Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Home again, home again jiggity jig

This will most likely be my last post from Tanzania as we fly home tomorrow.  Internet reception has been terrible here even though this country is far better off than Uganda; another of life's ironies.  After I get over jet lag, I intend to post a few more entries to cover everything I haven't been able to post due to technological difficulties--so if you are following this, don't give up on me just yet.

Today we drove 2000 feet down into Ngorongoro Crater where we spent 6 hours racing around to see everything before our permit expired.  The government regulates the number and hours of vehicles in an attempt to preserve the conservation area, and while that is perhaps admirable, it's a bit disconcerting to see 20 jeeps surrounding a pride of 5 lions.  The guides all keep in touch with each other so the word spreads quickly when something worth viewing is discovered.  And yet, those same 5 lions used the shade of our jeeps to find relief from the sun, and as we jockeyed for position to get better photos, the lions used our jeeps as cover to move closer to a mixed herd of buffalo and zebra--hoping to make a kill. 

We took a box breakfast with us--parking in the shade of a yellow bark acacia at the farthest picnic area to unwrap all sorts of little surprises to munch on.  Janet walked over to look at something and turned her back on her breakfast for just a split second.  In no time a vervet monkey grabbed her breakfast box and tried to make off with it.  She snatched it away from him before he could open it and take out any goodies, but he got his revenge.  While we finished our treats and looked around, he took the opportunity to sit in the tree above our open jeep and pooped right into Rosemary's camera backpack.  Although Rosemary failed to see the humor in it, the rest of us quietly snickered out of earshot.

Vast herds of zebra, wildebeast (gnu), gazelle, and buffalo inhabit the crater floor--grazing on the dusty brown grass while waiting for the short rains to come.  Other creatures share the space but not in such large numbers.  We witnessed  the courting dance of two ostriches as they fanned their wings, bobbed their heads, and chased each other around the savannah.  The male's head becomes inflamed, displaying a bright red color as he shows his excitement.  Hot to trot!  We were lucky to view one of the few remaining rhino taking a nap in the middle of an open area.  Apparently, he didn't like the dry hot wind and simply stopped moving, refusing to proceed until the wind died down.  A couple of cheetah,  a school of hippo, some spectacular birds, and gigantic bull elephants rounded out the morning.  Once the rains arrive and the grass greens, the animals won't be so visible.  We count our blessings as we dash back up to the crater rim to leave by our appointed time so our guide won't have to pay a big fine.

Time to sign off as last night the lodge turned off all the lights and left me in the dark without a flashlight.  The night watchman kindly rescued me before I spent the entire night wandering around the corkscrew paths looking for my cabin. 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Potty Break

Most people here do not wear undies--hard to tell if it is because they are so poor, they lack money to buy such luxuries or because it is simply the most expedient system.  Most of our bush camps/hotels do not even have undies on the laundry list in case a man does the washing--culturally inappropriate for him to touch our intimate clothing.  After using several "potty bushes," I can see how no undergarments can expedite the process of "going" in the bush for women.  Men are SO lucky in that department--turn their backs and let 'er rip.  Because we travel in a very humid rain forest, our clothes, plastered to our bodies, stick like glue when trying to remove them for our delicate ladylike maneuvers, and they roll up together when we try to scrunch them back into position.  Then we laugh at the TP situation--damp from the environment and sticking to anything wetter than it is.  Showering at night reveals tiny balled up clumps that wash down the drain.  Now add to the mix looking for snakes, safari ants or other unwanted guests during our break and we have good reasons to jettison our undies.  We briefly considered Depends for future trips, but the issue of disposal cancelled that idea in a hurry. 

Sometimes we are lucky to have an "Eastern" toilet--basically a 5x7 hole in the ground which we straddle, holding up our pant legs and draping other belongings around our necks.  Ready, aim, fire!  Or perhaps a misfire!  At least all of our accommodations have flush toilets.  But we NEVER go there in the middle of the night without a flashlight in case a hoary spider, slithery snake, or scurrying rat decides to compete for the same space.  This trip is definitely not for wimps!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

