The earth is hot beneath my feet as I find my footing within the sloppy path of rocks the color of mud earth, stratified as though stairs had been carved within. This rocky path to Umude Creek is flanked by thick bushes on both sides with huge vegetation and tall palm trees arranged in rows straight and erect like a line of soldiers on a regiment field. There is a dryness in the soft breeze that whoosh through the thickets and bushes letting of an eerie sound that leave me shivering under the bright orange haze of the afternoon sun.
This is a journey best made in solitude alone with nature and away from the hassle and bustle of my small eastern village in Imo state Nigeria. The time is right too for at this hour the sun which has settled low in the sky like a big floating orange balloon would discourage the village children from running naked and gleeful down the rocky path spinning their empty pails playfully. I do not have the courage to visit when they are making their daily rounds of fetching stream water and swimming like little nymphs. They would snicker at my feeble movements in water.
I have passed the rocks and turn into a narrower windy path that would lead me into the creek, my eyes feasting on the beauty of the forest with the keenness of an amateur tourist. There are several huge trees along this path their wide branches spread far to form a large canopy of green leaves. At a bend, I see a fat squirrel chewing a nut beneath a tall palm tree, its back hunched to form a furry brown ball. It scurries off at the sound of my approaching feet behind a small bush of glowing sun flowers. The entrance to the creek is lined up with bamboo palms and tall coconut trees with stooping stems. The resulting shade from the thick foliage of green vegetation around gives the area a picturesque effect. I moved closer to the water and peered in. The green moss underground gave the stream a greenish hue and I stood waiting for a sign that it was okay to try my resolve in conquering the gnawing phobia within me. I dipped my feet into the water watching the ripples appear then spread out in circular motions, disturbing a cluster of tiny fishes swimming close by. I am fascinated at the ease at which they move their slippery bodies swimming further and further away to the point where the current was high.
Inspired, I waddle into the water after the fishes and when my feet no longer feel the firm grip of sand beneath, I crash loudly, the water splashing into my eyes blinding me from hope into the darkness of my defeat. The sounds of my wild thrashing explodes in my head and mingles with the hoarse screaming of my mother as she writhes under the harsh grip of my father. My frantic thrashing finally brings me to the bank of the stream and I clamber out, melancholic and soaked to my bones. Exhausted, I lay underneath a coconut tree in my dripping clothes and close my eyes to the glare of the hot African sky.
My solitude is soon broken by the chatter of children and I see two small girls splashing in the stream. I feel envious of their confidence in the water then suddenly the smaller girl is being carried away by the tide. Her sister turns to me for the first time and screams.
“please save my sister.”
” I can’t swim.’ ‘ I scream back . ”perharps there is nothing I can do quiet well.”
“You can do anything if you choose the right reasons to act.” she replied.
There is a wisdom in her words that belies her age and suddenly I am seized with a compulsion to save the drowning child. I abandon my coconut shed and running briskly plunged into the deepest part of the runnning stream in search of the child and her sister who had dissappeared from sight. The plop sound of a dropping coconut nearby alarmed me and as my eyes flew open, I reliase that I had not moved from my coconut shed at all. My eyes fix on the spot where I had plunged in to save the girl and it dawns on me that I could conquer any fear if I found the right reasons. Inspired, I stood and walked into the calm stream. This time as I fell with a splash when my feet no longer touched sand, I didn’t thrash wildly like the darkness had closed in on me.
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Niger. No you did not misread this. It is not Nigeria. Don’t worry. Even the ticket agent at the airport thought our ticket had a misprint. My wife and I assured him there was in fact a country called Niger in Africa. I had been to Eastern Africa before, but my wife hadn’t touched any soil in Africa, and now we were signing up to teach for two years in sub-Saharan Africa.
Niger is not a country that would be on the top of the list for a vacation spot. It is twice the size of Texas, but most visitors are required to stay within or close to the capital city, Niamey. There is an almost constant haze from smog and dust that colors the view, making the surroundings look like they have a sepia filter.
The most common nickname for Niger is the frying pan of the world. Not humid, but very hot. There is a rest period from noon to 3 pm to give people time to relax during the heat of the day. Often you will see people sleeping on benches or on the ground near their tiny shops. If you are seen outside during this time of the day locals will look at you strange because they know how much energy will be sucked out of you even if you are trying to do menial tasks. When we first got here we considered it a successful day if we made it to a local grocery shop and back because the heat and the driving made it so exhausting.
It is dirty. Our clothes have turned permanent shades of brown from all the sand. There is no time you can be 100 percent clean. Our family visited us and they said a month later they were still finding sand in their clothes.
It is hot. There are some days where we leave the school we teach at, drive home, and go straight into our bedroom: the only room with an air conditioner. We leave the room to make a quick dinner, and then go back into the bedroom to eat our meal. The air is on full blast and we are still sweating. And yes, we know it is ironic that this is one of the ways we explain the hardships for us, when there are almost a million people in the city that don’t even have the luxury of an air-conditioner.
