A Hot Spring, Thieving Monkeys & My Birthday

by Scott McAllister

Since week one of being in-country I knew that my twenty-fourth birthday was slated to coincide with a Peace Corps designated ‘cross-cultural field trip’. I knew this because our exacting schedules said exactly so.  The destination, according to this same schedule, was a place called Sodere. No further information, whether about what we would be doing on this so-called field trip or even where this place was located, was provided.

Thinking to myself that the title ‘cross-cultural field trip’ was merely a euphemism – a clever administrative smokescreen trying to trick us into attending yet another weekend training session – I abandoned any hope of having a fun-filled birthday. I could be sure that at least half the day would be spent sweltering inside a dutch-oven of a bus, while the other half, the programmatic half whose content still remained a mystery, held little promise of being much better. I was bummed.

But I figured wrongly.

A rumor soon began circulating that this cross-cultural field trip was to be entirely devoid of any lessons whatsoever. Instead, we’d be lounging poolside at a resort, simmering in a nearby hot spring, dipping and diving into a heated, Olympic-sized pool, eating ice cream and cheeseburgers (with real cheese!), drinking wine and beer – in other words, merrymaking in a style and scale apropos to my birthday. Oh, and there were to be monkeys present:  thieving monkeys if you read the title of this post.

I don’t remember much of the bus ride there since we were all so anxious to just get there already. When we did arrive the first order of business was finding some booze. But we didn’t have to look far:  bottles of beer and larger bottles of red wine  were available at a stand near the entrance to the pool. Befitting a resort, the prices were shamelessly exorbitant; but I had a good excuse to splurge, kick back the bottle(s) and relax:  it was my birthday. Even so, I was by no means alone in my zeal to drink a little (or a lot) and unwind. Training had been grueling, to everyone. We were all on the verge of a breakdown of sorts, some of us dealing with the various stages of homesickness and some of us combating the more mild forms of manic depression. And besides, our resort stylized environs only encouraged an all the more copious intake of alcohol and sun. Think spring break, college. Daytona Beach without the beach.

Well, actually, go ahead and strike the sunshine from our intake that day. The sun had simply decided not to shine. It was dreary and overcast. Rain that wanted to fall but just couldn’t, so it loitered and hung around, made goosebumps on your bared skin.  But, despite the lingering cold, we weren’t fazed; we were determined to make the most of the day. The hot spring, we figured at once, would be a nice counterpoint to the dreary drip-drop day. We made our way in its direction directly after our first drink purchase.

Wrong. After a short trek to the spring, a walk in which I managed to off about half my bottle of wine, we became acquainted with an Ethiopian hot spring, which is markedly different from your typical American variety. The water, colored mud brown like creamed coffee, was not what you’d call inviting. The vaporous effluvia that hung over the surface, far from increasing our desire to jump right into its steamy warm embrasure, only added to the mystery of the concoction that simmered before us. What’s more, according to an attendant posted nearby, swimming in the spring was nude-only. Clothes, he intimated, obviously contaminated the pristine waters (didn’t we know that??). But, he quickly added, there was a male-only section; and, cordoned off to the right, there was also a female-only section. Then we were informed of an admission fee. It wasn’t much, but paying money to roll like a pig in a steaming mud bath seemed inherently unconscionable.  Yet, despite all our obvious misgivings, a small group of us, roughly half boys and half girls, decided to just do it.

‘F it’, I think, were our exact words. But, in fixing to pay, some of us had the presence of mind to inquire about the possibility of bringing our beer/wine bottles in with us. We were here to relax after all. To this question we received a flat-out ‘NO’. Once again the pristine quality of the waters was cited. Dismayed, we sagely began to rethink our decision to take this dip. The hotel pool back up the way was heated, I argued, and the staff allowed poolside drinking. The counterargument:  when else would we be able to swim in an Ethiopian hot spring? It was during these ruminations and remonstrations that, thanks to the linguistic skills of an Ethiopian-American volunteer amongst us, some light was shed on the disconcertingly poop-brown color of the water. According the the attendant, the water was particularly dirty on this particular day, so abnormally dirty, in fact, that many of the locals were abstaining from a swim. That right there settled it for me and most others present. Resolutely we gathered our drinks and padded back to the pool.

