Monica Szczupider: Blog en-us (C) Monica Szczupider [email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Tue, 13 Sep 2022 03:11:00 GMT Tue, 13 Sep 2022 03:11:00 GMT Monica Szczupider: Blog 120 80 Blogs are for musings about monarchs ... right? Photo: Henry Dallal Photography


Just my two cents on the passing of the Queen, late and inconsequential as my two cents are.

In a way, the Queen's passing reminds me of Michael Jackson's passing, insofar as they'd both always been embedded into the background of my tiny life when they died. I felt a little sad hearing the news about Elizabeth, though I'm not sure why. When Diana died, I found myself heartbroken, though I wasn't a royal follower otherwise. Maybe that just says something about losing larger-than-life figures. In any case, if we measure it by the collated experiences contained in an individual life, Elizabeth may have had the richest life (metaphorically) of anyone on earth. Of course, she epitomized intergenerational wealth and had access to exclusive systems that extended her life. But that she composed herself as she did is pretty extraordinary. I'd have written a tell-all. She stoically worked until two days before her death. I objectively admire that. 

I am a leftist though (and not the boutique kind), so I am inherently against monarchies. I mean all monarchies here – they are predicated on the notion that some human lives are intrinsically worth more than others and thus they perpetuate explicit and implicit caste systems. The Marxist in me fundamentally rejects this. I see Elizabeth as the figurehead of an institution that has no real political function in the modern world (and shouldn't, really), save bringing together those who feel affection for it (and those who don't, well, they have a right to feel that way too). And I see her family's inordinate wealth and strongly feel that, without wading too much into the muck of its historical acquisition, one entity should not be in possession of that much wealth. Where that much wealth is concentrated, most certainly it would have arrived through unethical means. 

I watched the Proclamation of the incipient reign of Charles and heard several Scots booing. My back straightened when I heard them. They have a right to boo. Of course they do. Scotland has long had its bones to pick with England. Monarchs have always been booed, even if most historical subjects had to do it within their own heads for fear of otherwise losing them. 

But I also see the Queen's grandmotherly-ness, and I see that many British people (and yes, even some throughout the Commonwealth) genuinely love Elizabeth. To those people, she is a matriarch. When I hear them talk about her, I am reminded of how some in Hawaiʻi talk about Queen Liliʻuokalani – with profound reverence and affection and tenderness. Like one would about a grandmother.

Because we humans are highly complicated (and I happen to think our complexities will either damn us or lead us kicking or screaming to our enlightenment), it then seems appropriate that the emotional outpouring we are now witnessing (both glowing and not) is projected onto the image of a tiny, frail, elderly woman. Of course, only a woman would inspire this range of emotions. But remember, no matter what corner of the world you come from, we all love our grandmothers. So if you see some of the negative reactions to Elizabeth and tsk and shake your head and wonder how people could project such emotions onto a grandmother, then I'll just remind you that the people criticizing Elizabeth have grandmothers too. They don't need lessons in how to love them. So just sit with it, because this is the human experience. This means whatever is emerging is complicated and real and rooted in life and death. That means something. The Crown knows what it inspires. It will be fine.

When I see the RF, I see beloved figureheads and glorified celebrities. I see incredibly privileged people who understand the ridiculousness they were born into and try to do good with it, and I see incredibly privileged people who could not give a shit about the likes of you or me or anyone in the Commonwealth. But most of all, I see the embers of a long-dead empire publicly struggling to find its relevance in our world (and it's up for debate what that relevance is). As a US American who does not pay taxes to the Crown but instead pays taxes to support the fattest, richest military industrial complex in our fading world, I wonder when our time will come to publicly reflect. Or if we will have the time at all.

Incidentally, I think if the RF paid for the Kohinoor diamond and India invested this payment into universities and social programs, this would be a huge start. Google the GDPs of India before and after colonialism. (Oh, but the railroad network! If you get it, you get it.)

[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Mon, 12 Sep 2022 22:09:46 GMT
The American way of life is not up for negotiations. Period. (or, a word on being our own heroes) Americana: Sunrise, Middle of Somewhere, IowaAmericana: Sunrise, Middle of Somewhere, IowaShot from the window of the California Zephyr on a chilly December morning.


“The American way of life is not up for negotiations. Period."


These were the brazen words of George H.W. Bush (Sr.), then-leader of the free world, at 1992's Rio Earth Summit. Since that time, our politicians and their lobbyists have peddled the overt fabrication that the US is a global leader in the fight against climate change. The rest of the world, on the other hand, has drawn its own conclusions about us. As a historical rule, the US has made monumental efforts to block policies that would limit emissions and curb corporate profits, and in doing so, our leadership has robbed US Americans of opportunities to fundamentally examine and reconsider our way of life. Meanwhile, one-quarter of anthropogenically-emitted carbon in our fragile atmosphere can be attributed to—you guessed it—US Americans.


So the world perceives us as not giving a shit.


I'm sorry. It's hurtful and off-putting, but it's true. But here's my effort to cast us in a kinder light: maybe "we don't give a shit" because we don't know better, because we simply don't have access to the reference points that would help us really and finally get it—that is, how wasteful our quotidian lives are. Maybe we're the proverbial rodeo bull in the porcelain shop. 


One of the reasons I loved living in the UK is because society there is structured to yield smaller carbon footprints among its civic participants (compared to the average US-dweller, at least). Living smaller is literally the baseline. Using your own feet or a bicycle as a regular mode of transportation, even during winter months, is normal. Houses are smaller, thereby requiring less energy to heat in the winter or cool in the summer. People dry their clothes on lines. Macaco and I had organic, locally-grown vegetables delivered to our house twice monthly (on bicycle, no less!) for a gobsmackingly affordable price. Fish sold for consumption are not treated with carbon monoxide to retain color. The candy is not treated with red 40 and yellow 5. I could go on and on, but I'll just add this bit here:


In the UK, radical environmental activism is unapologetically mainstream (Google, for example, Extinction Rebellion). It may irk you to think of activists shutting down roads and disrupting worker commutes, but these measures begin to make sense when you understand that (1) destroying our planet for the sake of profit is itself radical and (2) there will be a devastating cost if we fail to turn the tide. The policies and practices that prioritize profit and sacrifice ecological well-being are so radical that we consumers regularly turn a blind eye to killing humans and nonhumans alike so that we can have ... stuff. (The only mainstream movement I can think of in the US that demonstrates the unapologetic fervor and commitment needed to undo institutional violence is Black Lives Matter.)


Alpine Meadow, En Route to Kuelap Fortress, PeruAlpine Meadow, En Route to Kuelap Fortress, PeruThe footpath to Kuelap has stunning, panoramic views of the Andes. This view is facing west, but if you face east, you can see the peripheral arms of the Amazon.

Built by the Chachapoyas ("the people of the clouds"), fierce contemporaries of the Incas, the fortress of Kuelap was all about the views. Whether battling dominating Incas or head-shrinking Amazonians, the Chachapoyas situated their most important city of 3,000 souls in the center of a 360 degree view.

Several days ago, when the Senate passed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), Hawaii's junior senator Brian Schatz tweeted the following: "...we have passed ... the biggest climate action in American history." For reference (and to better understand Schatz's self-congratulatory tweet), I urge you to investigate the other climate bills that Senate has passed (...crickets?...) to see why Schatz and others can legitimately refer to the IRA as the "biggest" and "most ambitious" of them all. If you don't feel like looking it up, that's okay, but let me just paint a picture. Last night, around 2 a.m., I woke up to pee. Quite obviously, that required walking to the toilet and then walking back to bed. Later today, I'm going hiking. Yet right now I've been awake a few hours and, even without hiking, I've logged more steps on my metaphorical Fit Bit than those that were required to use the loo last night. So if I wanted to, I could tweet something like the following: "In the last 12 hours, I've walked my biggest and most ambitious steps during the last two hours!" This is true even though my tweet would be far more impressive (and genuine) if I tweeted the glory of my step count AFTER hiking, which is objectively more ambitious than the typical plodding around that one does on Sunday mornings. Anything looks ambitious when it's compared to sleeping. Even plodding around.


Here's the simple truth. The Inflation Reduction Act is not enough. It is not enough because it aims to continue supplying the resources required to uphold our existing way of life, the same way of life that George Sr. described as "not up for negotiations. Period." It peddles to mindless consumerism and extends the delusion that we US Americans don't need to make sacrifices, thank you very much.


But—and let me pause for dramatic effect here—WE DO.


We—and I mean US Americans—have to make choices that we won't want to make because we will be inconvenienced. We have to live smaller lives. Living smaller lives is the only real way that we, with our own power, can mitigate the effects of the climate crisis. THEY AREN'T GOING TO PICK UP THE MORAL MANTLE TO SAVE OUR PLANET. We can blame oligarchical industries and corporate greed all we want (and yes, they should be held accountable). But we are lying to ourselves if we do not admit that the sickening brand of corporate greed that we see today is predicated largely on one thing: consumer demand. And that is us. 


We hold the power. We always have.


All the carrots dangled in the Inflation Reduction Act that are meant to usher us toward green energy solutions (which, by the way, opens the Arctic and the Gulf to drilling and provides tax breaks to Shell and BP) will not make a dent in the climate crisis if we are not willing to lead smaller lives. Green energy solutions rely on further extraction of non-renewable resources, and green energy infrastructure is finite so you are forced to rebuild it again and again and again.


Why? To meet our demands.


The US way of life IS up for debate. It has to be, simply because, as it currently stands, it is utterly incompatible with fighting climate change. We have to take our power back. We have to take our Earth back. We are damning our children and numerous species if we do not.


Rudraksha Grove, KauaiRudraksha Grove, KauaiAt the Hindu monastery on Kauai.

Flower on a Leaf in Water, O`ahuFlower on a Leaf in Water, O`ahu

MuggingMuggingPiedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, San Simeon CA horses, "black and white", animal, love, affection, "monica szczupider"Two Horses, Hawai`i Island "white faced", "white fronted", capuchin, "central america", nicaragua, monkey, "monica szczupider"Pancho, NicaraguaA white-faced capuchin. Pancho was encountered in Mirafor, Nicaragua. He was kept, surprisingly, at an ecologically themed finca (ranch). After discussions with Pancho's "owners," they said they would take him to a rescue center so he could be integrated with other monkeys. Many, many monkeys are kept in similar conditions in Central America. Their mothers are killed, and the orphans are then sold into the pet trade.

chimpanzee, wildlife, primates, apes, endangered, portrait, forest, africa, conservation, "monica szczupider"Arvid, CameroonChimpanzee, pan troglodytes vellerosus, rescued from the bushmeat trade and living at a rescue center near Belabo, Cameroon. Also known as the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee, p.t. vellerosus is the most threatened and least distributed of all chimpanzees.



[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Mon, 15 Aug 2022 03:15:56 GMT
Hahalua (Two Breaths)


I am terrified of the ocean.


Wait. That's not true. Let me backtrack. I'm actually not terrified of the ocean, but I used to be. And now, I have this sense that because some arm of quantum physics purports that past, present and future are all happening at once, and that because the woman I am today remembers quite well the borderline-thalassophobic girl with the same face (albeit less lined), that somehow that old fear will again make itself known. I wait for for its harbingers with certainty. The pounding heart. The increased breathing. The paralysis, frozen in fear.


We are on a catamaran at sunset, sailing out from Keauhou Harbor on the Kona side of Hawai'i Island, otherwise known as Big Island, otherwise known as the piece of land in an endless sea that stole my heart 20 years ago. I have been wanting to get in the water at night with the manta rays for nearly that long. We are opting for the snorkel, as neither of us is certified to dive and I've only dove once before, well over a decade ago. The boat ride is a short five minutes that takes us to the backside of the Outrigger. Many years back, when it used to be the Kona Surf Hotel, the then-owner installed massive, bright lights outside the hotel bar that perches on the sea to this day. The illuminated water convinced the plankton that it was day, and they came in droves of droves. On their proverbial heels were the hahalua, known in English as manta rays. The onlooking humans quickly grew enamored with the hahalua. They were graceful and fluid, pirouetting in the aqua stage like ballet dancers. In fact, even now people still refer to these nighttime events along Kona's black, rocky coastline as a ballet.



Back on the catamaran, the sun is beginning its nightly descent into the sea. We line up like good waddling penguins to get in the water. My wetsuit is so tight that it feels like my crotch is choking my neck, if you can imagine that. I fiddle with Macaco's phone in its plastic casing in an effort to mitigate any technical obstacles that might prevent the flip-on-a-dime readiness often required when photographing wildlife. Then they hand me a noodle -- they're making us use them. As the other guests enter the water and I approach the front of the line, juggling multiple variables like a good little penguin, I wait for the telltale sound of my own pounding heart. But it doesn't come. Indeed, after waiting all these years, I am surprised to find myself eager to get into the ocean at night. I lodge my requisite noodle under my arms and swim out to the giant floatation device that doubles as a set of flood lights meant to entice the plankton, and thus, the mantas.


During our various briefings, we learn that mantas are not endangered (though NOAA reports a Threatened classification for them, primarily due to being fishing bycatch or, in some cases, direct catch for their gills, which are erroneously thought to be medicinal in some regions of the world). We are strictly instructed not to touch the manta rays, as their bodies are covered with a slimy residue that confers immunity upon them. They are cartilaginous fishes, which means that their skeletons are made of cartilage instead of bone. They are thought to be solitary and they have the largest brains of all fish. In fact, recent research provides clues that they may be capable of passing the mirror test -- in other words, they may possess self-awareness (Ari and D'Agostino 2016).


I want to know as much as I can about them because I know that our nighttime escapade is not entirely natural. It is important to me that we do not burden the hahalua with cumbersome environmental pressures in our quest to admire them. We humans are like this, careening blindly when we cross paths with things we profess to love, all too often leaving maelstroms in our wake. Hahalua are sacred in Hawaiian culture, considered 'aumakua, or "ancestral spirit[s] ... [connecting] people to the procreators of their ancient clans of origin and to the gods of creation" (Kupihea 2004). One of our guides shares that the most common interpretation of hahalua is "two breaths" (ha is breath and lua is two), likely in reference to the two cephalic lobes located on either side of the mouth that corral the (aimlessly?) floating zooplankton directly into their cavernous filter-feeders. There are two species of manta: pelagic manta rays (Mobula birostris, or giant mantas that roam the deep seas) and coastal manta rays (Mobula alfredi, or reef mantas). If we are lucky, we will be seeing the "smaller" coastal manta, which incidentally can top out with a 14-foot (5m) wingspan.


In the water, my attention is on the phone. Being in the water makes the camera think I am pressing all sorts of buttons that I am not. The orientation flips without my consent. The camera app closes and another one opens. I try to mitigate the issues that are now coming up rapid-fire on Macaco's seemingly autonomous phone. Finally, I throw my hands up in frustration and think something along these lines: 


"Screw it. I don't need documentation and I'm going to miss the actual mantas."


In the water, the light sometimes illuminates the bottom of the ocean and sometimes doesn't. It is difficult to gauge, but I would guess we are at least 40 feet from the sea floor. As far as the light illuminates, the water is a cerulean crystal. The plankton float around us like snowflakes in reverse in a vortex where seconds have slowed to minutes. Below the reach of the light lies murky blackness. We cannot see the ocean floor now. Suddenly, a shape crystallizes in the abyss. It moves in rapture. It emerges from the depths and slowly assumes a clearer form: a giant, diamond-shaped creature with iridescent stripes outlining a dark back. She comes closer and closer to me, performing a languid sort of calligraphy with her powerful body, completely unconcerned with stopping. I catch a glimpse of the striations in her filtered mouth, and for the briefest of pinpoints, I can see straight inside hahalua. At the last second, she turns on a dime, more adept with last-minute changes than I will ever be. She graces those floating to my right before returning, this time exposing her glowing underbelly and its magnificent black spots. 


I do not move. It's as if I am frozen, it is true. But this time it is not fear that stills me. It is something far more sublime, something that follows the same wondrous shape that hahalua leaves in her wake, which, for a moment, does the seemingly impossible and silences us bumbling humans.


Ari, C., D’Agostino, D.P. (2016) Contingency checking and self-directed behaviors in giant manta rays: Do elasmobranchs have self-awareness? Journal of Ethology 34, 167–174. DOI: 10.1007/s10164-016-0462-z

Kupihea, M. (2004) The Seven Dawns of the Aumakua: The Ancestral Spirit Tradition of Hawaii. Simon and Schuster: NY, NY. 






[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Sat, 22 Jan 2022 22:01:03 GMT
My Mother was a Master Gardener


My mother was a master gardener. I used to love wandering her garden picking raspberries off the bush or cherry tomatoes off the vine and popping them right into my mouth. I honestly tried to channel her the first time I grew anything from seed. I asked myself probably a million times, “What would Mom do?” She was so confident in her skills that she sometimes even disregarded the directions on the seed packet, obliging instead her own internal authority. She was like a magician. When I imagine her garden, I see long, untamed vines snaking the earthen floor, dotted with magnetic fuchsias or bearing enormous orange pumpkins. I see towering yellow sunflowers courting bees and hairy tomato vines playing host to the age-old battle between ladybug and aphid. Being in her garden felt like being in a fairytale, a mysterious world full of even smaller worlds. I could not believe that every year, she created this wonderland of shapes and flavors and colors from seemingly nothing. It was as if her garden was the one place that she ran totally free, completely unhindered, where there were no rules by which to comply, no borders to stay behind, no dotted lines to sign, no correct change to give back. In the summer, I remember catching fireflies alongside her wonderland night after night, long into the darkness, long after the humidity of the day stretched past the summer twilight, where dots of light seemed to magically appear in the sky before quickly fading away again. And her voice calling me: “Misia!” These are some of my most magical memories.


Today, as a scientist, I have been trained to look for and stringently test the evidence I use to support whatever claims I make about primate behavior. But even now, even with this trained brain, I cannot deny that I still look for the magic of my mother’s garden. About three years ago, when her Alzheimer’s first started getting into the bad phase, I sat outside under a summer moon and prayed. I was desperate to know if she was there somewhere behind the increasingly impenetrable wall that Alzheimer’s slowly built around her. Where was she? Did she know? Was she there, or are we really just our brains? Because according to the evidence, all we can account for is the physical. Are we something more, something beyond that, something beyond the physical? I started talking to my mom directly as I sat underneath that summer moon three years ago. If you’re there, I insisted, then please show me. Show me something. Please shake this stubborn, evidence-driven brain because I want to know that you can hear me in ways I cannot explain. Tell me something clear. Tell me with a firefly.


And I left it there. I went to bed a little teary-eyed, and by the next morning, the whole exchange had become something of a distant memory, like a faded dream. That morning, I made my coffee, went outside to drink it, sat down, and closed my eyes. When I opened them again, a small, dark shape flitted from the corner of my eye to land right below my right collarbone. It happened so quickly: just as I looked down to catch a glimpse of it, it was already on its way again. And as you can probably guess, it was a firefly. I have never before and never since seen one during the morning. Just that one time, just when I asked my mom.


Perhaps now is a good time to say that my mother understood things in a way I had never realized when I was growing up. My parents, of course, were not enamored with my lifestyle of traveling, particularly when it came to traveling on my own. Before my second trip to Cameroon, for example, I made a visit back to Chicago and told my parents I was planning to go back to work with chimpanzees again. I braced myself for the usual barrage of feedback. “Why can’t you have a normal life?” “When are you going to settle down?” “Are you still going to be doing this at 40?” After about two days of talking about this ad nauseum, my mom stopped suddenly, looked me directly in the eye, and said, “I get it, Misia. Some things we have to do. Go.”


Saying this, I know, contradicted everything she felt as a mother. But something in her arose in that moment, and in the briefest of glimpses, I understood what I still can’t quite put into words. It was the same thing that I remember from the wild beauty of her garden. My mother was a beautiful, curious, and yes, somewhat wild soul, and I have struggled over the past couple of days to close this homage to her, because like everything beautiful and curious and wild … how do you close it? To me, she is how I remember her garden: untamed and alive and fruitful. So, in the end, at this particular end, there is no closure to this homage. We go on, with her, beautiful and curious and wild. 

[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Fri, 17 Dec 2021 22:29:11 GMT
Mama Moja (My Mama) Mama. 


She is the first touch, the first word, the first heartache, and the first healer. When we take our place on this stage, and if we are lucky, it's she who is there. She is there when we take our final bow, as well, if not exactly in the same way.


I remember once making my way back to Chicago after a traumatic event. Things were chaotic and dark and without familiarity, but a single beam of light beckoned me gently from the closing distance and so I obliged it, keeping one foot moving in front of the other. That light was you. When I finally saw you, your tender face among faces, something happened that I still cannot explain: whatever the thing is that exists between mother and child, that invisible thread, the queen of all cords, willed me into your arms without any conscious effort of my own. It felt beyond biological or even spiritual. It was as if in that moment, there was no place in the world for me to be other than in your arms.


We were not always good at speaking, but whatever we could not say in words, we said by touch. Another time, after an argument in which I knew I was wrong, I sidled up next to you in bed where you lay on your side crying softly. I wrapped my arms around your waist, and we lay like that for some time, crying and saying sorry. Later, after having arrived home to Hawaii, I checked my email and found something from you. This is what you said to me:

"Also, I forgot to tell you = do you remember how you curled up next to me and put your hand around me....

I felt that touch the entire  really made me feel better............"


I have taken shelter in these words over the years, especially once you started alone down the long road of Alzheimer's. In some ways, words are nothing, not even wisps. In other ways, they create the world around us. If I could take all the words in the world and use them to paint the most beautiful picture, they still could not quite capture what I want to say to you. So I am led here.


I love you, Mama. I will know you wherever I find you in this Universe.





[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Tue, 07 Dec 2021 21:38:52 GMT
Otherness will find you. Otherness will find you,

Don't worry.

No matter how you scurry,

Or how you skip,

Or how you scram,

Otherness will find you.


Or not.


Or not.


Or not. 

Two things will become apparent:

That there is a You

And there is an Everything Else.

And don't worry,

Not for a bit,

Not for one beautiful bit,

Because otherness is a gift. 

How else could you see it?

How else could you know?

That every last bit of it

Is all just a gift?

[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Tue, 05 Feb 2019 01:13:45 GMT
The Generosity Of Heartache – or – If You Know Grief, Then This Is For You

A man and his wife walk into a coffeeshop. He is tall and retains the slender build of his youth. She is small with a well-etched scowl on her face. It would be easy to frame her as the difficult one in the relationship, but there is more written by the crease in her brow than the gross inferences one can draw from her disposition. She is not angry. I know this because I know them, and in a moment, I will tell you how. But first: he takes her by the hand, leads her to a table and helps her sit. He whispers something to which no one else is privy, not that anyone else really minds. There is no dawning on her face, no point where they meet in mutual understanding. But this one-sided overture is not new to him. So he does like he's done before: he kisses her hand and then stands to order two small mochas with whipped cream. Whipped cream, she likes.


Five years of Alzheimer’s, and I think I am pretty good at spotting it now. I love this couple; they immediately become my mother and father. I see my dad in him. I see his devotion, how uparty (stubborn) he was. When I think of my dad, when I really feel him, I get a tightening above and behind my left ear. I would say that this is a phantom pain, or some iteration of intuition, but how can I know for sure? When I think of his passing, I get a tightening across my entire head. It is not a physical phenomenon, but more energetic. But feel it I can.