It is dangerous. A week doesn’t go by that we don’t get an email from the U.S. embassy warning us to stay vigilant while we are here because of threats against Westerners. There are people that want to hurt us because our skin color isn’t the same as theirs.
It is not a place to go for relaxation, but Niger is beautiful in it’s own way. The sandy haze against the sun is a sight that cannot be replicated in photographs. Tasting the local spices while sharing a meal with a family will stay with you for the rest of your life. Seeing how locals will drop everything to help you if your car is broken down is heart-warming. Watching children play in sewage trenches is heart breaking.
When we try to explain Niamey to people we end saying that you have to come and visit to get the full experience. It’s a phrase that is spoken often when words and pictures cannot capture the feelings you have about a certain place. Visiting Niger is entering a world that you may not want to enter, and it will make you question whether the things you value are truly important or not. It makes you uncomfortable, and stepping out of your comfort zone is indeed an act of bravery.
I came to wander almost every city street in Stone Town, Zanzibar, Africa because the hotel receptionist said to me, “A map? You don’t need a map, getting lost is half the fun.” She was right. And there was no map anyway.
Calling the narrow passages that were also unofficial obstacles courses ‘streets’ might have been an overstatement. Think of walking down the smallest alleyway in your own neighborhood and having to step over randomly discarded toilets, stray cats, sticks, bicycle tires, garbage, potted plants and that accurately describes the streets of Stone Town. Sometimes they were big enough for small cars and sometimes they were not. As long as your day ended without having collided with a bicycle, you’ve had a successful walking day in Stone Town.
Yet in that jumbled mess lays a UNESCO World Heritage Area. The architecture is stunning and evidence of Stone Town dates back to the 8th century. In the 19th century it was one of the most important trading routes in the Indian Ocean region.
Many early European explorers also used the island of Zanzibar as an important base. David Livingstone was probably the most famous European explorer to do so. He had many expeditions over his lifetime throughout Africa. He was gone for several years and little was heard of his existence to the outside world. On November 10, 1871 he finally met with journalist Henry Stanley and the famous quote, “Dr Livingstone I presume?” came into existence.
Stone Town gets its name from the ornate houses built with stone by Arab traders during the 19th century. The Old Fort is now used as a cultural center with shops, workshops and has daily dance or music performances.
For a small donation, we took a wander around the old fort.
One of the biggest attractions for visitors is to simply wander the streets. No matter which way you go exploring, it won’t be that long until one ends up along the seafront or Creek Road as a reference point. If you do feel completely lost, locals are friendly and more than willing to point you in the right direction back to your lodging. If all else fails, you can just grab a taxi and tell them the name of your hotel and they will bring you back.
Part of the allure of walking around town is finding and viewing some of the 500 brass studded, wooden doors on many of the buildings.
For food, you can get as local or as fancy as you want. We decided to go out for a nice dinner one night at a restaurant called Six Degrees South. It was big, modern, snazzy, had a roof top bar and the food was excellent. The service was great and they were well set up for big groups or solo travelers.
After you have explored Stone Town, head up the coast. There are plenty of nice places to choose from. We stayed at Sunset Bungalows Kendra. Our room was a short walk from the beach which provided endless strolling. The water was bath temperature and we could have sat in there all day.
From a cultural and photographic view point, we found Stone Town to be interesting, worthwhile and a photographic gem. Other travelers we talked to did not enjoy Stone Town because of the pollution, litter, crumbling buildings and disarray. All of those things exist and they were not my favorite part either. It seems Stone Town would only be helping themselves to clean up the city and even just the tiniest bit would make a drastic improvement. I’m sure it’s easier said than done when the community is still facing so many poverty issues. However underneath all the mess is world class architecture and beauty. To me, a visit to Stone Town allows the visitor to see what they want to see. I went there wanting to see it’s beauty, architecture and cultural differences, and for that reason I was not disappointed.
* * *
If you go:
You have to buy water while on Zanzibar. Make sure you get to a shop and buy bigger gallons of water. Not only will this save you money, but plastic pollution is a major problem and eye sore in Zanzibar, so do what you can to minimize your impact.
We stayed at Safari Lodge. Some rooms were more unique than others, i.e., aesthetically appealing stone archways as you enter the shower, while other rooms were window-less. The lodge was clean, the staff was nice and some of their architecture made it a neat place to stay while in Stone Town.
Six Degrees South is within easy walking distance of most hotels in Stone Town, was good value for money and we would recommend eating there.
Further up the beach, we stayed at Sunset Bungalows Kendra. We found the rooms to be be very nice, clean and comfortable. The beach is a short walk down a hill and the location is lovely. You can walk almost as long as you want either right or left and the water was so warm! There are plenty of restaurants around the area. Unfortunately, a few of us did get a touch of food poisoning we believe from some crab soup at their restaurant. Aside from that, our stay was very nice there and we would recommend.
