Sunday, July 13, 2008

Monkeys in the Rain

A note of explanation: This story, like several others, for many years had a home on a University of Texas computer which very recently was taken out of service, and without much warning. So in the next few days I will be uploading to this blog the various stories (non-fiction, more or less) that I previously had on the deceased server. Be forewarned they are rather long, unlike most blog entries, but by way of excuse I will say they were not originally written with a blog in mind.

It was sometime in the 1980s I found myself watching a group of several hundred Japanese snow monkey in a clearing in the south Texas brush normally inhabited only by javelina hogs, armadillos, and a few wary, lean, and thorn-scarred cows. Being unsuited for the climate, they seemed a bit scruffy, rheumy-eyed, and like most monkeys, they were disturbing in their habits and social arrangements, possibly because they reveal us as we do not like to think of ourselves. The monkeys were at a place (then) called the South Texas Primate Observatory, which, according to an articulate woman named Lou Griffin who showed visitors around, was about to go broke. (The tenure on this ranch of these monkeys, macaques actually, has always been a bit precarious, but I understand they are still there as of 2008.) Griffin gave us a brief history of the complicated events that led to founding of a monkey refuge in the Texas brush country. She impressed me with her dedication to primate research and to her animals. But funds had dried up. Rich oilmen had supported the project as a tax write-off, but the oilmen were all bankrupt now. The monkeys sat patiently waiting for their daily rations. They seemed dispirited, like they sensed that all was not well.

The monkeys would line up along the road as the pickup truck was driven slowly through the clearing and Lou threw out monkey chow. Occasional screeches and brief chases would erupt when hunger and opportunity would goad a low ranking monkey to try to eat out of turn. The clearing was overpopulated, and anything the monkeys could eat had been eaten. A few inedible forbs grew here and there. The highest ranking monkeys sat on the high branches of a dead tree that had been worn shiny and slick by climbing. The tree was at the edge of a mudhole. Lou said the monkeys were happy. Maybe they were; what do I know about monkeys? It was a lot better than a zoo. They were no cages and the ineffectual fence around the clearing had no function other than recreational climbing.

After feeding time, the monkeys on the dead tree sat still in the sun, looking out over the low canopy of guajillo, guayacan, blackbrush, and mesquite that extended, shimmering in the heat, an unbroken expanse, farther than they could see. They looked out over the small spiny trees and seemed puzzled and contemplative, like astronomers thinking about the origin of the universe.

Japanese researchers would come and play tape recordings of the calls of their original tribe of monkeys in Japan. Only the very oldest monkeys, who had been born in Japan, would respond to the Japanese calls. The researchers would play the calls to these monkeys in the name of science.

It occurred to me that the old monkeys could still remember the snows and slopes and trees of Mount Fuji, where they had once lived.

The calls that the old monkeys recognized probably bespoke pine trees and streams and Shinto temple incense.


That was about the time my daughter Eve wanted to see the jungle.


We got to San Jose after dark, in the rain, with a low ceiling. The lights of the city first flared abruptly 500 feet below, a blazing spill of jewelled lights filling the bottom of a black void, then we were engulfed again by a blur of fog throbbingly lit by our plane's own heartbeat lights. We broke out into the black air with the lights on the ground much closer. A tall, nervous man in some kind of clerical garb who smelled of garlic and sweat and who spoke bad English sat next to me and chewed on his fingernails and perspired heavily during the landing. We sat silently and concentrated on the rocking and clanking and groaning of aluminum, then a shocking carnival of lights broke out of the mist as my seatmate stiffened and sucked on his fist, then the lights were beside the plane, as we hit with a hollow whump followed by 2 or 3 seconds of a soaring bounce, then we were down, rolling into the hard roar of deceleration of another safe landing, as my seatmate leaned back into his seat with a sigh and closed his eyes, praising God.

It was a family vacation: Kay, Eve, Anna, and myself. It was our intention to visit the lowland rain forest of the Costa Rican Caribbean coast.

Our cab driver had never heard of the place we wanted to go to spend the night, a shabby downtown hotel full of alcoholic American and European retirees, old men with toadskin nicotine faces stubbled with whiskers, and a few women of indeterminable age with the complexion of dolls and lips painted like rose petals, enveloped in dim acrid breathtaking clouds of perfume and cigarette smoke. All of them were pale and spindly as cave insects, and seemed to be permanent denizens of the lobby. They stopped talking to stare at us as while we haggled over the price of a room with the night clerk.

