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Panama's Monkey Island

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Written by Matt   
Monday, 28 December 2009 08:13
Eylon FlickrThe first time I ever visited Panama, ask I was amazed the way the city transformed so abruptly into the jungle. "Here you are in a downtown metropolis and then holy shit! You're in a fuckin' rainforest!" That was, at least, the way my friend Brent liked to describe it. To the more eloquent of us, the landscape transition was akin to switching movie sets. This would have been the most dramatic incident Brent remembered about Panama were it not for the monkey with diarrhea. We had driven to the Gamboa Rainforest and taken (what I should have realized beforehand was) an incredibly cheesy tour to a place by the name of Monkey Island. This was an island in the middle of Gatun Lake, according to the brochure, which had been overrun by monkeys. I liked to envision it as a scene out of one particular film I had seen as a child where, in a futuristic world, the planet was ruled by apes and humans acted as slaves. I romanticized the idea of playing slave to a monkey on Gamboa's Monkey Island until our tour guide hit my in the chest with a lifejacket and told me to buckle up.

Contrary to a lot of Panama that is misrepresented in marketing material, Monkey Island lived up to its name entirely. I wouldn't go as far as to use the word infested, but that's how dense the monkeys were. This fact was supported by one particular monkey that took the liberty of boarding our boat, sitting on Brent's shoulder, and releasing a small bowel movement that flowed like a rivulet of mud down his jacket and onto his jeans. Had nothing else eventful happened that first trip to Panama, Brent would have undoubtedly returned to the United States and raved about a country in which, out of nowhere, animals as random wild monkeys arrive and shit on your jeans.

What may have seemed outrageous to Brent was actually quite commonplace to me seeing as my relationship with monkeys began a number of years back in a little village France. On vacation, my family had rented a small flat for a week during the summer. I say the word flat because that's what apartments are called in France. Something mysterious happens midway over the Atlantic and suddenly no one knows what an condo is anymore.

The flat was located in a small blue-collar neighborhood where pastry shops and produce stands lined the streets. There was a butcher, a shoe maker, there probably was a candlestick maker even though I never saw him I remember going out one morning to pick up something menial like orange juice or cheese when I saw a man selling baguettes with a leashed monkey on his shoulder.

The monkey had the wrinkled hand of an old man and he used it to reach into a small felt satchel and give me a few coins, my change. Who knows what he was scratching with that thing. I told this story to my friend Chase and he said, "See? I'd never eat from one of those nasty French street vendors." He had a point, but its not like everyone selling baguettes used the assistance of a monkey. A lifetime of eating bread and this was the first monkey apprentice I had ever seen.

The next day I made a special effort to pass by the bread stand where the man stood with his monkey exactly where they were the day before. This time, I observed another group of tourists at the stand taking pictures of what I had come to think of as my monkey. One of them reached in for a miniature handshake and the monkey pulled back and let out a terrified shriek. "He said Emily!" one of the tourists yelled. "He knew my name! Can you believe that mom? The monkey said my name!" The family applauded and then the monkey glanced in my direction and our eyes met for just one second. I then realized what the monkey was actually saying. "Help me."
One could chalk the French monkey up as just another tourist story were it not for the photo we took a few days before leaving. Here we were in front of a little plaza, me holding several baguettes and the monkey, in what that day was unusually formal attire, squatting on my shoulder as if he was about to take a dump. I kept the photo in my wallet for several years and brandished it the way people show off their nephews. I didn't have it on me however when Brent and I visited Monkey Island in Panama. It would have been a nice way to show the tour guide my expertise. But more importantly, had the shitting monkey gotten word that a friend-o-primates was on board, there's a good chance we may have seen some real fireworks.

One of Panama's many great draws is that much of the country is still so untouched that monkeys live unbothered in the type of natural habitats we fantasize about (this as opposed to boat tours or the shoulder of a baguette salesmen). Check out this video of a Monkey Reserve slash hotel in western Panama.

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Last Updated on Monday, 28 December 2009 08:17