This is the eighth in a series of posts running throughout 2015 and 2016 about living, teaching, travelling and studying in Southeast Asia during my twenties. This entry is about a monkey.
Something I found confronting on my first trip to a relatively poor country was what I initially perceived as the transactional basis of human relationships. This can be argued as part of all relationships everywhere depending on power dynamics (and more fundamentally, ideology) but I felt as a young man in Vietnam, 2008 for the first time that many people who may have considered me “friends” were merely cultivating relationships based on give and take, on favours, rather than from a personable bond or closeness.
Early on in my tenure I found myself on a trip out to Can Gio, a mangrove and beach area just south of Saigon, as a result of one of these relationships –I was never quite sure if I was being “used” or if I was the recipient of real generosity, I still hadn’t quite learned how to go with the flow.
Mrs. Hoa, a woman who worked in administration at the Marketing University in which I taught, had offered to take me to Can Gio with her daughter and her daughter’s friend in order to practice English with them. It was a lovely outing – I was very spoiled, we went speedboating through the mangroves, ate luscious fruits on the beach and I genuinely enjoyed coaching the girls on their spoken English.
The monkeys, however, were challenging.
Which is a shame as I had loved the creatures ever since I went to the Melbourne Zoo as a child and saw a squirrel monkey for the first time, and I’ve had many pleasing primate experiences subsequently. But this particular trip was a firm introduction to their potential for cheek.
In the car on the way out to Can Gio we discussed what was to come.
“Luke, you must be very careful of the monkeys,” Mrs. Hoa said.
“Absolutely,” I replied non-committedly. Was I being made fun of?
“They like your skin the best.”
Of course they do. I was reading The Bourne Identity at the time, not a particularly good book but a page-turner with enough of a rollicking plot to keep one interested. I also had a water bottle. I was warned specifically by Mrs. Hoa and my companions that the monkeys would try to steal these belongings. I found it all quite endearing.
In time the dusty, flat landscape became pockmarked by patches of mangroves as our car rocked and clanged its way towards the coast. We eventually stopped on the side of the road in order to walk to the speedboat ramp. The dirt road was flanked on both sides by mangroves stretching into the nether under a searing, buildingless blue sky. I put my book and water bottle in a plastic bag as recommended by my paranoid handlers, opened the car door and stepped out into the sun.
I was attacked immediately, before I could even shut the car door. It was really quite comical, though at the time confusing. I heard a kind of scuffle-noise, then felt a large weight. A decent-sized grey-brown monkey had leapt from places unknown and was hanging off my arm and the plastic bag containing my belongings. I lifted the bag to head height incredulously, looking the beast in the eyes; it hissed at me.
And then, through sheer gravity and monkey muscle, the creature ripped open the plastic bag.
My book and water bottle fell to the road with the master mammal, who landed gracefully and scooped them up before I could even process the theft. Then the canny burglar awkwardly ran across the road, half-carrying, half-dragging the water bottle and book, arms full of booty. It leaped into the mangroves and retreated a few metres into a thicket of saline bush – too far for me to go without getting wet, but I could still make the creature out visually. It was already flicking through The Bourne Identity in a very humanlike fashion.
Mrs. Hoa and the girls were apologetic and terse. The pure immediacy of the theft – as soon as I exited the car, from a monkey unknown, and its brevity – the whole operation took less than thirty seconds – was in retrospect hilarious. Mrs. Hoa handed me another bottle of water with businesslike efficiency and we left the car, and the monkey with a penchant for spy fiction, to wait for our return.
Of course, it was gone by the time we got back. Sunnier pastures one hopes.