Primate Diaries: An epilogue

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is an account of my experiences with the Macaca Nemestrina Project in Perak, Malaysia.  I am finally in a place with much better internet access. 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 and hope that my words are enough to paint a picture.

If not- follow me on twitter @mad_megs or instagram-meghamajoe for some images and videos.

Please read the previous posts for context. Feedback and questions are appreciated. Curiosity drives us. It drove me to this adventure

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EPILOGUE

 

It has been exactly a week since I left Malaysia. A lot of my important thoughts and experiences are chronicled already but I know that that’s easier to do. When my friends and family ask me to tell them ‘How Malaysia was’ I am overwhelmed with so many things to say and emotions and memories attached to them but seem uninteresting without context or a connected story. I find myself answering -“Awesome”, “Amazing”, “great” and “I loved it” which I guess is the jist of it and convenient to say because I can’t possibly summarise explain all of the things I experienced without prompts. Words are more important and lose meaning or change meaning over time. The pictures I took, so many of them, plastered across my social media- was amusing at the time and the most meaningful to me; to others who are bombarded with images everyday- it is but a small novelty, this passing moment of me reminiscing-and not well.

 

And yet I can’t help but reflect on what I experienced. I was anxious about jumping into a role where I believed my investment would never be as much since I was only volunteering. I was quite wrong. I thought living there would be filled with boredom and I’d be ‘slumming it’- it was more convenient than I thought. I thoroughly under-estimated exactly how physically strenuous the day can get and that I would eventually get used to it (I was wrong). I thought all this walking up and down and climbing would mean rock hard abs, killer thighs and brilliant upper body strength. I just have immensely calloused feet, a crazy tan and no perceivable physical changes. And yet I know that I am stronger- physically and mentally than I ever was before.

 

I thank anyone and everyone I ever crossed paths with. Most of all Dr. Nadine Ruppert for being open to experimenting- with people. That is how we all learn best. Trial and error. For all her support and her big-heart and jovial disposition. She has a vision and works on multiple projects simultaneously where she is equally actively involved and I hope to be able to do at least half of what she does. Anna, of course is my personal badass hero. She is silent and soft-spoken, so different from me- a different class of introvert. I have of course waxed lyrical about her enthusiasm for science, her speed of hill climbing and her uncanny ability to locate and keep track of AMY. Mimi of course has more similarities to me- a lot of it could be because of our cultures being similar and having similar problems but she is amusing as she is resillient and charitable. Plus she introduced me to paneram and minyak gamat and was my first guide into non-touristy Malaysia. Vino is my unlikely friend. This weirdo is the clumsy and fragile-looking but resourceful and brave. She watches creepy violent Anime and plays graphic videogames with tons of violence so you probably do not want to mess with her. And yet she is incredibly sweet and an amazing artist with an imagination that I can’t even imagine. Michele is most comfortable with her curiousity- about EVERYTHING. A trait she and I share despite our difference in opinion about many a thing. She is the yin to my yang. She is the most courageous of all the people mentioned above for coming all the way from the cold Netherlands, never having done this before, fighting her friends and family, even people at her University to prove that she is made of stronger stuff (SHE is). Leo and Lea- I of course didn’t spend as much time with them but they each add value to the project and to my life. Lea with her humble beginnings and big aspirations with a hint of practicality thrown in and Leo who is quite similar to me in his need to be wanting to analyse and be intellectually stimulated. And Ameer, who in close to 8-9 hours of interaction seemed like an interesting and passionate person.

 

Of course, I thank the macaques for bringing all of us together. Helping us discover things about each other and ourselves that we wouldn’t have done otherwise. We are all from different countries, educational and socio-cultural backgrounds but what binds us together is curiousity, passion and a hint of rebellion. The ability to critique societal norms. I am done with my adventure, my part in the story. But I hope each of us has been a useful addition to the story. As I contemplate my next step, I wish them all the best for their adventures to come.

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Primate Diaries: Final stretch

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is an account of my experiences with the Macaca Nemestrina Project in Perak, Malaysia.  I am finally in a place with much better internet access. 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 and hope that my words are enough to paint a picture.

If not- follow me on twitter @mad_megs or instagram-meghamajoe for some images and videos.

Please read the previous posts for context. Feedback and questions are appreciated. Curiosity drives us. It drove me to this adventure

____________________________________________________________________________________________

 
7th April (2 days to go): Good, Bad,Ugly

 

Anna had said the sleeping site was on the hill at checkpoint 1. “Well, that’s the smaller hill right?”. I was still basking in the glory of my feat of scaling the hill at checkpoint 2. “Well, yes” said Anna reluctantly “but the way is not as great so maybe we need to go slightly early. I mean, you do”. I said I’d manage. We had gone to watch Beauty and the Beast last night and Michele and I had had roughly 5 hours of sleep. And when I did finally reach the marked site after suffering a bruised knee and a throbbing head from having walked into a branch there wasn’t a peep, acoustic or visual-to signify the presence of the macaques. Michele was in the plantation, removing baits from the rat-traps and I needed to take a breather before anything else could be done. THIS MOMENT is crucial. You are tired, restless, anxious and disappointed all at once but also have to be hyperaware;cautious of every small sound or movement. And this panicky feeling is something I haven’t been able to rid myself of, even after almost 3 months of this.

 

Finally, I sensed movement in a clump of Bertam some 25 m higher up. Mina’s unmistakeable butt (Thank pig-tail gods for Mina’s permanently large swelling) peeked out. I stalked her obsessively till I spotted Curli. They were now moving to the highest point, a nice place albeit surrounded by ‘Bertam-barriers’ EVERYWHERE. Michele arrived after some confusion and a lot of adventures of her own I presume. ANd then we had some moments of calm and forced restfulness before she decided to follow and record Oliver’s behaviour. Luckily, he took his place on a rock just diagonally below us, thus giving us a great view. Michele identified the female grooming him as Febe, which in itself drew some raised eyebrows from us as Febe is not swelling and has only lost her infant about a month ago (they only start swelling about2-3 months after they lose their babies). We were hypothesising when Oliver, facing us and looking immensely relaxed decided to increase his pleasure by maturbating. We were both watching and noting it down when it seemed like he climaxed and also simultaneously attacked Febe who fell down the rock screaming all the way. After that seemingly unnecessary violence, Oliver resumed his previous poition, calmly licking semen off his hands and red penis. We watched the others for any reaction to the previous commotion- NOTHING!

