Featured Post

Why I Will Vote for Trump

On June 7, I will vote in the California primary. I will vote for Donald Trump to become the GOP nominee for President. This statement will ...

Friday, May 16, 2014

Killing the Monkey: A Jungle Memory

For unknown reasons this recollection of an odd "adventure" in Guyana began burbling a couple of days ago. As noted before--here, here,  and here, for example--I served in that colorful and desperately poor socialist paradise, 1978-1980. A relatively comfortable, though sleepy backwater when given independence from Britain in 1966, it quickly became a semi-authoritarian, anti-US, Third World socialist farrago with the most vile racial politics imaginable. Guyana vied then and now with Haiti and Paraguay for the title of poorest country in the Americas--having visited all three, I assure you that you're better off in Haiti or Paraguay.

This post, however, is not a political screed. It is a little tale about decisions we make re what is and is not ok to kill.

The Diplowife and I lived in a modest home very similar to the one pictured below.

We were young, recently married, and didn't have many material possessions or needs. We had two old cars, and my almost $14,500/yr salary seemed more than adequate. Georgetown was, well, boring; there was little to see or do, and almost nothing to buy. We would go days without electricity, and often without water, too. The crime rate was very high, and we went everywhere armed.

We became good friends with the Colombian Charge, Jose, and his wife, Ines. With these delightful people, we would venture out to the old movie theater downtown on weekends or to the rather run down drive-in on the outskirts of the city. At the theater, we would pay an extra fifty Guyanese cents (about twenty US cents) to sit in the balcony, and away from the boisterous drunks and homeless who made the place their low rent hotel: for about fifty Guyanese cents, they could spend nearly the entire day in the theater. The movies were much-used American, British, and Indian films, often bootlegged and worse for the wear because of the heat and the humidity. Many would appear on the screen in two colors, pink and dirty white.

With our Colombian friends, we would sit in the first row of the balcony. Before sitting down, we would spray the area around our seats with powerful pesticide against the large cockroaches that inhabited the place, and then put towels on the chairs. Jose and I would sit with our wives between us, S&W .357 revolvers in our laps, and big walking sticks in our hands to whack the occasional rat that would cross the handrail in front of us. Once the lights went out and the show began, the bats that lived in the rafters would begin to circle above our heads, and often dive into the screen, some attaching themselves to it. I remember one night, watching a scratched pinkish print of Kubrick's "Barry Linden," Jose nailed a big rodent as it scuttled across the railing. He sent it flying out and, of course down--even socialists can't repeal the law of gravity--into the cheap seats below: a howl went up. We heard a lot of stomping. A good Saturday night.

One day, a newly arrived Embassy staffer, Dave, told me he could arrange a hunting trip up the Demerara river into the Guyanese hinterland. We would stay overnight in an Amerindian village that had a Catholic mission. The mission priest, a contact of Dave's, gave the OK, but asked that we donate some money to the mission. I don't remember the amount, but it wasn't much. We could bring a couple of other employees and our wives. We would go night hunting for a big jungle rodent called the labba, similar to the tepezcuintle one finds in Central America. While not crazy about the game, it was something to do, sounded exotic, and I had never gone hunting at night. To get to the village, we hired a boat, which looked much like a Disney version of a Mike Fink keel boat.

Very early in the morning, we began chugging slowly up the mighty river leaving behind the city and heading into the jungle. Having just reread Conrad's Heart of Darkness, I thought we would encounter Mr. Kurtz at the end of our voyage--but, no such luck. As we approached our destination after several hours, we could hardly hear each other talk because of the noise from the howler monkeys in the trees.

