What the fluff?

I spent some time last week with my niece and nephew in Kerala and whenever they were able to get away from the evil clutches of Dora (the explorer) I observed them playing. It is becoming increasingly difficult to compete with TV when wanting to interact with children. And socially awkward aunt who is also unsurprisingly great with kids (read sarcasm) acknowledges this as a herculean task. The colourful rings of a child-friendly Tower of Hanoi lie forlorn as some informative lady sings ABC on the ‘idiot box’. Yet somehow my 2 year old niece is still being amused by the Malayalam version of peek-a-boo called “Oliche-kande” in the vernacular translating to Hid-found. It requires only two things 1) something to obstruct her view of your face and 2) your face. And as I watched her giggle at what seems like the universal way to amuse most children through time, I was reminded of the ‘What the fluff’ compilations that were doing the rounds on social media recently. It involved pet owners standing in front of their pet, throwing a towel over themselves or their pet and the pet watches in confusion as their master vanishes, probably having rushed and hidden behind a door or a bed. Hilarity is supposed to ensue as we see the pet searching for the owner. The more frantic the search, the better. Our affection for animals doing literally anything in videos circulating on the internet is phenomenon unto itself and will take a longer time to unpack but animal perception and related abilities are crucial to understanding cognition (And makes for a great dinnertime conversation if Dora the explorer is not going on).

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What we see here is animals displaying Object Permanence. It is the ability to know that objects exist even if they have disappeared from view. That is why the pets are confused and searching. The owner was just there and ought to be around. Object permanence was first described as a sensorimotor developmental stage in human children starting at 8-12 months, by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. But the progression of the ability is such: at first when an object is first in one place and then in another, the child will search for it in the first location. Next phase, they can look for the object and trace its location if the location changes have happened in plain view but not otherwise [Although processing time for any information is a factor. Most adults are dumbfounded by the roadside tricks and may have lost time and money on shell  games which depends on tracking the motion of cups and a sleight of hand]. Last stage is where they search for objects sequentially in multiple locations.

Many animals including cats, dogs, dolphins, goats, birds of the crow family, monkeys and non-human apes have been tested on their ability to track objects when they are displaced although their ability to trace something when it changes location many times in a short time interval is variable according to species, individual and context. They would require object permanence to know where they stash food, where predators or prey might be if they have detected them among others. Animals may also be able to use their sense of smell or echolocation or social cues to figure out where the object went and prior experience with the location or the set-up may all be confounding factors, or sometimes animals just don’t want to do something, or do something they wouldn’t normally do because of the incentive they receive.  All these could lead to a biased result.

However, over various controlled studies, all slight variations of Piagetian experiments have led to the insights we have about our furry or feathery friends at home and our wild cousins with regards to object permanence. Our common pets, dogs have been domesticated for a while now and are particularly attuned to human non-verbal cues and may use them to follow instruction but thanks to domestication, their dependence on us is higher and they may be less self-sufficient in finding food and keeping track of where things are, making use of their nose and our help for their daily tasks. In fact most pets like toddlers suffer separation anxiety because they have object permanence.

In wild animals, species is important as is context. Where are they from? Are they solitary or social? What are their immediate pressures (food, prey/predator, shelter, mate) that could lead them to develop different types of strategy which may require specific skillsets. Most species have survived in the wild because somehow the strategy they use has been developed and naturally selected for. It is best suited to them in this time and space where they are. They will perish unless they change with changing context. Similar species living in vey different habitats thus can fare differently on such tests and animals that aren’t as closely related for eg- elephants, corvids and apes do similarly well. We cannot really compare different animals on a common, generic scale to conclude on their “intelligence”. [Because that requires defining “intelligence” which is subjective and contextual depending on the species, though we like being anthropocentric and using ourselves as the apex with which to compare everything with, intelligence in humans too is complicated and subjective] We can however use them to learn how such skills evolved and whether things like brain to body size have anything to do with it.

This also raises interesting questions like how animals might perceive sudden versus slow death of a known individual. Are we ignoring similar phenomena in the animals that aren’t considered stereotypically ‘cute’ because their responses are not as obvious as the raised eyebrows and crazy neck movements that remind us of ourselves?

Our brain is a beautiful organ but a lot of our actions are based on sensory cues, prior experience and context, processing all of which might take longer than necessary to win against those deceiving us, including our own brain. So watching our precious pets not throw in the towel after we have disappeared behind one is heartening and enlightening at the same time.

References and bonus links:

  1. Do dogs understand object permanence?
  2. Where’s the cookie? The ability of monkeys to track object transpositions doi:https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-018-1195-x
  3. What Do Dogs know about Hidden Objects?                                  doi:  1016/j.beproc.2009.03.018
  4. A really simple summary and critique of Piaget’s theory on object permanence
  5. Dogs- what the fluff?
  6. Cats- What the fluff?
  7. The actual towers of Hanoi game
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 Last Day at Angkor, 22nd March 2018

Author’s Note: First post covering Angkor Wat is here.