 

After some time, AMY began to move down although quite slowly. We weren’t complaining. It could be quite dangerous to climb downhill fast. Goldie is still seemingly exclusively mating with Norbert. We went down the river after a while and AMY spent close to an hour there as well. When we did move again, the terrain had changed considerably and I had finally almost finished my id-check and catalogued some plants. My 10 leeces by 10 am had become 17 leeches by 12 pm possibly because I had been sitting near the stream. When we got close to the logging road, we reached a really difficult tangle of Bertam, rattan and spiny shrubs which meant we had to navigate through the weak spots. Michele had separated from me and the group while following Oliver and then had lost him and come face to face with wild pigs. I meanwhile was with Scarlet and Schatz grooming yet again which made me discover a hidden route to get out of the tangle. AMY and I crossed the logging road and Michele found us. SHe had decided to stalk Anakin but he was being even more jittery than usual. It didn’t help that Casimodo had sudenly decided to be extremely aggressive and eveeryone had become excited. Phoenix had snuck up on us and Michele decided to do him while we had time for our shift to come to end. I was just waching and celebrating Emma’s presence (I really don’t want her to ‘go missing’ while I’m here) when Michele cried out in excitement. FRANZI WAS BACK. The former “Heimdall of AMY” as I call him had become a rare occurance now, a peripheral, occasional presence in AMY like Jisuaf’s. Luckily for us, AMY soon decided to finally head out in the direction of the plantation, just in time for our shift to end. Leo and Lea were taking over, their first day together completely unsupervised by older volunteers and Anna.

 

We got back and had a relaxing lunch. Anna had had a not so relaxing day-off but we had got the Kembara back and decided to reduce her stress by accompanying her to set up the rat-traps for actual catching (three days before this was the pre-trapping period when we leave bait but the trap doesn’t shut on the rodent when the get the fruit. So they are moe likely to take fruit from the trap next time). Prior to that we thought we can go to the Segari Turtle Sanctuary, a place I’ve been meaning to go for so long. It’s quite easy to go from within the plantation but we realised that the Kembara keys were with Leo we decided to take the loong way around with the Ford. Anyway, we did have a good time at the turtle station. They have some Olive Ridleys and Green Sea turtles (these 2 species nest on the sea shores of Perak state) among others. Afterwards, we got to the plantation and set the traps so they actually close this time, which obviously took way longer than we had thought. And then we saw that an importnat piece that helps lock the trap was missing from one of the traps. Anna was crest-fallen. I volunteered to accompany her immediately with tools and wire to fix the trap asap.

 

On the way back home it had struck me that we actually had been extremely stupid. WE DID have another set of copies for the Kembara. The good news was, we could actually take the Kembara to fix the trap. We were on the way out of camp when Leo ad Lea arrived….a little earlier than expected. “Bad news. We had them the whole time, except they suddenly started to move at 6:40 down a really rocky hill and we lost them around 7”. We’d deal with this problem later, it is unlikely AMY would move far after this time. Indeed the WHOLE GROUP may not have moved. We reached the plantation at around 7:30, the light fading fast. We were so focussed on fixing the traps and staring at it through my head-torch’s light and that of our phones that we were a bit surprised when we were finally done (thick wire, two pliers and 2 very tired people). It was dark and other than the occasional firefly, every thing else was dark except the camp of the plantation workers in the distance. We got back to the car quickly before we could be even more creeped out by the eyes on the ground that belonged to animals larger than rats. Anna started the Kembara….or…..tried. Again, and again and again. We both looked at each other, “we had just got it back from the workshop, what the hell, it’s creepy here at night, aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah, oh f***” were some of the thoughts simultaneously running through our minds condensed into that look. I called Michele and quickly told her about our predicament though before I could tell her to come pick us up, my cell-phone reception was lost and Anna hadn’t had any to start with. This was the pits I thought before Anna pushed while I steered the Kembara into one to stay out of the way of tractors and trucks tomorrow. In order for any calls to be made, we would have to start walking so we thought-might as well walk towards exiting the plantation-towards home. Anna was glad I had volunteered, she really didn’t want to be in this situation by herself. Finally we reached a place where I called Nadine and Anna could leave a message on whatsapp in case Michele hadn’t heard the sheer panic in my voice when I called. We drowned out the eerie silence interrupted by frog and cricket sounds with useless banter and trudged on.

 

We were almost out of the plantation when we saw lights at a bend on the road. It was Leo and Michele on the 2 bikes and boy were we glad. It was close to 9 when we did finally reach. I have a morning shift tomorrow so I’m heading to bed hoping we can indeed find them at or near the sleeping site indeed.

 

8th March 2017 (LAST DAY OF WORK): Retrieval and farewell

 

Lea and I went upriver, climbing the dangerously sharp rocks slick with rain water and careful stepped on loose soil filled with bertam clumps. And the moment we got up with no breath left, it was immediately evident that AMY was definitely not here. But I wasn’t taking any risks. AMY can be super quiet. The rain this morning meant they might still be in the trees and in no hurry to make noise or wake up. But most of all I was afraid of not being able to see and follow AMY on my last day of work. Just then we heard faint sounds. OR we thought we heard sounds from downhill. But it could be longtails or just our imagination even. Eitherway, we went downhill, this time via a route I knew wasn’t as fraught with danger. At the river though, the silence was apparent. But we climbed to the hill on he other side anyway, a place they do usually sleep on in my short experience. We only had to reach a little high before I saw my first pig-tail for the day- a juvenile walking gingerly on a thin branch trying to get to the bertam nearby. After the relief, I immediately shared the news with the others back at camp and Anna and Leo who were stuck in mud with the car enroute to Nadine’s house (they did get rescued pretty quickly…relatively).

