Gorillas and me

the extinct volcano we climbed to see the gorillas

the extinct volcano we climbed to see the gorillas
the extinct volcano we climbed to see the gorillas

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The most amazing part of living in Rwanda was the ability to visit gorillas. Arriving in country means you are already a mile above sea level. This is the reason the country has such amazing weather. Although it does get hot, humid and dry in July it is not unbearable even though it is not far from the equator. However seeing the gorillas necessitates climbing another mile — and in some places it feel like one is climbing straight up.

On this particular trip we stayed at a wonderful bed and breakfast that was about a 40 minute drive from the base where we would start our visit to where the gorillas were staying. The animals roamed through the area of an extinct volcano and it was not possible to know their exact location. They roamed freely and were not hampered by cages or fences. There are varying lengths for the hikes and some where as long as two miles each way, others were only a short distance from base camp. The trip we chose to take was approximately a mile but again, this would depend upon where the gorillas chose to camp.

On this particular trip to see the gorillas we had a fairly easy drive to where we parked the vehicles. It was not so on a subsequent trip when I was foolish enough to take my RAV4 up some exceptionally steep boulders.  I mistakenly thought my first trip was representative of all parking areas. The second trail up to where the climb started was an old dry riverbed with some serious boulders. On the first trip we arrived at the trailhead with ease and started off with sturdy staffs in hand. As the trail became steeper our respect and gratitude for the staffs increased.

 One of the picture above shows our path up the mountain and the woman who easily passed us carrying a load on her head. It always amazed me that as we climbed wearing hiking books and carrying water bottles and all manner of provisions, the people living in the country wore sandals or flip-flops and sometimes no footwear at all. The people in this area do not really understand the outsiders’ fascination with the gorillas, as they fear them. There were 24-hour guards with the animals to keep them from being poached and there was little understanding between the people and the animals. The guard we had had an amazing amount of knowledge about the animals and was a trained biologist. Our guard knew 13 different sounds he used to communicate with the gorillas and as we climbed I attempted to learn just one.

We climbed the side of an extinct volcano. The ground was heavily covered in vegetation and slippery. Much of the climb was keeping clear of the vegetation attempting to wrap itself around our ankles and trying not to slide on the slippery grass beneath us. The guide told us how fortunate we were as the rainy season had only begun so we did not experience serious wet and muddy conditions. We were indeed fortunate as the day was bright and clear and the air cool – perfect conditions for climbing. And as we climbed we reached our stride and moved into a smooth rhythm up the side of the mountain.

Our guard listened as we came near to the area where the gorillas were and he said what a shame it was that we had just missed them mating. I expressed my gratitude that we did as it felt they were a little to close to human. I would feel very weird watching these very large animals mating in what appeared to be very human positions. We did hear the last strands of the groaning and grunting fading away as the pair finished their amorous attentions towards each other and I admit this was close enough. The chief male gorilla knows every females cycle in his circle. When they become pregnant he knows if the baby is his. We learned that the only time the alpha male gorilla is aggressive is if a female who has recently come under his protection arrives pregnant. The chief silverback male gorilla knows if the baby is not his and will kill it if the gestation period is wrong. Otherwise these large animals are extremely gentle and are able to tolerate human visitors for brief periods.

As we neared the gorillas, our guide began to speak to the gorillas and pointing out what the various sounds meant. The gorillas responded and I began to imitate the sounds. One young gorilla came up and pushed me. I was told he wanted to play. And no, there are no fences and yes, I was able to touch the gorilla. The guard kept him from pushing me.

 As I imitated the sounds our guide was making the silverback pictured above began to look at me. He turned his head toward me and made direct eye contact. He responded to me. Needless to say it was an emotion I remember to this day. Eye to eye contact that brought what felt like a deep emotional contact on a level hard to express in words.

an illusion

JORDAN and the BEDOUIN

He was very handsome. Dark, dark eyes, gleaming white teeth dark skin. Hollywood could have ordered him for the cover of what my friend calls “a bodice ripper.” And to top it off he was on the back of a nearly white camel, inviting me to go with him. I considered the idea quite seriously for 30 seconds. It was a wonderful fantasy but it was an illusion bringing dreams of romantic nights under desert stars.

