‘A Trip into Yourself’

“One rarely hears how fieldwork changes people’s lives. The living conditions, the funding difficulties, the practical problems, the highs of discovery, the false starts and dead ends, the drudgery of scientific record-keeping, the learning how to get along without people, places, and things you once took for granted, the feeling of suspension in time as the world spins on without you- all have an impact. Fieldwork forces you not only to confront situations you could have never anticipated, but also to confront elements of your own character you might never have known. Every trip into the field is also a trip into yourself.”

-Birute Galdikas

The quote above stuck out to me as I was reading Reflections of Eden by Birute Galdikas a few years ago. I kept it tucked away, knowing I might want to reread it someday. While I have written previously about my research project, it is certainly true that my time in Indonesia had a very profound personal impact on me. I have decided to reflect on this now that I am back home.

Every part of this quote rings a bell, though some more loudly than others. For example, “The drudgery of scientific record keeping” accurately describes the day-to-day data entry experience. While living conditions were comfortable for the most part it still took a little while getting used to hand-washing all of my clothes. And regularly sleeping in close proximity to huge spiders that make noise when they scurry across the wall! I periodically had moments in which I worried that I forgot to feed Meeko (my beloved and terribly missed dog-child).

But I can especially relate to the way Galdikas refers to time in the field. Many times I had the very false sense that time, while moving very quickly for me (time flies when you’re having fun, right?) couldn’t possibly be still ticking across the world, moving along without me. December 25 is long gone but it never felt like Christmas, even though I spent a festive day in the forest wearing reindeer antlers and singing Xmas tunes. I was shocked the first time my mom told me on the phone that it was snowing at their home in Colorado. But it was hot when I left there! The seasons changed without me? The seasons changed in Indonesia as well, from the dry season to the rainy season. The shift occurred in gradual but obvious stages. The winds died and the sun hid, the humidity spiked, flies came out in swarms followed by mosquitoes and mold. It went from watermelon to peanut to rice and mango (yum!) season. Life was different when the rain started. But because I had not experienced this change before- had not yet associated it with certain places and traditions and people- it was, from my perspective, an invalid marker of the passage of time.

My time in Indonesia was a personal and spiritual venture in addition to an academic one. I fasted during Ramadan. I prayed among pines. I delighted in the fact that I live in a place where a cat horn or a deer fetus are items displayed in a casual manner. Or where ghosts are more active on certain days of the week. I had in-depth discussions about religion and the meaning of life in a language that is not my first. I debated with biologists about the goodness of humanity. I formed strong and meaningful relationships with people who are simultaneously the same as me and yet drastically different.

I think it is a given that if you go to a new place with an open mind you will learn something new about the world (especially as an anthropology student!). What is more surprising is what you learn about yourself. And the best part is when the boundaries of these two realms, yourself and the world around you, become blurred. Living in Sulawesi taught me things about myself that I would not have otherwise known, and that have positively changed my life. For this I am very grateful.

In the series finale of The Office, Andy Bernard said he wished there was a way to know you are in the good old days while you are in them. In the weeks leading up to my departure I felt a mixture of seething frustration and intense pre-nostalgia for the place that had been my home for the time it takes to make a human (9 months!). A part of my heart will always be in Sulawesi with my Indonesian friends and family. I will be back someday. For now and am just thankful to have known that I was in the good old days while I was in them. And I am happy to be reunited with my pooch!



The Pros/Cons of Musim Hujan (Rainy Season)

Selamat siang everybody!

So as you might already know, we are smack in the middle of the rainy season here in Indonesia. The rainy season usually lasts for 7 months, between November and May. Back in November, it only rained in the afternoon, but now it typically rains at least 3-5 times a day. I’m not talking about little sprinkles here or there, either. I’m talking buckets, cats & dogs, monsoon-style; rain the likes of which I have never experienced before. Sometimes it feels as if we are living directly under a ginormous waterfall. So, in honor of musim hujan, I have complied a short list of things we have experienced thus far during rainy season. Enjoy!