 

Lea and I had relaxed immediately and settled down for a bit of AMY-watching although on the edge of a wet cliff while monkeys are in trees is not the best condition to do so. We saw Oliver and both Lea and I exchanged tales of his masturbation (apparently Oliver had also masturbated MULTIPLE times later in the afternoon- good for you Oliver). Emma was alive and well and I was relieved yet again by her presence. Everything had grown quiet after around 5 minutes of activity. Luckily, I had the pregnant Scarlet in my line of sight and I wasn’t going to let her out of there. She swung from her sleeping tree on to another and then a third where she settled down. This tree, was big and on the stream’s bank, which meant the only way we could follow AMY was by climbing down the cliff (Damn our lost arboreality). Easier said than done. However, AMY didn’t seem to be going anywhere soon so we were able to climb down the path where I had retrieved the first machete from, with Leo. Indeed, the trees were quite tall and we followed AMY purely on sound for a while. We hadn’t stopped and rested much and I still wasn’t sure which direction the pig-tails intended to move in, and after the exhaustion from yesterday’s adventures, I was mostly running on ‘This-is-my-last-day’ juice. They moved a bit more and climbed up the same hill we had climbed this morning and stayed at the same site we had looked for them at this morning. “Don’t go to the checkpoint 3 swamp please” I prayed silently to the pig-tail god. They went into the large clump of Bertam and grew silent. It occured to Lea and me that we had both forgotten our machetes and this Bertam was thick and strong and entangled with other species of spiny plants. We kicked and pushed, got spines in our boots (Lea got one that pierced into her boot) and in our hair. Most times though we took advantage of our small statures (advantageous for once) and scraped by or crawled through the undergrowth like the pig-tails.

 

To add to all the drama, in last night’s confusion, Michele had forgotten to check if our GPS batteries were charging and now we were on our last bit of GPS power from the 3rd pair of cells. So we tried our level best to reduce our use of it. Lea had the GPS so I had no idea what was the closest place. We had come out of the bertam-barrier and were now on the other side of the hill close o the next stream with the checkpoint 2 hill on the other side. We had heard some individuals moving in his direction but now the sounds had stopped. I went ahead towards the stream but the source was revealed to be long-tails. Dusky-langurs spotted me wildy searching around for a sign of pig-tails while I panicked internally. It was so close to the end of our shift and my last shift. AAAAARRRGHHHH! But wait, Lea called out, there’s sounds closer to us. A juvenile- Felicia! and then Emily, Emanuel, Renate, Reggie and Febe. All going downhill. In our panic, we hadn’t realised how close we were to ‘The clearing’. Most of AMY was in the plantation and as if waiting for us (probably Febe and the others though), they began moving quickly into the plantation, at least 2 sections deep. And then I saw Franzi, the Heimdall of AMY and now rare-occurance. I silently went to ech individual and bid them adieu. They were the reason I had come here in the first place and despite my incessant cribbing, I was going to miss these monkeys. Anna and Michele came to take over and Lea and I returned home. I started my final packing- it wasn’t a lot of work. I met Ameer, the new volunteer who will travel across the country finding and collecting faecal samples of pig-tails for Anna. I got chance to learn about him and we all discussed where my farewell dinner was going to be.

 

Anna and Michele got back a little early and we decided to forgo our usual food-haunt for another one- a Malay sea-food place. Which unfortunately we couldn’t find but we went to another one and had some amazing fish (Siakap/sea bass), calamari fritters, tom-yam among other things. The Malay ability to eat so many things in such large quantities (like those of some people in Kerala too) amazes me still. It was bitter sweet, this meal and we were tired. I had done my last bit of work for the project and bought bright nail paint to mark the rats the project catches so they know they’ve done the individual if it gets caught again. We went to Tesco and I got some ready-to eat Laksa and pandan and normal Kaya for my family as ‘a taste of Malaysia’.

 

9th April 2017, Sunday: So long, farewell, auf wiedhersen, goodbye…ok now let me go…seriously

 

I got up early despite our late night because Anna was doing a full day today and wouldn’t see me before I left this afternoon. Goodbyes are weird. To me, even hellos are weird, or holding a conversation not related to work or studying or science or Harry Potter. But still, goodbyes are awkward and since I didn’t know how to put all my feelings into an eloquent cheesy poem, I hugged Anna and said “Thanks for everything”. She is a badass woman and I hope she knows that. I wished her all the best with everything and saw her and Lea off. After an hour, Leo and I went to the plantation to see if we had caught any rats. Unfortunately we hadn’t. I was hoping to process at least one rat but again this is a lesson about studying animals in their natural environment. No matter how well you have planned things, the animal is the one factor that you can’t control or manipulate and is also most crucial to you.

 

We got back and I sat around, washed my sheets and cleaned the hut, made sure the plant catalogue was complete or as complete as I could make it and dealt with my travel jitters by eating and keping myself busy. Soon, it was time for Michele and I to repeat the same goodbyes. Michele, being more expressive was also evidently sad. And that saddened me even more. We are both somewhat equally obstinate in our views, most are similar but some are very different and she and I have had some interesting debates. We wished each other luck and I saw her and Ameer off. Soon, Nadine came to pick me up and I rushed around to bid Leo and Lea adieu.

