Cambodia Chronicles (Part 2)

Author’s Note: We are still on day 1 of Angkor Wat. Previous post covering Angkor Wat is here.

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Stop 2: Bayon

The tuk-tuk ride to Bayon meant some much needed air and cushioning. And how can one’s heart not be happy passing underneath a green canopy. Bayon is the centre of Angor Thom (meaning Great City) established by Jayavarman VII in the 12th Century. Angkor Thom was modelled, renovated and still important to his successors till the 17th Century. So here we were approaching Angkor Thom. It stood out because the bridge leading up to it, laid across the moat is a line of gods or ‘devas’ on one side  and ‘asuras’ or demons each in beautiful detail, pulling multi-headed serpents ‘nagas’ possibly alluding to the cosmic tug-of-war called the ‘sagar-manthan’ or “The churning of the sea-of milk” we had witnessed at Angkor Wat already. Everywhere in Angkor and in dances in Cambodia, this imagery is often invoked. This churning is also what apparently gave rise to the beautiful celestial dancers- the Apsaras. And this bridge-style is the case for all 5 entrance gates of Angkor Thom though the South Gate is the best preserved. After an obvious photograph or two, we passed underneath the arch or ‘gopuram’ (towering gate) with four faces looking in 4 cardinal directions.

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Image : Entering Angkor Thom. You have a moat, a bridge of Nagas as balluustrades with Asuras pulling on one side, devas on the other and a cool gopuram in the background

Unlike the builder of Angkor Wat, Jayavarman VII was a devout Buddhist and made sure everyone knew it as we were soon to find out. This idea of tapering towers with a Buddha-like stoic and calm faces (or Easter island heads-that’s what I was reminded of initially) on all 4 sides is stereotypical of the “Bayon”-style of architecture and we saw it repeated many a time after we saw the temple that give the architectural style its name.

It rose suddenly out of the wilderness as we drew near and the difference from Angkor Wat was immediately apparent. These face-filled towers laid out, so many of them all made up of bricks and may have more than 4 on one. So many of these had lost to time and were just strewn about in apparent dereliction. From the outside, is when the religious symbolism and architectural beauty is most apparent. These 54 face-filled towers (there are 37 standing), thanks to being of different heights, seem akin to a mountain as a whole. This, like Angkor Wat was to symobolise Mt. Meru.

We were amused to see bas-reliefs from two different periods. One was historical, showing the Khmer victory of the Chams and another set was based on Hindu-Mythology from a period later on when Jayavarman VIII the devout Hindu decided to destroy or remodel all Buddhist structures to fit his Hindu ideology.

Both Ismail and I agreed that we somehow enjoyed Bayon more than Angkor Wat, probably because Angor Wat is too vast and too crowded while Bayon is much smaller and we were not famished and had gotten used to the heat. It dawned on us that we were pressed for time so we rushed ourselves a bit to get to place three- Ta Keo. Not before we had watched some long-tailed macaques obtain coconuts from fawning tourists of course (The two of us do work with their relatives- the bonnet macaque after all).

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Long-tail troop chillin’ with some tender coconut

Stop 3: Ta Keo

After the majesty of Angkor Wat and beauty of Bayon, Ta Keo seemed anti-climactic. Like most temples belonging to the Angkorian period, it was to be a representation of the abode of the Gods..Mount Meru with 5 sanctuary towers, each with the stereotypical Khmer architecture (the towers taper as they reach the top) in a quincunx arranged on a 5-tier pyramid with terraces that was obviously not a pleasure to climb with the sun beating down with a vengeance. Jayavarman V had become King officially at 10 but when he took the reigns from his guardians at 17 in 968 CE, I guess he wanted to make his mark. So he began with Ta Keo. A large part of the temple is sandstone, the first monument to do so using material sourced from the nearby Kulen mountains. Climbing all the way to the top isn’t as exhilarating when the towers themselves cannot be accessed. The towers are bare, no decoration, no reliefs and no wonder. The temple was incomplete, some inscriptions suggesting a bad-omen in the form of a lightning strike that spelled doom or perhaps the death of Jayavarman V.