– KT

  • Pro: The sweet melody of rain on a tin roof
  • Con: The roof leaks, leaving a forgotten pool of water on the floor to slip and fall on later
  • Pro: A sweat-free walk to your neighbor’s house
  • Con: You forgot your umbrella
  • Pro: Rain lulling you to sleep at night
  • Con: Rain waking you up at 4 in the morning
  • Pro: More frequent mati lampu (blackouts) –> your computer battery dies –> you don’t have to work –> Hurray!
  • Con: More frequent mati lampu –> your computer battery dies –> you can’t watch movies either –> Wahhh wahhh.
  • Pro: Water a plenty for bathing/washing clothes
  • Con: Watch out for the tiny leeches!
  • Pro: No sun = significantly cooler weather
  • Con: No sun = mold on your underwear
  • Pro: You can finally put all that deet you brought to good use!
  • Con: You will probably still get Dengue fever
  • Pro: The forest becomes a magnificent, verdant eden that you can’t wait to go explore (after the morning rain, of course)
  • Con: The pythons agree with you
  • Pro: When the sun finally peeks out, you revel in the beauty of mother earth’s glorious creation and thank your lucky stars that you waited 3 weeks to do laundry
  • Con: You complain about the heat, and so does everyone else…for a week after the sun is gone
  • Pro: But at least your laundry is dry
  • Pro: More free time for data entry
  • Con: More free time for data entry

“Be still, my heart, these great trees are prayers.” -Rabindranath Tagore

Another component of my project that I (Alison) have been working on is monitoring the phenology, or seasonal patterns of availability, of monkey foods in vegetation plots that we established in the forest. This process involves using binoculars to inspect an individual tree in order to determine how much of the canopy consists of young leaves, flowers, and fruit. Then we repeat this process many, many times. Later we will be able to analyze these data to see if/how food that is available for monkeys in the forest is related to patterns of crop raiding behavior. Monitoring phenology, while sometimes a literal pain in the neck, and rarely a crazy adventure, can actually be quite peaceful.

Primatologists discuss anthropomorphism of the primates they study- but what about trees? I have favorite trees. There are trees I am happy to see every two weeks when we return to that plot. There are trees that I dislike because they are too tall or covered in vines. There are trees that seem to smile at me and envelope me in their comforting branches. There are trees that seem to taunt me and enjoy making my life a little difficult. And there are trees that I pity because their leaves are mostly holes or because they flower later than all the others of that same species (actual late-bloomers!). I have been known to speak to the trees on occasion, asking something like “What color is your ripe fruit?” or “What is your Latin name?” I may even hug my favorites before I leave.

I sometimes remember that I am missing out on the joys associated with studying animal behavior. The feelings of familiarity toward certain individuals. The privilege of witnessing the funny, quirky, interesting things primates often do. But I have glimpsed up at tree, whose canopy I have inspected regularly for many months, and seen a refreshingly beautiful combination of sunlight, bright green leaves, and iridescent butterflies. Trees are living things that we see every single day, yet we barely notice them. I feel lucky to have this opportunity to become intimate with a few of them, and I enjoy this part of my research.


‘Malam minggu’ means Saturday night. Having now experienced quite a few‘malam minggus’ in Indonesia, I feel qualified to write on the subject. It is generally the time for having fun, going on dates, hanging out with friends, etc. It is also the one night a week that KT and I can both enjoy with the knowledge that we aren’t entering the forest the next day. We typically spend Sundays doing laundry and entering data. But back to the fun stuff…