The rooms were all open at the top, so you could hear almost everything that went on in the hotel, which had the acoustics of a fine concert hall. It was poorly ventilated. You could hear a fart sonorous as a trombone in the room at the end of the hall, and not long after you could smell it. The residents enjoyed the same flavorful smoky richly seasoned air over and over for days on end. They were a kind of biological community, a symbiotic super-organism, with a common ear, all joined at the lungs, sharing rebreathed molecules of air and whatever other intimacies they had, mostly sudden anguished outcries during bad dreams, and occasional noises of purchased sex when guys would come in off the street with their girls. The room next to us got rented late that night. I heard the man put his pocket change on the bureau. Clomp went his shoe, then clomp again, then his companion took off her stiletto heels which clicked to the tile floor. The bed creaked heavily. She giggled. He murmured. You could hear them breathe, and murmur, and giggle. Then the breathing got heavier and the murmuring stopped as the bed creaks got louder and faster. Little feminine whimpers of sexual pleasure, possibly simulated, floated in the darkness like small intra-ocular flashes of light. After that they were both quiet for a couple of minutes, and then they got up and had a smoke. He went out to piss in the common bathroom down the hall, sounding like a horse urinating in a puddle of water. It was hard to sleep.

In the morning we took a taxi which plunged like a bull through the narrow streets filled with daring pedestrians, who leapt aside at the last second like bullfighters, to the old train station. It was early and the station was empty except for the inevitable young German tourist, insouciant, tan, fit, and filthy, asleep on the grimy tile floor using his backpack for a pillow.

We boarded the train down to Limón.

The rolling stock was very ancient. To cross to another car was slightly dangerous. You had to step over the cast iron couplings which gnashed in a massive metal ball and socket crash and groan, slamming and unslamming, a few inches below your foot.

Outside were thousand-foot nearly vertical mountain walls covered with tropical vegetation above brawling pale chocolate froth rivers far below, distant mumbling stormgutters gravelled with boulders out of the gravity-slides of remoter mountains. The rivers smashed down broken rock gorges to the whitewater stream below us destructo-heaving with standing waves reported to toss kayaks like matchsticks. Other passengers looked out the left side of the train at the white cows on shining sunlit steep green hillsides below a deeper green, almost black, of the tropical forest on the higher slopes, with long beards of Spanish moss and lianas hanging from the branches of the high and massive white-trunked trees.

[Note: this story was written in the 1980s. Sadly, this wonderful train is no longer in operation.]


That night in Limón we abandoned our stifling rooms, went out and had a late meal at a Chinese restaurant, mistakenly thinking that Chinese food in Costa Rica would be somewhat different from Costa Rican food, which is greasy and bland. Two young men and a boy at the table next to us ate a big meal and conversed with the waitress and savored their dessert, and when they had eaten all their food--they seemed to have typically enormous Costa Rican appetites--called the waitress over and requested coffee, and she went to get it.


The waitress screamed, and all the customers stood up and ran over to the door.

"What the hell...?" I exclaimed pointlessly to no one in particular, before I realized that the three diners next to us had bolted from their chairs, overturning them, and had run out without paying. There were dishes all over the floor.

The waitress and the cook gave chase, but two of the criminals had run one way and one had run another, and all escaped. The Chinese owners appeared, the whole family, out from the kitchen, all carrying meat cleavers, and waving them, and began berating the waitress in Chinese-accented Spanish for allowing the getaway. One of the customers shouted back, "Hey, it was not her fault, there wasn't any way she could have stopped them." Everybody talked about it and milled around still carrying napkins staring at the scene of the crime, the remains of the meal, the sidewalk escape route. The cook gave a wicked chop to the door frame with his cleaver as he went back to the kitchen.

We walked back to the hotel in the exuberant tropical coast-town night.

An extraordinary air of tropical putrefaction and decay enveloped Limon, a wonderful fragrance of flowers and rotten fruit and the heavy sour perfume of exhaust smoke of untuned diesel buses.


The next day we hired passage up-coast on a motorboat.

It was the rainy season. For two hours we rode a shock-wave of noise and a plume of spray through the monsoon deluge. Heavy raindrops stitched our bodies like machine-gun fire as our small very fast open boat slammed and jolted like a skipped rock up the river through the jungle north of Limon. Interconnected rivers and canals form a waterway that extends northwest to Nicaragua.

When we arrived at the village of Tortuguero, our skin stung and our clothes drenched, we clambered onto a muddy bank near the loose collection of huts that spread out a quarter of a mile along the canal, and hauled our waterlogged stuff inside an open-air pavilion serving as a dance-hall and bar. Water began burbling quietly from the suitcases onto the floor. One man sat drinking beer watching the rain.