What do we say about our parents once they are gone? My childhood was far from perfect, as I'm sure yours was. Yet just like dust meanders into well-worn crevices, I involuntarily drift into the greatness that the heart is blessedly permitted to feel. I don't know if my father knew this, but I hope that he did see a glimmer of something buried under whatever hard-heartedness life rubs out from us. Nevertheless, I look at pictures from my childhood and it is clear to me now: I adore him. He knew the secrets of great dadness: flexing his biceps for two wide-eyed little girls who, if just for a moment, thought he was the strongest man in the world. He readily shared his goofy smile, dancing around the living room like a battery-powered jitterbug to Abba, singing, ‘You can dance, you can jive, having the time of your liiiiiife!’ And, of course, that voice: deep and throaty, the one for which we all now long, the one shaped by the chisel of Slavic determination. He scared a hundred boyfriends, you know. Every single one of them. ‘Verrry, verrry, extra-ordinarrry,’ he said, with an emphasis on the rolling r.


They ran.


(But not me. I did not run. I knew his secrets. I knew his anger better than they, but I also knew how to melt him. I was his Achilles' tendon; I was his migraines; I was his scapegoat; I was his heart.)


In the immensity of grief, sometimes I whisper: dad, dad, dad, dad. Now I know that I will always whisper to you. Can you see? I now measure every man by you, every overture, everything that someone says. I think, Is it real? Is that a true reflection of what is inside of you? What would dad think of that? You have left this thing on me, in me, this indelible thing that I cannot even call a mark because it occupies every rung of my cognition. You are in all levels of my consciousness. Time passes, and you have left, and I cannot find a thing to fill this void that remains in the wake of your departure. No other conscious being, no speaker, no breather. Nothing can fill it; nothing is shaped like you but you. And maybe that is a beautiful thing, the beautiful side of loving and losing.


By the way, the animals: they come close, but in the end, they are not you. If you are sending the hawks, the kites, the deer – please don’t stop. I love them. But even they are not you.


I guess they are the next best thing though.


[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Sun, 03 Feb 2019 17:35:08 GMT
71 Candles (Today is your birthday)

I have loved primates since you sat me before a silverback gorilla at the Lincoln Park Zoo and made me consider his autonomy. “Look into his eyes,” you said, “And tell me if you think he belongs here.” I have not been the same since. You were always enamored with wildlife — all wildlife, really, but especially the majestic wildlife of Africa. While everyone else's dad was watching baseball or football games, you were watching nature documentaries. You were debating politics. You were taking us to the ballet. You were telling anyone who would listen about some obscure 17th century Russian tsar who shaped the face of Eastern Europe forever. You were one of the most intelligent men I ever met, and you were not afraid to unleash your intellectual fecundity on anyone who knowingly or unknowingly beckoned it. At the time, I just wanted a regular "American" dad. Now, you are all that I want.


What is a father? In the last few days, this question has become more important to answer than ever before. I know the easy answer. A father is a superhero. For a daughter, a father is her first Prince Charming. A father works long hours so that his children are clothed, well-fed, and warm. A father sacrifices things so that his children do not have to. But this was not all that you were. You were also the foundational support of every one of us. For example, If I was a fossil and someone was to examine me millions of years from now, they would disassemble me to my most underlying component, and only then would they say, “Ah, yes, I see who she was. She was Henry.” 


But in truth, you are even more than that. You had your own dreams, your own wishes, your own desires. I know that a part of you always wanted to see the world. Perhaps it was you who inspired this in me. Now, I will take you. I will take you to the four corners of the earth and free you to the winds that caress the savannas, to the roots that nourish the verdant jungles, to the intellect that created the great cathedrals of the European cities you so admired. I will take you to the overgrown ruins of ancient Asian cities you never thought you’d see. I will bring you to witness the age-old saga of lions and wildebeest, wild and free and without constraint. I will name a tree in every place for you. A bridge. A rock. A river. A flower. Henry, Henry, Henry. I will christen them all.


I will keep you alive, even if, in the end, this is not what you wanted. I am learning to accept your autonomy now, even if every cell in my body rebels against it. You are free. You are a part of this blinding beauty, part of the ancient rhythms that bring us to our knees in wondrous humility while we are mere humans. For now, in every place that I take you, it will be you who is looking back at me. And so the rhythms continue in a way that we humans can understand only in slivered glimpses. But you are here and will always be. You course in our blood, are written onto our DNA. You are seared onto our very souls. You will live on this great and wondrous planet. You will live, and we will keep you.


[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Thu, 22 Nov 2018 15:04:31 GMT
A Reverence of Botany


January 9th, 2018


It made it to nearly seventy degrees today. The botanical gardens in Athens were dotted with those shiny-eyed souls who rush the outdoors as soon as conditions allow. Under the pagoda, next to the black marble rotating globe, a ladybug landed on my arm – the blood orange kind with faded spots. She stayed with me for nearly five minutes and I counted my blessings for such a visit. I also wondered how she survived the kinked polar vortex that had overstayed its welcome the week before.


When she left, I wandered into the tropical plant greenhouse, reacquainting myself with the fruits that had surprised me so long ago in Hawai`i. Mangosteen, cacao, deliciously lilting lilikoi. This last one is also known as passionfruit and had singlehandedly convinced me, on my fifth day in the islands, to stay, when some boring and self-important voice was trying to convince me to leave. Luckily the passionfruit had its way. I couldn't imagine leaving a place where something so exquisite had flourished.


But back to Georgia and the Athens garden. I kept crossing paths with an older gentleman who circled the same pedestrian walkways as I. He was about sixty and had a thick head of black hair with a jacket to match. I saw him again in the greenhouse and absentmindedly followed him down the slightly sloped footpath encased by a box of tropics. We both stopped before the kava tree (Piper methysticum), though I was a few feet behind and to the left of him. He may not have known I was watching, because his next moment was one of immersion. He reached out his big bear hand and cradled a slender branch where the freckled nodules had not yet formed. Then he closed his eyes and stayed that way for almost a minute. Neither one of us moved. When his eyes opened again, he leaned into the main trunk of the kava tree and gently kissed it.


Concerned that my presence might have been intrusive if noticed, I walked away before he fully emerged from the cocoon he inhabited – a vacuum stripped of time or appointments or obligations. I was (and wasn't) surprised to find myself crying. He had pulled me, without knowing, into a vacuum of my own, into that startling space of reverence that we all somehow know, those pockets of the extraordinary into which we all sometimes stumble. Somehow, I think there are more of these spaces around us than we realize, secret alternates in perspective floating around us like thought bubbles in a comic strip. Maybe, in my case, it was the combination of us all: him, me, the chemicals released by the plants that tickled some sleepy part of my brain. A shared experience.


They usually are, though we might not always know it.

[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Sat, 27 Jan 2018 17:29:33 GMT

Marriage is old-fashioned. You've heard this. Just the thought of it is too obdurate for some, too get-this-thing-off-me. For others, of course, the oldest of institutional and spiritual partnerships (is this even true? i'm not sure.) offers remarkable support and companionship. And yet for others still, it's considered an achievement. We all see things differently. But isn't fidelity more the curiosity? Marriage, in some ways, just makes it harder to be with someone else if you ever find yourself wanting to be with someone else. Yet is fidelity even natural (i.e. biological)? After all, lots of people have said that none of our primate relatives are monogamous (though this is not actually true).


I follow the FB page of a celebrity couple who has been on the social radar for years. She was a lifestyle guru (à la Martha Stewart) and he was her business manager. They owned restaurants, hosted television shows (or she did, anyway), even launched various product lines. A commanding and handsome pair, their union was the picture of an ideal marriage and business partnership. During the last decade, however, the wife had been inhabited by and diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and her husband has since adopted the role of her primary caregiver. Navigating this new terrain with as much grace as any of us could hope to muster, the two have co-authored a poignant memoir recounting their initial descent into the disease, but as her health continues to decline, their shared FB page has slowly evolved into a space for him to commiserate with other caregivers. This observation should not be construed as a criticism. Alzheimer's caregivers, bastions of support for their identity-dwindled and increasingly incapacitated loved ones, all too often fold up and put away those things that feed their own souls. In other words, Alzheimer's caregivers need support, too.


Recently on this FB page, the husband inferred that he is, in some way, engaging with another woman. He is still his wife's primary caregiver, and, judging from the posts made before and after the confession (if that's what it was), he still very much loves his wife. While a romantic affair was not explicitly stated, its allusion nonetheless generated a scroll's worth of comments that largely spelled support for this turn-of-events. Caregiving is soul-stripping. It's ugly and lonely and totally unrewarding. There is no fuzzy feeling in force-bathing your recalcitrant spouse. But on the other hand, it's what we swear to do, right?


Of all the comments on this post, only one hovered near the gently critical, reminding, amongst other things, that the vows we make are to be upheld through "sickness and health." I found myself an oscillating hoverer, too, trapped like a hummingbird between two different nectars, both equally seductive. After all, he is still caring for her, he's just wanting to satiate some of his own basic needs, too. I thought, of course, of my own parents. More specifically, I thought of my mother. How would she feel, I wonder, if my father chose this? If she could comprehend its significance, what would her reaction be? Quite decisively, I am certain that it would hurt her feelings. It would make her feel sad. 


And yet, in this hypothetical and very difficult case, I would still want to understand and support my father.


I imagined other scenarios where spouses are forced into the intensity of the full-time caregiver grind. Take cancer, for example. Chemo, I know, can make you feel sick – in some cases, sicker than cancer itself makes you feel. With chemotherapy treatment, nausea, weakness, irregular bowel movements, and appetite loss are some (among many) symptoms likely to haunt a patient. If those wretched symptoms persisted, it would not be too farfetched to presume that not only could private and basic pursuits become too difficult to perform without assistance, but that a love life might have to be put on hold, as well. That's partly why we nearly instinctively detest illness, no? Not only because it might make us leave, but also because it sometimes possesses the capacity to rob us of our autonomy, our very dignity?


I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that, in a similar position of divulging extramarital affairs, a cancer-caregiving spouse might find less understanding and support than an Alzheimer's-caregiving spouse. Alzheimer's patients tend to linger longer in an incapacitated state, unintentionally placing a burden on – and sometimes instilling unwanted resentment in – his or her caregivers. But perhaps even more indicative in the differential treatment of our hypothetical philanderers is that Alzheimer's patients just aren't completely there. You won't be caught fooling around, because there's not really anyone to catch you. Even if you are caught, the transgression will be quickly forgotten. Short-term memories are the first to evaporate. That furtive, icky, stomach-churning moment when you realize you're about to be caught for something and you're already trying to figure out how to talk your way out of it? None of that here. There's less of a person to offend.


Less of a person. Is that just what we tell ourselves because it can't be contradicted?


In Hinduism, there is a concept called swaraj. Gandhi utilized this notion to rouse millions of Indians into the movement that would ultimately bring about their independence from the British. Swa means self, while raj refers to rule. Embodied, the concept evokes a fervent urgency to empowerment within the sanctity of one's own skin. Autonomy. Agency. Freedom. These are the delicious principles we so often associate with our very being-ness. But like millions of people, the wife in this story, as well as my mother, are losing their swaraj. Along with their swaraj, we assume that they are also losing their swa.


While my mother's palette to express herself slowly loses the vivacity of its hues, she is nevertheless still in possession of a palette. I know that when we visit, she is happy. Her smile tells us this, so does her laughter, and so do her eyes. I know that when my dad leaves her alone for too long (even in the company of another family member), she is unhappy. Her crying and yelling tell us this and again, so do her eyes. Someone is there, but the nuances on which we often rely to finesse communicative exchanges are diminishing. What do we owe them, those we love who leave this world so haltingly, perversely re-babying, unlearning everything they have acquired and losing hold of swaraj? What do we owe them, when we already have given so much, more than we even give ourselves? And what do we owe ourselves, particularly when handling the sticky question of fidelity?


I speak, of course, from the perspective of spousal caregivers. That is to say, not myself. 


Somewhere in there, a swa is still present. It may be easier to trick and manipulate (more child-like, they call it, but that's mostly just adding sugar to a very bitter tea), but a swa is there nonetheless. Even in the profound depths of the disease's ugly yet merciful end, they say, it  can be found in the eyes. 



[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Sun, 31 Dec 2017 20:36:31 GMT
Learning to listen when there is no sound.


I imagine Alzheimer's disease as a big, fat, Jabba-the-Hutt mass of nothing congesting the area above the brow line. Even though it seems counterintuitive for nothing to have mass, I stand nonetheless by the realness of the nothing-something (and anyway, I don't think even physics is clear on the matter, no pun intended). I myself feel a version of this paradoxical nothing-something's weight when, for instance, I butt up against a concept so entangled that its beginning and end seem hopelessly matted in chaos. Un-gettable. It's something, but nothing's there. Paradoxes are not easy to grasp, and they're usually best comprehended when reason is abandoned. This nothing-something is blank but not weightless. In fact, it's a monster. But it's nothing. It's the same nothing that relentlessly devoured Fantasia in The Neverending Story. At best, in real life, it is analogous to the most omnipresent nothing-something of all, death. See what I mean? It's nothing, dying. When you are dead, you will be nothing. But you feel its weight, don't you? That is how I imagine Alzheimer's.


I was a maniac this past week, shredding through old emails and photo albums and videos, desperately looking for any kernels of my mother. I wanted to see her old hairstyle or her Maybelline mascara eyelashes, and I wanted to ride shotgun while she drove her Nissan minivan infuriatingly under the speed limit. I wanted her to order a Swiss mushroom burger well done when we went out for Mexican food because she was never quite culinarily adventurous enough and she always consumed her meat as dead as can be. I wanted to hear her. I wanted to know what she was thinking, or how she felt. No, that's not quite right. I know how she felt -- I know that she was happy that we were visiting. But I wanted her to say, "Let's go to Trader Joe's so I can buy you some groceries," like she said every other time I came to visit before 2014. I want her to read this blog entry and say, "Don't be silly, I'm right here." After all, she is right here...And she's not.


Of course, there will be an adage somewhere professing the grace of accepting the present condition and being at peace with who she is (un-)becoming. But I think that's bullshit, and I know that she would think the same. She doesn't have a choice but to bear witness to her own erasure. Alzheimer's is not peaceful, even as it steals her ability to cuss and get angry. It savors her one piece at a time. The more of her that is taken -- in other words, the less dimensional she becomes -- the more I feel the bigness of the nothing-something that colonizes her. I wish I had said more to her when I was younger ("How was school?" "Fine."). I wish I had shown more gratitude. I wish I hadn't given her so much grief. I know, I know, I am a walking cliché. But in a way, isn't there something beautiful about that? About the grandness of our emotions, that we can know them before we know them, through the vessels of one another?


My mother was a spitfire. She was small but big, another paradox. When I recall the clarity of her voice, the lilt of her slight Polish accent beckons me back to the very beginning, right into the safety of her womb, the place where I first knew her physically. If I could crawl back in to get closer to her, I would. I am her, that much I know. That much I've always known, even when I didn't want to. I have her cells. I have her demeanor. I now even have her voice, locked safely somewhere inside of me. I just wish she had it, too.

[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Mon, 27 Nov 2017 17:14:33 GMT
Visiting Pench Tiger Reserve with Conservation Wildlands
Originally posted 19 October 2014
The wind whispers differently depending on the structure through which it passes.  For instance, the bamboo (not a tree by the way, but a kind of grass) becomes playful. If you have ever seen a bamboo forest dancing in the wind from above, you know what I mean. They are downright lighthearted. Their song is a whisper in a dream, or one under a blanket-fort at a slumber party.   "Shhhhhh………," they say.  "Just be happy."
Ironwoods, on the other hand, are much more stately. They sing differently when the wind comes through. They are your grandmother's lullaby as you fall asleep. They are the floral equivalent of the noble owl. They tell secrets passed down through generations, from one elder to another to another. They come onto this planet with purpose and leave it with grace. They are kind. "Whooooooooo………," they reassure. "You're little. Isn't that nice?"
I have been in Bombay for almost a year now. If I could consult my 25 year old self and tell her that one day she'd be living in one of the world's most crowded cities, she would burst out laughing at such a preposterous idea. "I don't do cities," she'd say haughtily. And yet, here we are.
But this story is not about a city. It's about a forest. 
Dance of life and love (and death) Dance of life and love (and death) Dance of life and love (and death)
The Duronto Express leaves Bombay's famous Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly known as Victoria Terminus; you can see it in Slumdog Millionaire) nightly around 8 o'clock. Its last stop, reached in about twelve hours, is a city called Nagpur. Just a couple of hours further away is a forest, within which lies the Pench Tiger Reserve.  
This is the forest that inspired Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book.
Pooja Choksi, a capoeira friend of mine (her capoeira name is Natureza, which means what it sounds like), works with a trust called Conservation Wildlands. Recently, she helmed a successful crowdsourced fundraising campaign to build not one, but two libraries in the villages of Pench where she works.
Pooja is an environmental educator, in addition to wearing other hats (as is often the case in the field of conservation). She made a very smart point to me recently.
"So many people think conservation is about protection," she said. "But these days, it's not about living in a jungle fending off poachers. It's about finding sustainable livelihood choices for the humans who live in proximity to the affected area. It's about sensitization."
She asked if I could come to Pench to help document the preparation and inauguration of the libraries, as well as the reading assessments and education programs she facilitates for schoolchildren who live in the buffer zone forests (to which I quickly agreed).  
Pench Tiger Reserve stretches over two states in central India: Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. The forest is home to an impressive array of carnivores: tigers, of course, though leopards, striped hyenas, civets, jungle cats and wild dogs also make their homes here. The herbivores (as should be in a properly balanced ecosystem) are even more plentiful:  chital (spotted deer), sambar (largest deer in India), gaur (buffalo), nilgai (a very large and elusive specie of antelope), muntjac (barking deer), chowsingha (four-horned antelope), and langur (leaf-eating monkey). Rounding out the community are the omnivores: sloth bears, wild pigs, and rhesus macaques, to name a few.
And these are just the mammals.
Pench was recognized in 1977 as a sanctuary for the dwindling Bengal tiger population. 450 square kilometers were set aside to allow the ecosystem to flourish. The core forest of Pench -- that is, the primary, most untouched region -- is off-limits to humans. The last tribes living in the core were relocated to the buffer zone in the early 90s. I asked Pooja how they felt about being made to leave. She said that recurring confrontations with tigers -- specifically when they resulted in cattle loss -- were enough of a catalyst for most people to want to go.
Pench is home to something like 55 tigers. The Tiger Reserve's management recently recovered more land to add to Pench, which will hopefully bolster the tiger population in the years to come -- though it's buffer forest, so it will need time to grow into the primary forest that best suits wildlife. One of the biggest threats to the survival of the felines (and all endangered animals, really) is the constant loss of habitat. And what we've learned is that you cannot preserve habitat without involving the community who lives within it.
So this is what Conservation Wildlands does: it builds and delivers environmental curriculum to children; it explores alternative livelihoods for adults (everything from handicraft making to honey cultivating is being discussed); it brings precious information from the field to your proverbial table so you can learn about how they are helping to save the Bengal tiger. You can read about Pooja and the work of Conservation Wildlands here.
Library inauguration day
Library Inauguration
Inside one of the village schools
Inside one of the village schools
An old proverb goes something like this: "Without the forest, there is no tiger. Without the tiger, there is no forest."
It just may happen that we will let them slip through our fingers: tigers and trees. If this happens, and our children will not marvel at the sight of tigers or the sweet melody of the wind passing though the ironwoods, how will we explain ourselves? 
[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Thu, 19 Oct 2017 13:44:40 GMT
One Moment in Cameroon "It was written that I would love you,

From the moment I opened my eyes.

And the morning when I first saw you,

Gave me life under calico skies."

Sir Paul McCartney

A misty morning at camp


We have only a few weeks now in Cameroon. These moments, the last ones, are the artist's paradoxical piece to illustrate the fluidity of time. Some anticipatory moments feel long. Yet somehow, the days of the calendar pass so quickly that the heart cannot comprehend it will soon be saying good-bye. They are the same moments, the long ones and the short ones. They are the thorns in the side of physics.


You know this as well as I do: that travel invigorates the soul and reclaims some of the foundational wisdom of youth. It is newness. That is why we love it. It drags us bleary-eyed creatures from the claws of the mundane.


When you travel, it is easy to focus on the differences. The different faces, the different clothes, the different songs, the different smells. Why do they do that? the stupid wanderer wonders. I will admit now that it took me a good ten years of travel to realize that I was indeed closed-minded in ways that I didn't previously understand. My way isn't the right way. It never was. It isn't the wrong way either. That is the beauty. But you can never stop checking yourself, either. 


I want to focus on a story of similarities here in Cameroon.


Macaco and I made an impromptu journey to Yaoundé out of certain necessity. We took a seven (or so) hour bus ride from Bertoua out west. About an hour into the ride, a young mother boarded the bus with her infant and her four-year-old. She didn't buy a seat for the older child (there wasn't a free one anyway) and she held the younger one in her arms. The boy would have to stand for the rest of the journey, five- to six-hours at least. I was exhausted just imagining it. He buried his little head into his mother's arm. Macaco and I discussed things and decided that he would stow his bag (which had previously occupied his lap) up above, he would take my own bulky bag onto his lap, and I would take the child. I motioned to the mother and offered our plan and she consented. 


The child was frightened of me. Why not? Not only was I stranger, but one that looked much different than the people he knew. But he took a chance and settled into my lap and gave me a go. I was soft enough for him, maternal enough. I wound my right arm around his tiny waist to shield him from the bumps and acute turns of the journey. He pressed further into me, but still his right hand wouldn't let go of the seat in front of us. Though we weren't quite positioned to do so easily, I realized that I would have to wind my left arm around him too. I didn't speak to him about it, instead merely shifting my hip a bit. He immediately knew my agenda. He lifted the elbow of his left arm, which was resting in his lap, making a small opening so that I could snake my own arm through. There. There it was, the moment of connection. We spoke without words, both knowing the goal of the moment's program, both having already occupied the respective sides of our embrace. The profundity of it is stunning, if you allow it.


Remember these things. These are the things that will save us.


Here, if you're interested, are some digital memories of this trip to Africa. We are together.


Final capoeira class with the Meyene kids, where the kids received certificates upon completion of the environmental education course. 


The certificate the kids received


Severin rocks out on the berimbau


With the education staff of Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center and the teachers of the Meyene school.


From our final class with the kids, during a warm-up game. We call for a roda at the end.


When we want to use the internet, this is the bridge we have to cross to travel the 26 km to Belabo town.


These driver ants are carnivores to the extreme. If you were on a short tether and in their way, and if their marching line was wide enough, you'd be eaten alive in a matter of a couple of days. 


Good-night from Milou the chimpanzee 








[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Mon, 26 Jun 2017 13:24:06 GMT
The Undying Love between Science and Art.

While at the Sanaga Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Centre, we've been taking time about once a week to go to the village of Meyene. During these visits, we share lessons of capoeira and environmental education with the kids who attend school there. 


Our last lesson was on the four elements that every habitat -- from a spider web to a human home -- has to have. These elements are food, water, shelter, and space (big nod to my days with the Hawaii Nature Center). We devised a game for the capoeira warm-up that looked like this: the kids walked around in ginga while Macaco played the pandeiro (tambourine). When the music stopped, they had to meet up with their team members (arranged beforehand), locate food and water tokens that were scattered about the grounds (powdered milk tin lids about the size of a silver-dollar pancake, painted blue for water and yellow for food), find a space for with their group, and build a shelter. If a teacher called "Spider!," then the students had to form a ring by holding hands around one child (a spider in a web). If "Chimpanzee!" was called, then students made a Queen's Chair: making a perch of sorts by joining hands in the center and letting one child sit upon that "chair" (a chimpanzee in a nest). With the call of "Human!", the kids raised their arms and touched hands over the head of a child (a human in a house).