With barely a sound the 160 kilo/ 350 pound gorilla walked right in front of me on the jungle hill side. Mountain gorillas only exist in high terrains of south western Uganda and neighboring Congo and Rwanda. For some, having the opportunity to hike to a family of mountain gorillas is the trip of a life time. I was pinching myself that here I was standing next to more than a dozen gorillas in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, Africa.
Mountain gorillas were hunted almost to extinction and are a critically endangered species. Within Volcanoes National Park there are eighteen different groups of gorillas.
Eight are observed solely by researchers and ten of the groups are the groups visitors are allowed to be guided to. We were assigned to be led by our guide Eugene to the Umubano group which had thirteen members.
Gorillas are considered babies from ages zero to three, juvenile from ages three to six, adult ages six to eight and after age eight females are mature enough to start reproducing. Gestation period is for nine months and female gorillas will usually have about six babies in their lifetime.
Around age twelve the black back of a male mountain gorilla will turn silver, giving them the revered title as now being a silver back.
For diet, gorillas are vegetarian consuming around 2000 different species of plants. An adult will eat about 30 kilos of vegetation a day and they get all their water needs from the plants they eat. Gorillas make a new nest for themselves to sleep in every day, usually on the ground and will start constructing it around 5 pm or so.
With their immense strength, visitors are often nervous to be in the jungle with these wild animals. Rest assured, the gorillas usually want nothing to do with you. They are too preoccupied with feeding, socializing and taking care of their babies. You are with guides, guards and trackers the entire time who are familiar with all of the gorillas. As long as you do what you guide tells you to do and do not use flash, (which applies for almost all wildlife photography in Africa) you will have an amazing time.
I couldn’t imagine having gone to Africa without having had the experience observing mountain gorillas. Looking at the faces and reactions of people when they come back from sharing the space with these gentle giants, they are impacted. Viewing wild gorillas changes you. Eugene, our guide thanked us all for coming and told us how much our park fees are instrumental in helping the gorilla population increase. The park can pay for gorilla doctors and if an animal does get sick, usually the medicine cost a minimum of $1000.
If you want to help conserve mountain gorillas – go see them for yourself. In Rwanda it appeared that the park fees were being put to good use as poaching was down and gorilla numbers have increased from 500 to 900.
With these fees the park can continue employing rangers who patrol and monitor for poachers. Among our group, some people had chosen to hire a porter (someone who will carry your bag) for the day. Eugene did not say whom specifically, but some of the porters who were hired used to be poachers in the park. Now instead of killing gorillas, they were earning an income from tourists coming to see the gorillas in a safe environment. Learning that around us were would be poachers that were now accepted and welcomed as porters, really drove home to me how impactful responsible tourism combined with effective leadership and park management can be. Seeing how the park was being run gave me hope that the mountain gorillas may have a chance to keep striving in these jungle hillsides.
The opportunity to view gorillas in their home was a fairytale-like adventure. Hopefully the conservation effort will continue to move forward in such a way that gorillas never become animals the next generation can only read about in a fairy tale book, but hike to for themselves and view these animals striving in their home as the magnificent creatures they are.
I stood there, lost in my meditation. I gazed at the space, feeling on top of the world.
The countless roof gave me a puzzle and the glory thereof made me cry. Not because I’m a crybaby or some calamities had landed on the roof. It was because I saw what makes me strong. And that ignites my hope.
That fateful afternoon, I focused on the sky. The warm breeze matched my temperature. And the sight was so much a food for me.
Before I went there, I was lonely and depressed, like no sign of happiness has ever crossed my path.
My friends saw me alone. My family became worried. They’d thought I was sad, disappointed or maybe worried as they were. Or maybe I was sorrowful for not achieving a goal. They even came to stare me up hoping their ginger in my sour soup would trigger the exhausted me.
But that wasn’t my meditation. I didn’t need or want that. They weren’t in the position to help. So I went the stairs to a very high height I could call “my pinnacle.” It was spacious and high that I could see roofs far away.
Then the spirit came. My hope rekindled. I felt that happiness again. My bones received strength. And my joints never fluctuate like before.
I got the help I searched for – a sight and sensation. I rejoiced over the victory, or maybe achievement. I felt happy being alone, right on my pinnacle. Or tower. Or mountain.
I saw houses, roads, cars, green pastury fields and other beautiful images I’ve imagined and desired seeing afar from a very high position.
That experience fueled my gut and engineered my pursuing my writing career at my best capability. I have the confidence to leave my friends and family, to embrace the exploration that sends cold sensation down my spine, and joy all over my face and mind. I felt high without sniffing any powder or gulping a bottle of alcohol.
Inspiring! Right? That’s it.
Because your inspiration medium is waiting too, to rekindle your hope and to emotionally back you up, somewhere, somehow.
It may be listening to music, writing, drawing.