The village lies in a clearing between the river and the ocean.

We walked across the village and took a room in a cheap hotel by the sea. We hung out our clothes to dry on the porch. Pretty soon the rain stopped and the sun came out.

Children were playing on the black sand beach.

We watched the sea come pounding and foaming in. Occasionally it surged unexpectedly in a white fizzing line of suds chasing the children up the sand. The children shrieked as they retreated. Eve joined some robust barefoot little girls who were shouting and running, who were not at all bashful and who fingered Eve's clothes and examined her hair and laughed and asked long rapid-fire questions in Spanish, which we partially answered in Eve's stead before they interrupted us and each other with more questions. Meanwhile I noticed their mother, a brown, thin, beautiful barefooted woman with long black loose hair wearing a billowing patched skirt, who never looked directly at us. She was fishing. She had a hand line and a bucket containing some small fish she was using for bait, and beside the bucket were two big fish that she had caught, covered with sand and pulsing feebly. She pulled in the stout no-nonsense nylon twine that was was using to fish with, rebaited the hook, twirled the weighted line around her head like a sling and launched it seaward a hundred feet in a high arc, the bait flashing epicycles in the sun as it orbited the weight, into the surf. She held her line lightly and pulled it in with the attentiveness of a blind person reading Braille. "Come back here," she said quietly, without looking at them, when her girls got too far away. "Do you go to school?" Kay asked them. They fell down on the sand in feigned hysterical laughter. "Of course we go to school. Over there." They pointed at an obvious school building 200 yards from the sea. "Everyone goes to school."

They got up and grabbed Eve. "Come to school with us" they said. "Come to school with us tomorrow. Come see our house."

We heard their mother murmur "No, mijitas."

"Well, come to our school tomorrow, then."

Kay said for Eve, "She has to leave, she doesn't have time to go with you tomorrow. Sorry."

Eve ran off with them to play at walking over a plank over a big hole someone had dug in the sand. We watched the surf. We watched the woman as she fished. The woman looked at the clouds on the horizon. Suddenly her fishline was throbbing and jumping and cutting back and forth through the waves, and she was pulling it in, hand over hand, and then she darted into the surf to nab the fish, which was about a foot long. She removed the hook, threw that fish along with the two previous ones, into her pail. She rolled up her line, called her children, and she marched away carrying her family's evening meal in a bucket. Her children followed behind. She never spoke to us or met out eyes.

Her children called back, as they left, "you should be in school, Evita."

After supper we sought out Damma, the guide who had been recommended to us. He lived in a small neat 3 room house built on stilts. He invited us in. He was a stocky, friendly man in his late fifty's, a Miskito Indian from Nicaragua. He spoke a sing-song Caribbean English. When he found that we were interested in having him take us on a trip into the jungle, he took out a photo album, with pictures that had been sent to him by satisfied customers, and showed them to us. We examined his blurred and treasured photos of past expeditions; Damma holding a dead fer-de-lance; Damma hacking at a vine with a machete; Damma in his dugout canoe, and so forth. "How did you get the name 'Dama?' " I asked (I was puzzled by the name, thinking it was the Spanish word dama, which means "lady".)

"Damma is a Miskito name, means 'old man.' The old man that give me that name said to me, 'when you get to be old they call you Damma so I'll give you that name right now so you won't ever have to change your name.' So I been Damma, Old Man, all my life."

Damma agreed to guide us the next day on a one-day trip up the Rio Tortuguero in a dugout canoe.

The village had come alive after the rain. Boys began splashing their game across the village soccer field, the ball occasionally spurting in unpredictable directions from a tangle of flailing legs in an explosion of muddy water and shouts.

Before dark there were distant thunderhead anvils illuminated by the setting sun far offshore in the east. Fog lay in on the beach to the north.

We appeared at dawn at the canal, and helped Damma launch his canoe. He had hewn the canoe himself from a big tree trunk. We pushed away from the bank and paddled, using paddles Damma had sawn and whittled, and stroked silently across the two-hundred-yard wide canal into a narrow channel of the Rio Tortuguero. The water was clear and cool, the trees high, the understory dense.

The silent river looked almost black. I was surprised to find that the water was so clear I could see the bottom of my oar when I pushed it as far down as I could reach. "It is the bottom that is black, not the water," Damma explained.

We heard only birds and howler monkeys. We saw a striped bittern Damma called a tiger heron nearby, stalking fish. We saw a raccoon stalking the heron, sneaking along a branch near the bird. We accidentally saved the heron's life when we tried to take a photograph and scared away the bird, which never saw the scowling mask of its enemy three feet away.

