Wednesday, June 23, 2004

98.9% of our DNA

East Africa has been one of the great highlights of our trip. We have seen and done so much. We never got tired of safaris or tracking some critter in the jungle. This is one of our exploits from Uganda.

We had to struggle to jam my backpack between the ceiling and the stack of camping gear in the back of the red Mitsubishi Pajero 4X4. On one half of the rear bench sat a large cooler and Geoff's backpack. The other half was the small space that Geoff and I had chosen to squeeze into for the 6-hour drive to Kibale National Park, and we were damned glad to. Our trip to Bwindi Impenetrable Nation Park had been, as Geoff put it, an assault. We had been jammed onto a small, unpadded bench seats for 11 hours, and that made us luckier than the 20-plus people who were tossed about in the aisles with the goat and chicken. The toxic body odor and bad breath was strong enough that we could most literally taste it. We had passed the time yelling at each other over the deafening rattle of the loose glass windows and commenting on the fried grasshoppers and skewers of roasted goat that where thrust at us through the bus windows at the frustratingly frequent stops. So when Dortes and Peter offered to cram us into the one available seat of their 4X4, we took one deep breath of the soapy clean air emanating from their bodies and jumped at the chance for a non-stop ride to our next destination.

Even though Geoff and I were more stacked than seated in the back seat, we enjoyed getting to know Peter and Dortes . The conversations were typical travel banter: a stream of questions-and-answers about our respective countries. I have met several Scandinavians and whenever I finish a conversation with one of them I remind myself that I really want to visit that part of the world one day. It is the one place that I would consider living in other that Portland. I try to direct the conversion to focus on Denmark rather than the US. We have met travelers from all over the westernized world, but such a strong, consistent view of the US has evolved internationally that we rarely get an original question or comment. Our answers have become so pat that I hear Geoff give the same answer verbatim as I would and vice-versa. It's more interesting to hear about their lives and views of the world.

Charles stood from the table in front of the ranger's station when we arrived. He welcomed us sincerely with a warm, timid smile and a soft handshake saying repeatedly "Welcome. You are most welcome." After some conversation we discovered that if we hurried we could take a quick lunch and be ready for the next chimp walk that was to leave at 5PM. But where to get lunch? Charles pointed us in the direction of the Bigodi Women's Canteen, which, oddly enough, was staffed only by men. This was the only restaurant for 20Km. The canteen's dusty, wooden shelves were stacked with the usual: 3 stacks of local cigarette packages, a few bottles of whiskey, a few bottles of gin, a selection of half a dozen African red wines and several rows of Ugandi - the local fire water. In the corner stood the glass-front refrigerators that Coca-Cola seems to have supplied to even the smallest, most remote shops the world over. The fridge was stocked with local beers and local soft drinks. There was not one coke product, but the glossy, logo-ridden 1.5'X 2' poster on the wall preached in bullet form to:

"Keep a large supply of Coca Cola a product on hand so you can always meet your customer’s needs and increase your profits. Keep all Coca Cola products cold and refreshing. Ensure any stale Coca Cola products are replaced during each visit by your local sales representative."

The slick corporate propaganda seemed grossly misplaced on the reed wall. It was obviously having no impact on the canteen attendant who had most certainly never seen the likes of the crisp, corporate conference room inside which some executive had decided that there was a need to increase awareness of the importance of "availability utility within the supply chain". The poster was absurd, but hey, they got a fridge out of the deal and they could fill that with beer.

We ordered spaghetti Bolognese and struggled to power down the overcooked noodle paste covered in ketchup sauce. We were grateful when Charles rescued us from our meal. The chimps were sometimes hard to find, so we needed to hurry if we were to locate them before dark.

As we were packing up our water and film for the excursion, two tired, sweaty, happy Brits emerged from the tropical forest. It had been hard going for the five hours that it took them to find the chimps, but it was obvious by their excitement that it had been completely worth it.

