Dec 14, 2015

A Walk with the Gorillas.

There are only 880 mountain gorillas left in the wild. 
Last week my friend and I got to hang out with 19 of them. 

Mountain gorillas can only be found in one jungle area in the world that spans three countries: DR Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda. Gorilla treks can be done in all 3 countries, though DR Congo is a bit of a mess right now and is more concerned with protecting the park than fostering tourism. (watch the Netflix documentary VIRUNGA for an inspiring, heart wrenching perspective of the Congo side of the park). 

Here in controlled, peace time Rwanda, gorilla treks are an important part of the conservation process (think: $$$) and are a major draw for tourists to this tiny African country. I watched the documentary before coming to Rwanda and knew that gorillas would be a "must-do" for my time here. I didn't really think about what it would be like to be so close to gorillas or what a gorilla trek actually was, I just knew that when I was in Rwanda I had to take part in the major tourist draw and see an endangered species in its natural habitat. I guess what I am saying is: I was interested in the experience from a political and conservation standpoint but did not contemplate that I would actually be standing next to giant mountain gorillas. 

Leanne, my fantastic co-worker/co-traveler/co-human and I set out to the north of Rwanda on a bus that zigged and zagged through Rwanda's famous hills. The north looks more like mountains than the south where I live, it is incredible how the terrain of this country can change in such a small amount of time. Where I live has red dirt and low lying hills. The north has potting-soil-like volcanic soil and volcanic rock at the base of giant hills and volcanoes. Just driving through the country is awe-inspiring. 

The morning of the trek we woke up early and packed backpacks of water, rain jackets, candies, and a packed lunch of a sandwich, mini-bananas, and boiled eggs. We hired a car to drive us to the Rwanda Development Board where we signed in and were greeted by traditional intore dancing. After being sized up by the trekkers and placed into groups of 8, we met with our 2 guides who described the gorilla family we would be trekking to see. We were assigned the Hirwa gorilla family who resides in the bamboo forest foothills of Mount Sabyinyo.

Hire means "lucky" in kinyarwanda and the family is aptly named. They have a set of baby twins which is rare in the gorilla universe. usually a mom abandons one of the twins because it is difficult to care for two babies, but this mother in the Hirwa family kept both babies! They were so cute and playful with the other "teenagers" in the family. There is one dominant silverback male who broke away from his former family in 2006 to create his own tribe because he wanted to be the breeder. The papa silver back is 450 pounds and over 5 feet tall! (I am glad that we only saw him sitting. I was really skittish around the gorillas. If he would have stood and walked towards us I probably would have pooped my pants.)

We drove about 30 minutes to the base of the mountain and began our hike through gorgeous fields of  white pyrethrum flowers. Once we reached the bamboo forest, a trekker with a gun met us to walk with us. I have been told, though, that the gun was not to protect us, it was to protect the gorillas. And I totally believe it. We trekked behind a guy with a machete for about 2 hours through the jungle. I was in running shoes and not hiking boots (boo) so I was slipping and sliding and holding onto bamboo for dear life. Just when I didn't know how much longer I could march uphill in the jungle, our guide told us the great news, we had reached the gorillas! Finding the gorillas was impressively organized. In the morning, trekkers go out in search of each family and report back via walkie talkie where they are located that particular morning. The walkie talkie action continues until each tourist groups reaches the trekkers and the gorillas.

We were taught how gorillas communicate and what to do if a gorilla approached us, then we left our bags on the side of the mountain and entered the clearing where the Hirwa family was chilling out. We were given one hour to take pictures, watch in awe, and just hang out near the gorillas. I don't think I'll ever forget the first time I saw one - I was so spellbound! I kept saying, "Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh!" to the other hikers. Gorillas are majestic. They are huge. They are gentle and curious, and have beady black eyes that pierce through you. They do what they want, they don't know the rules. We were on their turf and they were in charge. I felt like a visitor in a very important home - don't touch, be quiet, be polite, know your role.

We stood in little pack as the gorillas walked around us, approached us, walked right by us, lounged in front of us, swung from trees above us, and wrestled less than 10 feet from us. The whole time pap silverback was just watching while his brood entertained us. They didn't seem to mind that we were there, they get a visitor group every week day for an hour and it showed that they have been accustomed to humans hanging out near them. The moms and teenagers would grunt and talk and our guides would grunt and talk back, letting them know that we were friendly and not an enemy. This was incredible. Humans talking with the gorillas. Gorillas talking with the humans.

Quicker than we wished, the hour was over and it was time to trudge through the mud and bamboo back down the mountain - a different way than we hiked up, thank goodness. When we were passing back through the field of flowers I kept thinking to myself how thankful I am that this is my life. All the heartbreak and sadness and disappointment that led to me choosing to move to Rwanda was totally worth it. I'm thankful for all the twists and turns that added up to me gorilla trekking in Rwanda on a random Wednesday morning. It was an experience I will carry with me forever - being in the presence of endangered mountain gorillas, in their home. I feel so thankful.

