Monkey Business 2/2

For Part 1, click here.

Assuming you’re caught up, you’re likely reading this in search of monkey stories. Let’s get right back to it.

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The Batu Caves of Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia, turned out to be quite the host the largest concentration of monkeys I’d yet seen. The Batu Caves, a thoroughly interesting land formation — one of those massive limestone mountains with intense weathering characterizing its walls and with a toupee of jungle the summit — had a ten-story staircase leading up to said cave entrance. Through this one can continue on through a chasm, leading eventually to the back end of the caves, where looking up one could see the sky through an immense, weathered opening.

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It felt like walking into an empty volcano, and someone, long ago, thought it was a good idea to build a Hindu temple here. While the temple itself doubltess attracted tourists, the monkeys held our attention as much as anything else.

Doubtless related to the macaques I’d seen a bit north as in Thailand, Cambodia and Viet Nam, this Malaysian variety had the characteristic long tails that people like to associate with our simian cousins. And at the Batu Caves, there were a lot of them.

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On our way up the steps, I remember pausing to regard the city beyond – clear air stretched on between my vantage and the far reaches of that view, for my visit came at a lucky time. The smog from the 2015 Indonesian Fires had lifted a day before my arrival, and locals were telling me stories of how one could barely see across the street. Looking out now at the afternoon haze, one could hardly guess that huge tracts of land had been set fire in a neighboring island country.

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My companion, Lan, brought a bottle of juice with her and held it placatingly toward one of the monkeys as we scaled the stairs. To the surprise of absolutely no one, the thing ran up, snatched it from her grasp, and set to work opening it with its teeth. The monkeys found here and all around Southeast Asia have long since learned the value of stealing food; it’s comparatively energy efficient to be a thief than it is a farmer, after all, and these guys were brigands.

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This’d be the charming bandit that stole Lan’s drink.

I watched one Japanese tourist notice a monkey approaching him. The guy decided he would have none of that and simply placed his drink on the ground, scurrying away as the monkey didn’t bat an eyelash taking his 7UP. The monkeys’ll take anything edible, and when if their nose or eyes do not bring them promise of easy pickings, they’ve been known to steal other things.

Sunglasses off your head, iPhones out of your hand, even sandals off the feet of small children being carried in the arms of their mothers. Nothing is sacred, and the monkeys will hold fast to whatever percieved-valuable item they’ve pilfered until such time as they are presented with a morsel of food. The exchange complete, they’ll let loose whatever human-made thing they held (often dropping it like a forgotten toy), take the food it won, and scurry to a higher vantage before its colleagues can pester him for a bite.

They get pushy sometimes. They say you aren’t supposed to make eye contact in the animal kingdom, but as a self-described animal I found myself abundantly curious of these things. Staring at a monkey an arm’s length away rewarded me with bared teeth and a false charge — more than enough to make me jump away. Groups of tourists — locals and foreigners alike — posing for photos often had monkeys make cameos, strolling up towards them with expectant little hands. They sometimes saw the monkeys approach, illiciting a thumbs-up or bigger smile on part of the tourist, while other times, as someone posed for the shot, a monkey would approach them and nobody would issue a warning. Every time the tourist jumped, and sometimes the monkey would make off with something.

They have learned behavior that cannot be unlearned; once one sees it happening, doubtless their friends spread word and the stealing-exchanging cycle perpetuates itself. Elders perfect the art while the young observe and imitate. Whether I’m talking about the tourists or the monkeys here is up to you.

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In one of the central provinces of Viet Nam, a region and city known as Dak Lak, I and two travel mates perused a souvenir boutique as we waited for our overnight bus. This would be at the tail-end of a several-day-long adventure the likes of which I happened to be eager was ending.

After a brief walk through the initial room — the boutique stretched in much further than it looked from the outside — I came across a cardboard box no larger than milk crate. Inside there peered up at me a baby monkey, the same widespread species of macaque you find everywhere. A little chain went to its neck and it looked small enough to have been torn from its mother prematurely.

I signalled to the attendants as to whether I could play with it — they nodded their head, and I kneeled by the box and extended a finger. Tiny hands grasped me and the monkey’s eyes locked with mine. The thing about looking into the eyes of another human is that there is, usually, this general common understanding of sentience. With most humans you meet, you probably regard them as a creature with its own independent emotions and motivations. One usually does not encounter this in something non-human, aside from dogs and cats and birds that many families have adopted, and given enough time around them, anyone will come to associate anthropomorphic qualities into it. We do that with cars and dolls, so why not animal companions?