We pulled up to the village's rickety dock. The priest was neither around, nor, apparently, had he informed the chief of our plans. No arrangements existed. This, of course, entailed negotiations, the passing of dollars and a couple of whisky bottles--one scotch and one bourbon, if I remember correctly. In exchange, the chief, who proudly wore a John Travolta "Saturday Night Fever" t-shirt, allowed us two huts in the village. The women would stay in one hut, and the men in another. The women got the bigger and better one--or so we thought. The chief assigned a couple of guides to take us hunting in their dugouts. We four men went to unload the boat as it was starting to get dark, and we would go hunting soon. With the darkness, two unhappy guides showed up. Their unhappiness stemmed from the fact that the village would hold a festival that night, and they would miss it because of us. A few dollars proffered only slightly placated them, and they went to complain to the chief. He, however, ordered them to take us. Their hearts were not in the hunt.

After some delay occasioned by the slowness with which the guides got ready to go, two of us clambered into each canoe. We slowly cruised up and down some very narrow waterways, the morose guides, in a desultory way, shined lights into the growth and yelled at us to keep quiet. After puttering around for three or four hours, those guides decided we needed to eat before heading back. We ran the dugouts up onto the bank and headed for a thatch-roofed gazebo in a small clearing. Our guides started laughing as we four Great White Hunters went into the gazebo, sat on some rudimentary benches, put our Coleman lanterns on the table, and broke out the sandwiches. We had committed a major jungle faux pas: We had not bothered to check for snakes. Yes, snakes. A big issue in Guyana. Lots of nasty poisonous ones. I think our attendants would have died happy if one of us had died miserably from a snake bite.

After nervously eating our sandwiches, we headed back. None of us had burned off a single shotgun round. The guides, however, had no interest in more "hunting," and wanted to catch at least some of the partying. When, however, we slid back into the village, we found it cloaked in a deathly silence. By the very dim light thrown by a couple of smoldering fires and some weak light bulbs, we could see men strewn over the ground. I figured a neighboring tribe had attacked, and wiped them out. The truth proved not quite so dramatic: the whole village, at least the menfolk component, had gotten absolutely, lights-out-I-am-in-la-la-land drunk. The guides were very disappointed: the party was over.

As we walked to our hut, now compulsively checking for snakes, we neared the women's hut and decided to look in on the wives. It was about 3 am. One friend shouldered open the door with some difficulty, and almost got cracked in the head by an embassy wife wielding a club. As it turned out, while we had our adventure, the women had their own. Their hut contained the village's reserve barrels of "sleepy wine." All night, men in various stages of drunkenness, had come through the door, or, once the women blocked it, had crawled through window openings to get a cup or two of "sleepy wine." Our wives, needless to say, had not slept. My wife led the three other women over to our hut and announced that they would stay with us for the rest of the night.

Next morning, Dave could not let pass the failed hunting trip of the previous night. He had come to hunt, and hunt he would. The rest of us put away the shotguns, and went for a walk in the woods with our wives while waiting for our "Mike Fink" boat to return--it having sailed away for some reason. Everybody was in a cheerful mood, babbling about the great adventure, and "admiring" the huge spiders we saw along the way. Dave, however, had decided to engage a guide and hunt. They sped off ahead of us. About halfway through our walk, we heard two shotgun blasts in rapid succession, and Dave yell in victory. Well, I thought, he finally got himself a jungle rat.


A few minutes later, he came around the bend, walking quickly towards us dragging what at first looked like a person. It was a large and very dead howler monkey. He dumped it at the feet of his horrified wife who immediately noticed the crying baby monkey clinging to its mother's blood-soaked body. The women began to scream at Dave, berating him for killing a mother monkey. Even we rough, tough macho dudes had a problem with this tableau. One said, "Hey, Dave, man, you killed a monkey? And one with a baby on her back . . . that's not right, not right."

Furious at the reception he had gotten, Dave did not say a word to us for the rest of the trip, and, in fact, rarely spoke to any of us again. Several months later, his much younger wife left him for somebody much wealthier than he.


  1. Kill the child too. After all...Monkeys make more monkeys.
    Dave sounds like the type who swerves to hit the dog or cat in the road..and thinks it's a FINE thing.

