Daylight robbery

Macaque monkeys look like tiny people with lots of facial hair. We first encountered them at the Uluwatu temple in Bali. The temple is at the south-western tip of the island, on a cliff above the sea. It was abandoned long ago and is now home to a troop of these monkeys who run along its walls and clamber about in the wild fig trees. The troop keeps to the temple in order to be near the tourists.

When we arrived at the temple, the matriarch monkey and her counsel of elders were sitting on top of the wall beside the gate. They regarded us with interest. When I opened my bag and took out my camera, they became very animated.

“No poto monkey,” a Balinese woman warned me and waved her finger.

Some Balinese cannot make the F-sound and replace it with a P. She pointed at Mia’s glasses and my camera.

“Monkey steal evoryting and camera and glasses,” the woman said.

As we spoke, the old monkey weaved her head from side to side as she followed the movements of my hands.

“You come office,” the woman said. “Pay.”

Before one enters the temple, one must pay an entrance fee and rent a sarong if you’re not wearing one. The temple is holy and a knee-length sarong is required.

“Tirty tousand,” the woman said to Mia, who was wearing a sarong. Then to me, “Pipty tousand. Sarong.”

We gave her a hundred thousand Rupiah for the two of us.

“Pruit?” she asked.

“What?”

The woman laughed and said something in Balinese to another woman who also laughed.

“Pruit,” she said again and held up a bag of fruit. “Por monkeys.”

“No thanks,” I said.

When another couple arrived, we stood aside while Mia helped me with my sarong. The man was an angry German. He wore socks and Birkenstock sandals despite the heat. He spoke in German to his pretty girlfriend, who was French.

“German german!” Hans insisted.

They were clearly having an argument about something that Hans cared more about than Marie. Marie puffed her cheeks and shrugged.

“No,” she said calmly. “French-uh-french.”

Perhaps they were Swiss. Hans stood with his hands on his hips and stared at Marie. The Balinese women regarded them both with the innocent friendliness for which the island is known.

“You pay,” one woman suggested.

Hans was not done with Marie yet.

“German,” he tried again, “überhaupt nicht german german.”

Marie motioned that he should pay.

“Vot must I pay?” he snapped.

“Pipty tousand,” the woman said. “One person.”

Both Hans and Marie needed sarongs.

“Vot?”

“Hundred tousand,” the woman said. “You buy pruit.”

“Vot?”

The Balinese woman giggled.

“Pruit,” she said again and held up a bag of fruit. “Give monkey. No steal.”

By now an old Australian couple had been waiting too and the man spoke up.

“Just pay them, mate,” he suggested.

Hans held up a hand to silence him.

“Vy must I vear a sarong?” he demanded to know. “I don’t vont fruit.”

Hans clearly didn’t want to be at the temple. Perhaps that’s what he and Marie were arguing about.

“French-avec-french-uh-french,” Marie explained.

“Look mate,” the old man said, “shit or get off the pot.”

Marie smiled at this and rolled her eyes at the old man.

“French,” she said to Hans, “uh-french.”

“Nein!” he barked.

Hans was more upset than it was German to be.

“Zis iz daytime robbery!” he cried. “I vill not vear a sarong!”


We left Hans and Marie behind and walked through the temple grounds. Like most traditional buildings in Bali, the temple itself was not as interesting as its surroundings. We soon tired of the actual buildings and walked along the low fence that lined the cliffs. Beyond the fence were gnarled vines and a sheer drop to the sea far below. Macaques clambered around in the vines and followed us around. We didn’t have any fruit but they watched our hands and widened their eyes whenever we looked at them.

“Stand back,” I said to Mia. “This one wants to come past.”

We were leaning against the fence and a monkey had come walking along the top of it. Mia leant back and the monkey came forward hesitantly. As he was about to pass us he flicked Mia’s sunglasses off her face and jumped into the vines.

“Hey!” I shouted.

The monkey clambered farther into the twists of vines and ignored me. If an ostrich or a llama had taken Mia’s glasses I would’ve stayed calm, but the monkey was like a person—he had stolen them.

“Hey!” I shouted again. “You!”

“Don’t be an idiot,” Mia said calmly. “Let it go.”

“Give me those glasses,” I ordered the monkey.

I spoke in a firm voice but the monkey looked away as though he hadn’t heard me.

“Now!” I shouted.

He fumbled with Mia’s glasses and tried to put them on his head.

“Have you lost your mind?” Mia asked as I climbed through the fence.

The monkey clambered a little farther out across the water.

“Are you going chase a monkey?” Mia asked. “On the edge of a cliff?”

Now that I was on the other side of the fence, I wasn’t so brave any more. But I was still livid.