But it was an illusion because my eyes looked for what my heart wanted to see. My mind took the image of being married to this dark Adonis and it travelled the years. I saw myself living in a Bedouin tent, trying to navigate an outdoor toilet – specifically a hole in the ground, and who knew how many wives. My knowledge of Arab Bedouin cultures won out and my heart regretfully let go of this beautiful dream. Sometimes reality intrudes itself in the most disrespectful ways.

Chad

It has been many years since I walked the dusty roads in Chad. When I lived there only one stoplight was in town and this one rarely worked. Chad was like going back in time a thousand years. There was only one paved road and fortunately it went the length of the country. The feel of Chad was a combination of an old West town and going back a thousand years in Africa. The buildings were low and only one or two stories and were lined up along this long dusty street. There were trees lining both sides until the government cut them down during the rebel attack so there would be nothing to hide behind. There was one ice cream machine making soft serve ice cream. It was such a treat until it took a bullet from an automatic weapon.

I lived across the road from a pit fondly referred to as Lake Tittikaka. I never went to visit it up close and personal just the name caused major revulsion. Chad was a country of seasons. There was extremely hot during which time the bugs bred and reproduced; then came the season for toads. Toads everywhere, in the doorways between doors and screens, everywhere you went there were toads and then came the season of birds. Beautiful egrets landed everywhere and had nests everywhere. At the school I was running, the egrets nested in the trees outside and there were so many the staff wanted to cut the trees down. It did not happen as I was trying to teach respect for life not the massacre of baby birds.

We all slept with mosquito nets around our beds. I came to realize this was not only to keep out these nasty little bugs but also it kept out crickets and other assorted insects from making my bed their home. I had a wonderful cleaning woman who came daily Monday through Friday and who not only kept the house spotless, she kept my clothes and my insides safe. All food had to be washed in a solution of Clorox. I could not eat vegetables, drink the water or even peel a banana and eat it unless it was washed first. She also had to boil all the water and then filter it. Life was a process. I also had a cook, a wonderful French cook who came 3 times a week and who kept me fat and happy on French apple pie, chocolate chip cookies, oatmeal raisin, tomato sauce and apple sauce. Everything was made from scratch, even the pasta.

Even with all of their precautions, I spent much of the time making sure a bathroom was not too far away. I now realize eating the peanuts sold by the girls on the street was a really bad idea but these groundnuts were delicious but caused unbelievable intestinal distress. Being a slow learner at times, it took a while to connect the peanuts with my internal problems and to realize these girls were probably not washing their hands when they put these peanuts in their cellophane wrappings.

Living in Chad, Africa was walking back in time at least a thousand years. Most people did not electricity; most lived in simple concrete slab buildings with no indoor plumbing and many more walked everywhere and rarely rode in cars. Trenches were dug in the ground for sewage to move. I remember so many handicapped people. One man I remember vividly had a huge puss filled sack over his eye. All you could see was the pustule looking like the head of a giant pimple. I had suggested to someone that maybe he could have it extracted and might be able to see again. I was chastised as this was this man’s means of making a living and he used the grossness/pathetic nature of his situation to beg money.

Children were everywhere begging. It was hard to go anywhere without seeing them but I soon learned to determine how much I would give away each day and stay with that amount. The young boys were my least favorite to give money to as they were housed and cared for by the Imams of the local mosques who sent them begging. I preferred to give money to old people as the country had no pension and it was the only source of income they had.

I was there to help rescue a very small international school and hopefully watch it grown and gain accreditation and reputation. It was not such a bad life there. I had a full time housekeeper who did laundry, ironing and cleaning. And I had a cook who came in three times a week. He was a French chef and he mad wonderful cookies, French apple pies and fantastic homemade pasta, tomato sauce, applesauce and whatever else I wanted. Everything was cooked from scratch. Spaghetti was not even available and it had to be made with a pasta machine. And this cook was the cause of my instant weight gain – it was difficult to turn down these meals.

