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by Helena MacLean
All the signs read, “Do not look monkey in eye.” My brother and I were on the top of a mountain in Miyajima, Japan. We had braved a harrowing one kilometer cable-car ride to see the famous snow monkeys in their natural habitat. We were not disappointed. There were more monkeys than we could have anticipated and they seemed oblivious to our presence as they went about their lives.
A large area of the pine forest had been cleared for human visitors, of which there were many that day. Apart from numerous signs in Japanese and English and a few benches, there was just an outhouse of sorts at the far end of the clearing. We were very aware of being on the monkeys’ turf. The day was hot and heavy and the air smelled of a peculiar mixture of pine and monkey excrement.
No sooner had we arrived when brother John began racing about photographing the creatures with so much enthusiasm you’d swear he’d discovered the species. I was more content watching the monkeys’ amazing antics as they climbed trees, rooted in the ground for insects and chased each other in circles. I particularly loved watching the fat mothers cradle and breast feed their babies. These stocky, grey-brown monkeys with stunted tails and naked, red faces were fascinating.
The signs, however, puzzled me. Why couldn’t we look the monkey in the eye? The best way to find out, I figured, was to give it a try. I chose my monkey carefully. He was a big lad, surely 65 or 70 pounds, with a nasty face, but very high up in a tree. A safe bet for my experiment, I thought. Catching his eye, we locked stares. Several seconds into this, and nothing was happening. The signs must be a hoax. I was about to look away to see if any Japanese people were watching, amused by yet another stupid foreigner, when the beast gave a hearty roar and leapt from the tree. He landed with a mighty thud and began racing toward me.
Screaming, I took off like a gazelle, dropping my new camera and backpack. I tore past John who, true to character, was doubled over in hysterics at my plight. With King Kong in hot pursuit, I kept running, heading for the only building – the public toilet. I flung myself at the door. It was locked. Pounding on it I yelled, “Help, help, let me in,” until an elderly Japanese gentleman, zipping up his pants, opened the door. I glanced over my shoulder to see where my attacker was, expecting any moment to feel his massive fangs sink into my bottom. He was a few yards away. He had stopped to pick up my camera which he was now viciously beating against a large boulder.
Never look a monkey in the eye.