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Day 3,22nd March 2018: Last day in Siem Reap

  1. Floating/Fishing village

Knowing full well that we were going to overshoot our budget, but weighing it against the fact that we wouldn’t come here again we decided to book a tour of the floating village Kampong Pleuk on the river Tonle sap. And by “on” the river I don’t mean on the banks of the largest lake in S.E Asia, I mean during the rains….the shanty houses, precariously balanced 10m above the ground using wood-scaffolding look like they are floating ON the river. Since we visited in the dry(drier) season, we could actually see the clayey bank and plough our boat through the really murky water. We passed through the Kampong (village) along tiny channels of water, with houses on both sides. Some with many levels, fishing traps and nets hung underneath. The people here, around 900 families (5000 people) have lived here for 5 generations living off fishing and related activities, fighting for survival with the rest of the 1.2 million people dependent on the Tonle Sap’s 300 species of fish.

 

After the slow and difficult navigation through the murky and shallow water of the channels, we came out into a wider channel witnessing mangroves, floating restaurants, more ingenious fish traps and small scale fish farms. We learnt that basic amenities like electricity and drinking water only reached this village 5 years ago despite being barely an hour and a half from Siem Reap. The motorboat has been a boon because before that people would go on fishing expeditions and stay out on the lake in boats, coming back home only once in a while. We returned via another narrow turbid channel and narrowly missed a barely visible fisherman sunk low in the water-fishing with his bare hands. He displayed his catch, grinning wildly- whether about the skill displayed at fishing or avoiding death I couldn’t say. The fish I would presume….was NOT GRINNING.

As part of the tour we walked inside the village and saw that during the dry season, mini schools teaching English to the local kids would spring up. We visited one such little schoolroom with young ones getting people to practice their English on and the tutor getting a chance to collect donations for basic school supplies that a lady standing conveniently close by, had in her satchel. Each house had its own kiln/oven made of clay with stacks of fish being smoked or dried.

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Fish and bricks: Smoking is the most cost effective way of preserving fish and adding flavour

 

2. Banteay Srei

That Banteay Srei is different, is obvious from the get go. We had to pass through the Angkor complex checkpoint, getting our passes punched for the last time allowed. Banteay Srei, around 22 Km away from Angkor is a small non-royal temple built in the latter part of the 10th century by the counsellor Yajnavaraha in the court of Rajendravarman. The current name Banteay Srei litearally means citadel of beauty/women but as in other places, there aren’t many women/Apsaras featured here, which means the name is a result of some bastardization or weird translation that happened through time.

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From afar it is easily noticeable- the Bantay Srei was not about its size. It’s grandeur lies in its rich details

The temple was discovered only in 1914 by the French authorities when they seized 4 Apsaras that Andre Malraux was trying to smuggle out (He ‘woke’ up to the see the injustices against the locals and instigated anti-colonial agitations, wrote a book and was at some point a minister of culture)

After the temples from the last two days, this “Khmer jewel of art” demands that moniker, featuring beautiful intricate carvings, everything miniaturized but detailed lintels giving sandstone the appearance of wood featuring everything from Shiva and Parvati astride Nandi the bull to Krishna violently slaying his villainous uncle Kamsa, the usual Sagar Manthan and the monkey-people Bali and Sugreev fighting for their right to rule.

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Parvati’s lost her head but her companion Shiva and her are astride Nandi the bull

 

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So many features etched in such detail -probably of Sagar manthan-Indra in between the Devas and Asuras on the rich tapestry

We can no longer walk amongst most of these citadels containing the carvings because the carvings are delicate and tourists are touchy-feely bulls in a China shop. The main deity is Shiva represented by a linga which is not as exciting as the carvings and other embellishments. It is unfortunate that the sun was being a pain in our ‘place where the sun don’t shine’ leading to terrible pictures but there was a moment when it was obscured by a cloud and everyone went trigger-happy. It gave me a chance to notice the red appearance of the sandstone structure disappeared and the tarnished greys, black and mouldy greens stood out. We walked around the parched moat with the occasional muddy pools, lotuses abloom wondering why all powerful gods needed Dvarpalas, guards and sentries outside their chambers.

 

POST SCRIPT:

We got back, had a quick shower, made sure everything was packed (read stuffed), had a hasty dinner and got to the bus station to board a ‘Luxury bus’ to Phnom Penh. I was obviously fascinated with the luxury bus, air conditioned sleeper buses that had single/double beds affording you privacy and down-time. Ismail of course informed me that he had travelled on the Indian Airbuses, superior in quality, comfort, entertainment systems and ability to rock you to sleep. This did the job just fine for me.

I awoke to the sounds of “Phnom Penh” repeated multiple times. After some confusion, our groggy asses realized that we had reached a drenched and rainy Phnom Penh an hour earlier than we were supposed to- at around 4:30 am. Luckily our hotel was nearby and we were able to catch a tuk-tuk and make an early check-in, giving us time to catch some zzzss before being up again in the next 4 hours.

 

 

Primate Diaries: 10 working dayss 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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Author’s second note: So I have to be honest. I think I confused the dates and events in my last post. I had become slack and wasn’t recapitulating the events as soon as I had come back home. So what I wrote for the 29th actually happened on the 30th and what I wrote for the 28th, happened on 29th. I will have to resolve the mystery of what the hell happened on the 28th and why I didn’t write about it. So since you have already read what happened- here goes….