In the city: A typical ‘malam minggu’ in Makassar = dinner (Western food!) + beer + karaoke. There are many nice restaurants in Makassar that serve non-Indonesian food, and depending on how long we’ve been in Bengo, sometimes pizza or a sandwich really hits the spot! It’s easy to get over the shameful fact that we are Americans eating French fries in Indonesia, because 1) we eat them with sambal, not ketchup, and 2) it is too delicious for us to care. Makassar is on the coast, making another desirable dinner option ikan laut. As we walk into our favorite restaurant, they open up coolers for us to view the freshly caught ocean fish. Grilled to order, with spicy sambal, lime juice, and garlicky kangkung, this may be one of my favorite meals ever. ‘Malam minggu’ in the city is also exciting because we can drink COLD beer. We usually order Bintang and Guinness and mix the two. I was dubious the first time I tried it, but it is surprisingly delicious. But as my friends well know, I’m no beer connoisseur! Finally, any respectable ‘malam minggu’ in Makassar includes karaoke. By this, I do not mean belting out a little Alanis at Red Wing after trivia. We frequent a chain called Happy Puppy (because we love the name, obviously). After settling into our private room we spend anywhere between 1-4 delightful hours singing a mix of: Beyonce, Indonesian love songs, rap from the early 2000s, and dancing to Danza Kuduro.

In the village: A typical ‘malam minggu’ in Bengo = balo + jendral. To start the evening, KT and I, in a more jovial mood than usual, shower and ‘get dressed up’ (that means jeans and eyeliner!). All we have to do is walk across the street and we have arrived at our destination. In the house of our friends (all men), we sit on the cool tile floor and are immediately served a glass of balo, an alcoholic beverage obtained from the Aren/sugar palm tree. It is light pinkish white in color, opaque, and a bit of an acquired taste. Worry not- KT and I have acquired the taste. A glass of balo is also a magical (and dangerous) thing because it is constantly being refilled. On a special occasion, there might even be chicken to eat while you drink. But there is always the card game, jendral. The objective is to get rid of all your cards first. The luckiest hand is one with four-of-a-kind (that’s jendral), almost a sure win. But the worst part is losing because then you have to shuffle for the next round. I have done my fair share of shuffling, but we have the hang of the game at this point! Jendral is great because it’s a fun way to connect with people even if you lack the vocabulary for intriguing conversation. In conclusion, peanut butter and jelly go together like balo and jendral.

While Indonesian Saturday nights are certainly a change of pace from the bars of Hillcrest, they are no less fun!

Sampai jumpa lagi!


The Joys of Makassar

There is something about being in the field that makes one crave things that one would normally despise. Going to Makassar is one of these things.

Let me tell you about Makassar. Makassar is hot as hell. And humid. And smelly. I once counted the mosquito bites I received from 1 day in Makassar; I had more than twenty – covering my feet, arms and face. And this is after I doused myself in deet. In fact, it is highly likely that Makassar is where I was bitten by the devil mosquito that gave me dengue fever…but that’s another blog post.

Depending on our mode of transport (either by public van or private car), it can take upwards of 3 hours to get into the city (normally a 1.5 hour drive if there isn’t traffic…which NEVER happens). Did I mention the humidity? Oh yeah, and all the random people asking us to take photos with them. By now, I estimate about 2/3 of people from Sulawesi have a picture of us on their facebook. And, my gosh, those mosquitos!

Under normal circumstances, Makassar is a place I would avoid at all costs. So, what I say next may come as a surprise to you: Makassar is like heaven on earth. It is Disneyworld. It is Christmas morning. In Makassar, the world is at your fingertips. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit, but seriously…going to Makassar means a hot shower, fast(er) internet, a REAL bed, and COLD beer. Deprivation can be a wonderful thing sometimes. After 6 months living in a village, everything I would normally take for granted at home makes my month.

So in light of my love for Makassar, I have complied a short list of the top 5 joys of Makassar.

  1. McDonald’s.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, Makassar is a place to embrace hypocrisy. Where I would normally despise “dining” at a McDonald’s or Pizza Hut in a foreign country, I delight in it. After weeks of eating tofu, tempe, and nasi in the village, I can’t imagine anything I would want in and around my mouth more than a Big Mac. So, going to McDonald’s is always on our Makassar ‘to do’ list.