Stop 4:Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm (‘Ancestor Brahma’) is the second most popular temple after Angkor Wat. It was built by the chronic builder of things himself- Jayavarman VII in the late 12th and Early 13th century dedicated to his mother. The temple’s main image was Prajnaparamita-the personification of wisdom in Mahayana Buddhism although it reminded me of Tara’s role in Nepal’s Buddhism as I remembered from our recent trip, or even Saraswati’s in Indian Hinduism. If my first impression on approaching Bayon was that it rose out of the wilderness, Ta Prohm has been swallowed by it, though that adds to its as most would attest. Trees like Ceiba pentandra (the smooth barked- silk-cotton tree) and Tetrameles nudiflora are abound, penetrating into the structures, mostly held up now with scaffolding. The strangler figs Ficus gibbosa after strangling their host plants have made their way into the walls tearing them apart over time and now are one with the temple.

The effect is pleasing and we spent a good hour just witnessing nature take-over this marvel of architecture. And for once, unlike the “Temple mountain” with their “stairways to heaven”, this is a ‘flat temple’ which means less stairs and I was down for that after the climb at other places. Of course I had let my guard down too soon because we were yet to witness Pre Rup

Stop 5: Pre Rup

The unrelenting sun was about to set in a while and our tuk-tuk driver rushed us to Pre Rup so we could catch a seat to watch the sun set. It was 4:45 when we reached and we saw why he had rushed us. Made of red brick and laterite in 962 CE or so during Rajendravarman’s time as a Shaivite temple. Well, we were back to the dreaded Mt. Meru symbolism again which meant a hell of a climb. The steps are steep and quite far apart from each other so it is easiest to use both hands and legs to climb. We were almost at the top when Ismail’s camera’s cap fell. It tumbled down, rolling down almost all the way and I heard a collective groan from all our fellow climbers. Empathy is strong in such situations. Ismail went down to retrieve his precious camera cap and I made my way to the final tier with the quincunx of towers similar to Ta Keo. Only this time, unlike Ta Keo…this terrace was thronged by the masses gathered to watch the sky turn golden, red, purple and melt into orange, bathing the structures around in its glorious light. That’s what everyone was expecting but the sun was hidden by massive clouds and Ismail and I were whining about the fact that we missed other temples from our day-tour. But we decided to enjoy the slightly gloomy view and bear with the crowd right now. Acceptance is key and every cloud does have a silver lining and as I thought that I saw the golden lining…the clouds were dispersing and since we didn’t have the best seats in the house, I saw the large orange orb behind a huge tree and it might have been the exhaustion and the end of the day excitement all mixed together but my mind went blank and all I could do was think about my view. It was amazing. I must admit I’ve seen better sunsets but each sunset is precious and I was adamant I wouldn’t judge this one too harshly. As we climbed down, I looked back at Pre Rup under the sky quickly turning purple-as if it was a healing bruise (That is a weird analogy…yes). I couldn’t wait to see what tomorrow brought.

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Dusk over the ruins of Pre Rup’s lowest level
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Cambodia Chronicles (Part 1)

Prologue, 18th March 2018: THE RAINY SUNDAY

You know how people prescribe a holiday to counter stress. And it is almost never stress-free, especially getting TO the destination. Of course, travel is much easier now, which is why inspired but lazy people like me are actually able to GO places (Plus I’m finally blowing through my own savings). Step 1: Uber to The Trivandrum Central Station to meet up with my former colleage, now friend and travel companion Ismail. Step 2: Caught the Kerala Express and some zzzs and fed my travel-tummy (the extra stomach I grow while travelling; into which I can and need to put snacks away at an astonishing rate to remain civil). Reached Aluva almost an hour late to a thunderstorm and accompanying rain Thor would approve of. Step 3: After grabbing a very very late lunch at a restaurant aptly named “Ifthar”, we got another cab to take us to the Kochi International airport. En-route I remembered that I had forgotten to carry a book to chronicle a possibly epic trip. Our driver obliged in his typical sing-songy Aluva tone and despite it being a Sunday, we were able to find a roadside eatery that just also happened to sell notebooks. And so the adventure began.