 

30th March 2017: 10 more days of field-work
31st March 2017, Friday (9 days left): the hills have rocks

Leo and I climbed up the hill at checkpoint 2 according to Lea’s instructions in order to relieve her and MIchele from AMY-duty. When we got close to the co-ordinates, I wondered aloud if AMY and they had moved. I couldn’t hear any monkeys. But Lea called out to us. There were sitting on a rocky outcrop. “Where are the monkeys. Still in trees?” I asked. “Oh! Didn’t you see the messages? Anna is coming to get us” Lea said. And then I glanced over at Michele for an explanation and my heart stopped. “Holy shit Michele, you are bleeding” I said to the dazed and obviously in pain Michele. Leo and I had missed all the messaging. Michele and Lea were following the monkeys who decided to disappear behind the huge wall of rocks. Since Michele was not sure of another route to take in order to meet them higher up, she and Lea had decided to undertake the risky climb. Michele had climbed first and held out her hand for Lea out without a firm footing, she had taken a bad fall. She had a gash on her shoulder and there was blood under her nose and on her chin. Anna had her day off so was luckily available. She was coming by car and would take Michele to the hospital. The usually perky Michele was quiet and exhausted. They had lost the group of course and THAT is what worried Michele despite her close call.

Leo and I mollified Michele and Lea and assured them that AMY can’t have gone far. They had told us that they had only lost them about 45 minutes ago. We bid them safe trip and decide to take the alternate on-rocky route I knew, to meet AMY somewhere higher up on the hill. So we kept climbing. WE were exhausted in the first 10 minutes. It was humid and even though there weren’t too many slippery rocks, the bertam and rattan spines were a hassle enough. I knew we were nearing the point where the bertam lumps grew so thik and intertwined, it would be impossible to get through. This is close to where I had lost them once. Anna had told me that they usually don’t go an higher. So I decided to trust her judgement and wait for 10 minutes (mostly to catch my breath). We climbed back down and decided to split up to search. Michele and Lea had told us that AMY hadn’t gone out to the plantation and would have to do so eventually. So we hoped they were right.

Like they had described, there was quite some actvity from the plantation workers today and the plantation was abuzz with harvesting and hauling of fruit onto trucks and tractors. Not ideal. At first I asked Leo to stay in the clearing while I stayed at checkpoint 2.5. These were the closest exit points if AMY took the routes I thought they might take. After an hour though, I decided to expand my search and walked to checkpoint 3, while instructing Leo to go to checkpoint 2. I had just reached checkpoint 3 when Leo’s voice crackled through the walkie-talkie. He had found AMY at

 

Author’s second note: So I have to be honest. I think I confused the dates and events in my last post. I had become slack and wasn’t recapitulating the events as soon as I had come back home. So what I wrote for the 29th actually happened on the 30th and what I wrote for the 28th, happened on 29th. I will have to resolve the mystery of what the hell happened on the 28th and why I didn’t write about it. So since you have already read what happened- here goes….

30th March 2017: 10 more days of field-work
31st March 2017, Friday (9 days left): the hills have rocks
Leo and I climbed up the hill at checkpoint 2 according to Lea’s instructions in order to relieve her and MIchele from AMY-duty. When we got close to the co-ordinates, I wondered aloud if AMY and they had moved. I couldn’t hear any monkeys. But Lea called out to us. There were sitting on a rocky outcrop. “Where are the monkeys. Still in trees?” I asked. “Oh! Didn’t you see the messages? Anna is coming to get us” Lea said. And then I glanced over at Michele for an explanation and my heart stopped. “Holy shit Michele, you are bleeding” I said to the dazed and obviously in pain Michele. Leo and I had missed all the messaging. Michele and Lea were following the monkeys who decided to disappear behind the huge wall of rocks. Since Michele was not sure of another route to take in order to meet them higher up, she and Lea had decided to undertake the risky climb. Michele had climbed first and held out her hand for Lea out without a firm footing, she had taken a bad fall. She had a gash on her shoulder and there was blood under her nose and on her chin. Anna had her day off so was luckily available. She was coming by car and would take Michele to the hospital. The usually perky Michele was quiet and exhausted. They had lost the group of course and THAT is what worried Michele despite her close call.

Leo and I mollified Michele and Lea and assured them that AMY can’t have gone far. They had told us that they had only lost them about 45 minutes ago. We bid them safe trip and decide to take the alternate on-rocky route I knew, to meet AMY somewhere higher up on the hill. So we kept climbing. WE were exhausted in the first 10 minutes. It was humid and even though there weren’t too many slippery rocks, the bertam and rattan spines were a hassle enough. I knew we were nearing the point where the bertam lumps grew so thik and intertwined, it would be impossible to get through. This is close to where I had lost them once. Anna had told me that they usually don’t go an higher. So I decided to trust her judgement and wait for 10 minutes (mostly to catch my breath). We climbed back down and decided to split up to search. Michele and Lea had told us that AMY hadn’t gone out to the plantation and would have to do so eventually. So we hoped they were right.

