musings on travel, international living, development aid, politics, turkey (the country more than the meat) and anything else that comes to mind...

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Just another trek with mountain gorillas in Uganda

In case you're only interested in the photos and not my (admittedly long) description below, they can be found here.

Several months ago a friend mentioned that he wanted to see the famous mountain gorillas in Uganda. If I remember correctly it was one of those conversations that we tend to have in Juba after a particularly grueling day of beating ones head against a wall. He could've asked me if I wanted to bungee jump off a sidewalk and I would've signed up.

So there we were just this last weekend, 4 of us from Juba wheels down at Entebbe International Airport in Uganda, ready for a guy's weekend with our large, hairy friends.

Mike met us at the airport. "Born and bred" in Uganda, Mike was to be our driver, guide, comedian, and all around good sport for the next 3 days. He put up with our bad jokes, incessant American chatter, diverse musical choices and post-trekking stench like a champ. Travelust African Safaris - you've got a keeper in Mike.

After settling our outstanding debts and loading the Land Cruiser with water, we set off in an air of excitement and anticipation, heading southwest towards Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, home to some of the only ~700 mountain gorillas left in the wild. That was around 2:30pm.

By 5pm we were starting to calm down a bit. iPod earphones were thoroughly implanted in several ears and a failed attempt to get a cold beverage at a 'gas station' had left us starting to wonder when we'd get there.

"Oh, it will be another 6 hours at least," consoled Mike with perhaps a hint of a chuckle.

6pm - arrival at the equator. A few quick pictures. A few cold beers. Off again in a flash.

8pm - Thanksgiving dinner at a gas station quick-e-mart type place. Stale crackers, salty chips, more beer.

10:30pm - are we there yet?

11:45pm - zzzzzzzzzz... (except for Chris who valiantly kept Mike awake)

12:30am - we finally arrive at Gorilla Resort and have some more food... none of us really remember much about those few minutes. Although we do seem to recall that the food was pretty good.

So, after some much needed few hours of sleep, we were up at dawn (woken up in our fancy tent with coffee and muffins) and ready to see some gorillas! Our fearless trip organizer's parents had wisely recommended that we plan for two days of trekking. The likelihood of finding the gorillas is indeed quite high (we were told that there hadn't been a refund in over 5 years), but with a second day to come we weren't too disappointed when we found out that our day 1 visit would be to a family of only 6 adults (my goal of cuddling with a baby gorilla would have to wait at least another day).

In what can only be described as breathtaking (both in terms of the scenery and what it did to me physically), our hike lasted a little over 2 hours. Advance trekkers leave early in the morning to try and find the habituated families based on their previous day's location and mad trekking skills. No GPS ankle bracelets here people, this is done old school using tracks, poop, and who-knows-what else. There are many other wild mountain gorillas that are not used to human contact not to mention highly aggressive mountain elephants... these tend to be avoided and were the official reason why we had two guys with AK47s with us the whole time. Apparently it takes quite some time to habituate a gorilla 'family' to us homo sapiens, essentially giving them time to know that we're just silly tourists and not poachers wanting to cause them harm.

I don't think I will ever forget first seeing one of these big boys in the wild. A bit shy with massive bellies and deep red eyes, they were magnificent, each unique in his or her own way. It's hard to describe what it feels like to have such an amazing creature look you right in the eyes. In this instance, a picture can indeed speak much louder than words.

We had exactly one hour with the gorillas before our guide ushered us away. Rightly so, they want the gorillas to be comfortable, but not too comfortable, with humans.

Did you know that gorillas are 98.4% biologically identical to humans? Kinda makes you wonder about that evolution vs. creationism thing a bit...

Day 2 of project 'let's see some primates' commenced at a chilly 4:30am with yet another pot of coffee and muffins. I must say, the Gorilla Resort was quite nice and Fred, the manager, took care of us well. The food was excellent, beds comfortable, showers hot, and view stunning. The rooms (well, they're tents actually) reminded me of something straight from Out of Africa, although instead of Meryl Streep to snuggle with I was stuck with Greg...
By 5:30am we had bid our adieu to our luxury in the jungle and were on our way to a different side of the park. After waiting a few minutes for our fellow trackers (this time a friendly group of four British women), we received a similar briefing from the ranger guide fellow, advising us not to get within 7 meters of the animals, etc. (By no fault of our own, we certainly did not follow the 7 meter rule... what can you do when you step past a bush and there's a gorilla right next to you?!?!)

