The next morning I woke up to a distant looping call. Sad and high pitch, the cry pulsed through the cold, still air. My toes ached with cold and my mouth tasted sour. The gash on my foot from the previous week throbbed painfully as I stood up to redress the ragged bandages in the faint morning light.
Pins and needles bit at my legs as I hobbled down the hill to the kitchen.
A few people were already up, even though it was about 5 in the morning and light had only just begun to penetrate the thin, dry canopy. There were a few couples at camp, standing in silent company as they completed the ritual of making food for the day in the field.
It reminded me of the beautiful morning routine in John Steinbeck’s The Pearl- “When Kino had finished, Juana came back to the fire and ate her breakfast. They had spoken once, but there is not need for speech if it is only a habit anyway. Kino sighed with satisfaction – and that was conversation.”
I took a few photos of the tender preparation of the food, but after a few moments felt like I was somewhat intruding, and decided to leave the kitchen in its calm, quiet zen.
I turned to the forest and trained my ears on the morose hoots of distant gibbons. On my way I noticed that the thermometer read 16C. I didn’t expect to be able to see my breath in Thailand.
I walked on and up into the woods. Fallen dipterocarps bridged gaps in old, dried gullies, deep gouges bitten into the hillside by ancient rivers. It was my favourite time, early enough that the cold air holds sound with delicate clarity, and the light is soft and clean. I breathed deeply and followed my feet.
I followed the mournful whoops deeper, feeling clumsy in my approach and watching where I stood, so as not to crunch the deep layers of dry leaves and twigs that would betray my presence to the forest. I imagine all the big animals present had noticed me from a mile off anyway.The calls became clearer, and I felt like I was close to the source. I rounded the top a small hill and stood silent. I blurred my eyes and stared into the canopy. This is something I’ve always done, since looking for monkeys in the trees in the garden in Barbados. The Vervet monkeys, or green monkeys as they are locally known, are beautifully camouflaged, and against the deep green, brown hue of the old mango trees they blend in invisibly. But if I blurred my eyes, I could see the change in light in the canopy, the opening and closing of gaps to the sun, the tell-tale sign of something in the trees, dipping a branch with its weight. Now whenever I walk into a patch of forest, I blur my vision to see if anything is slinking through the woods.
I still couldn’t see anything, but had to trust my instincts that I was close, because I could hear the call so strongly that I felt it was coming from directly above me. After about five minutes of staring into the branches I felt like it was some hearing trick. I began to lose hope that I would see anything, but continued to look up. I blinked. There it was.
From nowhere, the gibbon appeared. I had been staring at the exact spot it materialized, and never saw it emerge. Maybe it had always been there. It peered down with a calm curiosity, and I gazed back.
I feverishly clicked away with my camera, trying to get as many pictures as I could while it was still there. After about two minutes, it still showed no sign of leaving, just looked at me, and out into the broccoli tops of the open canopy. I think it was a Lar Gibbon (Hylobates lar).
It must have been a solid ten minutes we stood there, staring at each other. I stopped taking pictures, the distraction of the camera kept me from engaging with what I was actually looking at. It peered down, sent a long, deep hoot into the sky, and once again, vanished.