Or perhaps travelling. Where highway lights bubble like paradise. And the vehincle speed engaging as ever. Where mountains and valleys lie between greener pastures, and the skies turn blue. Where the anime sprinkles on the field, playing and playing… Where the birds flip and flap, and sing the thinest suprano.
That may be your generating source. You should go re-generate. If it’s in Malaysia, go get it. If it finds its way to Australlia, fly over there. If it hangs on your roof, then get a ladder.
Yes, you know what you’re doing. Yes, you know your family won’t understand. Yes, you know your friends won’t concur with it.
But you need to solidarise with your inspirating source, anchor with nature and get the best no one can offer.
As for me, any opportunity to go high, I go. Any opportunity to climb the roof, I’ll do. To see the lovely habitation of the homo-sapiens. To regain strength and might for the world’s warfare.
Gratitude to my pinnacle!!! I would’ve not been more strong and hopeful.
I’m sure my parents won’t like to hear this but taking risks is part of experiencing the world. To quote a favorite movie of mine, “A life lived in fear, is a life half-lived.” I keep reminding myself of this when I question putting aside my anxieties and having faith that something will work out well, versus playing it safe and missing out on an experience. Certainly a healthy dose of caution is advised, especially when traveling in a third-world country and in situations regarding drinking water and wildlife, but in order to truly capture an experience, sometimes you need to check your fear with your luggage.
Last year when I quit my job, subleased my apartment, and bought a one way ticket to Africa, I didn’t think of it as brave, as many people remarked, but necessary for me to broaden my horizons. The alternative to embarking on a trip by myself for several months with a loose itinerary was not going. And that would have only led to regret. So I let go of my inhibitions, and found myself in situations that I would never be in at home, because I allowed myself the freedom to trust to create a deeper experience.
What I quickly learned was that mustering the courage to step outside of my comfort zone gave me access to so much more than just seeing the sights. And what others perceived as bravery, I felt more deeply as a privilege – to have the means to visit other countries and spend time with locals.
Brave was the craftsman in Malawi who followed me home, even after I repeatedly said no to his heavy salesmanship, because he hadn’t eaten. What was a couple dollars to me was his sustenance for another day. I think of his tenacity every day back at home when wasting food or being gluttonous.
Brave was the Tanzanian woman who handed her baby to me on a crowded local bus. Her trust of a stranger allowed me to momentarily feel a part of the culture where community is so important. I am reminded of her welcoming gesture when in public settings where heads are buried in electronics, oblivious to the person next to them.
Brave was the taxi driver in Zimbabwe who was so proud of his country and concerned with an outsider’s impression, that in his own words, he took a risk in implying dissatisfaction with the current government by speaking fondly of how his country used to be. His tentative answers to my questions reminded me of the freedoms many Americans take for granted.
I find travel to be an invaluable education in that it allows me to learn about myself and my life in comparison to other cultures. The slight glimpse into daily life that each of these new friends provided me, reminded of the liberties we are afforded in the US. It took little courage to uproot my life and spend a few months learning about the wider world, knowing I could return to the security and comforts of the US. In contrast, the people I met who shared their time with me, were the brave ones – finding freedom despite adversity.
Mia Coffin is a waitress, a world traveler, and would-be anthropologist. Coming from a large family in a small town in California she continually escapes her normal life in search of distant shores and adventure. Being an experienced traveler, Mia knows if things can go wrong they surely will––just how wrong, Mia recounts as she travels solo through Indonesia, Lebanon, Africa and New Zealand.
Mia is charged by an angry elephant, kidnapped by a Hezbollah drug lord, and gets caught up in a in a baby smuggling ring––all the while keeping her wicked sense of humor and never forgetting to email her worried mom back home. She fumbles with strange cultures, unfamiliar languages and unforgettable characters and realizes just how precious her home and family are to her. Invariably, Mia steps up to each ticket counter throughout her travels and requests––One, please!
One Please is available on Amazon.com in paperback and kindle.
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I’m carrying two-year-old Elijah, seeking shade to escape the Kenyan sun. My wife Julie and I are volunteering for two weeks at the Calvary Zion children’s home near Mombasa, helping (we hope) the home’s three “mothers,” who care for 40 kids, from infants to teens.
“Ah-dahh,” says Elijah.
It’s his one word. He repeats it, pointing at a lone tree, then the one-level house.
“Good point,” I say.
Most of Calvary Zion’s young residents are at school. Julie and I watch the remaining toddlers and help with simple yet sizeable tasks, from washing dishes to folding clothes.
“I know God loves these children,” the home’sfounder, Jane Karigo, told us our first day. “They deserve fulfillment, and they deserve opportunities, like any other children.”