We had children from all over. Some were the children of missionaries and some the children of diplomats. We saw some amazing sites when we there. We visited Zakuma – at one time home to the largest herd of elephants in the world. This was before all of the poaching took its toll. At one time, before the water was stolen for farming, etc. there was Lake that was the largest, shallow lake in the world. We walked across the center of it. We visited Cameroun and did a safari there and we routinely went into Cameroun shopping because they had more available there.

The school was in an old Embassy building and we used the first two floors. It had a third floor but it could only be used for storage, as it was not considered safe. We also had the use of a couple of units used to haul materials. These were amazingly large and we used one as a classroom and another as a gym for when it rained. Much of the housing for employees was in the quadrangle behind the school. It was a great setup as the children could walk to school and could go home for lunch. There was a large open common area in the back that was often used by the Embassy children. We had closeness with the Embassy and a working relationship that the only other time I experienced it was in my early days in Kuwait, in the years after the second Gulf War.

Rain, ah rain in Chad was another experience altogether. After the rains came the bugs. As a friend of mine stated after the first explosion of insects, she thought the book of Revelation had come to pass. There were insects everywhere. I have never seen so many. There were no pesticides in the country and it was lush during the rainy season. I remember driving at night and for moment thinking, “WOW, I did not realize there were strobe lights here.” There were a few streetlights in town and so many insects had gathered around them, I could only see streaks of lights where their wings were reflected. And when it rained, we needed boots as everything turned to mud. The children would gather around and wait for cars to become stuck and for a price they would push you out.

I drove an ancient jeep. It was rather fun as the shocks were long gone and the seats a bit dilapidated but it ran and ran and ran. And when it rain, Steven had to come and do something with the wheels to turn it into a four-wheel drive. Getting to school was an amazing adventure as any low-lying area in the road was turned into a major flood area.

And Steven, he was amazing. He was my savior when I was there. He and I became close friends and he is a person I truly miss. I did not speak French and while English was common, it was not the spoken language of the people. I speak Arabic and this allowed me to understand quite a bit. I also did learn French. I studied it while I was there but never really became fluent. Steven spoke English and French fluently as well as some other languages. It is common in Africa and everywhere but America and Britain for people to speak multiple languages. But Steven took care of getting me fuel when I ran out. He paid bills for me and he taught at the school. He was and is a kind hearted generous man who always put others before himself. He had a wonderful family that is growing well. He also would let me know when he felt I was being a bit too gruff with people. His favorite thing was to have me drive when we went on errands, as it was not common for women to drive. It was especially not common for a white woman to drive and African man so it made quite a sight. Steven was always there. During the invasion he took care of my house. He and his family moved in and kept the house, my belongings and my cat safe.

Ah-h-h, the rebellion! The rebels were under the command of the man who was the President’s nephew and the former head of his security defense. His daughter and the President’s granddaughter went to our school together and were close friends. When the invasion happened it was after the rainy season and the days had some comfortable degree of temperature and humidity. During the rainy season the invasion could not have happened because the roads were impassable for tanks and people so the forces waited. The rebels wore the uniform of the government under their uniform and the government wore the rebel uniform under theirs. This way, they were ready regardless of who won. It was impossible to tell the differences between the two forces because they were all from the same family. Even the T’Chadiennes could not tell.

They were marching to N’djamena, the capitol, on foot. The morning the invasion began we could tell where they were by the sound of the automatic weapons. It was chilling to hear the sound and to have someone say the forces were probably about 60 kilometers from the capitol. Not much learning went on that day and we sent students home. Much of our time was spent reassuring parents I would stay with the children until they came to get them. After the children left I went home to my French lesson and video reruns and to listen to the sound of gunfire in the distance. I was thinking it would only last a few days and I could wait it out in my house. It never occurred to me I could be in danger.

I fell asleep early and was awoken at around 2 in the morning by a friend at the Embassy asking if I wanted to come and stay with them. I could not bring my cat so I said “no” and thanked them and returned to sleep only to be awoken about twenty minutes later telling me I had no choice. I had about twenty minutes before soldiers would come for me. I could not bring my cat. At the time, I had a beautiful grey Persian mix, which has her own story to tell and this we will do —- another time. She had to stay behind. I was reassured it would only be for a few days. So I loaded her up with dry food, cleaned her cat box and made sure she had plenty of water. I then laded a small carry on with the essentials. Suddenly I was able to reduce my life to one small carry-on. It was a heavy one but only one. As I finished the jeep arrived to take me to the Embassy grounds.