Step 4:After our 4.5 hour flight to KL, 4 hour layover in uncomfortable seats in KL, and flight to Phnom Penh we were greeted by intense drying heat. And we had to wait, first till we got our On-Arrival Visas and sim-card (relatively hassle-free), and then because Ismail’s travel card didn’t seem to work. Of course, It wasn’t too big a deal, both of us had our respective ATM cards. But we were hoping the travel card would work. Step 5: We took a cab to our next destination, the bus stop for the private vans which would take us to Siem Reap. On the way, Ismail called up his dad and his bank to suss out what was going on and I nodded off. The traffic and the heat plus the travel jitters had added up. Step 6: With the knowledge that the card-issue had been sorted, we got into our pretty clean van and started for Siem Reap. After the terrible choc-a-bloc traffic in Phnom Penh, the road to Siem Reap was clean, uncluttered and smooth. Step 8:We reached much earlier than expected and rode a tuk-tuk to complete the 18- hour travel to our first destination.

DAY 1, 20th March: AMAZED BY ANGKOR

Our amazing backpackers’ was 8 km from Angkor. This area- made a UNESCO heritage site in 1992 is spread over a vast area and is one of the most eminent archaeological sites in South East Asia representing the architectural jewels of the Khmer Empire (9th-15th Century). Most hotels and hostels cater to different types of tours with different levels of luxury you may require based on your interest and budget. Ismail and I had recently done the beautiful Hampi in a day owing to a small budget and a time-crunch but we wanted to spend on the three day pass in Angkor though it is quite steep (62USD per person, most transactions here happen in USD). We aren’t averse to walking but most temples are quite far from each other and we were able to hire a tuk-tuk for the day to do the small circuit which covered 5 temples and we could add a temple from which to view the setting sun. This costs 16USD even if…as it turned out-you can’t go to all the temples on that day. The ticket office is a huge structure and very far from the actual Angkor. Once you are in, taking the well-maintained, broad roads with the woods on the sides, lianas hanging and enough space for people to picnic and hang hammocks to snooze in, you pass by a big water body with steps to go down. This is just before you approach the highlight of this area, the building that is so famous it’s on the Cambodian flag……The ANGKOR WAT

Stop 1: Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is so large that its famous tapering towers (prasat) with the finger-like spires (prang) hit your eye even before you approach it by crossing the beautiful bridge with balustrade in the shape of Nagas. (snake, the Khmers are children of the Nagas and 7 headed snakes represent the 7 races within the Naga society).

Welcoming Vista
For illustration purposes only. Unfiltered phone image

And the popularity of this place is evident by the constant hustle-bustle which can be a little annoying. And the immense heat wasn’t being kind either. But who can be annoyed for long looking at the sight we beheld. We entered ready to be wowed and we weren’t disappointed. Suryavarman II built this as the capital and the State Temple,dedicated to Vishnu ,in the 12th Century while most other Hindu temples were dedicated to Shiva. Though the traces of any palace-like building has disappeared (they used to build them in lighter materials), what remains is breathtaking and although I must admit that we found the exterior architecture and bas-reliefs interesting at first, over time and area-they are repeated. For the sake of symmetry I guess and ease of designing. But that means you can pick and choose areas you want to cover and you are likely to witness most of the variety of designs, reliefs, lintels and architectural structures

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Figure: Carvings and bas-relief on pillars (top left), underside or doorways or lintels (top right) and on the outside of lintels/structure that joins two pillars (bottom)

What sticks with most tourists is of course the walls filled with the celestial dancers- Apsaras (and there are around 2000 of them around here). We went into one of the halls now seating a line of Buddha statues, most of them headless- a result of time, pillaging or fanatic Hinduism or the Khmer Rouge. After walking inside we got out the other side and witnessed some more famous art on the wall. The interesting thing of course their artists’ interpretation of common Hindu mythology and its representation. Also, the common motif of the churning of the sea “Sagar manthan” covering such a large area is commendable.