What do you think? Check out video footage and photos of one of our classes.



[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Mon, 29 May 2017 11:45:00 GMT
The Body of Joy Akim


I've been giving laughter some thought lately. Counter-intuitive, perhaps, to overanalyze such a usually instinctive vocalization. But if you do think about it, you'll recall that laughter is more than what we do when we think something is funny. There's nervous laughter, for instance. Or you might laugh (or smile) while trying to ingratiate yourself back into someone's good graces after a conflict, especially when you know that you're the one who was wrong.


As a culture, we believe that laughter is cathartic. Laughter is the best medicine, we say. Indeed, if we have the means to explore the planet, we might even acknowledge that laughter's ability to heal is so powerful that it should be nothing short of a universal medicine. After all, if a smile is just unerupted laughter, then it's the same thing all over the world, is it not? In Cameroon, or Cambodia, or Cleveland?


Here's something I'd like to share if you didn't already know: chimpanzees laugh. That may surprise you, but bear in mind that this is the species that has surprised humans over and over again for the last six decades. You're in good company, shoulder to shoulder with naturalist giants (grown-ups who never quit wanting to play outside), if you're in awe. 


So let me, if you're still with me, introduce you to Akim. She's seven-years-old, still probably at least a year from her first cycle. Had she been raised by her mother, she might have only completely ceased nursing as recently as two years ago. Like many chimpanzees who end up in captivity in central Africa, her mother was killed by a hunter who sold her corpse for meat. That is the likeliest scenario.


(On a side note, I feel it's important to add that chimpanzee meat is primarily no longer a sustenance food for people who have little wealth or material possessions; on the contrary, it's a delicacy that is reserved for the select elite. I make this point because often times in the conservation paradigm, the needs of impoverished people are pitted against environmental endeavors. This is not always the the case.)


After her mother was killed, Akim somehow ended up in the possession of a long-distance truck driver who kept her as a pet. She would have still been nursing, still close to her mother, sleeping in her nest at night, riding atop her back during the day, spending her free time exploring the trees or playing on the forest floor with other infants.


Presumably for the sake of convenience, Akim's owner kept her in a 3x3 foot box. For three years, she lived in this box while the man went on long hauls in his truck and came back every few days to feed her. I can only imagine that her moments were without end. For three years, she lived alone inside this box without knowing that she would one day be rescued, without knowing that caregivers awaited her with fruits and greens, that other chimps awaited her to play, that trees awaited her to be climbed. For three years, she could only reach out and touch the edges of her muted world, sit in the company of her own feces, underfed, without the knowledge that a light would one day come. For three years.


That is Akim's past. She was rescued by the team at Sanaga-Yong and came to the sanctuary near the end of 2016. She arrived scared and underdeveloped and a bit of a feral child, which is an interesting reverse kind of comparison considering she was wild first and then humanized, but the metaphor works. Both a humanized chimp and a feral child are stuck in a frenetic, uneven kind of world, where one's context does not match one's behavioral inclinations. It's a lonely, confounding place.


Today Akim lives with Muna, an older female who seems so far to be the perfect companion. She's older-sisterly and will let Akim ride her for very short bouts. She's almost always a willing playmate. Muna and Akim spend their afternoons tickling one another atop a platform of their climbing structure or chasing each other around the enclosure. One day, they will be integrated into a larger group of chimps, but until that day, they continue to cement their bond. 


Knowing how cerebrally and emotionally dynamic chimpanzees are, I understand that the damning repercussions of trauma can cut quite deep into the psyche of our closest living relatives. I have met chimpanzees and gorillas with deadened eyes, and I remember the details of those eyes -- their shape, their hue, their emptiness -- to this day. Like humans, apes can be damaged. But they are also resilient in a way that always inspires me to meet my own boundaries with renewed strength.


Today, Akim laughs a lot. I've included a video of a Muna/Akim play session. Their play may look rough, but remember this is the species that can bound up a three-story tree in less than ten seconds. They can handle. These are the ones who have surprised us for six decades. Good thing. They make us better.


Akim coming out from the bush, just after a noise started her






[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Mon, 22 May 2017 14:01:36 GMT
From an Unguarded Midnight


Grand frére.


Big brother. That's what some of the caregivers call the chimps. It's a surprising term for a country gripped by Catholicism. The other week when we were in town (that is, away from the project), we overheard two technicians discussing us when they thought we weren't listening. 


"They work with the chimpanzees."


"I know."

"The chimpanzees. Our grandfathers."


"Don't you ever call them that. They're not my grandfathers."


Yet, a small something in the song changes for human beings who actually know chimpanzees. Even for religious human beings. There exists a sweet, sticky middle region where Science and Spirit come together. You're acquainted with it too, I'm sure. We have to feel our way around to reconcile our various beliefs with various facts, but that was never an issue. We will always feel our way around: after all, we are born wanderers, born wonderers. Our curiosity is perhaps our greatest asset. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.


This is why sometimes the natural elements overcome us in the seductive, intimate way that they do. For instance, I heard the forest breathing last night. Not in a metaphorical way, and not in an orchestral way, where the insects and hyraxes and other small forest creatures participate in a magnificent, eco-systemic symphony. It was instead actually respiring: a deep inhalation, a soft and lengthy exhalation. I suppose when you're ill, as I was the night I heard the forest breathing, something in your wracked, vulnerable weakness (hunched over a dry-milk tin a quarter-filled with bile, reminded you're no more than a temporarily animated corpse mere inches from nothingness) allows you to surrender yourself to that beautiful, dizzying mystery. There is, after all, nothing to hold onto.


I was raised by the church as well as by science. I extricated myself from organized religion at fifteen or so, but have always held a deep love and respect for the Greatest Unnameable Mystery. But science swayed me too, and as I got older, I realized that Spirit and Science were two different forages for the same fruit.


The chimpanzee pictured in this blog post is named Tilly. She is a smart, sassy, curious creature who loves to use tools and generally surprise humans with her intelligence. She's the chimp in her group on which the project will test a new object, a new water-drinker for instance, to make sure it's chimp-proof. If you ask me, she's also a kind being, one who shared a full, uneaten avocado with me a few days ago, and who also tried to swat a tsetse fly off the leg of a colleague. Her sense of empathy is well-developed, and so is her sense of justice and compassion. I'm okay with her being my older sister (even if technically, I am older than she is).




[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Tue, 09 May 2017 12:51:22 GMT
A Little Bit of Capoeira in Meyene


So you might know that Macaco and I are in Cameroon for a few months. We've returned to a project at which I've already spent a fair amount of time. It's called the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Centre, and it provides sanctuary for chimpanzees rescued from the bushmeat trade. While here, we'll not only be working with the chimps, but also with the organization's education outreach program. We're both pretty excited about this, because we now have an opportunity to combine two of our passions: conservation education and capoeira.


About a decade ago, the project helped to build a school for kids of a nearby community called Meyene. Until that time, the closest school had been about thirty kilometres away down a horribly bumpy and deeply rutted road that becomes near impossible to traverse during the rainy season. We've been working with Sanaga-Yong's education officer, Alfred, to devise a program that combines capoeira with an environmental education curriculum. Last week, we had our first session with the kids, and shared some of the elements of capoeira -- the history, the movements, and a few songs.


Below are some of the photos and a video from our morning in Meyene. If, like us, you believe that conservation endeavors must be symbiotic with the communities who reside within the ecosystem in which you are working, then I hope you'll be happy to see these photos.






[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Wed, 26 Apr 2017 10:25:30 GMT
Aaron and Anthropomorphism, Plus Some Photos Aaron is enchanting. As long as I've known him, he's always been great at eye contact. That's the general truth with chimps. They aren't like macaques, who bare their teeth and lunge at you if you stare for too long. Chimpanzees hold your gaze. They remain present with you. A fleeting moment, shared by fleeting creatures, on a fleeting planet.


It's easy to get lost in these moments, and in our interpretations of them. We have these very certain insights -- or what we believe are certain insights -- into how chimps feel. 


"She's not fond of humans."


"He's jealous that you're giving her attention."


She laughing because it's funny to her."


Sometimes we may be right, but behavior can be shaky ground. After all, what infallible yardsticks do we use when we qualify our behavioral observations? This is tricky enough with humans, but with nonhumans, the gauge might be entirely different. We have some clues, though. There's consistency in actions and reactions. Context also helps. So do gestures, and vocalizations, and expressions, and yes, even intuition. 


And yet there remain some terms, like empathy or jealousy or benevolence, that raise the red flags of anthropomorphism. Who are we, after all, to label chimpanzees with emotions as they are understood by our human terms with our human brains?


But then, who are we to rob them of them?


I hadn't seen Aaron since he was about eight years old. His best friend was Boumba. Then, as today, they have personalities made for caricatures. Aaron is the smart one. Thoughtful, intentional, and profound. Boumba is his goofy, droopy-lipped sidekick who needs his own catchphrase. Holy bananas, Batman! It's a person! Eight years ago, they cruised their spacious enclosure under the watchful eyes of elderly Bouboule and alpha male Ballas. Today, Aaron has risen through the social ranks to become the new alpha male of his social group. He's big -- a good sight bigger than either Ballas or Boumba. But his thoughtfulness remains. 


I went with Sandra to go see them the other night as they were preparing to nest. Aaron descended from his platform as soon as we arrived, sitting with us in fertile silence.


"You all right, Aaron? Ça va bien?"


His eyes scanned the rebar separating us before landing on my hands. He pushed his shoulder against the mesh of the enclosure, wanting me to groom him.


"Oh, buddy, I haven't seen you in years. I need a little time before I can groom you."


He looked at me again, (seemingly) processing the information. Often, I feel sad for big male chimps. Sometimes they really just want to be groomed and nothing more, but humans who have worked with chimps for a long time tend to be very cautious around them. I call it the Lenny (Of Mice and Men) syndrome. Too strong and unpredictable for their own good, even when they're not harboring any destructive intentions. But forget not: it's not unusual to see missing digits on people who work with chimps. I'm hoping to leave this life with all of mine in tact.


Aaron turned and walked to the other side of his sleeping quarters. He rifled through the foliage (with which later he would make his night nest) until he found what he was looking for: a long stick. He strode back to the mesh that separated us and carefully handed me the stick. 


There. Keep your fingers. Groom me.


So I obliged, grooming him as best I could with the stick, a poor substitute for a finger. But it sufficed. He watched me the entire time, content (I think) that we made the connection. 


With captive chimps, sticks are often the first in a long line of grooming tools. Aaron knows this. He's been there before. In fact, we both have. It's how we make our respective ways in this strange, juxtaposed world, where woman meets ape and new etiquette unfolds.


Under the gaze of Aaron.




Akim and Muna keep an eye on the goings-on.

[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Wed, 19 Apr 2017 13:23:07 GMT
A Reacquaintance Tilly (foreground) and Daniel (background)


There are footsteps on the continent, and some of them are mine. I had memories of these footsteps from long before they were born. It's like this sometimes: a place gets under your skin so deeply that you cannot remember a time that it didn't hound you, even if it was only biannually in dreams. 


I come back again and again because I feel that I have to. Our nonhuman brethren are only a part of this, but in no way a small part. With the chimpanzees at Sanaga-Yong, I find myself wondering if some piece of me lingers in their consciousness (or subconsciousness). That vague and persistent kind of familiarity. Like when you see someone in a grocery store and you know that you know them, but you cannot place from where. Or how for me as a child, the smell of my father's old blue-terry bathrobe always reminded me of Poland, as if the country were itself a breathing, singular organism.


Tilly was just three when I last left. She was always the kinda gal who kicked it with boys. She still is. In her group of seven, she is the lone female. She certainly can hold her own, and she's not at the bottom of her group's hierarchy.


When she was younger, Tilly was a food sharer. She gave me banana chunks on more than one occasion. This fact becomes even more significant when you understand that chimpanzees are not usually known for their generosity with food. In fact, some chimp mothers have been known to ignore a whimpering infant with an outstretched hand. Not that she'd starve her own child, of course, but just perhaps because she wants to savor the culinary experience on her own terms.


The other night, when the chimpanzees of Tilly's group (officially called Charlos's group, after the alpha male) came into their sleeping quarters for the evening, I crouched down alongside the chamber that Tilly shares with Daniel and Shy (who were all just babies the last time I was here). Tilly watched me watch her. I didn't look away, and neither did she. Soon, she began rifling through the leaves until she came upon a guava skin with the faintest hint of pink flesh still hugging the interior. She threw it to me. 


"Oh, thank you Tilly!" I exclaimed, and brought the rind toward my lips (carefully avoiding contact). I began making soft food grunts. She watched, interested in my consumption. I think I was able to fool her, and when she turned away, I placed the guava skin on the floor. But then she handed me another.


Shy's place face


Milou says hello


Tilly grooms Charlos

[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Wed, 12 Apr 2017 10:38:58 GMT
Return to Eden It is sunny.


Charlos sits about fifty feet away. He's charged by me twice with stick in hand, kicking the dust up as he passes. Both times, he makes sure to look me in the eye. He knows I'm watching. He decides to round the bend outside of my line of vision, perhaps gearing up for another display.


The whites of his eyes show. I've never met a chimp like this, but I've seen photos, and I've always thought that the feature somehow makes apes seem more human. There might be something to this, which is how the cooperative eye hypothesis came to be. It says that white sclera (once thought to be a uniquely human trait) help us to follow another's gaze. When we do this, we have an intuitive window into someone's intentions without needing words. This is where Charlos and I are: no words, but curious. I want to understand him, because he wasn't here the last time I was here. He came to Sanaga-Yong sometime after my second departure in 2009. He used to live at a rescue center closer to the capital city of Yaoundé, but he was not treated well by the other chimps after being deposed as alpha male and thus was relocated. C'est la vie. None of us are noble all of the time.


He comes around again, but this time he is calmer. I approach him from the other side of the enclosure, careful to keep my distance. I extend my hand, a gesture in chimpanzee culture that means, "I'm not a threat. I respect you. I am trying to be your friend." We watch one another, white sclera regarding white sclera. We are the same. But we are different. 


He raises his eyes from time to time to look at me. We need time, I know. This never happens overnight.


Welcome back to life on the rim of the Congo basin.




[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Wed, 05 Apr 2017 12:23:15 GMT
Women's March, Bend OR, January 21 2017 Some photos from today's Women's March in Bend OR.


If you don't get it, you won't get it. But you're invited to nonetheless. 


[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Sun, 22 Jan 2017 01:28:17 GMT
From a Sparrow


There was a noise coming from the dryer duct: a dry, rattling sound. My father disassembled the mechanical intestines and pulled out a breathing, feathery fairy tale -- a little sparrow. Dad was an animal lover too; in fact, this part of me came directly from him. He pursed his lips and gently brought the bird to his gray electrician's uniform, cradling him to his solar plexus.


"I have to go to work," he said. "You and your sister take care of him until I return, and then we'll figure out what to do."


He handed me the sparrow and I held him closely, astounded to have an animal entrusted to me. His rapidly beating heart both coiled and catalyzed my nerves.


"I'm sorry little friend," I whispered, "But I'll take care of you."


Truth be told, I was afraid of the responsibility. It left an oversized rock in my stomach, but I wouldn't leave him either. And anyway, I was proud to be a wildlife rescuer at such a young age, and that drove me more resolutely than fear did. I don't think I was more than 7. My sister would have been 9. (On a side note, do children that young still stay home alone?)


We dressed the bathroom in what we thought was a proper habitat. As many houseplants that would fit, extra branches for perching, towels to capture any messes, and seeds and chunks of white bread scattered about. In retrospect, we knew nothing about sparrow diets, but this was before the age of Google. It was even before the age of beepers. All we had were our single-digit aged imaginations.


I stayed in the bathroom with him. I read to him and sang to him. 


There is a bird in my bathroom, a bird in my bathroom! I'm going to save him.                 


The thought delivered me to new territory. It made sense.


"Gosia?" I cracked the bathroom door open and called my sister by her Polish nickname. "He keeps flying into the mirror."


"Maybe he thinks it's another bird and he's fighting with him?" She sat in the bathroom with me. We both watched him in amazement, then took turns sitting with him until Dad came back later that afternoon. He was working the first shift so it was still light when he arrived.


"How is he?" he asked.


"I don't know," I replied. "He was really active earlier. And now he's just sitting here."


I handed him to my father, because fathers are fix-it men. My dad inspected him from head to toe, a task that took lasted as long as his sigh.


"What did he do today?"


"He was okay, dad, nothing happened." I swallowed, because his tone had changed. "He was flying around all day; he was even playing with himself in the mirror because he thought he was another bird."


"Did he fly into the mirror?" 


"Yes, he thought he was another bird and he wanted to check himself out."


"How many times?"


"A lot."


"Misia." That was my Polish nickname. My father crouched down and looked gently at me, his eyes creased in the corners. "He's dying."


It was a lie. He didn't know how to fix him. I took the sparrow back, the tiny creature who, like me, encapsulated life, and scared me with his audacity to do so. I felt betrayed.


"No he's not." 


"Yes, he is," he said. "I'm sorry. He has damage to his brain from flying into the mirror so many times."


He wasn't going to help. I ran to the living room, the sparrow tucked in my hands, and balled up in a corner of the couch. It was my fault that he would die. A knot developed in my throat and hot, sticky tears rolled out from my eyes. It was the kind of crying that, as adults, we only permit ourselves when something really, really breaks us: a thick constrictor from the throat to the gut, choking on saliva and snot run amok from the orifices.


I'll pause here to remember what I remembered then: a passage from Where the Red Fern Grows, a horribly traumatizing book that I loved anyway. Billy, the protagonist, wanted to get a dog, but his family couldn't afford one. He prayed every day to God, but remained nary the richer in the field of canine friends. So he doubted his efforts, or God, or prayer, and confronted his mother. 


I went to my mother and asked her if God answered prayers every time one was said. She smiled and said, "No, Billy, not every time. He only answers the ones that are said from the heart. You have to be sincere and believe in Him." 


And Billy finally did get his dogs -- so if it worked for him, then that meant that I could save the sparrow's life. I knew I was asking for more than Billy was, but that wouldn't be a setback to whom I was pleading. If anyone could do it, God could. 


Please God, please. I felt my seven-year old, unsullied, wonder-filled heart. It was with me. Please God, let him live. Please let him live. 


But, you know. I'm not the first person who has been refused by God. And, of course, there are many who have uttered unrequited laments to that Incomparable Mystery who have suffered far more loss than I could ever imagine. But it wrecked my seven year old mind nonetheless. That little bird died in my hands, his final breath escaping his body with such wretched finality that my heart still aches for the child who sobbed for his passing.


For some reason, I remembered this event the other day. As can be expected, my feelings about Life and Death, the Divine, and the Rhythm of Existence have vastly changed, even if I do believe I was wiser then. I won't ever pretend that one is right over the other, because, like you, I don't really know. But I am at peace with the truths I have come to, and today, I enjoy discovering the stories at the intersection between Science and Spirituality. And with that, when I remembered this story, I also remembered what happened later that night. 


I was sitting on the couch, tucked into my father. We were watching syndicated reruns of All in the Family, which, by the way, my parents still watch to this day. In the episode, Edith was pet-sitting for a cockatoo or parakeet who was kept in one of those antiquated, tall, round bird cages. At some point during the episode, the Bunkers find that the bird had died. I can't remember the cause, but I do remember that Edith was sad, and that there was some confusion as to why the bird had to die.


To my seven-year old mind, it seemed an especially cruel episode since we had just lost the sparrow that afternoon. More so, it felt like a pretty big "eff you" from God. But today, I find a deeper symbolism in this series of events of that heartbroken child: something about the complex layers of existence; about the beauty and sanctity of ephemerality; about recurring lives and interconnectivity and meeting from life to life; and yes, even about the serendipity of an All in the Family episode mirroring something that I had just desperately prayed to God about. I am not a religious person, but when I use the word God, I use it with a capital G because there is something that exists that I cannot completely understand, but it is something that I profoundly respect. It includes evolution and genome sequences as much as it does messages and signs from the Universe. It lives in seven-year old children and sparrows, and inspired the Vedas and the Bible and the Koran, as well as reams and reams of scientific research. 


That's my tweet, inspired by my sparrow friends.


(sparrow image from:

[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Mon, 16 Jan 2017 23:43:49 GMT
The Dog, the Heart, and Yes -- the Election


This is Tabby.


She is a bright, curious friend who loves long walks -- I'd wager to say she loves them whether they're on the beach or not. I'm sitting for her this weekend while her human family, my capoeira friends, are out of town. She has a funny and endearing little habit. When we walk and she has to go potty, she lifts a hind leg like a male dog would, and marks the lucky bush or rock in question. She learnt this from her older canine brother. She was sure that's how it's supposed to be done since that's how she saw him do it. The anthropologist in me wants to recognize this as the first step of cultural development -- that is, the transmission of behavior. But I'm sure someone's head will spin in a tizzy if I do say it, so I won't.


Tabby has a second funny and endearing little habit: she likes to hold hands. Which is nice when you're feeling emotional.


Like many family/friends/contacts/acquaintances this week, I felt saddened by the results of the election. I sat on the couch, late into the night, watching the pendulum swing in a direction I thought impossible. I pictured my Muslim family members in Germany: would they still be able to visit me one day in the US? I ethereally felt the breathing of my South Asian husband, fast asleep in the bedroom: would he be harassed? I thought about my LGBTQ friends, my POC male friends who might again be subjected to the stop-and-frisk, the Water Protectors in North Dakota and how the thing they were fighting against was the very thing in which our President-Elect had invested. And on, and on, and on. I was surprised at how violently the sadness overtook me: a heavy, visceral thing, racking my shoulders, forcing my mouth agape, penetrating the cocoon of a blanket into which I had swaddled myself. No, nowhere was safe now. It was here. It had always been here.


Needless to then say, when my dear friends asked if I was interested in dog-sitting this weekend, I jumped at the chance. As they do for many humans, dogs hold a special and sacred place in my heart. In Bombay, I was good friends with a street dog I called Frankie. She's a brindle-coated and intelligent girl. She would come up the stairs into our apartment, plop down on the marble floor, and basically not give a shit that she brought fleas in with her. I mostly didn't give a shit about the fleas either (humans don't make good hosts and we didn't have carpeting anyway), because the other thing she brought was something so precious that I dare not name it. I must instead let an anecdote suffice here. One flooded, monsoon evening, I found myself wrapped in sadness. I left our home with Frankie at my heels and climbed the Spanish-style steps to the quaint Catholic church. We lived in Bandra, the part of Bombay that the Portuguese had settled (or colonized, if you prefer). The church's leafy, tree-lined avenue snaked down, San Francisco-style, to the sea, and Bandstand, and Shah Rukh Khan's mansion. For twenty minutes, I didn't move from the courtyard of that church, exhuming my sadness by sobbing in the torrents. As for Frankie, my soaked sentinel lay by my side, not moving until I did.


