Africa

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Mountain gorilla baby eyes

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.

gorilla head

Mountain gorillas were hunted almost to extinction and are a critically endangered species. Within Volcanoes National Park there are eighteen different groups of gorillas.

baby eating celery

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.

baby eyes

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.

silver back

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.

hand gripping

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.

side profile

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.

momma eyes

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.

chin up

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.

baby going for ride

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.

mom w baby

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.

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For more information:

 Volcanoes National Park

We stayed at a church mission called Centre Pastoral Notre Dame de Fatima. It was very nice, clean and well located.

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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.

 

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Gratitude Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

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.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

Flyer for email

Meet Mia Coffin at Park Restaurant 

2885 Kalakaua Ave

at Lotus Honolulu

Thursday November 7

5pm-7pm

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.

 Park RestaurantPark is a new Waikiki restaurant specializing in unique Mediterranean cuisine. Come visit us today at Park for the best in fresh new Waikiki Dining!

 

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Bath time at Calvary Zion is also a great way to beat the Kenyan heat.
Bath time at Calvary Zion is also a great way to beat the Kenyan heat.
Bath time at Calvary Zion is also a great way to beat the Kenyan heat.

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.

“Ah-dahh.”

“Good point,” I say.

“Ah-dahh.”

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’s founder, 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.

Feeding babies is one of many tasks for the "mothers" at the Calvary Zion Children's Home in Kenya.
Feeding babies is one of many tasks for the “mothers” at the Calvary Zion Children’s Home in Kenya.

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 Voluntourist has paid annual school fees for 11 of the children at Calvary Zion. You can connect with Ken on Twitter and Facebook.

 

Photographs by Scott and Leja DeLisi

Leja DeLisi, Michael Kobold and the author set off with porters and guides to find Nkuringo group

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

Scott DeLisi, United States Ambassador to Uganda

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

Infant male gorilla in Nkuringo group

“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.

Safari, the former lead silverback of Nkuringo group

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 he alone 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.

 

Michael Kobold and Scott DeLisi with Nkuringo group, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda

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 gorilla sub-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 eggs
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)

Mix-ins
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!!

Lisa writing on the overnight bus in India
Lisa writing on the overnight bus in India

Winter 2013–Inspiration: A Place You Love

WeSaidGoTravel.com invites you to enter its 2013 Travel Writing Contest with a $200 first-place prize and no fee for entry. The theme for the Winter 2013 contest is “Inspiration: A Place You Love.” We hope your article will encourage others to consider going to the place you love and travel more! Please see below for the full rules of our competition. Thank you for your participation in creating a growing global community of engaged travelers and concerned citizens. Writers of all ages and from all countries are encouraged to enter and share stories from any part of our planet.

THEME:  Inspiration: A place you love

THREE CASH PRIZES: 1st prize – $200usd, 2nd prize – $100usd, 3rd prize: Vagabond’s Choice – $100usd
First and Second Prize will be selected by the We Said Go Travel Team. The Vagabonds’s Choice Award will be selected through voting on the We Said Go Travel Facebook Fan page. All award monies will be paid through Check or PayPal in United States Dollars. The contest begins January 2, 2013 and ends February 14, 2013. All winning entries will be promoted on We Said Go Travel social media channels and the author names recognized as winners of the first We Said Go Travel Writing contest. Enter by midnight PST on February 14, 2013.

RULES and INSTRUCTIONS: Click here

JUDGING: Richard Bangs and the We Said Go Travel Team
Richard Bangs, the father of modern adventure travel, is a pioneer in travel that makes a difference, travel with a purpose. He has spent 30 years as an explorer and communicator, and along the way led first descents of 35 rivers around the globe, he is currently producing and hosting the new PBS series, Adventures with Purpose.

We are looking for an article that “speaks to readers, transforms them and transports them either to a place they’d like to live or like to travel. Use “creative evocative writing that brings a destination to life” by combining “the tools of a novelist, the eyes of a journalist, and the general knowledge that comes from a never-ending education and a natural curiosity about the world around you—and its history.” When you are “capturing the essence of a place and engaging the senses,” you share your passion for the place you are writing about and everyone will want to read your writing. (Quotes from Travel Writing 2.0 by Tim Leffel)

Contests, Courses, Resources Page: Coming SOON! Know a great contest, course or travel writing resource we should have on our page? Add it to the comments or email us at Inspiration@wesaidgotravel.com

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The concept of time often becomes irrelevant when travelling as magical moments can happen in seconds, hours or days.  Despite only spending a week in Rwanda, it provided some of the most memorable moments of my life and is a place I hope to visit again.

