It’s all fun and games until someone gets bit by a monkey! Yep, you heard me right. During my recent Bali trip, I did an excursion day to Ubud – a cultural center in the mountains north of Canggu where I was staying. As a part of the day, I visited "Monkey Forest" (as it's popularly called), a tourist destination hosting 10,000 people each month that celebrates the deity Hanuman -- the Hindu monkey god -- revered in Indian culture. As an Indonesian natural reserve, it’s a place where spiritualists can experience three ancient temples built around 1350AD and where travelers can admire Macaques monkeys in their natural habitat. Or for the more adventurous, a place where one can purchase bananas to feed the furry creatures in hope of getting that perfect photo to shock family and friends back home. I fell into camps two and three: armed with a passion for photography, a 50mm fixed lens and a desire to get that perfect portrait.
My afternoon started off relatively uneventful as I watched in amazement vendors selling blackened bananas, monkeys scrambling in antics and guests becoming human trees - shoulders and arms for branches as curious primates stood, sat and climbed on them.
It all seemed somewhat rehearsed, like a sideshow at a theme park where the actors practiced their roles to perfection off stage in hope of executing a performance that would receive an onslaught of applause from people like myself. It worked.
Not all acts were flawless. Some definitely had the comedic relief of working with a live animal – an improvisation that didn’t detract from the show but added to it. Like the image below, this monkey didn’t get the memo about sitting properly and was constantly fidgeting ultimately spitting out his half-digested banana on her face. No harm, no foul. There was lot's laughter, albeit nervous.
Continuing to stroll along the path, I found several would-be models for my impromptu photo shoot. This one I called Rafiki– the baboon character from the Lion King. He just had a face that oozed wisdom.
Then I came across this monkey and I wanted to shout, "Hey, save me a piece of that corn" - a famous phrase from Jack Black's character Nacho Libre. "Nachoooooooooo ....."
This little one made me smile; it's how I feel when someone sticks a camera in my face.
And finally, I captured this image. At first, I thought she was going to make some sounds, but she didn't. I later discovered in my research that the silent "open mouth stare" is a warning sign - a threat saying, "You're in my space" - information that would have been helpful prior to my visit.
My journey was nearing the end, and I truly was enjoying these intriguing creatures; however, my drive for cinematic perfection was not yet met – that is until I saw one lone monkey sitting on a shallow cobblestone wall. It was the ideal old-world setting that I was envisioning, and the subject was so serene. Tired of solo shots and the less than desirable “selfie-pose,” I asked a man standing nearby if he would take a photo of me sitting beside my picturesque monkey. In a British accent, he agreed.
As I sat down, my photo partner got a surge of independence and turned his back away from me. Having witnessed previous scenes like this unfold for other people in the park, I wasn’t alarmed. Channeling the Jungle Book and my inner Mowgli, I scooted closer to him thinking that he'd get the hint. Still nothing; so I scooted even closer while the Englishman advanced frames on my iPhone.
Finally, only inches away, I made the decision to gently nudge my primal friend – as if to say: “Help a cousin out, and turn around for my picture.”
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re saying to yourself, “Carter, wasn't there a sign as you entered the park that read: “Don’t touch the monkeys?” To which I would answer, “Yes, there was.” But clearly that was nothing more than a legality statement - a posted placard to satisfy an insurance company’s fear of litigation. I mean let’s be honest, if you don’t want interaction with the monkeys then why sell food so that humans can feed them, which only encourages them to jump, climb and sit all over the tourists. At least that was my rationale. Nevertheless, back to my story ...
As I gently (and I mean gently) nudged the monkey, I quickly turned toward the camera so that when the picture was taken we’d both be facing in the right direction. What happened next was like a scene out of the 1995 blockbuster thriller, Outbreak. Without warning, my docile photo subject transformed into a frightened beast attacking me; grabbing my shoulder and biting my arm just above the elbow, he hissed and screamed as he stepped back and displayed full teeth and open mouth. Shocked, I jumped up wondering what had just happened. Then the Englishman peered over the camera and said with no emotion, "You're not supposed to touch the monkeys." Bewildered, I stood speechless as he then handed me his phone, and said, "Would you take my picture? I won't touch him." The monkey, not amused, turned his back again on us wanting no part of our shenanigans.
Completing the photos, me and the Englishman exchanged phones and went our separate ways. I quickly made my way back to the car, half expecting I would find a hideous flesh wound but I didn't. There was a long scratch down the length of my arm, and a puncture site that looked more like a pinch than a bite. My driver and guide for the day helped me clean the area with alcohol pads, and we began discussing the question of rabies vaccination. Given that the bite didn't technically "break the skin," we agreed that I would probably be alright and decided to forego on the doctor. I wish I could say that my decision sat well with me; however, after getting back to the villa, I researched WebMD, rabies symptoms and read the stories of other "Monkey Forest bites." Let's just say, I didn't sleep much that night.
The next day, me and three others left early in the morning for an all-day surf trip. In the car, my companions were picking up on my distraction and asked if I was okay. I told them about the monkey incident, and the immediate consensus was that I needed to place it safe and get a shot. Driving through the little town Medewi, we pulled into a hospital just as the staff were arriving for the day. To make a long story short, the nurses and doctor examined me and agreed that I needed to get the vaccination. As if the story couldn't get any better, there was a classic breakdown in language between English and Balinese and as they were preparing me for the two shots, I misinterpreted where they were to be administered. Thinking two shots, I concluded my buttocks were the prime location, so I began to drop my board shorts to the amazement of the nurses, doctor and my surf guide. Fortunately, frantic gestures cued me that I was making a horrible mistake and the embarrassing situation was kept at PG-13. We all laughed; then they stuck me in each thigh.
I wish I could say, "The End" but with rabies it's a series of four (or five) vaccinations spread out over a strict calendaring system starting with Day 0 and ending with Day 21. Only being in Bali nine days, I had to make the necessary arrangements to receive the subsequent shots in the States. However, Murphy's Law was in play and it turns out that Indonesia and the USA use different vaccinations; which meant that I had to start all over.
A word of warning if you plan to get bit by a ravenous animal, the rabies vaccination is not the easiest to find (nor the cheapest @ $350 per shot!). I ended up using Passport Health - a travel clinic located throughout the States. This turned out to be quite helpful, I just got my last shot while on a work trip to Denver this past week.
Reflecting on the whole ordeal, I am reminded of the documentary film 180 South where the founder and owner of Patagonia - Yvon Chouinard, stated, "It's not an adventure, till something goes wrong." I think my trip to Monkey Forest falls into the "adventure" category, and it has taught me a couple of things: 1) Next time bring a zoom lens; 2) There is no such thing as a perfect picture; and 3) When someone says, "Don't touch the monkeys," they mean it.