    1. You actually pegged him pretty well.

    2. "Kill the child too. After all...Monkeys make more monkeys"

      Nonny that is a very middle 1930's to early 1940's sort of comment. Perhaps Dave would have fitted in well with that lot.

      I have always subscribed to the philosophy that you shoot only what you need to eat [species relevant] or is trying to eat/kill you [species irrelevant].

    3. Growing up in a family of eight with a modest income, we raised chickens for eggs and meat, milked a couple of cows, and raised the occasional steer or hog. We would supplement this with venison, rabbit, and squirrels. When he was about fifteen, my brother shot a red-winged blackbird with his .410. When my father found out, he told my brother never to kill anything he wasn't going to eat, and directed him to eat the bird. You don't argue with my father. Brother plucked and cleaned the bird and fried it. The lesson really hit home, and I don't think any of us forgot it.

      He said it tasted terrible.

    4. Don't know where you're from Jeffrey and I can't testify to the delectableness of redwing blackbirds.

      Sparrows however are another story.

      When I was about six I received a Daisy for Christmas. She had an outbuilding known as "The WellHouse" which actually was precisely what it was - along with serving as a cool place (as in temperature speaking) to temporarily keep stuff fresh outta the garden. Sweetcorn in particular.

      The WellHouse was a magnet for sparrows.

      Grandmother'd called my Dad asking if "Arkie able to hit the broad side of a barn with his new BB gun by now?" ... "Yep, a near reglar Davy Crockett. Ceptin' for his propensity for outside lightbulbs he's right smart handy."

      "Reckon I could borrow little Arkie over a week?"

      Chicken and Dumplings don't hold a candle to Sparrow and Dumplings.

      I can't speak to Howler Monkey either but ... years later I had a "little mishap" which resulted in my CO deciding it would be "a character building experience" for me to go out with some Filipino Marines to do some of whatever it was Filipino Marines did out in the Philippines version of the boonies.

      I don't know what variety of monkey it was but after about three days much to my surprise I found it tasted pretty good.

      Nothing like chicken though. Come to think of it, nothing like sparrow neither.


  2. You know those days of few electronic devices to tell where you are, what time it was, and available to any and all, were fun. The jungle was an allegory for me (and half the writers of the world) about civilization. You could clear it away for miles and create civilization, but quit chopping for a moment and it was back in a heart beat.
    Loved the story, reminded me of all the nights in a john boat on the river with my Dad bow hunting for alligator gar .

  3. Sandra C: This post is one of the reasons we've loved and followed The Diplomad blog for so many years....and missed you so bad during your absence!

    We knew several "Dave-like" clones during our five years Air Force assignment in the middle of the Netherlands. In fact, one of the clones was NAMED "Dave"! Amazing how that goes.

    Great story, thanks for sharing.

  4. great story!

    -- reader #1482

  5. Apologies. Off-topic to a superb post.


    One of those “Hold for later things” since what I’m asking might take some period of reflection.

    What I am asking first is, given my recognition of your expertise in the region, a critique. Secondly, in your opinion are there any lessons here which can [realistically] be applied elsewhere?

    (Implicitly – my thinking – the future seems to be tending wars, at least the ones we might find ourselves involved in, excluding the remote control variety [drones/SF] will be of the small-war variety. I’m not unaware some miscalculation/mis-step lights off “something” in the Pacific.)



  6. Ugh. This "Dave" sounds like a creep I would not have liked to know. Meanwhile...

    "I had just reread Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and kept thinking we would encounter Mr. Kurtz at the end of our voyage..."

    Different upbringings. My first thought while reading this was of "Creature from the Black Lagoon." :)

    1. Actually, that discussion was held; I stayed away from the sides of the boat for fear that the Creature would reach up and yank me into the brown depths. For the purpose of impressing my readers with my erudition, however, I ref Conrad . . .

