Tracking Gorillas and Chimpanzees

It was an 11 hour drive to Kitandara Tent Camp in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, our base for tracking gorillas the next day.   Bwindi is the southwest corner of Uganda, bordered by Rwanda and the DRC.  The camp was surprisingly comfortable, with rugged safari tents, a wooden deck and a bathroom (the tent was placed on the wooden deck, on which the outdoor bathroom was built).   We, of course, had mosquito netting around our beds and applied DEET everywhere before arriving for dinner in the outdoor dining room at 7:30.

We arrived at the starting point for gorilla tracking at around 8, and after waiting 45 minutes or so to be told what to do(What are we doing?  We are waiting…), we were split into groups of 8 and told our hike could take any where from 2 to 8 hours depending on where the gorillas had traveled from the previous day.  An advance team leaves early in the morning to locate each of the gorillas families and communicates by cell phone with the guides. 

The gorillas we were tracking were a troop of approximately 12 individuals, including a silverback and  a couple of infants.  This trip was special because we were seeing mountain gorillas, rather than the lowland gorillas that most of us have seen in zoos.  There are less than 900 mountain gorillas in existence (compared to approximately 100,000 lowland gorillas), and they don’t do well in captivity, so seeing them at all is special.  You pay for the privilege by purchasing a  permit that costs around $500.  That money supports gorilla conservation and the local community, which survives through ecotourism.  It was the mountain gorilla Dian Fossey (Gorillas in the Mist) was studying in the 1960′s

It took about an hour or so to locate and reach the gorillas.  We were told we had one hour with the gorillas before turning around and hiking back.  It was an amazing hour.  At first we saw a couple of females in a tree, one with an infant.  We all watched in fascination, but didn’t really know how much better it would get.  One of the females came down from the tree and we followed her and watched her eat leaves and bamboo.  We were able to watch the gorillas within a distance of 5 feet.  Then, our guide shouted that he had found the silverback (the dominant male whose hair turns silver on its back when it becomes sexually mature at around 13). He was on the ground eating, and he let us get very close (within 4 feet) and take some great photos.

Our guide told us that the gorillas seem to know when the one hour is over, as they will move away from the humans and get on with their business).  Indeed, the silverback left our group and moved over to the females, one with a baby.  Another female screamed in a nearby tree, and they were off.

Tracking chimpanzees was a very different experience.  We traveled to Kyambura Gorge in  Queen Elizabeth National Park.  Chimp tracking is much less commercial and much harder.  There were trails in the Bwindi to follow, at elevations of 5,000 ft, crossing streams and sometimes blocked by tree branches.   We tracked a rudimentary trail to find the chimps, starting with a wicked muddy hill that was at least 70 degrees in slope, with much more climbing and descending slopes, crawling over tree branches and sinking in rottng leaves.  Once there was an idea where the chimps were (look for rustling tree tops), we slogged through the dense forest.  While the gorillas were habituated to our presence and fed on the ground, the chimpanzees stayed at the top of the forest canopy swinging from branch to branch (just like at the zoo).  They were harder to see because the forest was darker and they were farther away.  Plus, you need a healthy neck, as you are always looking up.  

You need to be considerably more fit to track chimps than to track gorillas.  And hiking boots may not be the best choice for footwear, as all our guides wore rubber boots.  You can say you were really in the jungle when you track chimpanzees, but nothing beats being four feet from a silverback mountain gorilla.

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Observations on Africa

Visiting Uganda has been an eye-opening experience.  It makes me appreciate the basic amenities we have at home, as well as make me want to create a more simple, slow-paced lifestyle.

There are few cars that are not associated with tourism.  Most people walk, or ride motorbikes.  Most of the roads we’ve driven on have been unpaved.  Our 11 hour ride from Entebbe to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest might have taken 3 hours in the States, without all the pot holes.  The dirt roads were actually smoother than the paved ones, and our guide would swerve back and forth to avoid the worst bumps (like how we try to avoid speed bumps).  Occasionally, we’d cross paths with a truck that took up most of the road.  We’d end up on the shoulder, but never slow down.  The first time that happens can be pretty alarming.

In the mornings and afternoons there are hundreds of children on the road going to and from school.  Every child wears a uniform, and every school has a different one – link gingham, bright purple, green, orange.  The children are so friendly and happy.  They’d see us as we passed by and wave with a big smile on their faces.  The children are one of the best parts of this trip. 

There are always women walking and men on bicycles.  You’ll honk your horn to let them know you’re coming and hope they get out of the way.  It’s pretty automatic for them – hear a horn…get out of the way.