  1. All day at the mall.

Who wants to spend all day at a mall in America? Answer: not me. Who wants to spend all day at a mall in Makassar? Answer: ME ME ME, pick ME!!! The mall has something called air conditioning, and in Makassar, where one steps outside and melts like the wicked witch of the west, it is a gift from the gods. In my opinion, AC is the number one motivation for wandering around the mall all day. There is also something delightful about seeing new, shiny things in store windows. It’s not even like I want to buy these things, it’s just been so long since I’ve seen something really, truly NEW looking.

  1. Paying someone to do your laundry.

You know when you’re shopping for clothes and you find a really cute top, but then read the label and decide not to buy it because it says “hand wash only”? Well, my friends, there is a reason for that, and I have lived it for the past 6 months. Hand washing totally sucks. Especially when you are washing dirty field clothes—which ironically, are really the only clothes I need to wash in between visits to Makassar. And now that it’s rainy season here, nothing ever dries. They start to smell, and you have to wash them all over again, and so it goes. But in Makassar, there is a wondrous invention called laundry service. You send your laundry off to a magical place, and in a few hours, it comes back to you smelling fresh, feeling soft, and most importantly, everything is dry! The bonus? It costs literally nothing. Once, I sent almost every piece of clothing I brought here, save for the outfit I was wearing, and I paid the equivalent of 6 US dollars, including tip.

  1. Creambaths

Despite needing a serious name upgrade, a creambath is as close to ultimate relaxation as one can get in Makassar. It involves someone massaging a moisturizing treatment into your scalp, followed by a neck, shoulder, and hand massage. It is an hour of bliss that costs less than 10 bucks. Can you get any better? I think not.

  1. Karaoke…specifically at Happy Puppy.

How do I even begin to explain how AWESOME karaoke is here? Happy Puppy has become our go to place for karaoke in Makassar—we have spent many a malam minggu at HP, and consequently have become friends with most of the Saturday night staff. The idea is simple: you rent a private room equipped with comfy leather couches, disco balls, flat screen TVs, and A/C, then proceed to sing your heart out while ordering cold pitchers of beer and peanuts for the next 5 hours. And yes, I am not ashamed to admit that we have actually spent 5 hours singing karaoke!

Well, there you have it folks…KT’s definitive list of the best Makassar has to offer!

Searching for Monkeys in All the Wrong Places – Part II

Hello again everyone! The long-awaited part II of the riveting drama that is my fieldwork has arrived! Talk about a real cliffhanger, huh? I bet you’ve been squirming with anticipation these last few months…

I guess now is a good time to explain a little about what I am actually studying (feel free to skip over this part if you’ve already heard me blather on about you-know-what and can’t stand to hear/read another word about it! :P).

My project examines the process of habituation in a group of wild macaques. In other words, I am studying the way in which monkeys become used to researchers following them. This typically involves a number of behavioral changes that I won’t get into here; but what I want to stress is the role of habituation as a “first step” in most primatological field research.

Without a habituated group, systematic data collection that requires individual identification and continuous following of a group is damn near impossible; the monkeys may flee from or threaten you, and sometimes even be a little too curious. The goal of habituation, therefore, is to get the monkeys comfortable enough with your presence so that they eventually “ignore” you.

In addition to following monkeys, my research approach is a bit unconventional in that I also follow humans involved in the habituation process. I am interested in the habituation as a mutually transformative, intersubjective experience between the research team and the monkeys we follow. Um, what the hell am I talking about? Well, consider the notion that following monkeys day in and day out allows us to “get to know” them, and vice-versa. We start to notice how certain individuals (or the group as a whole), behave toward us, and how, in turn, we interact (or not) with them. How does this “relationship” between the monkeys and research team change over the course of the habituation process? And how, indeed, do our impressions of habituation “progress” match up with behavioral data? These are just some of the questions I am exploring in my thesis research—I could happily pontificate about this shiz all day, but for the sake of getting on with it, let’s get back to searching for monkeys.