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Little do you realize this is in fact same-sex marriage.

But the thing is that monkeys come with litereal anthropomorphic traits prepackaged. That little baby primate stared at me with legitimate sadness in its eyes, and in those brief moments I felt his little fingers holding mine, I might have felt a sense of desperation. When the time came and our bus arrived, it would not let ago, and I entertained fantasies of snapping the chain loose and smuggling the thing in my coat.

As it happens, keeping a monkey as a pet is generally a bad idea, and more than once I’ve rationalized that I don’t lead the right lifestyle to keep a full-time animal companion in my home/life. Especially one of a species shown to have the emotional and problem-solving intelligence of a small child.

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But I’ll never forget the Dak Lak baby monkey’s silent plea for release.

Monkey Business Part 1/2

Posts have been lacking. Apologies. More are in the works and on the way.

Much has happened, and yet there’s been a lot of not happening. It is a curious conundrum.

Perhaps chiefest among the big events would be visiting my home-area if Upstate New York for a month after 1.5 years away in Viet Nam. I find myself repeating the same stories, sometimes with details forgotten, only to be remembered later. The following is a brief dissertation of my exposure to the primates of South East Asia.

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One of my favorite shots from outside the Batu Caves; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

I’d seen monkeys on television and YouTube videos. Most of us have. I’ve seen monkeys in zoos, imitated them as a kid (and adult), read about their symbolism in various mythologies as tricksters, or scientific studies as test subjects. It should come as no surprise to any sentient, *sapient* being of the modern era that these things have a lot in common with us.

I’ll never forget the time traveling with a group of friends in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. Monkeys ruled the trees and the streets like squirrels, seen picking through garbage bins and tussling with stray dogs.

We had arrived in the late afternoon, having taken a morning bus from Sai Gon, Viet Nam. The five of us moved as a group, following the rough advice of a half-remembered Google Maps coordinate along some haphazard streets of the city. Compared to Sai Gon, my chosen city of residence, Phnom Penh stretched on as a sleepy, unhurried city full of inhabitants as eager to smile as they were to stare.

Near the de-facto center of Phnom Penh there lay a round, mountainous park, encircled by a roundabout and topped off with a dollar-admission temple to gods whose names I may never know. Trees shaded out the sun, and we welcomed the respite, but the monkeys walking leisurely along park’s floor caught our attention above all other things.

A gangly-limbed specimen drew close to use; I can remember my General Animal Instincts being overpowered by White Man Tourist instincts as curiosity filled me. The monkey showed no fear, its interest chiefly focused on the garbage seen either discarded along the sidewalks or collected in rubbish bins.

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Anna always had a way with bonding with the natives.

One of my travel mates, Anna, took a seat to get some zoomed photos, and the same simian we observed came quite close, electing to take up a perch on her shoulder with a vigorous hop. Like any benign cousin it preened through her blue-dyed hair, doubtless in search of grubs, and though she laughed (as I caught the event on video) one of us caught sight of a patrolling local signalling us — gently — to let the monkey be.

“That is a human,” one of my travel mates, Will, had remarked after we left. I watched the monkey stroll off and tussle playfully with a stray dog.

Seeing a monkey online or on television or in a book is certainly one thing. To see a monkey — and realize that it *sees* you back; at first with assessing the danger, then assessing your worth, and then disregarding you entirely — is quite another.

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The following day, after we arranged a plan to take a riverboat up from the capital toward Siem Reap, another travel mate — Will — and I decided to take a stroll on the streets of Phnom Penh in an attempt to get a good look at the monkeys again. Seeing as it was our last evening in the city, we knew not when the chance would again present itself. Returning to the same park, we found none, and we opted to return back to our hostel but took a slightly longer route for the sake of exploration.

The sky deepened with the tangerine and apricot shades of an approaching sunset, and as the two of us swaggered our way along, remarking on whatever hooked architecture we saw or what mad things we had seen up until then, movement along the rooftops caught my eye.

“Will,” I said, nudging his shoulder with one hand. He followed my other hand as I gestured above us. “We are being watched.”