We spent the next hours waiting to see what would happen. After a night of no sleep, we went to the school to say good-bye to all nonessential personnel and children, as they were about to leave on the last flight out of the country. Still thinking it was only a temporary inconvenience, I chose to stay as I thought of myself as essential and wanted to reopen the school as soon as possible.

We waved good-bye to everyone. This group was literally on the last plane out of Chad. The airport was held open for them to leave and it was closed right afterwards. We returned to the housing units to wait. We got food out of the freezer units and did some cooking and we hung out just waiting. We did not have long to wait as the fighting soon began. For a while we had internet access and I remember writing a long email to friends about how weird it was to sit in Chad staring at pages advertising the latest fashion that someone had decided I could not live without while outside I could hear the gunfire approaching — closer, ever closer. It was madness.

Soon we could only gather in one main room of one house, which was considered the safest room. The automatic weapons fire was very close now. In fact, it was outside the house. I was told to sit down before I fell. Not understanding why, I began to sit when I was suddenly knocked off my feet by the loudest explosion I had ever heard. It was tank fire on the road just on the other side of the wall that surrounded the house we were in. And then, it did not stop. We heard RPG (rocket propelled grenades) hit the roof and fortunately not explode. We heard them hit the house next door and they did explode. One of our members was on the ground stretched out under the bed, terrified. We were looking for tranquilizers to give him to help him calm down. Soon I was able to identify the difference in the automatic weapons I was hearing. I had images of putting on my resume that I could identify the difference between automatic weapons made in Russia, China and the United States. One of the Navy Seals was helping me to identify the different planes I could hear and soon I could identify the sound of a bomber. None of this was comforting. It was endless and we heard the tank several more times. We watched the cracks in the ceiling where the walls and ceiling joined become bigger as the house shook beneath the explosions. By some miracle of the prayers of the people in this house, we were not directly hit. We would later find a very large gouge in the roof of the house next door where an RPG did hit and cut a trench through the length of the roof.

Finally, it stopped and we all found beds in which to sleep and the next day we made a feast with turkey and other things we found in the freezer. This helped take our minds off the fighting and what we were going to do. Late in the afternoon we were told a French tank would come to take us to the airfield where we would be evacuated out. This time, I decided I better leave. I had seen Steven earlier that day. He along with other teachers was headed to Cameroun. We were right on the border of Cameroun and people were leaving in droves. He promised as soon as he could he would move into my home with his family and take care of Mischa.

I was later to be regaled with stories of what happened during that time. Mischa, having endured loud explosions and other happenings, which she did not understand, took a flying leap into Steven’s arms when she saw him. The man next door to m was on the roof of his home protecting both his house and mine with an automatic weapon. When anyone cam close to the house, he would yell, in French “you are forbidden to come in. This is the home of the Director of the American School.” Most homes in the area were looted but both mine and his survived intact. When I returned I bought him a sheep and gave the children chocolate.

My guard returned to protect the house from looting. I always gave him extra money each month and he repaid me with far more than I gave him. Steven protected my home as apparently the staff of the school wanted to loot the place. They kept telling him I would not return and they should take what they wanted. I am grateful, always; he did not allow this to happen. There was absolutely no food in the house. I had never seen my cupboard so bare.

We left for the French camp inside of a tank. We were spared any sights on the streets so I did not see any of the dead bodies that lined out way. Gratefully so, I may add. We were taken to the camp and there we waited and waited and waited. At about 2 am a plane arrived to take us Douala, Cameroun. It was a stealth plane. It did not show up on radar and any pictures I attempted to take of it, did not register. It was painted with a paint that left no signature. I could barely see it as we approached. It was more like approaching a slightly darker outline against a dark sky. We were strapped into webbed harnesses on the seats and we sat there feeling quite suspended in space. There was no soundproofing making it impossible to have a conversation even with the person next to you. No sooner had the plane left the runway than I looked around and everyone was fast asleep — noise or no noise we were beyond exhausted.