 

The drive to Penang took loner than predicted but I wasn’t too worried. I had received an email two days ago saying that although my class couldn’t be upgraded for the first leg of my trip (Penang-KL), I had now been upgraded to business class for my KL-Mumbai leg which is what I was also able to check in for. Nadine and I said our farewells. I could not have thanked her enough for the amazing opportunity I got, all the things I learnt, and all the networks she had set up for me in case I wanted to continue to work with primates. She dropped me and left for home. I entered and went to the counter and gave my ticket saying I wasn’t able to print the boarding pass. The lady looked at my ticket. “When did you book these tickets mam?”. “Well, a long time ago-obviously, maybe September or October”. “Actually mam, this flight has been cancelled. Didn’t you get an email day before yesterday?. And the other flight to KL just left, you should have coe earlier”. Now, I like to think that I am a calm person and can be assertive when I want to be. But such panic and dread means I squeaked and mumbled “What” a lot. I was surprised at how fast I composed myself and checked my emails. It turns out their records showed that I had got an email but my inbox and spam folder showed otherwise. And for once I was assertive. I was asked to wait. And I spent the end of my trip worrying whether I’s be able to leave that day. Luckily, the airline lady said they could put me on the next flight at 8:25, checking my baggage all the way through to Mumbai although it gave ME only 45 minutes to disembark, emigrate and get onto the next flight. I was moving in hilly terrain everyday and was at the peak of my physical fitness. It turns out that physical strain for 3 months was nothing- a fact I was made aware of when I rushed out of one plane to catch the other, emigrating on the way. The KL airport’s vastness and planning meant I had blacked out when I reached the gate H8 mentioned on the boarding pass I had been smart enough to print out in Penang. Only, I got there with 20 minutes till my flight to learn that the gate had been changed to G6. And if you though G and H gate should be close, you’s be wrong. They are in opposite wings. I ran as fast as I could- exhausted, my thighs and knees screaming with the surge of lactic acid. I did make it to the gate. People- definitely Mumbaikars were all crowded around the gate (No queue, lots of Marathi/Gujarati and talks about Mumbai traffic). I was relieved and annoyed to hear that the gate had changed thrice already when the gate just got changed a 4th time, to H10. So I went back to the same place I had run from, this time releived to be with people and not having missed the flight.

 

When we did get there, the gate had changed again. And this time, I didn’t have to get angry and fight. The Mumbai spirit did it for me. People refused to move and demanded to know what the hell was going on. They were sick of changing gates. The plane was supposed to take off in 10 minutes; a feat impossible if people aren’t onboard. We finally got hold of someone from the airline who informed us that the flight was delayed- by an hour and a half and then gave us the final boarding gate. I was glad my Business-class upgrade still stuck and I enjoyed some pampering for 5 hours to make up for my crazy day. I reached Mumbai at 2:30 am from the earlier 12:45 landing time. IT IS DONE- my Malaysia adventure.

Primate Diaries: 6 days of work to go

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 ccount 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 and hope that my words are enough to paint a picture.

If not- follow me on twitter @mad_megs or instagram-meghamajoe for some images and videos.

Please read the previous posts for context. Feedback and questions are appreciated. Curiosity drives us. It drove me to this adventure

 

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3rd April 2017, Monday (6 days left): Anticipation and wishful thinking

I accompanied Leo and Michele to Manjung. Michele wanted to revisit the hospital and I wanted to exchange some currency in lieu of my upcoming trip to India. Leo and I then went to Sitiawan so i could help him get to the shop where we had found our rain boots. And when we couldn’t find his size, we needed to look around a bit till we found them. The rainy spell seems like it is in no mood to stop and boots also protect against leeches who seem to love Leo, so we were glad we got something done.

We reached checkpoint 2 for the afternoon shift at around 1:10 to see Lea sitting by herself. The macaques weren’t around…neither was Anna. Turns out Anna and Lea had become separated about an hour ago. Not before they saw a snake in the forest which refused to budge. They had briefly been able to contact each other via walkie-talkie but the reception was terrible. Luckily, unlike when Vino was lost, Lea had a working GPS and had with some diffculty and another snake encounter, managed to get to checkpoint 2. Anna and us were still under forced radio silence. Lea’s track showed us that Anna and AMY were close to getting out onto the main road near checkpoint 3. This meant they were either close to getting out or already in ‘THE SWAMP’. I was really hoping I didn’t have to go to ‘THE SWAMP’ in my last week but AMY had other plans I guess. When we got to checkpoint 3 we could at least hear Anna better. Leo and I reached her co-ordinates and I asked her the dreaded question I really didn’t want to know the answer to. “Do you think they will cross the road and go into the swamp?”. And she tried her level best to be honest without deflating my spirit. “Sometimes they just turn a shap left and get out from there if you are lucky…really lucky, otherwise..”. I closed my ears. I didn’t want to hear the words said out loud. We bid her adieu and began our shift.

We completed the id-check because Lea had the tablet. Anakin was missing (Anna informed us later that he’d had an injury on his nose. Anna had witnessed Oliver, the beta chasing him and Goldie on separate occassions when they were mating. Maybe Anakin got it pretty bad from Oliver one time). We moved a bit so we weren’t with the males. Goldie’s swell was still on the rise. She seems to be the only one swelling as of now which meant she was quite popular. Norbert puckered at her but she ignored him. They were at the forest edge and Norbert suddenly jumped across the small moat of water and onto the road. And then…he just sat there staring at Phoenix who was on the electric wire. ON THE OTHER SIDE. I really hoped it was just Phoenix and some other males who were on the other side but feeding from the palms on the edge of ‘THE SWAMP’. Most of the females we were sure were still on our side. “Good girls, stay here with the juveniles”. My theory is that one strategy they use to decide which way to go is to contact call and see where most voices come from- and then head in that direction. This excess of females on our side gave me hope. Atleast until 2 minutes later when Goldie crossed over. Norbert was still in the middle of the road and only the rumble of a humongous truck roused him from his deep thought…enough to nudge him over to the edge…of ‘THE SWAMP’. By this point I had steeled myself to get ready for some epic betam and rattan spine fighting and to get drenched pants and soggy feet. Leo and I marvelled at our timing- he had shiny new rain-boots, just in time to enter ‘THE SWAMP’.

