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Livin' La Vida Maya

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Like all monkeys, she was an itchy little thing. (So was the howler, har har.)
Blogger poll:Are my pants touristy enough?

After our various adventures at Cerro Cahui, Ixpanpajul, Sta. Elena and PetenItza, it was time to settle in for a few days at a very nice hotel called La Via Maya. It's not too far from Tikal, and is surrounded by some nice forest and some very nice birds. This turned out to be a very good thing for me, because I was to spend the rest of the trip right there. I am now using foreshadowing, a literary device intended to produce tension in the reader, with a desire to punch the computer screen. More on that later.

Like many large hotels in Latin America, La Via Maya has enclosures with native wildlife; the harsh squawks of captive scarlet macaws ring out starting at dawn, well into dusk. They are well-treated and free to ramble about a large area, socializing, a satisfactory lot when you think of how most captive parrots end up living: in solitary confinement. Another paddock holds a herd of Guatemalan white-tailed deer, which are noticeably smaller and darker than our whitetails, not quite as small as Key deer, but getting there. I considered trying to make you think I had captured these images by stalking and waiting, but it is not so. My main concern was poking my lens through the woven wire and not getting any of it in the picture.

By chance, one of the does had just given birth to twin fawns, and I was captivated by the tiny animalettes, their bodies no larger than a small Jack Russell terrier's, all legs and angles and huge liquid eyes. They'd totter a few feet, then collapse down in a defensive crouch, probably responding to low vocalizations from their mother. Think small loaf of Pepperidge Farm Toasting White and you have the size. Teeny.
The other does were fascinated by the twins, and they got a whole lotta lovin.' I was reminded of myself around our friends' children Oona and Sophia, the 1-year-olds to whom I am lucky enough to act as an unofficial auntie. Oh, I love those girls.
Also hanging around the grounds was a somewhat mysterious young female black howler monkey. She was a most placid and lovely animal, unafraid but unobtrusive. She seemed to enjoy the smiles and surprised reactions she got from hotel guests when she'd drop down out of the trees and sit near the tables, absent-mindedly scratching herself. Here are the incomparable bird painter Keith Hansen (left) and the illustrious co-author (with Sophie Webb) of Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America, Steve Howell. Both are much rowdier than the little monkey. Keith is a howl unto himself. Dude. I love this guy and his beautiful wife Patricia, a Yucateca from Mexico with a keen sense of humor and terrific taste in textiles and travel. We staged some wonderful pictures of Steve showing the howler some birds in his book, but I took them all with his camera--rats! I never saw her grab anything from anyone, the way many acclimated monkeys in India and Africa do. Even when Keith offered her his video camera (something I would not do), she thought about taking it and then gave it back to him. She was a perfect little lady.

I so wanted to groom her. She probably would have enjoyed it and reciprocated. But it's never a good idea to touch a wild animal, even one that's obviously been hand-raised. So I hung around hoping she'd touch me. I wanted to bury my nose in her hair and see what she smelled like. Missin' Baker.

In the morning and evening, we could hear the unearthly roars of wild black howlers coming from the forest all around. They're common in the Peten region. They're heavy, rather slow-moving monkeys who live on fruit and leaves. Their round bellies house chambers where the low-quality forage is fermented and digested. Tails are prehensile, and act as a fifth hand. Nice nonskid undersurface, too.
Something about monkeys freaks people out; I think it might in part be due to the contrast between their familiar (human) eyes and faces, and the fact that many have these long slightly creepy prehensile tails, that move with a mind of their own.

Male howler monkeys have huge round bony bullae, or chambers, in the gular (throat) area that act as resonators for their roars. They have the most amazing skulls. I wish I could find a ventral view to show you, but the bullae are in the vee, under those massive mandibles. Very cool skull. This picture, pirated off the Net at a site that sells skulls. You can buy any darn thing online. Monkey skulls. I like skulls but I draw the line at displaying primate skulls in my home. Too close. At a distance, calling howlers sound like a great wind through trees. Close up, they sound like mythic lions, very angry ones. I love the sound of howlers in the morning.

And now, I am off to Ithaca, to hang the "Letters from Eden" paintings, open the show, give some talks, and meet some wonderful birdpeople at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. There is talk of ethnic restaurants and wine. Plans are being made. It ought to be a hoot, or a howl. Chet Baker is going with me as my mental health guide dog. Maybe I can sneak him into public facilities by saying I'll freak out unless he's with me. He'll be great company on the drive, which will push 9 hours each way. Howler monkeys and humid forests will be a distant memory in the Land of Ice and Snow, but I have been promised ducks in nuptial plumage, and I'll take them! Must pack his sweaters.