Like they had described, there was quite some actvity from the plantation workers today and the plantation was abuzz with harvesting and hauling of fruit onto trucks and tractors. Not ideal. At first I asked Leo to stay in the clearing while I stayed at checkpoint 2.5. These were the closest exit pointsif AMY took the routes I thought they might take. After an hour though, I decided to expand my search and walked to checkpoint 3, while instructing Leo to go to checkpoint 2. I had just reached checkpoint 3 when Leo’s voice crackled through the walkie-talkie. He had found AMY at checkpoint 2. I hastily walked to checkpoint 2. Just in time for AMY to begin going into the forest. HAD THEY BEEN IN THE PLANTATION THE WHOLE TIME we had spent climbing up? Well they had cheek-pouches full of oil palm fruits hat said so. It was about 3:30 and we were glad we had found them. They were all just hanging about at the forest edge like they do after a plantation visit.Juvenles were playing, individuals were napping or grooming and this tranquility was a jarring contrast to what had happened to the previous shift’s humans. Leo and I spent some time playing “who’s that?”. It’s the best way for him to recap and learn the individuals names and physical and/or behavioural traits. Scarlet peeked at us from behind a stalk of bertam fruit and flower while I pointed out Goldie and Gollum, Schatz and Tiga, and the pregnant Malicia (She hangs around with Scarlet (who is pregnant too) and is less shy, and usually at the group’s centre). AMY was climbing up quite quickly and we were fortunately keeping up. They reached a clearing which immediately led to a clump of bertam. They spent time there while I figured where they would go next. They did say in the bertam thickets for quite some time while Leo and I finally sat down after having kicked and cut through a large number of bertam.

We would barely be sitting for 5 minutes before AMY decided to move again. Also, I was too paranoid to let them out of my sight. We owed it to Michele and Lea to not lose AMY. Before we knew it, it was already 5:15. We had reached the hill nea the logging road which was the only one split by an actual babbling brook. The sky was getting cloudy and I was confused which side of the ‘river’ AMY would sleep on. I remembered that Michele and I had found a rusted old Machete at one spot on the way to the hill on our left. I got it down from the crevice I remembered it was in. we realised that most of the monkeys had definitely crossed to the other side of the river but since we were still not sure, we decided to make ourselves comfortable on large rocks on the river. We could hear faint ‘sleeping-time’ hmmmm and hoos. But we were still a bit paranoid so we decided to stay there and talk about sports and martial arts and dance styles while waiting for AMY to make a decision on their sleeping arrangements. Their whole trail even before they had been ‘lost’ was zig-zaggy and chaotic. We waited till 6:40 before we left AMY to sleep tight. As planned (prior to Michele’s accident), Anna and her had brought the surprise birthday cake for Leo. Michele is fine and Anna decided that she shouldn’t be going to the forest for at least the next couple of days. We ended the day on a choccolate cake-y note and were glad for it.

1st April, Saturday (8 days to go): Snails

Lea and I surprised AMY wit our loud bike noise when we arrived at checkpoint 2. Anna and Leo informed us that they had been in the plantataion since 9 today so they would have probably gone into the forest anyway. Anna, with a mischieveous glint in her eye warned me “They have all this energy now, they were quite boring in the morning. They might need to make up for it”. Oh great I thought. This will be fun! Lea and I held our breaths and went into the forest, following Pamkin. Phoenix and Anakin were sleeping on branches close to each other while Felicia groomed Febe and Scarlet groomed Tiga. Everything was peaceful….for now.

It was almost an hour before they began to move, heading in the direction of checkpoint 1. We had had an okay time so far. They had climbed a bit but it was still close enough to the plantation for us to hope they would go back. Stranger things have happened! Anyway, for now we were waiting again. Most individuals had climbed up trees. Pamkin was grooming Norbert a short distance away until Goldie came and she ran up a tree as well. Lea and I sat down and discussed our cultures, roles of women and expectations from them while we waited for AMY to make a move. They did move but at a pace so slow, I thought I could hear my hair growing. And we couldn’t even get any interesting behavioural data as all of them were up in trees. They climbed a bit further till they reached a thicket of Bertam. Though on a slope and filled with spines, we hoped this meant they would come off the trees to feed. But it was just some juveniles here and there sparsely distributed. We sat down again, precariously I might add- in a spot which gave us a view of Putih, Puck and Pumeluff on one side and Norbert, high up on a tree on the other while we also avoided as many spines as possible. It had rained quite heavily this morning and again the weather was starting to seem stormy. Winds were blowing quite fast making it difficult to ascertain if the group was still there (when they are high up in trees and out of sight, we only guess their presence by pig-tail vocalisations which are very low, and rustling of the leaves- the wind makes both hard).