Charles was energized by the Brits return. They had sighted the chimps in the west side of the park, not to far from the ranger's station. If we hurried they could still be near. As we moved from the hot, sunny trailhead to the thick, lush tropical jungle I was glad for the cool shade. The ivy, ferns, and earthy smell reminded me of the Horse Tail Falls trailhead in the Columbia Gorge.

Five minutes into the hike we stopped by the huge buttressed roots of a tree. Charles stoically announced "We will now have the briefing". I was expecting this. We have been pleased to discover that tourism is a much more organized, professional affair in East Africa than in the other developing countries that we have visited. The briefing included an informative explanation of the local ecosystem, a recitation of propaganda about the need to protect the environment - which was more memorized than understood - and an inquiry into the goals for our expedition. This logical, customer-centric approach was more appreciated by us sometimes frustrated long-term travelers than Charles would ever understand.

As he was giving his briefing I was thinking that Charles is a bit of a contradiction to me. He is very knowledgeable and confident, but, like most Ugandan's, he body language is demure, almost submissive. His uniform is clean, pressed and crisp, almost to the point of being starched. Like the great majority of Ugandans he obviously talked great pride in his appearance. So why is it that he smells so bad. Geoff and I joke that South America is the noisiest continent and Africa is the smelliest one.

From the large buttressed tree we set down the wide, well worn path and Charles advises us to "be quiet and listen for the chimps."

It's another 15 minutes of silence before we hear our first cries. In the distance there is a sudden outbreak of screams that would rival any victim in a Hitchcock movie. The cries are disturbingly human. It was more like a dozen people screaming in distress. We gave each other a wide-eyed look. We were lucky. We had already found the chimps, now it was time to track them. "Quickly, they are moving" Charles said, so we pick up the pace and leave the beaten path to push our way through the dense jungle-like forest. Charles moves through the forest quickly and we fit the Mazungu (white people) stereotype of weak as we clumsily struggle to follow behind. He becomes very concerned with the small backpack that I am carrying. "Give me. I am very strong. No problem." he says. I decline twice and give in out of politeness the third time.

It was 10 more minutes of fumbling over roots and ripping through sporadic vines before we saw our first chimp. I had fallen a little behind, so as soon as he had pointed the chimp out to everyone else he called after me impatiently "Hurry!” I finished untangling my foot from a loop in a vine and made my way over. The chimp had moved on. "You missed it" he scolded. "You must hurry when I call" I smiled at his enthusiasm. It was clear that my failure to see the chimp was wholly unacceptable. If he was to succeed I must succeed.

It was just a few more minutes before the alpha-male came over to inspect the intruders. He grunted and pounded his chest. Three other males near by scurried off in a show of deference to him. He seemed to size us up as nothing more than the common-place humans who regularly come though and he moved off.

We pushed our way into a clearing. That is when I saw George - the spitting image of G. W. Bush. He sat back to me in the shade of a mahogany tree. He peered sporadically over his shoulder at us for several minutes, then, for no reason I could understand, he started to scream. Dozens of chimps started to scream and grunt in response. The sound was chilling. Totally amazing. I will never forget it. I had been so fixated on Dubya that I hadn't noticed that we were surrounded. There were chimps on the ground in the shrubs. There were chimps in the low level branch of the tree. There were chimps eating fruits at the top of the trees some 60ft above the ground. Charles estimated that there were more than 30 of them screaming. A female passed by on feet and knuckles with a baby clinging to her back. Spontaneously a tree's branches would erupt as a chimp would fling itself from one tree to the next. Peels from eaten fruit would fall on our heads. There was so much going on around us that I couldn't take it all in. I decided to take a closer look at George. Charles suggested that I move very slowly, so I would take two steps then pause for a few seconds, then advance again. Each time I came closer, George would cast a casual glace at me. I got to within 10ft when Charles told me that I was close enough. There is a risk of inter-species disease transmission, so even though George would have let me get closer, I needed to keep my distance. The rangers will not even take you into the forest if you show signs of a cold.