So this weekend, I get to spend time with Tabby. This morning we walked to an open space in the neighborhood, a chunk of central Oregon's high desert ecosystem: scrub brush in a landscape that would set your vision alight if you caught it when the sun was just so. Like all dogs, Tabby likes to take time to sniff the world around her, exploring who else had been there and what was left behind. As we were walking, I spotted a feather. It wasn't an especially impressive feather, just a gray one about the size of my index finger. But I crouched down nonetheless, picked it up, and admired its simple and effective structure. Then I looked at Tabby. She was sitting and watching me, head slightly and inquisitively cocked, her own exploration momentarily suspended. I stood. She stood. We began walking again, and I felt a warm feeling spread under my solar plexus. Had she been waiting for me while I was investigating the feather? Did she have knowledge of enjoying the act of exploration, and thus understand that perhaps I, too, enjoyed the act of exploration? All sorts of words circulated through my head, words like empathy and patience and thoughtfulness. I do realize that these are high expectations of a dog, and I am also acutely aware of the dangers of anthropomorphizing. But I didn't quite care in that moment. If anything was clear, it was that she was waiting for me. Whether from a space of obedience, an ingrained pack mentality, or thoughtfulness, didn't matter. 


This might be a long-winded way to say it, but as creatures presumably more intellectually dynamic than canids, we can assume that since dogs can think of others, humans can too. The question then becomes, shall we do it in the vein of inclusion or exclusion? Does family stop at shared genes? At community? At nation? At species demarcations? Or the globe?


Have faith, my friends. And when it gets tough, hunker down with a dog. They will always, consciously or not, remind you to love. They do it much more unabashedly than we. They are inherently privy to wisdom that humans must work a bit harder to uncover. And so, again, there is space to learn.

[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Sat, 12 Nov 2016 21:00:07 GMT
Out of the City and into the Heart

I have been wanting to tell some version of this story for a while, starting with my confession: before I arrived to India, I harbored a preconception about what capoeira would be like there. As a novice, I found solace in my fabricated world. It was basic and populated with human stereotypes, clones of studious South Asian kids I went to high school with, reserved and academic with button-down shirts neatly tucked in. Definitely non-athletes. I know what this sounds like. I know. But I would be lying if I denied that in my imagination, those kids made up most of the Indian capoeira community.


I'm sorry.


And not that one demographic majority is better than another, but I was wrong.  The capoeira I found in India was stunning. Aerial and fluid, robust and strong, creative and unexpected. Embodied with utter abandon and in transcendental mergence with the pulse of the berimbau. Breathtaking. Perhaps it's obvious, but I didn't know at the time that India has a rich history of movement. Kalaripayattu, often cited as the world's first martial art, hails from Kerala. Regional dances flood the streets during festival season. And here I was, transfixed, wanting desperately to know how I could move so freely, too.

Monitor Macaco, MumbaiMonitor Macaco, Mumbai

I want to take you with me somewhere, deep in the harbor side. East of the glitzy Bollywood neighborhoods, well into suburban Mumbai that -- geographically, anyway -- is no longer within the wild heart of the city. But Bainganwadi is still Bombay. After all, the seaside city of twenty-one million is to India what NYC is to the United States. The City of Dreams. Opportunities. This is the place for which the bravest pioneers leave their natal lands; the place they come to make it. If one thing is palpable about beloved Bombay, it is that she is moved by creativity and entrepreneurship. But she's also taxed. There is only so much milk to go around.


So people stay close enough to the caldera, even if they didn't master the fire-walk. The proximal heat is enough. And here is where we find ourselves, in Bainganwadi. The neighborhood is secluded enough from the economic hub of the city that you have to haggle with the rickshaw drivers -- a vestigial quality closer to town, since rickshaw drivers there must run a meter. We exit our rickshaw and the driver speeds off. Immediately, we are the center of attention. 


We start down a wide avenue which quickly runs parallel to a dumping ground. I ask about it, and learn that it is the largest and oldest of Mumbai's dumping grounds.


"Do people live there?" I ask, motioning to the alpinists scaling the mound.


"Some of them do," my friend nods.


We turn down a narrow lane, walking by open doors inside which people are cooking or resting or reading the paper in Hindi or Arabic. If I reach out my arms, I can almost touch both walls at once. An older woman in a magnificent fuchsia sari is perched on her haunches, blowing on her steaming, milky chai to cool it off. I catch her eye and we share a smile. As happens sometimes with simple exchanges like this, I feel a knot form in my throat. The beauty of the human interface catches me off guard. Nonetheless, I have not yet gotten used to this, the cramped, forcibly intimate inner life of Bombay. I was raised in a place with expansive green lawns and disgruntled neighbors who shooed kids away when they cut through their backyards.


Two little boys walk by us, arms swung over one another's shoulders. They look up at us, pointing and giggling. I smile back.


And then, finally, over the honking and the hustle, I hear it. The heartbeat. chit-chit-ding-dong. The berimbau.

This is why we came. We head up a narrow staircase, beckoned by the music. My friend Armelle is one of a handful of teachers working with the kids who are known as Familia de Ouro. Rumor has it that their community inspired the capoeira song of the same name. After all, Armelle, as well as some of the other teachers (many of whom are from Capoeira Mumbai), are students of Mestre Chicote's. It was he who penned the lyrics to that now famous song.


Eu sou capoeira sim senhor             
Eu tenho uma familia de Ouro
A capoeira é a minha vida
E a roda é o meu tesouro


I am capoeira, yes sir
I have a family of gold
Capoeira is my life
And the roda is my treasure


Like the kids, the instructors who come to share their skills are diverse. Some teach English. Others teach art. There's a breakdance class, a reading class, and of course, there's capoeira. It keeps them off the streets -- Bainganwadi can be a rough neighborhood. And these kids are amazing. The class is full of laughs and movement. They are practicing their performance pieces for the upcoming batizado. Mestre Chicote will be arriving to India soon. They don't just want to be good; they want to be damn good.

Familia de Ouro, MumbaiFamilia de Ouro, Mumbai

It's obvious that the students love Armelle, but I'm still a novelty. We laugh a lot. These kids and I do not share a common tongue. Though English is an official language of the subcontinent, it's more often heard in the well-to-do parts of the city, like Bandra or South Bombay. I hear nary a word of it in Bainganwadi.


But there is one language that we share. Capoeira.

We have a roda at the end of class. Because I am a guest, all of the kids want to play me. By the fourth or fifth game, I know I'm growing tired, yet one thing is clear: in the game, we speak. Some of them adapt to my level (as I've said, they are damn good). When it is clear that I am running out of steam, we walk around the roda so that I can catch my breath. 


But the game doesn't end.


"Teacher," my partner says with a luminous smile. "Come on."

Capoeira de Ouro  Batizado and Troca de Cordão (Monitors Sucuri and Chico, under Mestre Chicote)Capoeira de Ouro Batizado and Troca de Cordão (Monitors Sucuri and Chico, under Mestre Chicote)Mumbai, 2014 Capoeira de Ouro  Batizado and Troca de Cordão (Monitors Sucuri and Chico, under Mestre Chicote)Capoeira de Ouro Batizado and Troca de Cordão (Monitors Sucuri and Chico, under Mestre Chicote)Mestre Chicote, Mumbai, 2014

Capoeira de Ouro  Batizado and Troca de Cordão (Monitors Sucuri and Chico, under Mestre Chicote)Capoeira de Ouro Batizado and Troca de Cordão (Monitors Sucuri and Chico, under Mestre Chicote)Contra-Mestre Primo and student, Mumbai, 2014 Capoeira de Ouro  Batizado and Troca de Cordão (Monitors Sucuri and Chico, under Mestre Chicote)Capoeira de Ouro Batizado and Troca de Cordão (Monitors Sucuri and Chico, under Mestre Chicote)Mestre Chicote and student, Mumbai, 2014 Capoeira de Ouro  Batizado and Troca de Cordão (Monitors Sucuri and Chico, under Mestre Chicote)Capoeira de Ouro Batizado and Troca de Cordão (Monitors Sucuri and Chico, under Mestre Chicote)Mumbai, 2014 Capoeira de Ouro  Batizado and Troca de Cordão (Monitors Sucuri and Chico, under Mestre Chicote)Capoeira de Ouro Batizado and Troca de Cordão (Monitors Sucuri and Chico, under Mestre Chicote)Mumbai, 2014


[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Sat, 22 Oct 2016 18:11:29 GMT
What 6:00 Means at Chimps Inc.

Momma Thiele waiting patiently for treat time on the front stoop of the "condo."


Treat time.


The last meal of the day is a special one at Chimps Inc. You could call it dessert -- albeit a healthy one. The staff of Chimps Inc. confers with veterinarians, nutritionists, and others in the field to devise a healthy, well-balanced diet. 


Boring, you say? I think not! Here's a couple shots from this evening's treat distribution, prepared by caregiver Kaleigh. Would you say no?!


Learn more about Chimps Inc. at

Cinnamon pumpkin quinoa with a sprinkle of granola and a splash of almond milk.


CJ, Emma, and Herbie are getting excited!


Kaleigh gives Emma a sneak peek.


Jackpot! Jackson finally enjoys his pumpkin quinoa.


These are the eyes of a satisfied Calamity Jane.

[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Mon, 10 Oct 2016 03:08:07 GMT
Revisit to a Cambodian Temple

Late 2011
The non-abating monsoon. It is tiring. A week of watching the rains come down, escaping from one town to another. Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville to Koh Kong, chasing the sun in the most futile way, like constructing preposterous plans to re-enchant a lover who has long since forgotten you. Most injurious to the ego -- the sun was not going to come out, not if I chased it to the furthest corner of Cambodia. I wondered, not for the first time, not for the last, what in the world I was doing. Lice. A fever. Falling down a flight of stair, a head cold in the monsoon, to boot. If I drank, I would get drunk.
Yesterday I packed my backpack again and came to Koh Kong through the vastly rich cardamom mountains, playground for pepper plantations and gibbons, and got high with the idea of doing a jungle trek, even with my extremely sore bum (from falling down the flight of stairs!). Elephants. Apes and monkeys. Maybe even tigers. I didn't have any delusions that I would actually see them, but to walk through a swatch of forest where they might've once breathed. . . This was enough for me.
"Don't know," Paddy of Paddy's Bamboo Guesthouse said. "Seven days of raining, trails are muddy. Leeches. Not enough people to do a trek."
"Oh," I said. "Okay."
Last night Paddy asked me if I wanted to accompany his family and two other travelers to the temple in the morning. They were going to make offerings to the monks for their loved ones who had passed. We were in the midst of the 15 days of the year when those who've died can be freed. The story goes like this: someone dies. They are locked away by a spirit, and it is only in a small window of time -- just fifteen short days of each year -- that they can be freed to continue on. It is only the monks that can free them. By being offered things, of course.
This morning I waited for Paddy at 8:00 a.m., just like he said. At 9, he met me in the courtyard of the guesthouse and said, "We not going. The rain."
"Oh," I said. "Grump."
So Paddy and I went over to his pub and hung out with his family and the two other barangs: Margeaux from France, and an older man, over sixty, I'd say, whose name I didn't catch. I liked the man, he was weathered and the folds of his face whispered "story-teller". He was English but had lived the last thirty years in Australia, before packing it up and coming to Koh Kong for good to be with the woman he's been with the "last twenty years," he said: a Cambodian who looked about my age. He and I talked about Australia, about crocodiles in Kakadu, and disgruntled Darwinian youth, and the sharks of Adelaide.
Mid-way through the morning the rains finally abated, and Paddy asked me if I was ready to go to the temple.
Goes without saying.
Six of us piled into a tuk-tuk, Margeaux and I and the women of Paddy's family. Paddy drove, and the English Australian and another young man followed on motos. We, all of the women, balanced between ourselves offerings: pineapples cut into spires and bottles of water and pots of rice. Margeaux and I huddled together though Paddy's relatives gave us the spacious side of the tuk-tuk and the four of them crowded onto the narrow bench. This gave me comfort in one way and discomfort in another. As the well-tended child of hard-working immigrants who was raised Catholic, I am prone to bouts of guilt. This is why Margeaux and I huddled, I suppose. We wouldn't dare touch the six inches of room on either side of us while the others were so crowded. I only felt better when we convinced them to let us put the pots of rice there.
"I haven't been to the market.  Have you been?" Margeaux asked.
"Yes," I said. "They have food, cleaning supplies, clothing.  Though not this kind of clothing Westerners like to buy-- " I gestured to my flowing hippie pants "-- but just regular clothes."
"Yeah, I know," Margeaux said.
"Okay," I said, unsure of what else to say since she already knew. I never know what to say to people who already know everything you tell them.
"I love Cambodians," she started again. "Such beautiful people. But they are so short; I wish I could find a man who was more my height."
Margeaux was a glamorous Amazon. An actress.
"They are beautiful, always smiling," she continued. "I really love them. They are very kind."
This is a sentiment I have heard often from travelers here in Cambodia, one I myself have repeated. And it's true, there is something about Cambodians - their smiles, I think. In my three weeks in this country, perhaps only one Cambodian made eye contact with me without following up with a smile. This may sound like you've heard it before, a cliché, but if you think about it, you'll know - it is a very beautiful thing, to smile.
"I think it has something to do with the history," I said, sharing the thought that had come to me a few days ago, while I was loving the verdant landscape through a bus window, catching snapshots of peoples' lives, planting rice in soil that might've once held land mines. "Lights shine most brightly in the dark. There are so many NGO's in Phnom Penh, you know. For women. Children. Land mine victims. There is something extraordinary about a time of recovery, of replanting. Patience and faith and tenderness. I think it is because of these things -- the war, the genocide, the land mines -- that Cambodia has come to flourish this way. People see suffering, and they are driven to somehow make it right."
"Hmm," she said. "I think they are just like that. Kind."
I turned and looked at the landscape instead, not knowing, again, how to continue the conversation in a way that would interest me. So it turns out, as it always does, that I have a lot to learn, too.
We arrived at the temple, greeted by sounds of chanting monks and fragrant incense. Margeaux and I followed Paddy and his family to the front of the room with only two walls, the English Australian and his Cambodian wife behind us. Paddy handed us each five sticks of incense, already lit, and motioned for us to sit with him on the ground, legs tucked under our bodies, feet not facing the altar.
He kept his incense between his hands and dipped his head three times to the floor, each time touching his folded hands to the ground.
And I thought, Praying. This is where beauty is. Talking to that which rouses one's curiosity so desperately; fervid devotion to the miracle of Life itself.
I followed Paddy, dipping my head three times to the floor. I did it exactly as he had, remembering how when I prayed in Bangkok, someone said to me, "You pray like the Tibetan Buddhists do," referring to the way I touched my forehead, my mouth, and my heart before bringing my head to the floor.  
I brought my folded hands close to my heart and closed my eyes. What was there to say? One word, because I didn't have a whole lot of them right now. Make that two words.
Peace. Please.
When I was finished, Paddy gestured that I should take my incense to large pot at the back of the room, which was filled with dirt and already held numerous sticks of incense. People planting their prayers, and I added mine for this time of replanting. The bald nun next to pot smiled and motioned to the donation box, and I melted in that smile, imperfect by western standards yet made of gold, and understood the exchange. Then Paddy and I headed back to the front of the room, and this time, with his family and the English Australian and Margeaux, sat in front of the monks. Feet not facing them, of course.
And in exchange for the rice and the spired pineapples and damp bills crumpled in a dish in front of their feet, the monks prayed for us, and for our deceased loved ones who would soon be leaving wherever it was that they had been locked away. And I remember that five years ago, I would've been the girl who snickered at the patriarchy, and been frustrated at the division of class. Too blinded by my pride to even realize that there is no situation within which magic cannot be found.  
And while pride is a demon with whom I still struggle, he is much meeker than he once was. So today, while I do not believe these perched monks are any more connected than any of us laypeople sitting six inches below them, I instead, once more, folded my hands in front of my heart and closed my eyes.
Yes, I will sit right inside this prayer.
When the prayer was over, the English Australian tapped me on the shoulder.
"I like Buddhism, but I think it is getting too commercial. It makes me a bit uncomfortable." He looked genuinely concerned. "It's a bit like people are relying on it too much. Relying on it to do things for them."
"I think," I said, clearing my throat. "I think it's just playing a role, you know? These are the things we do. We tell stories, all of us, a big mottled collection of stories. And each story is worthwhile and unique. I have mine, you have yours. And the beautiful part comes when we share them. It is a chance not only to create, but to express."
He smiled.
"I like that," he said, "But I just feel that people are relying on it too much, Buddhism, I mean."
And in that moment the monks started praying again. But what I wanted to tell him, the English Aussie, was that yes, we rely. But if not on Buddhism, then it would be Christianity or Islam. Or Facebook. Or horror movies. Or ayahuasca. And if it wasn't that, if we were to relinquish everything and just sit in a cave, then it would be that on which we relied. The cave. The meditation. The solitude. Even the loneliness, even the pride.  
These are the ways we choose to tell our stories.
I followed Paddy again to another room. It was stocked with food, and former Buddhist nuns with white clothing and shaved head sat on the ground. They were putting the food onto plates.
"Paddy," I whispered. "Is it okay if I don't eat? I had breakfast just before we left."
He smiled.
"Not for you. It for the monks to eat. You see there?" And he pointed to a long card table which held six or seven huge bowls of rice. "You put rice in every bowl. And you say a prayer for someone in your family who died."
And as I approached the table with the bowls, one person came to my head. One of the handful of souls that I've known who have traversed the line from body to no-body. From one thing to every thing. One person.
I scooped a spoonful of rice, a small one, so I would have enough to put into each bowl.
And again.
And again.
Kristal. Kristal. Kristal.
And when I got to the last bowl, I scooped my last spoonful of rice, just as one of Paddy's sisters said quietly, though emphatically, "No!"
Turns out I had missed the largest bowl, for which I was supposed to save the largest scoop of rice. But she smiled, and so did I, relieved that my unintentional faux pas didn't insult anyone, and that my intention was enough.
And we sat in front of the monks again, and I could see Kristal on a flower, a lotus flower, pink like a fiery sky. I kept her in the center of a flower in my hand, and held her up to the soothing song that was the prayer of the monks. And she smiled, in the way that she did, from that infinite source of generosity to which she had access. She told me that it was okay, that there was enough room for everyone on that flower.
And so I put them all there with her, Babcia and Dziadzius and Dziadzius, Mike and Simone and chimpanzee Dorothy and Molly, Tommy's dog who died that summer, and my uncles who died, and Troy Davis, even though I didn't know him. And in the center of them all, she sat in the center, her blue eyes shining, and smiling. Even her eyes were smiling.
I will sit inside that prayer.
[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Wed, 17 Aug 2016 00:50:47 GMT
From Delhi to Siliguri with a Frebile Fiend This is not my photo. It is an archival photo from The Indian Express. Riding atop the train is no longer allowed and punishable by law.

This is not my photo. It is an archival photo from The Indian Express. Riding atop the train is now punishable by law.​


I recently came across this journal entry that never made it to the blog.  


October 2014:


Something happened on the way from Delhi to Siliguri.


The journey itself was some 30 hours, but I'm seasoned, so I didn't really think twice about it. Plus, I was traveling in 3AC and not in Sleeper class. If you're well-versed with Indian Railways, then you know that 3AC or 2AC costs substantially more than Sleeper class -- but it's a splurge that, to me, now no longer in my 20's, is a no-brainer. If you're not familiar with Indian Railways, then imagine Sleeper class as … sleeping people. Everywhere. On the floor, between cars, in the bathroom. Standing, lying down, sitting up, and squatting. Every square inch of the train is covered with human beings.


We were to reach Siliguri at 6:30 in the evening. Around 5:00, I started to feel achy, but chalked it up to a night sleeping on a hard bed in a rocking train. Soon enough, though, the aches became deeper. Shaking it off didn't work; they nested in my bones, and my eye sockets, too. Then my body became hot, and my balance dizzy.  


Around 6:15, I stumbled to a man waiting near the door to ask if Siliguri would be the next stop.


"No, no," he said. "The train is late. We'll reach Siliguri in about six hours."


This was, in that moment, the most deflating news I could hear. I had no guesthouse reserved in Siliguri, and I wasn't particularly comfortable showing up alone in a city I didn't know in the middle of the night with nowhere to go. But what to do? No one was going to do it for me. I remembered the name of one of the guesthouses I had read about, googled it, and gave them a call (a moment when I can say THANK GOD I finally got a smartphone). Said I would be coming after midnight, and did they please have a bed into which I could collapse? Luckily, they did. Then I fell into a fitful sleep the next six hours.


 True to my fellow passenger's word, we reached Siliguri just after midnight. The last thing I felt like doing was bargaining for a fair price with a taxi driver, so when someone said 300 rupees for the three kilometers to the guesthouse (five dollars, a grossly inflated price, no doubt), I only resisted about sixty seconds before consenting.  


Sometimes you're in a situation where you're not super comfortable, but you just go with it because your other options are nil. Somewhere in your fuzzy, febrile head is the knowledge that most people are indeed good, and in that moment, your imagination is just being influenced by negative media. In this particular scenario, it was me and an unmarked taxi, with no meter, no sign, nothing at all that made it look official -- all in the middle of the night, no less. But hell -- all the taxis were the same. Our drive was basically the taxi wallah making conversation, and me in the back, fingers on the door handle, feverishly (literally and metaphorically) calculating that we had certainly already driven three kilometers, if not more. In retrospect, it was in my head. But in the moment, all I kept thinking was, "Am I going to have to try to bencao (kick) someone when I feel so shitty?"


Obviously he dropped me at the guesthouse safe and sound, and I made silent apologies in my head. Let's skirt by the next 48 hours, they're boring -- spent sleeping mostly. That's not the point of the story. The more glorious sentiment is this:


You know when you get sick, and you feel like you just want to sleep for a long time? In this instance, it was a case of what I later learned was Dengue fever. But what a difference a few days makes. It passes. Such a miracle. And when it passes, all of the sudden you feel so damn alive and energized. Like a new life dropped into your lap. Anything is possible. Game ON! Let the adventure commence anew!


Which is a great moment to tie a string around the finger, especially for the next time it's clasped on a door handle.

[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Fri, 08 Jul 2016 20:20:30 GMT
R.I.P. Riley


NB: Riley's human is Lesley Day, the President and Founder of Chimps, Inc., a sanctuary specifically designed to provide lifetime care to captive chimpanzees rescued or retired from the pet and entertainment industries. You can learn more about how to help Chimps Inc. and their seven chimpanzees here.



“Animal lovers.”


That’s what we’re called. I would venture to say that we’ve known this about ourselves from the moment we could self-reflect. With absolution. Effortlessly. But to love is to be vulnerable. For instance, Old Yeller and Where the Red Fern Grows were inconsolably devastating. And, as children or adults, each time we open our hearts to a companion animal, we know we are headed toward inevitable heartbreak. When they do move on, the void they leave can seem endless, but eventually the grief will transmute, with grace, to a precious ache — and with that ache comes the unlocking of yet another level we didn’t know we had, a deeper unfolding in our capacity to love. 


I am a bit reluctant to admit that at times I will seek out the company of a non-human before seeking out that of a human. In my mind, I understand animals more. They are relatively straightforward, and you usually know where you stand with them. (Interestingly, the more highly complex thinkers, like great apes or cetaceans, can be an exception to this rule. Most folks who have worked with primates, for instance, can tell you that sometimes — just sometimes — an ape or monkey might pretend to be sweet, when really he or she has an ulterior motive.)


But with dogs, you know. If one doesn’t like you, he’ll make it quite clear. And conversely, if a dog loves you, you will find yourself on the receiving end of perhaps the most glorious phenomenon known to existence: unfettered love.


Riley was Lesley’s dog. At almost 17 years old, he was well tended to and much loved. That he was precious to his humans was clear, but also, his body was tired. He moved slowly, and for the last couple of days, he hadn’t eaten much of anything at all. This is, as we say, the signal by which they communicate to us, even though we often are not ready to hear it: I’m tired, Mom. I don’t want to eat anymore. I’m ready.