Lea and I moved on to topics of history, society and politics, dreams and aspirations, funny people we met, travelling we had done (she more than me- I realised there’s a difference between moving around a lot and TRAVELLING, maybe one day I’d have done quite a bit of both). It was 4:45 when AMY decided to make a move. The skies were dark and gloomy and we hoped this was their final move- directly to the sleeping site. We still had Goldie and Putih in view. We climbed a bit more till we reached a small clearing on a hill. Definitely not ideal for rain-protection….for us that is. They had enough tall trees with thick canopies to climb and keep dry in. But AMY wasn’t done moving. We followed them further and I realised that we were approaching the topof the small hill at checkpoint 1 which boasts a pretty good view of the rising sun in the morning. This WAS definitely a good place to sleep in and had been done before. My spidey-senses said we were upon the sleeping-site at long last. Emily groomed Emma at a distance while juveniles played and Putih cimbed up a tree to huddle for the night. The sky really looked bad and Lea and I made the decision to leave as soon as possible.

We were on the way back when the rain hit. The crazy rain. It didn’t matter that we were wearing rain jackets. I could hardly see. The rain was bad, there were drops on my already fogged glasses and the mosquito repellant had flown into my eye and they were on fire. The tarred was was slippery and the others were too mucky. But, we persevered and got back safely. It got worse and though we had come back before 7, we couldn’t actually go to the city till 8 pm because of the rain. We spent time at Starbucks, attended pasar malam (night market), had dinner and did the weekly supermarket run. Everything sped up after the slow day we had had in the forest.

 

2nd April 2017, Sunday: 7 days left

Anna had been kind enough to insist I take my day off today, though we had decided on tomorrow. My head has been throbbing everyday since the past 3 days and I have a low-key cold. Just my luck that I feel sick just as I am about to leave. But I needed sleep more than anything to recuperate. And I did. I woke up wonderfully rested, was still the earliest up (of the people, not in the forest). Damn my mornning person-ness. So I played with Vlad and Miezer, enjoyed the sun and a slow breakfast and lay back down in bed. I watched as Leo taught Lea to ride the bike and gave probably unhelpful advice.

Nadine dropped by early in the afternoon and we discussed (final) aspects of the project and settled accounts. In the late afternoon, Michele and I gave Vlad his second bath. This time he dried up to look more adorable than before and I came back to promptly type evrything that happened yesterday.

checkpoint 2. I hastily walked to checkpoint 2. Just in time for AMY to begin going into the forest. HAD THEY BEEN IN THE PLANTATION THE WHOLE TIME we had spent climbing up? Well they had cheek-pouches full of oil palm fruits hat said so. It was about 3:30 and we were glad we had found them. They were all just hanging about at the forest edge like they do after a plantation visit.Juvenles were playing, individuals were napping or grooming and this tranquility was a jarring contrast to what had happened to the previous shift’s humans. Leo and I spent some time playing “who’s that?”. It’s the best way for him to recap and learn the individuals names and physical and/or behavioural traits. Scarlet peeked at us from behind a stalk of bertam fruit and flower while I pointed out Goldie and Gollum, Schatz and Tiga, and the pregnant Malicia (She hangs around with Scarlet (who is pregnant too) and is less shy, and usually at the group’s centre). AMY was climbing up quite quickly and we were fortunately keeping up. They reached a clearing which immediately led to a clump of bertam. They spent time there while I figured where they would go next. They did say in the bertam thickets for quite some time while Leo and I finally sat down after having kicked and cut through a large number of bertam.

 

We would barely be sitting for 5 minutes before AMY decided to move again. Also, I was too paranoid to let them out of my sight. We owed it to Michele and Lea to not lose AMY. Before we knew it, it was already 5:15. We had reached the hill nea the logging road which was the only one split by an actual babbling brook. The sky was getting cloudy and I was confused which side of the ‘river’ AMY would sleep on. I remembered that Michele and I had found a rusted old Machete at one spot on the way to the hill on our left. I got it down from the crevice I remembered it was in. we realised that most of the monkeys had definitely crossed to the other side of the river but since we were still not sure, we decided to make ourselves comfortable on large rocks on the river. We could hear faint ‘sleeping-time’ hmmmm and hoos. But we were still a bit paranoid so we decided to stay there and talk about sports and martial arts and dance styles while waiting for AMY to make a decision on their sleeping arrangements. Their whole trail even before they had been ‘lost’ was zig-zaggy and chaotic. We waited till 6:40 before we left AMY to sleep tight. As planned (prior to Michele’s accident), Anna and her had brought the surprise birthday cake for Leo. Michele is fine and Anna decided that she shouldn’t be going to the forest for at least the next couple of days. We ended the day on a choccolate cake-y note and were glad for it))))

1st April, Saturday (8 days to go): Snails

 

Lea and I surprised AMY wit our loud bike noise when we arrived at checkpoint 2. Anna and Leo informed us that they had been in the plantataion since 9 today so they would have probably gone into the forest anyway. Anna, with a mischieveous glint in her eye warned me “They have all this energy now, they were quite boring in the morning. They might need to make up for it”. Oh great I thought. This will be fun! Lea and I held our breaths and went into the forest, following Pamkin. Phoenix and Anakin were sleeping on branches close to each other while Felicia groomed Febe and Scarlet groomed Tiga. Everything was peaceful….for now.

