Archive for the ‘Rob Farris’ Category
Last week, our house was flooded in the middle of the night. Each of us had a very different perspective on the event, so we thought it would be interesting to share them all. Without further adieu…
I still don’t know why I woke up. Perhaps it was because the rotary fan blowing in my room was failing to prevent my sweat from penetrating my pajamas. Or maybe it was because the sound of the rain falling on the corrugated plastic skylight in my bathroom was so loud I thought it might shatter. It also could have been the flashes of light that periodically filled my room only to leave the darkness even darker…
I awoke to a tentative tap on my door. Two thoughts slowly wandered across my groggy mind: “I probably just imagined that.” “If I didn’t imagine that, whoever it is will go away.” Again came the mouse-like tapping. I thought it was probably Jules – some evenings he comes to talk and make sure everything is going well. Upon hearing my hoarse invitation to come in, my mystery visitor – Carrie, it turned out – slowly opened my door and edged her way in my room…
I had laid down to bed at 11PM and still found my self stirring an hour later. The rain was so loud and violent that I could feel it in my chest, creating a vicious cerebral cycle…
Lights flipping on immediately accompanied my intruder’s rude entry.
Hunched over a short squeegee, eyes wide, Rob informed me the house was flooding. I looked at the floor. Well I’ll be a son-of-a-er-gun – flooding indeed…
At a school such as Thunderbird, where each student is more traveled than the next, Lee Abbamonte enjoys the unique status of being the most traveled of us all. Lee does not keep his ambition secret – he plans on becoming the youngest person in history to set foot in every single country in the world. During his travels, which have included treks to places as inaccessible as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, he keeps a prolific journal in an attempt to record his adventures.
Before leaving for Rwanda, I had a brief conversation with Lee over a beer at the pub. I asked him to tell me about the most memorable experience from his previous year’s travels. Without missing a beat, he said “trekking with gorillas in Rwanda.” He had no idea our team would be heading there within days. Imagine: someone as travel-jaded as Lee – someone who has raced camels in Morocco and hang-glided in Brazil – says that gorilla trekking is one of his best recent travel adventures. I honestly can’t think of a more solid endorsement.
In the weeks that followed, each time we told people that we were planning on seeing the gorillas they continued to build up the hype that Lee established: “You are going to have the most amazing time!” “Gorilla trekking! I’ve gone ten times and it’s changed my life each time.” It was hard to imagine that something could live up to the expectations that we were trying to avoid setting.
During last week’s set of 9-to-5’s, we could barely contain our growing enthusiasm. As verdant and tranquil a city as Kigali has been, we were itching to get out to the countryside and see some damn primates. Saturday morning was spent packing and we hit the road in the early afternoon, heading for Musanze (nee Ruhengeri), the heavily-touristed city from which the majority of gorilla treks depart. The three-hour drive blasted by with us singing along to an 80s music compilation. Not a bad way to start the trip. Along the drive, we were treated to some stunning scenery, especially as we neared our destination. After checking into the Kinigi Guest House, we snapped some pictures of a vibrant sunset over still-active volcanoes as we waited (for more than an hour) for our food.
We slept early so we could wake early – 6am, to be precise. The showers at Kinigi were unreal – the best I’ve ever had in Africa. I didn’t want to get out. But gorillas wait for no man, so I made sure I was at the car at the appointed hour (6:30am) and we headed off towards the gorilla trekking headquarters.
I should mention now that we were not really part of the whole “tourist circuit.” Generally, people fly into Kigali and arrange a tour with a guide service. This service then drives them in big, durable vehicles from Kigali to Musanze and arranges such things as accommodations and food and water and porters and so on. You know, the minutiae. Instead of following that route, we borrowed a car and drove ourselves, making our own bookings (nice job, Mike) and buying our own snacks.
So, as we arrived at the gorilla “base camp,” it became obvious that we would be the most under-prepared trekkers on the mountain. All of us were rocking blue jeans (true American style) and I was wearing a pair of old, busted running shoes. Every single other person at the headquarters was outfitted with sturdy boots, zip-away microfiber hiking pants, and those floppy safari hats that look so lame. I don’t know about the others, but I felt kind of embarrassed.
