In Foreign Territory, Wondering: Who is the Alpha Monkey?

Leigh Shulman learns the meaning of home and belonging when she volunteers at a monkey refuge with her nine-year-old daughter.

Leigh Shulman | Longreads | August 2017 | 20 minutes (4,962 words)

 

Still breathless from dragging our heavy bag down the hill and through the mud, I never expected to be turned away on arrival. “No children allowed here,” he tells me.

“But Rafael,” I explain after introductions, “Monica knows we’re coming. Por favor ask her.”

What Rafael doesn’t tell me is that Monica, the owner of this magnificent animal sanctuary in the middle-of-nowhere jungle, left two days earlier for La Paz to tend to her sick father. She neglected to inform anyone that my nine-year-old daughter Lila and I would be landing on their doorstep. It’s a 20 km walk to the nearest town and no more buses for the day. How did I get us into this mess?

Thirty-six hours earlier, we locked the door of our house in Argentina, cabbed to the terminal and hopped a late bus headed for Bolivia. Lila snuggled against my shoulder, attempting to sleep through her excitement over our first night away. The driver rolled to a halt in every tiny dirt-pathed town, belching passengers into the cool Andean night. We touched the border before dawn.

Four hours and two passport stamps later, an unrelenting Bolivian sun burned our skin as we breakfasted on buttery rolls and coffee.

“How long is the next ride?” my little one asked.

“Twenty hours from here to La Paz.”

I mouthed the names of each town we passed. Tupiza, Potosí, Oruro. All familiar syllables in Aymara, Quechua or Spanish, but I’d never before heard them in those combinations.

At each stop, vendors climbed aboard offering plastic cups of crimson jello topped with whipped cream. Some sold platters of fried potatoes, others, alpaca pullovers with llamas knit into the pattern. “Those are tourist sweaters,” I sniffed with disdain. You find them in any market in every town up and down the Andean spine of South America. Lila rolled her eyes at me. Mama was being mama again.

My nine-year-old daughter and I make an unusual sight when we travel. We speak English together and to others Spanish, accented with gringo and a flutter of the Argentine sh-sh-sh at the edges.

When night descended, a freezing fog filled the bus. I’d heard Bolivia could be cold even in summer, but I wasn’t prepared for how cold. We huddled beneath every layer we brought, shivering and wishing I hadn’t so recently been such a sweater snob.

***

Lila and I make an unusual sight when we travel. We speak English together and to others Spanish, accented with gringo and a flutter of the Argentine sh-sh-sh at the edges.

Why are you here? We’re asked more than once. No derision. No threat of “you shouldn’t be here,” just strange looks and silence that let us know we don’t really belong.

People stare, ask questions. Where are they from? Argentina? That puts us in one box. Are we Americans? Australian? English? Another box. English speakers aren’t normally fluent in Spanish, and you so rarely see tourists with kids traveling by bus in these parts. The bits and pieces of our identities don’t line up with what people expect.

Ultimately, we don’t really matter. After all, the whys of two strangers mean little more than something to pass the time before falling asleep on an overnight bus. And with that, people settle back into whatever they were doing before we appeared.

***

My parents emigrated from South Africa to the United States when I was five. After that, I never stopped moving. From Johannesburg to Hershey to Little Rock, Atlanta, Jerusalem, and New York, all before I turned 21. The question “Where are you from?” confounds me. I am not quite from here yet not of there either. I’m a little bit off-center, always. Riding this bus hurtling along dry dusty Bolivian roads is no exception.

Again, I’m learning the rules of being in a new place and quickly realize the bus driver won’t stop even to let a nine-year-old girl pee. “She can wait ‘til I stop for chicken stew and piss on the side of the road like everyone else,” says the look on his face. Our other option is to wait another fifteen hours until La Paz.

We arrive in La Paz rumpled and nauseated from altitude, but the bus station feels sleek with the thrill of seeing it for the very first time.”Why is everyone shouting?” Lila asks.

“They’re telling us we can buy tickets to all the places they’re yelling.” Our next bus doesn’t leave from that station, so we navigate to the edge of town where the colectivo to Coroico waits. Only three hours more to go.