I returned to Chad three weeks later to close the school. The decision was made to close the school at the end of the year and to make it an unaccompanied post. It was strange to return to the country. Every corner looked like a Home Depot. All of the buildings and homes had been looted and desks, chairs, cabinets and other items were for sale. Nearly everyone had gone on a looting spree and had taken advantage of the opportunity to upgrade their standard of living. Where they had nothing before, they now had a computer and whatever else they could carry from a home or a building. It was not mine to neither condemn nor criticize. Having never been that poor I do not know what I would do under similar circumstances.

There are other memories from this time but this is enough.

 

 

Thank you

Thank you Everyone — I truly appreciate your support. I will try to do this frequently and get in the habit of posting a couple times a week. SO please get in the habit of checking this blog, referring your friends to it AND leaving comments. Greatly appreciated.

Petra

Before I forget

In thinking about my own past, it comes to mind it would be good to sit a spell and to write what I remember about it. I do not want to write in one long stream but in vignettes and not necessarily in order and perhaps I will ramble a while and then come back to the subject at hand. Perhaps I will write about lessons I learned and hopefully be able to pass on. Experience teaches me and forces me to grow.

It was a beautiful trip. I had never seen anything like it. The Rose City it was called. The sand was colored the color of sunset and streaked with amazing warmth. We walked down along stretch that meandered through high cliff walls. There were not a lot of people that day. We had arrived the last weekend before the gates would be opened to tourists from Israel. We were in Petra, the miracle city hidden for centuries in the depths of Jordan and known to only a few. It was painted by David Roberts. He hid his drawing pad under his voluminous robes as the Bedouins were strongly against having Petra known by anyone. As he traveled with the Bedouins by camel, he drew under his robes so he would not be seen.

We were astounded by the incredible structures. The interiors of the buildings were massively high and all carved by hand. We walked and walked and then we climbed and climbed – 900 + steps to the Monastery where we whiled away the afternoon, oblivious to the setting sun. We investigated this most amazing area that had canyons that rivaled the Grand Canyon in the United States. We walked through so many places investigating and taking pictures and then we drank tea. We sat and enjoyed the air, the height and the rocky outcrops, and we were completely oblivious to the passage of time.

Then we realized we had to leave as the sun was beginning to go down, so down we went. I followed my friend guiding us down the cliff. I never questioned as he was a seasoned traveler and so I thought he knew his way. Soon we found ourselves on a ledge just wide enough that if we turned out backs to the cliff we could inch our way along. Below was a significant drop. Finally realizing this bore no resemblance to the path we had climbed, we turned back. By the time we returned to the path of the stairs and continued down the much safer descent it was getting dark

Dark comes very suddenly in Petra as once the sun sets behind the cliffs there is no dusk – just night. We could see fires in the caves as at that time there were still Bedouins living in the caves. The peddlers were gone. It was just us, the dark and the glowing fires in the caves. The night was intense. The moon was full, and the light from it reflected off the cliffs and the path of sand. It was both eerie and awe inspiring at the same time.

When we reached the bottom of the stairs, we realized we didn’t know where we were. We began to walk and by this time were quite exhausted. A young boy was there and he had horses, and he wanted to know if we wanted a ride. Gratefully we climbed aboard the animals and rode through the moonlight and the reflecting quartz into the night. The boy was afraid of the shadows and began to speak of djinn and afreet. He wanted to make noise with his boombox to scare them away. Begging him to stop, I began to sing Arabic church hymns to keep away the ghosts and devils. As I looked into the cliffs and the moonlight changed shape, I could see of what he spoke and the music brought comfort.

We rode into another world; we rode into the moonlight and through the moonlight surrounded by reflected quartz and the cliffs, the horses and the young boy singing and all too soon the trip was over.

The prospect of getting lost in Petra will no longer happen for now it is a governed park, and they make sure everyone is out at sunset, and the Bedouins are no longer allowed to live there. I was blessed to get there, before this happened and to have a time when I felt the veils lift and to know the feeling of being a part of the vastness of which we are a part.