The one good thing was that we could see and I could point out each individual and their specific traits to Leo as they crossed the road, mostly on foot into ‘THE SWAMP’ side. Though we were still at the edge, most individuals had already climbed up and abandoned their terrestrialialty for arboreal means of travel. We walked into some mucky bits and I had already begun being super-cautious of dangling spines of death- the rattans. We kicked some bertam and stamped over a tangle of dried shrubbery- with spines obviously. Weirdly, I noticed that AMY still hadn’t begun going into the swampy bits of ‘THE SWAMP’ yet. They were travelling paralelly to the main road and TOWARDS checkpoint 4, which I thought was VOLDEMORT territory and unusual for AMY. But hey, as long as we weren’t super deep in the mangrove, there was hope that they would get out and not go in. We watched Febe get groomed, Mina slinking about and Tiga puckered at us. We kept going.

After a while, most individuals were up in the trees, making them difficult to identify and the few juveniles splashin about in the water had we fur making them also difficult to identify. Luckily we knew it was Dani, Charli and Curli. We watched them for a bit and finally found a place to sit down. It was becoming more swampy now. We realised that we couldn’t hear females anymore and panicked for about a minute but I remembered Anna’s adage and promise “we never lose them in ‘THE SWAMP’. I hope it applied to where we were and followed the 3 juvies we did have. We were reunited with the core of AMY soon enough. The rest of the time was comparitively boring-proof that we were technically NOT in ‘THE SWAMP’. We moved on to observing the rattan fruits and their patterns, writing letters in water with a stick and talking about the system of arranged marriages and the possible reasons for its existence in Indian society (Lea and I had started this discussion yesterday and she was flabbergasted enough to tell Leo who had follow up questions). We then moved on to superhero cartoons and movies and Dr. Who before it was 6:00 and we hadn’t moved in quite some time. The GPS told us what we knew. We were quie close to checkpoint 4 and AMY had never slept here in recent history. But I guess there’s a first time for everything. We stayed till 6:55 just to ensure they wouldn’t move. It was a different terrain, there was muck, mangrove plants but also huge boulders. We came back and informed Anna who too was surprised at the location for today’s events. Leo missed his chance to see the actual ‘SWAMP’ but I told him he mustn’t despair. He’ll have his chance.

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4th April 2017, Tuesday (4 working days to go): Expected

Couldn’t deny strong feeling that what was left undone yesterday would occur today. I was glad I wasn’t doing the morning shift alone. Lea and I drove directly to the access point near yesterday’s sleeping site. We were there by 7:25 but unfortunately today of all days was bright and sunny and it was pretty obvious to us that AMY had moved. They were gone without a trace and no one was more disappointed than I. All we could hear was the loud swoosh and flapping of the wings of hornbills and their cacophony of calls which in different circumstances would have been amazing (okay…more amazing). Searching for AMY is frustrating and physically and mentally taxing as you might know if you have read the multiple entries from all the times we have lost AMY. We decided that we would have to start the search at checkpoint 3 and might as well go with the bike and park it there. Enroute when we saw them, or some pig-tails. At first we thought it was VOLDEMORT as the individuals seemed to be running away from us. But they were calm after a while, the bike’s noise had perturbed them. And guess where they ran to- the official trail leading up to THE SWAMP. I had anticipated this for hours now and had my big machete ready for some spiny plant sap.

We entered the swampy bits sooner than I remembered having entered the last time. AMY was always around, hidden by the tangled mess of overgrown rattan and bertam palms, and classic mangrove pneumatophores stuck out for air in the murky water we waded through with difficulty. I had already begun swinging the machete with all my might when I realised we were in the middle of THE SWAMP already. A place where there doesn’t even exist a trail according to the GPS. Probably because there is no way you can avoid the water. I was contemplating my next step when the choice was made easier for me as my foot sank and got stuck in mud. So much for navigating so that my legs were dry. Who was I kidding. My boots, both of them were filled with water soon enough and this made it difficult to lit my feeet to stomp on the bertam barks to clear a path. I was just about to be sick of it when I saw something sticking out. This time it was not a water monitor lizard (true story) but a machete sticking out of the mud. I went to retrieve it and almost fell over and lost MY machete but no harm no foul. This was the second machete (though a bit more rusty) lost by those before me, that I had retrieved . This meant both Lea and I could hack some vines and palm stems like there was no tomorrow. In after what seemed like an eternity but was probably a distance of hardly 20-30 metres, we came to an opening. We could actually SEE more individuals now. I recognised this place. It was the little island of non-swamp inside THE SWAMP. The monkeys did seem to prefer this area and so did we. We actually finally sat down on a dry-ish, non-spiny tree bark and I could finally empty my boot yet again and wring my socks and hang them to dry for a bit. The macaques seemed more relaxed. Norbert was cleaning his paws and scratching himself while Febe groomed Felicia. We saw that Pippi had begun to swell again and Goldie’s swell was larger though not large enough to have Norbert follow her everywhere. The juveniles played quite close to us and Tiga tried to pucker and intimidate us. It was cute!

After about 40 minutes we began moving but not in the direction I hoped they would go. They seemed to be turning back albeit using another route which somehow involved less water and spiny palms so we didn’t exactly complain. At around 11:30 we reached a spot I liked a lot. It’s main feature was a gigantic fallen tree we formed a bridge over a swampy bit. It was frequented by long-tails too andled to beautiful inter-specific grooming and play with the pig-tails. Plus, it was open and less-spiny though surrounded on all sides by spiny plants and muck. Though we had no visual confirmation of their location anymore, I knew they were on the other side of that gigantic fallen tree. I was right. Febe foraged quite close to us and I was again relieved to see Emma. Casimodo slept in a branch diagonally above us while Pie, Lori and Pryde played behind us as we sat down and I emptied my boot again, this time to empty water and remove spines before they got lodged deeper into my foot. We talked about various topics, studies, family, important life decisions and anxiety about making the ‘right’ choices etc.AMY seemed to be in no mood to move anytime soon. We were pretty close to getting out of THE SWAMP but it was 1 already and we still hadn’t moved much. And then Anna’s voice crackled through…barely. While we tried to talk AMY decided to suddenly disappear without warning. Finally we heard a small sound and I relayed our co-ordinates to Anna. She got there really fast. Turns out WE were indeed quite close to the edge of THE SWAMP and not through swampy bits. Lea and I were more than happy to hand over the responsibility of AMY to Anna. We hoped for her sake that AMY was finally ready to leave THE SWAMP and head out (spoler alert- they did) and never come back ever again (probably overreaching here). We got back without incident and I slept my exhaustion off as best I could.

