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Joel Brokaw: Monkeys of India: Look but Please Don't Touch

Sep 6, 2010 3:49:48 PM- huffingtonpost.com

There's a grainy photo I have on my desk that I hurriedly took of two monkeys I encountered in India about a decade ago. It is not a beautiful photograph--no risk that it will be published in National Geographic. Nor were these creatures out of the ordinary in their appearance--just your standard, garden variety gray monkey. Yet, I will never forget them and for good reason.

From traveling to India a total of eight times during a seven year period starting in the late 90s, I can safely say that one of the greatest gifts of going there is how it challenges your assumptions right to the core. If you want a carefree, relaxing place, try Hawaii or Tahiti. If you want to go out of your comfort zone and find out some interesting things about yourself, come to India. Nothing seems to go according to plan, and once you accept that and give up that need to control, it can be liberating.

A trip to India gives you a better grasp of the notion of duality. It's in your face all the time. One moment, you might see the most beautiful sight, and in the next, something ugly or horrible. The Buddhists believe that when you are no longer trapped in the cycle of attraction/aversion but see the beauty and ugliness as illusory, you're making progress in the right direction. You start experiencing a much fuller dimension of being beyond the limiting box of our conceptual thinking.

A decade ago, I traveled with a small group that included a dear client/friend of mine. This person had a well-warranted fear of getting sick on trips based on a previous experience and went to elaborate precautions to prevent a recurrence. It's the law of averages whether you'll get sick in India. I have paid the price on two of those trips of coming back home with bacteria and parasites that were not laughing matters, but with no regrets.

"I have a surprise for you," my client informed me as we were taking off. "I have made up prepared meals for our entire journey, and I've brought a set for you as well. Think of it as an advance birthday present." As much as I appreciated this gift, the thought was nice but the reality was less so. First of all, I love Indian food and considered it well worth the risk when exercising caution. However, these prepackaged meals were tolerable for the first few days, but grew progressively unappetizing by the end of the first week. One of the other travel companions had the clever idea of buying all sorts of Indian condiments and hot sauces to spice them up, but that too was a quick fix that was over fast. The accumulation in the body of the red food coloring from some of those bottled sauces also had some curious side effects best left to your imagination.

So, after a week, I didn't have much appetite left for the various canned and jarred goods that made up the meals. I was just eating the nuts that supplied the healthy source of fat in the balanced meals. But that too was getting difficult, with the macadamias being the worst. Legend goes that macadamia trees were imported to Hawaii from China by an enterprising farmer who thought they would be nutritious fodder for raising pigs. But the only miscalculation was that no one asked the pigs, who turned their snouts up at them. So, what was one to do with all these surplus nuts? Why not cover them in chocolate thought one entrepreneur, who put them in candy boxes to sell to tourists. The rest is history.

Here I was in India with all this uneaten food. Growing up in the 1950s, you always heard about the starving children of India if you balked at eating your cauliflower. The canned foods were less problematic and could be left behind and surely used by someone. But the shelf-life of the nuts was another matter. The heat would make them rancid in no time, I thought. What to do?

We had checked into a resort hotel in one of those hill stations in the foothills of the Himalayas. Hill stations were the places where the English sent their wives and children to escape the summertime heat and dust of the plains. The hotel dated back to the grandeur of that Imperial period, but probably hadn't been renovated since and was showing its age measured in cracks in the walls and the mold that grew in them.

Checking into the room, I saw a small sign painted on a metallic plate screwed to the bottom of the window. It read, "Beware of the monkey menace. Keep window screen latched at all times."

I suddenly had what I thought was a brilliant idea. Why not offer up my mounting supply of macadamia nuts to the monkeys? Within minutes of opening the window and pouring the nuts onto the railing on the top of the stone columns of the adjacent terrace, a posse of monkeys arrived. I watched the show from the comfort of my room and safely behind the locked screen.