The vet was called. Everyone at the clinic knew Riley, so when the doctor and the technician arrived, they were quite moved themselves. 


“Some are harder than others,” Dr. Pollock said, her eyes glistening, and we assembled around Riley in the last place he would fall asleep. Everyone took turns stroking him — Good boy, Riley, you’re such a good boy — until finally, peacefully, his heart beat its final and Riley’s spirit was set free.


It  feels fathomless, leagues beyond anything our pragmatic minds are capable of understanding. And yet we know, with certainty, one thing: to have loved them makes it worth it. What else shall we do with our hearts for the time that we have them, but love? And to be loved in return by a dog — one who loves so easily, without shame or restrictions — is a lesson that we humans are still learning. In this way, they are light years ahead of us. And so we pick ourselves up again, brokenhearted, and we love again, and we learn again.



[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Sat, 28 May 2016 23:30:52 GMT
In the Annals of the Obscure: The Ancient Civilization of Cahokia Chicago, Illinois:

We drive south for a solid five hours, passing small towns lined with red brick store fronts, two-egg-and-pancake-breakfast diners, and the occasional abandoned petrol station dressed in clapboards.  Through the charming main streets we maintain an obedient 30 m.p.h., but once the cornfields envelop us (and there are oh-so-many of them), we cruise at nearly 80, accompanied by one of those midwestern sunrises resplendent with pinks and purples, yellows and greens.  There is nothing in these parts to obscure the view; indeed, this part of the United States is noted for its hypnotic flatness.  Just miles and miles of farmland, mostly, with the occasional mist-shrouded silo or tumbling old barn.  


Near the border with Missouri we start to see signs for our destination: Cahokia State Historical Site.  It’s the largest archaeological site in North America, though no one's really heard of it.  In the archaeologist’s albums boasting the grandeur of the Pyramids of Giza and the it-ness of Macchu Picchu, someone forgot to make a note about Cahokia.  

If you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to miss.  There are no massive, mysteriously-transported stones here, like those at Stonehenge or Easter Island.  The first clue that this was once the site of a bustling metropolis of up to 40,000 souls (including the surrounding areas) are the mounds themselves.  After all, the midwest is flatter than the black keys of any piano, so a ten-story grassy emergence from the landscape with a fourteen-acre base (on par with Giza’s largest pyramid, Khufu) is a pretty obvious calling card.  Monks Mound (named for the French monks who lived in its shadow in the 1800’s) stands proudly in what was once the city’s main plaza.  More than 120 smaller mounds surrounded it, each one topped with a dwelling structure for presumably important Cahokians.  The immediate city center was surrounded by a fence nearly thirty feet high, and while it no longer stands, parts of it have been reconstructed to give visitors an idea of the city’s fortitude.  Today, only about 80 of the original 120 mounds remain (the price of development: even the epicenter of the once-great city is now bisected by a brazen four-lane road), but from the top of Monks, one manages to understand the scale of Cahokia.  This flood plain, known as the American Bottom, stretches for 175 miles.  The vantage point is clear.  The soil is fertile and the Mississippi river teems with life.   The location is a perfect one for a city (even today, the mounds overlook the Missourian capital city St. Louis).

But the crucial questions -- most notably, the  who? and the why? -- remain unanswered.  Indeed, the name “Cahokia” itself is a misnomer.  The Cahokians did exist, but they didn’t move into the Mississippi basin until the 1600’s -- two centuries after the fall of the glorious city in question.  But with little to go on (pottery shards and bones, literally), local historians christened the Mound Builders, “Cahokians,” and the name has stuck to this day.


What we do know is this: around the year 700 A.D., communities began springing up, subsisting not only on fish from the mighty Mississippi, but also on the crops that flourished in the basin’s nutrient-rich soil: goosefoot and amaranth, for instance, as well as the weather-hardy corn.  The Cahokians stayed put: houses were organized in lines and around plazas, which in turn surrounded the aforementioned main plaza.  Trade commenced and blossomed, reaching the sea and even the area now known as Minnesota.  In the artifact-rich mound known as Mound 34, archaeologists have excavated trinkets such as sharks’ teeth and fragments of ceremonial cups made of shells (Illinois is landlocked).  As Cahokia grew in stability and population, construction commenced on the behemoth Monks Mound sometime between 900 A.D. - 1200 A.D., using some 22 million cubic feet of earth.  Soon thereafter, the main plaza’s wall was erected: a two-mile long stockade complete with guard towers every 70 feet.  This wall not only protected the city center, but also separated Cahokia’s elite from the wretched common man.


In the 1960’s, excavation began on the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it mound known as Mound 72.  Aligned with the southwestern corner of the much larger Monks Mound and the western edge of Mound 49, archaeologist Melvin L. Fowler surmised that the three mounds were part of a larger structure known as a “Woodhenge,” one of several found throughout Cahokia.  He was right -- Mound 72, along with Monks and Mound 49, formed a north-south axis which ran along the axis of the solstices (which is why even today, Cahokia is known as the “City of the Sun”).  But perhaps even more interestingly, excavations at 72 yielded a new and juicier piece of information: the Cahokians practiced human sacrifice.  The curious human remains at Mound 72 incite more questions than they’ve answered.  Who was the apparently important man buried on 20,000 shell pieces arranged to look like a falcon?  Why were four men -- heads and hands removed -- interred with their arms interlocked?  And the women laid to rest near them -- 53 of them, nutrient-deficient, strangled and some buried alive -- who were they?  Did they really need all 53 of them?


Cahokia’s society peaked around 1050 A.D., and thereafter began a slow descent into oblivion.  By 1400 A.D., they were gone.  No one is sure what happened to them, though theories abound like fireflies on a languid summer evening.  Maybe the recorded change in the climate made farming too difficult and the Cahokians moved on, absorbed by neighboring tribes.  Or perhaps, like so many other civilization in recorded history, the Cahokians were the cause of their own demise, with inter-social quarreling and subsequent warfare.  And then there’s the legend, which says that the then languishing Cahokians were visited by robed super-beings around the year 700 A.D.  These beings offered to give the Cahokians the tools and information they needed to flourish, but only on one condition: that in five hundred years time, when the super-beings returned, the Cahokians would yield to them not only their wealth, but also their children.  Unable to resist this pact with the devil, the Cahokians agreed.  As the centuries passed, the visit of the super beings was remembered as folklore -- until, of course, they made good on their word and returned, demanding their payment.  The Cahokians refused, sending their most valiant soldiers to battle, but unfortunately, they were no match for the super beings.  In a last-ditch effort to save their society and their children, the Cahokians scaled their impressive mounds and collectively emitted psychic shockwaves meant to keep their attackers away.  


They were successful -- in fact, too successful.  As the ground shook and the sky rumbled, no one was safe from elements awoken by the Cahokians.  Not only were their attackers vanquished, but sadly, so were the Cahokians themselves.  When the smoke cleared and the dust settled, all that remained were the mounds.


Or so they say.


[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Wed, 25 May 2016 22:17:34 GMT
In Honour of The Jungle Book In honour of the crazy success of the newest incarnation of Kipling's The Jungle Book (directed by J. Favreau), a recalling of a visit to Pench Tiger Reserve with Conservation Wildlands and my friend Pooja Natureza Choksi. This particular forest is the actual inspiration for the literary piece.


[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Fri, 29 Apr 2016 14:39:21 GMT
Cameroon SONY DSC


Ten years ago, I boarded an SN Brussels flight from the US to Cameroon. It was my first time on the continent. Going to Africa was a goal that'd needled me since I was a girl -- perhaps it was all the wildlife movies with Dad.


I spent a lot of time finalizing the arrival details with the organization for whom I'd spend the next half-year volunteering. Obviously. I was going to a Francophone country (with a pitiful understanding of French) on what (I would argue) is the most storied continent on our planet. In one of the last emails I received from IDA-Africa's liaison officer before embarking: "Your life will never be the same again."


I started a blog while there, even though, at the time, I didn't even really know what a blog was. Until I found out it was a journal. Shoots. I can do that.


Sometime in 2012, I lost all of my entries. All of them. All of them. They were gone.


Tonight, while rifling through old belongings, I found some of those entries, transcribed as an article for ZooView the newsletter for the Honolulu Zoo Society, my home, my employer, my family, for eight years. 


Here is one such entry.



October 12, 2006


One day, while walking through the forest, we heard the wild chimps again. Suddenly, I stopped. There. Just to my right. It was such a simultaneously familiar and alien sight that I did not register it for a moment. A wild chimp. Two metres away, up in a tree, brachiating through the branches. And another, slightly hidden, to his left. And another to his left, and another on the ground that we could hear, but not see. How many times had we walked by them? I would not have known they were there if the first one had not been in the process of moving through the trees.


I do not think I can adequately describe my emotions. I have worked with chimps (off and on) with chimpanzees for the last five years. All these experiences behind me, and yet this one before my eyes was somehow different. I was muted in an instant. Not just my voice, but also my brain. Here, so close, is a wild chimpanzee! More chimp-like, less human-like. I could not believe the enormity of it. His path crossed with mine not because he was kept there or forced there. No. His unencumbered decision-making led him through life to that moment in that spot -- just as my life had done as well. Funny how seeing something makes it so real. 


That night, a thought woke me abruptly from my sleep. Oh, please no. What is poachers find the wild chimps I saw today? Here? It is so possible, as poaching increases with every acre of the forest that is logged. And it's happening here; it's not just the sob story of some armchair conservationists. I see majestic tree carcasses still dressed in their skins being carted out of the forest by the truckload. Logging is such a virile presence in Cameroon. The forest is whimpering and fading to a relic of what it once was.



Challenges here -- from carnivorous ants to unsuitable drinking water to deforestation -- abound. But solutions abound also, like abstaining from buying tropical wood in all its forms. It is truly up to us. So much of what we do has an impact everywhere else. Let's not forget this. We have to find a solution. There won't be another chance.





[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Image Wed, 27 Apr 2016 06:11:31 GMT
A is for Alzheimer's.


B is for Brain.


For a long time, Alzheimer's was just a word. It was a word for an illness which tormented people in movies: usually women with doting husbands, and for some reason, usually members of higher economic brackets. (In the case of the latter, perhaps it was too heavy a plot that depicted the enormity of being a victim of both financial hardship and brain calcification.) The film characters I recall who were stricken with the disease -- the female protagonist from "The Notebook" or Tutu from "The Descendants" -- were perfectly-coiffed, well-dressed women who seemingly had nothing wrong with them besides being a tad forgetful. It was almost charming. Neither of these films showed the ugly side of Alzheimer's -- days of unwashed hair, tsunamatic outbursts of anger (in public, to boot), and, eventually, a complete cessation of self: where it's par for the course that the patient spends days in silence, moving only when prompted, incapable of making any coherent vocal communication, and usually in an incontinence product. 


Sometimes, in "real-life" conversations, I would discover an acquaintance who had had a grandparent or aunt who lived with and died from Alzheimer's. "It's awful," they said. "It sucks." "What an ugly disease." Closer to the proverbial home, one friend moved a parent halfway across the continent so that she could care for him herself. But it still didn't really click. Until one day, my sister suggested it as a potential explanation for our mother's growing erratic behavior. My father and I scoffed. No way, we said. She's just emotional, she's always been emotional. She just needs new glasses, that's why her spatial judgment is impaired. She's just having a senior moment, after all, she's in her mid-sixties now.


She's just, she's just, she's just.


Turns out, she's just one of 5.3 million people in the U.S. living with Alzheimer's.


My aunt recently told me that when they were younger, she admired my mother. Before she'd had kids, my mom was brave and adventurous, traveling on her own to D.C. and Hawaii, even attending some convention where she shook hands with then President Ford. The daughter of struggling Polish immigrants (and an immigrant herself), she was determined to buy her own car without help, and she did. She was picked on for her thick Polish accent, so she practiced English so fervently that by the time we were born, an accent was hardly detectable. I want so desperately to know that ambitious woman, but I realize that whatever notions I have of her, whoever she used to be, is not who she is now. Or perhaps she is, but she is buried under unfathomable leagues. That's the thing with Alzheimer's. We don't really know.


My mother's mother is almost 97 years old. As expected, her body is frail. In 2015, after two separate tumbles, she broke her ankle as well as some facial bones. It was a huge weight for her body to bear. When she was in the hospital, there were unspoken moments where we wondered if she would pull through. But grandma is a "miracle," as my dad says. I have to remind myself that she's over 75 -- if there was anyone who ever felt immortal to me, it's her. Mentally, she is astute and dynamic. In the days after her fall(s), I would take my mother to the hospital to visit her. While mom often stumbled in verbal consolations, she shone at physical affection: by holding grandma's hand, or rubbing warmth into her feet. In turn, grandma would ask careful, easy questions that she knew mom could manage answering. Observing them -- my grandmother with her faltering body, my mother with her faltering mind, and the blurred lines between roles (who was taking care of who? had they switched? switched back again?) -- left me .... Like that. Speechless. 


Like most people who voluntarily spelunk into the recesses of their brains, I sometimes have peculiar conversations with myself. Here's a conclusion to which I recently came: everyone will die. Sound mind and body or not, something will take you. An accident. An infection. Cancer. There's nothing wrong with dying. And yet, I cannot wrap my head around Alzheimer's. It is not a bodily organ giving up because it is grievously tired or injured. It is not the combative will to live by an invasive foreign body, such as a bacterium or a virus or a parasite. It is not an overproduction of your own cells. Instead, what we think we know is this: it is an overproduction of proteins that build up plaque in your brain. That's it. Proteins and plaque, both of which do not even make the cut as living creatures in the eyes of science. That is what is strangling my mother's brain.


But, mortality aside. These days, my mother laughs more than I remember, though sometimes it is from nervousness. She exudes a childlike innocence. When I watch her interacting with my eight-year old niece, it's as if I'm watching two schoolgirls play instead of one. Together, they create an imaginary world of which I'm not a part. If I go to the store with them and have forgotten something before we check out, I will quickly retrieve the item in question, leaving the one who is six decades younger in charge of the other. If it is just me running errands with my mother, I have trained myself to look at her about every three seconds, or else she will wander off. Mostly, it seems that the anger phase has passed. Now, I just have to let go of whatever anger I have. I don't know how much longer we will have her for, if she will still be herself the next time that I am in Chicago. What I am learning is that for now, an air of happiness and love is what she needs. 


This is where I am vehement, breathing through clenched teeth. Alzheimer's can shove it. It will never steal her capacity for love. Of that I am sure.



[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Tue, 02 Feb 2016 01:08:09 GMT


The idea of home has always been mysterious to me. What is it? A place? A feeling? Where the heart is? Is it the place you were born, or the place you became alive? -- because in my case, they're thousands of miles apart. So it hounds me.


I moved to Hawai`i on November 4, 2002. Like many things in my life, especially big decisions, I did it on a whim. Like most Americans, my knowingness of Hawai`i was limited to pineapples (an introduced species), the Brady Bunch and the curse of the tiki, and that Mele Kalikimaka song played ad nauseum at Christmastime.


I was vaguely aware that there was an ethnic group of people known as "Hawaiians," though in my erroneous mind they looked more Japanese than Polynesian. I had a (now embarrassing) image of grass skirts, huts on the beach, and probably some fauna that should never actually find its way to the most remote archipelago in the world. When my plane landed and I disembarked my Delta flight into the sea-sprayed night straight onto the tarmac of Keāhole Airport, I was embraced by that balmy air in such an indescribable way that, to this day, I am left with a residual warmth hovering somewhere above my solar plexus any time I think about it.  


I learned some Hawaiian words very quickly. Haole: that was me. Pau hana meant hanging out with friends after my shift (when we were pau work). Kama`aina was a magic ticket, by way of my newly issued Hawaiian driver's license, to a discounted admission at various tourist destinations. When I first traveled abroad and told people that I lived in Hawai`i, I quickly learned that I had to distinguish the difference between being a Hawaiian and simply living in Hawai`i.


Oh, the lessons in the beginning were vast. But today, I have something more simple. Today I have a story.


A few days into being in Hawai`i, I panicked. I had less than a thousand dollars, I was staying at a hostel, there was no job awaiting me, and no further income to boot. Because Hawai`i is thousands of miles from any continental chunk of land, I opted not to pay the exorbitant fee to ship my crappy old car from the mainland (which was pretty much dead, anyway). There was no real bus at that time in Kona. In my chaotic, demoralized state, I decided I would fly back to Chicago, get a real job, pay off my credit card debt, and GROW UP (which, in my mind, meant "settling down" in the natal lands of suburban Chicago). Plus, I was in the middle of nowhere-slash-the-ocean. I borrowed my friend's cell phone (still a novelty at the time) to book the first flight out of that place, at the same time wildly ripping through my belongings to try to find the one thing I had been destined to lose: my wallet. And with it, my credit card, my passport, my social security card, my money: in short, anything that identified me as me, and would give me liberty to leave.


My plan had blown a gasket and I sunk even more deeply into confusion. It had really seemed like the right decision! Later that night, at the encouragement of my new friends, I accompanied a horde of haoles from the hostel to Magic Sands beach (also known as La`alia Bay). Idyllically picturesque in the summer, in the winter, the storms and swells swallowed the beach's perfect white sand to reveal its lava rock foundation. That night, some of us ventured into the still warm water, under the still fat moon, letting the growing winter waves push us back to shore. There's so much more that I know about the ocean now that I'm so glad I didn't know then -- like how wana (urchins) love rocky beaches, or how turning your back to a swell can mean a ride in the spin cycle. I felt so breathtakingly alive that I needed a moment to myself, climbing to the top of the life guard tower, weeping in gratitude under that gracious moon, the waves singing what would become my favorite lullaby. And I knew then: I couldn't leave. Not now. Not this place. Not if it made me feel this way.


The next day, I received a call on Matt's phone from a pastor. He had my wallet. Could I meet him at the sea wall on Ali`i Drive so that he could return it (with everything still inside, by the way)? Stunned, I retrieved my wallet. I was free to go. But I didn't go.


They say Hawai`i is like this: clear in whether she wants you or not. I am not Hawaiian, but I have been changed forever by Hawai`i, and I am only one person. In this sense, there are many of me. But there is only one of her.


N.B. These beach photos are not of Magic Sands.  


tree, grove, forest, calm, peace, tranquility, hawaii, roots, "monica szczupider", natureRudraksha Grove, KauaiAt the Hindu monastery on Kauai. maui, haleakala, hawaii, summit, volcano, travel, "monica szczupider"Haleakalā, Maui IslandThe island of Maui in the Hawaiian archipelago is name for a demigod who fished it and all the other islands out from the ocean. The geological version of the story begins at the bottom of the sea, where the Pacific plate slowly cruises over a hot spot and magma emerges to form these islands - to this day. The peak of Maui's eastern volcano is called "Haleakalā," and translates to "house of the sun." Every day, tourists and residents alike brave the frigid element of the summit to witness the sun's comings and goings above the clouds.

ruins, window, "black and white", hawaii, oahu, "monica szczupider"View through a Window, OahuRuins of Queen Emma's summer palace, O`ahu, Hawai`i.

protea, "big island", hawaii, flower, flora, "monica szczupider"Protea, Hawai`i Island

big island, road, hawaii, lights, dusk, "monica szczupider"En Route to Black Sands, Big Island

[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Mon, 11 Jan 2016 20:00:18 GMT
word. (on the exaltation found on the other side of writer's block)


It's been a long time that I've been looking for you.  I understand that looking for you isn't like looking for something tangible; I really can't expect to find you under a pile of magazines or behind a sweater in the closet.  When I was first started searching, I looked out.  When that didn't work, I started looking in, but the problem was that when I looked in, I didn't sing to you.  I clawed at you to come out.  For years I did that, while you were hibernating.  The wielder of a perfect combination of words, a message worth repeating, worth sharing.  I tried, again and again, but it seemed that the more I tried, the less I actually liked what came out.


At one time in my life, I thought, I was a writer.  It was what I did.  Whether on a home turf beach, or as a silent stranger in a voluptuous city, or with orphaned chimpanzees on the rim of the Congo basin, where rainforest lightning storms pulsated the same electric heartbeat into every denizen in the jungle, I wrote.  I wrote for the enormity of deafening sanctity, weeping in the pew of a humble village church up Keauhou mauka, and for the delicious, beckoning Kona sunset, still unmatched in the things that even its memory does to my heart.  I know that I wrote because I have the journals to prove it, some stashed in Hawaii, some in Chicago, some in India.  They may not weather the storm of forever-ness, but for a lifetime or two, they are there, my temporary mark on the world.


Then one day, I started writing less, and I discovered the very reason Buddhism says that detachment alleviates suffering.  Why did I start writing less?  I have no answer other than the one that says that change is inevitable, and no one thing will be that thing forever.  But as I watched you slip away -- I am talking to you, writer -- my panic grew.  Who was slipping away?  Was it me?  And if I slipped away for good--


Who was left?


I fought this, which seems silly in retrospect.  A struggle against the current.  Oh, if you spoke to me, I would have no hesitation telling you how important it is to surrender, really surrender.  And yet, here I was, fighting what was happening, and in the process, living inside my tidy little lie.


I am a writer.


I am a writer.

(I just don't write anymore.)


The problem with living inside a lie is just that -- you are living inside of something.  You are cloaked and suffocated, in a latex suit, fit perfectly to your own body.  You never forget you are inside this suffocating thing.  And the problem with the Truth is that it doesn't go away.


Still I sat in front of this same brick wall, rubbing it mercilessly, maniacally, forming blisters and then rubbing some more, thinking that if I worked at it hard enough, eventually I would release the storm that was building behind it.  Blowing a sailboat across an ocean.  Stretching a lifetime to an eternity.  The dust fell softly at my feet (the sad degeneration of a fair queendom), fine white powder dust, ancient sands wrung through volcanoes and time, and with the dust accumulated the eventual shards and slivers.


And I kept cutting my toes.


The Truth was that it was all a mess of white smoke and I couldn't see a damn thing, but as the curtain began to clear, I realized that I could actually see something.  There was something there.  It had two legs, two arms, a heart, and it wanted to go somewhere.  It wanted to sing something or maybe even yell something.  It had blonde hair and a host of thoughts that jangled from one end of her head to the other.


My, oh my.  It was me.  And I was writing.

[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Fri, 13 Nov 2015 06:00:57 GMT
Photographs from visit to The Golden Lion Tamarin Association picked up in SAEVUS


SAEVUS, India's top-selling wildlife / travel/ conservation mag, has published some photos from my time at the Golden Lion Tamarin Association outside the city of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.


A highly endangered species, the GLT was on the brink of extinction in the early 90's, with an estimated less than 200 individuals remaining.  The biggest threat to their survival is conversion of forest land to agricultural land, primarily for cattle grazing (ahem meat eaters -- it's a HUGE issue).


It was around this time that the Brazil-based Golden Lion Tamarin Association stepped in.  With the cooperation of US-based Save the Golden Lion Tamarin, as well as participating zoos from all over the world, a massive project was undertaken -- the transfer of free-ranging individuals to captive settings, intense breeding programs, and the release of offspring.  Today, this species numbers at nearly 1,700.  But with a highly fractured habitat, they're into the woods, and yet not out of the woods, yet.


To learn how to see the article in its entirety, please visit the SAEVUS website.


To learn more about how you can help the GLT's directly, please visit the Association's website.



[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Tue, 02 Jun 2015 18:22:52 GMT
Visit with Conservation Wildlands featured in Canada's Natural Life Magazine!


