Saturday, August 4, 2007

Uganda: gorillas and muzungu in the mist

Hello Eastern Africa! Landing on the Nairobi tarmac in a light drizzle, we rejoiced. It’s the first time in weeks that we aren’t sweaty! All of a sudden everything looks completely different: the people, the clothes, the streets, the cars. Perhaps most striking is that all of a sudden women are everywhere, unveiled, and participating in commerce. In Egypt, we rarely got to speak to women, which took a bit of getting used to.

We had just a few hours in Nairobi….enough to spend three hours mailing our backgammon board back home. It was quite the cultural experience. We had to buy all of own packing material, then stand in line once to have our unwrapped board inspected. A second time in line to get the paperwork. And a third time to get the now-wrapped board mailed. All in all, it probably wasn’t all that much longer than mailing something from the Elmwood post office!

Despite the countless warnings and billboards and posters discussing muggings, HIV, theft, etc., we felt remarkably safe in Nairobi. But it was still a little unreal to see so many armed security guards and multiple locked doors to go through. We hightailed it out of there anyway, as we had a 14-hour night bus to catch to Uganda.

The bus was bumpier than the best rollercoaster you’ve ever been on. It was rather unbelievable. On several occasions, we were literally rocketed entirely out of our seats (feet off the floor, bum off the seat, hovering in space!). It was quite surreal at 3am. But once daylight broke, and we passed through Uganda customs, it was a fabulous panorama of thatched roofs, uniformed schoolchildren, women in brightly colored dresses toting babies on their backs and baskets on their heads, fruit-stands, butchered animals for sale, and hand-painted advertisements on all the buildings. Life’s rich pageantry along a red dirt road.

Upon arriving, we joined a safari, only to realize it was just the two of us participating. A little decadently odd, but fun nonetheless. We spent the next 7 days in the company of Kule, a warm and genuine Ugandan who taught us tons about life, love, and local fauna. Things got off to a rather inauspicious start when we realized that Kule had no idea how to get to our first night’s lodging. After over 11 hours of driving, and stopping at every corner to ask directions (from everyone from schoolkids to banana merchants), and a big rain storm, we finally arrived at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. A destination as awe-inspiring and intriguing as the name suggests.

And penetrate we did! We spent an hour and a half slogging uphill through the forest to join a family of ten mountain gorillas. It was a truly indescribable experience. After crashing our way through jungle so thick that your feet wouldn't really ever hit the ground, but would simple land on a springy bed of foliage and undergrowth, we came upon them. Never before have we seen animals that seemed to be contemplating us as much as were were contemplating them. The eyes were so resplendent and humanlike. And the hands and feet so dextrous. And they were HUGE. We spent an hour that felt like minutes watching them roll around, stretch, sleep, carry their babies, beat their chest and snack away. We wondered if when we left, they gossipped about us.....'geez, those muzungu were really klutzy. and did you see how much that one girl was sweating?!'
It was an interesting time to see the mountain gorillas (which you can see in Uganda, Rwanda, and the DRC), because sadly a gorilla had just been killed in the Congo a few days prior. And we also saw the area where several American tourists were killed by guerrillas a few years ago. The animals are so beautiful and rare, and yet you can also see how impoverished the villages surrounding the forest are and how it must be frustrating to see wallets shelling out hundreds of dollars to see the animals, while their own kids go without shoes. While there is no excuse for poachers, we recognize the importance of prioritizing people in the delicate balance of nature. There are certainly conflicting theories on what's best for the gorillas and the local people. Dian Fossey took the deep ecology approach to save the gorillas at all cost. She definitely wouldn't have approved of the 'gorilla tourism' mentality. While others who followed her sought to incorporate a way to preserve the gorillas while also striving to integrate locals into the equation. It is people like Amy Vedder and Bill Weber who persuaded local governments to preserve the animals by proving the economic viability of tourism to struggling nations, and we enjoyed reading their philsophy. That being said, instability in the area (most notably in the DRC right now) still attests to the fragility of the area. We were encouraged to see the dollars making a difference in Bwindi, though.

We couldn't help but buy a carved gorilla from the cute (and marketing savvy) kids crafting them as we emerged from the forest. Later we learned that we shouldn't have done this as it encourages kids to sell their wares instead of going to school. Ack! Sometimes it seems you can't win, even when you're trying to help. But we're certainly learning as much as we can.

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