It was almost an hour before they began to move, heading in the direction of checkpoint 1. We had had an okay time so far. They had climbed a bit but it was still close enough to the plantation for us to hope they would go back. Stranger things have happened! Anyway, for now we were waiting again. Most individuals had climbed up trees. Pamkin was grooming Norbert a short distance away until Goldie came and she ran up a tree as well. Lea and I sat down and discussed our cultures, roles of women and expectations from them while we waited for AMY to make a move. They did move but at a pace so slow, I thought I could hear my hair growing. And we couldn’t even get any interesting behavioural data as all of them were up in trees. They climbed a bit further till they reached a thicket of Bertam. Though on a slope and filled with spines, we hoped this meant they would come off the trees to feed. But it was just some juveniles here and there sparsely distributed. We sat down again, precariously I might add- in a spot which gave us a view of Putih, Puck and Pumeluff on one side and Norbert, high up on a tree on the other while we also avoided as many spines as possible. It had rained quite heavily this morning and again the weather was starting to seem stormy. Winds were blowing quite fast making it difficult to ascertain if the group was still there (when they are high up in trees and out of sight, we only guess their presence by pig-tail vocalisations which are very low, and rustling of the leaves- the wind makes both hard).

Lea and I moved on to topics of history, society and politics, dreams and aspirations, funny people we met, travelling we had done (she more than me- I realised there’s a difference between moving around a lot and TRAVELLING, maybe one day I’d have done quite a bit of both). It was 4:45 when AMY decided to make a move. The skies were dark and gloomy and we hoped this was their final move- directly to the sleeping site. We still had Goldie and Putih in view. We climbed a bit more till we reached a small clearing on a hill. Definitely not ideal for rain-protection….for us that is. They had enough tall trees with thick canopies to climb and keep dry in. But AMY wasn’t done moving. We followed them further and I realised that we were approaching the topof the small hill at checkpoint 1 which boasts a pretty good view of the rising sun in the morning. This WAS definitely a good place to sleep in and had been done before. My spidey-senses said we were upon the sleeping-site at long last. Emily groomed Emma at a distance while juveniles played and Putih cimbed up a tree to huddle for the night. The sky really looked bad and Lea and I made the decision to leave as soon as possible.

We were on the way back when the rain hit. The crazy rain. It didn’t matter that we were wearing rain jackets. I could hardly see. The rain was bad, there were drops on my already fogged glasses and the mosquito repellant had flown into my eye and they were on fire. The tarred was was slippery and the others were too mucky. But, we persevered and got back safely. It got worse and though we had come back before 7, we couldn’t actually go to the city till 8 pm because of the rain. We spent time at Starbucks, attended pasar malam (night market), had dinner and did the weekly supermarket run. Everything sped up after the slow day we had had in the forest.

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2nd April 2017, Sunday: 7 days left
Anna had been kind enough to insist I take my day off today, though we had decided on tomorrow. My head has been throbbing everyday since the past 3 days and I have a low-key cold. Just my luck that I feel sick just as I am about to leave. But I needed sleep more than anything to recuperate. And I did. I woke up wonderfully rested, was still the earliest up (of the people, not in the forest). Damn my mornning person-ness. So I played with Vlad and Miezer, enjoyed the sun and a slow breakfast and lay back down in bed. I watched as Leo taught Lea to ride the bike and gave probably unhelpful advice. Nadine dropped by early in the afternoon and we discussed (final) aspects of the project and settled accounts. In the late afternoon, Michele and I gave Vlad his second bath. This time he dried up to look more adorable than before and I came back to promptly type evrything that happened yesterday.

 

Primate Diaries: On conquering heights, depths and fears (Days 52-54)

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.


7th March 2017, Tuesday: Where do they come from, where do they go?

To bring everyone up to speed- I had lost AMY yesterday. That is the gist of it and it bothered me that I was solely responsible for this loss. I was still relieved to not be working today though. I could nurse my bruised ego and aching head while Anna and Michele left at 9 am to try to find them. At 11 am-still no AMY, so I went to drop Vino; another set of eyes, ears and legs is always welcome. It’s just too bad she has to do THIS on her first day back.’Searching for AMY’ involves walking to and fro in the plantation, usually between checkpoints on the edge of the forest. The second avenue is usually to go deeper into the plantation, walking along paths or inside the forest in common haunts of the pig-tails that are easier to access (needless to say-there aren’t too many such places). Of course, it can be incredibly boring and quite exhausting because you are constantly moving and searching, excited by every noise only to be disappointed mostof the time.

I did my laundry, caught up with a dear friend, wrote a bit, made some Roti and long beans curry for the landlord and landlady, and squeezed out at least 3 spines embedded in my thigh from my adventure yesterday (Yep it was gross and painful). At 2 AMY was still nowhere to be ‘found’. Anna was getting desperate. “Could they be in the swamp”. “No, definitely not” I typed and sent without hesitation but then I considered my luck with them recently and suddenlyI wasn’t too sure. Michele had meanwhile found the other pig-tail group- VOLDEMORT on the logging road and been puckered at by a Norbert look-alike.

I wanted to take a nap. The heat and buzzing flies and physical and mental strain from yesterday demanded it from my body but I was too anxious. It was around 5 when I felt my eyelids droop and lift back up with difficulty. I heard the bike and was up in a flash. Michele and Vino were back. “we found them at last. Anna is with them. They finally came out to the plantation”. “Douchebags” I murmurred and the others nodded in agreement. It can be difficult to ‘keep calm and science on’ but we are weirdos who keep at it day in and day out.