We share 98.9% of our DNA with our chimp cousins. But when they walk by on their knuckles they look more like dogs than humans. It's not until you look into their eyes or watch them peel a fruit with their nimble fingers that the kinship is obvious. George would pluck leaves to eat. He'd scratch his chin thoughtfully. He liked to hold his feet while he sat - like I might imagine a child doing. I got to watch him for about 5 minutes before he decided to move on and the chimps moved high into the tree-top, out of sight, to make their nest for the night.

A false sense of security

Hi all,

We know it has been a long time between emails. We are currently having a great time in Iran. It’s a beautiful country filled with some of the nicest people that we have met on the whole trip. This is not the axis of evil..... they recycle here!!!! For those of you who don't know, we will be coming home in August. We found out that Cindy would lose her residency and thus her green card if we stayed out of the US for more than a year. But we have worked through the disappointment and are looking forward to coming home.

"I think they have moved on" I said in a whisper to Cindy. She just put her hand on my arm and silently willed me to shut up. While doing research about Africa for this trip I had read an interesting bit of conventional wisdom about camping in the national parks. It is an unwritten rule that stated if you don't go outside of your tent at night; the animals will not come inside. I remember laughing about it at the time, but I was not laughing when I heard the loud growl of the pissed-off lion currently walking near my tent. The sound was like nothing I had ever heard before and my mind clung to the thought that if I just stayed quietly in my tent, he would keep up his part of the bargain. The thin canvas fabric giving me a false sense of security.

We were on a camping safari in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. We arrived in country days before. It was an 18 hour bus ride from Kampala Uganda, through Kenya and then finally to our destination in the town of Arusha. The main business in the town is safaris and hustling tourists in one form or another. We were told there are over 250 safari companies in town. When we arrived we where met by the usual array of touts or flycatchers as they call them. They descend in a swarm to the newly arriving busses, so thick that you have to push and swat them away just to be able to get your bag off the bus and give yourself some breathing room. I had learned from past experiences with long overnight bus rides that I do not deal kindly with their sudden assault when I am that tired. I let Cindy do all the talking and soon we were in a taxi heading toward our hotel and I had managed not to strangle anyone.

The touts were back the next day as we walked into town in search of a safari company. They attached themselves to us at the edge of town and followed us like a gaggle of ducks following their mother as we walked the streets. No amount of polite refusals to their offers to buy trinkets could make them go away. Occasionally cindy would turn to them, put her finger to her lips and say "shhhhhh". Surprised, they would all get quiet for a few minutes, silently following in a little procession. Soon they would get up the courage and start yapping at us again. "Shhhhh", Cindy would say and the whole cycle would repeat itself. By the afternoon, we had booked a 5 day camping safari to a few of the national parks in the area.

We started by visiting a small tribe of Bushmen near Lake Eyasi. They speak a "click" language and have been living in the area for over 10,000 years. They live in the open bush in crude huts made with a loose weaving of sticks branches and small patches of animal fur. I would not really call it a shelter. It was more like a "defined space" for each family. The women wore only a cloth or animal skin covering around their waists and some handmade jewelry. They looked just like the pictures you have seen in national geographic. One of them had a newborn baby. Through the guide we asked how old she was. They had no idea. Time was not something these people measured.

The men had all gone hunting for the day but had left one hunter behind because they knew that the tourists were coming to gawk at them. While we took pictures and snooped about their campsite, he busied himself by sharpening his wooden tipped arrows. The interpreter did not have a name for him and just called him "this one". He wore only a pair of cut off jean shorts that he had slit into vertical strips at the bottom to form an ornamental fringe. His ownership of them was no doubt the consequence of some foreign donation program. You cant go anywhere in east africa without seeing the influence of an NGO. Their early misguided efforts to help people out by giving them everything that they needed, instead of training them to fend for themselves, has had a profoundly bad effect on the country. They have created a culture of people expecting something for nothing from every foreigner that they see. The saying "Hey Mazungu - give me money" is heard everywhere. The NGO's have learned somewhat from there early mistakes but I still think they do more harm than good.