The orange sky quickly faded to dark velvet blue, and the silhouettes of small, thin-limbed simians could be seen stalking the two or three stories above us. At first I felt unnerved, imagery of the Jungle Book, in one of its several film incarnations, coming to mind, but I quickly realized the monkeys above cared about as much for us as people on a tour bus might care for poverty-stricken locals through whose villages the vehicle passed.

Monkey Business Part 2 next week.

 

Concept: Markets and Trade in Fantasy

Something often overlooked in a lot of fiction, fantasy or otherwise, are the economics in place that allow a writer’s world to exist. When it comes to worldbuilding, the writer must take all things into account if they wish to really weave a believable setting.

It’s serious labor of love. When was the last time you thought about the how your hero’s village makes its clothing? Where they acquire the cotton/wool/linen etc. for their textiles? Do they produce the raw material themselves, or do they trade with neighboring communities?

How about the infrastructure between villages? Is it sophisticated enough to allow weekly, monthly, or annual runs between villages?

Or does the story take place within a city, where doubtless everything is acquired from beyond the city walls? Or, conversely, like in the Hyborian Age, or as might be found in any otherwise swords & sandals-type fantasy … where the idea of civilization is usually more concerned with guarded cities and villages, while everything else in the world consisted of patches of hazardous wilderness between towns.

The fact of the matter is that most communities, even today, are largely agrarian. Producing food through farming and animal husbandry is sorta kinda what makes the neolithic era so important, and a large portion of the world’s population is, to this day, still largely concerned with the production and acquistion of food.

So in a fantasy realm, only prosperous trade cities or otherwise similarly-run commercial centers will have little do farming, whereas the “quiet village our hero called home” is, nine times out of ten, some kind of farming community.

Now, the readers need not know the intricacies of your world’s economics, unless of course the economics play a direct role in the plot (such as the story for the tremendous game Baldur’s Gate, which had an iron shortage). I’ve touched on the importance of economics in the past, and I thoroughly believe that it is the responsibility of the writer to consider some of these thing when fleshing out their world – even if only briefly. A great way to do this is to simply look at your character – better yet, if you have a sketch or character sheet of some kind, ask a pile of questions about what they’re wearing.

This is the female knight class from Final Fantasy Tactics. Gods, that game was so good.

Looking at the above artwork, we can ask a variety of economic questions largely separate from the character herself.

What metal is her sword made from? Where was the metal mined, refined, traded, and forged? Same for her armor.

How about the dress? Cotton from her home town, or fibers traded from a distant land? Perhaps the cape was woven from a rare, material acquired from mountaintop flowers that symbolize her devotion to whatever faith to which she might subscribe.

The leather of her gloves – that of common bovines, or an animal more exotic, or is it not even leather at all, but a fantastic material impervious to weather?

The dyes in her clothing would have to have been produced somewhere, as did the cords holding everything together. Even unseen things, like the lining of her boots, the oils along the blade of her sword, the perfume used to mask days marching on the field, or of course whatever obscured jewelry she might possess.

These are all things that, if presented with answers more interesting and complicated than “she got them when she enlisted,” or “found them in some hole that a trio of trolls called home,” or – especially – the cliche “they were passed down to her from her father.”

Like I said, the reader need not know the intricacies of everything, lest the writer fall into a Tolkien-esque level of description, but the more the writer knows, the more subtleties can be embedded, enriching the world.

When I was in Thailand, a day after the unforgettable experience with the tigers, I took the time pursue a newfound hobby: perusing the markets and bazaars. Chiang Mai is a city known as much for tourism as anything else, and with tourism there come markets geared especially for foreigners looking for souvenirs.

A shot of one of many of Chiang Mai's Sunday markets, set up near the Tae Phe Gate

One of Chiang Mai’s many Sunday markets, set up near the Tha Phae Gate, on the east side of the Old City.

The Sunday Market of Chiang Mai was nothing short of fun for me, because I was on a simple mission of looking for interesting things to send back to my home country as gifts.

I was also able to practice my haggling skills, which – to my surprise and growing delight – makes the whole process all the more enjoyable. As a foreigner, prices are of course inflated accordingly when I ask the price of things, but the very fact that the prices are flexible means that bargaining for trinkets and clothing becomes essential.