Plumbing is not readily available outside large cities.  All day long you’ll see men, women and children transporting jerry cans (5 gallon containers that, when filled with water, weigh 40 pounds).  They have to fill their jerry cans at the nearest well and carry their water home.   People carrying jerry cans are everywhere all day long.  Bringing water home may occupy most of their time.

Since plumbing is not always available, you’ll encounter some very interesting toilets – regular flush toilets, toilets without a tank with a bucket of water nearby you’ll pour in the bowl, and simple holes in the floor (like a port-a-potty without the potty).  Luckily, I don’t really care where or how I have to see (Outward Bound taught me how to do my business).

We drove hours and hours, to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, through Queen Elizabeth National Park, and back to Entebbe.  At home, there’s a gas station on every corner.  Here there are LONG stretches without seeing a town, so our van must have a very large fuel tank.  I only saw our guide fill up once.

I’m glad I don’t have to haul jerry cans home for water and that I can take a hot shower every morning.  At the same time, I envy the slower pace in Uganda (and, I’m sure, in all of Africa and many other parts of the world).  Their greeting is “you are most welcome,” accompanied by questions about our trip, our sleep, our activities.  When talking one on one, you need to be prepared for a lengthy introduction and discourse.  For type A personalities like me, it can be challenging, but also a reminder that slowing down can offer an opportunity to truly appreciate your experiences and the people you interact with.  Being here makes me realize how rushed we are, always multi-tasking, thinking of the next thing we have to do, striving to have more, never just “being” and enjoying the moment.  That’s one thing I will try to do when I get home, if I can find a way to merge this culture with the pressures and expectations of our society.

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Adjusting to a New Culture

After breakfast, Bonnie and I decided to walk around town, determined not to have an agenda.  It was amazing to see so many different bird species, including eagles and ibises. 

Some things are definitely didn’t from America.  Walking down the street, many people would cross to the other side of the street to pass us.   They drive on the left side of the road, so of course we had to be carefulabout which way we looked when crossing the street.  Most people either walk, ride motor bikes or drive vans.  Someone might have hit us if it wasn’t for their routine use of the car horn to tell us they were behind us.  No sidewalks and not a lot of roadside.

We first explored the west side of town, stopping to watch a soccer game. We passed a flock of turkeys, lots of tethered goats and numerous large termite mounds.  We found a very nice park right on the lake and we’re enjoying the birds when Bonnie asked a young man if he knew what species of birds was in the tree.   He tells us he is a police officer and shows us a card that says Uganda Police on it.  He tells us it is illegal to take photos of the birds and wants to see our ID and take us to the police station.  Thank goodness I had world traveller Bonnie with me.  If I didn’t, I know I would have suspected a scam/extortion, but I’m not the most assertive person when dealing with people that make me uncomfortable.  We walked away from him, while he followed us insisting he was a police officer.  He finally decided to stop following us when we got to a more populated area.  Police officers in Uganda wear camo uniforms and carry big guns, and people esponsible for security wear uniforms with lots of big numbers and letters.  I feel a little more secure.

We changed direction and headed toward the east side of Entebbe.   We passed the botanical gardens, which was really a big park, with cars parked on the grass for picnics.  We were passed by a constant stream of buses, which turned out to be headed forward the zoo.  Hundreds of school children were on a field trip.  There were children from 3 years old to junior high age, with the majority looking to be around 8-10.  Every group had a different style of uniform, including one uniform of pink gingham.  There is definitely not an obsession about hair here, at least not with children.  A few little girls, had complicated and beautiful braiding, but most had theirs shaved of like the boys.

The zoo itself was surprisingly nice – large natural habitats with none of the stress behaviors you sometimes see at American zoos (pacing).   Garbage cans weren’t as abundant as you’d see in the U.S. and we’re not used very frequently.  Bottles and bags were on the ground everywhere, as well as in the exhibits.  The mission statement of the zoo is to educate children about the animals and conservation, as well as participate in captive breeding programs.  There were signs everywhere asking visitors to not hit the animals with stocks or throw stones at them.   In our country, it’s “don’t tap on the glass”!

We’d smile and wave at some of the children, who often looked at us out of the corner of their eye of wave at us.  That usually stimulated a furry of hellos, waves and goodbyes from other children.  At one point, we’d spotted to rest (and for me to clean after getting slimed by an elephant who wanted to explore me with its trunk.  A group of children around 5-7 came up to us and Bonnie “high fives” one of them.  All of a sudden there were 30 or more kids swarming us, wanting to high five, shake hands or hug us.  A cute little girl sat down between us and picture-taking started.  Lots of pictures, with teachers, groups of kids…We became an exhibit much more interesting than any of the animals there.  It was an amazing experience!

