AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is an account of my experiences with the Macaca Nemestrina Project in Perak, Malaysia. Since, I don’t have great internet connection, each blog post will be an account of 3 days. I will try to explain biology jargon and/or provide links for them. But I’m pressed for time as internet is precious and I use Starbucks’ wifi (shoutout to Starbucks for all the caffeine). Excuse the atrocious spelling and grammar. I’m using a tablet and I miss MS Word pointing out my errors. Photos are more difficult to upload but I’ll figure out a way to do it later, and hope that my words are enough to paint a picture. Please read the previous posts for context. Feedback and questions are appreciated. Curiosity drives us. It drove me to this adventure.
10th February 2017- Down the rabbit hole
Anna and Mimi were working the morning shift today. Michele and I had time to unwind in the morning, listen to Orioles singing, watch sunbirds glistening and I chose to get over my fear of torture of the protagonist (spoiler alert!) and finally finish George Orwell’s 1984. I spotted our camp cat Mieza, who is a bit of a spoilt brat bring something in his mouth. “Is that half of a rat?. Did Mieza- incapable of chasing after house-geckos or birds catch a rat?”. Michele and I celebrated on Mieza’s part while he growled defensively as I tried to take pictures to show his mommy Anna who was going to be very proud. Of course Michele would have preferred if he didn’teat it at her hut’s doorstep.
We reached the reserve and parked the bike. Mimi’s message said that they were close to one of the makeshift bridges- Bridge 2 but in the forest. We went to the vicinity and realised that ‘bridge’ 2 isn’t very stable. So I, being the non-novice of the two decided we could take another route I knew. I knew the area was swampy but this was the other ‘swamp’ of the forest so we had no other options. Communication via phone is really difficult but according to Mimi’s message they were quite close to the edge so we headed in that direction, calling out their names. It was another series of contorting bodies, getting spines in our hair, stepping on vines that wouldn’t break easily and falling in mud in the process. We were so close to the edge and yet we couldn’t hear the macaques. Well, there was a whole lot of rustling but that’s because even a small breeze blowing through Pandan, the leaves of which have serrated edges (making you glad the trees are reall tall) made a ruckus.
After getting stuck in the mud…and I mean really- trapped at least once each, the walkie-talkie finally worked. Apparently Mimi, Anna and AMY had gone out into the plantation near the aforementioned ‘bridge’. Okay…”deep breaths I told Michele- we have to go back”. Probably the same way because we don’t know a better one”. So we went, this time avoiding places we knew were risky…..and we still got stuck in patches we didn’t think could be bad. We stumbled out into the plantation, with mud till our knees and spines in our hair. AMY was there, quite close to the edge, munching away on fruits and Anna and Mimi were sitting around with them. They hadn’t moved too much apparently which is usually a bad thing because it means after they have eaten they’re gonna want to move to digest most of it (They always carry snacks in their cheek pouches of course). So we bid Anna and Mimi adieu and waited around with AMY. Over time, they seemed relaxed enough to come down and walk in the grass. They crossed over to the other side of the road, swinging and jumping over the moat while we felt inferior and looked for a land bridge to do the same. Norbert and Pippi’s romance continues and he often bows down so low to pucker, we wonder how he doesn’t have a crick in his neck yet. Mina is still being courted by younger males. While Biru, who has begun swelling is hanging out with Anakin and Oliver while ignoring the always enthusiastic, tormenter of juveniles-Phoenix. We spotted Oliver eating a rat, pulling it with his strong long canines that put you off from any feelings of “AWWW he’s adorable” forever. Norbert got rejected by Pippi after a few sessions of mounting and decided he was going to sit and bask in the sun and all his alpha-ness and…poop (Coz why not?). Mina too, surprisingly had caught a rat and its surprising because we are always worried her movements are hindered by her humongous and cumbersome-looking swell.
They hung out at the plantation for a while but were heading back through bridge 3 now. By this point though, I thought “How bad can bridge 3 be?”. It seemed okay and we had a machete. We made a slightly unstable make-shift bridge with oil palm leaves and decided to swing across when if the water got too deep. The murkiness of the water doesn’t help in judging depth and sticks to measure depth are useless because depth may not be uniform everywhere and sand shifts under weight-something the stick doesn’t help judge. We got over to the other side. We could still hear AMY which was a relief but the sight in front was a little daunting. Though not spiny, the path we wwere planning to embark on was filled with bushes and bushes growing wild have stems everywhere, curled around each other. I cut quite a bit until Michele offered to do so. So I let her go in front She cleared a bit and took a step forward to clear the next lot. Unfortunately she couldn’t have known that what she was stopping on was not solid ground but a tangled mass of stems and roots which gave way under her feet and she was stuck , one leg up to her thigh. With no strong trees nearby for support to pull herself up. But there was me and her upper body strength (probably mostly her upper body strength) and she was free. “You know what, let’s go in through bridge 2 after all” was all I could sheepishly say.