I'm on that list of people slightly freaked out by monkeys. Specifically, I'm phobic that one day a monkey will touch me. Brrrr. So I let out a howl when I checked your blog just now. But you know what? By the time I was done reading, I wished I could have been there to meet Lady Placida Howlerfingers. Very cool photo of the tip of her tail. Such is the power of the Science Chimp: converting monkeyphobes with a single post!
p.s. Chet needs a little vest proclaiming him a Mental Health Care Worker ("please ask to pet me")!
;) Wendi

Oh, this did my heart good to read this today. Miserable day at work, miserable couple of weeks. Nothing like a monkey post to put things in perspective. I'm on the list of people that LOVE monkeys. I'm jealous of a co-worker that lives next to the National Zoo and gets woken up every day by howlers (then again, maybe not THAT jealous)

What? No primate skulls on display in your home? Hmph...

Have a great trip, I hope all goes well. Drive safe.

Vivi says "hi!"

Re: the pants; yup, stick with khaki next time... ;-)
And Re: The Howler Monkeys -- first, as Dave Barry would say, that'd make a great name for a rock band (you know, in case you ever get tired of 'Swinging Orangutans').
Second: they're delightful, but,
Third: looking at Howler Monkeys reminds me too much of some Republicans I've known... oh-ohhhh, I'm outta here.

I was all set to make some smart remark--like Science Chimp meets. . .then I read the rest of your post. First, yes the pants are touristy enough. . .just.
Anyway, the whole post is wondrous. I am most partial to monkeys--I like all my cousins. I have had close encounters with baboons at Victoria Falls--now there are some apes with attitudes.

Great story and photos. Martha and I love Central America, except for the early-rising monkeys and bell-birds.

We spend most of our time now camping from Texas to Alaska and photographing anything that gets in from of the lenses.

Have a great trip,

Troy and Martha

PS: I agree with cyberthrush, go khaki, or were you in disguise?

Oh noooooooo! Monkeys!
Not converted.

And I forgot, I LOVE the fabric on those pants.

Bad pants, great post. I would be beside myself (with excitement) if I were beside that monkey. And it is nice to get a whiff of Chet -- the Guate stuff is amazing but 17 days without Chet is 17 days without sunshine.

I actually toyed with the idea of taking a long drive for a meal at Moosewood and your Ithaca lecture but the timing wasn't right. Another time.

Ooh, Sara, you're killin' me. Part of the anticipation of this trip is wondering who I'll get to meet! Moosewood--such fun to eat there. I wish I could cook as creatively as that. I have the cookbook but keep throwing roasts in the oven...

Don't worry.
We'll meet someday.

Trix. Thanks for the vote on the pants. You're a true friend. I happen to like them, palm trees, palapas and all. Or why would I lug them all the way to Central America?

I know. I did ask for feedback.

Julie, another bright spot in my day to come and travel with you. Your pictures of the deer were wonderful. How opportune to be there for the birth of twins. I'm sure the Howler monkey enjoys the tourist just as much as they enjoy her. She does seem to be visiting with each of you.

As for the pants.. some things are just expected of North Americans on vacation, so you are forgiven.

It would be so cool to hear howlers in the evening--but with all that exciting stuff day and night, I'd be afraid of not getting any sleep!

Dissin' my pants! Everybody dissin' my pants!

I'll be able to go to Moosewood and see your show when I go to Ithaca in a few weeks.

Thanks for your bright and colorful photos. Love the textiles and the turista pants.

"Dissin' my pants! Everybody dissin' my pants!"

yeah, we're dissin' your pants, but hey we still delight in your posts...

Love the monkey. My daughter begged for a monkey pet for 10 years and we never granted her wish, thank goodness.

People are dissin' your pants, Julie. They're not too bad - they look air-conditiony cool. My Dad wore a touristy shirt like that once...

Safe travels! I wish you lots of fun, alongside of your mental health friend - Bakes. Which reminds me, you need to fit a Baker post in there once in a while.

A visit to the Cheyenne Mt. Zoo in Colorado Springs years ago gave us the pleasure of listening to a duet between rival families of howler monkeys and siamangs who lived in the great ape house. The noise was, otherworldly, decibel range up there with jet engines and the like.
Keeper told us it was a daily morning ritual and probably would untimately end up in severe hearing loss for the caretakers. The animals used the acoustical qualities of the building's hard surfaces with remarkable skill.
Caroline in SD

Caroline in South Dakota

As long as you're not louder than your pants, you're fine.

Although monkeys normally give me the willies (don't trust 'em), that lovely serene female could make me change my mind, if not my kneejerk reaction. She's most dignified.

Julie, there's something haunting about that howler, and she's just beautiful. I know what you mean about wanting to bury your nose in fur-I do that with my dogs' backs.