Nonetheless, when we presented our tickets to the head honcho of the camp, he did not judge us based on our outfits. Instead, he gave us a huge welcoming smile and said “I know why you are here, yes!” Before we had a chance to respond, he emphatically said “Susa Group!” Apparently, the gorillas have been demarcated into different groups, which we tourists visit in clusters each day. Susa Group just happens to be the group reserved for the sturdiest, healthiest hikers. Mike, Carrie, and I must have been flexing or something, to get the go-ahead on Susa. I now know that it is considered to be the apex of the treks – other tourists often start with a lesser trek and then work up to Susa. Oh no no no my friend, we are T-birds – in it to win it.
We convened with the other Susa Group trekkers (two other Americans, a French woman, and an unforgettable Austrian man [with one of the largest faces we’d ever seen] named Klaus and his wife; more to come on Klaus) and listened to our guide’s welcoming speech. Our guide, who’d been bestowed with the unique name “Placid,” gave us a run-down of the Susa Group of gorillas – 28 in number, with three silverbacks. Lucky for us, they’re the biggest group in all of Volcanoes National Park.
After the overview, we headed to our respective vehicles to drive to the jumping-off point of the trek. While waiting for his driver, Klaus came up to me and gave me a discerning once-over, lingering on my shoes. “Are you sure to go in those?” he said disdainfully, cocking his enormous eyebrow. He lifted a foot to show me his boots. “Yes, I bought these just for this trip.” Good for you, Klaus. Before I had a chance to respond, Mike walked up (wearing legitimate hiking boots) and was also given the “Klaus Stare.” Upon seeing Mike’s boots, the massive-faced Austrian curtly nodded in approval and walked away. Awesome.
We learned that the jump-off point for the Susa Group trail was an hour’s drive from our present location, so we tried hitching rides with the Americans and Klaus. There wasn’t enough room, and as soon as he realized it, Klaus came run-walking towards our humble RAV-4 and woke up a dozing Chadd by exclaiming “There are not enough seats and you will have to drive, guide!” Apparently, he thought Chadd was the guide we were paying to arrange the whole trip. Chadd, you’re a great guy, but you aren’t worth $500 for a weekend. Simple truth.
So Chadd ended up playing the role of guide and drove us the hour to the trailhead. We expected the roads to be decent, give the number of tourists who visit Susa Group every day. Instead, they were a nightmare of stones and mud. The big, durable vehicles that all the other tourists were riding in looked somewhat appealing at this point, compared to our little ride. After a few close calls and some expert maneuvers by our driver, we made it to the trailhead (congratulations to Chadd are in order).
Carrie, Mike, and I set off up the trail, following Placid’s lead. At the vanguard was a Rwandan with a large automatic rifle (not filled with tranquilizers, and not necessarily to protect us from the gorillas). The trail was fairly steep, but the challenge of hiking was exacerbated by the fact that we were nearly 2,500 meters above sea level (for those of you uncomfortable with the metric system [Yanks, Brits] this means roughly 8,200 feet). For nearly an hour, we soldiered upward past the farms of the Rwandese who had claimed the flanks of these volcanoes as their home. As we huffed and puffed, we were embarrassed to see children laden with big yellow jugs of water streaming past us up the mountain – a testament to the hardiness of these volcano-dwellers.
An hour of shallow breathing later, we’d reached the edge of the forest. It was a shocking non-sequitur – the villagers’ farms reached all the way to the narrow rock wall which barely held back encroaching jungle. Mike later wondered about the remaining habitat of the gorillas – are the farmers driving them ever-deeper into a diminishing environment? We crossed the threshold into the forest, and the hiking changed immediately. Gone were the dark, rich volcanic soils upon which we’d been climbing, replaced by an unbelievably thick jungle kudzu. Our guides would occasionally warn us of gaping holes hidden underneath the carpet of vines. Broken legs were one slip away. We came to a small clearing and Placid told us to strip away all of our possessions save our cameras. Apparently, the gorillas can react in different ways to human objects and it is better to be safe than to have a 500-pound primate pop you one.
We continued bushwhacking through the jungle, although a reverent hush had overtaken our group as we drew nearer the gorillas; even the incorrigible Klaus was silent. The smells were overpowering – eucalyptus, nettle, and other jungle flora creating a dizzyingly heady scent. As we turned a corner, we heard the echo of a whisper passing its way down our line of hikers: “Gorillas..!” Sure enough, partially hidden in the undergrowth of the forest some ten yards distant was a lump of furry blackness – our first gorilla.