On our way out of the zoo, buses continued to arrive.  Bonnie said that if ever there was a, fine to ask, “if I got hit by a bus today and killed, would I go to Heaven?”, this was it. Yup, I’ve never been so scared of being hit by a bus.

On the way back to the hotel, we found a veterinary clinic, which we stopped at to get a, for and meet the doctor – very different from most (but not all) American hospitals, but much better than some Bonnie has seen.

Tomorrow we look forward to getting to the location of our gorilla trek. The next day we’ll be in the jungle looking for them.

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Christmas in July

I landed in Entebbe, Uganda last night at midnight. Waking up this morning feels like opening presents at Christmas, getting to see things for the first time. We have a lake view at 2 Friends Resort on Lake Victoria, the largest tropical lake in the world. We’ll go exploring, but will try not to have an itinerary. I’m looking forward to the sights…the sounds, tropical birds at dawn.

We left LA on Monday, the 14th, in the biggest plane I’ve personally ever been on, a 747-400. The 10 hour flight to Amsterdam seemed surprisingly short. KLM feeds you a full meal every 3 hours or so, and I slept most of the way. I did a little window shopping while waiting for the next flight and will pick up tulips on the way back. I also had a Diet Coke. Thank goodness Coke is ubiquitous. I don’t know what I would do without my diet coke.

It was another 8 hours to get to Nairobi, but again, it went fast. I’m a little amazed that just having food can alleviate so much boredom. I figured I’d have a book done by the time we landed in Uganda, but all I managed was a couple of pages, and a lot of sleep.

My travel mate, Bonnie, kept me entertained with stories of her travels as a veterinarian, speaker and teacher to Mongolia, China, Egypt and Africa. She helped me to mentally prepare me for embracing a new culture. I’m so grateful she invited me on this trip and will teach me about being adventurous and enjoying the moment.

It was a short 50 minute flight from Nairobi to Entebbe. We purchased visas, got our luggage, got to the hotel and went to bed, looking forward to morning, the view of the lake from our window and stepping out into a new world. Even though it took almost a day to get to Uganda, airplane travel doesn’t help you transition from one place to another, especially when you arrive at night and can’t see anything around you. After 24 hours and the time difference, I’m still not sure what day out is, but at least it’s starting to feel like my adventure has started.

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Art, Beauty and Happiness

Rest in Peace, Mickey Rooney, and all the classic film stars we’ve lost. Your movies were pure magic, the formula being written by directors, cinematographers, editors, writers, producers and actors.

Classic movies are works of art, vehicles of happiness, and a source of pure beauty.

Can you name these films?

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Best Friends

I met Jerry 38 years ago when we were sophomores in high school. I loved watching old black and white movies and singing along with classic movie musicals. Jerry sat in front of me in biology class and I noticed the book he was reading.

“You like Judy Garland?!!!” were the first words I spoke to him.

He was my first date. I wasn’t yet 16 and my parents were protective. I’d never had a boyfriend or been on a date. In English class, shortly before my birthday, a classmate handed me a note. It was covered in squiggly chicken scratch that I didn’t know the meaning of. Who was it from? There’s nothing like an anonymous note to get a teenage girl fantasizing about a mystery date. It was lucky for me, and the note’s author, that my mother was a legal secretary in the 1950′s, when shorthand was a necessary skill.

The note read: “Please be my date to see Annie Get Your Gun in San Francisco.” Jerry had upped the ante.

Jerry didn’t yet have his license, so his parents drove. Nervous about making small talk, he asked his grandmother what he should say to me. Like a woman who grew up when courting was a formal affair, she suggested asking what my favorite flower was. I’m not sure our conversation progressed much further than that with his parents in the car, but our relationship did.

He was my junior prom date, my tennis partner, my coworker. He was who I went to movies and plays with, who I spent late evenings and early mornings with at Denny’s and Bob’s Big Boy. We sang show tunes together, were dance partners trying to learn the moves from Saturday Night Fever, and stood in line together on opening night for Star Wars, ET, Close Encounters and Raiders of the Lost Ark, back when movies like these were true blockbusters and the line for tickets stretched for blocks. He’s the only person I’ve ever felt completely comfortable with. I could sing and he never said anything about my being off pitch, even when we were singing to The Carpenters. He could call me at 11:30 at night on New Years Eve, and I’d come over in my pajamas. There are so many funny stories, and we are laughing or singing in most of them.

