 1982, Marlene Robinson’s traveling group wanted to ride camels to the pyramids of Giza.
But in Robinson’s opinion, traveling on a camel’s back was just Icky.
“I wasn’t going to do it,” said the Arroyo Grande woman. “I didn’t want anything to do with the smelly camels.”
Eventually, her friends and husband — noting the gray-haired ladies who seemed to have no problem riding the single-humped dromedaries — shamed her into it.
“It led to quite an adventure,” she said, looking toward a glass display case, “ and a camel collection.”
For nearly three decades after that trip, Robinson’s friends purchased camel souvenirs from around the world and sent them to her as a playful reminder of that Mediterranean cruise — and her reluctance to get on the even-toed ungulate.
“I have forgotten where a lot of them came from,” she said. “But it was almost like every camel had a story.”
Garudas on guard duty
When The Tribune asked readers to share stories of their collections earlier this year, several wrote about collections related to animals. Those readers touted their flamingos, zebras, lambs, rabbits and frogs.
Ed Cobleigh didn’t have any flamingos, but he does have a collection of birds.
“The garuda is a mythical beast — sort of like a Phoenix,” he explained. “It’s half eagle, half man.”
Cobleigh first encountered garudas while stationed in Thailand during the Vietnam war. Later, as a civilian who worked in international marketing for a missile manufacturer, he visited the Far East several times for work. It was then that he began collecting garudas.
Most of them have similar qualities — bulging eyes, sharp teeth, long talons and spread wings. Some are wooden statues, others are masks, featuring fine detail and an array of colors.
And, for the most part, they’re pretty freaky.
“I saw these things, and they’re so ugly that they’re really attractive,” said Cobleigh, of Paso Robles.
Like the eagle to the United States, the garuda is Thailand’s national symbol. But to those in Hindu and Buddhist faiths, it takes on an even greater meaning.
“The idea is you put them in the highest portion of your house to keep evil spirits at bay,” he said, then added, jokingly: “And so far it’s working — there are very few evil spirits here.”
While he doesn’t subscribe to that belief — nor does his wife, who’s not a garuda fan—he does have a colorful 3-foot garuda over his doorway. The rest of the 25 or so birdmen are dispersed throughout the house.
“I have one of them over the computer,” he said, “but it doesn’t keep the evil spirits out of the computer.”
Zoned in on zebras
Bonnie Zaikowsky’s collection of zebra-related things dates further back than Cobleigh’s garudas or Robinson’s camels.
She was attending San Diego State University when she got her first of 60 zebra mugs in 1970.
“My last name starts with a ‘Z,’ and lots of people think that’s why I like zebras,” she said, while wearing a zebra shirt. “But I got my first zebra before I met Mike Zaikowski, my husband.”
When she found her first mug — at a White Front discount store in San Diego — the graphic arts major found the black and white contrasts appealing. Later, as an elementary teacher, she would use the zebra in art class to illustrate contrasts.
Meanwhile, her collecting habit would continue through the decades.
“If I saw one, I felt like I had to get it—whether I liked it or not,” she said.
In addition to her zebra mugs, she also has zebra photos and figurines.
“I don’t want to sound like a hoarder, said Zaikowski, who also has a smaller collection of rabbit figurines.
When Zaikowski recently retired, after 35 years of teaching, some of the kids in her class made zebra cards for her as going-away gifts.
Like Cobleigh, Zaikowski is still open to adding to her collection. But Robinson said she’s done — and recently made it known to friends.
“I just said, ‘The collection is closed,’ ” said Robinson, the former development director for the Festival Mozaic. “I don’t have any more room.”
The 75 camels — some made of wood, leather or metal—are mostly confined to a cabinet in her living room because she doesn’t want the animals to spread through the house.
“I’m not a real collection person,” she said. “This just got out of control.”
Yet, the camels she has will always recall fond memories of her trip to Egypt and of her late husband, a banker whose 50th birthday inspired the trip.
While she has urged friends to cool it with the camels, she appreciates the unique gifts they gave her.
“I feel blessed that people think about me when they see camels,” she said.