    2. Dave was more in character with "The Pilgrims", and Dip starring as Marlow.

  7. Seems Dave might have progressed further in the foreign service with the benefit of a bit of story-telling.

    I see the shapings of a John Kerry there, did the trip up-river occur near Christmas perchance?

    1. I do seem to recall that we slipped into Cambodia . . .

    2. Hey, on Refugee/Migration Affairs business, a senior colleague and I almost drove into Cambodia from Thailand. Had not an Aw Saw (Thai border cop) not hit the right point on his beat ot the right time, we probably would've driven into a heavily mined place and caused an international incident by getting blown up. It was 1991.

  8. Twillly, twilly twip…Twilly twilly twip. The sound was mesmerising. I was scared shitless. Jesus, nothing prepared me for this. Six months ago I was finishing 12th grade and was changing the engine on my ’37 Chevy. And then those Jap bastards hit us out of nowhere. My life changed like a Captain America movie. One day I was trying to get into Irma Schonbecks pants, the next I was doing pushups on Jekkyl Island.

    The sound increased gradually as we approached the beach. Twillly, twilly twip…Twilly twilly twip. Was it the Japs signalling or was it just insects mating. They told us about this stuff on the island. We were approaching the cove line abreast. 20 Duks, each holding 30 marines. We were ordered ahead of time to put backing under our eyes. I did that and now I can’t really see. Everything is moving around me. There are Palm trees in front of me and the leaves are moving. Everything seems to be moving. Jesus. I think I see moving bodies. Millions of them. Or is this just the gunk in my eyes. Fuck I’m scared. Are the Japs moving their machine guns? I steal a quick glance to my right. Dino is still there. Dino took all my money in the game last night. Bastard. Hope you choke on it Dino. The bastard bragged all night about the women he bagged in Jersey and he thinks I’m a schmuck. He thinks we are all schmucks. Well, guess what Dino you are in the same Duk with me and I haven’t bagged anyone yet. Makes us equal I think. The fucking Japs won’t know the difference. Dino has a cheap cigar in his mouth. Chewing on it ‘coz we aren’t allowed matches. Rolling it about. Shmuck. Over his shoulder Will is mechanically cocking and uncocking his Thompson. Will is from Wisconsin, a farm boy. Will doesn’t look scared. He has a big powerful gun. All I have is my M-14. I wish I had a Thompson. I’ll kill more Japs with a Thompson. Jesus, what was that? Dino just dropped his cigar and sat down. Schmuck. Holy shit! They are all sitting down. Some of them are lying down. What are they doing? Max.

  9. I was wondering if the Guyana assignment had any connection to rereading "Heart of Darkness." Reading Conrad one must always keep in mind that he thought in Polish, then translated to English.

  10. Heh. My brother said one of his coworkers related how, when he was about 10, he shot and killed a mockingbird. His daddy said "I told you that if you shoot and kill something, you're going to eat it." So the boy had to pluck and clean the mockingbird, and his mama cooked it for dinner.

    He said that mockingbird tasted terrible, too.

  11. Obviously there's "no parking " to the side of the driveway in the picture.

  12. OK, Uncle Kepha is no hunter, but he has eaten some interesting things.

    While toting the briefcase and taking notes for a senior colleague in a remote part of Guangdong, China, a county magistrate offered us an animal called "guo zi li" cut up and done hongshao style. It was pretty good, but none of us had the foggiest what it was in English. Back at AmConsul Guangzhou, I poked around available references, and found it's a masked palm civet or paradoxure. Guess where I found it? The Redbook of endangered species.

    In Guangzhou, it was also easy to get literal hot dog. There was this thing in the shop window, all red with honey barbecue sauce like the cha shao pork and Cantonese roast duck (both excellent). I first thought, form the size and shape of the headless "thing" that it was a smallish sheep, but then I saw the feet and knew that it was Canis Lupus Familris.