_ _ _ _ _

It’s 7:00 am now. We have spent the last 20 minutes listening on the forest floor, only a few meters from our entrance. In fact, a lot of what I do during the day is listen—one of the first phrases I learned in Indonesian is “dengar-dengar dulu,” which essentially means “listen really hard first.”

And so, we listen. Since I began my research here, I have learned a lot about listening. The best time to listen is right after it rains. The forest is positively soundless. The cicadas are still too wet to start up their usual buzzing, cacophonous symphony; the wind has subsided, so that any rustling or swaying of tree branches likely signals monkeys exiting their rainstorm refuge; and traffic noise from the road has yet to reach a crescendo again.

The funniest part about all of this is that we don’t actually listen for monkeys at all. I mean, yeah, I get super stoked if we hear a distant male’s loud call or a squabble among little ones, but this is fairly rare. What we are actually listening for are birds.

There are two species of bird that follow the monkeys: the selesray and seregunting. The general rule is that if there are monkeys, there are always selesray and seregunting; but finding and following the birds won’t necessarily lead you to monkeys…it’s certainly a gamble that keeps things interesting.

These birds swoop in and out across the canopy, taking advantage of the bugs flushed out by the monkeys’ movements (isn’t community ecology delightful?), and their calls have become music to my ears. The seregunting’s call is especially magical. It sounds like a Peruvian pan flute, a rapid tooh-tooh-tooh vocalization that I certainly cannot do justice with just words—maybe I’ll imitate it for you one day if you’re lucky!

After months of following this call, and consequently finding our group, I have become like Pavlov’s dog whenever I hear the familiar, breathy seregunting song. My heart starts beating a little faster, I become more alert, scanning trees and cliff faces for signs of monkeys, and I start checking my watch to make sure the timing of my initial scan is just right – in case we do find our group. I am Seregunting’s primatologist.

Today, we don’t hear what we’re listening for, but the cicadas are certainly giving it stacks. So, at 7:15, we begin our ascent up to the cave we pass through daily—a shortcut of sorts— that opens up to a dense jungle of serpentine vines, lush palm and ficus trees, and majestic tower karst.

Always something to do, even if we can't find the monkeys!

Always something to do, even if we can’t find the monkeys!

We often find the group passing over the top of the cave, about 15 meters above us, to get to the other side of their home range. So we wait after passing through. And listen some more—“tidak ada bersaura juga…diam sekali” (There aren’t vocalizations here either…so quiet)—is a mantra my field assistant repeats on a daybay, and today is no exception. We move on.

In my field notes, I have come to name a lot of the places we pass and listen for the monkeys. This is mostly for the sake of my memory and mental map, but also for fun. Names like “vineseat area,” where once I laid across a thick vine and thought wouldn’t it be nice if the monkeys passed overhead, right now…and they did! Or “fallen ant log trail,” where I sat on fallen tree while collecting data, and instantly yelped in pain, startling the group, as I was bitten by what felt like a bazillion ants; or “lone male cave” where we once saw a single male exit, loud call to the rest of the group, and climb up a cliff face looking for his companions. I even name places where nothing in particular has happened—they’re just pretty—like “cave batu area,” where you can see a few small cave alcoves carved high up in the karst, and “oasis area” where there is almost no ground vegetation or rocks to trip on, and the only surrounding trees are palms. We stop by these spots almost everyday to wait for the group, but today, we must be searching in all the wrong places. It’s 10 am, and there’s still no sign of our monkeys.

Alison & I hanging at the vineseat area

Alison & I hanging at the vineseat area

We stop to refuel with our ritual forest snack—last weekend I was lucky enough to snag some Snickers in the city!—at “Pak Haro’s overlook,” a shelf-like overhang near the road that commands a view of the entire forest below. We chat about where we should look next, and formulate a general plan for the next 2 hours.

The next hour and a half goes by slowly, and we become frustrated. We’ve listened and waited in almost every place we know our group goes to eat and rest. We haven’t even heard a peep from our bird friends. It’s hot today, so it’s likely the group has been chilling out, quietly grooming in a cave while we’ve been slaving away, searching for them.