We’re both moved by Jane’s mission—but I wonder how much we’re helping. I’ve wondered this at every stop on my volunteer journey: a six-country quest to find purpose by helping others after my father’s sudden death. But I particularly wonder it here, because the painful, inescapable fact about Calvary Zion is that every child has suffered. Some lost their parents to HIV. Others were abandoned: one infant was found in a department store bathroom, discarded by his mother. Elijah’s incestuous birth to a 14-year-old mother brought shame to the family, and he spent his first year of life in isolation—no nurturing, no love. When he arrived at Calvary Zion, he barely knew how to eat.
“He just lay there with his mouth open,” one of the mothers said.
Elijah often runs to us in his baby-ish, bowlegged way, wanting to be held, and I think—How can you say no to this child? But it worries me: we’ve entered these kids’ lives and then, boom—we’ll leave. The bulk of our time is spent with the mothers, but small children can feel quick attachments to volunteers, creating a cycle of abandonment, a journal article on South Africa orphans found.
Criticism of volunteers has intensified since 2010, when Julie and I worked at Calvary Zion. The controversy stems largely from the exploitation of children in Cambodia, where unscrupulous orphanages trap kids in squalor to attract funds from donors and volunteers (many of the “orphans” have at least one parent). In July 2013, the UK-based travel agency ResponsibleTravel.com removed orphanage volunteering programs from its site. Mainstream media stories have questioned if volunteers do more harm than good; bloggers have blasted voluntourists as guilt-ridden neocolonialists more interested in boosting their self-esteem than in helping others.
So by trying to do good, were Julie and I doing, you know… bad?
I’d shared my concerns in Kenya with our host, Karimu. She’s a local woman who runs volunteer programs for Travellers Worldwide, an organization offering everything from medical internships to marine programs. We stayed with Karimu and her kids, which was a joy, whether eating nyama choma or jumping rope with her niece.
Karimu thinks volunteers are valuable to Calvary Zion.
“The children have the mothers and Jane,” she said of the home. “They have plenty of familiar faces. They get attention from you guys. No one has time to cuddle the little ones, and if even if there was time there are too many kids. Would the babies be better off if you didn’t hold them? And what about the older kids you help with their homework?”
The critics rarely ask locals what they think about volunteers, so recently I contacted Jane and asked a simple question: are volunteers useful?
Absolutely, she said by e-mail—but sometimes it’s problematic. A British volunteer insisted on taking the kids for a play day at a go-cart track. His intentions were good, “But the children won’t remember the go-carts when they are crying for bread,” said Jane. Another volunteer gave a child an iPod, which the boy sold for 200 shillings, fueling jealousy and fights. Sometimes volunteers make adoption promises they can’t keep, giving the children false hope.
So the problems are real—and yet so are the benefits. Julie and I did work the mothers don’t have time for, whether washing windows or sorting donated clothes. We helped with daily chores, like cutting vegetables and ironing school uniforms. But there’s an intangible benefit as well, which I found throughout my volunteer travels: interactions occur that would never happen otherwise. People learn about other people. Stereotypes are smashed. When the mothers taught Julie to make ugali, they laughed as she labored over the pot. I found this same effect when I volunteered at a special needs school in China: for the teachers, we were a happy novelty, a break from the monotony of difficult days.
Our team leader in China said that short-term volunteers are like links in a chain. I’d dismissed that as orientation rhetoric, but I see some truth in it now, mainly because of Elijah.
The mystery of Elijah is the anguish that must lurk inside; the blankness that tugs his face, widening his eyes. But those big eyes never look blank. Those big eyes made me think there’s something fierce, and smart, and thoughtful inside.
Here’s the thing I can’t shake:
Before we came to Kenya, some volunteers held Elijah. And when we were there, we held Elijah. And after we left, other volunteers held Elijah. And that is far, FAR from a perfect system. But it seems better than me to the alternative. Because without volunteers, fierce Elijah, so deprived of human contact, would’ve spent much of his time on the floor, alone. The mothers love Elijah, but individual attention is a necessity in short supply.
The children’s well-being is all that matters, whether in Kenya or Cambodia. If volunteer programs are harming children, those programs should end. But successful programs and successful homes should not be ignored. Without Jane Karigo, the children of Calvary Zion would live on the streets. Instead, they go to school. They learn. They eat. They grow. In July 2013, three of the home’s children, now 18-year-old women, opened their own business. Volunteers, in their own microscopic way, have helped support this.
“This is my mission,” Jane said of Calvary Zion. “If I don’t care for these children, who will?”
About the Author: Ken Budd is author of the award-winning memoir The Voluntourist—A Six-Country Tale of Love, Loss, Fatherhood, Fate, and Singing Bon Jovi in Bethlehem. All of his earnings from the book are going back to the places and organizations where he volunteered. Since May 2012, money from The Voluntouristhas paid annual school fees for 11 of the children at Calvary Zion. You can connect with Ken on Twitter and Facebook.
High atop a narrow ridge in the Bufumbira Mountains, the visitor reception centre was bathed in the first rays of sunlight. Outside the walls were washed with an orange patina and after years of rainswept erosion the buildings had become raised on their foundations. Half a dozen Uganda Wildlife Authority guards in green wellington boots were standing in a doorway, coughing and talking amongst themselves.