I went to college and he went to LA to study acting. I got married and he moved back home. I settled into my roles as wife and mother, but he was always there – my best friend. We might not speak for months, but then he’d call me with a ticket to the theatre and we’d pick up where we left off.

Seven years ago, I got a call. Jerry had collapsed at work and was in the hospital on life support. He’d had a stroke. His blood pressure was so high that it was outside the range of the sphygmomanometer. It was a shock, but not necessarily a surprise. He was overweight since childhood and wouldn’t go to the doctor.

I was there when he was taken off life support and died on June 27, 2007.

Many of those we went to high school with mourned his passing. Both of us thought we were geeks and outcasts in high school, so he would have been surprised by all the people who said he touched their lives. Most of us, I think, remember feeling like outcasts as teenagers, but I’m learning that perhaps there is more good will than we want to recognize. Some of the baggage we carry from high school is a phantom, and we should let go, if we haven’t already.

I’ve often thought about getting his name tattooed on my behind. The uptight, traditional Jerry would be horrified, but the funny, happy and playful Jerry would be laughing at the absurdity of it. He will always be my best friend.

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The Story of My Life: How do I write the next chapter?

The mind is everything. What you think you become.
- Buddha

How do I change, at the age of 50, the direction of my life?

Most people I know think I have a great life…and I do. I make a good living, enough to aggressively fund my 401-k and ride and own a horse. I have two grown sons who I’m very proud of. I have a house full of dogs and cats to whom I am the center of the universe. I’m smart, thin, athletic, healthy, well-rounded, and articulate. I’m nice and I’m ethical. (Saying something positive about myself was hard!)

That sounds pretty good…so why do I want to change it?

I’m reading the The Purpose Driven Life, which, despite it’s overtly Christian message, succeeds in conveying the importance of purpose in having a meaningful life. I’m not a “religious” person, but I am “spiritual, ” and I want to do something that matters, regardless of what happens to me when i do. While I know I have a positive impact on many of the people I know, I want to be less selfish and start sacrificing more for a purpose. I’m not sure what that is yet (shelter animals, spay and neuter, horses, veterinary patients and owners, literacy?) or how I will execute it, but I know I will eventually find something to fight for.

The challenge is to be confident in what I do, and to not settle for what is safe. I’ve always chosen safe over unpredictable, always did what I knew I could be successful at and what offered very good “odds.” Risk is scary. Safe sucks, and it can immobilize you. Isn’t it better (and probably more fun) to take risks, open new doors to opportunities, feel passionate about something, and feel like you have changed for the better something in this life?

Can I have a meaningful life if I think only about yourself self?

The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly. – Buddha

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In Love with a Tree

Taste every fruit of every tree in the garden at least once. It is an insult to creation not to experience it fully. Temperance is wickedness.
- Stephen Fry

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Every spring, I wait in anticipation for my cherry tree to bloom. It’s a beautiful miracle to watch it bear fruit, baskets full of the sweetest cherries I have ever eaten.

Would it be weird to say I LOVE my cherry tree?

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A Universal Truth

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No matter how old you look on the outside, you’re a kid on the inside.

The question is…how do you live with the disparity?

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Slowing down

I’ve always been a “Type A” person – making lists, being overly organized, goal driven.

I’m a fast walker. I know where I’m going, so why should I meander? I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve frightened overtaking them in my effort to get where I need to go. But moving fast and focusing too much on the destination makes the present pass you by without having a chance to see it. When you’re so focused on where you’re going, who cares about the present, except in terms of making sure the present gets you to your future. It’s never ending, and there’s nothing at the end of road, except another “to do list” and another destination. And, before you know it, years have passed, you only remember the REALLY emotionally powerful events, and your life passes you by.

They say that it’s the journey, not the destination, that’s important. I’ve started to think more about the value of that wisdom. I’ve started slowing down. I look at the clouds and the sunsets. I focus on “right now” and not “later.” I haven’t startled anyone in over a month, and i get where i need to go in the same amount of time! Go figure.

I have goals and a “to do list,” but I’m only thinking about what needs to be accomplished in the immediate future. I can’t believe that I get just as much accomplished being slow and short-sighted, than fast and far-sighted. I’m noticing more, appreciating more and just the act of walking more slowly reduces my stress.

I’m not feeling overwhelmed by my long list of things I HAVE to get done (and noticing that many of the things I think are so important, really aren’t), I focus at any one time on the things that need attention right now. I can stress out about the other stuff later…or not at all…since I’m finding that by the time I get to the next part of my “to do list,” it seems a little less overwhelming, since it’s so much shorter.

It’s possible to be a “Type A” and feel like a “Type B.” It’s all in the execution.

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