The next hour was a whirlwind, one of those hours during which you wish that you could pause reality and continue living the present ad infinitum. Shortly after seeing the first gorilla, we realized that we were in the midst of the entire Susa Group. The silverback came past, crushing his way through the forest with unparalleled strength. Adolescents scampered around, wrestling with each other and laughing. Female gorillas, tenderly carrying babies on their backs, followed in silverback’s trail.
I don’t want to use any hyperbole to describe the experience of being there with the gorillas in their natural habitat. Just imagine the following: you are five feet from an animal twice your size and made of pure muscle. It sits down peacefully and begins to grab nearby branches, ripping them from their roots with surprising ease. As it contentedly munches handfuls of leaves, it casts a detached – perhaps curious – glance towards you. You realize that this animal doesn’t need you, that it and its brethren have survived without human intervention for untold years. And yet, there is sympathy in its eyes as it looks at you, some form of animal intelligence which seems to border on profound wisdom. You feel the deepest connection you’ve ever felt with nature, and its right in front of you, untamed and beautiful. Something powerful is shared between human and primate. I’m not making this up; it was visceral. During our hour with the gorillas, we snapped countless photos (Klaus alone took more than 200; true to form, he would interject himself right between the other photographers and the gorillas to set up shop with his massive camera [which he had made sure to compare to everyone else’s cameras – “Yes that one is okay but mine is much larger”]). We’ll post some of our shots on this site, but they can’t do justice to the feelings I just described.
Perhaps you are wondering how we felt safe being so near such powerful animals. It wasn’t easy, at first, especially considering the guides’ warnings – “If they charge you while beating their chests, just stand still.” However, the guides were not standing idle; they’d learned to mimic the communicative grunts of the gorillas. When we would approach a new gorilla, Placid would make a deep guttural purring sound, indicating our amiability. If they ran towards us or got too near, he would issue a barking cough which expressed displeasure. These guides’ ability to control the gorilla tribe with such calls was uncanny and led us photo-snapping tourists to feel a sense of calm and comfort. But beyond that, the gorillas simply exuded tranquility as they bebopped around the forest. Well, they exuded more than just tranquility – the silverback would let loose with earth-shaking farts every ten minutes, causing our whole group to crack up.
Our hour came to a close, and we reluctantly took our leave of the Susa Group. As we walked out of the forest a reflective silence overtook us, each person internalizing their unique experience. Carrie looked at me, wide-eyed, and mouthed, “I am about to cry. They were so beautiful.” The moment we stepped out of the jungle and back into the farmland, all the emotions and thoughts we’d been bottling up exploded into chatter which persisted for the duration of our hike back to the car. We took a short break to rest, talk, and eat our snacks. Mike had brought a small sausage, and he and I were passing it back and forth. Overcome by his Austrian heritage, Klaus reached out and snatched the sausage from us, taking a big bite and saying, “I sweat so much energy. Give me the sausage.”
Along the return trek, Placid and I had an interesting conversation about the effects the gorilla tourism industry has had on the local populations. In addition to being a guide, he also has a degree in economics and rural development. He works with the Rwanda Development Board and village elders to determine development projects needed by the communities near the park and to then fund them. Thus far, they’ve built schools, water basins, and small hospitals. It’s comforting to know that our tourism is leading to growth instead of exploitation (and who knows, perhaps it is helping to preserve the gorillas’ habitat).
As we neared the cars, Klaus asked more about our guide (the patiently-waiting Chadd). We tried telling him that Chadd was just an American guy – our friend – who happened to be driving us today. His response: “Ah, so he lives in Rwanda then? It is surprising to see an American guide.” The man could not wrap his mind around the possibility that some trekkers might have set up the excursion independently. Apparently, “guideless” does not translate.
On the way home, we decided to visit a resort hotel Mike had read about in his guidebook – Virunga Safari Lodge. It was billed as having “the best view in Rwanda,” and considering that every inch of this country is gorgeous, we had to check it out. The hotel was perched on the crest of a steep hill some 15 kilometers from the park. As we reached the top, we were treated with a spectacular panorama: on one side, we had an eagle-eye view of the green plateau of farmland leading up to the forested slopes of five imposing volcanoes; on the other side, the rolling hills encircled the blue waters of a broad mountain lake. Nice job again, Mike.