Beyond them, an impervious canopy draped over a steeply concertinaed landscape of summits and precipitous valleys. Ranging between 2,600 and 1,160 metres above sea level and covering an area 327 square kilometres in size (much larger if you iron it), the Bakiga call this primeval rainforest Bwindi, which means ‘darkness’. Its full name is the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
Despite being doubly warned, hundreds of tourists bushwhack Bwindi’s slopes every year in search of a rare species of the large charismatic mammal Dian Fossey called “the greatest of the great apes.” Mountain gorillas are only found here and in the Virunga volcanoes thirty kilometres due south. A recent census put their numbers at 880, which may sound low but that’s a population increase of more than 30 percent in the past 20 years.
I was delighted to be guiding United States ambassador to Uganda Scott DeLisi, his wife Leija, and Michael Kobold of Kobold watches – worn by Navy SEALs, Arctic explorers, and Everest mountaineers. Dressed in safari gear with our trouser legs tucked into our socks, there was no disguising our enthusiasm as we arrived at the centre.
Modern, a guide from the local Bakiga tribe, introduced himself then ushered us into the gorilla briefing room, which was decorated with large illustrated posters filled with facts about gorillas, their habitats, behaviour, and the efforts to protect them.
We sat down on wooden chairs and listened to Modern recite the do’s and don’ts of gorilla etiquette. “Should you need to cough,” he said, “cover your mouth and turn away from the gorillas. Try not to make eye contact, nor any rapid movements that may frighten them.”
“How long is the trek?” I asked, grinning. My cheerful demeanor belied a trembling anxiety. Having the opportunity to guide these good people on their very first gorilla trek was indeed an honour, but the pressure to deliver a memorable gorilla safari had never been greater.
The question was moot. Any experienced gorilla guide knows trekking the big fellahs differs greatly from one place to the next, indeed from one day to the next. Different groups in different habitats under different microclimates make gorilla trekking wholly unpredictable.
I’d been to Bwindi on several occasions, but this was my first time meeting these particular gorillas. The guidebook was unequivocal: “Nkuringo is the toughest of all gorilla tracking locations and is not for the unfit, elderly or faint hearted.”
Modern smiled reassuringly then said, “We start from much higher up than where the gorillas range and usually find them foraging in the valley in the buffer zone next to the forest.”
The trek back would be a different story.
Diplomacy and Birding
At 9 o’clock we set off westward under a cloudless sky along Nteko ridge. Being at high altitude, and close to the equator, the greenness of everything was excessively dazzling in the sunshine. Scott DeLisi led the way, stabbing his hiking stick into the path ahead. Meantime Michael Kobold and I hung back behind Leija, who was determined to take the trek a little easier.
Birds flew all around us, flycatchers, sunbirds, barbets, warblers, and starlings, darting in and out of the eucalyptus forests and cultivations like fretful scrutineers. The DeLisi’s stopped to photograph every new species.
“How did you wind up in the diplomatic corp,” I asked Scott, as he focused his camera on a Broad-billed roller that was perched on the perimeter fence of a farm growing beans all the way down into the Kashasha river valley below.
“I saw an ad for the foreign service exam in The Wall Street Journal,” he replied, taking a series of snaps. He then turned to me with a rascally grin and added, “I didn’t know what I was getting into. It just seemed like a good idea at the time.”
While undoubtedly it takes all sorts to make up a worthy diplomatic corp, foremost in a diplomat’s qualifications must be a stately approach and a cool head. Ambassador DeLisi possesses both these qualities, as well as a common touch rarely seen in his line of work.
“Hello, my name is Scott DeLisi and I’m looking forward to my arrival in Uganda,” he says in a tongue-in-cheek introductory video on YouTube in which he and Leija wander through a forest back home, wearing safari vests, binoculars and hats, pointing out the marvels in the trees. “We started birdwatching 15 years ago in Botswana and have since travelled through southern Africa Eritrea, Nepal and India, combing diplomacy and birding.”
Birdwatching is Bwindi’s second biggest attraction. The 25,000 year old forest boasts fourteen species that are endemic, meaning only found here. Twitchers from all over the world visit for the chance of spotting an African green broadbill among the mixed-species flocks gleaning for insects at the forests edge, or a Grauer’s rush warbler perched on a swamp reed.
Meet the Roundstones
“You see that hill,” said Modern, pointing to a perfectly round knoll wedged between the forest edge and the buffer zone in the valley below. “That’s how our group of Mountain gorillas got its name. Nkuringo means round stone.” Suddenly a loud bark was heard in the forest. The gorillas were near.
As we started down the steep incline, between cypress trees and bean plants swaying and singing in the breeze, I noticed that, rather than one of his eponymous precision timepieces, Michael Kobold was wearing a Swatch. Not surprising in the African bush, considering a Kobold watch costs upwards of $3,000.