The hike on day 2 was, in my humble opinion, a bit more strenuous than the previous day. More machete hacking, more mud, and more thorny bushes. Maybe this is a good time to mention that gorilla trekking, while an undeniably amazing experience, is best suited for those that are in decent (preferably good) shape. That having been said, Greg's parents (60+ years young) did a similar trek in February and passed with flying colors. For the less mobile, apparently there is a '991 Program' (I kept wondering if they meant to be saying 911 as a joke but no, it's 991 for some reason) whereby you can be carried by 4-8 people (depending on how many big macs you've eaten in the past 6 months) in a stretcher to see the gorillas... no thanks.

On the flip side, if you are a serious or semi-serious hiker (David brought his own hiking poles...), this is your Mecca. Next year, instead of going back to Yosemite, go to Bwindi.

Needless to say, I was hurting at points. I'd like to blame it on the water and camera equipment in my backpack, but it really comes down to me just being out of shape. But, like any guy with his man card on the line, I kept on trudging. And man was I happy I did!

If day 1 was awesome, day 2 was absolutely unbelievable. We first stumbled upon two silverbacks napping right next to each other. 'Silverback' describes the color of the hair on the back of most full grown males. This particular family had multiple grown males with the salt and pepper thing going on, but as is the case in all gorilla 'families', there was only one dominant male silverback in charge of protecting the group.

Next we got the rare chance to see a mother with two young children (is children the right word here...? cub? pup? toddler? no idea...); the mama even decided to carry the 9-month-old on her back at one point!

At several points during the two days I felt as if I was delicately dancing with delirium (not to mention more than a little soreness), but each time all I had to do was look around me to gain more energy. Having lived primarily in cities for my entire life, it was difficult for me to fathom the remoteness of Bwindi Impenetrable even while hiking right in the middle of it. The air was filled with sounds of grasshoppers (yes, we ate some during the trip - they kinda tasted like beer nuts), exotic birds, gorillas growling in greeting to the muzungus (foreigners), and periodic utter stillness.

On the way back to the vehicle with sweat running down my face, legs laboring to keep moving, blisters forming, clothes ripped, I couldn't help but have one thought:

I love my life.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The capital moving saga continues in South Sudan

For those that are unaware, the Government of South Sudan recently resolved to move the capital city from Juba to a place in the middle of... well... nowhere called Ramciel. There is much speculation as to the motives for the move and, to try and remain as objective as possible, I won't go there.

There are plenty of examples of newly formed countries (or overflowing ones like Nigeria) successfully moving the capital. It's a statement, an emphatic proclamation of independence. I get that. Turkey did it after the fall of the Ottoman Empire/end of the WW I, moving from the historical capital of Constantinople/Istanbul to Ankara. No problemo in my book... in theory.

The official reason (I dare say the main one of many) for the move of the South Sudanese capital is that access to land in and around Juba is becoming increasingly difficult. The tribal owners of the land are frequently not willing to provide land (even by lease) to the government, other citizens, businesses, NGOs, etc., essentially stifling the physical expansion of a city that must be on track to be the fastest developing place in Africa. Without proper access to land there is literally no where to go.

Solution? Move the capital to a place where there is more available land. Never mind the fact that Ramciel, the anointed spot, is today essentially pasture without any existing infrastructure, little access to water, soil that is (according to an engineer friend) not conducive to large-scale construction, etc. etc. etc. Never mind that South Sudan has a million other things (border conflict with Sudan, a large food insecure population, 70% annual inflation, the list goes on and on and on) to worry about. Never mind all that. Access to land is a key issue and without it Juba (with it's already skyrocketing real estate prices) will indeed suffocate.

In other words, while I didn't necessarily agree with the decision, at least I could understand it from the land access point of view. Until now.