Searching for monkeys in Jalan KT (KT's Trail)

Searching for monkeys in Jalan KT (KT’s Trail)

When you’re searching for monkeys this long to no avail, everything starts looking and sounding like a monkey. A lizard slithers across dry leaves, and it sounds like a little juvenile scampering across the ground behind you; a dark hole in the rock ahead looks awfully like an adult male watching you from above; trees swaying in the wind are mistaken for monkeys foraging; and the low squawk of a rancong, or Hornbill bird, starts sounding a lot like a female threat-barking. The forest can be damn tricky sometimes!

It is 11:50, and almost time for lunch. We are positively knackered, ready to give up and go home, so I finish up my field notes and pack up my binoculars, defeated. I imagine the monkeys watching me do this from high up on karst, chuckling to themselves—satisfied after another day of going undetected by those halfwit primatologists.

Now, 5 months into my research, we find the monkeys almost everyday. I attribute this to a combination of finding new places the group likes to hang out and them being less scared of us. Looking back, I have come to appreciate those days of not finding the monkeys. Though frustrating, it was a time I was able to really enjoy the forest—there was always something new to see or stumble upon, and we often explored without worrying that we had just missed our group. I’ve also come to realize that we were never really searching for monkeys in the wrong places, we just weren’t very good at finding and following them yet!

Searching for monkeys in all the wrong places: Part I

Greetings everyone! KT here. I’ve decided to split this post into two parts because I wanted to share a detailed (yet enjoyable!) account of my daily jaunts in forest and it was getting a little too lengthy. Plus, who doesn’t love a good cliffhanger? I hope you look forward to Part II!

It’s 4:30 am, and I am awoken by the sounds of call to prayer. The room is dark, and I turn on my headlamp to adjust the mosquito net that’s fallen a little too close to my head overnight. A rooster crows, and I can hear dogs barking in the distance. I’ve got about thirty solid minutes of sleep left before I need to wake up for good, so I close my eyes and let the calls to prayer lull me back to sleep.

5:00 am rolls around, and I contemplate the notion of “sleeping in” for another thirty minutes. If I wake up now, I will have enough time to brush my teeth, boil water, pack my field bag with snacks for the hike ahead, munch on a granola bar, and relax with a good book and hot coffee before my field assistant picks me up on his motorcycle at 6.

Today, I decide to snooze it up. It’s 5:30 and my alarm is sounding again. I reluctantly break out of my mosquito net cocoon and open the door to my room. The sun is just rising over the mountains ahead—a layer of fog veils the ground below the peaks, while the clouds above reflect brilliant reds and oranges from the sun. It’s certainly a sight to behold first thing in the morning; a reminder that waking up this early isn’t quite so painful. After taking a moment to appreciate the view, I rush downstairs to get ready for a day in the forest.

It’s now 6:15, and I’m still waiting for the other half of my research team to arrive. If he’s on “Indonesian time” today (and he usually is), it means I’ll probably have another 10 minutes to enjoy my coffee. This is both good news and bad news. The good news is that I got to sleep in AND finish my coffee – huzzah! The bad news is that whole the point of entering the forest pagi-pagi (early morning) is to find the monkeys while they are still eating breakfast, making noise, and thus, relatively easy to spot.

Just as I start lamenting the unfortunate correlation between the amount of time I get to sip my coffee and the amount time I will have to hike until I find a monkey, I hear the hum of a motorcycle engine. A short, friendly beep outside the door announces the arrival of my trusty field assistant. Off to the forest we go!

The ride down to the nature reserve is 15 minutes of nonstop excitement; the road is winding, filled with potholes, and, by American standards, should really only accommodate one-way traffic. An added thrill is frequent maneuvering around creatures of all kinds tempting fate; we break for cows, dogs, chickens, and the occasional toad. As we descend, we pass brightly colored houses on stilts, warungs (store fronts selling everything from luke-warm drinks to pantyhose), mesjids (mosques), and lush, green sawa (wet rice) fields. Kids in uniforms on their way to school wave and shout, “hello mister!,” a common phrase Indonesians like to greet bules (the equivalent of “gringo”) with.