“You don’t meet too many watchmakers these days,” I said, shadowing his footfalls down the slope.
“I learnt watchmaking when I was sixteen,” he said with an east coast American accent that belied his Tutonic upbringing, “under the legendary Gerd Lang of Chronoswiss. At nineteen I launched my own company.” Gregarious to a fault and with an enduring twinkle in his eye, it’s easy to see how his personality helped him succeed.
In a decade and a half Mike had almost single-handedly built Kobold into a leading luxury brand to rival Tag Hauer and Omega. James Gandalfini, Leonardo DiCaprio, Bill Clinton, Stirling Moss and Sir Ranulph Fiennes – “the world’s greatest explorer” according to the Guinness Book of Records – are some of the rich and famous with Kobold watches strapped to their wrists.
Even before we’d met he introduced me to the US ambassador and his wife. “Together they roam the world looking for rare birds and other interesting species.” And in the same email he asked if I’d like to become an official Kobold brand ambassador. “But what a life you have led” he wrote, “and what a life you continue to lead!”
I was dumbfounded. As it turned out Mike’s faith in me was down to the say-so of our mutual friend, one larger-than-life character on whom I based Johnny Oceans, the hero of my second novel Pirates. Moreover Pirates‘s macguffin – that desired object everyone’s willing to sacrifice almost anything to get – is a Kobold watch.
Now, barely a month after completing the first draft of my manuscript, in a case of life imitating art, I was trekking gorillas with my macguffin’s creator and his good friends the DeLisi’s.
“We’re making you a watch,” he said, leaping nimbly across the rocks of a dried up waterfall. “It’s almost done.”
The Greatest of the Great Apes
“We have reached,” smiled Modern, standing in the valley floor. He issued an order into his walkie talkie and a voice called out from beneath the forest canopy, barely fifty metres away. “That’s the trackers. They’re with the gorillas.”
The first thing I noticed, as we moved nearer the group, was the absence of any fear odour, which gorillas usually give off when approached. Apparently the Nkuringos were expecting us.
We were immediately engaged by youngsters determined we should join in their game of tag. Modern did his best to subtly shoo them away but they never ceased rough housing. One three year-old refused to participate as he was too busy whimpering for more breast milk, though his mother was clearly trying to wean him.
We found the silverback Rafiki preoccupied with a particular female that had her back turned to him. Gazing longingly at her, affectionately clutching a tuft of fur on her back, he appeared to be trying to make up after a quarrel. His adjutant Christmas kept vigil, and was the coolest, calmest blackback I’ve ever encountered, though he did try to twice grab hold of the ambassador’s leg.
Over the course of the next hour, as we tiptoed through the springy foliage beneath the Giant yellow mulberry trees, we saw all fourteen gorillas in the group. Like monks in an ashram they needed to be sought out in their ferny hideaways.
The last gorilla we encountered was the sage old silverback Safari, who had run the group for fifteen years before relinquishing leadership to the incumbent Rafiki. I was told he did not give up willingly, but put up a bold struggle that lasted for days. The fact that he was allowed to remain in his group was testament to their humanity. I know, we need a more encompassing word.
Safari’s age, estimated at 40 years, had profoundly altered his appearance. His hair was long, chest limp, features sagging. Having lost all his teeth, he ate only soft young mulberry leaves, and there were deep dimples in his cheeks.
He regarded us with tired, opaque eyes and a perspicacious gaze that spoke of a time when healone used to keep the humans in line. I understood his pain. We’d both been brushed aside for younger blood, for the good of the gorillas.
Whether as a consequence of apres-gorilla bliss or our ambassadorial trek, but as we started back up the ridge I came to the realisation that I too was an ambassador…to the gorillas.
True, gorillas already have ambassadors from their own species, gallant individuals dispersed about the globe in zoos and institutions, who admirably represent their branch of the great ape tree. Koko, Snowflake, Bushman, and Samson swing to mind.
In the wild their diplomatic corps seems wholly staffed by mountain gorillas, stars of the silver screen and countless wildlife documentaries, watched by hundreds of millions of people around the world. But a well-protected minority sub-species made up of less than 0.007% of Africa’s total gorilla population is hardly representative. What about the rest of them?
If we are to consider the entire range of the two gorilla species, Gorilla gorilla and Gorilla beringei, we find a diverse ape federation stretching from the Bight of Bonny to the Albertine Rift Valley, encompassing ten African countries and four gorillasub-species on either side of the Congo Basin. But Gorillaland’s in trouble. Because of a lack of resources, gorilla populations are dwindling.