Besides, who would you respect more: the person who simply accepts the price you tell them, or the person who is a bit more shrewd and puts up a fight?

Learning from the example of the Chatty Swede from earlier days, and drawing experience from conversations with Firebeard in days of yore – not to mention simply reading about stuff all the time – I gradually learned what various items were actually worth. As well as the whole haggling process. I do not claim to be a master haggler, of course not – but I am something of a penny-pincher, which comes off as a hard bargainer anyway.

I bought a dress for a friend back in my Old Hometown, initially something in order of 180 baht ($6), but talked the teller down to 150 or so (so, $5). At that price, I decided to buy two – much to the joy of the merchant. Small successes fuel bigger ones, and I found myself haggling for even minor items – a hairband-like thing, initially 90 baht ($1), I talked down to something like 60. We’re talking the difference between dollars and quarters here, which to them is of course a big deal, but from my perspective, it’s not necessarily the amount of money that makes acquisition of these things so special. Rather, the fact that I haggled, drove down the price to even lower than what was already reasonable to me, makes the cloth and bracelets (and even a lamp) feel really worth that much more.

In once instance a more brazen merchant, with very good English skills, did most of the talking. He was selling chopstick sets, which I found interesting enough to look at, but had no inclination to buy – however in the markets, even the slightest bit of interest (or even showing the slightest politeness by stopping to address someone who tugs your sleeve or shouts for you to look at them – politeness which can easily be misinterpreted as interest) is like the scent of blood to sharks.

The man proposed his price – something like 400 baht ($12.50-ish). I kept silent, nodding my head as I calculated the amount in my head.

“Okay,” he said, seeing that I was not leaping on it. “I will give you a discount. 350 baht!”

I nodded, looking at the plastic-wrapped set, admiring it’s beauty and wondering to myself whether I actually needed this. After all, I had about two-dozen chopsticks at home already. The merchant proceeded to demonstrate the toughness of the included mat by stretching it taught multiple times.

“It cannot break, or your money back,” he said, and informed me that the chopsticks themselves were made by his family. Very special, also very strong, and they’ve been making chopsticks for decades. I offered compliments that the things did in fact seem quite nice, but made to place the set back down. No doubt he could see that I was interested, but not interested enough, and in truth I sought means to politely escape.

“You are the first customer of the day,” said the merchant, “so I will give you first-buyer price! 300 baht!”

Not bad, I found myself thinking, especially since I didn’t say a thing. I tried to leave, but he handed me a calculator. “Name your price!” he said, “Tell me what is reasonable to you.”

I took the calculator and entered 250. Or perhaps 280. I can’t quite remember. ($7.50 or $8.50).

The merchant hastily agreed, no doubt glad to have made a sale.

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And here it is. A pair each of chopsticks, chopstick “holders,” placemats, napkins, and cup mat things.

Not only that, he proceeded to ask me questions, seemingly showing an actual interest in me as more than some walking white-skinned wallet. He seemed to be especially intrigued that I lived in SouthEast Asia, that I wasn’t his typical customer – the usual clueless tourist.

That or he had practiced his act well.

In any case, I complimented him on his English, on his skill at selling (he did win, after all, since I confess I had no intention of getting the chopsticks in the first place), but they felt special, and more than the money spent or the value in the item acquired, I got the memory.

And the experience.

Who knows how much this was actually worth. I probably over-paid regardless.

Markets like this can be found also in Viet Nam. The legendary Ben Thanh Market, the central hub of Sai Gon – which I have experienced only once, during my first few days after landing – is a veritable nest of hagglers and merchants. I actually look forward to returning there to practice bargaining with peddlers, arguing over $5 garments and trinkets I don’t need.

Yeah baby, this was the backbone of Sai Gon, and remains strong !

In fact, I rather look forward to the day I can acquire clothing, textiles, objects, whatever, and perhaps sell them abroad. Such a thing would be more of a pet project than a real source of income, as the process is new and fun to me.

And it all contributes to writing. It’s all connected to the economics of the settings of our myriad stories. Production of goods is just one chapter in a book of economics in fantasy – how about trade? Haggling and bargaining in bazaars and markets has been a long-standing tradition of cultures around the world for… probably about as long as the idea of “trade” has ever existed.