After much ado, we arrive at our destination and hop off the motorcycle. Guarding our entrance is a fruiting, emerald green ficus tree. Above, a massive limestone karst formation–one of the tallest in the nature reserve–towers over the forest canopy. I glance up at it, hoping the monkeys have not already scaled the cliff for a post-breakfast nap. It’s 6:40; we exchange a few words about where we will look first, adjust our binoculars, and step into the forest. The monkeys await…


How many primatologists does it take to set up a camera trap?

Hello everyone- Alison here! Sorry we haven’t posted in a while but the internet connection in Bengo is pretty terrible most of the time. Let me quickly explain my research project in case you wonder what I’m doing here (besides eating kue!). Monkeys in South Sulawesi are traveling into agricultural areas and eating foods grown by and for humans. In the world of primatology this behavior is referred to as crop raiding. It is interesting from an ecological perspective because it is part of the monkeys’ foraging strategy. It is interesting from an anthropological perspective because of the conflict that results from this interaction between people and nonhuman primates. One of the goals of my research is to determine when and where monkeys are raiding and one of the methods I am using is the installment of camera traps. The cameras detect movement and take pictures or videos of the monkeys. In addition to monkeys, the cameras have also captured photos of wild pigs, cows, dogs, chickens, nocturnal civets, and curious people!

Camera trapping is not as easy as it may sound. First, it requires many parts: the camera itself, 8 lithium batteries, the memory card, the security box, the lock and its corresponding key, the bracket to attach the camera to a tree, and the screwy part that attaches it to the bracket. I carry the equipment to the site in my backpack, either hiking or riding on the back of a motorcycle.

Choosing an ideal place to put the camera is another task that begins with days of surveying to find the right spot and a farmer willing to participate. Then you have to consider height, which tree to use, weather, lighting, nearby vegetation, presence of domestic animals, where the monkeys are coming from, how the monkeys are traveling, what trees are fruiting when, etc. For example, an unexpected tidbit of knowledge I have gained from the camera trap photos is that cows sleep very little and graze throughout the night!

Installing the camera requires an awesome, machete-wielding field assistant who can climb up a vertical tree trunk, tie himself to a branch, clear vegetation, secure the camera, and endure biting ants and stinging wasps while people on the ground say “To the right a smidge…no, back to the left…maybe a bit lower…”

Checking the memory card can be either the most exciting or boring part of the job. Someone (me!) gets to scrutinize every picture to decide what to delete and what to catalogue. While we often have hundreds of pictures of trees blowing in the wind, we also have videos of a group of monkeys entering a coklat garden and munching on cacao pods right in front of the camera! Of course, this is not good news for the man who owns the garden. We plan to share the information gained from this project with the local farmers, contributing to what is already known about patterns of monkey crop raiding. Attempting to help manage this problem in the future is an important goal of our research.

So how many primatologists does it take to put up a camera trap? Trick question…zero!

Fasting Ain’t So Bad – A Guide to Ramadan Desserts

When Alison and I first booked our flights to Indo, we knew we would be starting our research right at the beginning of Ramadan, and I was a bit apprehensive about this. We heard horror stories from our advisor about the last time she had been in Sulawesi during Ramadan—everything was closed during the day, and she spent a whole month hiking for hours without eating a decent meal or having a sip of water in front of her fasting field assistants. 

For those who don’t know, bulan puasa (fasting month) requires Muslims to fast between the hours of 5am (dawn) and 6pm (or when the sun goes down). This means no food, drink, or cigarettes (smoking is pervasive here) for 13 hours.  As we have learned, there are many ways of coping with bulan puasa. Some people simply don’t go to work, while others stay up all night and sleep all day. Some of the people on our research team fast, and others are Christian and do not. This makes things a bit complicated, however, as we try not to eat or drink water in front of them out of respect/guilt (I haven’t decided which one it is…maybe both).