The pants are fine and they look cute on you.

Have a safe trip to Sapsucker Woods, Julie. I envy you the ride.
I'll probably be there later in the month. Chow!

I envy your trip to the Finger Lakes--I grew up in the area. You may wish you'd waited a few weeks, though! I was wondering, since it's on your way, if you'd ever exhibited any of your work at the Roger Tory Peterson center in Jamestown, or had any plans to?
Safe trip!

Hey Gahanna--Late October 2008--RTPI, Jamestown Ohio, Letters from Eden! yeah!

Fashion goes out the window when you're on vacation or birding. Comfort is the key. So don't worry about folks 'dissing your pants. If you like'em, wear'em.

Of course there is an exception. You cannot embarrass your kids in front of their friends. Husbands you can embarrass, but not your kids.

Wow, I love monkeys! I always wanted one for a pet as a kid, but my mom would say (in Spanish), "they throw their poop everywhere!" Oh well.

That skull is wild, but I too don't think I'd display it anywhere. Icky.

Oh boy--Baker photos are sure to appear next week!

I think your pants are cool Julie--I would wear pants like that too (if they actually made them in MY size). You didn't show us whether they went all the way down past your ankles though......

I love those deer pictures--especially the little fawns which must be even smaller than my kitty.

I like monkeys. Your Howler had such beautiful fur. I don't think I would have been able to resist petting her at least once.

Apparently your readers don't get out much in the world - I'm just back from Paris and those pants were all the rage. Its not a surprise that your on the cutting edge of adventure fashion. Just add it to the long list of your remarkable accomplishments - nature diva.

Meanwhile, I am sitting on the edge of my seat intrigued by your bit of foreshadowing and wondering when the heck the shadow comes in. Its not the pants but the suspense that's killing me. (Actually I love the pants).

In 1986, fresh of the bus from Oklahoma, I taught myself to cook in Dayton,OH using the Moosewood Cookbook. There is not a better pesto recipe in the world. Safe travels.

And it is the very pesto recipe I use and love, Tim. A bit of advice, though. Don't leave a dozen jars of freshly made Moosewood recipe pesto out on the counter for two days in August while you try to get it together to send jars out to everyone in your family. The butter will react with the Parmesan, fermentation will occur, and you will have to throw it all out. There will be tears.
Just put it in the fridge, and all will be well.

My dearest Julie,


Every time I think there is hope for you, you post another photo of yourself wearing crazy clothes. It is a good thing you are a super artist, excellent word-smith, terrific photographer, fabulous birder/naturalist, great dog mom and all-around wonderful friend, 'cuz your fashion sense is sadly lacking.

~Kathi, who doesn't really HATE the tourist pants, but you asked....

I love love love monkeys. I want to stare into their eyes. I held hands with a Gibbons once, a lesser ape. It was a moment I will never forget, the feel of her hand in mine. I love the photos of this little female howler. She's a beauty, with a sweet intelligent face. Still, I would NEVER try to hand her a camera, unless I wouldn't mind losing it forever.

About those pants, I don't care about clothes, ever. It's who's wearing them that interests me. You always look cool.

Pants dissing is frowned upon. Isn't that what potty training taught us?

Great post, Zick. Not sure how I missed that female howler at Villa Maya, but I did.

BTW, it's Jamestown, NY where you'll be showing at RTPI. Not Ohio.

Eat some tofu for me at Moosewood!

You know. They're are some really nice portraits in this post. You are glowing.

Monkeys. Yes. That uneasiness. Let me try this: there but for the grace of God . . . (or evolution) . . go I.

After all, we share so many genes and yet - we're the ones holding the camera.

I think the pants are tres chic. Not everyone can get away with such bold fashion statements.

Ms. Howler monkey is beautiful! Such serenity on her lovely face. I would have trouble resisting her as well. I often bury my face in my cat's lush black fur. It always has such a nice, pleasant fragrance, too. I love animals, all animals and most insects. In the primate family, though, I adore lemurs. If I go to a zoo, which I rarely do (on principle), I head straight to the lemurs.

Thank you for another lovely story. :)

I forgot to mention. When my husband and I vacationed in Hawaii in '91, we went to the Honolulu Zoo. That was before I developed an aversion to zoos. As we were strolling along, we were suddenly serenaded by the loudest, most horrendous noises we had ever heard. The howler monkeys started up their cacophony as we came into view, and it went on and on and on. We couldn't stop laughing at the noise - deep reverberating sounds that seemed resonant of bass drums. I remember that they were fairly large, but were not moving around very much. Just big dark mounds in the trees looking like sitting buddhas producing a massive amount of sound.

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