Just when I thought that our hunter was just putting on a show for us and was truly shooting arrows at nothing, he took off across a gully and started shooting into a tangled mass of branches. We walked over and saw that he had shot some poor creature that was hiding in a tree. The branches were so dense that at first I could see nothing. "This one" pulled out 4 bloodied arrows and then reached in and extracted an animal known as a Genet. It's a small spotted cat with a long striped tail.

After posing for a few cheesy pictures with his kill, the bushman pulled a long straight stick with a blunt end from his quiver of arrows. He then split a branch in half so it was flat on one side and placed it curved side down over some animal dung. By putting the blunt end of the stick on the branch, and spinning it between his hands, he quickly created hot embers that ignited the dung. More branches were added to make the fire bigger. The whole operation took only a few minutes.

To our amazement, "this one" then threw the cat directly on the fire. After all the hair had burned off and the carcass had blackened, he made a cut around the ass of the animal, grabbed the skin and with a swift tug, pulled out its intestines and various innards. He then slit it open at the belly, removed the rest and separated out the heart to cook and eat separately. Strangely as a vegetarian, none of this made me the least bit squeamish. After a thorough cooking, he cut off pieces and offered them around to eat. I declined but Cindy gave it a try. She said it tasted very gamey and fatty and was almost like chewing on rubber. She found that she had to swallow it whole to get it down and the aftertaste stayed in her mouth for a long time. As is custom, "this one" ate only some of the meat and saved the rest to take back to the tribe. The liver was kept and used to rosin his bow string and the tail was tucked under his belt to be later used as decoration on the bow.

We camped that night nearby and set off in the morning for the vast open plains of the Serengeti. The wildebeest migration was in full swing and the herds were so large that their numbers were impossible to estimate. They covered the grass lands like a carpet and the view of them stretched as far as the eye could see on both horizons.

We were now in the thick of lion country and the rustic campsite had no fences around it. There was supposed to be running water to the toilets but an elephant had torn up the pipe a while ago. There where two 10 x 12 ft fenced in enclosures within the site. One for the cooks and the other for the campers to dine in. The tents were set up in the open. Nailed to a tree was a sign that simply stated "Do not get out of the campsite. Animals may attack". Check I thought, I won’t cross the dirt road. That will keep me safe. And if a lion comes into the campsite, I will try to remember not to give him table scraps.

That night was uneventful although at one point our guide, who had the tendency to disappear somewhere into the bush every night and get majorly drunk, approached us gibbering excitedly that he had seen two lions mating on the road near out campsite. We piled into the truck, played a game of ditch the tailing rangers (Its illegal to go on a "night drive"), and found the lions post coital relaxing in the grass and smoking a cigarette. That night we fell asleep to the sounds of them growling in the bush.

It gets dark early near the equator and so bedtime has a tendency to be soon after sunset. On the second night we were awakened at 10:00 pm by the sound of lions near the edge of the camp. The amorous cats were at it again but this time wanted an audience. It was too close for comfort for most of the campers and the guides tried to chase the lions away with their safari vehicles by honking at them and revving their engines near them. It was funny in the sense that these were the same vehicles that the lions largely ignore during the day as we chase them around the grasslands trying to get our "trophy pictures".

In time the lions left but most of the campers moved their bedding into the fenced dining area. Cindy and I were tired and hoping that they would not be seen again, went back to our tent to sleep. Fitfully. Of course they were back two hours later and this time, were pissed off at the trucks and were wandering around through the middle of the campsite.

After some time we heard the gunning of the vehicles herding the lions farther and farther away from the camp. Some discussion ensued and Cindy's survival instinct finally won out over my need for comfort and we grabbed our sleeping bags and mats and climbed into the nearby enclosed safari jeep. After a few hours of no sleep I returned to the tent. The lions never returned.

The next day we were up early looking for tracks in the dirt. We had not seen how close they came and were anxious to see if we were in any real danger. The prints 15 feet from out tent were a little too close for comfort. We met a guide days later who was camping in the same site the last time lions had entered. It was 1996. So this was not a usual safari experience. At least we didn't have to push against the side of the tent like he had to keep the lion on the other side from collapsing his tent, like he did. We wanted a great safari... I think we got it.