Soon we’re rocketing beside a steep drop, oh God, driving madly through the fog, swerving left, right, left to bypass oncoming traffic. We’re going to die, I think when a truck headlight emerges directly in front of us. Am the only one scared? The woman beside me naps peacefully. Maybe she’s used to it. Maybe she’s going home.

People stare, ask questions. Where are they from? Argentina? That puts us in one box. Are we Americans? Australian? English? Another box.

I have never entirely become accustomed to that feeling of being different. Why are you here? It’s a question people ask when you weren’t born in a place, have no nearby family, and there’s no discernable reason for you to be there. People try to make sense of it. Do you have work here? Are you married to someone from here? Are you a missionary?

To soothe my discomfort, I manufacture ways to fit in. I can see myself living here. I imagine all the different places we could go. I envision us settling in a small house by a canal in the Dutch countryside where Lila and I bike to school each day on a road dotted with lumbering cows. Or the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica? We’d rent a small wooden house on stilts where heavy rains punctuate my morning coffee and writing. One day, I’ll go back to Cinque Terre to study the medicinal plants that grow on the rocky Mediterranean coast. Someday, I’ll buy a house in Reno with a deck facing the mountains.

These are the lies I tell myself to make leaving easier even though I know they’ll never happen. For-the-rest-of-my-life does not exist in one place for me. Rather, I’ve chosen adventure, where even the most mundane details—shopping, waking up in the morning, buying a coffee—remain forever new. Although the unknown precludes regular rituals like Sunday lunch with family, birthday celebrations with friends you’ve known since childhood or the comfort of hugging a faded gray blanket you’ve had since it was bright yellow. These familiar comforts don’t exist for me.

Instead, I peer into the dark sky at the changing constellations above while a symphony of crickets in a Bolivian jungle or a Costa Rican bosque or the Argentine campo whirr me to sleep. But I cannot sleep, for the intoxication of not-knowing excites me too much.

Difference is addictive, and like any drug, it tugs at you. You love it. You hate it. You love it again, and just as you dare to call a place home, the promise of new place to explore dulls the sheen, saying “Isn’t this boring? Besides, you never really fit in here anyway.”

“Why are you so weird?” the other kids teased me when I arrived for my first day of American school with my strange accent and funny haircut. “You don’t know Sesame Street?” “Did you have an elephant as a pet?” “Do people in Africa live in mud huts?”

When you’re older, the questions change. “Where are you from?” “How long are you staying?” People want to know they can count on you, but there are no guarantees when you don’t have roots. Why should they bother getting to know you if you won’t be around for long? And whatever lies you tell yourself about settling down, you know that without warning, you can wake up one morning thinking, Right, then. It’s time to move on.

This is the legacy I have passed to my daughter.

***

“What are you doing here?”

The question finds us once again as we stand on a bridge in Bolivia begging a stranger to please open the gate, because without the refuge, I’m not sure where we’ll sleep that night. Lila timidly slips her hand into mine and waits patiently as I negotiate our entry.

The jungle draws us gently in without cars or dizzying altitude. Green trees stretch up toward the waterfall. Howler monkey groans punch through the sound of crashing water.

Finally, Rafael relents and lets us in. He even helps me carry our bag along the muddy, puddled paths of the reserve. We have arrived.

The jungle draws us gently in without cars or dizzying altitude. Green trees ringed with burgeoning vines stretch up toward the waterfall as it plunges back to the river. Unseen, howler monkey groans punch through the sound of crashing water with an ohm-ohm-ohmmmmm.

Rafael leads us to the restaurant, pours us each a glass of Coke and instructs us to wait. Which we do for hours. Guests from the hotel on the refuge appear. They serve themselves lunch from metal chafing dishes piled high with spaghetti, fish, a huge salad of crisp lettuce and gleaming red tomatoes. Baskets of bread, and chocolate coated ice cream bars for dessert. We sip our Cokes demurely; my stomach rumbles.

I’ve been so focused on getting from point A to point B I forgot we haven’t eaten since morning. Lila needs food. She hasn’t complained, though, but keeps asking why we’re waiting so long. “I don’t know,” I answer.

Eventually, Marieke, a Dutch volunteer, finds us. She’s flustered, explains politely enough that they hadn’t expected us, clears her throat, “Especially, you know…” Points at Lila. “That.”

