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

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Swimmers in the hotel pool

View from my balcony

A different view of Kigali

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.

On the road again

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.

Sunday bird blogging

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

Karisoke Research Center

The original center in the mountains was destroyed during the genocide, so it's now located in the town of Musanze.  There's a museum open to the public, with exhibits on everything you could possibly want to know about the mountain gorillas and the ecosystems of the Virungas.

This is Dian Fossey's desk, with reproductions of her field notes.

Saturday reflections

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

Plus a baby

In addition to all its other attractions at the cultural village, there were cute babies.

The cultural experience

Clearly it helps if you learn how to do this when you're a lot younger than I am.

More dancing

One success story

This man is one of the former poachers in the village.

It's worth visiting just for the opportunity to see him dance. His joy is infectious!

Iby'lwacu Cultural Village

Edwin Sabuhoro founded this village in 2006. He had worked as a warden in Volcanoes National Park and was involved in rescuing a baby gorilla that poachers were trying to sell for $2000. The rescue was successful and the poachers were arrested.

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?” 

The message from the village was clear; we do what we do because it is the only way we have to survive.

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

Buildings in Rwanda, city version

I stayed (briefly) in a very different neighborhood in Kigali on my way home, and got some interesting pictures there, but this is small city eastern Rwanda, far from the big city. I love the bright colors on the squat square buildings.

Buildings in Rwanda

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.

Astronomy Tuesday

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

Sunday bird blogging

A pied crow on the grounds of the lodge.

I'm still not feeling great so I've been catching up on draft blog entries, and watching a lot of truly terrible television. I'm bored and restless, but don't have the energy to do much about it.


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.

The little cowherd

This is one of my favorite pictures from Rwanda. There was an older boy -- maybe ten years old -- herding the cows, and this little guy was helping, running after the cows with his stick.

Volcanoes National Park

A few pictures from the park entrance/staging area, taken early in the morning while I was still upright.

A view of the park

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.)

In which I emulate Dian Fossey

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.)

More Charlie

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.

Charlie in all his magnificence

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.

Here he comes, walkin' down the street

Charlie, the silverback of the Umubano group, pauses in his stroll through the jungle to check out the wacky humans with their clickety cameras.

After deciding that we posed no threat, he came closer, ate some delicious wild celery, and went to sleep.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Oh baby baby

Here's a cropped image so you can see a little more of that sweet face.

Oh baby

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.

Gorillas in the trees

And there they are

We heard the gorillas before we saw them. There were rustlings in the underbrush ahead of us, and then suddenly a huge crash to our left.

Then one of the guides told us to look up, and there they were, three or four young gorillas up in the trees, climbing, scampering, feeding.

I cried.

The rain forest

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.

How gorilla trekking works

When Dian Fossey established Karisoke Research Center in 1967, there were approximately 240 mountain gorillas left and it was assumed they'd be extinct by the end of the century. Today there are just over 1000, 600 in the Virungas and the rest in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda. Although they're still critically endangered, it's a rare conservation success story, and one in which tourism has played a positive role.

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.

Saturday reflections

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

Home again, home again, jiggety-jig

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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