20 May 2008

We all live in the wild

That we blend our lives with our animals' lives is something many of us cherish even while taking for granted. We're continually exposed to domesticated animals as pets and various livestock, and to animals as food in our supermarkets. I've been noticing an increasing variety of intersections with wildness of late, though, and I've been fascinated in them, much in the way I felt reading T.C. Boyle's Tortilla Curtain years ago. And then we got to meet some spider monkeys.

Not a week before we left for our trip to southern Mexico, I saw someone's blog entry about their visit to The Jungle Place, a refuge for spider monkeys. These folks had gone to celebrate a birthday and it looked like a great idea.

I wrote to The Jungle Place people immediately and asked if we could come visit. One of the owners, Heidi, responded right away that they could see us on Saturday at 11.

When 11 that Saturday morning came, we had finished our breakfast at the Turtle Bay Bakery and were just approaching Akumal's taxi stand, where we engaged in a protracted discussion of where this place was. If we had not had Mapchick's map of the Riviera Maya with us, the drivers would have assumed we were going to another attraction, Aktun Chen, or to a cenote, and tried to take us there, but they would not have gotten us to The Jungle Place. In explaining where we wanted to go, we even mimed monkeys for the taxi drivers (how often do you have a good reason to do that in your life?). Our designated taxi driver, showing lots of cool but not much confidence about his destination ("There's something that interesting in Chemuyil? Really?" was what he seemed to be saying, unconvinced, from behind his shades). Eventually set out and got onto the right road. Things were looking pretty desolate when we turned back and headed into the center of Chemuyil for some help from the taxi drivers. Turned out they weren't sure either, but after a bit more discussion, we were directed back down that first road again. By then I was convinced by the map that it must be farther down that road, too.

And there it was! Thanks to the persistence of a lot of people including Mapchick and our taxi driver, we found it at last, only 20 minutes late or so. I hoped we weren't missing some crucial window of time with the animals we had come to meet, but I needn't have worried. The taxi driver patiently waited while we figured out whether we would need him to wait for us or come back for us later. The housekeeper was there; the owners were not. A cell phone was dialed, "iTuristas!" muttered urgently. The housekeeper, in full regalia of apron and broom, sweat making ringlets of her hair, handed me the phone. "Sorry, we had to go to San Francisco," I heard and thought at first I was hearing a cancellation. But no, no, the owners realized they had to go to the supermarket in Tulum today as everything would be closed Sunday, and they would be back in 20 minutes. Berta should help us make ourselves at home. And so it was, Berta showing us up to a table upstairs between the monkeys' enclosures and their apartment, bringing us beverages and sweet tea, and in Spanish introducing us to the names and stories that went with the faces peering out from the cage at us.

You could tell everyone there all had their own relationships with the monkeys, but this is a conclusion I reached later, and wasn't quite grasping all that when we first arrived and sat down to wait and meet the little animals. I loved the monkeys' gentle touch when they would reach out of the cage with their long hands, and soon I felt my hand resting gently in theirs or I held theirs sweetly in mine. They were so sweet and relaxed that their touch felt calming; and I wanted to be calm with them so they would be gentle with me and all my family. Berta would tell us their names, but I couldn't even keep the names in my head at first, much less begin recognizing and match them to their faces.

Then our daughter was surprised and a little shocked when they reached through the mesh to grab some of her hair. They have strong grips, and perhaps this was a test: Who's the alpha in your group?" I would guess they enjoyed the little flurry of activity that ensued as we got them to let go. Berta scolded the grasping monkey gently and then returned to her cleaning and we kept hanging around near the monkeys' enclosure, taking a few pictures. A little while later, Heidi and Joel returned from their supermarket sojourn.

We got to know the Jungle Place's owners a little. Heidi started telling us how they had come to own and build, themselves, this compound of bungalows (some rentals) and monkey enclosures, where they now have 13 monkeys, a few toucans, and a small herd of housecats. Joel tidied while Heidi tried to get relief from her sciatica by sitting still as much as she could. He picked up a pair of dirty, holey Chuck Taylors, saying, "These were my best pair of shoes for ten years! I loved these shoes!" Then he pointed to the shoes on his feet, from the Chuck Taylor that is now owned by Reebok, also worn and holey: "Four months I have had these! And look at them now!"

We heard about the the very beginning of their monkey time, when a friend asked them to take her "pet" (which usually translates to "poached" or "stolen") monkey overnight. Heidi took him to a vet in Playa del Carmen and found out how sick he was. "He's on his last legs," she heard the vet say. "You might as well let him die." "What do you mean?" Heidi demanded. "Do your job! Go to work! Get that little monkey back to health!" She added, grinning and shaking her head, "Ten years ago, if you had told me what I would be doing now, where I would be living, I would have said, 'You need to be seen.'"

In this way Chak ("Chak," I asked, laughing "not Chuck, like Chuck Taylors?" Joel laughed. "Right. Chak, not Chuck!") became their first monkey, and he chose for a mate another rescued monkey, Maya, seemingly because spider monkeys in Mexico seem to be like Easter bunnies here (only an order of magnitude more intense and high-maintenance) and because once you've said yes to a monkey your name must quickly spread on the failed-pet rescue network. Later we would be introduced to Chak, now the mac-daddy alpha of the pack and residing in another enclosure with another male. Heidi told us about the birth of Luna and her heartwarming acceptance by her new parents, not a guaranteed occurrence.

At first they tried letting the monkeys live in the house with them, but that quickly became unmanageable. "They were getting into the electrical cords, 'Hey, I've got a green one; what have you got?' And they figured out how to use the ceiling fans as carousels," Heidi said. Once, after they had built the guest bungalows and started renting them out, the monkeys got into one of the visitors' suitcases. "It was a disaster," Heidi recalled.

