Thursday, January 11, 2007

christmas 2006, part 2: the rest of the story

t&e arrived in uganda just before christmas as our first visitors from home. i prepared, i planned, i looked forward to their visit. as to be expected not all of the visit went as planned, but as my grandpa used to say “if everything went right, we’d never have any stories.” so, this is “the rest of the story” from christmas 2006…

our time in kampala with t&e was great. our mold escapade had just unfolded, so we were all graciously put up in luc and majo’s house next door who were on holiday with the kids in rwanda. t&e had the master bedroom, we were in the back suite, and we spent our socializing time with uno in our apartment – it was an ideal set-up. phil and i were happy to show off kampala; the places, the stories, the idiosyncrasies we’d learned after 6 months of living. you don’t realize what’s fallen into the background of recognition until you are with someone from home of your ilk, your family with whom you can share it. having visitors is an interesting cross-over of two lives. the one there and the one here momentarily overlap. it’s easier to be here when you don’t think about there, but then again it’s tons of fun to share here with there. that was new for us here and something i really enjoyed.

we hit our favorite kampala hot spots – nakasero market, the old matatu taxi park, the bugolobi indian restaurant, café pap (awful name, good coffee), the ba’hai temple (the only one in africa). i recommend all of them…if you’re looking for a quite, green-space reprieve from the dust, traffic jams, and boda craziness, go to the ba’hai temple. don’t forget to bring your binocs – it’s great for bird-watching and a picnic.

t&e came to us overland from kenya where they’d spent a week exploring on their own. we didn’t know when they’d arrive in kampala and i didn’t know if tait had received my hurried, last-minute email with directions to our apartment. they’re some of the more experienced travelers i know, so i didn’t need to worry about them but i did anyway. family will do that. i definitely did not need to worry about them adapting to africa, though, considering their travel track record, and i certainly did not. i had enough to eat up my allocated “worry time” making sure our planned trip went as planned. in my life planning leads to expectations; expectations very rarely live up to reality thereby often leading to disappointment. this is a personality trait i’m working on adapting so it doesn’t affect my life so much. anyway…

t&e decided in aug/sep that they would be visiting us over christmas. i like their system – they swap every other year’s christmas between being in the u.s. with family and traveling. we got lucky this year to be their chosen destination outside the u.s. not knowing what they’d want to do, we spent time in the fall scoping out tourist destinations in uganda to uncover some of the lesser known, more primo spots. then, in early dec tait emailed saying they wanted to see the gorillas. great, gorillas! oh no, gorillas! phil and i had easily decided that the gorillas were on our must-do list, so “great, gorillas!” but, i knew that gorilla permits were virtually impossible to come by last-minute during the christmas season considering permits are normally booked 6-12 months in advance, so “oh no, gorillas!”

i scrambled to get tickets, going to the uganda wildlife authority where they looked at me like i was crazy and calling all the tour companies in town where they talked to me like i was crazy. i responded as non-crazy as possible and kept calling, emailing, pestering until i finally found someone who said “sure, we can do that.” maybe i should’ve suspected something fishy about the only tour company left with gorilla permits 2 weeks before christmas? but every time i questioned, they came back with excellent customer service, so what was i to do but trust? the real crunch-time in the suspicion/trust tug-o-war was when i sent our tour guide to kigali on a bus with $1600 cash to purchase the only remaining 4 gorilla permits in all of east africa over christmas. the evening of the day he was supposed to pick the permits i got a call from rwanda saying no one showed up and if the permits weren’t picked by the following day, they would be forced to give them to someone else. i hung up and called our tour guide immediately, but couldn’t get thru to him for…2 days. can you imagine what was going thru my mind? i imagine you can imagine. luckily our imaginations most often land at the worst-case-scenario and in reality nothing bad came out of the snafu and our tour guide showed up in kampala a few days later with 4 rwandan gorilla permits in hand. whew. phil told me i was getting too involved as a middle-man in the trip planning. he had a point, but it’s hard for a control freak like me to let go sometimes.

FYI: if you purchase gorilla permits from a tour company, you do not need to book a tour with that company. i didn’t know that initially; i thought you could only do DIY if you purchased directly thru the uwa or rwanda office of tourism. nope, you can DIY. regardless of what’d i’d know, though, we still would’ve rented a car + driver since we’d decided that elsie (our landcruiser) wasn’t big enough for 4 people and gear and a 12+ hour drive. knees in chests on a bumpy road isn’t so comfortable.

the benefit of having a tour guide is that he removes the questions of travel – how do we get a car across the border, where will we stay, how do we get to the park? funny thing is our tour guide didn’t know the answers to any of those questions. it makes me laugh when i think about it. no matter though, we figured it all out. we made it thru uganda and rwanda, saw the gorillas, spent time on lake bunyonyi, hiked in lake mburo national park. we did it all and enjoyed it all….can’t ask for much more, really.