8th March 2017, Wednesday- The trail not taken

AMY had arrived in the ‘clearing’ only half an hour ago when Vino and I got there. This area is the buffer zone between the forest and the plantation and I hoped they would move further in. But after spending a total of one hour in the clearing, they were heading in. I was reminded of the day before yesterday, when it was a similar hour in the clearing that started my adventure to the pinacle. But I was feeling better on realising that at least they weren’t moving as if their pig like tails were on fire. Norbert was sitting, chillig as usual, cleaning his nails. Putih and her baby Pummeluff creeped by slowly, sinking away when she saw us looking. I helped vino get reacquainted with the monkeys after her 3-week absence. Emma was again on the ground with her characteristic haggard-looking eyes while Reggie tried to be brave but puckered when she realised she had gotten a bit too close to us.

Swelling females were sneaking off towards the periphery as that is usually where the non-alpha males hang out. We saw Brienne approaching Anakin and presenting. But Norbert was only around 0 m away from her. “Anakin won’t do it- he must know Norbert’s right there” I said. Anakin saw us and puckered as if ensuring we were his confidants and then mounted Brienne. Norbert was looking for some mushrooms in the opposite direction

The group had started moving higher and higher but not as fast or as high as that fateful day (it’s hard to realise it was only the day before yesterday). By 5:30, we had reached a place where there was no way we could sit that was not on at least a 45 degree incline. And to top it off, when we did find and gingerly try to sit on a tree branch, we alarmed Jane who happened to be sitting on the other end and looked annoyed by our interruption of her alone time. When by 6:20, there was still no movement I thought my luck was finally improving because it was still early and we could spend more time in the city. We’d be out by 6:50 at the most since we were higher up. But I was glad that we had so much time to climb uphill and going downhill is easy. I’m mostly glad Anna has the morning shift tomorrow. She’s the only one who can get to this place in the relatively early and dark hours of the morning without breaking into a sweat.

So, I decided that we should take one of the trails since there was quite a lot of Bertum and thick vegetation around us. The closest trail was only 80m away from us. But SAYING “Only 80 m” when in a forest or swamp is ludicrous and I should know better. It was so fraught with obstacles only fit for a jewel-heist movie, we decided to use the other trail- “This one goes to the logging road so we can get out at checkpoint 1” I said.

We fought a lot of spiny plants and entangled climbers, I tore the skin on my arm while simultaneously fighting Bertum and swore and yellled in frustration. It didn’t help that the day had been sulry and humid and both our glasses kept slipping off our faces thanks to the sweat while spider-webs we inadvertantly destroyed kept sticking to them like….flies (see what I did there?). I’ve never apologised to spiders with such genuine emotion. Actually, I’ve never HAD TO APOLOGISE to ANYONE with that genuine an emotion.

It always grows darker in the forest earlier because of the thick canopy and it was happening now. We were in an unfamiliar area at 7 pm, kind of lost and slightly worried though I still had my prioirities right “at least we didn’t lose AMY and they went to sleep early”. We passed a brook we couldn’t really appreciate given our hurry, many trees we were sure looked familiar- classic reaction when one is lost. Finally we found this trail we had been hoping to reach all this time and….it was no better than the ‘non-trail’. It had probably been a long time since this ‘trail’ had been used. And the vegetation that had been cleared had returned with a vengeance; we were bearing its consequences. It was growing draker and we were getting desperate.

“You know what, screw the trail”, we both said almost in unison. We knew the direction in which the logging road lay. we’d be pioneers and make our own trails. the GPS showed the logging road to be only 50 m away. Again, I sould have realised that “ONLY” is always an understatement. Nothing could be farther from the truth. We saw it soon enough. We were about 10 feet above the surface. There was a tree branch in the middle but otherwise, it was a drop. There seemed to be nothing to hold on to from here to the tree branch even if we did slide down. And we were surrounded by wild Pandanus trees. It is a monocot, each leaf has serrated margins and the underside is also raised and serrated. “Bloody brilliant!” as Ron weasley would say . But, there was no other way and how bad could it be. We could figure this out. To make a long story short- I fell most of the way down to the tree, got entangled amongst sharp pandan leaves and other twigs. But i somehow let myself out. Vino followed shortly after. With mud caked in many places, twigs in our hair and aware of the darkness- we were growing tired of being pioneers. And we still had 35 m to go. Soon, there was another drop. This time it was 90 degress- a straight fall though not as high and I desperately dug my fingers and found some tree roots to hold. I could step on another so as to help break my not-so-gracefull decent.

And suddenly, just like that- flat land. Actual flat land. the lowest surface we were sure. I could senese the presence of the logging road. My strides were more confident. We would get out. And then we burst out. The logging road- Valhalla. It was 7:30 when we finally got out. We ran to the bike as the light- even in the plantation was fading fast.We got home, extremely crabby, grimy and exhausted yet proud for some reason. Anna told us we aren’t supposed to take the trail we took since it was so rarely used and in a terrible state. “I should delete that track from the GPSs”, “yes” Vino and I said.