After polishing off what drink we had left, a group of us sauntered over to the diving boards. It was not yet noon, but we were feeling good. There was a 3 meter board and some of us were eager to show off our skills. We started small, just diving and such into the water, but then flips started up and the stakes were ineluctably raised. It was not long until our amateurish acrobatics drew the attention of the hundred-plus swimmers present. Someone’s unintentional belly-flop was a big hit. Young boys eager to imitate us would shakily climb up the ladder, stand knee-knocking atop the board and, after some cajoling from their peers and the lifeguard below, awkwardly pencil-dive into the warm water. These shenanigans lasted up until lunchtime. It was then that the monkeys, preternaturally prescient of all the food soon to be had by seventy inebriated, fuzzy-wuzzy-critter-loving Americans, made their entrance (see below).

Simiiformes Rapscallion

The monkeys had been around all day, sulking in the periphery, nimbly leaping from one tree branch to another, silently spying on us, biding their time. It wasn’t until  lunchtime, as if they had all synchronized their watches earlier in the day, that they chose to spring into action.

Now, it probably didn’t help that some people – and for their protection they shall remain nameless – had been feeding the monkeys earlier in the day. I mean, I don’t think there were any signs prohibiting this, so I suppose they have that argument on their side. At any rate, these were some ballsy monkeys, absolutely reckless.

An example…

Jess, my wife, was sitting down on a ledge eating her lunch when she became a victim. Several monkeys had already begun circling like sharks. The slightest morsel cast aside could foment a frenzy. She was aware of this and so clutched her bananas tightly to her chest. Her plate of food balanced delicately on her lap. She also had a drink with her, a local kind of moonshine akin to whisky, but had already set it down in order to tend to the juggling act that was her lunch. Seeing her so obviously frazzled in this balancing act, the monkeys, if you’ll let me run away with the shark metaphor, smelt blood. One made a mad dash for a banana when her hands were full and got her to lean to her right in defense. She parried the attempt, but a second monkey capitalized on the confusion and came up from her left to snatch the other banana. Success. And it would have been a silent, unnoticed success had this damn monkey not knocked over her glass of moonshine in his thieving wake. Tiptoeing through the shards of glass, we mourned the firewater’s passing, found a new cup and got ourselves a refill.

More people might have noticed what happened to Jess if they weren’t busy being victims themselves. As I said, those monkeys were ballsy. Very few of us didn’t have something stolen. And, as you might have guess, some folks tried to steal back.

Now, I wasn’t the brave one that decided to get even. Hell no. It was a friend of ours. Wielding both a banana and a stick, he lured a monkey back over after it had stolen something. Pretty slick right? But as it turned out the critter’s cuteness made our friend forget the stick and what was supposed to be a trap for the animal turned into a free feast. We all started feeding him, by hand. Just look at that picture again. They’re damn adorable, fuzzy-wuzzy critters. You can’t really blame us. Even so, they are wild animals. This pal of ours forgot that one important fact. He was getting too close with his handouts and became startled when the monkey’s grasping mitt grazed his own benevolent hand. Utilizing his stick, the monkey retaliated with a swift swipe of his own. There was a scratch, some blood was drawn, but it was nothing major, more like funny, rip roaring hilarious actually (given our uniquely liquid diet for the day), and especially when the monkey remained glowering and growling in the tree branches right above head.

And that was my birthday. We stayed on at the pool for a few more hours after lunch, but our activities consisted of a lot more of the same. I was supposed to teach my language instructor how to swim after lunch, but I deemed myself to be in no condition to be responsible for someone’s life. Someone else, a someone much more sober than I, helped him out with that. I watched from my patio seat. The sun started to come out right when it was time to leave.