we used to always tell the syzygy kids that there’s nothing wrong with making a mistake, it’s what you decide to do with it that matters. i’m still learning to apply said mantra to my own life. phil chastises me for my coulda/woulda/shoulda mentality. it does no good but create regret over the past…apply the experience to change future behavior the way you want. he’s right, of course (but don’t tell him i said that). and, so is my grandpa – the events gone wrong are the ones we talk about for years.

i suspect that t&e, phil, and i will talk about this for years…

- driving 10 km in 3 hours around lake bunyonyi on one of the worst, but most scenic roads in uganda. coming around the corner to find a petrol tanker nearly on its side in the rain, muck and mud leaning on the uphill side of a one-lane road that hugged a steep drop into the valley below. how to pass? fishtail and gun it uphill in the mud while being pushed by a group of industrious teenage boys as the edge is so close on one side you can’t see it and the tanker is so close on the other you can kiss it (if you’re into that sort of thing.)

- racing to the border at cyanika to make it across before it closed (no crossing, no gorillas the next morning) only to learn we can’t get our van across. the sun’s setting and we’re stuck at a border with no vehicle to make it the rest of the way. ah, travel. we load our earthly belongings onto our backs, walk across the dead space between countries, and climb into a rattling, shaking rwandan matatu. we speed thru the dark rattling along on the best road i’ve been on in months (rwanda has real roads!) watching the colorful display of people filing past on the traditional christmas eve processional. no question we were in a new country. as simple as a line on a map and so much changes.

- staying at the overland camp at lake bunyonyi with the intent of enjoying a day of quiet r&r in a scenic locale. it was scenic and relaxing, but not at all quiet. our r&r happened to coincide with an all-out, all-day party replete with music, dancing, and shouting into microphones in typical “ugandan party” style. enough cacophony to disrupt the whole lake. tait, phil, and i opted for a walk up and around the hills. bird-watching, flowers, views, villagers, a chance to chat. make lemonade out of lemons, right?

(for more trip stories, see phil’s post.)

i wanted t&e’s visit to be perfect, but travel isn’t about perfection. travel is about the adventure. i know that, t&e know that. at a certain point, i was smart enough to remember that axiom and actually apply it to our trip which made all the difference ‘cos then i was able to enjoy rather than worry. i’ve traveled a lot in my time (latin america, europe, new zealand, asia), but after 6 months living in uganda i’m learning one fundamental difference between living and traveling. when you travel, everything contributes to the experience – the good, the bad, the ugly. you experience for 2 weeks, and then go home stocked with pictures, adventures, and stories galore. no matter how things turn out, it’s good. living is different. you don’t leave to go home…you’re already there.

i had many expectations wrapped up in this trip, but now no regrets. sure, it didn’t all go as planned, but big deal. i spent 5 days with family in a beautiful place talking, laughing, experiencing, adventuring. that satisfies my christmas 2006 wish list.

**footnote: i wrote this blog by hand on my flight from entebbe to heathrow, which is something i do a lot more of now that i live without reliable electricity. transcribing it from paper to computer happened while sitting in the very place that phil and i killed 9 hours on a layover en route to uganda for the first time a long/short 6 months ago.

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some of the best-known tourist attractions in uganda are the families of mountain gorilla (gorilla gorilla) that live in the southwest corner of the country, along the border of rwanda and the d.r. congo. there are 700 mountain gorillas left in the world, with ~380 living on that tri-border area in mgahinga natl park in uganda, parc national des volcans in rwanda, and parc national des virungas in the d.r. congo. the other ~320 are further north in uganda, in bwindi natl park. among all the parks, there are ~12 families that are habituated to humans and can be visited by tourists. only 8 people per day are allowed to visit each family, so it can be pretty hard to get a permit. it's spendy, too, at $300-400 per permit (one person per permit) depending on which park you visit. all three countries are raising the permit price to $500 later this year, with a profit-sharing scheme among the countries to make up for the times when the groups migrate across the border, leaving the county without its tourist attraction. i'm still a little amazed by the price, given the potential for failure in finding the gorillas in the mountain forests. imagine spending $500 for an NBA courtside ticket only to find out upon arrival that the game is being played at another arena? it happens here, so tourists (often?) book two days worth of permits in case day one doesn't pan out. no refunds.

rather than our standard adventure tourism bring-a-tent-and-some-guidebooks-and-a-full-tank-of-gas-do-it-yourself M.O., paige and i booked our trip with a tour company. i think the main rationale for this was the cost of the gorilla permits and the fact that it would be a huge letdown if our inexperience led us to miss our scheduled appointment. usually with travel, we're used to making mistakes along the way, rolling with them, and enjoying the serendipity that usually seems to follow. that said, we're also used to fairly meticulous planning ahead so those mistakes are few and far between. so. with a tour company, we would show them the money, sit back, and let them take care of us.

