“Monkeys are coming.”
Exasperated, we turned on our friend. All morning she had mocked us with warnings about wild boars crashing from the underbrush, vicious monkeys swinging from trees and sharks surging from the ocean to snatch us off shore. We were used to her fake, sky-is-falling antics in Manila’s urban setting, but we weren’t sure how to take her comments on this remote beach. Her jokes were all too believable when we’d first encountered boar tracks littering the sand between thick rainforest and the ocean. By now though, we felt secure. The tracks were mere patterns in the sand rather than potential warnings and the serene beauty of the area lured danger from our minds. We shook our heads at her silliness and refocused on lunch preparations.
“Seriously… there are monkeys.”
I didn’t want to become the subject of laughter, but the urgency in her voice caused me to turn toward the forest. This time, it turned out, was not a joke. Three long-tailed macaques advanced into the bright sun, staring at us fearlessly.
I was intrigued. I’d never seen monkeys in the wild before and these knee-high, furry critters didn’t look quite the menace I was expecting. The stories I’d heard from Filipinos who’d lived near forests portrayed macaques as aggressive scoundrels. One man had bared his chest to reveal a painful looking scar he’d acquired from a macaque bite in his youth.
Ten more monkeys emerged from the shadows to settle alongside the initial three. “Cute” and “fuzzy” no longer described this mini-army, clearly unimpressed by our trespassing. Their glares sent two of our party stumbling fearfully into the ocean and my head told me to follow, but I couldn’t walk away from my first encounter with wild monkeys.
The largest macaque, presumably the leader, initiated a surge in his troops and approached to within a yard of me. I really didn’t know how not to communicate with monkeys, and unwittingly escalated the battle by maintaining eye contact. The soft features of my adversary contorted into a terrifying conglomeration of sharp teeth, jagged eyebrows and widened, bulging eyes. My thoughts flashed to the gnarled scar I’d seen and I retreated. One more toothy display and we surrendered the beach entirely.
Having won, the macaques made themselves comfortable on our towels, sitting upright and looking uncannily human as they explored their newly acquired booty. We watched our sunscreen, sarongs and sandals scatter across the beach as they raided our bags. We couldn’t believe this display of innocent curiosity yielded from the same creatures that had just chased us into the sea. Any move toward shore, however, and our toothed aggressors reappeared.
A piercing shriek abruptly drew our attention from the monkeys to one of my friends. She looked like she’d been shot in a silent movie being played in slow motion. Her mouth opened in a scream, but no sound emitted. Pain furrowed her features as she threw her hands into the air, dropping her brand new camera into the sea. We watched astonished as she fell face forward into the ocean. Spluttering, she reappeared, but toppled back under as she wrestled with something below the surface.
A tentacle wrapped leg thrust from the water in the struggle and it dawned on us – jellyfish season. We neglected this detail in our panicked escape from the macaques, but now it was a vivid reality. We needed to find medical attention fast, but where to start? Walking in the ocean risked more injuries, but the beach meant another duel with the macaques occupying our beach site. We gazed longingly, desperately, toward dry land.
The macaques had by then abandoned their looting and had taken to watching us intently. Their previously intimidating glares seemed to soften. Were we detecting sympathy? Whether we were deluding ourselves or not, our friend’s sobs compelled us to try our luck. We looked up imploringly and took a few anxious steps toward the beach.
The lead monkey cocked his head to one side as if considering our pleas. We held our breath as he slowly rose with deliberation. He looked at us, nodded toward his companions and retreated from our beach site with the others following closely behind. They sat there lurking in the shadows at the edge of the forest so we scurried onto the beach before they could change their minds.
As we finally hobbled away, I glanced back at the macaques. The leader had taken a few steps forward, but his demeanor made me think his steps were out of concern for our welfare. No sooner had this thought warmed my heart than my injured companion turned to notice the scene. The renewed peak in her hysteria indicated she had a different interpretation for the leader’s move, yet they continued watching placidly as we rounded the corner and left the beach for good.