By the time we got on the road, the sun was setting. The next several hours consisted of us discovering the challenges of driving on a single-lane highway at night in a developing country. Can anyone tell me why each car we passed chose to blast us with their brights? What a pain in the ass. In any case, we made it home none the worse for wear, just deeply exhausted. Within half an hour of our arrival, we’d all passed out.
So, I guess all that I’m trying to say is that if you ever get a chance to come to Rwanda and trek with the gorillas – take it. Was it life-changing? I think it depends on the person – you’ll have to ask Mike and Carrie. But Lee was right; it will be one of the most memorable overseas experiences of my life.
I’ll leave you with some great video of the trip, edited by Mike Byrne:
Photo Credits: Mike Byrne, Caroline Martin, Chadd Nyerges
“The hardest part will be coming home.”
The higher-ups at the Tanzanian Peace Corps headquarters issued this warning with such regularity and such gravity that I began to tune out when other people would try to tell me of the difficulties of repatriation. As it turns out, the true difficulty did not lie in leaving the life I had built for myself over two years. No, the hardest part was coming home – to the places and people I had bid farewell with tears or with parties, only to find that the world about which I had been unwittingly romanticizing during my life abroad no longer existed. It wasn’t that my home had disappeared (at least, not in a literal sense), but rather that parts of me had changed so dramatically that they could not fit into the groove I’d left behind.
Prior to leaving the US, I had mixed feelings about returning to East Africa. I won’t lie – I didn’t return from my Peace Corps service heaping praise upon Tanzania’s people or its culture. Jadedness was an unfortunate by-product of my time there. Last summer, I was offered an internship in Arusha, a tourist city nestled between the Serengeti and Mount Kilimanjaro. It also happens to be the only place where I’ve ever been mugged at knife-point. I reread some of my old ramblings about the city and my own words swayed me against taking the internship. However, with time I’ve come to view my tenure with the Peace Corps in a less critical light; even if it was an epoch of my life filled with challenge and disillusionment, my time in East Africa made the region and its customs a part of my identity.
With that in mind, returning to Africa has been a whole new homecoming. The hard-won cultural adaptations I’d undergone during my Tanzania years, and then subjugated upon the resumption of my American life, have become invaluable once again. I find myself searching my memories, trying to relearn the behavior patterns which allowed me to swim so freely through the rivers of culture here. How strange, to find new value in the thoughts and mannerisms which I had railed against, once upon a time.
I did not want my previous experiences with this land to color my expectations of the incredible opportunity which Thunderbird gave me and my team. And while my recollections of this place have been softened and brightened over time, I had no idea if I would find beauty or frustration upon my return. Well, I can happily say that the majority of my musings were for naught – I have been so pleasantly surprised by the overwhelming positive nature of this experience.
One of the most fundamental differences between my Peace Corps service and this project is in the socioeconomic level of the people I am trying to serve. During the former, I taught at a public school, living with my fellow teachers on the school campus. No walls separated me from my community. Now, the business for which we are consulting has provided us with some swanky digs in a gated compound, complete with hot water, electricity, wi-fi, and privacy. It makes sense that for a short-term gig our client would seek to focus on ensuring our comfort, and I’m glad they have. It allows me to view East Africa from an entirely different lens than that of the grassroots development volunteer, through which all my previous experiences were filtered. My team are now the “ivory tower foreigners” sequestered in our private palace, the sheltered expatriates that I once (perhaps unfairly) mocked. In our defense, mission success will not come from complete integration into Rwandan society, but rather from the productivity engendered by our relative seclusion.
And not all is different. I have found such joy in rediscovering the parts of East African culture that I’d never realized I was missing. For example, yesterday I caught a ride home from work on a motorcycle taxi. The driver spoke French and Kinyarwanda, but no English. So I hazarded a “hello” in Kiswahili, and the guy beamed from ear to ear. The entire 30-minute ride home, he and I attempted to have a conversation in Kiswahili, shouted over the sounds of whipping wind and chaotic traffic, about the importance of language in understanding and accepting people. At the end of the trip, he hopped off his bike and gave me a fist bump and a hug. It’s interactions like this, triggered through a simple greeting, that make me realize how much I missed this place.
I awoke to a tentative tap on my door. Two thoughts slowly wandered across my groggy mind: “I probably just imagined that.” “If I didn’t imagine that, whoever it is will go away.” Again came the mouse-like tapping. I thought it was probably Jules – some evenings he comes to talk and make sure everything is going well. Upon hearing my hoarse invitation to come in, my mystery visitor – Carrie, it turned out – slowly opened my door and edged her way in my room.
