Friday, October 28, 2005

44 PRIMATES


The sky above Bogor was an equatorial blue and the trees and tiled roofs, washed clean by the night time rain, were aquiver with colour. It was a Saturday morning and Carmen and I were on our way to a picnic.

As we drove past Bogor's white pillared Presidential Palace and its shops and its crowded markets, I had a peculiar feeling that something was missing. Where were the street children who sell plastic bags to people shopping for vegetables? Where were the boys who shine shoes for the rich? Where were the ragged mentally backward men who sometimes rummage in roadside rubbish piles? Where was the semi-nude mentally disturbed woman who strides along certain streets staring straight ahead?

"President Clinton's coming," said Carmen. "For the APEC free-trade summit."

"Of course. They've cleaned up the streets," I said. "Wouldn't it be good if Hilary visited the medical wing of the mental hospital?"

"No chance. She'll be taken to some posh orphanage for the unwanted offspring of top officials."

"I wonder where they'd take a President if his helicopter crashed?"

"Not the Red Cross Hospital."

"Definitely not. I suppose they've set up a special clinic."

"Where are we going for our picnic?" asked Carmen, as we approached a quiet junction.

"Mystery tour," I said. "We'll just take any old road. Deep into the countryside."

We motored for half an hour along a variety of minor roads peopled by happy schoolchildren and waddling ducks. Having parked on the edge of a hamlet, we picked up our picnic things and set off along paths of damp red earth. This was a countryside of papaya, padi, coconut palms and little huts with roofs of ochre tiles. Dragonflies cruised beside us.

"No tigers here today," said Carmen, striding along on her little middle-aged legs which had been kept fit by playing squash. "Or rhino, for that matter."

"What do you know about wild life?" I asked cynically.

Carmen proceeded to educate me. I learnt that tigers still occasionally killed people on Sumatra but the last time anyone had seen a tiger on Java was in 1972; the Javan one-horned rhino, which used to be found throughout Java, was now the world's rarest large animal; only around fifty of these rhinos survived in Java's Ujung Kulon National Park. And Carmen knew all about primates.

"There aren't many left," said Carmen. "The Javan leaf monkey has lost almost all of its habitat."

"Too many people?" I asked.

"The ordinary Indonesians haven't benefited much from the destruction of the forests," said Carmen, guffawing. "When Suharto's government took over all the forests, people like the Dayaks in Kalimantan tended to get pushed out. Suharto's Chinese and military buddies set up their businesses and the forests began to disappear. The Americans and the British are also to blame because they import thousands of primates from Indonesia for scientific research."

"So primates are becoming rare," I sighed.

"The rarest of all is the orang pendek from Sumatra," said Carmen, bubbling with excitement.

"Orang pendek? Never heard of it."

"It's like the yeti. There have only been a few sightings. It's supposed to be a man-ape. It has a hairless brown face and it walks almost like a human. Marco Polo claimed he saw them. And about eighty years ago a Dutch journal reported sightings."

Carmen filled me full of information about primates and their behaviour. I was informed that among Java's macaque monkeys the females are in charge and the daughters spend all their lives with their mums. Young male macaques usually join other groups or become solitary. The moloch gibbon, which is found only in West Java, is monogamous and mates for life. The male proboscis monkey, found only in Borneo, lives with a harem of around seven females; the bigger his nose, the sexier is his behaviour; and because of his big nose he is sometimes called the Dutchman monkey. The orang utan, found only in Borneo and Sarawak, is a solitary, introverted and intelligent primate. The common chimp is often aggressive. One male, sometimes the unruffled psychopath, becomes the boss or president. Being the top male means he get lots of women and he also gets to attack other tribes.

"But note that chimps cooperate when they hunt for food," said Carmen. "And some chimps can be altruistic and kind. Do you know about the bonobo apes of Zaire."

"The what?"

"Bonobo. Now they are rather nice. Sociable, friendly, gentle. Ninety eight per cent of bonobo DNA is like that of human's. That's more than with the common chimp. With the bonobo there's equality between the males and the females. The young do it with the old, females do it with females, males do it with males and males do it with females."

"Do it?"

"Sex. Rubbing up against each other. It only lasts a few seconds."

"Interesting."

"The bonobo are bisexual, but then Tom was telling me that bisexuality is the norm in the world of nature. And in non-Western countries."

"Tom, our friend who had the problems with a girlfriend called Kuntil?"

"That's the one. Tom was telling me about this German called Ferdinand Karsch-Haack who studied zoology at the beginning of the century."

"Tom told me about him while I was having a coffee in Kem Chicks."

"It seems Karsch-Haack found bisexual behaviour throughout the animal kingdom."

"Don't tell this stuff to your students," I said. "Some of them are a bit against Evolution and all that stuff."

"The point is that humans may not be inevitably violent, or inevitably anything," said Carmen. "If we are descended from apes, we may be lots of things."

"You're telling me primates are a mixture of the monogamous, the polygamous, the kindly and the cruel. Do you think you are descended from macaques, gibbons, chimps, or what?"

"Ah," said Carmen, giggling loudly, "I'm a combination of orang utan and bonobo."

"You seem to me to be a jolly bonobo," I said. "Now, where are we going to eat?" I was getting hungry and we could hear the sound of running water.

"Down by the river."

"What happens if there's a flash flood? It's the rainy season."

We sat on rocks well above the river, in the shade of tall trees. A gentle breeze kept the mosquitoes away.

"Now," said Carmen, as she unpacked our picnic, "Ikan pedis, sate ayam, rempah, sambal goreng buncis, sambal goreng telor. In other words, fish in cabbage leaf, chicken sate, beef and coconut patties, spicy fried vegetables, and spicy fried egg. Then there's fermented soybeans, peanut sauce, shrimp paste and the Nuits-St-Georges and that's about it. Apart from the cheese and the pastries."

"Carmen you've done an excellent job. Or rather, your maid has."

As we ate our modest meal we watched various forms of life parade along the opposite river bank. Half a dozen women were on their way to the secluded spot where they bathe, brush their teeth and do that sort of thing. An old man with a bike was going fishing. Three schoolgirls were skipping home from school.

"1994," said Carmen. "A good year for drinking this red stuff."

"Can the good times last? We must have passed a dozen new housing estates on the road to Bogor. Where's the money coming from?"

"Banks."

"Many of the roads are choked with Mercedes and much of the better land is covered in luxury houses. Something's wrong."

"There are predictions of a crash," said Carmen, as she finished off the Rocquefort cheese. "Most of these houses will never be bought. The banks will never get their money back."

"Will this APEC summit help the economy?"

"The Americans are only here to help the big American corporations." Carmen began giggling again.

~~

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