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5th April 2017, Wednesday (3 days to go): Slippery

I panicked and got up this morning when I heard the sound of rain pattering down hard on our roof. Luckily, it was only 3 am but this also meant the road was going to be more muddy and the forest too. Anna went to attend to the rat traps (we take out any left over oil-palm fruits in the mroning so the monkeys don’t take them and manhandle the traps they associate with easy food source). I had Anna’s instructions and the co-ordinates of the sleeping site. I had been warned that this was the place where AMY had often been lost because they tended to move quickly, often into checkpoint 3 if not THE SWAMP. It had happened the first time I went to THE SWAMP with Anna though I was hoping today was different because they are usually slow to start the day when it has rained. I blundered through the bushes and fell down twice in mud when attempting to climb up the predictably slippery hill. I finally got to the sleeping site and panicked before I heard two females. They were to my left somewhere and higher up. Anna was on her way up. Her GPS had lost satellite reception but obviously she reached my location with ease and without so breaking a sweat. Badassery at its finest right there and we must all aspire to be like that (apparently it takes more than the number of days I’ve been here).

We were just cutting and stomping through the bertam to get closer to the sounds when the rain began. At first I was so busy hacking away that I thought it was just the sound of crackling palm stems and the wind. We were actually protect by the tangled mess that was this thicket of bertam so we decided to take cover under it. We stayed there till 9 when the rain finally let up. The sound, just one female now seemed distant and we clambered to catch up. I had already found 6 leeches on me by this point and was glad to be on the move again. Though to where was the question. Even Anna was flummoxed. We decided to first go up and then down. Turns out going up was harder than we thought. After I broke through yet another ‘bertam-barrier’ we were facing a giant rock. We went all the way around it and reached the top, a place I did not recognise. AMY was not there. Second rain happened and we stayed for a bit before going down (mostly sliding and slippin on my part) to checkpoint 3. We were on our way to checkpoint 2.5 when we heard the gnarly kind of lost call I have heard both pig-tails and long-tails make. It was coming from ‘THE SWAMP’. Not again, I thought as we heard for more clues and decided to go in. We soon heard the male ‘trrr-trrr-trrr-hugh-hugh-hugh’ sound made by large males, both pig-tail and long-tail though. We stayed till we saw that there were a lot of long-tails so it was hopefully not AMY making the noises. It began to drizzle as we got out of THE SWAMP.

We walked to checkpoint 2 and were heading to the ‘clearing’ when we saw them. They had probably just climbed downhill and been at the plantation the whole time while we had spent close to 3 hours looking for them. Yep. it was 10:45 when we “Found” AMY. I immediately began to start doing the id check. Except most of them were still wet and in the trees making my job very hard. I had spotted Emily and Anna began a focal on her while I marvelled at a hornbill flying past repeatedly to feed its partner and chicks at a tree hole in my line of sight. This occupied me for a while till all the individuals came trickling back onto the plantation. And soon enough AMY was on the move. The sun was shining bright and soon it would get really hot. We reached deeper in the plantation. I saw Goldie eating a small rat, pulling on its innards with all her might. Would help to have canines like Norbert’s but teeth won’t stop my girl. I stalked her for a bit and collected her faeces. I had spotted Dani and Charli playing earlier and called Anna so she could focal Dani. I then walked over and hung out with Scarlet, Pamkin, Schatz and Goldie. Goldie had something in her mouth. Dark with its legs dangling out. Bent legs. And then she pulled it out momentarily just so I could confirm my suspicions. A frog of course (Got all Blues Clues there for a minute huh?). It was 12:30 when they crossed over the second moat into the next section of the plantation. I did another scan at 12:40 and bided my time till Michele arrived after her period of recuperation. I got back and took a nap because the heat got too much to bear and then got up to type this (I’m prompt with my entries now).

Primate Diaries: leaving, searching and running in circles (Days 72-74)

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 ccount 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 and hope that my words are enough to paint a picture.

If not- follow me on twitter @mad_megs or instagram-meghamajoe for some images and videos.

Please read the previous posts for context. Feedback and questions are appreciated. Curiosity drives us. It drove me to this adventure

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27th March 2017, Monday: Parting and meeting

We had a whole list of errands, buying items that Nadine had listed-including extra tubes for the bike wheels and tools. Leo, Vino, Michele and I got to Manjung at around 9:45 hoping to start early. But just because we are used to starting OUR working days at 6:45 doesn’t mean civil society and businesses are. Luckily one Chinese bike repair establishment was open. Vino pointed to the bedazzled Ganesha statue they had. Apparently they keep pink rice flour based things as prasad (snacks/offering) whereas the Indians stick to Laddoos. Luckily it was also near the veterinarian’s clinic. Vladmir/ Vlad, our latest kitten found by Nadine at the beach was not looking too good. He refused to eat or even move a little bit and Anna had decided it was best to take him to the vet.

We dropped Michele at the vet and ran the other errands, finding most things we were looking for. Afterwards, we picked Michele and Vlad up and I babysat him in the car while everyone else went to the mall to do a bit of personal shopping. Leo and I needed to join Anna for the afternoon shift so we decided to get take-away lunch.

We needed to slow down a bit after this chaos as this was also the moment to say goodbye to Vino who left to go back to KL today. She will most probably be joining Nadine’s lab at USM but fieldwork and volunteering with all of us means our moments and adventures together had come to an end. We hugged Vino goodbye. She will be missed. Of course I will stalk her amazing art on Instagram and think of her eveery time I come across creepy Anime. Mimi was first to go and now Vino. It hit me that I leave soon too (too soon?). It’s disconcerting and exciting at the same time.