Her first words to me were, “Wake up. The house is flooding and I’m freaking out.” Carrie turned on the lights and her story was immediately corroborated: roughly two inches of muddy water were in the place normally inhabited by my tile floor. Outside my window, I could hear the massive thunderstorm continuing to rage – looked like the flood was just going to get worse.
As I was taking in the situation, Carrie informed me as to the flood’s first victim. “My laptop was on the floor. It got wet and now it won’t turn on.” Oh man… Having once had the hard drive of one of my computers erased and thus losing thousands of pictures and thoughts, I remembered the staggering grief that accompanied the loss. First move: comfort Carrie.
As a child, my parents made sure to train me for emergency situations (my dad being a firefighter; my mom, a nurse). I surveyed my room, thinking about what could go wrong. The electricity was still operating and we had a number of appliances plugged in. Don’t watch television while in the bathtub, right? As a physics student, I had ample opportunities during experiments to electrocute myself and each time I was ‘shocked’ to discover that it hurt. So Carrie and I put on rubber shoes (mine are a retina-destroying green) and went around the house, unplugging everything that might later electrocute us. I woke Chadd up to let him know what was going on, and he unplugged his laptop and went back to sleep. Well played, my friend.
I’m scared of lightning. To my defense, I wasn’t always afraid of it. I used to love watching the flashes during rare Oregon thunderstorms. This changed when I lived in Tanzania and my house was struck by a bolt when I was inside. When lightning hits that near to you, it is an explosion of blinding white light and deafening sound. It’s terrifying. You hear a woman screaming and then suddenly realize that it’s you. As we were sloshing around, Carrie and I saw a flash of lightning, and I counted to see how far away it was. “One…two…thr-” KABOOOOM! Less than a kilometer away. And here we are, standing in a pool of water.
Carrie saw the fear in my eyes as I told her how near it had struck and that I thought we might be in danger. Rather than taking care of the flood, I suggested that we climb up and sit on our beds until the lightning moved further away. From her reaction, she didn’t think it was as imminent a threat as, say, a spitting snake. Nonetheless, five minutes later we were perched on our respective beds, trying to laugh about the situation while we waited. It felt like a slumber party, just with moderately fewer pillow fights.
Eventually, the thunder abated and we got back to business. My mom taught me to handle the cause before treating the symptoms, so Carrie and I hunted for the source of the flooding water. It didn’t take long – following the swift current backwards, we came to the house’s big metal doors. Despite the valiant efforts of the rubber flaps under the doors, the water attacked each miniscule gap and flowed in unabated. I guess the doors weren’t designed to hold back a flood. Unless I could figure out a way to entreat the clouds to hold back their rain, we weren’t going to be able to handle the cause. Plan B…
Jules had built the house with drains in the floor in several locations. I remembered seeing Boniface scooping the gunk out of one with his finger several days prior (it was foul, trust me). Maybe the drains were plugged? So I went drain noodling, wiggling my fingers through the muck and grime in search of the plastic plugs. Upon finding them, I would latch down and yank, popping the plugs out and creating water vortexes. After removing three, Carrie and I watched the water level slowly drop – the worst was over.
As the water receded, it revealed a layer of brown silt coating the entire floor. There is a pond near our house which contains a number of frogs and other semi-aquatic denizens, and I could imagine them eagerly taking up residence in our newly swampified house. So, slip-sliding around in our rubber shoes, Carrie and I began to use squeegees to herd the mud towards the drains. True to form, Mike got up and helped out, alternating between documenting and cleaning. Chadd rolled over in his sleep.
We put in an hour of mud-herding before the house reached a state of relative cleanliness. I have to say, I was impressed with our efforts, considering that at this point it was around 3am. The storm had continued to lessen during our squeegee attack and the water entering the house had slowed to a trickle. As the situation resolved itself, the adrenaline that accompanied such a dramatic event began to wane, and we headed to bed.
If not for the damage to Carrie’s computer, I would have said that this was one of my favorite nights so far in Rwanda. It was ridiculous experience – so out of the ordinary, even for Africa – and one that we all shared (more or less…Chadd). I’d like to think that it will be one of those nights that we’ll look back on together with laughter.