it's not that we're inherently mistrusting -well, maybe it is- but we have a really hard time letting someone else take care of business. if you want it done right... it turned out that the company doesn't really have much experience with rwanda, so there were plenty of issues along the way that make for good stories now, but were the source of a lot of stress along the way. so here is the quick version of the first 24 hours:

on the road at 6:30 from kampala.
stop for lunch. guide forgot that it was sunday, christmas eve, and that all the restaurants are closed. thank goodness not everyone is christian. we have a great lunch of indian chicken and curry and bread.
there is a lot of stopping and asking of directions. this does not instill confidence. later we find out that it is asking which roads do NOT have tanker trucks broken down across them and are therefore passable. good guide.
the open road (by road, i mean dirt track) turns out to be a 10km *3 hour* affair winding along the valley overlooking lake bunyonyi. it is incredibly beautiful and incredibly bumpy. and in fact, there is the obligatory double petrol tanker stuck in mud along it on a switchback. with the help of a number of strategically stationed youths our van is able to walk the muddy tightrope between the listing tanker to our right and the valley to our left. the youths collect their money and we are on our way. back in kampala, we find out from our neighbor that they had driven the same road two days later and the tanker had rolled into the valley and was surrounded by locals with jerry cans filling up on diesel.
back on to the main road leading to the rwandan border. seems just as bumpy but the scenery is amazing. hills, terraces, mountains. we are hours late, though, and the border closes soon and there is still this worrying asking of directions going on. we finally make it to the border at dusk, half an hour after it has closed, and begin figuring out how we get across.
they won't let our van through. we do not have the necessary papers with the car. bad guide. we do find the rubber stamp-wielding authorities to get us through, however, and we are able to hire a matatu on the other side. good guide.
communication is facilitated through a number of languages and dialects, none of which is english or french, the two languages of the countries. the matatu conductor understands swahili but cannot speak it. our guide understands kinyarwanda but cannot speak it. and so we get to our destination, though five hours late and with our two biggest rules of travel here -seatbelts and no night driving- broken like a light bulb in the mariana trench.
the hotel is posh and has of course canceled our reservations because we are late and our guide's cell phone is out of battery power so he has not informed them of our situation. bad guide. he gets us a room and negotiates the price down. good guide. meals and sleep, tomorrow is gorillas!

sleep is fantastic, we're at 2000 meters and it's so nice to require blankets for warmth. breakfast and waiting. our guide has overslept. bad guide. the matatu has arrived sans conductor and we are on the road. more asking of directions and a left turn. i'm pretty sure it should be right. bad guide. more directions and more turns and an arrival at nowhere and an admission that the driver and our guide cannot communicate. group orientation started 5 min ago. bad guide. some tense words later, things get worked out and we show up at park headquarters as groups of leiderhosen-clad, hiking boot-wearing, rucksack-toting, walking stick-wielding euros are heading out on a trek. we are here and everything is ok. breathe.

more soon on the actual tracking. read paige's post and see pictures here.

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

christmas day gorillas

christmas 2006, part 1…

parc nacional des volcans is the place to see gorillas in rwanda. rwanda, uganda, and the democratic republic of congo form the trifecta of gorilla hot spots as the only places left in the world to see mountain gorillas in the wild. knowing no international borders, the gorillas move freely among the 3 bordering countries. of course, each country has its pros and cons for gorilla tracking – we chose rwanda because that’s who still had gorilla permits last-minute during the busy christmas tourist season. pro for us.

tracking the gorillas isn’t an experience that comes cheaply ($375/person), but is an experience that is beyond worth any money you pay. i had my doubts on the cost:benefit ratio beforehand, but those doubts were completely erased as soon as i set foot on the trail and realized the unique, once-in-a-lifetime trip on which i was embarking. surrounded by misty volcanoes on your way to see gorillas? who can complain?

scheduled ranger orientation begins on the dot at 7am at the park headquarters. parc nacional des volcans is home to 5 habituated gorilla families, each of which welcome 8 visitors total per day (plus accompanying trackers, ranger guides, and guards). doing the simple math that means 40 visitors convene at the ranger center at 7am to be briefed and assigned to a particular family. you can imagine the scene – mzungus galore geared up with hiking sticks and boots and packs antsy to get hiking. but i can’t because we weren’t there. it’s somewhat comical, really…a tour guide who overslept his alarm, who didn’t know where the ranger station was, who took us up the mountain before turning around to go back down. we arrived at the ranger station by the skin of our teeth scrambling in at 7:30. just in time to register, get a quick rundown, and glom onto the last remaining group with 4 open trekking spots to be filled by us – me, phil, my brother tait, and my sister-in-law estela. i am sure i would’ve enjoyed the stories and information shared by the rangers during the briefing session (we haven’t met a ranger yet who didn’t dazzle with his breadth and depth of knowledge), but looking back on it i’m grateful that we missed it because in my mind our group of 8 was the only group in the mountains that day to visit the gorillas.

