Super Bowl Monkey

I just realized I drafted this, but never posted it. Man, this month has been a mess.

I’m a bad American. I don’t own any guns, I speak more than one language, and I don’t care one bit about American football. The very fact that I have to specify the modifier “American” should clue you in to where I stand on the sport. So the fact that the last day of my trip fell upon Super Bowl Sunday came to me as a surprise, until I was reminded of it by the friend whose house I was staying at in Manuel Antonio.

Now, she’s a proper fan. A real red-blooded gridiron goon. So I was honored by her invitation to join the party. Better yet, another friend there was British, and I knew that watching her watch the American watch football would be the real entertainment. So I agreed to participate in the festivities the best way I know how: by grilling dinner.

I don’t want this to become a food blog, but god damn do I love doing this.

I had a perfect setup on a little ledge overlooking a quiet side street. The view was lovely, surrounded by the trees and vines of the ever-encroaching jungle. This being mid Dry Season, many flowers were in bloom and the air smelled great, only embellished by my signature barbecue chicken, veggies, and pineapple over open coals.

And wouldn’t you know it, the monkeys thought so too. Because not even half an hour in, a full troop of squirrel monkeys showed up.

Yep, should’ve seen that coming.

I don’t think I’ve talked about these guys much. When I refer to “monkeys” with a dark tone and shiver of revulsion, I’m usually thinking of capuchins. Or howlers, the fecal bombardiers with voices like unmuffled motorcycles. Or spider monkeys, the rare and enigmatic canopy dwellers. But here’s a quick rundown of Costa Rica’s fourth species: Saimiri oerstedii.

These.

Central American (or Red-Backed) Squirrel Monkeys are the smallest monkey in Costa Rica. They are known locally as “mono titi,” which can be confusing since an unrelated South American monkey is known in English as the Titi Monkey. However, this species is found along the South Pacific Coast of Costa Rica and into Panama, and is still considered Endangered along its range.

Highly social and omnivorous, squirrel monkeys travel in large troops of up to a hundred (usually about half that), foraging for insects, fruit, and small animals much in the same way as capuchins. However, unlike the capuchins of my woeful field days, their group structure is much less hierarchal and more egalitarian, with multiple mating pairs and no dominant alphas. As a result (or consequence; gotta love evolution), they are much less aggressive.

If these had been capuchins, it would’ve ended with one of us in the hospital.

But they are still opportunistic little bandits. Not to mention clever and persistent thieves, especially around human areas where they have learned to steal and beg for food. And while local conservation efforts in the MA area have led to a recovery of the local endemic subspecies, this has meant that they are far more abundant and bold around humans. As I rediscovered.

The group moved in from all sides, quickly surrounding me and the grill from rooftops, fences, and electrical wires. I shouted and waved kitchen implements at them, threatening to add them to the fire if they should dare to touch my food. They ignored me. Instead, they coordinated small advances, darting in and out just out of range, testing my defenses. I ended up practically straddling the grill, standing over the food to shield it with my own body, turning chicken with one hand while snapping tongs at marauding monkeys with the other.

I would never eat a monkey, but I would sure as hell cook one.

Ultimately, I held them off. Not one single dirty little primate laid his filthy hands upon a morsel of my food. The group eventually moved on in search of easier swag. But the victory was not without cost. In my rush to finish the meat before the monkeys got to it, some wings weren’t fully cooked all the way through and had to be finished in the microwave. Not my finest moment. At least the monkeys were sent away, disappointed and hungry. I consider that a win any day.

Oh, and there was a football game too at some point. I guess.

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