The shadowy forest stood high above us, dim in the rain. The tallest trees were covered with purple flowers. They must have been 150 feet high. We paddled upriver, laboring against the current.

We saw some howler monkeys, sitting like small, sodden, very old people with tiny faces wearing shabby fur coats and lost in thought, bundled in the rain in some high trees. Damma made howler monkey noises to encourage them to look around and hoot and maybe move, but they ignored us. "Them monkeys cold because of the rain. When the sun come out they start movin' around," said Damma.

A couple of miles upriver, we pushed into a small channel, one of a maze of channels. Anhingas bent their serpentine necks to look at us. Jaans pattered with flashes of red and yellow along the water hyacinths. Spoonbill herons tilted in the shallows.

It cleared and the sun came out occasionally. Below us in the shallow clear water we saw big ghostly red shapes, red snappers. I saw a lizard which ran across the top of the water, or seemed to. Damma said "Oh, that is the Jesus Lizard." I am not sure whether he was pulling my leg. We saw intensely bright iridescent blue butterflies, their cut-mica-fragile mirror-finish wings beating like a silent popping of flashbulbs, so shiny it hurt your eyes.

We stopped at a small opening in the understory by the river. It was a path. We got out and Damma led us into the forest. The river became invisible behind us by the time we had gone 15 feet. We were in deep shade, with 150 feet of vegetation above us. The plant growth from the canopy down to the ground was luxuriant but not benevolent. We discovered the existence of palmetto shrubs with 3 inch long needle-sharp spines. "Oh, them called 'prickles' " said Damma. He showed us a hornet nest which emitted a rising hum like a small dangerous machine as its inhabitants assumed battle stations and warmed up their wings, under a leaf we were about to push aside.

"Have you ever been afraid of anything in the jungle, Damma?"

"Oh, yes. I been attacked by a jaguar. I shot him. But if you don't have no gun, you in bad trouble with the jaguar. He just grab your machete right out of your hand with his teeth, then he crack your neck. But let me show you how you get rid of the jaguar if you don't got no gun."

He cut a bunch of spiny palm leaves with a stroke of his machete and waved the leaves in my face. I became the jaguar for demonstration purposes. "You mix him up, the jaguar. You push them leaves at him. You shake them leaves. You make him blink, and then you stick that jaguar with the point of the machete." I blinked. He lunged. "Then you do it again. And again till he lose some blood and get weak. Then you cut him with the machete, chop open his head." This was all simulated for us, animatedly, as he spoke.

We made our way back to the canoe, walking in the inch-deep water which flowed in a clear sheet across the jungle floor.

We ate our lunch in the canoe, then started drifting back, with the current, so the half day of strenuous paddling was over. We saw more monkeys, as we were going back. This time they were searching for new leaves, groping down to the very ends of the branches which would begin to droop dangerously with the weight of the limber-armed animals who descended like sandbags hanging from pulleys; the branches would rebound stripped of leaves when the monkeys would let go at the last second before catastrophe as they swung to a new branchlet, all the while stuffing leaves into their mouths and chewing with satisfied grunts, combining their slow choreography of trapeze artistry with the serious-eating rhythms of a Salvation Army lunchroom. Their faces were impassive and they paid little attention to us.

"They eat mostly new leaf, wild fruits. But if they gets down into the banana, they eat up them banana quick-time."

We got back late in the afternoon. The sun was out and the day had gotten warm and pleasant.


I'll tell you honestly the trip up the river felt artificial. Like I hadn't really gone anyplace different. The malaise of the contemporary traveler.

Several times, on our canoe trip, we passed by a raft of hardwood logs chained together floating low in the water, slowly drifting toward the river's mouth.

Damma said, of the logs, "Well, they cut 'em somewhere up the river. Up in the mountains."

"How far back does the jungle go?" I asked Damma.

"Oh, I dunno, way back. Long way. All the way up to where the river start."

In actual fact, if Damma takes his clients too far upstream he will come to the end of the forest, and he will find himself canoeing past felled trees and smoking piles of brush, where the jungle has been replaced by banana plantations like those we saw from the train on the way down from the mountains, where each bunch of bananas was wrapped in blue plastic while still on the tree. Damma probably knew this.


Finally, I remember the faces of the monkeys, worried sentinals waiting for the end of the world. And I remember the woman fishing on the beach under the gaze of tourists, more of them every day, who halt and stare at her on the black sand as she fishes the thunder of a twilight surf roamed by sharks.

Sunset at Tortuguero, Costa Rica
Sunset at Tortuguero

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