PaanLuel Wël, one of South Sudan's most prolific bloggers, posted this open letter to the President of South Sudan. The letter (which should also be viewed with an air of suspicion if not simply caution) essentially says that the Aliab-Dinka tribe - owners of the land around Ramciel and represented in the letter by their diaspora community - were not consulted before the decision was made to move the capital there. Translation: there very well might be similar land disputes to those occurring in Juba today when/if the capital moves.
Deep sigh...

Monday, November 7, 2011

That was Juba Good!

In Manhattan, Zagat decides how up to snuff restaurants are. Rankings and recommendations are based on exhaustive taste tests (how do I get that job?), restaurant decor, service, cost, etc. as identified by discerning customers and other foodies.

In Juba, the capital of the world's newest country, we have a similar rating system. However, like most things in a place where dodging cows on the drive to work and contracting typhoid from bottled water are routine occurrences, the system here is a little more 'shoot from the hip' than the science with which high brow midtown yuppies decide which pizza place is the most authentically Genovese.

Here we have a rather simple ranking system (from worst to... well... not worst) that can be broken down as follows:

"You went where for lunch?" - This lowest of the low ranking is typically reserved for the place just around the corner that you had recently mistaken for a brothel (or maybe you weren't mistaken after all...). If there are tables, they are crudely constructed from recycled toilet seat covers. Animal bones lashed together with a thin layer of goat hide on top serve as seating apparatuses. Order a water, a coke or a tea, and they'll be the same color. Only the most extreme (or delusional) aid workers are brave enough to eat what appears to be pieces of rat droppings mixed in with what was probably, at some point in the production cycle, rice.

"Meh" - 'Meh' is one of my favorite descriptions as it's pound for pound impact is impressive. You might be surprised how telling those three letters can be. Usually a step or two above 'you went where for lunch?',  'meh' denotes the place that is sufficiently local for you to feel like you're living the hard life while still not likely to result in a medical evacuation. A restaurant or activity gets a 'meh' rating generally if it is something that you normally wouldn't do even if someone paid you to, but given the limited options for emotional and gastronomical entertainment available in a place like Juba... sure, why not?

"Juba Good" - Finally we have arrived at the reason I thought of this post in the first place. In short, 'Juba Good' denotes something that would normally be bad to mediocre in the 'real world' but is considered wholly acceptable under the circumstances. Undoubtedly there are many global variations on this; for example, an urban legend in Iraq tells of a clever (or, as my mother would say 'smart aleck') pilot who congratulates the women on board for no longer being 'Baghdad Beautiful' upon arrival in Dubai. A very useful description, people to whom you give such a review will automatically know exactly how to temper their expectations to avoid disappointment. "Juba Good" covers a decent range of options, from places that offer more than just fried goat on the menu, to places that actually have a menu, to the Chinese food place in a shipping container that is really not that bad. Wholly acceptable. Really not that bad. 'Juba Good'.

"Legitimate" - The holy grail of reviews for Juba (or Monrovia. or Gode. or Norman). If something is described as 'legitimate' the music stops and everyone pays attention. We all want to know what, if anything, is being described as legitimately entertaining or legitimately tasty. A place on par with a Subway or Chipotle (mmm Chipotle...) would get such a rating in Juba. To qualify, the place would need real wooden tables (plastic fraternity chairs are an instant disqualifier), some sort of planned (i.e. not dirt) flooring, prompt/effective service (although this is usually one that can be overlooked if the food/atmosphere are 'Juba really good'), and fine cuisine that makes you immediately text all of your friends bragging about how you just had the Best. Nile perch. Ever.

Sadly, the longer one spends in a place like Juba and as former standards of restaurant cleanliness, resentment of bugs on/in the food, etc. declines, the more things get categorized as 'legitimate'. These are also the people that are most likely to experience culture shock when entering the Cheesecake Factory for the first time after months in Juba. 

So beware, newcomers, of sliding standards amongst veterans. And, when you squeal like a 9 year old girl the first time you see a rat the size of your head crawling across the kitchen, remember that you're living a life that's about as 'Juba Good' as it gets!