More photos

Chimps from Ngamba Island

Our First Gorillas

Up early, pack our gear, quick breakfast, then head to park headquarters for our briefing.  Our guide, the park ranger, tourists we've met along the way, and many others have told us over and over that no one can guarantee how close or how far we must walk to encounter a gorilla family so we are prepared for the worst--which could mean returning at 8 p.m. in the dark.  The park sends out an advance team to locate the place where the gorillas have spent the night and to track them from there to their present location.  Communicating by radio, the scouts tell our ranger precisely where to go.  We have each hired a porter to carry our packs and to use the "push-pull" method of getting us to our destination.  Mary, my porter, is trying to raise 3 children and take care of a sick mother with no other income than that earned from serving as a porter once a month.  Her husband ran off and has no income of his own so she grows vegetables and does whatever she can to take care of her family.  So many local people want to be porters that each one is allotted a single day per month to earn $20 that has to last for the rest of the month.  Mary tells me she is so poor that she cannot even afford to acquire the materials to make handicrafts to sell to tourists.  The park even requires each porter to purchase his/her own uniform and boots.  Yet Mary cheerfully works hard to make sure I don't slip or fall in the mud, taking my hand to guide me to the least slippery places to step on the trail.  We each carry a hand-carved walking stick to assist with our balance.

We hike for a mere 20 minutes when we hear crashing and grunting in the nearby bushes.  The trackers use sharp machetes to hack a tiny path through stinging nettles, vines, and thick undergrowth to provide us with access to a family group of 17, made up of one silverback dominant male, one blackback male (known as the babysitter because he likes to take care of the little ones and often carries them on his back), several females and two adorable babies.  Several apes stay in the tree tops to gather food and throw it down to the others so we have to watch out for fruit and nut missiles hurled in our direction while jockeying for the best position for photos.  As we approach, the ranger mumbles soft grunts to let the silverback know that we are in his territory.  This greeting means we are friends and mean no harm.  The leader grunts back to let us know that all is well and we are welcome to the group.

Photos present a challenge as the gorillas move frequently through the dense foliage, gathering leaves or fruits to stuff in their mouths.  While zooming in on one gorilla partially covered by leaves, another may be right behind us in the perfect pose.  The babies, in constant motion, jump from the "babysitter's" back to a vine to a bush to a quick spurt through the forest to pause for a brief moment on top of a stump before dashing off to tumble together in a series of acrobatics.  Our hearts practically thump out of our chests from the thrill of squatting 10 feet away from a gorilla 3 times our size, and we completely ignore the clouds of mosquitoes attacking us as we frantically click our cameras as fast as the lens will focus.  At one point, our group gets interspersed with the gorillas as we take turns crossing a bridge over the rain-swollen river.  Another moment one female struts right through the middle of our group, and we freeze in position to avoid startling or frightening her.  Suddenly, we are completely surrounded and feel like we are the main attraction as soft sensitive brown eyes peer questioningly into our own.  Each face sports scars or lines or wrinkles or nostrils or teeny ears that makes each face distinctly recognizable.  Even the shape of each head is unique, and nose-prints act like our fingerprints for identification.

Gorillas do not smell bad, but I have to say, I have never heard so much tooting in my life.  The same was true of the chimps.  Perhaps their diet contributes to the abundance of gas.  The symphony of sounds from 17 sizes of "wind" instruments tickles me--here a bassoon, there a tuba.  The assortment of farts ranges from a spontaneous 10 second duet to a trio of pop, pop, pops to short surround-sound compositions spanning a full octave. 

Uganda's Bwindi National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, contains half of all the world's existing mountain gorillas; the rest inhabit small areas of rain forest in Rwanda and the Congo.  Not a single mountain gorilla has survived in any zoo so we feel privileged to help support their preservation through park permit fees, tips to everyone who assists us in any manner, and handicrafts fashioned by orphans, widows, pygmies, women's coops or other special needs groups.  The conflict between the gorillas' need for forest habitat and the locals' need for food and water exert tremendous pressure on the environment.  Tourism provides a sustainable method to reduce poverty, to increase education and social services like hospitals and clinics (since a good portion of the money we spend in the area stays here instead of being sent to corrupt government officials), and to minimize environmental damage from traditional subsistence living like setting snares that unintentionally maim and kill gorillas and other species.  One can only hope it is enough to save this engaging endangered species.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

One last post tonight while I still have internet service.  Janet, Rosemary, and I sigh and coo and giggle over all the baby animals while David and our guide ignore us.  When we have a chance, we explore on our own so we can appreciate them in peace.  Today I watched 5 baby stripped mongooses (not mongeese!) learn how to eat a 4 inch black beetle.  Mom captured the beetle and had the babies follow her into the grass where she proceeded to dismember it, chomping on it with relish until the youngsters decided to give it a try.  A great photo essay developed:  mom carring beetle, mom ripping beetle apart, mom displaying a satisfied goofy grin, mom licking her chops, babies imitating mom.