Leo and I reached Anna and AMY in the plantation at checkpoint 1. I secretly hoped AMY was finished with all the moving this morning and were ready to take it easy. Anna was busy with her focals so I acted as Leo’s guide and taught him some more individuals. We didn’t have to wait too long before AMY began to move. We went inside and I continued to tell Leo about the various individuals and their characteristics, pausing when I thought he would get overwhelmed and confused. He was definitely doing much better than I was considering this was only the 3rd time (not on consecutive days) he was spending time with the individuals. It occured to us after some amount of walking that we were still only at the forest edge. I completed the ID check and Leo and I sat down. Amy wasn’t going anywhere for a while. I pointed Phoenix, the tormentor of Juveniles to Leo. As of now, he was engaged in blissful slumber in a tree in our line of sight. We saw a female approach him and silently groom him. That’s rare. And it didn’t seem to be preceeded by him puckering or succeeded by him mounting. He just lay there and moved his arm up at some point. WHO WAS THIS FEMALE. This was where the plot thickens. It was Goldie, the alpha female. I have never seen them interact. When they do, it is usually Goldie chasing Poenix, just like everyone else chases Phoenix unless swelling lower-ranking females. Anna finished her focal and confirmed that it was indeed Goldie and Phoenix.

AMY was beginning to stir and start moving. We realised that they were moving towards checkoint 2. Anna had begun her focal again and Leo and I stayed behind. We passed by Norbert and Oliver napping away in all their glory. I spotted Emma and we followed her slow movements while she foraged for insects inside a fallen tree’s bark. We were quite close to the plantation and decided that a lot of individuals were probably there. Indeed, AMY had decided to take a second trip to the plantation. It was 4:30 now. I decided to show Leo about our 20 minute scans. We spot 3 males, 3 females and 3 juveniles and type what they are doing and at what stratum of the plantation or forest (ground, tree trunk/bark, canopy/palm tree crown). It is a good way to keep yourself in the group and learn to spot individuals which can otherwise be difficult when they camouflage well and make no noise.

The group stayed in the plantation for close to an hour and began their (hopefully) final scent for the day. Again, luckily for us, they seemed to be in no tearing hurry. We were able to follow them up the hill at checkpoint 2. Leo, it turns out has only been to this area of the forest all the 3 times he has followed AMY. I told him not to worry- AMY would change it up soon enough. We climbed some rocks to get up and reached a point I am familiar with, thanks to it being a usual route and hang-out spot used by AMY. It was 5:40 and Chewbacca, Phoenix and Pamkin had already climbed up some trees near us. Leo and I got to talking about forestry and plants, going on to discuss issues surrounding land management and so on. Anna was still doing a focal on an individualwho had decided to go further up the hill we realised, though it couldn’t be that far. It was 6:45 and Anna was done too. We all got downhill. I’m so familiar with the area now-I didn’t even need to look at the GPS.

We got back and procured the help of some neighbours who had volunteered to fix the repaired bike wheel after seeing us struggling to remove it. So ow, we finally have both bikes functioning and need not take the small car into the forest. All we need now is the forest-worthy Kembara to be fixed.

28th March 2017, Tuesday: Searching for YOU-KNOW-WHO

Leo, Lea and I left with the tw bikes after Michele had returned with one. Anna was still with AMY. She planned to do yet anther full day. We were underway when I felt the drizzle turn into a shower. We had already entered the plantation when it started pouring. We quickly parked the bikes and hunkered down inside the forest at the edge. Anna and AMY too were taking refuge at the forest edge near the clearing. After about 40 minutes, the rain stopped and Lea went to join Anna and AMY. Leo and I were tasked with looking for VOLDEMORT. The rain had reduced my hopes. The macaques, if they can help it-will prefer to be in the forest when it rains.

Nevertheless, this was a great opportunity for Leo to see the frustraing process that is searching for VOLDEMORT- a group that is not as habituated as AMY and whose hang out spots we aren’t as aware of. Plus, searching is a great way to see parts of the forest and plantation you haven’t seen before. Lea had had the privelege f searching for AMY so she had been to all the checkpoints but Leo had only been to 2 and the outskirts of checkpoint 1. So, though I hoped for VOLDEMORT to be a no-show, it would not ALL be in vain. We started with checkpoint 2.5 listening for any movement. Since the rain had just stopped, even the long-tails and squirrels were yet to move about. We walked all the wy to checkpoint 3. I pointed out areas where we normally searched for AMY and acces points to THE SWAMP at checkpoint 3 from some areas. We also had a small discussion about rattans, its spines and their function (torture every living thing was not scientifically acceptable). We then decided to walk al the way to checkpoint 4, where Giovanni had marked the trail when he followed Voldemort. Leo and I had a stimulating conversation about cognition in primates, studies relating to animal behaviour and the concept of flipped zoos (where humans are inside a cage/vehicle/glass enclosure watching the animals roam free).

We were just about to walk back to checkpoint 3 when Leo pointed to a pigtail- a male….large-ish. It was worth a shot, if only to enter the forest from this side and see a new area. And it was different, novel in a “many more Bertam with spines and tangled branches of trees here” kind of way. We did manage to follow the male (who it seemed with time and spines was probably solitary) for some distance before it became almost impossible and the other lost call from a female was a long-tail. So with some difficulty, we came back down. Turns out it was already 4:20 by the time we got out.

I decided that since we had covered most checkpoints and areas, might as well let Leo see and experience the ‘logging road’. We came accross AMY, Anna and Lea at the plantation on the way. Though w were happy to see them, its always a bummer when you see AMY while looking for VOLDEMORT and vice-versa. Leo was curious to know why this was the ‘logging road’ was the only trail that was named. His confusion was cleared as soon as he saw the place. It is the clearest of the trails, with vegetation on both sides but a yellow-brick road like quality to it though one can rest assured that it won’t lead to an Emarald city. We did try to look carefully and kept our ears tuned to any pig-tail sounds but to no avail. At 6 we decided that it was time to head back home. VOLDEMORT has thwarthed me yet again!