“Look at the little shit!” I cried. “He’s ignoring me like a naughty child.”

“Get back here,” Mia said.

“Hey!” I shouted again.

You’re like a child,” Mia hissed. “Get back here.”

I climbed back through the fence.

“You’re no better than that idiot with the Birkenstocks,” Mia said. “Besides, look.”

She pointed at the ground beneath the vines. When I took off my sunglasses I could see what she meant. Glasses and baseball caps and camera parts lay on the cliff’s edge, just out of reach.

“They steal things all day,” she said, beginning to sound a lot like Marie. “It’s their job.”


As we walked back I began to feel stupid. I didn’t want to be like Hans.

“Do you think someone saw me?” I asked.

I saw you,” Mia said. “So did the monkeys.”

The Australian couple sat on a bench by the gate and watched the matriarch and her counsel of elders move about along the top of the wall. The monkeys, in turn, watched the path from the office. Down this path came Marie, followed by Hans. Hans had lost the argument and now wore a sarong. He goose stepped awkwardly and swung a bag of fruit in his hand. The matriarch stared at him and leaned forward, poised to jump.

“German!” Hans called after Marie as she passed us. “Ger—”

But he didn’t get beyond that. The matriarch dropped onto him with a howl. She grabbed him by the collar and pushed into his chest with her feet, bouncing and tugging, riding him like a little jockey. Hans staggered backward and let out a howl of his own. He threw up his arms like someone falling down a hole and then he keeled over. The matriarch ripped the bag of fruit from his hand and ran away.

“Mein german german,” Hans groaned where he lay in the dust.

“Jerman jerman?” Marie giggled as she bent over him.

The old man slapped his thighs and rose from the bench.

That was daylight robbery,” he declared.


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Scrumping the Big Apple

My wife and I visited New York in the fall of 2000. We were sort of poor at the time and the exchange rate was against us, so everything was expensive. We stayed in a backpackers on E 21st street, across from the 13th Precinct. It was grotty but at least we didn’t have to put up with the kind of people who stayed at the Waldorf Astoria. The police were noisy and the room was so tiny that we had to stow our suitcases on top of the bed, but it was great.


We did Manhattan. We crossed the Brooklyn Bridge on foot, climbed the stairs of the Empire State, explored Central Park and scoffed at the showy shops on 5th Avenue. We pretended to be interested in staying at the Paramount hotel and got taken to see some of the rooms. We spent a day in Greenwich Village where we watched a chess master teach his students at the Village Chess Shop. Then we got into an argument with him about how rude New Yorkers were supposed to be.

“You aren’t,” I said when the topic came up. “Everyone we’ve met here is very friendly.”

“We’re rude,” the chess master insisted, determined to be the exception.

“You’re not,” my wife said. “We walked into a precinct yesterday and they gave us a tour of the place.”

“Sure,” the chess master agreed, “but if you did that in Chicago, you’d be a detective by now.”

Maybe he was right. The Big Apple was so big that it seemed only fair that its people be more rude. We loved it. We loved the New York accent, the tallness of everything and the constant fear that we might get mugged. We felt at home. Yet, all the while, something wasn’t right.


We were hungry. We wanted food and we wanted culture, but we couldn’t afford either. We could go without culture for a while, but food was a problem. Everything was so expensive that we ate bagels in our room or junk food on the street. We tried a hot dog billed as authentic from a vendor on World Trade Center Plaza, but it was so authentic that the sausage looked like a dog’s penis. We had New York pizza slices so big that they were scooped onto our trays with a sort of garden shovel. They tasted of flour and the pepperoni slices on them were puckered craters of garlic. I also had my first and only Big Mac. I’d never been to McDonald’s, and now was my chance.

“Are you nuts?” my wife asked.

“One Big Mac,” the guy behind the counter said and handed me a wrapped Big Mac that he took from a sort of queue of pre-made burgers behind him.

“I want my own one,” I complained. “Isn’t this someone else’s?”

He looked at me as though I’d suggested that we exchange underwear.

“That’s yours,” he said.

A few minutes later I gave up and threw the thing away.

“What did I tell you?” my wife said.

We returned to Central Park and loitered outside the Tavern on the Green. It was expensive and seemed to require that you arrive with a horse and cart. At the Algonquin hotel we had a modest tea and played with the resident cat. On our way out I stole a $5 tip from a nearby table.

“How can you do that?” my wife demanded on the street outside.

“I—don’t know,” I stammered. “I’m desperate.”

And we were. We felt like paupers, eating scraps. We wanted wine and meat and vegetables and salads with strips of ginger. We wanted to chew things that had no dough in them. Eating junk was beginning to take its toll. We felt bloated and weak and my wife was beginning to look pale.