It is a thought-provoking nation, a country of contrasts and one that creates conflicting emotions.  I experienced the thrill of getting up close and personal with mountain gorillas yet feared for the future of these endangered creatures.  I was mesmerised by the stunning lush landscape and pleasant climate but was aware of the significant poverty that plagues so many of the people.  And I saw signs that Rwanda is developing as a nation as it recovers from the brutal atrocities of 1994, but learned that there were still hoards of prisoners awaiting trial for the part they played.

The Rwandan genocide is like a black cloud that remains after a storm in an otherwise blue sky.

But this sky is getting brighter and Rwanda is a country that has so much to offer a traveller with an open mind and adventurous spirit.

Mountain Gorilla Trek

Joining a trek to spend an hour viewing these endangered creatures in their natural habitat is the main reason most travellers visit Rwanda and I was no exception.  I have never come across anyone who has trekked to mountain gorillas in Rwanda and regretted it.  Encountering a family who acknowledge your presence with a passing glance that borders on boredom, turning around to find an intimidating silverback approaching you and observing a large female with an infant on her back climb a tree with an agility that contradicts her powerful build is an unbelievable experience.  Getting up close and personal with creatures who are 98% similar to the human race and realising the main reason they are endangered is because of actions of that same human race is very thought-provoking.

There have been moments in my life when I have had a sudden awareness of both the insignificance and importance of the human race’s role in the bigger picture.  This was one of those moments.

Genocide Museum

The Rwandan Genocide in 1994 saw the mass murder of over 20% of the population in just 100 days.  It was the murder of Rwandans by Rwandans.  I was 20 years old and whilst I’m ashamed to say I don’t remember much about it at the time, sadly I am not alone.  Unfortunately there were people who WERE aware of it but chose inaction as a course of action.  The international community’s lack of response to what was happening in 1994 was shameful.

A visit to the Genocide Museum is a heart-breaking but essential experience for anyone traveling in Rwanda.  In addition to serving as a memorial to help locals’ grieve, it is an educational centre that raises awareness of acts of genocide both in Rwanda and other parts of the world in the hope that education leads to the prevention of future tragedy

It’s difficult to leave the Museum with a dry eye and my head was plagued with so many conflicting thoughts.  It’s difficult to comprehend the brutal atrocities that humans are capable of inflicting on each other but it’s also difficult to judge the actions of those who turned on their own neighbours.  How would I act in such an impossible situation?  I’m thankful I’ve never been in the position to find out.

Cultural Village

Ruhengeri is the closest town to the mountain gorilla trek headquarters and receives a number of foreign visitors as a result.  In an effort to make a living from tourism in the area, a group of locals have created a Cultural Village.

It is a staged village where no one lives.  Its sole purpose is to illustrate the Rwandan village lifestyle through demonstrations of housing, hunting, cooking, music, dancing and a very entertaining medicine man who was only upstaged by a characteristic Pygmy.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable day and not only provided some interesting background on the Rwandan countryside lifestyle but was an opportunity to mix with friendly and entertaining locals through general conversation, banter and of course the obligatory group dance at the end!

Travellers can sometimes get a bit jaded by ‘touristy’ moments and we sometimes forget the importance of tourism as an income in developing countries.

There was something incredibly energising about being in a country that had been through so much and yet was full of survivors.  I felt inspired by the strength of the human race, I felt inspired by the beauty of the rolling green hills surrounding me and I felt inspired by the encounter I had with the majestic mountain gorillas.

Don’t let Rwanda’s traumatic history deter you. This is a country in recovery, a country that is relatively safe for tourists and a country full of beautiful people.  Almost all Rwandans I met begged me to ‘spread the word’ about how beautiful their country is and to encourage my friends to visit.  They recognise the value of tourism to their country and they are proud of their landscape, culture and wildlife.

You won’t be disappointed!