“Lila,” I correct her. Yes, her name is Lila, and Marieke makes her nervous so she hides behind my leg, surreptitiously observing this woman and her olive green waders.

“Wait here,” Marieke barks and disappears through the door from whence she appeared.

It is clear we’re not wanted here.

***

The clock hands traipse their way across another hour when Elena walks in with an armful of sheets and towels. Elena, the vet and volunteer coordinator, is the first person we meet who is kind. She was born and raised in the area. She is tall, brisk and seems the perfect person to tend to such a large animal sanctuary. “ You must be hungry,” she asks Lila directly. Lila looks her in the eye and nods. “Lunch is soon,” she promises.

“I apologize it’s been so chaotic,” she adds. “We didn’t know you were coming, so someone went to check with Javier. He’ll know what to do.” Then a bushy-haired mountain man of an Australian appears to tell us he’s supposed to take us on a tour.

He asks, “Have you been to the volunteer quarters yet?” I shake my head. He doesn’t hide his annoyance. “Put your bags over there,” he says, pointing aimlessly in some direction. “I’m taking you to meet Javier. Let’s go,” and quickly walks out. Lila and I scramble to keep up.

“Not her,” he says, rolling his eyes so hard I wonder if they’ll spin right out of his head. “She can’t visit the monkeys.” So I take Lila back to the restaurant, set her up with crayons, paper, and a promise to return.

The monkey area is remarkable. I’m taking in the view when a baby Capuchin leaps onto my shoulder.

“I hate giving tours,” the Australian tells me. “It takes away from my time with the Capuchins.” And to think I’d always found Australian accents so charming. “You should know that monkeys hate kids. If you leave her alone outside, they’ll attack her.”

The monkey area is remarkable. A wooden gazebo at the entrance opens to an enormous sapphire-painted pool surrounded by lush grass. This, at the base of a mountain rising into a cerulean sky. I’m taking in the view when a baby Capuchin leaps onto my shoulder. She’s quick, nimble, swings from my shoulder to my arm to scale down my legs and shove her ropey monkey arms into the tops of my boots, searching.


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“She likes you.” The Australian’s demeanor softens considerably now that he’s near his monkeys. Somehow I feel I’ve passed a test. If the monkeys like me, I can’t be all bad, right? Then he grabs a bucket of fruit and at full clip, disappears into the trees.

Another man sits on the far end of the pool, his back to me. Spider monkeys all around him. One leans comfortably against his arm the same way Lila had slept against my shoulder on the bus. Two play dominance games in the grass by his feet. Circling, backing up, hiding behind trees only to jump out again. Another long, black Spider monkey stretches out relaxed across the man’s lap as he methodically combs through the creature’s coat with his fingers. The man picks something, flicks, continues his search. It is enthralling to watch, and I do for quite some time.

Javier.

This is the man of whom everyone speaks with awe. Even the Australian respects him. He is Monica’s husband, the other owner of this reserve, and the two live in a house beside the monkeys’ space. She manages the business side. He is the monkey guru, the human alpha of the Spider monkeys, because they don’t have a monkey alpha to call their own.

’You should know that monkeys hate kids,’ the Australian tells me. ‘If you leave your daughter alone outside, they’ll attack her.’

Just then, a second baby Capuchin joins the one excavating my boots. I yelp in surprise, and Javier turns to look at me.

“She’s looking for a cell phone,” he explains. “We warn people not to bring phones here. They think they can hide them, but nothing escapes a Capuchin.”

He apologizes for the all the confusion, and we exchange an easy volley of question and answer. “How long have you been at the reserve?” “Why are you living in Argentina?” “How did you decide to start this monkey sanctuary?” Before I go, he welcomes me back any time. “Please bring Lila to meet the monkeys before you leave.”

“I’m sure she’d love that. Thank you.”

By then the Australian reappears, grunting for me to follow him down the mountain. Javier’s calming presence soothes the scratch of the Australian’s displeasure. I decide we’ll stay only because of Javier. If not for him, we would have left the next day.

Early each morning, trucks arrive at the sanctuary delivering loads of mangos, papayas, and carrots. There are enormous bunches of bananas, newly hacked from the tree and still green. It takes all my strength and balance to carry them to the food prep room. We stack, arrange, peel, and cut fruit for the animals and do anything else Elena requires. I can’t say I enjoy it, but I do find a certain meditation in keeping things organized.

