I am a native in this world And think in it as a native thinks

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Where am I?

I’ve noticed that there are some similarities between being in the hospital and international business class.

Funny socks? Meals on trays? Electric bed that does a lot of tricks but isn’t actually that comfortable? Hours of tedium relieved by tv programs you would usually never watch? Check, check, check and check.

At least on a plane I have a better idea of my destination. I’m feeling better than I was when I was admitted on Sunday but they still don’t know what’s wrong with me.

The adventure continues...

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Sunday bird blogging

A sunbird on the grounds of our lodge in the mountains.

I'm not sure which variety -- maybe a variable sunbird, which given the blue-purple-orange color combination seems appropriate.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Jesus blows up balloons all day

Obviously this is not a gorilla.

Apologies for the non sequitur, and I will get back to Rwanda posting eventually. But this bubble man near the Grand Place in Brussels made me smile, the morning I arrived from Kigali and I was sick and cold and had five more hours to kill before I could check into my hotel. 

Whatever it was I had in Africa came back, and I've spent most of the past two days with doctors. The good news is that it probably isn't typhoid because I don't have a fever; what it actually is remains a mystery.

So I'm grateful that this picture still makes me smile this morning, and that whatever is going on with my body is happening in New York and not in Kigali.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

I really did see the gorillas, part 2

The experience alternated between hazy, almost dreamlike, and all too real.

I clearly remember posing for this picture because the guide told me to squat down to get in the frame. My knees were too shaky to make anything resembling a squat possible, so I just leaned forward until my head was roughly level with the gorilla behind me.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

I really did see the gorillas

I am going through photos, but as usual I have a ridiculous number -- especially since I was in Rwanda for less than a week.

Most of my gorilla pictures are not high-quality. The foliage was thick and there wasn't much light. Also, I had brought the 400 mm lens so I could get detailed shots from a distance -- as usual with wildlife, we'd been cautioned to keep at least 6 meters/20 feet away -- and then I couldn't use it because the gorillas got so close to us. So most of my pictures were taken with the point and shoot, and they're just okay.

And I don't really care. I was light-headed and shaky-kneed from lack of food, trying to keep my balance on the steep, slippery trail, and I was maybe five feet away from a silverback gorilla who stared at us thoughtfully while munching on leaves, and whether I could get good pictures was the last thing I cared about.

This gorilla was out in the open, far enough away to let me use the Canon.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Carry that weight

Bicycles in Rwanda aren't just personal transportation; they're also used as taxis, and, as in these pictures, as the means to move impossible amounts of cargo.

All of these shots were taken through the windows of a moving vehicle so they're blurry, but this is one of the things I will remember most about Rwanda, and I want to share them anyway.

Hitching a ride

This bicyclist held on to the back of the Land Cruiser and let us pull him up one particularly long and steep climb.

The Virungas

Neither destiny nor fate took me to Africa. Nor was it romance. I had a deep wish to see and live with wild animals in a world that hadn't yet been completely changed by humans. I guess I really wanted to go backward in time. From my childhood I believed that was what going to Africa would be, but by 1963, when I was first able to make a trip there, it was not that way anymore. There were only a few places other than the deserts and the swamps that hadn't been overrun by people. Almost at the end of my trip I found the place I had been looking for.

Right in the heart of central Africa, so high up that you shiver more than you sweat, are great, old volcanoes towering up almost fifteen thousand feet, and nearly covered with rich, green rain forest -- the Virungas.
-- Dian Fossey

This is a view of the mountains from our lodge outside Volcanoes National Park as one of the frequent and intense rainstorms swept in. (The bird is probably a black kite; there were often dozens of them wheeling through the Rwandan skies, even in Kigali.)

A few hours after being released from the hospital, I was in a Land Cruiser with my fellow travelers and our tour leader, Timothy, heading for the mountains. It's a three hour drive, over mostly well-paved roads better than what you find in much of the United States these days, but it's winding and mountainous -- Rwanda is called The Land of a Thousand Hills, and I'm reasonably certain they're being modest. The kites could probably cover the distance in half the time, avoiding all of the ups and downs and curves and switchbacks we mortals on the ground have to navigate, but it was a beautiful ride, and I felt better just sitting next to an open window watching Rwanda glide past.

There's little arable land, and the farmers plant in terraces carved into the hillsides; it reminded me of pictures I've seen of tea plantations in Asia. The roads are always full of people. On Sunday afternoon, many of them were coming from church and dressed for the occasion; others were working, pushing bicycles loaded with stacks of firewood or sacks of potatoes up the steep hills. Women balanced everything from baskets to purses to umbrellas on their heads, while children lugged huge yellow canisters of water after filling them from the wells.

Monday, September 10, 2018

D'ĂȘtre malade en Afrique

Apologies for the radio silence. I am back in New York and feeling much better, though perhaps not surprisingly suffering much more from jet lag than usual. I can't seem to sleep for more than three hours in a row, and so part of my brain seems to have trouble remembering which continent I'm on. I've panicked in the middle of brushing my teeth more than once -- Oh my God I forgot to use bottled water I'm going to die!

But I wanted to follow up on the previous post about language before moving on to the mountains, and the gorillas. This rather florid calendar adorned my hospital room in Kigali -- Rwanda is devoutly Catholic -- and while I was lying there I had ample opportunity to read it over and over again and wonder why it was in English when everyone I was dealing with in the hospital spoke only French (and presumably Kinyarwanda.) It was my first experience of dealing with medical issues in a foreign language, and I'm just lucky that it was French, the only language other than English in which I can say I'm nauseous or I don't need to vomit right now or No, my stomach doesn't hurt.

Which isn't to say that I could understand everything that was being said to me. Everyone was very kind, but all the strange faces leaning over me, speaking half-understood phrases or asking what seemed to be very important but unintelligible questions, made the experience oddly surreal.

(If you can ever use the word “surreal” to describe something as rudely physical as a massive malfunction of the digestive system, that is.)

Friday, September 7, 2018

And this is why we buy travel insurance, boys and girls

This is the view from my hospital bed in Kigali last weekend, where I spent a miserable night having IV fluids crammed into my severely dehydrated body.

I'm not sure if it was a bug or a parasite that got me -- something the travel doctors in New York will have to sort out -- but it came on quickly, and I'm still far from 100% five days later.

Which is why I'm in Brussels, on my way back to New York, instead of in Uganda, on my way to Kenya. I did try very hard to soldier on, leaving for the mountains with the rest of the group the afternoon after being released from the hospital, but the trek to see the mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park took my last bit of energy. (Technically, I didn't actually trek -- it turns out that you can't hike up mountains with only a few bites of oatmeal and half a glass of juice in your stomach, but I'll write more about that later.)

That's a mosquito net hanging from the ceiling, by the way, in case you've never seen one. The hospital was fortunately mosquito-free and it wasn't needed. And if you're wondering why I was taking pictures while I was lying in bed, it was because it gave me something to do besides moaning out loud because I was so nauseous.

Not the African adventure I had in mind, but it was the one I got. And it was definitely an adventure....

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Another portrait

This young woman seemed to be be the caretaker for the group of kids in the previous picture. She wouldn't join the group photo, but posed for a portrait.

A word about language

English may be a global language, but I always try to learn at least a few words of the local language everywhere I go. What struck me during my week in Europe was how unnecessary that is becoming. I used French to buy chocolates in Brussels and my train ticket to Ghent, and had to deal with my cab driver from the Frankfurt airport in German, but mostly I spoke English.

And so did a lot of other people who weren’t native speakers. I stopped in a local grocery store in Frankfurt to buy fruit, and the woman in line in front of me had an argument with the cashier about the price of a bag of coffee. I knew this because they were arguing in English — the customer was obviously German, and the cashier looked Middle Eastern, but they spoke English to each other.

It was different in Ghent, interestingly enough. They spoke English by default at my hotel and at Starbucks, but everywhere else it was Dutch, Dutch, Dutch. (For complicated historical reasons, they don’t like to speak French in northern Belgium, even though it’s technically a bilingual country.) Since my Dutch vocabulary consists of thank you (Bedankt!) this was sometimes an adventure. I even managed to buy a flash drive at an electronics store without understanding a single word of the transaction, but since this mostly consisted of handing over a credit card and signing the slip and nodding at everything else, I can’t be too proud of myself.

Then I came to Rwanda, which was a Belgian colony and so has French as one of the official languages, but doesn’t use Swahili unlike most of East Africa. Instead everyone speaks Kinyarwanda, and it’s like being back in Ghent because my entire vocabulary consists of thank you. (Murakoze!)

On my walks around Kigali, I occasionally tried to get children to let me take their pictures. They all said no, except for this group. They spoke French, unlike most of the others, and once they realized I understood them they peppered me with questions: What was my name? Where was I from? Did I like Kigali?

After a few minutes of this, I asked if I could take pictures, and they immediately started mugging for my camera. Which they wouldn't have done if I hadn't been able to talk to them.

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