And this time we were careful and efficient although both of us had already got water in our boots from attempting to cross through ‘bridge’ 3. This time we tried to follow our instints and based decisions on where we best thought AMY would be. The pandan trees were not helping and we strained our ears, hoping AMY would make some unmistakable sounds. Finally we grew exhausted of fighting the spines and the swamp and sat down. only to see slowly apporaching us was Febe and her baby. Felicia was behind them Norbert was walking carfully so as to not step in muck. AMY was here and we rejoiced at our skill (okay mostly at our luck). We followed them as closely and as quickly as time would allow. I sat down to wring the water out of my sock when I found a fallen log not surrounded by swamp. And apparently Oliver had the same idea for a good resting spot. He saw me, I saw him. He didn’t pucker. He knows he is intimidating, and walked towards me. He was too close and I wasn’t done putting on my socks as they were too wet. But as I got out of the and stepped into mud, he decided he wanted to go in another direction anyway and I laughed at our second ‘almost-encounter’.
The rest of our time with AMY was considerably relaxed and they slept in an area difficult to access if you didn’t know how to get there without getting stuck in spines or mud. Which is good considering they are a vulnerable species and their nomadic lifestyle and weird sleeping site choices probably protect them. Pamkin and Phoenix didn’t go up trees when the others did. She is swelling again and in the absence of macaque witnesses, wanted to procure a series of mounts and Phoenix was only too happy to oblige. They finally climbed up and all was peaceful. We got out of there as quitely as we possibly could.
11th Feb 2017- Arrested development
Mimi had gone early in the morning based on the co-ordinates of the sleeping site Michele and I had provided. Nadine came around in the morning to chat with us, discuss Michele’s and Anna’s research plans and general project-housekeeping (Like maybe carrying an old-school compass incase none of the devices worked….she’d read my blog from when Vino got lost).
There had been no news from Mimi in the morning so at around 11:30 I sent her a message asking for current location. Even by the time we left- at around 12:30, no news. We parked at checkpoint 2 and went into the platation at checkpoint 1 hoping that the reason Mimi hadn’t bothered to respond was because they would be immediately visible to us. But that wasn’t the case. And then I realised that from Checkpoints 0-1, reception was hard to come by so we scoured the aea. The plantation workers were around to harvest oil-palm bundles and load them in trucks. This was probably deterring long-tails as well who were surprisingly quiet. Suddenly I thpught I could use the walkie-talkie. I had just charged it before coming. Except I had forgotten to put it in my bag! I felt incredibly foolish and sad for Mimi who might be stuck inside without a form to communicate. But before I could beat myself up about it, Michele received a series of messages from her. She was still in the swampy area in Checkpoint 1. Co-ordinates had been sent at two different times so we followed the GPS to the latest location. It turns out the latest location was not too far from where they had slept last night. We could follow the same path we had now followed atleast 6 times in the past 2 days and Michele finally got frustrated with the spiny stem them got stuck in her hair all 6 times, so it wouldn’t bother her a 7th time.
We called out to Mimi when we got to a particularly muddy patch in order to decide if we should brace ourselves to go through but she was quite close. And then, as if to answer all our questions and shepherd us to safety, Franzi came out into the clearing we were in. Emma, Febe and her infant, Renate, Emily. The males started coming toward us, munching on whatever they thought was worth trying out and scratching themselves to contentment. Turns out AMY-lazing around had not moved too much. Mimi was annoyed as she wanted them to move as this was the only way she might have a chance at phone reception. But, all was well. And I apologised profusely for being careless and not bringing my walkie-talkie. I was also jealous of her because them having not moved too much means they balance it out by moving a bit too much when we are here- but first they need all the fuel from oil-palm fruits possible. Mimi left and AMY proceeded to the plantation soon after (Not before we witnessed Biru and Anakin secretly hanging back to mount while Franzi watched them disinterestedly), followed closely by us.
We sat down in the plantation. The grass here was higher and since the fruit-bundles were on the ground before the planation workers could come round them up, AMY was mostly on the ground. This was great chance for Michele and me to get up close to them. It was hilarious to see how juveniles were overly-curious about us when we were sitting and looked smaller possibly. Emmanuel, who is pretty small anyway had two stand on two legs to see over the grass and dropped fruits out of his mouth when he moved as his cheek-pouch was full. Phoenix came around, did the whole shebang where he comes quite close to you, puckers real hard, makes a move in your direction, before jumping into another direction and to safety. Except this time, he collided into Oliver who wasn’t gonna take this crap from a lower-ranking Phoenix and chased him. We were happy to note-Barbie, creeping in towards the end of the group but not ‘missing’ (usually presumed dead as females have no other reasons to leave- google female philopatry in primates)…yet. Anna will be glad. Norbert was up to the old-pucker, hope to mount and get groomed ritual with Pippi while Biru was growing in popularity with her growing swell. The day was cooler than usual because the sun was hidden by clouds and is usually what makes you uncomfortable when you sit,exposed to it in the plantation. But it seemed rainy and AMY showed signs they would go in.