There was definitely some elaborate form of protocol. One of the dominant monkeys went over to the pile and picked up a nut in its hand. He studied it intently for a few moments and then sniffed it, making no bones that this was an alien foodstuff. But after a few moments, he took a bite and gave it the thumbs up. Another three or four monkeys came and joined in the feast. The nuts were gobbled in no time. Problem solved.

The next morning, I awoke early and looked out the window. The light was almost intoxicating in its brilliance. I couldn't wait to go out on the terrace and take in the view of the Ganges plain below. I could leave my room and go down the hall and exit on the other side of the terrace. Or I could simply open the window and step easily down to the terrace. Yeah, that was a better idea. I would carefully close the screen behind me so it would appear to be locked per the warning sign.

A few seconds later, I stood about 40 feet away by the railing of the terrace. I was ecstatic. I thought, "This is India. This is what it is all about. This is why I came here, all this way. Just look at this view."

The reverie was short lived. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw two dark spots. Turning my head, I was in disbelief and did one of those famous Laurel and Hardy whiplash double takes. There, undeniably, were two monkeys. One was on the same railing where I put the macadamia nuts. The other was flush against my window, adroitly putting its long fingernails into the crack between the screen and door frame. In a flash, it had opened the window and bounded into my room. The second monkey stood lookout outside.

I rushed over and started yelling at the guard monkey. "Arrrrghh! Go away!" The creature looked up at me in disbelief, as if to say, "You don't know whom you're messing with." Immediately, it started lunging at me, not in full attack mode yet but giving me the message to back off or else. Hard to miss and very convincing were his very sharp fangs that had obviously never seen a dental hygienist. I went into retreat and fast.

At just this moment, my client arose and opened the curtains of her room. She, too, did a double take as I sprinted by her window. She watched as I reversed direction, carrying a red plastic chair and with a determined look on my face that she had never seen before in all the years she had known me.

By the time I came back to the scene of the crime in lion-tamer mode, it was too late. The one who was ransacking my room was making his exit, carrying something in his hand. The two then made off into the bushes.

When I climbed back through the same window, I was expecting the worst. My room would be trashed and suitcase and clothing ripped to shreds, I imagined. Monkey poop would be all over the floor and the bed. The hotel manager would then come up to look at the room, silently shaking his head back and forth in disbelief at my stupidity, pointing to the sign on the window to add to my humiliation. "You can put the damages on your credit card," I could hear him saying.

But, no, that was not the case. In fact, astoundingly, everything seemed to be in perfect order, just as I had left it. Baffled, I climbed back out of the window and went back on the terrace. I had to find out what was behind this. I walked along the railing and peered down into the bushes to see if I could spot the culprits. And there they were.

It turned out the monkeys knew exactly what they were looking for in my room. They had no interest in trying to find any left over macadamias. Instead, the intruder had apparently gone right for the tray next to the electric teakettle and made off with a small plastic bag.

By the time I spotted them, they had already opened the contents of the bag. It was clear that they were enjoying this special treat. One of the monkeys opened the little foil packet of instant coffee and another one containing sugar. They licked one of their long nails and dipped it into each packet to extract the powders and mixed them together. This was their morning coffee.

The monkey is a holy animal in India, revered in the culture like the cows. The Hindu monkey deity Hanuman waits on call to save India if peril threatens and can traverse the country in mere seconds, according to the scriptures. And god forbid your vehicle should hit one on the road--there's serious karma to pay. Yet at the same time, they're recognized as a nuisance and a pest if they live among you. Serious injuries can happen. Attacks like the one that nearly happened to me are all too frequent.

But as I watched them delight in their moment, like a couple of coworkers taking a break at Starbucks, all that was suddenly forgotten.

So much for duality ... What wasn't there to respect about these remarkable beings.

Read more: Macadamia Nuts, India, Hanuman, Monkey, Buddhism, Hinduism, Spirituality, Hill Station, Duality, Ganges, Living News