the parc is big and includes the string of virunga volcanoes, 7 volcanoes all told. the volcanoes are often obscured by mist and are (according to lonely planet) “the best place in africa to track rare mountain gorillas”….thus, gorillas in the mist. i like to think that our bad luck at getting lost and being late led to our good luck of getting to see the susa family. living on the furthest volcano (karisimbi), they are the most remote, the most difficult to reach, and the largest of all the families in the rwanda/drc/uganda gorilla triangle with 38 family members including 4 silverbacks, 3 babies, and a set of twins. talk about WOW.

some people hike 30 minutes to find the gorillas. roundtrip, we hiked 9 ½ hours. our trek took us thru farmland into bamboo forests up the mountain to mossy jungle and eventually to the family’s nesting place the night before. the trackers we followed cut the path with machetes as we scrambled thru mud, nettles, and all sorts of unknown brush. having overlooked the off-chance that we could be hiking from 9am to 6:30pm, none of us thought to bring food. starving half way up the mountain, i opted to eat a favorite gorilla snack – water celery. i wouldn’t have known what to eat, but when a ranger hacked off a stalk with his machete and offered it to me, i happily put it in my stomach.

we found the susa family at 3280m (about 10,000ft). the first sighting was when we crested one side of a ravine to find them on the other side. gazes of equal curiosity passed from one side to the other before they ambled up the embankment and out of sight. a gorilla/human disparity became quickly apparent as what took them 30 seconds to climb took us 10 minutes. we had been following their path thru the forest for much of the hike; no chance of us taking their path up the ravine, though. our upper body strengthen doesn’t hold one iota to a gorilla’s. when we rejoined them they were lounging, eating, playing, eating, and (oh yeah) eating in a clearing. technically hikers are only allowed 1 hour with the gorillas, but we had a generous hour – from the ravine encounter until we started our return hike was close to 1 hour 20 minutes. to be sure, we made the most of every minute.

some of our gorilla highlights…

- being surrounded by an untold number of gorillas. gorillas in front, behind, above, all around. we learned later that we saw close to 30 individual gorillas.
- looking into their eyes and seeing understanding. red, deep, soulful eyes.
- seeing a silverback papa and baby playing in a tree.
- watching a baby travel along on mama’s back. she gripped with all fours for most of the trip, but then sat straight up (mom’s still walking) to grab a veggie snack to eat on the move.
- laughing at an over-hungry, overambitious teenager fall out of a tree.

by far the biggest highlight of our hour+ with the gorillas was sharing their walking path. sharing a path means that at some point there is invariably going to be a person between where a gorilla is and where he wants to go. they may not mind us being around, but they surely notice when we’re in their way. this happened twice for us.

the second time i was last in line with only the ranger separating me from a fair-size adult female. as i calmly (outside calm, inside not-so-calm) continued walking i stole a glance over my shoulder. there she was raised on her back legs slapping her belly with her hands to intimidate me. she didn’t have to slap very hard, i was intimidated. (in case you’re wondering, females slap their stomachs, males beat their chests…a necessary distinction, i imagine). this particular close encounter put estela tumbling on the ground to get out of the way of the overly-close gorillas. a silverback, the twins plus mama, and several other family members continued in file and walked less than 10 feet away.

the first time phil was last in line and there was no ranger behind him. we had just climbed the ravine and we were walking down the path to the clearing to join the gorillas. our line of 10 humans was joined by several gorillas. most of the others took the higher road, but one remained…right behind phil. we did as told and followed the golden human/gorilla rule: walk, don’t run. again, i peeked behind me. only this time i saw a huge male gorilla so close on phil’s heels that phil later said he felt the gorilla’s head nudge his butt as if to say “c’mon, let’s get going already!” the gorilla momentarily raised an arm – i thought he was going to swipe phil off the mountain and out of the way in his impatience, but no such thing. he followed in our footsteps until finally there was a spot for us to step off the trail and the gorilla brushed past us. i could’ve reached out and touched him. that close.

our time spent with the gorillas was timeless. sometimes i wonder if the memory of an event is more valued than the event itself. do we ever fully appreciate an experience as it happens or is it only when we look back afterwards that events gain significance thru our memories? in this case i don’t care because i was fully aware how unique life was for my 80 minutes with the gorillas.

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