<%-- Page Title--%> Reflections <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 127 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

October 17, 2003

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Terror in Monkey Land

Zafar Sobhan

If you ever get the opportunity to visit the sacred monkey forest in the town of Ubud in Bali, my strong advice to you would be to give it a miss. Don't get me wrong the forest isn't without its attractions in the same way that the terror of bungy-jumping is considered fun by some people - but I wouldn't go see the forest if what you are hoping for is to be charmed by communing with the cute monkeys in their natural habitat.

I was recently attending a wedding in Bali and one of the excursions that had been arranged for the amusement of the guests was a trip to the Sacred Monkey-Forest near the town of Ubud, which was where most of the guests were staying. Sounded like a splendid plan. A gentle late afternoon stroll through the woods to see some wildlife.

The ride down is pleasant and uneventful. Through Ubud's tortuous streets down Jalan Hanuman and down to Jalan Monkey-Forest at the very bottom end of Ubud where the town gives way to the surrounding forested hills. It is a little later than we had planned to make it down to the forest. More early evening than late afternoon. I notice with a touch of alarm that the forest looks a little less welcoming in the early evening gloom than in the bright sunlight of the brochures I have been shown. But it is probably just the light. Nothing more, surely.

An old woman on the outside clicks her tongue as she tries to convince us to buy a bunch of small champa-type bananas to feed the monkeys, but after much internal debate we decide against. Some have heard that to feed the monkeys could set off a ferocious feeding frenzy. Sounds plausible. We enter without bananas.

We walk gingerly down a twisting path that cuts through the middle of the forest after the first turn we can no longer see the entrance and are surrounded by trees on both sides as far as the eye can see. We are in sacred monkey territory. Adjusting my eyes to the gloom, I start to pick out more and more monkeys on the trees on either side of us.

They are not too big most are between two and three feet tall and have quite smart shiny silvery fur and intelligent (though sullen) expressions on their faces. Most astonishingly they all have a spiky strip of fur standing up on top of their heads like little Mohawks that make them look quite thuggish as they huddle together. I don't know if it is the Mohawks or the surly expressions or the way they slouch around but they look just like a gang of disaffected little hooligans I almost expect to see cigarettes drooping from their lips and tattered leather jackets on their hairy backs. This is one tough bunch of monkeys.

We all know the rules. No eye-contact. No fighting with the monkeys. If they want anything just let them have it. I recall from my youth in a town with a high monkey population that it is best not to bare your teeth as a monkey could take it as a challenge, and share this intelligence with the group. Sounds plausible. Conversation henceforth conducted by all through clamped lips lest the monkeys catch a flash of white and misinterpret our intentions.

From nowhere a large monkey--must be three and a half feet tall--lopes up to my cousin's husband and starts to menace him. Cousin's husband conducts himself with considerable aplomb no sudden movements no panicked yelling no baring of teeth--he looks warily at the monkey growling gently at his feet and stands motionless. The monkey boldly ups the ante. It hurls itself upon cousin's husband and clambers up his legs until it settles on his lower torso from where it can grab the bag on his shoulder with its front paws and tear at it with its teeth. The fearsome beast savages the bag. The rest of us are faint with terror. A sudden particularly brutal offensive rends the bag in two, spilling its contents and startling the monkey into jumping off and running away.

Everyone is stunned almost speechless following this audacious display of ferocity. Cousin's husband is praised (through clasped lips of course) for courage in face of such danger (though suspicion remains among some that he was merely paralysed with fear). Turns out monkey is most likely after baby's milk bottle which is in bag and retains trace quantities of milk. Baby fortunately left at home. Cousin's husband roundly berated by all (through clasped lips of course) for his idiocy in not leaving bottle in car.

We walk on in protective clusters, making sure not to stray too close to the edge of the path. Notice with a start that some branches swoop high over the path so that at any moment a monkey could drop on head from middle of nowhere. Have to walk right under three villainous-looking monkeys sitting on branch like nightclub bouncers begging for an excuse to take you out back and rough you up. We pass below, keeping lips tightly clamped and eyes to the ground, not daring even to make accidental eye-contact. A particularly mean-looking group of monkeys may or may not be stalking us. Not a good sign. The sky has been darkening steadily. With the home-field advantage, you have to figure that poor light favours the monkeys.

We walk around to the front of the Sacred Monkey Temple in the middle of the forest. This is truly terrifying. The path runs along the sides of the temple so on one side of you is the high temple wall crowned with innumerable monkeys and on the other side of the narrow path is a dense jungle populated by thickets of monkeys so close you can reach out and be bitten by one. The effect is that of walking down a long gloomy corridor-like alley in some squalid part of town with hostile thugs crowding the pavements and planning all manner of villainy. The temple itself is spectacular and almost worth the terror that is induced in reaching it.

The evening is drawing to a close and we decide to retrace our steps back to where we have come in. This would of course mean running the gauntlet by the side of the temple again. I have a better idea if we go out an alternative way we can loop back to our original path without putting ourselves at the mercy of the temple monkeys again. Emboldened by their successful and unmolested navigation to the temple, the group pronounces itself willing to return the way it has come, leaving only me and companion to employ my cunning alternative route.

Thus it was that she and I were by ourselves when we are waylaid by a monkey of robust proportions and villainous countenance. This hirsute ruffian gallops up to her and with bared teeth clearly expressing his perfidious intent, grabs firm hold of companion's shawl and begins to pull. Companion, indignant, holds on resolutely, and for the next few seconds is involved in unseemly tug-of-war with the determined primate, each making low growling noises in their throat. Suddenly remembering the injunction not to fight with the monkeys, she guiltily drops her end of the shawl and retreats reluctantly.

The monkey is triumphant. It busies itself with trying to determine the most flattering arrangement for its new garment. First it rolls around in it a few times to establish ownership. Then it tries all manner of arrangement. Hmm... let's see... it looks good as a cape but it's hard to swing through trees if you're cinching your cape around your neck with one paw all the time. A shaw--but its shoulders aren't wide enough to keep it on. It draws the shawl over its head like a pallu and peers out. Quite chic really but again the problem of holding it in place all the time.

Companion and I are weak now with laughter. Trying to laugh through clamped lips is difficult but the situation is hysterical. The monkey is mugging away like its trying out for a Dior show, striking all manner of glamourous pose and doubtless cursing the lack of a mirror, to say nothing of opposable thumbs. Finally, frustrated, the monkey stalks off, leaving behind a slightly soiled shawl which we gingerly retrieve.

It turns out that the shawl belongs not to companion but to her friend, the bride, who will be needing it back. We promise never to breathe a word but the story is so good that we barely are reunited with the rest (who have not missed us and are casually in the process of leaving) then all comes tumbling out. They have managed to extricate themselves from forest with no further harassment or molestation but all agree that the excursion has been a touch more stressful than anticipated!



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