Check out the rest of Natural Life magazine here:

[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Fri, 06 Mar 2015 20:06:56 GMT
Thinking about Chimpanzees SONY DSC
     Zach and Launa share a laugh     
It's been over eight years since I first stepped onto African soil.  In that time, many humans have come and gone in the lives of the chimps at Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Centre, yet their impressions on me remain unique and undiminished.  Of all the projects where I've worked with primates, this one has dug itself most resolutely into my heart.  Perhaps because it is in Africa, and I love Africa.  When I left the continent the last time, in 2009, I knew it would be a while before I returned, but I didn't think it would be this long.  In my mind, not much has changed at Sanaga-Yong since I've left.  Baati, Sambe, and Gremlin are still babies.  Tati and Amigo still roam as young boys instead of the alpha males they are now.  And all those who have left us are still in the forest with their adopted families at Sanaga-Yong, laughing and climbing, hugging and kissing.  Just as alive as you and I.
This is the way that things are.  Death will not skip any of us, even those of us who are rescued.  These chimpanzees -- and others who have been given second chances at rescue centers -- are living somewhere that is perhaps the next best place after the "wild," as we call it.  By some accounts, maybe even better.  Definitely safer.  They have access to round-the-clock medical care (so that if some godawful tropical virus or bacteria surges through their familial group, there are medications to treat them -- the same medications available to you or me).  They have a constant supply of food (whereas in the wild, there is always the bleak possibility of loss of access to food, due to competing groups or drought, for example).   They will never really have to deal with the now well-known phenomenon of chimpanzee warfare (because if things really get so out of hand, the humans who care for them will find a way to manage the situation so that hopefully no life-threatening bloodshed occurs).
And yet, those of us who have worked with captive chimps know this -- our offerings, our attempts, noble though they may be, can never compete with what Mother Nature herself has given them.
But unfortunately, the poaching doesn't stop.  This is why a place like Sanaga-Yong is necessary.  This is why Nama, and Moon, and Arvid, and others lived at a rescue center instead of with their biological kin.  Human beings killed their families.  The reason?  It's barbaric, to say the least.  For their meat.  For their skulls.  For their hands.
Their fucking hands.
When a baby is found still alive on a dead mother, he or she is sold into the pet trade -- which is not legal.  That baby can spend anywhere from weeks to months to years being someone's "pet" or mascot.  This hugely messes with a great ape's complex psychology (ask yourself: would you like it?).  So when an orphan is brought to a place like Sanaga-Yong, it's not as simple as throwing him or her into an enclosure with other chimps.  A fair amount of rehabilitation has to occur.
And yet, even in a safe haven, death still finds some of them before their time.  The causes can range from anything to meningitis to pneumonia to old age.
Nothing is guaranteed.  Not your survival, not your sanity, not your limbs, not even your very first breath.  All of it is more than you had before you started.
What's the trick, then?  I heard once the following: "The trick is not to be in the know, but to be in the mystery." 
But when I pinpoint what qualifies a mystery -- to me, anyway -- it is not something like telepathy or telekinesis or the existence of a world that isn't visible to the naked eye.  To me, more mysterious than these things are acts of blatant cruelty.  But I cannot prevent cruelty or even mitigate it -- seeing as how we are all allowed our own journeys, I cannot make someone's choices for them.  What I can do, instead, is this:
Be kind.
Teach children.
Speak the truth.
Right a wrong.
Jacky, CameroonJacky, CameroonAlpha male Jacky grooms and is groomed. He was rescued from a hotel, where he lived for many years in solitude as a "mascot." He now lives at a rescue center near Belabo, Cameroon.
     Adult male Jacky grooms and is groomed 
Arvid, CameroonArvid, CameroonChimpanzee, pan troglodytes vellerosus, rescued from the bushmeat trade and living at a rescue center near Belabo, Cameroon. Also known as the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee, p.t. vellerosus is the most threatened and least distributed of all chimpanzees.
     ​Tati and Amigo are excited about their new enlarged enclosure
     Johnny checks to see if Tic's carrots are better than his
[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Sat, 28 Feb 2015 23:51:02 GMT
They Always Say "Welcome Home" When You Enter the U.S.
Ironically, the first wave of "reverse culture shock" after living in Bombay for more than a year comes at Starbucks.  
More on that in a moment. First, this "reverse culture shock" label.
One -- I thought at this point, I was immune to "reverse culture shock."  Definitely not culture shock, but certainly "reverse culture shock."  I know now to expect it.  I know the surprises, the begrudging acknowledgements of shortcomings or benefits that exist here or there.  At this point, it feels like prepping oneself for something that turns out to be an inch-long fall. 
Two -- This label -- "reverse culture shock"… It's a little weird, no?  
Three -- There's a reason why I said "after living in Bombay for more than a year," and not "after living in India for more than a year."  I don't always feel like I lived in India, but I always feel like I lived in Bombay (I know lots of expats who live in Goa and spend no time with Indians at all, for example).  The wording may sound weird to both my Indian and non-Indian friends, but in my way, it is an homage to Bombay.  Of course, it is India.  But it is also BOMBAY.  You know?  Put an eight-foot tall man in a sparkly pink dress with a purple El Camino either in a suburban Starbucks or in a drag show in Vegas… in both scenarios, he is still the EIGHT-foot tall man in a sparkly pink dress with a purple El Camino.
So back in Starbucks, there was one person in line.  Lingering/loitering/chilling behind him was a woman with her family.  Her back was to the counter.  She was talking to her kids.  There was a small but present gap between her and the man in front of her.  And I thought the following:
Crap.  Is she in line?  Because in Bombay, that gap, small as it is (and the fact that her back is to the counter), means I can (and should) go ahead of her.  You snooze, you lose.  There's an inch of room?  You take it or you forfeit it.  That's all there is to that.  Here?  What does it mean here?  I can't remember.  Am I rude if I take the spot?  Does the line go straight back, or does it hug the food display counter?  What is my brand new one hundred dollar bill is fake?  It looks fake to me.  Then what?  WHERE ARE THE PRE-MADE SAMOSAS????
All of the sudden, I see astronomically inflated prices for coffee and tea.  Yes.  Right.  I am in Starbucks, the genius entity who gets away with selling a beverage for five times its worth in any country.  
God (Shankar, Allah, Lord Buddha) bless continuity: the bold and familiar raft in a tempestuous sea. 
[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Sat, 21 Feb 2015 20:53:49 GMT
What's Happening to Mumbai's Mangroves?
Even as recently as a hundred years ago, Mumbai was markedly quieter: a myriad wetland ecosystem of mangrove forests and tropical birds hugging the picturesque Arabian Sea.  What is now one long concrete peninsula was once seven biologically-rich marsh islands.  Then, bird and insect calls were on the symphonic menu; today, it's honking horns and the buzz of a quarter-million auto rickshaws.  As the city exploded, the mangroves were leveled, the inter-island waterways were filled with debris and concrete, and lo and behold, Bombay became a singular entity, from heavily-touristed Colaba in the south to sprawling Borivali National Park in the north.  The park, a blessed exception to Mumbai's insatiable lust for development, is home to free-ranging leopards, hyenas, and deer, and acts as the city's one functioning lung after most of the mangroves were destroyed.
Let's be clear: mangroves are indispensable to their ecosystem -- without them, there are no wetlands.  Besides providing habitat for terrestrial, arboreal, and aquatic creatures, the root system of a mangrove forest is thick and complex -- thousands of fingers holding the terra firmly in place.  Without that criss-crossing groundwork, run-off occurs more frequently and whatever is put into the land -- fertilizers, pesticides, toxins -- flows into the ocean.  A healthy mangrove forest acts as a barricade, preventing not only erosion, but also guarding terrestrial species (humans included) from phenomena like tsunamis.  And those perks come packaged in a habitat for birds, reptiles, fishes, and amphibians -- especially for hatchlings ensconced in the dense network of roots, safe from larger, predatory species who cannot navigate the tight spaces.
In flight (G. Macaco Pawar)
A kingfisher -- one of India's best recognized birds, and a very accomplished predator.
Kavita Mallya knows the importance of a healthy wetland ecosystem.  The Project Officer with the NGO Vanashakti, she can often be found at a quiet mangrove forest patch off the Eastern Express Highway at Bhandup, in northeastern Mumbai.  She patiently spends her weekends under the hot sun, explaining to volunteers why they've sacrificed sleeping in to meet her in Mumbai's version of no man's land.  They've come armed with shovels and gloves, and outfitted in the kind of clothes which only non-gardeners purchase for gardening: outfits that cost as much as a domestic flight.  Something is rousing Mumbai's upper middle class out from their beds on Sunday mornings -- the only free day in the workweek for many of them -- and into the mud to plant trees.  
And it isn't necessarily sentimental.
In 2005, Maharashtra bore witness to cataclysmic floods that claimed some 1500 human lives.  Mumbai and her surrounding areas were pounded with nearly 40 inches  of precipitation within 24 hours, followed by torrential rains the ensuing week.  While the storms themselves were record-placing (July 26th of that year remains eighth on the list of the most rainfall received on a single day), it's nonetheless important to remember that heavy rains aren't unusual here.  In fact, India hosts one hell of a monsoon season.  The Western Ghats -- the mountain range that runs parallel to the west coast, and, incidentally, one of the world's hotspots of biodiversity -- act no differently than any other mountain range: that is, as storms pass, the mountains snag the clouds that go by.  Anything within the vicinity of the Ghats then gets pummeled  with rain.  That's just what mountains do.  Mangrove forests, on the other hand, act as sponges that absorb excess water and help navigate it either into the earth's groundwater supply or back into the ocean.  That's what they do.  
But the landscape has been altered drastically in Mumbai.  In the case of the 2005 floods, the construction of the Bandra-Kurla complex is often to blame.  The commercial zone, built (despite predictions of disaster) on top of what was once a sprawling mangrove forest in the western suburbs, essentially blocks an important drainage route when rains are heavy.  The flood plains of the Mithi, the sweetwater artery of Mumbai, were also reclaimed to build the complex, which in turn pinched the mouth of the river.  The rains that assuaged Bombay that year simply had nowhere to go.  There was no soil to absorb the rising water levels, only concrete that acted as a bowl.  The floods leveled parts of the city, taking with them hundreds of inhabitants.  It could easily happen again.
Even in such an urban area, many people still rely on wetlands.  This family lives just a few steps from one of the city's busiest highways.
Conservation in a city like Mumbai is no easy task. It's filled beyond capacity: a body crowded with twice the amount of necessary organs.  The infrastructure is haphazard and unplanned, like a carnival funhouse with stairs and doors that lead to nowhere perched on a grid drawn by a two-year old.  In this particular method of madness, providing adequate living space for twenty million human beings can be wretchedly challenging -- and so can properly disposing the consequent generated refuse.
Not an uncommon sight, unfortunately.  Piles of rubbish ring one of the city's remaining wetlands.
So the state has fallen back on old plans to tackle the double-edged sword of land shortage and a growing waste problem: transform the remaining mangrove tracts into dumping grounds, and push the boundaries of the city into the water.  Used until they are saturated, the grounds are slathered in concrete, then sold to developers as precious parcels of land to accommodate the demands of the city's perpetually swelling population: everything from casinos to slum-dwellings to luxury high-rises. 
Vanashakti is now supporting local fisherman to fight one such dumping ground.  Across the bay from Mumbai, almost due-east as the crow flies from charming Colaba, sits the state's largest wetland, Uran.  A long-time favorite spot for birdwatchers, there have been curiously few birds to see in recent years.  Some ten species of migratory birds now skip Uran altogether.  There's not much for them to eat, and few viable options for nesting.
Filling in what used to be a wetland.  This is Uran today, which used to be Maharashtra's most biodiverse wetland ecosystem.
The land surrounding Uran has been designated as a Specialized Economic Zone (SEZ): a term for a region groomed to become attractive to foreign investors.  The Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT), the state body that manages the port of the same name, owns 2500 hectares of land in Uran.  Since its inception in 1989, some two-thirds of JNPT's property has been filled and reclaimed for development, and now the remaining third is being eyed, as well.  When a petition filed by a local Uran fisherman alleged the continued destruction of the mangroves, the Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority (MCZMA) investigated and subsequently uncovered a number of violations, including the alarming construction of a wall that obstructs the flow of tidal waters, essentially asphyxiating all that it contains.  Though the JNPT was ordered by the MCZMA to tear it down, as of October 2014, the wall still stands. 
Uran feels like an avifaunal ghost town.  Amidst port containers and oil pipelines,  concrete debris and piles of boulders, there are a just a few buttons of actual bodies of water remaining.  The birds are an even rarer sight: a coot here, an egret there, an ibis if you're lucky.
The plans for Uran are huge.  Port expansion, augmented highway connectivity from the port to surrounding cities, as well as a proposal for a brand-new international airport.  But for a state whose primary export industry --  cotton and textiles -- no longer exists, the question must be asked: what is being produced that is being exported?  In fact, how will Maharastha's economy benefit from the port expansion?  It can only be assumed that the expansion will largely accommodate imported goods -- further competition for an already faltering economy.  
Surrounded on all sides, this is what most remaining wetlands look like today.  Moreover, many  emit a retch-inducing stench, indicative of the water's health.
But in this city, preservation and reforestation of the mangroves will continue in the same way that Mumbai wins over her guests -- one begrudging inch at a time.  It will come with such grace, yet such tenacity, that no one will realize it's even happening, until one day, someone notices the birds singing more often.  And the green glinting in the sunlight again.   And those who did it -- those crouched in the hot sun, or the pounding rain, quietly planting sapling after sapling in the city's long-suffering earth -- will ask for no thanks other than continued appreciation of Mumbai's mangrove forests.
[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Tue, 20 Jan 2015 16:03:22 GMT
Gone to Goa


Sandy feet.  A voluptuous moon.  A big, fat ocean. 


All happy ingredients for ringing in 2015.


Goa is kind of the Vegas of India.  Anything goes here.  Anything that one is looking for, one will find.  It is, I think, the most lawless place on the subcontinent -- with the exception of Bombay's streets, of course.


That being said, however, Goa is still pretty undeveloped.  Whereas north Goa is home to all-nighters, MDMA, and half the population of Moscow, South Goa is decidedly chill.  The most vocal entity at midnight is the ocean.  The bars shut down before the dogs stop barking.  There are no syringes on the beach.


Man, respect the beach.


Just a hop, skip, jump, and teleport from bustling Bombay.  


Hut on the beach?  Yeah, ok :)


If at first you don't succeed… more time for play. 




Macaco and Macaco.




Did someone say masala?


Scary Ganpati


Wait, did someone say masala?


And I, Jack!  The Pumpkin King!


Fun with multiple exposures! (Thanks, Tau!)


Yes… It IS a galaxy far, far away!




Did you happen to catch the spider liquefying its insides?


Yeah, dude, I swear someone said masala.




And happy, happy New Year.

[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Sun, 04 Jan 2015 20:48:24 GMT
From the Vault: Thoughts on Living in Bombay 2


November, 2013


I am at Candie's waiting for D.  There is cartoon gospel Christmas music on the telly, Grand Ole Opry style, overarched eyebrows and big bellies and bouffants.  Obese, diabetes-ridden people singing praises to Jesus and God and angels and their interpretation of sweet existence -- how could I not love them?  Their views may not be the same as mine, but they are only loving God and singing about it.  It is no different than the Muslim who rolls out his mat at the train station to answer the call to prayer, or the Hindu who leaves offerings at the foot of Ganesha the elephant God, or the Buddhist monk chanting mantras at sunset, wrapped snugly in swaths of incense smoke.  How could any of it be anything but stunning?


I love Bombay.  I love it, I love it, I love it.  I love her diversity and the masses of life she keeps within her arms.  She allows everyone and everything inside her heart, and even if her children squabble, they will share the same train or the same sidewalk or the same loo eventually.  There is no other way.  I watch the Harry Potter-esque schoolboys in loafers and ties running amok in the streets, and they enthrall me. 

 I have always had a thing for kids in glasses; they end up being my favorites (whether they are super intelligent or miscreants -- or both rolled into one, à la Harry -- for some reason I love them all anyway).  This morning, I scoffed at an obscene Rolls-Royce parked near a dwelling that was no more than a tarp tied between two trees. 

 And just now, I catch a glimpse of the girl behind the counter who speaks quietly but sings every word to "Joy to the World" with Paula Deen's twin on the TV screen.  In this moment I understand -- really understand -- why I love this unusual, maddening, contradictory, entrepreneurial city: because everything is always so brand-new, and we all end up like children -- having our first tastes, our first smells, our first everything, until we fall helplessly into a constant state of wonder that instantly transports us to the breast of God.


And Heaven and Nature Sing.


[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Tue, 28 Oct 2014 16:44:23 GMT
From the Vault: Thoughts on Living in Bombay 1 I am on the train waiting for it to get its panties in a bunch and just move already.
I remember when I returned from India in 2010, I was perpetually asked the inevitable question: How was it?  The water, did you drink it?  The beggars, are they everywhere?  Is it hot?  Did you eat street food?  Is it colorful?  What of the garbage?
Yes yes yes yes yes yes and yes.
I want to write for a minute about these people.  Acknowledge them, the ones who ask for money.  At least here in Bombay.  Many of them, in some way, are not physically whole.  Whether they were born this way or made this way -- either is a realistic option.  Missing limbs.  Arms twisted behind bodies.  Shiny, seared, starburst-shaped skin stretched from the clavicle to the chin.  Why are so many people burnt in the same place?  I don't want to know the answer, though I am afraid that I do.  It is revolting in the truest sense of the word.
I say "no" to nearly everyone who asks me for money.  I know the assumption is that because I have fair skin and light eyes, I will give.  But I don't.  I turn nearly everyone away.  Children or acid burn victims or people crawling on their hands and atrophied legs.  Why am I so hard?
Why I am so hard:
I don't want to support this system.  I don't want to give money to a child, who will then pass it to some dirty m*therf*cker, some subpar-though-apparently-human (where is my forgiveness?) lord pimp who will just use it to expand his grotesque empire.  I believe it will empower no one and will instead keep people on the street.  I always dread going to Khar station, for instance.  Khar West is a pretty fancy shmancy neighborhood, and its train station is just one stop up from Bandra, my own stop on the train.  Yet at night, the ticket counter lobby at Khar transforms into a community sleeping room for what I imagine to be three or four generations of one family.  And I, like many people, purchase my ticket and quietly slip past them, on my way to the comfortable bed that I share with my love.  This is not a self-guilting mechanism.  It is truth.
I am a teacher by trade -- yet at the end of my life, I will say that I walked past children who asked me for help.  I told them "no."  This is not something that has come naturally for me.  It is something that I've trained myself to do.  I do it because I believe there are more effective ways to help people who live on Bombay's streets.  Yet, it still means that I have declined a child who has asked me for help.
If you're interested in learning about a couple of cool projects aimed at empowering people so that they might get off the street, please contact me. I think this is the most reliable and effective way to help.
[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Thu, 16 Oct 2014 14:32:02 GMT
Frank and Emily


Emily was a farm girl from a village called Odporyszów.  The youngest of 10 siblings, she grew up milking cows, stuffing sausages, and collecting eggs.  When her turn came to slaughter the chickens, she asked her older brothers to do it instead.  She had trouble being accurate with the blow when she was crying.

There was one dirt road that snaked through Poland's verdant countryside into Odporyszów; this is the way by which the Nazis arrived in the early 1940's.  They came and went in a flash, leaving a maelstrom in their wake, as Nazis tend to do.  When they checked Emily's village off their to-do list and moved on, the residents of Odporyszów were fewer in number.  Those that remained dug graves for the piles of corpses that used to be their Jewish and gypsy neighbors.  

After the war, a young man named Frank passed through Odporyszów.  He was a year and a half younger than Emily, and he was looking for farm work.  He had just made his way back from Austria -- via train, truck, and foot -- where he had been a prison laborer for the S.S.  


Frank was a hardy man, and to some degree retained his muscular build nearly his whole life.  But his time in Austria had taken its toll on him.  When the prison camps were liberated, there was no financial retribution to the captives.  "Off you go," was the communication.  So like others in his predicament, Frank began the journey to Slavic Europe however he could.  Malnourished and underweight, he struggled to find food along the way.  On occasion, he snuck onto farms and ate pig slop.

But his life changed the day he met golden Emily -- he just didn't know it yet.  Because the village offered little work, Frank came and went thinking he'd never return to the town.  All the better, perhaps -- as the youngest, Emily was expected to stay on the farm and help her parents however they saw fit.  She didn't have the time for a romance.  And her brothers really weren't too fond of that Frank.

Frank found work on a farm about a couple of hours south of Odporyszów.  Bit by bit, his strength returned.  He filled out.  His muscles plumped up.  

But Frank had yet another challenge awaiting him: a case of typhus that nearly took his life a few months later.  As he lay on his hospital bed, Death patiently counting the hairs on his head, Frank dreamed of his own passing.  He was inside a casket, his mother weeping over his emaciated frame, his stoic father staring off into the distance, and hordes of relatives clad in black, their hands clasped in prayer.  

That's it, he thought.  I'm dead.

Suddenly, someone was at his funeral that had not been there a moment ago.  Unlike the others, she was not weeping, but smiling.  She knelt next to his grave site and offered her hand, her brown curls grazing her cheek.

"Come Franusz," Emily said.  "It's time to get up."

And so he got up: from his dream, from his hospital bed, and from his near death.  As he grew healthier, he saw it fit that there was only one place he could go next.

To Odporyszów.  And to Emily.


[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Sun, 18 May 2014 21:26:39 GMT
On the Killing of Marius the Giraffe

Photo credit: Reuters, Tina Burgess


Why are they calling the act of killing Marius "euthanasia?"  Even if you don't disagree with the Copenhagen Zoo for killing Marius, don't warp the already controversial act of mercy-killing by calling Marius's MURDER "euthanasia."  Even with true euthanasia, when the act really is catalyzed by and executed in mercy, we can't seem to agree whether it's right or wrong.  
But killing Marius was not an act of euthanasia.  He wasn't ill.  He wasn't suffering so badly that death was the only way to end his bodily misery.  He was a living creature, with the same life resonating inside his body that we have in ours.  He had a working heart that pumped healthy blood in his arteries.  He had a mother, and father, and caretakers.  He had his own giraffe desires and fears.  They may not look like ours, but who in the world are we to say he doesn't have them?  Or that he doesn't have a right to his life because he is a specimen of an overrepresented genetic stock?  
Those are just words.  
But Marius was a GIRAFFE.  He was alive.  I believe this means that he-as-a-living-creature possessed more value than and took precedence over any hapless and blundering choices inherent in the management of captive non-humans by humans (even more abhorrently when it is called "conservation").  I am not writing off Zoos as a whole, but please, let's at least be honest about our shortcomings.  He was ALIVE.  This most precious thing here on planet Earth - living, and all its rich experiences - was not respected.  How can anything justify that????
P.S. I tried to find another word besides murder to use in this post, but I couldn't find another suitable noun to describe taking the life of a living creature without "justifiable" cause.
Marius the giraffeMarius the giraffe
Photo Credit: Keld Navntoft
[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Wed, 12 Feb 2014 06:09:58 GMT

It has been so long since I have written that my throat feels dry.  What to say?  Somehow I've found myself secured in this warm cocoon with twenty million other people, but there are others here besides humans.  My favorite are the intelligent, curious, meta-world traversing crows.  One of them is my friend; I call her Mel Whiskerson.  She comes to the window and I've won her over with raisins, and now we've moved past the point where she only kaa-kaa's.  She shares other secrets too, only I don't understand them all, but her diverse vocalizations will inspire the fabrication of an entirely new symphony. Everyone here finds crows to be obnoxious noise-makers but I have found that when I took the time to get to know one, she started telling me stories in sounds that were brand new.  I wish I spoke crow.



