Monkey Business

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Working internationally is challenging. You have to accept that everything that might be simple and straightforward at home will inevitably be complicated and opaque in your new environment. You’re working in an unfamiliar culture, with people who often don’t speak your language. Frequently they are people who’ve never before done anything like what you’re asking them to do. Finding the tools and materials you need can be difficult or impossible. And there’s a new currency, a new climate and new food. I’ve always said that there’s a constant low level of stress that goes with living and working in a foreign place - you may perceive it or not, but it does wear you down. Sometimes.

And sometimes you have to spend your Easter Long Weekend flying out to visit a couple of potential suppliers.

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So yeah, I had to work over the long weekend. But that work was on BALI, probably Indonesia’s best known and most popular tourist destination.

That’s how I found myself, accompanied by my designer colleague Nathan, at a lovely guesthouse run by our local contact in Ubud. Ubud is a small town sort of in the centre of Bali, well away from the better-known surfer-focused coastline town of Kuta. Ubud has a history as an artistic centre and more recently has attracted the yoga and spa culture. And while we may have escaped the drink-fuelled Aussie vacationer crush of Kuta, there’s no escaping the fact that Ubud is still a tourist town. So I was pleased that our guesthouse was a pleasant walk from the main drag, literally set among rice paddies.

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Plus there was a herd of ducks who lived in the rice paddy.

I say it was a pleasant, except that it was even hotter than Jakarta. Like hot enough that Nathan was heard to say, “The sun is trying to kill us.” I’m starting to acclimate to the temperature here, but it was still tough and I basically had to resign myself to being a damp and sweaty mess for most of the three days we were in Ubud, while also having about 3 quick showers a day. Sort of like the adult equivalent of running through the sprinkler.

However, there was one place in Ubud where the sun’s anger was mitigated: the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, a popular tourist spot at the southern end of the main north/south street in Ubud, appropriately called Monkey Forest Road.

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Take care indeed, as we shall see.

The forest is a nature reserve and complex of Hindu temples that’s home to a large colony of crab-eating macaques - more than 600 in all. (And here I'll point out that they're also called long-tailed macaques and don't only eat crabs, which is a good thing because the coast is a solid two hour drive from Ubud and very few of the monkeys had driver's licences.) Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will recall that Indonesia is the world’s most populous Islamic country. Bali, however, practices a particularly colourful and local form of Hindu, which is why the island is covered in Hindu temples, including those in the Monkey Forest. It also gives Bali a very different and quite lovely vibe. For instance, part of the Balinese style of Hinduism involves leaving small offerings for spirits around the home or in the community. These most often take the form of small trays made from palm or banana leaves with a few flowers or flower petals, other bits of twisted play leaves, and a few grains of rice. They’re in household shrines, outside temples or businesses, on pathways, or even on vehicles and machinery. This is a daily occurrence. As our host eloquently put it, “You have Thanksgiving once a year. We have it every day.”

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A particularly dense collection of offerings. I very often saw people - both men and women - walking with woven palm trays full of these little offerings, stopping to place them at different locations.

But back to the monkeys. Nathan and I arrived at the monkey forest in the morning, and the dense jungle immediately made the climate more comfortable. I’d been careful to put my sunglasses in my zippered bag, and neither of us was carrying food. Nathan had made the mistake of scrolling through a few of the user-submitted photos on Tripadvisor and reported that there were an alarming number of photos of bite wounds, so it seemed important to be cautious. And the marker for the first aid station was prominently displayed at the entrance to the park. Advice on the sign nearby said:
DO NOT PANIC if the monkeys jump on you, please drop any food and walk away. They will soon jump off.
DO NOT RUN, when monkeys approach you, keep calm and don’t scream. Avoid shouting as this may frighten them.
DO NOT LOOK MONKEYS IN THE EYE, this is interpreted as a sign of aggression.
DO NOT HIDE AND FOOD, because the monkeys will know and try to find it and do not ever try to pull it back.
… and so on...
Even before you enter the forest you notice the monkeys, who, being wild animals, wander where they want and often end up out in the road near the entrances to the park. As soon as you get into the park you realise just how many monkeys there are, and just how habituated they are to humans.

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Here’s one near the entrance, plundering some offerings for food. This is also a frequent tactic of the local chickens.

And so we started walking through the park, enjoying the cooler air and taking eleven zillion photos, as did everyone else there.

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The foliage is dense, and the park has several wide paved paths.

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Also monkeys. Lots and lots of monkeys.

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Doing monkey stuff.

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Including stuff with twin baby monkeys!

The park staff feed the monkeys a steady diet of sweet potatoes and you’re discouraged from feeding them anything else. But its clear the monkeys are completely adapted to life as a tourist attraction. Early in our visit Nathan sat on a stone wall lining one of the paths and a large monkey crawled right over him as he sat taking a photo of another beast. He had the presence of mind to keep still and just let it happen, but that wasn’t the only up close and personal encounter we had with monkeys that day.

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This guy was not very chatty

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But Nathan did get a good going over from this one and still managed to get a selfie in the process.

As we were making our way around the park, the monkeys seemed to get a bit bolder. Or perhaps there were just more of them around. One decided I and my bright red daypack were of particular interest, jumped right onto my shoulders and proceeded to open the zipper of the pack and extract both my bottle of water and my sunglasses before I got the pack off and he departed. Luckily, my sunglasses were deemed inedible so I got those back. The water bottle ended up as a donation to the monkeys.

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Here’s the larcenous litter bugger caught in the act. And I know it’s hard, but can we please refrain from the inevitable “monkey on my back” comments?

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Nathan later reported that he wasn’t really sure what to do to help. And though he did do an excellent job of capturing the whole event on camera, he admitted that by this point that it was clear “the monkey was in charge”.

By the time we'd extricated ourselves and any remaining possession from the Monkey Forest it was well past lunch time and we were both very much in need of food and drink served in cool monkey-free surroundings. Luckily we found all of that a short walk down Monkey Forest Road were they served us very very cold very very tasty beer and french fries sprinkled with an addictive house-made mix of salt, chili powder and palm sugar. Sounds a bit weird but tastes amazing. (As Nathan pointed out, it was the holy trinity: salt, fat and sugar!) Then we really had no choice but to wander back to the guesthouse with the promise of cold showers and naps beckoning.

As we walked through the rice paddies, we started to hear a lovely chiming tune and gradually realised it was coming from our place. Our host is a musician and composer (the guesthouse is an intermittent sideline) and it became apparent that there was some kind of group rehearsal going on in his private rooms one floor down from the guest rooms. This was made a even more magical and mysterious by the fact that we couldn't see any of the musicians, we could only hear the sounds filtering up from below. So after a quick rinse in the shower I lay on the cool sheets and closed my eyes and listened to ethereal music and it all blended into a sort of dream.



We were only on Bali for about three days, but it was long enough to know that a return trip would not be a bad idea at all. The direct flight only takes a couple hours and costs about £100, and the guesthouse was friendly and there's still a lot more to see. Oh, and the supplier meetings went well, so I guess there's a chance I'll have to go back anyways. Work, work, work, eh?

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