Then we saw a small advert in the New York Times announcing a performance of the six motets of Bach on Sunday afternoon at a church in Harlem, on 125th street. Everyone was welcome, it said, admission was free and refreshments were included.

“What does included mean?” my wife wondered. “It says it’s free?”

“Look,” I said, “if everyone’s welcome, that’s us. We’re going.”

We took the bus to upper Manhattan. On our way there I got worried. What if the performance was free but the food was not, despite the word included? We’d end up full of music and nothing else.

“I’ll resent Bach for that,” I told my wife. “It wouldn’t be right.”

“It wouldn’t matter,” she said. “Bach is dead.”

“What if the food is crap?” I countered.

“Just relax.”

At the church we went up to the gallery, where the organ was. We were the only ones up there, except for the girl who played the organ, and we surveyed the crowd below. There was a choir and a motley audience. The minister addressed us. He told us how hard the choir had practiced and how much he hoped that we’d enjoy ourselves.

“Afterwards,” he said, “please join us in the refectory.”

My wife and I looked at one another. This is what we’d come for—Bach, and the refectory.

“God bless you,” the minister concluded, and took his seat.

We’d never listened to the motets in their fullness and we soon realised that they were not as zippy as the Brandenburg Concertos. To make things worse, the choirmaster was a man of un-Bachlike slowness. He had his back to us but it was clear from his gestures that he objected to most of what the choir tried to do. They plowed on haltingly. The minister, who must have witnessed rehearsals, had clearly meant it when he blessed us.

All the while we got increasingly hungry. We hadn’t eaten any lunch and things were moving at a glacial pace.

“How many more?” my wife whispered.

The choir had just finished the 5th motet.

“One,” I whispered.

“What if there’s just an urn with tea and cookies?” she hissed.

“What if there’s an encore?”


But there wasn’t. The minister got up, visibly relieved, thanked everyone and repeated his invitation to the refectory. We went downstairs and penguin-marched with the crowd. Inside the refectory, people milled about and talked in small groups. Along the one wall were tables covered in food.

We couldn’t believe it. There were pastries and cakes and other sweets, but there were also tables with fruit and meat. There were strawberries and grapes and slices of pineapple, fruit salads, cucumber sticks, carrots, wedges of red pepper, shavings of ginger and beautiful, big apples. The other people picked at this feast with passing interest but we were galvanized.

“I’m taking these,” my wife whispered and stuffed two apples into her carry bag.

“I’m taking some carrots,” I said.

We piled food onto our plates, eating as we went, and walked along to the other tables. The taste of fresh things was dizzying. We loved this church, and we loved New York. On the next table were beef strips, chicken cubes, ham rolls, sushi and sashimi, Swedish meat balls and a variety of little kebabs.

“We need meat,” my wife said under her breath and pointed at the kebabs. “For later.”

I handed her the ziplock bags in which we kept our passports and she filled them with kebabs while pretending to load things onto her plate.

“Get some peppers,” she whispered.

I slipped some peppers and two more apples into my bag. We joined a group of people standing in a circle.

“There’s a seventh motet,” the choirmaster said.

He was holding forth on the history of the motets and the Bach revival of the nineteenth century. While he talked I looked around the circle and noticed that everyone else held plates with one or two items on them while we balanced towers of food on ours. No one seemed keen on the seventh motet either, and some people nodded at me in silent greeting. Then there was an awkward silence.

“The seventh was likely from the Weimar period,” the choirmaster resumed.

“And there it can stay,” the minister cut in.

He’d wedged into the circle next to me and smiled around.

“Hungry?” he said and nodded at my plate.

I had just stuffed a ham roll into my mouth and couldn’t answer.

“You two are not from around here,” he continued. “We can tell.”

“We’re from South Africa,” I mumbled and fumbled with my plate. “How can you tell?”

“You see all these people?” he said.

He motioned at the room in general.

“Yes?”

“They’re all from my congregation.”

My throat was so dry I couldn’t swallow.

“Including the choir,” he added.

We’d been watched all along, by everyone.

“But there was an ad in the paper—”

“We always invite the public,” the minister said, “but it’s mostly just us that attend.”

“We’ve stolen your food,” I blurted. “We’re sorry!”

The minister laid a calming hand on my arm.

“That’s OK,” he said. “That’s quite alright.”


A few minutes later he bid us farewell on the steps outside the church.

“We cannot take this,” I said.

I held up the bag of food he’d packed for us.

“Of course you can,” he said and lead us gently down to the street. “This is New York.”


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