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.