“Time to step up,” I thought, breathlessly struggling to lift myself on to the next ledge. Once there, I turned to gauge our progress against Nkuringo hill. We remained below it’s summit. Above us, dark clouds were gathering and the wind began to blow. We had so far been spared Bwindi’s infamous weather, but it looked as though things were about to take a turn for the worse.
to be continued …
Greg Cummings is an award-winning conservationist and published author. Enjoy his novel
On our current tour of Egypt, some members of our group asked for home-baked cookies. We were sailing up the Nile aboard our private cruise ship, the Afandina, so I asked our chef to take care of it. Since individual requests happen often (everything from raw food to vegetarian to a personalized birthday cake) I was surprised when Chef demurred, explaining that he was no baker. As Julie the Cruise Director, it’s my first job to make all our guests happy, so I ended up baking six dozen cookies. While I was baking, I realized there were valuable lessons that applied to traveling anywhere outside your comfort zone. Enjoy my lessons (one for each dozen cookies) and apply them to your own travel experiences; the recipe and video of the cookie baking are at the bottom.
1. Be ready to jump at an unexpected opportunity
While it wasn’t how I planned to spend an evening, baking cookies on the Nile is something very few people can say they did, and the rewards kept coming as people commented how delicious they were every time they popped another one into their mouths. Whether it’s visiting the home of a local, seeing a site that’s off the beaten path or getting to cook in a foreign kitchen, take a chance and you might be pleasantly surprised at the outcome.
2. Be flexible
Gas marks in Celsius. No measuring spoons or cups. Hazelnuts instead of walnuts. Oversized raisins. No such thing as chocolate chips. The list of the adjustments I had to be willing to make was surprisingly long for such a short cookie recipe! Keeping your sense of humor and remaining flexible is key to traveling, and remembering that you are in a new environment will help you get a handle on your feelings of discomfort. Maybe it’s not what you’re used to, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be flexible and still have a great experience.
3. Make what’s available work
When I first walked into the kitchen of our lovely cruise ship, I expected it to be well-stocked with cooking utensils—since after all, they turn out three gorgeous meals a day. Instead, there wasn’t a single wooden spoon or a bowl large enough to mix my batter in. Plus there was an industrial oven that measured everything in Celsius. What’s a mediocre baker to do? Make it work for you. We used a large stew pot instead of a bowl, and Chef mixed the batter with his hands (picking up tips like combining the batter just until it’s uniform will keep the dough tender). Instead of doing everything myself, I had an array of helpers ready to chop and mix and clean. Perhaps on your journey you thought you would have air conditioning, or clean towels daily, or fresh milk in your coffee, but instead that’s not how they do it where you’re visiting. Be ready to substitute or adjust and you will have a better time of it all the way around!
4. Don’t be afraid to give up control
Chef is the chief of his kitchen. He has an assistant chef, and there were helpers galore who had baked cookies; all had their own ideas of what was best. I had to take several deep breaths and, again, keep my sense of humor. I realized at one point I was on the verge of snapping orders at the guy whose kitchen I was in and backed way off. I love being in control, but sometimes, especially when you travel, you just aren’t. Remember to pick your battles. Whether it’s the flight attendant, the gate agent, the taxi driver, or your own tour leader, be ready to release control and allow someone else to take over.
5. It’s the journey, not the outcome
Whether the cookies had turned out or not, it’s the holiday season and for some of our guests, this was the only baking they were going to get to do this Christmas. We all are in such a rush to get to the finish line we often forget to stop and enjoy the journey along the way. Give yourself permission to live only in the present moment and stop worrying about the outcome and you will have a better travel experience. Each minute is your vacation, and you want more than a few photos to remember it. Slowing down also gives you better retention of your trip.
6. Sometimes “good enough” is perfect
While practically baking without a recipe, at least one with which I was familiar, I wanted my cookies to be perfect. About halfway through, I realized that everyone would appreciate the effort no matter what, even if the result had been rocks. The cookies actually turned out delicious, though the industrial oven made them a little too crisp. You’re on vacation, you’re traveling. Let your hair down and have the experience, have the strange, exotic surprise, and don’t worry if it’s not exactly what you planned or hoped for. It is… what it is. What if you didn’t judge it, but instead allowed it to be “good enough?” That can be enough to make it perfect.
Sailing the Nile Cookies
Preheat oven to 350F, Gas mark 180C
A) 2 c sugar (1/3 kilo)
1 c butter (1/4 kilo)
2 t vanilla
2 T milk
B) Lg pinch of salt
1 t baking powder (OR ½ t baking powder + ½ t baking soda)
4 c flour (2/3 kilo) (OR 2 c flour (1/3 kilo) + 2 c oatmeal (1/3 kilo)
chocolate chips (or well-chopped chocolate)
raisins (chopped if too large)
coarsely chopped hazelnuts
1) Beat together A ingredients ‘til smooth
2) Mix together B ingredients
3) Add B to A, then divide batter and add different mix-ins, as desired
4) Form rounded spoonfuls onto greased cookie sheet. Mash flat with tines of fork. Bake approx 10-15 min. depending on how many cookie sheets and how well oven holds its temp. Cookies should be lightly brown but still tender to the touch.
Thanks to Zoe Serious and Michelle E. for the base recipe info!!