But, all’s well that ends well. We made it to Starbucks. While Vino and I used up Starbucks’ resources, Anna picked up an ex-student (also called Anna) who did her Masters thesis here working with AMY around 4 years ago. She wanted to come back to see the monkeys and relive her memories. I think EVEN after today, I completely understand that.

9th March 2017, Thursday: The Dark Lord approaches

Vino and I were glad we had got the morning today to unwind afetr our adventures yesterday. And today we were sure we would have soemr. We were going to be looking for the other group – VOLDEMORT (Named after their nose-less alpha male Voldemort) in hopes of habituating them. More the data points, stronger your tests and evidence as they say.

We left after Michele got back in the afternoon. This meant Vino and I each had a GPS and walkie-talkie so we could split up. And since we didn’t know VOLDEMORT’s favourite haunts, we were going to just be walking all over the plantation and checkpoints waiting for them to show. We got there by 2:10 and split up. I decided to check out the plantation close to cehckpoint 1 while Vino was at the buffer zone between checkpoints 2 and 2.5. That is where I rmember seeing them when I was looking for AMY last. I was returning after having only found skinks and squirrels in the plantation when I saw somthing big, seemed to be oving on all fours. Dogs or pig-tails? I didn’t know. I saw their silhouettes better as I got closer. A male and female pig-tail. I moved cautiously. Startling them would be a bad start when the aim was to get them to know that we weren’t a threat (That is why we always wear orange- they learn to associate the colour with us: non-threatening peeps). But it turns out my tip-toeing wasn’t necessary. This was AMY, Anna was in the distance with her notebook. And she hadn’t encounteered VOLDEMORT. Somehow AMY and VOLDEMORT rarely cross paths though we know that when they do, VOLDEMORT displaces AMY.

Vino and I soon looked in other places and after exhausting all possibilities, went to the other side of the forest. AMY never goes there but another student had marked a trail there when he encountered and followed VOLDEMORT in the plantation on that side- albeit that plantation is wilder and more unkempt. We drove there and walked the paths we thought looked clear. Nothing. We got back. It was 4:50 already when we parked and started to decide on doing another sweep before we quit for the day. Looking without finding is always more exhausting than following. I was near checkpoint 2.5 this time while Vino had gone to check the logging road. I heard them, sounds that were definitely pig-tail females and juveniles. They were jumping en-masse from the plantation into the forest. Vino had spoted 2 males here but that was hours ago, which is why we hadn’t investigated. I called Vino on the walkie-talkie and asked her to rush. The group wouldn’t wait. She was on her way-the logging road was quite a distance away.

But I had HIM to keep me company. Voldemort himself had arrived and was puckering incessantly. This time, I kept my distance. I didn’t want him lunging at me again when I was alone (Read “the summoning”). But I felt braver because I was in the plantation and couldn’t trip over or get caught in things although lets be honest- I sometimes tripped over my own feet. As long as I stood my ground and didn’t get too close, we were fine. Soon, he eased up. i really hoped he wouldn’t go in making me lose the group. He didn’t. I could take a lot of pictures tilll Vino arrived. But as soon as she came, Voldemort had started moving. It was frustrating because he went up a small hill-obviously filled with Bertum and I could only see parts of him. Vino had been dying to see his face- it really does take your breath away and she wanted to experience it first-hand. But he seemed to know that. Finally we reached a landing with Bertum on all sides and could hear a lot of individuals but see no one. We were about to go forward when we spotted him coming toward us- puckering. Was this an ambush? Can pig-tails strategise? We know chimpanzees are capable of co-ordinated hunting of colobus monkeys.

Vino and I had just picked up the closest sticks without spines (Vino insisted her fan would make a great weapon) we could find when we saw another male coming toward us puckering. then suddenly he laid eyes on Voldemort and they both just kept puckering at each other. However they seemed to be having a heated stare-down and every few moments, Voldemort would keep moving closer- though sideways, moving like a crab. As if he didn’t want to look at us. “Megha, Megha, Megha, no”, I could hear Vino saying. But I couldn’t stop the adrenaline. This was a weird rush. Suddenly, we both saw it- Voldemort was about to lunge. I was in front. I waved my stick and growled “No”. I din’t realise that the stick broke in half when I waved it and one part went flying,missing him by an earshot (he already doesn’t have much of a nose, what if I maimed his ear?). I think both Vino and I discovered that our fear response was laughter- which can be misconstrued in polite civil human settings I am sure but the noise made both the males hesitate. And so we went back to the terse situation and alert immobility as before. This meant we anticipated it when he lunged a second time. I stomped on the ground and we both held up our weapons. This again arrested his movements. Eventually, the other male started grooming himself and left soon after. It was 6:10, the juveniles-wherever they were hiding had already begun humming and hooing while females started their nightly ritual. They would sleep here, or nearby. Voldemort soon grew bored with our little game and left. We didn’t feel particularly inclined to follow him into the bush he had disappeared into lest he be waiting for us. It was 6:30. We had managed to follow them to the sleeping site however and felt incredibly lucky, especially after yesterday.