GorillalandGreg Cummings’ Gorillaland describes a compelling and terrifying trip through the heart of Africa. The reader is treated to a cast of characters like individual strings in a Byzantine intrigue, from the pristine to the corrupt, to the archetypal and historical. When each is tightened into place and woven more completely together the story’s tapestry reveals the chaos, greed, natural beauty and power of Earth’s largest continent.

While following the story of minerals like diamonds and coltan, Cummings work exhibits a remarkable level of understanding of the issues. Richard Katz, the “Jewish” Diamond King from South Africa to New York, Natalie, the up and coming young NGO executive from WorldWatch, Derek, the rebel cowboy guide complete with boots are like Broadway Musical stars waiting for their solo to share their side of the story. Their arguments with each other pale when they become entangled with the rebel general and warlord Cosmo Zomba wa Zomba who has killed not hundreds, as the International Criminal Court in the Hague says, but thousands. Nearly all the characters are chasing the chance to restore the honor of a family member, an opportunity for bloodline healing. Lions are not the only predators in this story; crocs, revenge, and the past all come back to bite you in this story.

 

gorillaThe setting of this story is the Congo, “The place is fantastical, with all its erupting volcanoes, exploding lakes, impenetrable jungles and, of course, the river. Add human suffering to the mix and you have the perfect setting for a movie.” The issues of saving silverback gorillas, who are being hunted as food and for witchcraft rituals, as well as the drama of how to remove resources from the Earth and what constitutes fair trade are enough for a blockbuster. But add in centuries of African struggle and conflict of religion, culture and the story really takes off. The additional issues of international aid from foreign countries, corruption in the military, and various feuds, boils this story into a cauldron that must erupt nearly as certainly as the possible explosion of Lake Kivu!

gregThe anecdotes and life stories of the main characters explain the hardship and devastation of this vast land. Using the characters’ personal histories as context ….. Pedro’s loss of his entire Rwandan family living in Uganda due to the ravages of AIDS. The reader learns without feeling lectured. The “Lost Boys” tragedy of being torn from family or watching them suffer reveal how this army of young soldiers has been twisted into place. The ever present and lovely-looking yet nefarious Madame Nshuti, with a curious scar under her wig, a poorly ended affair with Derek, shows this Michele Obama of the Kivu to be a survivor but is she also a killer, and double crosser?

Natalie’s evolution is apparent when she yells at Cosmo while in the jungle, “You don’t frighten me. You disgust me. You think you rule the Congo? You don’t. When the real rain of progress falls on this country, murderers like you and Duke will simply melt away in the jungle, never to be seen again.” Many of the characters are forced to reconsider their life-long attitudes of hate to others especially Duke, who “was sworn to hate the Hamites.” Yet after interactions with Pedro, a Tutsi, he must alter his thoughts.

The moments for key players to cross and double-cross each other with arms deals, mineral wealth and loss of life seems to the reader like watching a tennis match. Which side is winning? Will evil overtake all? Just when you think you know what will happen next, some natural disaster like looming lava or great earthquakes disrupt all especially those on the river in their iroko pirogues.

In our technically-evolved world, we forget that nations have found ways to speak to each other. “Hakuna raisaux,’ said a Mai Mai soldier wearing the mane of a bush pig on his head, ‘we have no (cell) network here, but you can drum him a message, and it will reach that side now-now. I speak Balanga drum.” From far away, it is hard to understand or even imagine the jungle world of the Congo; this story brings light to so many critical elements of Africa that we should learn to understand.

Derek sums it up at one point, “You have to hand it to the Congalese for remaining so optimistic in the face of such adversity. I mean, these people have nothing: no government, no institutions, no infrastructure, nothing. Yet they still have a touching belief that great things will happen in Congo.”

Lisa Niver Rajna, Greg Cummings, Batman and Richard Bangs

On a personal note, I met the author, Greg Cummings, at a private screening in Bel Air. His astonishing first-hand knowledge of Africa, the gorillas and all the players in the madhouse of the jungle make this moving story very real. I know that his efforts to improve mining conditions and also help the gorillas have made for some of the best on-the-ground advocacy from the region. My elementary school students and I were fortunate to have him come and share his passionate intensity with us. We look forward to being part of the grassroots solution with creating more gorilla-friendly electronic devices, like cell phones and computers. Perhaps we can help to save this unique animal and even learn how to save ourselves.

Article first published as Gorillaland by Greg Cummings on Technorati.