It did rain and AMY climbed up and hunkered down in oil-palms’ crowns. Although the rain was barely a drizzle but thunder loomed up ahead. Mimi had apparently faced difficulties with the bike and had been picked up by Anna. There was an entire drama we had missed which came through when we got whatsapp for a few moments. The macaques had begun moving in. This time, we stuck to the route we knew and observed the direction they were headed in. Nevertheless, we were gripped by moments of sheer panic, anticipating disappointment if we lost them. But we persevered and finally, found them. They did seem like they wouldn’t go back into the plantation although a journey that had taken us 15 minutes to get to this spot would only take them three swings and a jump from the plantation. We stayed there for an hour to ensure that this was indeed the sleeping site. We were done earlier than anticipated and contrary to my expectation, AMY had for once decided not to move far up too eratically to keep up. But they’ll have their chance. We are going to be playing these games for a while.
12-13th : leaps and bounds ( Visa-run and Galentine’s day/birthday eve)
12th Feb, Sunday
I wasn’t working today and tomorrow as I do my visa-run to Medan, Indonesia. Sunday dawned sunny and I was sitting outside in the shade to avoid the opressive heat. I had basic travel jitters but most qualms I would have had landing late at night and Medan and leaving early in the morning had been taken care of thanks to my dad’s friend (shoutout to Bedi uncle), my contact, albeit in Jakarta.
Nadine dropped me at the Penang airport and offered to buy me food which gave her a chance to witness my healthy eating habits (I large order of McDonald’s fries). I got done with emmigration and security without hassle. Got onto the plane and wasted no time in falling asleep, wasting an opportunity to see Medan from the sky at night. it was a 50 minute flight and I woke up groggy. Immigration is always scary especially because this is the first time I’ve travelled alone to a country I need no Visa for. Ii is a big deal for someone with an Indian passport. I felt paper-less and un-legit though I needn’t have.
Got to the hotel, spent the night assuring my safety to everyone, watching TV and sleeping as I had to check out at 4:30 am tomorrow.
13th Feb, Monday
Got up on time (actually got up every hour because I’ve watched and been traumatised by Home Alone movies), took a hot shower, checked out and bought a ticket for the fancy (it’s well lit air-conditioned and HAS WIFI!!) train, which I slept on the whole time and reached the airport. The Kualanamu airport is biggish and well equipped and did well in serving my purpose which was to catch up on some zzzzzzzzs.But I was too panicky about the gates changing and missing the announcement so I deferred my zzzzs for when I got onto the plane. I landed in KL, “explained volunteering for a research project” to a suspicious immigration officer. Visited Masjid Jamek while I had some time and did some touristy stuff like shopping and looking for souveneirs that looked typically “Malaysian” even though they might have (and most probably are) made in China. Got back to the airport with plenty of time to spare to catch my bus to Sitiawan (also has WIFI! and AC- so it is fancy). Waited for an hour, saw my 3:30 bus leaving without me on it. Was told I had been at the wrong bus-bay the whole time. “7 to Sitiwan not 2”. Wow, all the panic and planning for what- this? Relayed the news to the girls who were to pick me up at 8 after which we were to go out to birthday dinner and cake (to celebrate Anna’s birthday belatedly and mine in advance). Had some Roti Canai and Teh tarek and decided that travel anxiety can suck it. Met a 60 year old Dutch woman who was chill AF considering she had lost her wallet, in a country she had just landed in. Felt like a petty brat and realised that people can have it worse. Didn’t miss the bus this time around. Got on it, sat in front to enjoy the view head on. Slept instead (Is anyone surprised at this point?).
Anna, Mimi, Michele and Vino had been at Starbucks so came to pick me up. I caught up with AMY-news after two days of not going. They had apparently moved from the swamp at Checkpoint 1 quickly moving through checkpoints 2 and 2.5 and almost to “the swamp” at 3 before changing their minds and sleeping at 2.5.
We got back home and it turns out the girls had boughta cake after all. And a gift from Mimi and a card made by Vino. Gosh! so fancy (No wifi or air-con needed ). Spent close to an hour engaging in weird conversation about imaginary friends, corporal punishments and Asian vs European parents.. Ate cake and drank tea, took crazy pictures and went to sleep (I’m not even going to defend myself).