Archive for Travel Musings

A gorilla trek

Snap, crackle, silence.  Peering around the corner, as promised a fuzzy black ball appeared, walking away from our group.  Our experienced guide Edward motioned for us all to slowly crawl forward.  The gorilla pauses and turns around to face us, two big brown gorilla eyes peeping out of the dense green foliage.  After a quick glimpse she sighs, looked at her meal, and continuing to munch away at some leafy delicacy that she had found before our motley group of muzungus interrupted her meal.

Gorilla families tend to stay close by one another, and our trackers motions for us to continue on to see the rest of the family, which includes a nursing mother and her youngster, and another female with two more babies.  We patiently follow the troupe, sometimes sliding down the trails that they make with their massive, 300-500 pound bodies, to quietly observe their behavior in the wild.

I can hardly believe that after 25 years,  I am face to face with a silverback gorilla and his baby.  25 years since first watching Jane Goodall woo the chimps on National Geographic, dreaming of interacting with primates in their natural homes, we had hiked for just a few hours into the Virunga mountains and here were these beautiful, gentle creatures right before us.  The silverback just three feet in front of me was  totally ignoring me as he leads his group onto the most delectable foliage he could find, while the mothers give us (passive) glances.

The babies, they are the most curious, and those whom we are able to watch for the longest time.  The baby looks back, curiously and confidently, from within the cradle of the mother’s arms.

Edward, who had taken Natalie Portman and Kristin Davis to trek gorillas in the past, tells us that we have just five minutes left with the group.  These last few moments  are just delightful.  One baby climbs onto the back of his father, the great silverback, and puts on quite a display for us.  He lounges casually in one moment, stands up to stretch in another… and even gives us a mini chest-beat, copying his father’s protective behavior, as he stares right at us 6 outsiders.


In Gorillas in the Mist, Dian Fossey writes about her internal struggle with having habituated the mountain gorillas to learn more about their behavior. She feared that habituating them to humans would make them more vulnerable to poachers, and that tourists would not respect and revere the animals  in the wild.  I can only thank her from the bottom of my very full heart that day in the Virungas, for both the humanity that I felt as my eyes locked with a wild mountain gorilla, but also for contributing to the sustainability and survival of the species.

For each $500 permit that is purchased to see a gorilla (and there are 56 allowed per day, netting USD$28,000/day), funds are contributed for the conservation of the park, vets for sick gorillas, 6 trackers per group to record their behavior and whereabouts, anti-poaching patrols, and community development projects with the Rwandans who live off of subsistence farming around the park.  There are now over 400 mountain gorillas on the Rwandan side of the border, whereas Fossey had counted 200+ when she started her work in the late 1960’s.  It’s an incredible source of income and pride for this healing country, and seems to be a genuine model of conservation of the people and creatures that live in and around the Virungas.


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The land of a thousand hills.

The Rwandan landscape undulates softly, from the city center in Kigali where streets are surprisingly well-paved and accompanied by drainage systems, grass–lined pathways, and freshly painted crosswalks.  Heading out of the city to the northwest, one winds through deforested and terraced hillsides spotted with patchy plots of sorghum, corn, and eucalyptus trees, down to rivers along the road as cloudy as chocolate milk from the hillside erosion.  The mandatory tin roofs of tiny rural homes catching the glint of the noon-time sun, again winding up and around and down and around again, out to the northern province of Muzanze, out to 400 mountain gorillas tucked in the Virunga Mountains.

The day before our gorilla trek  we took a short walk around the village of Kinigi, at the base of the Virungas.  We met a troupe of four bright eyed adolescent boys, all wanting to practice their work-in-progress English with us. In 2009 the Rwandan government mandated English as the national language (along with the native Kinyarwanda), muddling a generation which grew up with French in schools (if they went to school at all).  Families speak Kinyarwanda at home, kids speak English at school, and French, slowly petering out, is spoken amongst adults and on the sideline in business meetings.

One of the children that we met was named Innocent Peace, a 14 year old who claimed to be captain of his local football (soccer) team.  He curiously asked us our names, where we were from in the US, how big our families were, and then just as casually, “How many parents do you have?”  We paused for a moment, looked at each other, and both said, “Two.”  One of the boys proudly said “I have two parents, too!”, and Innocent said, just as enthusiastically, “I have one mother!”  Two days later we met another boy around 18 years old who asked us if we knew of Jack Hanna.  I told him that I vaguely knew the name.  The boy told us that Jack Hanna had founded an orphanage in town, “because of, you know, the genocide.”

Just as the thousands hills roll softly together, blending geographies and ecosystems from one region of the country to another, to us local Rwandans appear to blend past the ethnic divisions of the genocide to form one Rwanda, as Rwandans, the politics of the genocide as indecipherable to us as the eager shouts in Kinyarwanda and a English as we ride through the Rwandan countryside.

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Driving to the moon and back

It’s been a long time since my last MamaShayna post, and I’ve just driven ‘to the moon and back!’

As a newly minted MBA, I’m enjoying a summer full of travels before starting back to work this fall.  I’m excited to be exploring a bit of the African continent this summer, on a journey that takes me from south to east Africa, and then to Europe for weddings and visits with friends.

I’ve just finished my first week in South Africa, visiting my best friend Laura and experiencing the country through her seasoned lens.  Laura has been fascinated by African politics and especially South African apartheid era photographers since our undergrad days.  She’s been studying international law at Wits university, a vibrant campus where I was lucky to meet her friends from South Africa, Germany, Namibia and the Congo, and get a truly diverse perspective on politics and development.

A Congolese friend Francois was kind enough to show me around Soweto, a township where Nelson Mandela’s home was located and his family stayed while he was imprisoned.  This was one of my favorite quotes from the visit, which was posted on the wall of Mandela’s home:

This neighborhood was also home to the birth of the student movement led by Steven Biko and others which eventually led to the rejection of Afrikaners as the official language in black schools, and the launch of the ANC movement to end apartheid.

Francois and I also visited Sophiatown, an originally very diverse settlement of blacks, Chinese, and others in Jo-burg.  They were relocated by the Afrikaners in 1955 to Soweto, particularly to move the blacks far away from the white settlements.  The irony I found was that this was one of the most diverse neighborhoods that we visited in Jo-berg, with Indians, black, white, and mixed race South Africans, and Africans from all over the continent living together in this neighborhood. Jo-berg remains an incredibly racially divided city, but in Sophiatown, the power of compassion and the people prevailed to overcome the racist urban planning of apartheid.

A roadtrip out of Jo-burg brought us to the ‘mountain kingdom’ of Lesotho, a small, land-locked country whose borders lie within South Africa.  The lowest high point of the continent is in Lesotho – 1400 meters – so you can imagine our steep drive in and out on a 4 x 4 into eastern Lesotho via the Drakensburg Mountains.  We found a dramatic landscape as we summited to an icy mountaintop, one that my mom commented from the pics, and rightly so, is what she imagines the moon to look like.

It is the kind of landscape with colors that I’ve only seen in cooler climates at high altitudes – pastel, beautiful, muted, and dramatic.

On our trip down from the Lesothan moon, we stopped at a local village and met a village woman and 3 of her 7 children at their home in their small, 10 hut town.  The kids playfully posed for the camera and shrilled with delight when I showed them their own images… kids are the same everywhere I go!

Our last stop in Lesotho was at the highest pub in Africa (9,400 feet) to soak up the sunset and warm up with some hot mulled  Gluwhein wine.

We descended from the moon after sunset, a magical and incredible start to the journey.

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