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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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.

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

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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).