Although it seems drastic to deprive oneself of daily sustenance for a whole month, there is certainly a silver lining, and that is Kue (pronounced “ku-ay”). Kue is an interesting phenomenon here, as it comes in literally hundreds of forms. It is essentially a dessert that is eaten in the evenings after buka puasa (literally, “open fast,” but translated as “breaking the fast”). Besides being delicious, the best thing about kue is that different types are often traded between households. Within the first week of Ramadan, Alison and I tried at least 6 different varieties! Here is the break down:

Kue Baje’ : A green, melt-in-your-mouth, mini burrito of deliciousness. Made with gula mera (palm sugar), fresh kelapa (coconut), and wrapped in beraskatang (a pandan flavored pancake).

Kue Baje’

Kue Palu : A solid, grainy cake made with rice flour, kelapa, and chunks of gula mera. Tastes like frosted mini-wheats.

Kue Palu

Kue Teng-Teng : Another melt-in-your-mouth treat made with baked gula mera and kacang (peanuts)

Kue Teng-Teng

Kue Bugis : A gelatinous, steamed concoction made with susu kelapa (coconut milk), glutinous rice flour (the best kind of rice flour!), colored tapioca, pisang (banana), and gula kelapa (coconut sugar)-all wrapped in a banana leaf.

Kue Bugis

Kue Enak (enak = delicious…not sure of the real name, though!): OMG this one tops all kue in my opinion! It is steamed in a banana leaf and has an outside layer of glutinous rice flour, a middle layer of black rice flour and a sweet, sticky center made of melted gula mera and freshly grated coconut. YUM!

Kue Enak

Needless to say, we are in kue paradise over here, people. Next step: figuring out how to make them so we can share the deliciousness upon our return!!! 

Selamat Datang!

Hi Everyone!

Welcome to our blog about everything Indonesia! As you may already know, Alison and I have been in Indonesia for almost three weeks. We wanted to set up this space much earlier, but we have been caught in the bureaucratic whirlwind that is the research permit process. During the past three weeks, we visited offices in Jakarta, Java; Makassar, Sulawesi and Maros, Sulawesi to pick up documents, fill out forms, sign letters, and wait for letters to be signed and sent to the appropriate offices. Apparently, the only way to get research approval here is to hand deliver letters to everyone we could possibly come in contact with (and even to offices we will never set foot in!). It was definitely amusing! I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice to say that we are officially experts on the research permit process, have our approvals in hand, and can being our projects! Hooray!

I guess that brings me to this moment. I am currently writing from the balcony of our room, waiting for Alison to get back from an afternoon of surveying potential gardens to place camera traps. It’s 6pm, and about 5 days into the month of Ramadan, which means it’s time to buka puasa (break the fast) for the day. The Trans-Sulawesi highway runs through our village, and down the road from our house are two mosques, so here I am, listening to the sweet melodies of two separate calls to prayer combined with loud honks and revving motorcycle engines. The sun is just setting behind our house, illuminating the mountains across the road, and there is a cool breeze rustling the leaves of the banana tree in the garden next door. Despite the highway noise, it is all quite peaceful and (dare I say?) homey. I think we are slowly settling in to the way of life here.

Speaking of life in the village, the entire desa (town) is having internet troubles, so posts may be somewhat erratic. Our plan for this blog is not only to write a bit about our thesis projects, but also to share photos and experiences of everyday life here. We hope you enjoy reading about funny things that happen on the way to the forest 🙂

Some posts-in-the-making to look forward to:

–       How to (gracefully) navigate forest karst: KT’s daily routine

–       How many primatologists does it take to set up a camera trap? : Alison’s daily routine

–       Fasting ain’t so bad: a guide to Ramadan desserts

–       Sudah lancar?….belum: learning Bahasa Indonesia