We were nearing the end of a four-hour tour outside Kuala Lumpur. The thing about Asian tours is that they tack on manufacturing plants in between the real destinations. They must have seen me coming. I picked up a shirt at a textile plant, a button-up deal with insane patterns infused with Muslim undertones. The young British couple didn‘t buy anything. He was snapping heat-warped photos of dusty alleys with this telescopic contraption. Dead serious. After having my picture taken with the world’s largest beer stein at a pewter factory, I wondered if things could get any better.
Our final stop would be the Batu Caves, the monkey-run Hindu temple tucked within a jagged limestone mound. I asked Aadi, our tour guide and driver, if there were any bats in the cave.
He thought for a moment. “The bats, they are…no more.”
Aadi was a native dark-skinned Malaysian. It’s not the tour sights or history that interests me, but the day-to-day routines of regular people. Earlier in the day, I asked why everybody pulled the wiper blades from the windshields. Having a knowledgeable tour guide is one thing, but Aadi made us flesh out our own answer.
“Why do you think people do this,“ was his response.
“Uh, I don’t know,” I said. “The only time I’ve cocked up my wiper blades is before an ice storm so they don’t freeze to my windshield.”
“It doesn’t snow here very often, my friend.”
Yea, I liked him all right.
The thing is, you can answer a question with a question, but you can’t answer a question to a question with a question. He had asked everyone their nationality at the beginning of the tour. Now I envisioned him using this information in some crude nationality experiment for maximizing profits. Everything would be discussed at the next tourism board meeting…
The British are very polite and lack on-the-spot bargaining skills -- we can exploit this. The Americans are curious about their surroundings, but have no understanding of Equatorial practicality...
“The wipers,” he said. “They melt to the windshield. It is very hot here.”
As we pulled into the Caves parking lot, Aadi gave us a short briefing.
“You must hide all jewelry and sunglasses from the monkeys. They will take them. You may leave them in the van if you wish, but I can not be held responsible. If you must bring your camera, hold it tight.”
The British couple looked at each other like two kids at the top of a roller coaster.
“And what ever you do,” he continued. “Do not open any type of backpack or fanny pack in front of them. They will think you have food and grab for it.”
I thought about explaining to him that anyone wearing a fanny pack deserves to have things ripped off their body by primates anyway.
“Have you ever given a tour to someone who’s been attacked?” I asked.
He chucked dismissively, “Good luck to you, my friend. Return in one hour.”
There was some hotshot camera crew blocking the entrance, trying to capture some compelling footage of flying pigeons. The director had the vision in his head, I could tell. The little buggers just wouldn’t fly right. A boy threw out crumbs to lure more birds for another take. We walked past between takes.
A golden statue of Murugan, a Hindu deity, watched over the sprawl of Kuala Lumpur. Long tailed-macaque monkeys frolicked along the 272 stairs leading up to the cave. Baby monkeys held on to mother monkeys with little swollen breasts. Others just sat atop these banister posts that resembled green melons. And despite Aadi’s warning, the monkeys didn’t seem to mind having a camera shoved in their face.
There were small shops at the top of the stairs selling golden trinkets. The monkeys couldn’t resist them. A shop keep muttered some kindhearted obscenities to one monkey and shooed it away with feather dusters.
Water dripped from the cathedral ceiling as our eyes adjusted to the darkness. So now, with wet monkeys lurking in the shadows, the Brit is compelled to change the lens on his Nikon. He tried to be slick about it, but the monkeys had that cave on lockdown. Brit unzipped his bag just enough to stick his hand in when a monkey shrieked something that translated to: “BLITZ!”
Ten monkeys were on him in an instant, grabbing at his bag and pockets and even a bit of crotch. The ones that didn’t latch on jumped around, screeching their approval. Brit slung his bag around like a sack of doorknobs. The little guys disbanded as quickly as they arrived. Everyone in the vicinity had a good laugh at his expense. The girlfriend examined him for monkey bites.
When we returned to the van, I told Aadi about the monkey attack that ‘we’ had been involved in.
“I say to you, ‘do not to open bag,’” he said. “Maybe next time…not so lucky?”
He had been trying all day, but it finally dawned on him: We just weren’t going to learn. Maybe next time I’ll observe my surroundings and deduct my own conclusion. Maybe next time we won’t open a bag in front of a troop of monkeys. Then again, where’s the fun in 'next time' when you‘re already on vacation?