What to say about Bombay that hasn't been said?  Embracing.  Confounding.  Dazzling.  Heartbreaking.  Intoxicating.  I can go round and round in my mind but any words I throw out will only be a superlative's Superlative.  Too much sugar in the tea.  So I'll let it all be said by the hundreds of writers who have said it before me.  My silence will speak my heart's big and confusing adoration of this crazy city.  




My first couple of days here I was so overwhelmed that I stayed inside the flat under the blanket amidst the shouting of hammers and jackhammers.  This was a new breed of urban for me.  I knew it though, I wanted it.  I know Bombay is busy, but I am still enchanted by her.  Slowly, inch by inch, I toed my way out the door until I found myself riding the seething, sweating trains accompanied by some very dear friends.  So crowded even the trains themselves sweat.  Can you believe it?


Sometimes I feel like this: an old woman should not live on the street and have to beg me or anyone else for money.  Or children should not have to be made to perform on the street when they could be in school.  



But who I am to decide?  I am the one who is not deciding.  Which is probably a good thing: making decisions is not my strong suit.



I remember when I first arrived back in India, so many moons ago (four? five?) back in October, I was wandering around the Gateway and Taj hotel unsure of where my immediate future would find me.  At that time, I knew one thing only: I was going to Goa to gather myself and practice some yoga and capoeira.  Yet still, even then, something stoked my belly in this city.  I could see, in the madness, a pinpoint of truth: all that there is, the one and only thing that is and ever was and will ever be.  Bombay, in its madness, in its people, in its colors and smells and sounds and heat and not only that, but also in its kindness and indifference and wealth and poverty and Starbucks and juice stalls and smiles, oh, those smiles everywhere and everywhere...


I could see something... This platform,this gift that Bombay gives you from the tip of her finger straight inside your heart.



Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily.


Life is but a dream.


What in the world does this all mean???  Here in Bombay, I have even less of an inkling than I do anywhere else in the world.  And somehow, that brings me peace.  





[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Wed, 05 Feb 2014 12:34:17 GMT
Why So Closed to the Idea of Primates as Pets, Monica? Pancho, NicaraguaPancho, Nicaragua (2013)A white-faced capuchin, Pancho was encountered in Mirafor, Nicaragua. He was kept, surprisingly, at an ecologically themed finca (ranch) -- on a chain, of course. After discussions with Pancho's "owners," they said they would take him to a rescue center so he could be integrated with other monkeys. Many, many monkeys are kept in similar conditions in Central America. Their mothers are killed, and the orphans are then sold into the pet trade.


I have gotten this question many, many times over the years, but the last month it's been coming rapid fire.  


Three weeks ago, a friend told me about a monkey he'd seen at a place called, appropriately enough, "The Monkey Bar." This is a little place on a back road near a beach town in Goa.  He told me about the monkey not as some coincidental, "Wow-did-you-see-the-monkey?" kinda thing, but because he knew... about me.


So we went there one day, posing like patrons with a hankering for thali but in reality coming to check this shit out. On a mission. My friend asked me not to cause a scene, but why tell ME about it if you didn't want something to happen? Though on the other hand, at this point of my life, I've learned that sometimes being a stinker just isn't effective if you want to make an actual change. As they say, there are moments when one catches more flies with honey than with vinegar.


Actually, in India, as well as other countries, it isn't legal to keep a primate as a pet. My own feelings are pretty strict on this issue: I don't believe monkeys should live with humans. I think monkeys or apes should be with other monkeys or apes, free-ranging, in the forest, undisturbed and respected and appreciated from a distance, giving them their own space. If they cannot be in the forest, then we owe them something different. But being a pet is not an option.


Never does the story begin in a pretty way. Most female primates, being the phenomenal mothers that they are, will protect their babies at nearly any cost. And so to get a baby monkey or ape to sell as a pet, you have to kill mom, and whoever else in the extended family stands in your way.


That's just the first atrocity.



But let's say that someone already has the monkey or ape. That the baby fell from a tree and the mother abandoned it and so you could pick it up and take it home and raise it as a pet. Is that the best option?


Also no.


In the ten-plus years that I've been working with primates, I have NEVER - not an exaggeration - seen a completely psychologically intact primate raised by humans.  Even if their human loved them, and even if they really loved their human. Here are some very specific reasons why. (I've changed their names to protect their identities, but you get the drift.)


1. Lindy

In a somewhat perverse scientific experiment, Lindy the chimpanzee was taken from her mother as a very young infant (no more than a few weeks old, if I remember correctly). The idea was to raise her without any chimp influence, in other words, entirely as a "human." She was loved and cuddled; she ate meals at the table; she slept with her human brother and sister; she wore pretty clothes. As she got older, Lindy made her own drinks and signed in ASL when she wanted food.  When she approached sexual maturity, something curious happened: she showed signs of being attracted to human males ... but for some reason, human men were uncomfortable when she presented her swollen genitalia for sex, or when she attacked a human female that she regarded as competition. When Lindy became too difficult to manage (wanting to copulate with humans was only one of a host of psychological afflictions from her imposed species identity crisis), her human family, who loved her still, begrudgingly gave her away because they could see that what they were doing to Lindy was not only cruel, but also demented. Lindy had a very hard time adjusting to her new life with chimps (which she had NEVER seen before, and did not even realize that SHE was one), and eventually died from complications from pneumonia. (Stress related immuno suppression? Maybe. Just a thought.)


2. Bilbo

Bilbo is male chimpanzee. He was raised by humans until he was about seven. Like Lindy, he is attracted to humans, albeit females ones. When he was rescued, he was integrated into a group of chimps that had two sexually mature females, but Bilbo didn't want to have sex with them. Because Bilbo never had sex, he was extremely frustrated, and especially aggressive in the mornings. You know how I figured out what calmed him down? One day I was wearing a low-cut shirt and leaned over in front of him. Quicker than a rubber band snapping, he was sitting in front of me, fixated on my cleavage and breathing so heavily that I was incalculably grateful that there was a fence between us. Bilbo, incidentally, was also raised in a family home, no abuse, no mistreatment. He was given away simply because he was getting too rebellious and having tantrums when he didn't get his way. Only problem is, a full-grown male chimp has the strength of about seven men. So, imagine a kid having a temper tantrum with the strength of seven men.... Terrifying thing indeed.


3.  Jenni 

Also raised in a caring home and also given up because her rebellious side was becoming unmanageable. It took WEEKS to incorporate her into a group of chimps. She didn't look at them, didn't communicate with them, didn't play with them. It was as if she was saying, "I don't know WHAT these hairy things are that you put me with, but I am not into it." And she charge through an electrified fence on numerous occasions to be with people again.


4. Nona

Bonnet macaque. Rescued from performing in India by a man who treats her like his daughter. Problem is, now that he wants to introduce her to other monkeys, she won't have it. Nona's human dad loves her, but probably TOO much. Any time anyone comes near her "dad," the extremely jealous Nona attacks them. And when "dad" tries to introduce her to other monkeys (because he would like to be able to be around his wife again without worrying about her being maimed), she attacks every single one of them because she is "daddy's girl." Except she's not. And one day "dad" will finally unburden his hands, and how will Nona feel? Will she understand that? But on the other hand, can this man live at the whim of every single one of Nona's emotional outbursts?


And on and on and on. And these are the stories where the primates are treated well and with love.  


drill, baboon, monkey, primate, africa, conservation, "monica szczupider"Rocky, Cameroon (2007)Rocky is a drill - a kind of monkey closely related to the better known mandrill (he of the blue face and red butt). Drills are considered one of Africa's most endangered mammals, with as few as 3,000 remaining in the wild. Rocky's mom was killed for meat, and Rocky was sold into the pet trade. He was found in a man's yard with a rope tied around his waist.


So in closing:


Yes, perhaps there is a chance that a monkey or ape can be raised by humans and still turn out psychologically sound. Just like you could say that there's a chance that if you take a kid from a loving family and home and decide to raise him in the prison system, that he could turn out psychologically sound, too. But that is an awfully big chance to take, and the stake is the well-being of a living creature.  


Excuse the 3 a.m. typos, but it just had to all come out.


"white faced", "white fronted", capuchin, "central america", nicaragua, monkey, "monica szczupider"Valerio, Nicaragua (2013)Like many other white-faced capuchins kept on chains in Nicaragua, Valerio's mother was most likely killed. Many people want monkeys as pets until they realize how much difficulty this actually presents. Consequently, unless rescued and properly integrated in a social group with other monkeys, they can spend years in solitude on a chain, which can wreck a monkey's psychology, rendering them full of neuroses like rocking and self-mutilating. Fortunately, Valerio was taken to a proper place to undergo rehabilitation.

[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Sun, 01 Dec 2013 21:44:15 GMT
On this Thing Called Being Alive  


It's 10:00 a.m. when I arrive to the Primate Trust.  Carefully, I open the gate.  Sam the overly protective (read: scary) dog is put away.  There are no jealous monkeys flying about.  (Not a metaphor.)  It's safe.
I am offered a cup of coffee at the house.  The breeze is gentle, the atmosphere serene.  
But suddenly, four of the twelve former street dogs that now call this place home stand up.  Their attention shifts to a voice that is calling something from below the house.  For the moment, they just watch, focused but unmoving.  Maybe something is happening, but this is India.  Like the street dogs who nap in the middle of the road, they'll move when they absolutely have to.
Me?  I have worked with primates long enough to know this energy that now surrounds me.  It's like the thickness of the air just before a downpour.  I cock my head and listen.  Indeed, something is happening.
"Nora!" the voice from below now has a shape.  "Nora's out!"
"Right," John says, and he turns to me with the following:
"You stay here.  And if you see a monkey coming, barricade yourself somewhere."
And with that, he runs down the stairs.
Nora the monkey didn't hurt anyone.  John returned her to the home she shares with a few other macaques.  There's a host of creatures here.  Monkeys, cats, squirrels and dogs, all rescues.  One little pug, a pedigree, was abandoned in a grocery store parking lot because she was covered in mange - COVERED.  She looks like a warty braille pad now that she's healing.  She is absolutely the ugliest and most affectionatest dog I have ever met, having possibly just crawled out from under a hybridizing pile of hobbits and trolls and ewoks.
I love India, even if the animals aren't always treated well (though one of the most well-known Indians ever, Mohandas Mahatma Gandhi, is the person who said, "“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”)
India reminds me a lot of Africa, except it is far more Indian and Africa is totally more African.  Maybe I'm just weaseling out of a description, but it might make sense if you've been to both places.  In other words, it feels like this: if India is the spirit (both light and dark), then Africa is the bloody, beating heart.  You know that thing?  If you dissemble a body and then meticulously put it back together, it won't be alive again because something would be missing?  That, that thing, which holds it all together.  That is Africa for me.
There are things that I love about living in an unruly place.  For instance, I love the exhilaration of riding my scooter in the moving jigsaw puzzle of Indian traffic.  It is a real-life game of Tetris and keeps me so stimulated.  I also like that sometimes someone has to get a cobra out from the thatched roof or you have to tape your possibly broken toe to another toe that isn't broken and just keep on doing your thing.  Infestations of maggots that've burrowed under your skin (courtesy of Cameroon), warding off carnivorous ants in the wee hours (ditto):  I don't know why these things make me feel so alive, but they do, they do, they DO.
It could be the utter lawlessness of it all.
I've been stuck between two places for some time now.  One part of me wants to live on a jungled mountaintop with monkeys or apes, just like Dian Fossey did (until the whole machete thing happened).  Then there's the part of me that loves to be around people.  People mean wonderful things, too, like playing capoeira and strumming the guitar and learning new and wonderful things to do with your body.  I've tried playing capoeira by myself, and it just makes me sad.
The problem is that usually there are no capoeiristas or other such fun things in the jungle (the real jungle), and I'm really getting so tired of wildly turning my head from one direction to another.
So I've been thinking of how to merge all these things that interest me and get back to Africa.  Something like … 
Yeah, I am for real thinking about that.
I cannot teach capoeira and it would be years before I could, and I don't want to wait that long.  If you (YOU!) are reading this and are an advanced capoeirista with a teaching cord, or know any advanced capoeiristas (with teaching cord) who are interested in discussing such an abstract and very big concept (a.k.a. living in Africa and working in environmental education and somehow working in primate conservation???), please direct them my way, I am TOTALLY serious.  
There are places on the big, beautiful, voluptuous mother continent (entire countries!) where McDonald's and 7-11's and Starbucks have not yet cared to tread; where jungles and oceans and mountains meet; where everything is so darn raw and real that you just want to cry about how confusing and beautiful and weird and pure it is.
Or maybe that is just me, I like to cry.  Also sometimes monkeys hug you, and they give the best hugs.

[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Fri, 08 Nov 2013 09:22:08 GMT
Yoga Photo Shoot: Tia and Aurelia, Budapest Aurelia, BudapestAurelia, Budapest Tia, BudapestTia, Budapest  

[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Thu, 17 Oct 2013 09:17:20 GMT

During the second world war, a young woman was taken from her home in Łódź, Poland by Nazis.  Deemed by the Reich to be not as "despicable" as Jewish people, yet not as "advanced" as the Germanic race, Poles were "allowed" to live, so long as they worked. They were marked with a "P" on their clothing, and in squalor, worked for the Nazi regime, with starvation and illnesses at arm's length.  Many did not survive their time in the labor camps.  


The young woman from Łódź was sent to a factory in Hannover, Germany.  At this particular factory, they made bombs.
Judging by her actions at the camp and their inherent risks, I can only assume that she was unable to find peace in her conscience at being forced to manufacture things that killed people.  So this young woman, along with a handful of other brave and rebellious souls, sabotaged the bombs so that they would not detonate.  Instead, they would plummet to the ground, invalid metal balls from a nefarious heaven, infertile as Eunachs.  
Somehow, the supervisory staff caught wind of this "betrayal" and relayed it to the S.S.  Soldiers were called in to dole out an "appropriate" punishment, one that would be in accordance with the severity of this rebellious crime.  One of the supervisors, fond of the young woman, sent her to pick up materials from a neighboring city the day the soldiers were scheduled to come.  When the S.S. arrived, every one of the rebels who was present was shot.  
The woman survived the war.  She fell in love with a man who was also a slave laborer.  They brought a life into this wild world, albeit one cut so short by meningitis that she was forever preserved as a toddler in the hearts of her parents.  Two years later, the war was over, and the young couple welcomed a second child.
That child was my father.  
The most interesting twist of irony to this story is that another one of my grandmother's descendants says, does, and displays things that leads me to believe he is a Neo-Nazi.  Or at the very least, one who supports Nazi principles.
Which has led me to understand, once again, how very little I understand.  Why does such an ugly, grotesque thing continue to persist in our world?  Shouldn't it have, in this case, been worked out of the psyche of the surviving victims, and subsequently their progeny?  When the evil madness of Nazi-occupied Europe finally was drained of most of its blood, the world swore that such a thing would never happen again.  
And then when the Pol Pot regime finished its reign of terror, the world again swore the same thing.
And then there was Bosnia.  And Rwanda.  And now Syria…
WHY are we failing, over and over again?
I am wondering if we ever will stop our cruelty.  Are we really as flawlessly divine as so many hippie mantras repeat?  
In this moment of damning humanity to hopelessness, I remember that I have in my bag a gift: an envelope, which I was instructed not to open until I was on the plane.  On it, two names are carefully written in pencil.  Monica. And Sena.  
Within this tiny, precious trove, a handful of treasures tumbled into my open palm, gifted to me by a sweet, smart 9 year-old girl, the daughter of my cousin.  A polished piece of Lapis Lazuli, a bracelet, a little blue flower, a dolphin pendant, and three plastic jewels.  And perhaps most significantly, there was a drawing: a picture of a giraffe and an elephant in a savanna, with the word "Afrika" written across the top.
Since leaving Dortmund, I had been assuaged with images of elephants, all with their trunks up.  Over and over again they appeared on the bus ride from Dortmund to Berlin.  I noticed them because one of my aunt collects statuettes of elephants, each with her trunk raised.  I tried to make sense of it, tried to decipher what the elephants wanted to say.  And I think here I finally found it, in the color-penciled drawing gifted to me by this child, this precious, precious creature.
An elephant with her trunk raised in the African savanna.
This child gave me a blossom.
You know, sometimes the math doesn't add up.  People die by the thousands for the resources on which they sit.  The natural world is being systematically divided and conquered.  And yet, through the madness, we must remember to love.  To forgive.  To take care.  To respect.  If we don't, it will be our own flaw.  We will wither away, crumbled and anemic and malnourished in our potential.
Our time here is so short, perhaps at the most, five scores of rotations around the sun.  In some sense, it shouldn't matter what we do, because it is all temporary anyway.  But a life lived in hatred is a sad life indeed, and an illness more devastating than any that wreaks havoc on our biological systems.  A heart filled with hatred must be a sad, fearful, and lonely place, masked by anger and violence.
We must teach our children well.  And they can teach us, too.


[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Thu, 26 Sep 2013 18:05:32 GMT
In Glorious Anticipation of Burying my Toes in African Soil

11 August 2013


I am not the only person in the world with a flying phobia.  I would in fact wager to say that it is probably one of the most common fears in the world.  

As much as my heart palpitates, and my palms get clammy, and my throat twists shut, even then I wouldn't -- I could't -- not do it.  Not only because it becomes the proverbial stones by which we cross the stream, but also because … I love flying.  
 But because it is my irrational, overly emotive and dramatic phobia, almost every time I fly I intimately acquaint myself with the notion that it could be the last thing that I do in this body.  That I could die in a metal straightjacket, clawed by pandemonium (apology for the drama).  Eventually, when rationality returns bearing bouquets of peace, when the panicky feelings pass and I am still here, with the sun rising over our beautiful planet and I remember that I am in the heavens ... then I am in such a state of pitch-perfect exultation that all I can do is weep.
I flew to Europe with Singapore Airlines on an airbus, next to a mother and daughter from Sao Paulo.  The daughter also had a flying phobia, which I recognized just before take-off.  She was clutching her mother's hand and her eyes were squeezed shut, and I knew -- I knew -- what she felt.  
So I found myself comforting her.  
And she told me, "If you are okay, I am okay."
I smiled.  "I am okay."
Yesterday morning I watched the sun rise over Sao Paulo, the largest city in South America.  This morning I watched it rise over Africa.  The Sahara desert.  I cannot, with all my human intelligence, fathom or understand the beauty that is on and surrounds our planet.  What does it mean, to be SO beautiful?  How could it be so?  After all, in this case, it is only a celestial ball of gases billions of miles away, and yet…
And yet.
I have a prime vantage point of seeing the first rays of daylight caress the Sahara, and I imagine Northern Africa's creatures waking ... Fulani cattle herders and Tuaregs and fennec foxes and everyone else I cannot name at this moment.  And I realize -- Africa is below me, just under the plane.  There she has been since the last time I left her, when I was irrevocably changed by the moments spent on this flawed and tragic and glorious continent, rich in ways we have forgotten.  I am reminded of these words I heard once:
"You would be an easy woman to fall in love with, but a difficult woman to love."
This is how I could describe Africa.  So easily she captivates, but so difficult to love her ... but when she lets you in, human by human, tree by tree, breath by breath… 
I didn't mean to write about Africa.  
But how could I not, with her northwestern coastline just below the clouds?
[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Tue, 03 Sep 2013 16:01:02 GMT
Love and Animals


I learned to ride bareback on the horse of a woman who said the following: "During my divorce, my horse saved my life."


She didn't mean literally, of course.  Her horse didn't carry her from a burning building or push her out of the way of a speeding car.  No.  The depth is more indefinite than that.  Your feet do not touch bottom and you cannot see the other end.  We know this greatness in the reverence of quiet moments or the breath exchanged between beings.  This is the gift of the animals.



In times of high emotions, non-human animals become our whisperers.  They don't even try, in my opinion - they just are.  In times of high emotions, if you are so fortunate to be around non-human animals, you might find that being close to them is all you need.  I do not care to romanticize them; they have their brutal sides.  What they offer is too sublime to fit into any one category.  Yes, it is love.  Yes, it is friendship.  Yes, you become two ships passing in the night.  It is their simple presence that quiets the mind and expands the heart.


No.  They don't try to fix anything or offer any words of wisdom or even take away your sadnesses, but neither do they judge.  They bear witness - with their eyes, and their beating hearts.  And if we may emerge tattered and scarred from the thickest jungles of our minds for just a moment - just a millisecond - then we know what they show us is this: ever-present, vibrating Life.  The gift from Source, or whatever name you have for It.  And that is a road map straight to the center of our own beings.  Because we are alive, too.



This is why we need them.  In this simplicity, we remember that majesty is present inside as well as out.  In our neurons, in the connections of our cells.  In our hearts.  So we can breathe deeply in the Darkness, and marvel in ecstasy at the Light.   We need them not because of their love for us... On the contrary, that is something we must earn.  No - we need them because of our love for them.  Because learning to love so unabashedly is the greatest wealth in the world.



*** All photos in the series taken at Parque das Aves Rehabilitation Facility, except for the first and the last, taken at the breathtaking Iguazu Falls


[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Wed, 07 Aug 2013 23:50:34 GMT
Today we saw this weird coffin-looking poacher's trap.

Of course, I wanted to smash it so it would break back into pieces of wood that could decompose and feed nature, but there was nothing to smash against but trees, and what did they do wrong?


So we disabled it.  I'm not sure why, but we couldn't remove it.  


I also shot a video!  Please excuse the not-so-phenomenol videography, but it is a snippet of the golden lion tamarins eating some provisioned bananas.  Aren't they delicious?!  (The monkeys, not the bananas!)  


[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Mon, 29 Jul 2013 22:13:20 GMT
All the Earth's Children / And Women and Men / Are Putting the Forests / Together Again  


First, something sad happened:




Yes, that's just about ten years.  To give you another idea, check out this map:


                                      Taken from:


So that's what happened.  We cut down a whole lot of trees.  But there is always a bright side.  There are people on the ground here in the Mata Atlantica (the Atlantic rainforest of Brazil), the people of Associação Mico Leão Dourado (The Golden Lion Tamarin Association) : their hands are dirty and calloused; they're often covered in sweat and bug bites.  They are men and women who, when asked, earnestly share why their work is important.  They are creating corridors between forest fragments for the tamarins.  They are mending the wounds of one of the most pillaged ecosystems on the planet.  They know details about their trees like you know details about your friends.  They are reforesting the Mata Atlantica, one sapling at a time.  



It's not easy work, of course.  The mosquitoes are insistent and the sun is fierce, and of course, the only trees under which to take cover stand no more than a foot tall.  When you plant an area, you have to keep returning for months to clear the grass so the trees have a shot at growing.  But once those brave little saplings grab hold and start to establish themselves, then you find the most glorious sight: for instance, in this photo, the light green trees in the front were planted just three years ago...  The forest wants to grow!



And now, more and more of us are listening again to the rhythm of the earth.  The rhythm we forgot, but are now remembering.


The Mata Atlantica is still 93% deforested, but slowly, hair by hair, humans are regenerating her.  This is what the Atlantic Forest looks like today: rolling hillsides, alternating between full heads of hair and bald ones.  Over the last fifty years, the baldies were winning out.  See, at one time, all of these hills were covered in trees.  Now... well, I don't need to tell you the story.  You know how it goes when cattle need room to graze.