29th March 2017, Wednesday: Circles

Lea and I got to ‘the clearing’ at about 1:20 to take over from Anna and Michele. After basic instructions and a bit of confusion as to whether AMY was going into the forest or staying in the plantation, we found them and bid Anna and Michele adieu. In about half an hour we saw most individuals going in. I ensured that we had all the individuals in the group as we went. We weren’t moving very fast and only at he forest edge. It also didn’t help that yet again, most individuals seemed to be in trees. While Leo has been having great luck spotting and seeing individuals at close quarters, Lea hasn’t been as fortunate. But I tried to make the best out of the situation by pointing out the individuals we did see. Norbert, the alpha and my bae is obviously easy to recognise. We spotted Oliver, Casimodo, Phoenix, Anakin (who obviously puckered at us the whole time), Mina, Pamkin, Scarlet, Goldie, Pippi, Jane and Biru. Unfortunately both Jane and Biru’s swells had receeded and they look pretty similar at this stage which is unfortunate. We talked about each individuals and their characteristics and quirks before realising that AMY was moving again, although we soon realised it wasn’t too far.

Since it had rained, the smallish swamp at checkpoint 2 had become more swampy though not as bad as the ones at check-point 1or 3. We were trying to follow any individuals we could keep track of long enough but they all seemed skittish and uneasy. At some point we heard dogs bark and everyone went up even further on the trees they were already on. Emily, just like her mother Emma seemed the least bothered. In fact, she was curious to see us and dropped down like Spider-man, not leaving even when I clapped my hands close to her face, almost losing my balance and falling face first into muck in order to do so. We were saved from doing more because Norbert decided to throw a tantrum right then and sent everyone scurrying. Soon afterwards, the lost calls started.

Just like on Leo’s first day with Vino and me, Goldie seemed to initiate it. Although this time I was sure she had’t lost HER juvenile Gollum. PAmkin was calling, Pippi began. As did Biru and Scarlet though with not as much intensity. At one point everyone made contact calls so loud, followed by male grunts, the curiosity was kiling us. And the annoyance of sitting on a not very comfortable log with any possible view of the monkeys obscured by the canopy and a fallen tangle of dried tree branches that was the epicentre of the calling committee. We were pretty sure that after all this drama was done, AMY would definitely go back out into the plantation considering they were only around 70 metres away. We wondered why AMY was acting weird- a question we probably would not be able to answer. I remembered that Anna and Michele had said that hadn’t moved much in the morning either.

At around 6, the finally came back out. It seemed rainy. We saw that Leo and Anna were here despite our cautions about the bad roads. They needed to set up traps with oil-palm fruits as bait to collect and identify rats (macaques eat rats thus reducing the rats that are a pest on the oil-palm crop, a phenomenon the Macaca Nemestrina Project is trying to scientifically ascertain). At around 6:45, Lea and I realised that the rain was going to hit anytime now and that it meant the macaques weren’t going to move too much. We convinced Anna to leave before the roads got worse and the car couldn’t go at all. I drove the bike through the rain getting slightly wet as the rain splashed when I drove through it, my glasses fogged over and misty. We all got back just in time for the bad rain to begin. The rain which wasn’t too heavy though it did last for close to 3 hours.

29th March 2017, Wesnesday: Pacing and Scurrying

Anna and I were at the plantation in the morning. I was to follow AMY while Anna tied up all the rat traps. She hoped to be done by 9 or so and I hoped I could hold down the fort till then. I went to the sleeping site Lea and I had marked. Nothing. No need to panic…..yet, I thought. They can’t have moved that much. “Although they might have moved when the rain was contiuously pouring for more than an hour….has happened” said my pessimistic side. “This is pointless, abandon the search” said my defeatist side. And I decided that I was going to go forward and investigate. Of course, AMY had stayed although about 50 m away from where we had marked.

They came out into the clearing soon enough but seemed to be taking their own sweet time. I did the ID check, became sad that Franzi wasn’t here anymore though I had seen Jisuaf at the sleeping site. AMY had begun moving deeper inside the plantation at around 9 when Anna’s voice crackled promtly through the walkie-talkie. She hadn’t missed much I told her. I had found Putih for her because I knew she has been despertely trying to do as many focals on her as possible. Just as I was telling her this- I lost Putih. Ah well! I tried said my defeatist side and I agreed. I left Anna to her devices while I folllowed Emma, then Febe and Mina and then saw Casimodo tear up and patiently dig into a tree bark to get to some very juicy looking larvae. I saw Oliver catch and eat a rat. I watched him dismember and devour the creature with revulsion and fascination. Casimodo was also at a little tuffet nearby and guess what, he too had a rat. A small one. I remembered that we were supposed to mark spots where we had encountered rat-eating, on the GPS. I did so, when Anna drew my attention to Norbert eating a large rat near her.

30 minutes later, Oliver was on his 3rd rat and I had collected his faeces for seed analysis (to ascertain if pig-tails are good dispersers of plants via defecation). Anna and I realised that we definitely needed to change the location of our rat traps and shift them deeper into the plantation for this is where most rat-eating seemed to occur. Too bad she had just tied alll the traps around 2 hours ago. We were almost parallel to checkpoint 0 by this time which is quite far from where we had begun. But now AMY was turning back.

By around 12:30 the pig-tails were back at the clearing. It’s weird how fast they move when they want to. They WERE full of energy from all the rats and grasshoppers and oil-palm fruits I guess. I’m glad I wasn’t doing the afternoon shift. Michele got to me sitting at the forest edge watching Scarlet and Goldie on two branches of the same tree. Anna had already begun her ‘forest focal’ and was inside with a juvenile. I have 10 more days left. I wouldn’t mind terribly if they were somewhat like today but I doubt that would happen and if I will actually like it.