In the monkey forest, I follow the other tourists past the smiling, green-clad guard and a grimacing monkey statue. I’m in the jungle – which for me, is a sauna and the Oxford botanical gardens and Indiana Jones all rolled into one. I am dripping with sweat. Austrailian twang, Spanish and French, American glass. Asian vowels I don’t understand. They follow each other with selfie sticks, and enormous-lensed cameras. Hushed somehow.
Glinting green is like drinking light. I am a plant, photosynthesising. I am awash. Leaves and dark shapes of winding branches open up ahead as I walk. It is a while before I see the first monkey. It is in a tree above my head, lounging, its limbs soft and angular like the tree. The second monkey I see, pees on a Russian girl’s head. She complains loudly, but what can she do?
In the monkey forest the tourists are in thrall. They read signs that say they must not touch the monkeys, or feed them chocolate, or look them in the eye. Never touch their babies, even when they jump on you. The mothers may attack. They discuss the signs with a little awe. As though the monkeys wrote the signs.
The tourists take selfies with the monkeys. The monkeys let them. The tourists shriek quietly as the monkeys play with them, landing on their heads, clinging to their backpacks, biting through the canvas, nipping them with sharp teeth if they resist. A dark, neat girl watches, crestfallen, as a monkey lifts her scarf and sits playing with it, eyeing her, unabashed. She can only walk away.
The monkeys are grey and mushroom brown and have tufts of hair in spikes. The colour of the shadows behind branches. The babies hang upside down and the adults bare their teeth when provoked, for fun. The tourists shrink away, stepping quickly, snapping on cameras. Then shuffling near, cautious.
Full of bravado, guards with red slingshots and snake-shaped sticks, taunt the monkeys, run at them, showing off. The monkeys let them. It’s all a game. An American asks a grinning guard if monkey bites are dangerous – they compare bites, laughing.
Deeper into their forest, on wooden walkways under vines, luminous, trailing, the monkeys sit on branches much much too close. They grab and bite and tumble. The tourists scatter, skittishly.
I watch the monkeys watching the tourists from within trees, darkly. Or sitting in their paths, carelessly, deliberately. Losing my nerve, I photograph them from a distance, from behind a fierce stone statue.
Then I turn to leave, past the stone monkey, out of the forest.