UntitledImage: One of the 2000 Apsaras in Angkor Wat. The differences among them are sometimes non-existent, sometimes subtle and sometimes stark.

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Images: A panoramic view of the wall of bas-reliefs depicting war and the famous churning of the sea or ‘Sagar Manthan’. And below is Ismail’s face (candid) awe-struck at this feat of artistry

The idea of the construction as a whole; this being a Sanctum of god, was: As you climbed higher up the access became more exclusive and by the time we decided to join the queue to scale the ‘summit’ which is the central sanctuary, the signs that only 15 people at a time were permitted; pregnant women, people with heart problems etc were not and the weird shrieks of people climbing down was giving me the heebie-jeebies. I was tired and my acrophobia was triggered looking at the steepness of the stairs (the access steps used by tourists now is the less steep one, built for the king and queen. The other three on the three other sides are steeper…this was at a 60 degree incline). I took a deep breath and got to the start of the queue and began the ascent…into what was supposed to be the pinnacle of the mountain, Mt Meru– the abode of the Hindu Gods this whole structure of Angkor Wat is supposed to emulate. And boy was I glad Ismail convinced me to not chicken out.

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Image: One of the many views afforded by the height of the central sanctum. Angkor Wat means “Temple City” Angkor was probably a bastardization of the Sanskrit word for City- Nagara and Wat from the Pali word for temple grounds vatta.

The view was beautiful. We could see the temple complex, the lower layers and the vastness of this place, the painstaking planning and beautiful art and history all around us. I can see why Suryavarman II would want the Angkor Wat to be his final resting place.

It’s a good thing we had started with Angkor Wat. It’s breathtaking but also takes the wind out of you a bit after all that walking and climbing old-timey steep steps that are sure to make you hallucinate heaven…be it Mt. Meru or your personal utopia. We were famished after spending close to three hours and decided to lunch near Bayon before going in and felt fortunate for each temple site now has a bustling mini-business area with restaurants, souvenir and clothes stalls and good, clean toilets.

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Author’s Note: This is just the beginning of day 1. Writing and editing takes time considering I haven’t blogged for more than a year now. Stay tuned for part 2 of Cambodia Chronicles

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.

Primate Diaries: Days-are you still counting? (55-58)

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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10th March 2017, Friday: Stalking
Since Vino and I had managed to find and follow VOLDEMORT to their sleeping site, it only made sense if we could go hang out with them today. Of course, we can’t do it for the whole day but it’s important to have as much time with them as possible so they get used to us Orange-Oompa-loompas (Vino’s brilliant description of us).

Thus, Vino and I reached the sleeping site, a little late but at least we didn’t have to scramble through spiny shrubbery and Bertam in the dark. We reached the place where Voldemort had lunged at us but couldn’t hear anything. However, we had expected this. It would be likely that they went a little further around the hill. And as we predicted, we started to hear them better and even see them because of the lack of Bertum. This also meant that they could see us. The males were barking and support-shaking at each other, a morning ritual similar to AMY’s. I think it acts to reiterate or reconfiure social heirarchies- or is like exercising at the gym, one or the other, or even both (It’s all conjecture, might as well go all out). But upon seeing us, the males started directing the puckering and branch-shakes at us. That is till they realised they were quite high up (They usually climb onto high branches of strong trees for the morning ritual) and decided to go about their business. 2 individuals relatively close to us, seemingly male were mounting- a sign of peace-making amongst males- usually sub-ordinate mounts the dominant ones.

But only the males were here, the sound of the juevniles and females seemed to now be coming from further down. Well, it is good if they go down and into the plantation, we thought. We saw a swelling female on a tree and she semed to be going down. So we decided to follow her. Easy enough to say and do when you are not surrounded by thick entangles Bertum and bushes. This was an area we have never had to use. And that itself was exciting. As for the ‘chase’, it seemed not as exciting when all you were doing was trying your level best to catch a glimpse of a few individuals while they hoo-d and humm-ed all around you. In a way, we had aticipated this level of difficulty. The group is not used to us and we are unwelcome. VOLDEMORT has no reason to hang out with us. But the unnerving bit is that though you can’t see them, you know they can see you and they are watching you closely.