On  the way to the swimming pool a few nights ago, a trio of vervet monkeys ran across my path, stopping beside the nearest bush to turn and stare at me.  The two babies, being quite curious, inched forward, then chickened out, then inched forward a little more, then chickened out--continuing until one of them became brave enough to stand at my feet and touch my pant leg.  These are the same two clowns that showed up in our outdoor shower a little later.

On our game drive this morning, we came across a herd of kobs with one female, several young males, a dominant male and one darn cute baby.  Junior decided to pose next to his daddy, and another short photo essay developed:  dad looks at us so junior looks at us, dad looks left so junior looks left, dad takes a step forward so junior does likewise until dad decided to split and junior took off after him.

We girls have captured as many baby pics as we can:  a baby hippo nuzzling up to its mom on the river bank, a baby buffalo blending in with the dirt, a couple of baby elephants using their trunks like periscopes as they submerged in the river, twin baby baboons clinging to mom--one on top, one underneath, a baby chimp staring down at us intently from the forest canopy, and much more. 

We are astonished by the diversity and plethora of animals and the lush growth everywhere.  We expected desert-like savannas.  Instead we revel in rich jungle, dense forests, cloud covered misty mountains, and large bodies of water ranging from raging rivers to giant lakes to deep craters filled with blue water.  Ernest Hemingway loved Africa until it got the best of him.  The great white hunter's plane crashed at the base of Murchison Falls.  When another plane arrived to rescue him, it too crashed with him on board.  The third plane caught on fire, and he was trapped inside--barely escaping with his life.  Shortly thereafter he committed suicide.  He should have a paid more attention to those babies and spent less time killing off their parents!  Bwana muzungu.

New Improved Bull Washing Bar

One of my favorite things about foreign travel is observing the culture and talking to locals to learn their perspectives on life.  While driving through one small town, I spotted the "New Improved Bull Washing Bar."  How could I not have a picture of that for all my Texas longhorn friends?  Most of our travel from point to point takes us over deeply rutted pockmarked red dirt roads (since there are only 2 paved roads in all of Uganda) for bone-jarring  distances that leave us all needing a massage and a glass of wine--or two or three or heck, the whole bottle.  Our slow speed gives us plenty of time to observe each tiny village and scrutinize the countryside while pumping our driver for information.

Yesterday he told us about Ugandan circumcision rituals--ouch!  About every 3 years (or whenever the local "chief" declares), all the males from about 11-13 are rounded up for a public village ceremony to prove how brave they are and that they are truly ready to become adults.  An elder throws a rock into the air while the "surgeon?" makes a swift cut on the hapless victim.  He had better not flinch or he disgraces his family.  For those who somehow manage to become invisible or duck out, the consequences eventually catch up with them.  Edward told us about one government official who was reported as having evaded the knife (darn those public urinals!).  The tribal chief paid him a little visit to inquire whether or not this rumor was true.  When the official vigorously denied it, the chief insisted on visible "proof" which the man could not provide.  Within days man was captured, disrobed, dragged naked through the streets (covered only in gray ash) while onlookers jeered at him, and he was VERY publicly sliced and diced.

Girls, on the other hand, essentially experience genital mutilation and are held down by their male relatives while the "surgeon" carves away in a much longer and more painful process.  Several women's groups and health organizations are trying to change local customs, not only for girls but also for boys.  Some families in the bigger cities have their boy babies operated on in the hospital during birth, and there are billboards that encourage early performance of this act as a protection against aids (which it is not).  Now you might think that being born in a hospital is better than being born in the bush, but the hospitals are mostly government run, lack supplies, and charge exorbitant fees even though they are supposed to be "free."  Plus the doctors claim there is a shortage of medication, but if the patient just goes to the doctor's personal clinic, he can have what he needs for an additional exorbitant sum, and the meds may or may not be out of date or be of substandard quality.  If you want to live a long life, you had better not get sick!