I am here for Lila anyway. We giggle over breakfast as I butter her bread and she recounts our morning exploits feeding the birds. “Remember how that huge macaw scared you?” her words cascade around her laughter.

There’s a cat living in the center of my soul, and the birds know it. They despise me as much as I do them. My skin creeps as they glare at me with beady eyes. There I am, trying to take care of them, fill their water, scrub the bottom of their filthy cages, and they sneak up behind me and pick at my hair with their sharp beaks, screeching loudly. “Hola! Cómo estás!! Hola! Cómo estás!!”

Lila adores every single detail of the experience from the early mornings, to shoveling rotting compost, to monkeys breaking into our room to rob us of anything sugary we might hide. Reverently, she learns the names of each animal. And oh how she cracks up when I swear uncontrollably because, fuck, again that damn blue macaw stole my work glove.

The other volunteers appreciate me about as much as the birds do. No children allowed means no children, and I have transgressed. They turn away when I walk into the room, whispering disapproval. The Australian is the worst. He scolds me daily for one thing or another. I moved his knife. Or I touched a bowl marked for his monkeys.

What does one do when rejected so wholly by the rest of the group? Fight? Ignore? We share space at the reserve, to eat, sleep, and work. If I want to visit the monkeys, I have to ask the Australian first, because new volunteers can’t enter their area alone. That I need his permission for anything rankles, and I imagine threatening him with the dull machete I use to separate bananas from stalk.

He, of course, resents every moment wasted on me, which blooms to full-blown acrimony when, our second week there, Javier sends word to bring Lila up to the monkeys. The Australian stomps up the mountain, keeping his distance, knowing he can’t abandon us without defying Javier’s request. The second we’re safely inside, he storms off, grumbling.

Lila and I stay near the pool, playing with the baby Capuchins. The monkeys take to her so naturally. Do they recognize her as another child with whom they can play? They cuddle in her neck, offer her pieces of fruit.

“Did you see that, Mama?” Lila scratches the monkey resting on her shoulder with one hand and tickles the one on her leg with her other. “They’re sharing papaya with me. No, thank you, monkey, that’s your breakfast.”

Here’s the thing about monkeys, I learn. They are communal animals. The Spiders, the Howlers, and the Capuchins, they crave leadership, but none here at the refuge have a head. There is no one to teach them how to act or protect them. No one to give order to their troop. And in the midst of such disorder, every male wants to be the alpha. The weak ones. The small ones. The old ones. They’ll never be alpha. The babies, the females. Not them either. It’s the strongest who guides, but only after he demonstrates his worthiness and reliability to the group.

In the wild, we humans would never see them except as dark shadows moving in the trees. We are not meant to be part of their society. At the reserve, they’ve grown accustomed to living with us. That’s why they’re a threat to Lila. Monkeys instinctively seek to establish control, and while my child may be larger than the average Capuchin, she’s no match in strength and speed.

Size reigns as king in the land of the monkeys, and thus the Australian finds a measure of acceptance. In stature and girth, he towers above the humans, too, so why does he try so hard to belittle me?

He directs the other volunteers as they form a wall to shut me out. They don’t care that I’m doing double duty. Each day, I complete all my work. I slop the turtle cages, drag heavy bags of coconuts and dredge bromeliads from the river to feed Aruma, the bear. I make turtle jelly, clean the bird perches, and through it all, I am parenting, too. With each indignity he heaps on me, I consider leaving.

I look up to notice a monkey descending and plonking herself right behind my daughter. ‘Don’t touch my child,’ I say and uselessly raise my hand as a warning to stay back.

“I love moms,” Elena confides in me one morning as we’re prepping breakfast for the bears. “They know how to take care of things.” That tiny bit of acknowledgement buoys me for another day.

One night, in spite of their disdain, I invite myself to join the other volunteers in the game room for a drink. They don’t say no. Over beers and scotch the edges soften, and we sit outside in the jungle night, slapping away insects and talking the trajectory of our lives. How did we get there? Where will we go when our time in the monkey house ends?