But yes, we are listening.  We are listening to the needs of the forest, without whom I believe we would be lonely creatures.  We are interdependent.  Our most basic function - breathing - happens because of plants.  They are our siblings; since our conception, they have provided for us over and over and over again.  And now, slowly but surely, we are shaking our sleepy heads and hearing their whispers once more.  A friend once said that he believes our species had to fumble through so much darkness so that we could know precisely why we were choosing the light.  In this case: we are madly replanting because we came so close to losing them.  Reforesting is not a mindless decision - we choose to do it because biodiversity is undeniably spectacular, and the wound of losing it would leave a deep, dark scar on life.  And that we are choosing reforestation - in Mata Atlantica's case, anyway - one or two mere generations after the mass destruction began, illuminates the richest and brightest potential of our character.  One generation - again, in a geological time scale - is nothing.  We made a mistake.  We are fixing it.  And that will continue to happen.




Imagine filling a bathtub one drop at a time.  Then, you pull the drain.  You have to start over again in drops.  This is how I see the process of reforestation-deforestation-reforestation.  Want to help?  Here are a few things off the top of my head.


  •  Reduce meat consumption to two or three times a week.
  • Buy as much food that is locally grown as you can.  
  • Reduce your use of palm oil.  (A crop grown primarily in southeast Asia, but creeping its way into South America and Africa.  One of the BIGGEST issues in conservation.)
  • Walk/ride a bike instead of drive.  I know, I know - airplanes are the worst.  This is something I think I will minimize very soon.  
  • For Gaia's sake, if you are still getting a brand new plastic bag every time you go shopping, please stop.  Even for clothes.  Just stop.  Carry your purchases.  Stuff things in your bag (purse, backpack, whatever!).  I do!  And here's a benefit of that: la ter, when you least expect it, you find surprises in your handbag!
  • If you can donate something, donate.  It DOES get put to good use.  For instance, at the GLT project it is used for everything from reforesting, to provisioning bananas for struggling GLT populations, to education programs.  You can learn more about how to help here.  BUT!  Please don't donate to GIANT semi-corporate NGO's.  Sometimes they do things like raise money in the name of smaller NGO's without actually telling them or giving them the money.  Ew?!  Yup.  It happens.
  • Teach your children well - but more importantly, listen.  They want animals on the planet.  They want forests, too.  If you can siphon their enthusiasm, perhaps you can trade them the how-to-do information that they crave.  
  • Smile, laugh, cry, swim, hike, climb a tree, lay in the grass, bike, catch lightning bugs (and let them go), garden, attract pollinators to your yard, plant natives. Give thanks for cooperation and conflict. Reforestation and deforestation.  Light and dark.  We forget things, it's true, like how to be more ecologically-minded or that we are all interdependent.  But when you remember - well, that is breathtakingly poignant indeed.


To see more photos of monkeys and apes, you can look here

[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Mon, 22 Jul 2013 14:08:55 GMT
Associação Mico Leão Dourado (The Golden Lion Tamarin Association)



"Be careful," Andreia says in Portuguese.  "I tripped over this log once and broke my leg."


One of the rules of the rainforest is this: don't drag your feet, lift them.  Another is, step gingerly.  You never know what you're going to step on.  The forest floor is always a surprise.  Spongy?  Sturdy?  Muddy?  Clandestine puddle?  Fire ants?  Driver ants?  Giant hole under the leaves?  Enormously toxic snake taking a nap?  


The rainforest is full of life.  And also, it is full of death.  Sometimes nature makes me sad, other times jubilant.  I have learned that to paint her in only one light - for instance, JUST cruel, or JUST full of rainbows, or JUST about survival - is to rob Mother Nature of her vibrancy and dynamism, and therefore a gross malnourishment.



Conflicts will happen; that they do isn't bad (or good).  For instance, a lion chases a gazelle.  For the lion to get what she wants, the gazelle has to die - but the gazelle wants to live.  The two have a conflict of interest.  Nature is full of conundrums like this, right?  When I was little, I would pray to God and ask, "Please make all lions vegetarians so the gazelles don't have to die."  Then I realized that the plants would still die.  "Please make every living creature not have to eat so that nothing dies."  But then we would run out of space on the planet.  "Please make the Earth grow bigger and bigger so that it can accommodate everyone and no one has to suffer ever.  I know this is a big request, but you are God.  If anyone can do it, You can."


Then I felt like God said, "Since when is dying such a bad thing?"



Death is an inherent and precious piece of life.  The rainforest exists because of death, feeding on the decomposition of its own creatures.  For instance, if you clear-cut a forest and plant a monocrop, the anemic soil will not be able to support life in a decade or so because all of the forest floor debris would have been removed.  The topsoil alone cannot sustain such a massive organism like the forest; it needs lots of help.  When life passes in the rainforest - floral or faunal  - the microorganisms who call the forest floor home decompose the ones who have passed.  Their excrement becomes nutrient-rich fodder for more floral creatures to burst onto the stage of life.  The living, breathing flora provides nutrients and shelter for the animals of the forest, who then feed the forest with their own bodies when they die.  


A magnificent story.  




I am in the rainforest again (YAY!) visiting the Golden Lion Tamarin Association, located in the Mata Atlantica - the Atlantic rainforest on the coast of Brazil.  Andreia, the woman who broke her leg, has been a field biologist studying the tamarins (GLTs) for thirty years.  I was honored to be with her in the forest.  I am in awe of women like her.  They are strong in the way that lionesses are strong: cross their animals and you shall learn why hell hath no fury.  And yet, their greatest strength is the love and tenderness they have for their charges.


The Mata Atlantica is a hotspot: a highly endangered ecosystem.  Over 93% of the forest has been destroyed in the last sixty years.  Sixty years in a geological time scale is nothing: like the breath of a baby when it is first born.  The biggest catalyst for clearing the forest seems to be to make room for more cow pastures.  Beef.  Not trying to have an agenda at all, just saying it how it is.  


If you have worked in conservation for any length of time, you know that sometimes the work is exhausting.  It is not always as glamorous or sensational as ramming whaling boats or arguing with poachers.  It is also about contracts, meetings, negotiations, and emails.  Sometime you have to do things like get people to sign papers and donate money or go out every single day in the blazing sun to repopulate the Atlantic Forest ONE tree at a time.  This is what the Golden Lion Tamarin Association has been doing for the last twenty years, all so that our planet still has some GLTs.  Thank you, Golden Lion Tamarin Association.



Twenty years ago, there were less than 200 GLTs remaining on our planet, and that number was rapidly dwindling.  Their fate seemed sealed: they would go extinct.  But there were people who simply were not okay with letting that happen.  So through a combination of securing protected land, reforestation, and introduction of captive-bred tamarins back into the wild, the tamarin population is now at 1,700.  But until deforestation stops, the continued existence of these 1,700 souls is dependent on the work of the twenty or so individuals at the GLT Association.


If you would like to find out how you can support them, please visit their website.  In the meantime, please enjoy pictures of these hairy little garden gnomes, also known as Mico-Leão-Dourado, or the golden lion tamarin.  And yes, they actually are that color. :)














[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Sun, 21 Jul 2013 18:57:46 GMT
The farther I went from Rio, the wider the grin of the moon became.


"Don't fool yourself, child!" She said.  "You know who you are.  You love the city, it is true, but don't forget that the rhythm of your heartbeat is the very same as the rhythm of the forest.  
"Follow the serenade.  If it gets farther away, move toward it.  If it becomes louder, then you know you're on the right track.  The crickets and the birds, the wind and the rain - they can tell you all about where you love to be (actually, where everyone loves to be, whether or not they recall it).  Remember?  Turn your cartwheels in the jungle.  The original acrobats are the non-human simians, and they charge nothing for their lessons. Do you remember who you are, monkey girl?  Maybe you've forgotten, but I haven't.  I will remind you again if need be.  Maybe you didn't learn a handstand at 3.5, and instead are learning at 35.  Do you think the earth earned her canyons and mountains and forests in a day?  Does a bristlecone pine grow in a fortnight?"
The Atlantic forest of Brazil.
[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Tue, 16 Jul 2013 02:29:39 GMT
The Most Marvelous of all Cities My Spanish is so wonderful these days that many Brazilians think I am from Argentina or Spain.  Little do they know!  Most of the time I wander around this magical city happily washed in particles of uncertainty, making up stories and assigning identities to people as I go: spy, clown, Arabian prince.  (Although it doesn't always take a foreign land or a foreign tongue for me to live in my imagination...)


Sometimes stereotypes invade our imaginations; more than once, though, Brasil has undone mine for me.  In Brasilia, I was riding the subway to a friend's house.  A woman was holding a baby, and a young man offered his seat.  He had a rough look about him; at least one person in the world would surely describe him as a "hoodlum."  But soon as the mother sat down, he knelt, facing the baby, cooing softly, and gently cradling her soft head.  


It is not uncommon in Brasil to be affectionate with other people's children, even if they are strangers.  On the bus coming into Rio, a woman went to the bathroom and left her three-year old on the seat.  The little girl started to cry when she realized her mother was gone.  Without hesitation, three grown men attempted to comfort her.  They didn't know her.  It was so beautiful that, of course, I teared up.  Good thing I love crying. :)


There is something about Rio de Janeiro, cidade maravilhosa.  It drops magic sprinkles on my head; I think they fall from Jesus's open hands.  The other day I was happily lost (again) and asked a man, "Where is Jesus?"  He asked, "Right now?"  


And I wanted to say, "No, yes, I get it, he is in heaven, but where is THE Jesus?"

It's hard to miss him, though he is not always in the line of sight.  Then, every once in a while you turn a corner, and there he is.  He takes my breath away every time, so big and mystical, looming over everyone in Rio de Janeiro with his arms wide open.  I think if you climbed into his hand, he'd be nice enough to fling you into heaven.  Last time I was here, I visited him and brought him a red rose.  I love him.  


Maybe He is the Magic, or maybe there is more than one avenue funneling into the party.  There are marmosets (small monkeys) that visit the tree outside my window in the morning.  They are free.  They come down from the jungled mountains to explore the city.  These are not the curmudgeon urban macaques of India; instead, they are serene and wise and totally not making spectacles of themselves.  If I didn't know they were monkeys, I might believe they're hairy garden gnomes.  They are that wonderful.


And those jungled mountains from where they descend... The mountains aren't shy, not the way they pierce the sky from the landscape (whether aquatic or terrestrial), endowed with the same biological phenomenon as the proverbial twelve-year old boy called to the chalkboard - except they're not trying to conceal anything.  Though their story is geological, I imagine their conversations with one another to be more like this: "Oh, you're going to be all vertical and dramatic like that?  Well, check me out."  Of course, in reality, they are wiser than that.  Like the monkeys.


If I could, I would marry Rio.  I have the same enchantment with this city as I have had with certain humans.  I know that sounds naive, because Rio has a dark side.  Extreme poverty and gross inequality.  You wouldn't mistake glitzy Ipanema for Rocinha, the largest favela in the country (and possibly in all of South America, though it contends with a neighborhood in Venezuela).   I also imagine that Rio would be a fickle and unfaithful love.  So for now, we remain betrothed in my mind.


Seeing as how I am not the only person in the world in love with Rio, the city is EXPENSIVE.  No one needs to be convinced of the marvelousness of Rio, least of all Cariocas.  So they charge for it.  40 reais for one capoeira class?  35 reais for a 3-tiered bunk bed in a 15-bed room?  I'm not joking. I think Jesus also cut holes in my pockets when I'm not looking.


But, alas.  


I am content and I marvel - especially when I'm wandering and getting lost.  I love using my own brand of Portuguese/Spanish/English.  I love being surprised by this city and the people.  Come to this city, just once, even if it's only for a week.  You can just eat bananas, they are super cheap.  And the occasional acai, of course. 





[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Thu, 11 Jul 2013 01:06:51 GMT
A Scene from the Interoceanic If I have learned one thing about myself in the scant (geologically speaking, anyway) amount of time I've spent on this planet, it is this: something deep, deep within me - some wild, slumbering entity - awakens magnificently when she is in the rainforest.  It is, without one iota of doubt (and thank God for this, as there are few things I am so sure about), the ecosystem where I feel most at home.


Condensation on a Bus Window, Peru

The morning through the window


It is dawn.  I wake after a second night on yet another bus winding through the Andes and immediately draw open the curtain.  I know what's on the other side of the window before even looking: the Amazonas, mother of all jungles, where the early seeds of daylight are sprouting courageously from the darkness. 


View from the Bus Window: Entering the Amazonas, Peru

Entering the Amazonas: at first light

I disembark at Puerto, my final stop in Peru before continuing on for the other coast.  With all my possessions, I hop on my ride's moto - not his taxi, not his tuk-tuk, but his motorcycle - and in an instant, my memories transport me back to my life on the rim of the Congo basin: copper-colored roads and emerald foliage painted three-dimensionally by the fog.  Amazon and Congo, Congo and Amazon.  Sometimes, when I forget where I am, I look to the people to remind me.  What I have found by doing so is this: the whole world smiles the same.

***Taken from the forthcoming series: Through the Bus Window: South America on the Interoceanic

Bridge into Puerto Maldonado, Peru

Bridge into Puerto

Through a Door in the Jungle, Peru

Evening stroll in Puerto
[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Tue, 11 Jun 2013 17:10:02 GMT
A Study in Anthropology Most people don't pay attention to the cat sprawled in the middle of a busy walkway in Parque Kennedy.  She's not, after all, the only cat who lives here; she's actually one of dozens that benefits from the kind souls who set out food at the cathedral.


But she is the only cat laying right in the middle of the walkway, and she also happens to have a beautiful cream coat and vibrant blue eyes.  The most attention she warrants from passer-bys, though, is a courtesy to walk around her.  Not more, not less.  Just another day.



But there are some exceptions, and the internal anthropologist notes:


1. A ~10 year old child strays from his family.  They walk to right of the cat, and he walks to the left.  He slows his pace, peering at the stationary cat, and then runs to catch up with his family.


2. An elderly couple parts like the Red Sea, though they keep holding one another's hands.  They stop for the briefest of moments when the cat is between them, look down, then keep walking.


3. An American (U.S.) family approaches.  From meters away, a ~12 year old boy says, "Look at this one.  He's almost dead."  (Why, oh why must Americans be so dramatic about everything?!)  The two younger sisters (~9 and ~7) slow their pace and sadly say, "Awwwww..."  Their mother scolds sharply, "Don't touch it."  And they keep walking.



4. Three late-teen local boys holding rubber bands approach (my guard goes up).  One stretches his rubber band weakly, and a second stretches his tautly, preparing to fling it at the sleeping cat.  Simultaneously, the third boy pushes him and I yell, "No No No!" in the deepest, most authoritative voice I have.  They are so engrossed in their scuffle that they don't notice me, but a man on a nearby park bench does.  The boys walk along now, laughing, oblivious to me, the man on the bench, and the cat.  I wonder what possessed one of them to even halfheartedly motion that he would fling a rubber band at a sleeping cat, and what possessed the second one to almost do it.  I am also grateful to his friend for having the courage to speak his mind even though it differed from the masses, so to speak.  


But mostly I wonder: would it genuinely have brought them joy to do such a thing?  Were they this way as children?  When did the disconnect appear, the loss of realization that the cat was a living creature and wouldn't enjoy being woken like that?  Did they know and not care, or did they forget?


Interesting creatures we are.


Photos were taken when the cat woke up and came to sit with me on the bench.  She let me cuddle her and I became happier because of this. <3





[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Wed, 05 Jun 2013 19:05:04 GMT
Photo Shoot with Andrea Shooting a beautiful woman who expresses herself with such heart, such art, so much connection...


One of my favorite things to do.


I LOVE this woman.


Taken from the gallery:


Andrea, Peru


Andrea, Peru


Andrea, Peru


Andrea, Peru


Andrea, Peru


Andrea, Peru

[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Sun, 19 May 2013 18:44:35 GMT
Kids and Conservation: Programa conCENCIA and L.O.O.P. Recently, I had the great pleasure to shoot some photos for Programa conCIENCA (an NGO here in Peru run by Daniela Benavides), whose aim to instill a more ecological purpose in children by getting their hands in nature and exploring their creative sides. Just up my alley! :)


Find Programa conCENCIA on Facebook at‎


Happy Learning and Living!










[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) animals beach conservation education environment kids learning Sat, 18 May 2013 17:03:06 GMT
The Case of the Mysterious Bird Carcasses Littering an Otherwise Empty Beach Time: Last Night

Place: The Beach



"Whoa. Did you see this?" I ask Andrea.  "A dead bird."


And I begin snapping photos.


"Here's another one," she replies, pointing down the beach.  And her finger shifts to point further down the horizon.  "And another one.  And another...."


They were all along the stretch of beach that lined the small community of beach houses where we've been staying.  Largely, with the exception of security guards patrolling the premises on bicycles, we've had the place to ourselves.  And now, these birds... They'd come from seemingly nowhere.  They weren't there the day before, as far as I knew.


They were lining the shoreline in all stages of decay.  A smattering of species, too.  What was the cause?  Pesticides?  Did someone kill them?  Did the tide wash them up?  Did they collide with aliens spaceships?  


Scooby-Doooooooo!  Where are you?!?!?!


It turns out something similar happened last year around this time, and while not solved concretely, there is a theory.  Last year, 2,300 hundred birds were discovered on the shoreline in Chile.  Simultaneously, in the north of Peru, FIVE THOUSAND birds were found dead.





Who is the voodoo hoodlum behind this?


A chain of events, apparently, beginning with climate change.  (Why, oh why, is it always climate change?!)  Short story is this: marine waters are warming.  This creates less-than-ideal living conditions for sardines and anchovies.  They head south, seeking cooler waters.


So, in Peru, this is what happens:


1. The food leaves.

2. The birds starve.


And so what's up with the birds in Chile, who all of the sudden have a plethora of delicacies upon which they can feast?


Because of all this food, the birds have lost the incentive to begin their migration.  The fisherman begin their season.  And a insanely huge number of birds around during the fishing season means that there more birds to be caught in nets, drown, and subsequently be washed back on shore.


So, mystery solved, it seems, though it's one of those endings that you don't feel super stoked about.



[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) beach birds coast dying Wed, 15 May 2013 15:02:49 GMT
Sea Jelly - or - You Don't Need Eyes to See... ....Yet you have them.  And so shall they do their work to fill us with wonder and thanks.

[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) Tue, 14 May 2013 20:05:25 GMT
Sometimes Midnight is an Aphrodisiac  

Can you find the moth?

I step outside sometime near the midnight hour.  Here in the southern hemisphere, it is winter, and the long swells of the Peruvian sea rush in the distance.  Here, the clouds get trapped between the currents riding the ocean and the towering Andean peaks, and here, in the day, everything is painted white or gray.  Gray or white. 


But now, cradled between dusk and dawn, the world is instead painted a dim orange by the lampposts that line the walkway.  Something is on the ground near my feet.  Brown, it seems.  Fairly flat.  Two-dimensional.


A moth, maybe.


Though I don't like to think of the death that it precludes, there is something about finding a moth that I love.  The intricate patterns and furriness of its wings; the absolute stillness of no longer living that allows proximity to an otherwise flighty creature; the otherworldly ether between dark and light in which moths persist.  Yes.  Something about finding a moth is bewitching.  I bend down, and reach out to touch it - 


And it is a leaf.  


Can you find the moth?



For a split second - not my finest second - I am disappointed.  But then I remember what this leaf means.  Photosynthesis.  The irreplaceable component that makes all this possible.  So I can breathe.  And then, after completing its process, to fall so delicately from a tree, meandering downward according to gravity ... It is entirely full of grace.


I pick her up, feel the ridges of her spines, and I see that she is soft like the moth.  Velvety.  I gently press her abdomen, and her ragged edges curl inward toward my index finger, embracing it.


Who was the creature who was disappointed?  


Being hugged by a leaf, she is.


(Can YOU see the moth hiding in the leaf?)


Can you find the moth?

[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) leaf midnight musing nature Sun, 12 May 2013 16:44:37 GMT
Here is a super beautiful story....  

The son and the father.

Dogs, oh dogs...  They are like pure honey from the goodest part of existence.  How did we humans become so fortunate to have them so intimately woven into our lives?  Part of the answer, I imagine, is that we admire their attributes - which, if just for a moment we can make our egoic bubbles more permeable, then we could understand how much their attributes can enrich us (and without the dogs even trying to teach us anything at all).  Loyalty.  Unabashed fierceness.  Their commitment to community cohesion.  In all that has evolved in the 10,000 years or so since the first relations were forged between wolves and humans, perhaps the most precious thing to remember is how, in fact, they make us better.


And so I want to share a story of two street dogs in Lima, Peru: a father and a son.  My beautiful friend and sister Andrea, whose heart beats madly for dogs, has seen them now four times in the last couple of weeks.  She feeds them, and so they come around again.  This set of photos was taken in her yard.  We all spent the day together, forging our own bond, in the hopes that we might one day be able to find a home for them.  But before we get further into that, I'd love for you to meet them.

Between the two of them, the son is the alpha - or at least it looks that way to the untrained eye.  But perhaps it is more that he is very devoted to his pack of two.  The father, you see, with his milky marbled cataracts, is almost entirely blind.  He is dependent not only on his remaining senses, but also on his son.  The son walks ahead of his father in the street, keeping an eye out for any obstacles or suspect variables.  When his father lags, the son stops and waits for him to catch up.   When they slow down, the son plays tenderly with his father, and, if not playing, positions himself between his father and the rest of the world, as if to protect him.  Sharing his eyesight.  Standing guard.  Perhaps most touchingly, the son even stops - mid-eating, mind you - and gently nudges the food over to his father. 


Now, the debate within me is this: to remove them from the streets, or leave them in their freedom?  They are not starving, by any means.  They have meat on their bones, which leads me to believe that others feed them, as well.  The day we spent with them in Andrea's garden was supposed to be a time for us to earn their trust, in preparation for potentially moving them to a home with loving humans sometime in the future (if we can find such a home).  Initially, when we closed the door to the yard behind them, they did not want to be in the garden.  But a short time into being there - twenty minutes or so - they were already napping, seemingly very comfortable.


So, my question is this: what do we, as a species, owe dogs?  Having domesticated them so long ago, we removed the wolf from inside of them - and in some way, removed part of their self-sufficiency, as well.  They are dependent on us in so many ways.  For instance, in the case of the father and the son (and other street dogs, as well): even if we did not feed them hand-to-mouth directly, they would still subsist on our scraps and garbage.  So, do we owe them more?  A warm bed?  A safe place to rest?



Certainly, father and son should not be separated.  If they are taken to a new home, then they must be kept together.  But perhaps thinking they need a home with humans is an anthropocentric idea.  Maybe they are quite happy where they are, meeting up with their own doggie friends, stopping by the houses of people who feed them whenever they feel like it.  And, they have one another.  


What I can say with certainty, though, is this: the loyalty the son has to his father has touched me.  It is rare.  Even having worked with many species of non-human primates - considered by many to be some of the most emotionally complex creatures on the planet - I can say I have not seen this caliber of loyalty very often.  In fact, the more intelligent, more "sophisticated," a creature is, then sometimes the more self-centered he or she is, too.


If the world is going to the dogs, that is all right by me.




[email protected] (Monica Szczupider) animals dogs learning love loyalty peru rescue Mon, 06 May 2013 20:01:05 GMT