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Hot Monkey Luck

Tuesday, February 27, 2007


Speaking of monkeys…there’s nothing harder to photograph than wild monkeys. Normally, they’re high in the canopy, which means you’re standing in deep shadow, shooting against a bright sky: guaranteed silhouettes. And everywhere else in the world, they are killed for food, so they’re not going to let you get close enough to see the whites of their eyes. I know--it's unthinkable, until you have stood by a caboclo's campfire in the Brasilian Amazon and seen a howler monkey's hand lying in the ashes. It helps to understand how someone could eat a monkey if you spend six months there, living on rice, manioc and beans, and you only get meat on Sunday afternoons, and that consists of one drumstick from an undersized pullet. Then, you come closer to understanding...not that I would or could ever eat a monkey. I'm just trying to explain how it can happen. I remember being hungry.

One morning outside the Hotel Tikal Inn (I know, a bit redundant), a female spider monkey was plucking small palm fruits with her lips, just like someone eating a bunch of grapes. I had to suppress a whoop, to be able to walk right under her and get photos of her sweet face. Egad. What a lovely creature. She had a huge round paunch, good for digesting plant material like green leaves. She was not in the least concerned about her audience, though I have heard that some monkeys at Tikal will throw fruit and worse at people who annoy them. I felt honored to stand so close to her, and I think she appreciated that.
One of the signature sounds of Tikal is the dawn and dusk chorus of black howler monkeys. Unlike the gracile spider monkeys, with their attenuated limbs and tentacle-like tails, howlers are powerfully built, and the males have amazing bony resonating chambers under their jaws (hyoid bullae) that they use to utter resounding roars. Their song sounds like the loudest belch imaginable, and it goes on and on, rushing like an oncoming storm. You can imitate it by drawing your breath in and letting your vocal cords vibrate with your lips in an O. Sort of. You’d have to have a microphone and a Marshall stack to get the volume these monkeys achieve. They’re gorgeous animals, moving with a fluid sinuosity and care through the treetops. You don’t see them crashing from thin branches pell-mell into the next treetop, the way spider monkeys do. Howlers flow. This troop hollered almost the entire day, making the ruins ring with their stormy song.

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