Heike hails from Germany. She debates breaking up with her boyfriend. “He wants to get married and have kids. I want to travel and see the world. There’s no space in my life for children.”

“Maybe that’s your excuse to leave him,” I interject. “Because you know,” I say motioning to the couch where Lila sleeps curled up with Café, a rangy coffee-colored jungle mutt who eats at the refuge with the other dogs, “you can travel with kids.” Everyone shifts uncomfortably but remains silent.

The Australian recounts a story of the Capuchin named Banano. He used to be the alpha when he was free. Then he attacked Pedro, and according to the rules of the refuge, once a monkey attacks a human, he must be caged. Pedro raised him, fed him, cared for him, and still Banano didn’t hesitate before biting through three fingers. Pedro will never regain full feeling or motion. Now Banano lives in a massive bamboo enclosure by the edge of where the other monkeys live. They can see him, hear him, smell him, but no longer can they follow him.

Mango, another Capuchin, badly wants to be in charge, but in a misguided attempt to command authority, he pushes and bites the others. “The alpha protects the clan from outside threats,” the Australian explains. Mango intimidates them to get them to listen, so they don’t trust him. Mango doesn’t understand that the alpha monkey never bites other monkeys.”

They’re quite like humans, really. We want to be loved. We want to be a meaningful piece of the whole, but to gain acceptance there are rules to follow. We must sublimate personal desire and opinion for the greater good. That means, you can’t bully others. You can’t be too different, and you can’t leave whenever you feel like it.

I fall asleep that night hopeful tomorrow will be better, but at breakfast I’m met with the usual stony faces. We volunteers are quite similar on the surface. We’re white. We speak English. We’re mostly middle class and have extra money for travel. I am the only volunteer with children, and this act of procreation separates me from them so absolutely that they will never see me as their tribe. I stop bothering with them entirely.

Instead, I focus on my own clan, and today Lila and I are particularly excited. Elena has invited Lila to feed Aruma the bear. “Her name means night in Aymara.” Elena tells us. “That’s my name, too,” Lila tells Elena. “In Hebrew.” That they share a name draws us both closer to the animal.

Aruma lives at the back of the sanctuary on the other side of a small river, the same river where we find bromeliads for his lunch. There’s a cemented area at the front of the enclosure with tires and a massive dog bowl for her puffed corn cereal. Lila and I entice Aruma away from his bowl with a bag of brazil nuts, with only a spindly electric wire fence separating us. Once we’re far enough away, we hand-feed her the nuts while Elena cleans.

Have you ever fed a bear from your hand? It is an exhilarating yet terrifying experience. Aruma curls his lips back, baring bone crushing jaws, and ever-so-gently removes the nut from my fingers with her teeth. When finished, she waves his hand for more. I tremble and pass another through the fence. As charming and sweet as she may seem, this deep chocolate coated bear could rip open my soft body as easily as she cracks that shell.

There’s no fence separating Elena from Aruma. What if Aruma runs back and attacks her? Am I with this bag of nuts the only barrier to her mauling another human being?

Elena doesn’t flinch. She knows Aruma won’t hurt her, not because of love or attachment or commitment, but because she understands why she does what she does. “She’s trustworthy,” she assures me. “She will always do what her character dictates.”

The rules of Aruma: Give him space. Give him food. Don’t come too close or make too much noise. He roars only out of fear or frustration. Even though she could kill a human with one powerful paw swipe, he is less of a threat than we are. After all, we are the reason he’s in the reserve in the first place.

If only there were a nut to distract the Australian from his contempt. Animal lovers of his ilk anthropomorphize the birds, the bears, and especially the monkeys, creating human cages for animal behavior. I see the Australian do this every time he emulates the monkeys. He jumps around and scratches himself, bears his teeth, and allows them to pee on him. Yet, he’ll never be one of them. They deny the Australian just as he rejects me, so he sits, pickled in scotch and hypocrisy, nursing his assumptions about me. Truly, he’s looking at himself.

Our last day arrives quickly, and Lila and I are out feeding the turtles when I spy Wara, a Spider monkey, following us through the trees above. We know her well from her morning visits to the volunteer quarters when she bangs on the door, demanding entry. Wara, I’ve been warned, despises children and attacks without provocation.

For the three weeks of our visit, I’ve noticed her following us and remained vigilant about protecting Lila. Anytime Wara approached, I’d place my body between her and Lila, “Don’t touch her, Wara. This is my child,” I warn her, and she relegates herself to watching from afar.

Our last afternoon, though, I’m distracted feeding the turtles. As I work my way around the turtle pond, throwing food pellets into the water, the hard-backed creatures swim in a frenzy to catch their meal, tiny mouths opening, shutting, opening. Lila circles in the other direction, dumping turtle jelly into bowls.

I look up to notice Wara descending and plonking herself right behind my daughter. My breath catches, but I manage to alert Lila softly. “Wara is right next to you,” I say, forcing my voice to be steady to avoid alarming either monkey or child. “Don’t turn around.” I’m too far away to protect Lila.

We face off across the water. I look to monkey, then to Lila. Wara looks to me and back at Lila again. “Don’t touch my child,” I repeat and uselessly raise my hand as a warning to stay back. Wara lowers her gaze, pretending I’m not there as she stretches a long arm toward Lila. I am horrified at what might come next. Instead, she scoops a clump of turtle jelly from the bowl in Lila’s hand and scrapes it into her mouth. She takes one last look at me, and with that, this dangerous Spider monkey melts back into the jungle foliage, her movements so fluid, it’s like watching water recede into itself. Only then do I start breathing again.

I don’t claim to know what monkeys think, yet I can’t help but believe some animal sense told Wara that Lila and I are one. We are a pair, and it’s against nature to interfere with mother and daughter. Wara respects us in ways the humans of the place never grasped.

I wake the next day, our final morning in the Bolivian forest, to Howler monkeys chanting and the sing-song of frogs. After breakfast, we bid our adieus. Elena hugs us, pats us on the back, and returns to her bear. Rafael smiles, shakes my hand. “I hope you’ll visit again.” None of the volunteers show up. I won’t miss them either.

“When can we go back?” Lila asks as our bus rumbles along the bumpy road leaving La Paz. “One day,“ I promise. “I don’t know when, but someday.” She falls asleep content enough with my answer.

Rain falls, wheels roll, and I relax into that liminal place between sleep and awake. This trip was unpleasant. Bonehead volunteers, neverending work, and the smell of decaying fruit that lingers still beneath my nose. Yet, I’d do it again. Yes, Lila’s presence, the very thing that makes me a pariah to others, gave reason for my being there. When else do we spend every hour of every day together? When are we free to pass time without reminders to wash dishes, clean your room, make dinner, get to work or school on time?

Memory marks this trip forever as the time my daughter and I volunteered at a monkey sanctuary in Bolivia. We lived on monkey time, rising with their howls and falling asleep soon after dark. We shared a single bed at night, read A Wrinkle in Time, the first book I ever loved, by flashlight under the covers and flourished in the stark silence paved by the other humans in the place.

Has it been a mistake that I never created a place for Lila to call home? She, too, will find herself locked out of gates and with no bustling family, cousins arguing joyfully over games of football while the adults share Sunday lunch. It can be so lonely sometimes.

Fog crawls through the window, dragging the temperature down, and the words of the African-British poet Warsan Shire slip into my brain. “At the end of the day, it isn’t where I came from.” Of course, she spoke of refugees, people who left home because they were forced out by blood, by fire, by the mouth of a shark. I’m lucky. Leaving has always been my choice, yet her words resonate with me, because they open space for us to exist in this world even when our roots no longer thrive in the earth where we were born.

My daughter nestles in my lap. In sleep, she pulls my arm around her bony pre-teen body for warmth. There are changes coming soon, but they’re not here quite yet. We have another fifteen hours on this uncomfortable bus, just us, a traveling pair. Another six hours to call our own as we wait in line at dawn before crossing the border. “Maybe home is somewhere I’m going and have never been before,” the poet finishes.

And maybe, also, home is a place where I am most myself, stripped of the trappings of what others think I’m supposed to be or do. Where Lila is Lila, and I am me, and we continue our journey together.

* * *

Leigh Shulman lives with her family in Argentina, where she mentors other writers and leads international writing retreats. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Vox, The Establishment and elsewhere.

Editor: Sari Botton