Friday, January 19, 2007

Gorilla Tracks

So my two weeks in Kampala, Uganda working on my master’s thesis went smoothly. I had a few amazing discoveries in research, such as the fact the “farm gate price for coffee” refers not to the price a farmer receives at the village level for a kilo of coffee, but rather the price of a packet of imported Nescafe instant crystals, but that’s fine. There were the brief minutes where I heard my thesis crash and burn, but like a phoenix I rise from the ashes to hypothesize another day. In addition, I knocked out a couple other papers for classes due during the break, both written in Africa, by me an America, one about Latin America and another, co-authored with two Europeans, about the Middle East. High five globalization.

So we left at 2 am on Wednesday morning I left Kampala for Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. The bus trip was uneventful. As usual I spent the time admiring the scenery and speculating as to exactly what type of methamphetamines the driver was on. We arrived at the border at 9 am, and did the usual song and dance with customs. As I was boarding the bus again, however, the customs guy asked me to open my suitcase. He was looking for plastic bags. They were illegal in Rwanda. My heart soared. Having traveled in over 20 African countries to this point, my mind wandered back to the piles of plastic bags that litter the roadsides and villages across the continent. Disgusting. Marring the scenery. Harming the environment. I swelled with pride as I thought of the new generation of Africans, fostering development while still holding tightly to Mother Nature’s hand. Radiating this inner glow, I fished out the thin black plastic bag that until moments before had held my laundry. I held it high. I asked the inspector, beaming with hope, into which receptacle I should throw the offending hydrocarbon derivative.

He told me to toss it on the ground.

I sighed, tossed the bag on the ground, and got back on the bus. Onward to Kigali and Ruhengeri. We were only in Kigali for about two hours. Long enough to pick up our gorilla permits and accidentally try to check in to the Hotel des Milles Collines (from the movie Hotel Rwanda and the real-life genocide).

Ruhengeri is the town used as the base camp for visiting the mountain gorillas. You hike about 1 1/2 hours up - into the mountains as it were - and then spend an hour hanging out with a family of gorillas, then head back down. This was the single most incredible experience of any of the travel things that I have ever done. You get SO close. The gorillas aren't afraid at all. And the troupe we visited had 3 little baby gorillas. I could bore you to tears with every single second of the experience, but you really owe it to yourself to go yourself someday. I will stick to the highlights and let you check out the pictures. (Incidentally, I literally have 100s more, so let me know if you want to wallpaper your new bathroom or something...)

(1) We were walking down a path from one part of the gorilla group to the other. Suddenly the guide tells us to stop, and stand to the side. I turn back to see what happened. The others in the group stepped to the side and a 300 pound mountain gorilla with a baby on her back went walking by. She brushed against the legs of the person next to me. I had been the first on the lines and a little way down a rocky path. I stepped back as much as I could, but not quite far enough. She stepped on my toes walking by. Just the tips and not enough to hurt, but how many people do you know have had their toes stepped on by a wild mountain gorilla?

(2) The troupe had 9 members, 1 adult male silverback, five "wives" and three babies. The adult male is HUGE. We got within five feet of him while he was eating. They are so much like us. While he was sitting there, lounging in a tree eating bamboo, we had the same posture and expression as a number of adult male humans I have known in my life have while watching football. (You know who you are.) When we are that close the gorilla, you can't make any sudden movements. While is all well and good until he figures out there is no more bamboo within arms reach and decides to pull down a tree. You ever try to move slowly out the way of a falling tree? Twice I was smacked with branches. Damned inconsiderate to the guests.

(3) There was one female who was HUGELY pregnant. She was irritable and ate all the time. And there are people that doubt evolution is real.

(4) There was another female with a baby. The kid was about the human equivalent of the terrible twos. He was all over the place. He wanted to run in the trees. Then climb on dad. Then climb the bamboo. Then see what the deal with these weird pink hairless things with the cameras. At one point he got a little too close to the guide. The female walked up and slapped the guide on the shoulder, encouraging him to perhaps move his troupe of weird pink hairless gorillas away from the baby. Then the baby wanted to get a better view of use so he climbed in the tree on top of us and started to jump up and down. He hadn't quite gotten the hang of the working of all his limbs yet, so he ended up hanging by one arm. Mom grabbed him down, said something in gorilla that mothers all over the world have been yelling at their kids for millennia, and made him sit with her under the tree. He sulked.

I could really go one forever. I have added more pictures than usual this time because they really offer much more of an accurate picture of the experience. Absolutely incredible.

After the gorillas, we caught a minibus to the resort town of Gisenyi on Lake Kivu. Gisenyi is a cute little town right on the border with the DRC city of Goma. Most of the cars and people here are Congolese. (Editor’s note: Goma used to be a provincial backwater in the middle of war-torn eastern Congo. Then in 2002, the nearby volcano erupted, and Goma became the provincial backwater in the middle of war-torn eastern Congo half covered in lava.) We stayed at Hotel Kivu Sun, which is the nicest hotel in town, even if it is the former headquarters of the genocide government. You can't really swim in Lake Kivu. The guidebook says "it is very dangerous to swim, as volcanic gases are released from the lake bed and, in the absence of wind, tend to collect on the surface of the lake. Quite a few people have been asphyxiated." I took a pass on the experience. We only spent a day there, before coming back here to Kigali. We will take a look around town tomorrow, then fly on to Kenya on Sunday.

No comments: