I am a native in this world And think in it as a native thinks
Sunday, September 30, 2018
There's an annual ceremony where names are given to all the baby gorillas who were born in the previous year. And unfortunately this year it was scheduled for the day after my return to Kigali, so all the hotels were booked.
The agent working with the travel company finally got me a room in a clean but somewhat shabby hotel in the center of town. Fortunately I only had to stay there a few hours as I was able to get a seat on the overnight flight to Brussels.
The room did have a balcony, and I took pictures to kill time until it was time to leave for the airport.
A few pictures from the drive back to Kigali from the mountains.
I'd just decided to leave that morning -- the rest of the group was going on to Uganda, and I knew I couldn't go with them -- so it was early afternoon before they'd arranged a ride back to Kigali for me. My driver didn't speak English and we drove under gray skies -- and later through heavy rain -- in an old taxi with busted springs and the lingering aromas of the last hundred passengers.
These little birds are called robin-chats, presumably because they're chats that look like European robins. (And because they love to stick as many hyphens as possible into the names of African birds.)
This is a Cape robin-chat, at the lodge in the Virungas.
Saturday, September 29, 2018
This is Dian Fossey's desk, with reproductions of her field notes.
Back in Ghent, obviously. Rwanda was a brilliant location for photography but there weren't a lot of reflections.
I'm going through the last sets of Rwanda pictures between doctor's appointments and sitting on hold trying to schedule more appointments for next week and should have them up this weekend.
Wednesday, September 26, 2018
I asked them, “Why are you doing this?,” he recalls, a question that was met with a sobering response. An old man I spoke to said: “If you live around here and you have 11 children like me, and they're starving to death and someone is going to give you $2,000 for a gorilla, or you know that there is an antelope that you can kill to feed them, would you do that? Would you do those things to feed your family? Or would you worry about the wildlife?”
Sabuhoro quit his job as a park official, got a Master's in Conservation at the University of Kent, and decided to spend a year living with the poachers to understand their challenges. He created a program called “Turning Poachers to Farmers,” using his life savings to create small potato farms in the poaching communities. Within six months they had enough food to eat, with extra to sell, and were no longer relying on the park to feed themselves.
The cultural village is an extension of that program. There are exhibits on traditional Rwandan culture and crafts, music and dancing, and even a mock wedding. It provides jobs for local people -- many of whom are former poachers -- and all of the profits go back into the community. These staged heritage villages can be a little cringeworthy, but this was both fun and thought-provoking.
It's always useful for well-meaning Westerners to understand how complicated conservation can be. We all want to preserve the African elephants, for example, and it's easy to be outraged about threats to their existence from the safe vantage of the United States. Killing them for their ivory is obviously unforgivable. But what about if you're an African farmer trying to make a living? Elephants are incredibly destructive creatures -- they kill trees and trample crops. How do you protect them, but also protect the humans who live near them?
We see similar environmental issues on a much less critical scale in the U.S. as well. Coal mining is a good example. Coal is never coming back, no matter what the politicians promise. It's expensive and dirty, and it's as bad for the miners as it is for the environment. My mother's father and brothers were all coal miners in Ireland, so I'm definitely sympathetic to the miners and the communities that relied on it. The question is what do you replace it with? And how do you convince people who want the jobs they used to have that they have to find another way to make a living? And provide the jobs so they can do so?
I don't know the answers to any of this, but I'm grateful to Edwin Sabuhoro for coming up with a solution that seems to be working in Rwanda.
Tuesday, September 25, 2018
I love the moody light in this picture, the combination of bright sun and dark clouds (frequently accompanied by heavy rain) you find under the volcanoes.
Most of the buildings in Rwanda look like this one, something you might see anywhere in the world. There are also a lot of mud brick structures, like the ones in the picture on the left below, which are reinforced with an external wood frame.
The building on the bottom right is a much older style, something I doubt anyone lives in anymore. It's in the Iby'lwacu Cultural Village, where all of the structures are named after famous conservationists. This is Dian Fossey's.
I don't know about you, but I could use a good nebula.
This one qualifies: the Soul Nebula, a large star-forming region in the direction of Cassiopeia, is usually pictured with its partner the Heart Nebula but in this image gets to shine, ha ha, on its own.
It's going to rain all day in New York, and I don't have any doctor's appointments, so I will try to put up some more Rwanda pictures.
Image Credit and Copyright: Jesús M.Vargas and Maritxu Poyal
Sunday, September 23, 2018
Some of the children in the park gathering around to see their photos. Unlike most Rwandans they were eager to have their pictures taken.
We asked Timothy why most Rwandans said no when we asked if we could photograph them and he explained that they didn't want us selling their pictures to magazines. These kids obviously weren't bothered by the idea.
This is how I saw most of the gorilla trek.
When we were in the thick jungle, it was surreal to lie there and watch the canopy pass overhead. But during the climb, riding the teepoy was like being on a slow-motion roller coaster. (My Fitbit buzzed me halfway down the mountain, mistakenly believing that I had reached my step target for the day -- if you ever need to cheat your Fitbit just hire a teepoy.)
I was ordered to change clothes, then “allez!” out the door to a waiting teepoy -- an elongated basket affair with stout rims and handles manned by six Africans. I was trussed up into the basket along with piles of blankets, and before I could say kwa heri, the men began carting me off in such a silent and gentle way that I really had no sensation of movement beyond the passage of tree boughs over my head. It was a rather strange experience. I didn't really possess all of my faculties, and yet I was so aware of the silence of the porters and the sparkling, crisp beauty of the morning....
I was taken to the nearest hospital and checked in as a rabies patient by all the French-speaking doctors and nurses in Ruhengeri. No one spoke English and I guess I learned more French during the next three days than I'd learned during the past three years.
That's Dian Fossey, writing about the aftermath of being nipped by a wild dog -- and refusing to leave Karisoke until she started to show symptoms of rabies and had to be carried down the mountain for treatment. I don't think anyone ever described her as easy-going; on the contrary, like so many people who actually get things done in this world she was often a colossal pain in the ass.
I on the other hand have yet to bring a single species back from the brink of extinction, and I try hard -- maybe sometimes too hard -- not to be a pain in the ass. I knew I was going to have a hard time with the gorilla trek; I wasn't able to eat much and my legs felt as though I'd borrowed them from a different body and hadn't bothered to read the instruction manual. Everyone hires a porter to carry their gear; I figured if I hired two one could carry my backpack and one could assist me. But it quickly became obvious that I was struggling, and the tour leader suggested that I use a teepoy. I knew I was slowing the group down and we hadn't even started the serious climbing yet so I agreed.
Was it embarrassing? Oh my God -- totally. I'm still embarrassed.
But the embarrassment was mitigated by the knowledge that I could never have seen the gorillas otherwise, so I told myself that if Dian Fossey needed a teepoy when she was sick, who was I to turn it down?
(The picture is from the cultural village near the park. That's a teepoy on the ground to the right.)
Two more pictures: Charlie staring thoughtfully into the distance, wondering what he should eat next, and one including part of our group so you can see how close he came to us. We kept trying to back off and allow more distance, and he kept coming closer. The other side of that low underbrush between us is where he stretched out and went to sleep.
Unfortunately, all of my pictures of Charlie are a little blurry, but this one is my favorite.
I was already unsettled, and the setting was completely alien -- thick underbrush, roots and wet leaves underfoot, quiet except for whispers and camera clicks, and the rustles and grunts and croons and crashes that are apparently the soundtrack to the daily life of the mountain gorilla -- but the gorillas themselves were somehow strangely familiar.
They are so much like us (we share 97% of our DNA). Looking into those beautiful, deep-set eyes and having them gaze calmly back was a profound experience.
I see you.
I see you too.
It made me feel rooted again. I was far from home, sick in a strange country, but among friends.
And yes, I realize that this is all the most extravagant projection. Charlie was probably not aware of our presence except as something he had to evaluate as a possible threat to finishing his snack and taking a nap, but he did allow us to get close to him and his family. That acknowledgement and acceptance was the most thrilling part of the experience.
Saturday, September 22, 2018
Yes, that's a baby gorilla, only a couple of weeks old, with mom.
They were back in the trees and so not easily photographed, but it was astonishing to me that we were able to get as close as we were. The trust that the gorillas showed us was humbling. It made me want to be worthy of it, to do everything I can to see that they are protected.
After the farmland, it's steep paths slick with wet leaves and a man with a machete leads the way, cutting tunnels for the group to get through. Trackers have gone ahead very early in the morning to locate the assigned family and monitor their location, and they're in constant contact with the guides.
After an hour or so, we were told, We're here. We had to leave our bags, and any food or water, and walk the rest of the way with just our cameras.
Visiting the gorillas is tightly regulated. There are 10 families in the Virungas that are habituated to humans, but there are usually 56 permits issued each day, 8 per group, so not every family is visited every day. The visits last one hour.
We had two prep sessions before we went, one the night before with the head of Rwanda tourism, and one with our guide Augustin before the trek. We learned to make the vocalizations that mean we're not a threat and how to show submission if a silverback took offense at our presence. I got better at the vocalizations -- my first attempt received the gentle rebuke, “It's not a cough,” but by the next morning I got a “Very good“ -- but it's a rumble so deep in the throat that it's hard to do for more than a minute or so, and for me at least usually ends in coughing even if it sounds all right before that.
Rwanda raised the price of permits last year, from $750 to $1500. A certain percentage of the money goes to local communities, but it's given in the form of improvements like schools, roads, and electricity instead of cash payments. Some of it benefits the entire country; Rwanda now has universal health care and free public education. And some of it is earmarked for expanding Volcanoes National Park, and creating more of a buffer zone between humans and the gorillas. There are farmers inside the current park; the first part of the trek is through their fields.
One last view from the hospital, the night I was admitted -- the West Side at night, seen through the hazy reflections of a dark hospital room. The moon was already blurred by clouds, which the phone camera really can't capture, but I like the moody, magical vibe.
I like it even more now, from the perspective of my own bed in my own apartment.
Friday, September 21, 2018
Here's another phone picture from my hospital room, as the dregs of Hurricane Florence drenched New York on Tuesday.
I am released, though I remain undiagnosed. I will be spending a lot more time in the company of doctors over the next few weeks, and am hoping that they will either figure out what it is or it will go away -- permanently -- on its own.
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- Swimmers in the hotel pool
- View from my balcony
- A different view of Kigali
- On the road again
- Sunday bird blogging
- Karisoke Research Center
- Saturday reflections
- Plus a baby
- The cultural experience
- More dancing
- One success story
- Iby'lwacu Cultural Village
- Buildings in Rwanda, city version
- Buildings in Rwanda
- Astronomy Tuesday
- Sunday bird blogging
- The little cowherd
- Volcanoes National Park
- A view of the park
- In which I emulate Dian Fossey
- More Charlie
- Charlie in all his magnificence
- Here he comes, walkin' down the street
- Oh baby baby
- Oh baby
- Gorillas in the trees
- And there they are
- The rain forest
- How gorilla trekking works
- Saturday reflections
- Home again, home again, jiggety-jig
- Where am I?
- Sunday bird blogging
- Jesus blows up balloons all day
- I really did see the gorillas, part 2
- I really did see the gorillas
- Carry that weight
- Hitching a ride
- The Virungas
- D'être malade en Afrique
- And this is why we buy travel insurance, boys and ...
- Another portrait
- A word about language
- Hotel Rwanda
- Saturday reflections
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