Heidi and Joel told us who was who: Maya and her daughter Lunita, and Ixchel, a couple of others, and we could see but not touch or meet the newest arrival, Rebeca, who was in an enclosure by herself below. Rebeca was segregated from the others because she had been rescued about ten days earlier, also having been starving to death when they met her. The people who were supposed to be feeding her were "eating the fruit themselves and giving the monkey the peels," Heidi said. "And probably turning most of the money into alcohol," surmised Heidi's friend. "She's too weak to be with the others," Heidi said, explaining how Rebeca didn't know how to eat the fruit they gave her at first. They tried bottle feeding, but she didn't even know how to take a bottle, so they had to put the formula and baby rice cereal in a bowl for her. Now she's putting on more weight and she's getting her strength, and she's curious about the other monkeys. "We couldn't put her in the cage with the other females now," Heidi said. "She'd never make it out of there." After Rebeca recovers more of her natural strength (and they are strong! yow!), she will be ready to meet another one of the young female monkeys.

We were glad we weren't slathered with sunscreen or bug repellent; Joel and Heidi have planted aromatic and bug-resistant plants around the property to discourage the insects, and we would not have been allowed into the monkeys' enclosure if we had been wearing chemicals. I recently read that one big resort nearby asked The Jungle Place if they could bring up to 60 visitors a day there and they were turned down because of the stress on the monkeys. It's not a place to take a big, boisterous (drunken) group, that's for sure. You just have to contact Heidi and Joel ahead of time to arrange everything.

The experience reminded me of the orphanage, especially after my sweetie went in and let them clamber around on him. Ixchel, one of the younger ones, took a shine to him, and cuddled in his arms and started talking, in these sweet, plaintive little peeping sounds. I filmed a little -- it was quite astonishing and tender. That's when I thought of all these children at the orphanage whom we met in India, each so beautiful and singular and new and full of being. Even the babies who still spent most of their days sleeping: When those babies were awake, you knew each would be their own interesting, amazing person one day. Some of the monkeys dove right into getting to know us as much as possible in the short time we had, while others skirted the periphery and kept an eye on the others, perhaps with a measure of distrust that could have occurred for any number of reasons (our scents, attitudes, our utter cluelessness about them, and so forth).

It was definitely weird at first to have the monkeys climbing around on over us, but that is how they sense the world. They must think we're so stiff and awkward, sitting on the ground the way we do! Heidi and Joel told us about their unique tailprint: like our fingerprint whorls or elephants' ears, each animal's is unique for that animal.

When I was in the enclosure, all went smoothly for a while while I held and touched heads and hands and we all checked each other out up close. But Heidi was talking with my family, and then Joel wasn't right there outside the cage, and after about ten minutes with them, the tone in the room suddenly changed. Luna was starting to nip on my toes (I had removed all my earrings but I probably should have either ditched the sparkly dark red nail polish a day or two beforehand or just worn tennies), and then she started to bite, playfully on my achilles tendon area. That's when I announced, "They're biting! I'm done!" And Joel heard my tone of voice and came right over to help me through the double-doored entrance without letting any monkeys out.

I was relieved to be on the outside again and felt humbled in that moment, knowing I had gone in there without any real understanding of who they were and had gotten what I deserved in a sense: ten minutes of wonderful sharing and a few minutes in which they reminded me of who and what they were, and asserted their social structure to this mostly oblivious human.

I loved the experience of having made this space in our plans and gone to meet someone completely new whom I had never met before. I've noticed some people are good at making lasting connections with total strangers when they are on vacation (and now message boards like the forums on locogringo.com make it easier than ever). That is not me on most trips. Solitude and peace and seeing interesting or pretty things are usually the primary objectives of far-flung travels; nor am I usually looking to broaden my social network. So getting a peek into Heidi and Joel's world and the monkeys and their social network really made this experience stand out from the others on our first-ever Caribbean vacation.

Our daughter did not want to go in with the monkeys herself; holding hands with them was as close as she wanted to get after the hair-pulling. Then Joel insisted that Heidi rest while he led us around the rest of their compound and showed us the extent of the monkey enclosures. While we were being introduced to Chak and his roommate, whose name I can't remember, Joel showed us how he kissed them through the mesh. I did this, too, and next thing I knew I'd been grabbed by the hair. "Ow!" I said, trying not to panic, but I could not move. "Wait, I just have to get their hands apart," Joel explained as he pried the monkey's strong fingers off my hair and I was freed. I rubbed my smarting scalp, relieved to have only lost a few hairs. "He was jealous of your kiss. He was trying to lift you up," Joel told me. This really freaked our daughter; she didn't want to walk back on the same path for fear a monkey would try to pick her up by her hair. But we went back and said our goodbyes to Heidi soon after and felt great about giving them $80 US ($20 per visitor, and $20 for a t-shirt) in support of their monkey mission. Joel drove us into Chemuyil, where we really should have stopped for a meal (knowing what I know now), but instead we hailed a taxi back to Akumal for food and drinks and a swim in Akumal Bay.

Earlier on the trip, we had talked about the possibility of swimming with dolphins, one of the things you can do (or experiences you can buy) in this touristy part of Mexico. D. was creeped out by the idea; then, having seen them at Xcaret, the big eco-themed park between Akumal and Playa del Carmen, I too felt there would be something weird about being in a pen with a big, well-trained fish, something that didn't bother me in this context. Maybe it is the well-trained aspect that makes me uneasy about the dolphins: I wonder whether their natural instincts are muffled or altered by their training, like those of a young ensign. I wonder how the dolphins really feel about having a person plopped into their territory, a person they haven't come to know over time.

I found it a funny contradiction, looking back on our visit to the Jungle Place, to have gone inside a cage to experience wildness, but I am ever so glad I did.

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