    Also got it when a guest of a Han Chinese official (a Hakka, like my wife! We hit it off because I could converse a bit with him in dialect) in a Yao autonomous county. Braised dog with turnips is pretty good. However, the official's driver and security man, both Yao, looked pretty down in the dumps while boss and Roundeye guests ate. It happens that the Yao believe they descend from a dog. So much to socialist sensitivity to minority groups.

    Snake's are good. I won't say they taste like chicken when sectioned and simmered with the right herbs and seasonings, but they do have a kind of delicate, lean flavor. I ate them a few times in Taiwan when a teacher rather than a diplomat.

    The Cantonese on their home turf have something called Dragon-Phoenix-Tiger soup, which is actually snake, chicken, and cat. Think of a top-quality chicken broth, only far more intense. Felt a bit bad about this one, because I had pet cats while growing up, and like the animals.

    Then my mother (en Norske Jente, Gud hville henne) visited us in Bangkok. She went to the market, saw a guy frying up a big wok of waterbugs (a common snack for a lot of Thai), and blurted out, "He's frying COCKROACHES!" The vendor apparently understood some English, for he turned around, smiled sweetly (as only a Thai who wants to sell you something can) and said, "Oh, no, Madame! Is cricket!"

    Never tried monkey, though.

    To the hunters here: While I'm a dyed-in-the-wool City Softie, I bear the gun culture no ill will (save the young punks who break real laws). A friend who hunts introduced us to venison, which both of us love cut up and stir-fried with hoisin sauce and served over your favorite vegetables. Better than beef. I also appreciate those country-raised fellows who were sent out with their .22's to make sure no woodchucks started burrowing in the pasture. The guys who were raised being told never to kill what they had no intention of eating (or keeping away from the livestock) remind my of people I've met in parts of the USA. Maybe we know each other under real names? Or, is your tribe a lot more numerous than PETA would have us believe?

    However, I fear that if I tried to be like this guy Dave mentioned above, I'd probably make the same sort of mistake.

    1. You lost me at cooking cockroaches.

    2. "Masked Civet" you say Kepha.

      Sorta like maybe, "What shit in my coffee beans?" and I'm depending on you to get me outta this mess and now I find you're making my morning coffee?

      If it's not one thing it's another. Then generally - something another entirely.

      Above Kepha I sorta/kinda insinuated whatever was served up BBQ by the Filipino Marines was somehow less tastefully prepared than my Grandmother's Sparrow & Dumplings.

      Another time Grandmother asked me to remove a dead horse from out of ... well other things but mostly I'm thinking related to her olfactories.

      Gave me a chance to "operate" a bulldozer for the first unsupervised.

      I pushed the cable-operated blade sideways most - gentle-like - from that horse's spinal area longitudinally. And again very gently, best as the kid that used to be me could, lifted.

      I never again sat at a table featuring Possum and Dumplings.

      Incidentally Kepha, Woodchucks is - so far as I'm yet aware - pretty good dumplinged. Just none of "our American" acquired fruit ingredients need be added. If stewed at any rate.


    3. When I was about 10 I went duck hunting with my father. Our guide grew up as a "commercial" hunter. He would be sent out by his father with a box of 25 shells and he needed to come back with 25 ducks. If he missed, he had to get two with one shot.

  13. There is just barely the possibility, however remote, that his wife, much younger than he, would have left him for somebody much wealthier than he, even had he not shot that particular monkey.

    Just sayin'.

    1. Quite possible, in fact, most likely. She couldn't stand him, in fact, and the monkey episode was one she would not stop discussing.

  14. Diplomad, you are a first class raconteur -- at least to those of us who share or sympathize with your world view. Have you considered writing a book of semi-polemical reminiscences? Your posts about your days in the field in the Foreign Service sometimes remind me of O'Rourke's excellent essay/memoir "Ship of Fools" (reprinted in his collection "Republican Party Reptile"), about his cruise up the Volga in the former Soviet Union with a group of American Old Leftists and peacenicks the Soviets had recruited to come over for the purpose of strengthening their faith.

  15. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.