Let's hope these beauties can continue to be conserved by the local forces in Rwanda, Uganda, and DR Congo. Props to Rwanda for the excellent, safe, mesmerizing experience.

walk slow. xoxo. 

Dec 2, 2015

Combating Africa Time. The Never-ending Saga.

You know those events, the ones that warm your heart and rekindle your faith in humanity? 

Today I had one of those. 

Let's chat about it. 

Yesterday morning was bad. Not super bad, but the normal kind of bad that happens when you live in rural Rwanda and teach at a university that is run by ... non-logic thought. Normal, non-surprising, bad. 

It was the first day of my week long "Seminar in American Literature" where I was slated to teach 90 level 5 French/English majors without any curriculum guidelines or technology. The lack of guidelines is something I have gotten over, as well as the lack of a steady classroom space - we just wander until we find an open room. Lack of technology is not ideal, but also manageable. What is not manageable, however, is a lack of students. 

Now, mind you, I am not newcomer to the idea of "Africa Time." The notion that everything is slower (yes), later, (yes), and takes longer (YES) in Africa. If you have a meeting at 8, expect it to start at 9 and last until whenever. Because "Africa Time." This is not new to me (looking at you, chronically late ex-boyfriends of the African variety). But for some reason, perhaps the grating of the lumber yard near my house that robs my sleep, or the lack of diet coke in my veins, yesterday Africa Time was not going to fly. 

I arrived to an open classroom at 7:50 and began to set up my teacher area (a desk in the front). Then I straightened my kitenge skirt, fixed my lipstick while looking in my phone, and waited for students. And waited. And waited. By 8:10 there were still no students. This is odd, as there are usually a few eager beavers, especially on the first day of class. SOMEONE usually wants to see the white teacher. 8:20 rolled around and I could feel my blood starting to boil. I am at the number 1 ranked private school in rwanda and these turds can't even come to class onetime. This is a waste of my life. I heard myself thinking. (Dramatic, I know. I'm an ENFP). I took a photo, posted it in a rant to Instagram, and headed back to my house in a big red-headed fit. 

Empty room = 25 instagram likes. Score! 
On the way back to my classroom, I ran into a student, Sister Mary, who I see all the time and have become close with. She is a nun so I think of her like a character in my Rwanda play. Sister Mary told me, "be patient, it's raining." Ohhhhh. I thought. I had completely forgotten that Rwandans do not go outside in the rain. They are made of sugar, or something like that. "Well, yes, patience is important," I said, wondering why I was about to debate the importance of patience with a nun. "But I expect my students to have high standards for themselves. This is disrespecting our class." She nodded in a kind way, as you would expect from a Sister, and told me to go home and wait for the class president to call. So I did.

Well, Sister Mary knows what's up. Around 8:50 the class president called me and informed me that the class was ready now, I should go back. By now I was livid with the entire system of incompetence and I trudged my moody bum back over to the class ready to give them my mind. And that I did. I gave a speech about respect and having high standards and not having any pity on them. "I don't care if it's raining, you come to class on time because that is what an employer will expect of you," I heard myself saying. Then it came time to pull out the packet that I had emailed to the dean to pass out over 2 weeks ago. The packet the dean had assured me had already been distributed to students so they could read for the first day (a 5 day literature course requires preparedness). But low and behold - no students had the packet nor had heard of the packet.

Bloody hell.

I was an angry redheaded woman giving it to a class of Rwandans who were looking at me like they were watching a weird sci-fi film. A weird look of misunderstanding, confusion, and humor.

I told them to go, print the packet, do the work, and come back the next day on time and prepared. I packed up my pink tote and stomped my way out of the class. I had had enough. In my logic, being late was one thing, but being late and having not done the pre-reading nor having the packet was just completely unacceptable (it would have made our class impossible, in my defense).

This morning, I was not entirely excited to face the students and conjure up enough goodwill to mend the fences and have a productive course. I had my coffee, said a few thankful prayers to get my brain and heart in the right place so I didn't get emotionally jostled again, and walked out into the foggy campus toward the classroom.

And then...the best thing in the world happened.

I walked into the class, at 7:50am to a full classroom of students who laughed and clapped when I walked in. 

It was amazing. I'll never forget it. (ok maybe one day, but not for a long, long time.) In Africa, an entire group of 90 students showing up 10 minutes before class is a legitimate miracle.

And I smiled. And they smiled. And I was so ticked. And they were so humored with themselves.

And we had a fabulous 4 hour class on the Enlightenment Period and early American themes.

My faith in humanity was encouraged. Perhaps my high standards are rubbing off? Or maybe they just don't want to upset the white teacher? Who knows. It was such a sweet morning. I wonder if they will all be there early tomorrow? :) 

Here are some other pics: 

Mushu being famous. I'm now calling myself his Momager. 

Goat on a leash. 

King of Kibungo

I found 7 coke zeros in a store in town and bought them all! This is JACKPOT!

walk slow. xoxo.