They were going further down and to the right. But since we were going downhill, our view of WHERE they were going was obscured by the trees. It could be one of thwo places now- further around the hill to get out onto the other plantation OR….’The Swamp’ at cehckpoint 3. We decided that it would be best if we got out of the forest to assess where they were going. Of course, getting out took some time and effort. We were always surrounded by pig-tail sounds though so it was all good.

We finally got out onto the road, not before we both got water in our boots and had to sit down to empty them and wring our socks. It was soon that we realised we couldn’t hear the monkeys anymore-just the garbled calls of long-tails. We walked all the way to the other plantation mostly because we weren’t confident we knew our way about ‘The Swamp’. In vain. We had managed to ‘follow’ them for an hour and 15 minutes. Same as yesterday. But hey, consistency is good. We should count this as success.

We did try to find them back, following the same protocol. Split up, look around, wait, return and repeat. We only needed to spend half a day with VOLDEMORT, which was an optimistic estimation by Anna and wishful thinking on our part. At least we got to see part of the forest we don’t normally see with AMY.

Turns out Michele, doing the afternoon shift had desperately tried to follow AMY but lost them in the swamp at check-point 1. A headache to be dealt with tomorrow. Could it be that both pig-tails were in two different swamps, AMY at 1 and VOLDEMORT at 3?

11-12-13 March 2017: Non-forest days, a summary

Made my visa run, from KL this time so had a good 4 and a haf hour bus ride before I got there. Maybe “volunteering for research on monkeys” wasn’t legit sounding to the emigration lady who hit me with the ominous “We’ll see”.

After having visited Medan in the cover of darkness, it was nice to see it in the light of day albeit fast fading. You”d think I had got enough sleep but oh how wrong you would be. I had a good restful sleep in a big-ish bed and woke up to a nice non-humid Sunday. I explored the vicinity a bit, saw a Sunday morning market and walked to a traditional mansion/museum that was, as it turns out- CLOSED. After contemplating my ethical dilemma in visiting a collection of taxidermied animals by a hunter, I decided against it. Mostly because it was too far away. After a simple lunch, I got back, lay in bed- caught up with my blog-writing and watched Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire back to back. Successful day I’d call it.

13th March: Checked out early in the morning (4 am train you’all). But this level of paranoia meant I was at the near empty airport quite early. People laugh at my insistence to be 2 and a half if not 3 hours early for an international flight. They haven’t seen the Home Alone movies I believe. Lack of people meant securiy was a breeze. Had to wait for immigration officers to actually arrive. This gave me an opportunity to get a free foot and leg massage from one of those fancy contraptions while I reclined in a plush chair. Needless to say, was first one when the emigration officers did arrive.
Got to KL- finally went to Pasar Seni, the old maret established in 1888 fo meat and fish but is now super-swanky and has clothes, souvenirs, handicrafts etc. An air conditioned bazaar of sorts. Visited an art-gallery, had to maek up for my lack of museum visits these past few months. Got out and went to the real market, and things I wanted to spend money on….food. Some good durian ice-cream and a short trip to 7-Eleven later (Major Australia nostalgia right there), I decided to head back.
This time, I didn’t miss my bus to Sitiawan. Unfortunately my plan to make up for lost sleep was thwarted by the toddler who screamed his heart out and decided he 5 hour bus journey was the perfect time to exercise his developing vocal chords. Just as I felt myself falling into a somewhat restful slumber, the bus seemed to be slowing down. We were stuck in a jam, IN SITIAWAN. We were almost an hour early. No big. I finally got a chance to sample the Pizza Hut where the bus stops while I waited for Anna. And yes, it seems like rip-off especially when you hardly spend anything on local dishes in outdoor cafeterias.
Well, we got back and decided that it seemed like a good night to walk to the beach. Full moon, low tide and luke warm water with a gentle breeze. We should do this more often. We were hoping for bioluminiscent algae (well- dinoflagellates to be precise) but no one seemed excessively disappointed.