Saturday, 21 September 2013

Article - Mountain Gorilla Trekking In Rwanda and Uganda

My most memorable moment should be when I connected with a mother gorilla.   She was within touching distance, clasping her baby to her chest and our eyes met over its little head.   It was one of those life-changing moments communicating silently with this gentle beast.   Instead the bit that sticks in my mind was the ‘tourist from hell’ pushing past everyone, waving her ipad in one hand and yelling, ‘I have to get a photo! It’s my birthday!’

But she also gave me one of my funniest memories.   I can still picture our guide’s face when, concerned the gorillas weren’t co-operating with her birthday plans, she offered to retrieve two apples from her backpack to entice the gorillas out of the undergrowth!

Thank goodness there are strict rules to protect this endangered species from humans.  Contact with the gorillas is limited to an hour.  Tourists are not allowed to advance more than 7 meters towards the gorillas, but this does not stop the gorillas advancing on us!  

We were grouped together on a narrow pathway watching 4 gorillas when a large male seemed to be interested in us and ambled over to take a closer look.  We scrambled around, but there was nowhere to go, the undergrowth was too dense, and more gorillas were blocking our retreat further down the path.    Following instructions, we crouched down and tried to avoid eye contact.  The guides made soothing growling noises deep in their throats.  The silverback laid a hand on the arm of one trekker, leaned on the thigh of another reaching past her head to grab what was obviously the most desirable fern leaf in the national park.   Prize in hand, he went back to his original 7 meter position, while we tried to get our heart beats back to normal and congratulated each other on not giving way to hysteria!   But I wondered:  was he entertaining himself at our expense?  

We trekked in two different national parks: Volcanoes NP in Rwanda and Bwindi Impenetrable NP in Uganda.  The two parks are close geographically, but humans have to drive a circuitous route and endure a border crossing (with wondrous African bureaucracy) to get from one to the other.   This is a mountainous region: covered with dense forests intermingled with more open areas packed with ferns.   The ferns grow closely together and so high that a gorilla can easily hide under them.   The black fur of the youngsters and the grey of mature silverbacks just disappears, and only the moving fern leaves gives them away.

Even though gorillas live in family groups, they spread out over a wide area foraging for food.   Females can put away 18 kilos of vegetation and a male almost double that a day!   So opportunities to see them interacting as a group were limited.   I would have liked to sit a while and watch the gorillas socialize.   Instead we spent our time chasing individuals as they moved in search of food.

The two treks were quite different.   Most of the trek in the Volcanoes NP was under forest trees, whereas in Bwindi Impenetrable NP we were pushing our way through thick ferns.   Each habituated gorilla family has trackers assigned to them, so their location is always known, but the guides build suspense by pretending this isn’t the case.   A habituated gorilla family has been gradually introduced to humans and is more accepting of paparazzi than most celebrities.

In Rwanda, our assigned gorilla family, the Amahoro, were scattered over both sides of a deep ravine, but mainly on the wrong side, of course.   We enjoyed the antics of 3 youngsters from a distance, until our guides decided it was time to get closer.   We had to slide down the steep hillside, clutching at stinging nettles, and clambered up the other side using vines as ropes.   I felt like an apprentice Tarzan, but it was well worth the effort.   I don’t know how many of the family of 19 we saw, but I reckon it was nearly all.  

You can distinguish different gorillas by their nose shapes, but despite having hundreds of photos to study, I still haven’t managed to get the hang of it!

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Journal - Last day! Wednesday 14 November

Today was my last day at the classroom.    I did days of the week again, but by now that Addams Family tune was driving me nuts!   I couldn’t get it out of my head.  The children love it but really only remember the first line.   I’d found some good ideas encouraging the children to participate which included getting them to write on the board.   We started on learning the words for body parts.

During lunch time, I decided to encourage two of the smaller children write on the board.  It was funny at first, the way they imitated the older children by trying to write the alphabet.   Then it wasn’t so funny as they started squabbling over the markers, and it turned into a real fight!   I pulled them apart, managed to get a wriggling, yelling child under each arm, and then dragged them over to the steps.   Luckily two mothers came to my rescue!   One child had a blood nose and I’m sure the other lost chunks of hair!  There was much clucking and sounds of disapproval from the mothers, and I felt really guilty. 


The afternoon class was slow and long.   The children didn’t want to wear their name tags, and had lost interest in th
e games.   I managed to do a few things, but it was hard work.   It must have been a tough morning in real school, and they were tired.

Finally it came time to say goodbye to everyone.   Parting from the children was difficult, I hated saying goodbye.  

 In the shortest of times, I had come to know them and to be so fond of them. Angry Birds who would get upset so quickly, but equally was so affectionate.  Grumpy One who blamed everyone else for everything that went wrong.  I didn’t need to understand what he was saying to know what he meant!  Baggy Pants, left-handed and most probably dyslexic, who wrote laboriously, but was very deft at marbles.   Big Boy, who refused to go to Real School perhaps because he was bullied there?   Angel Face, with her winter pyjamas always tightly buttoned, who wanted everything neat and clean and just so.   TomBoy, so unco-ordinated that she would skip wildly, arms and legs going everywhere, and never get past the count of three!

I was still feeling sad hours later as the plane left Siem Reap.  I had a last beautiful view, looking down on that amazing lake, a small fishing village and the setting sun.

Journal - The alphabet again! Monday 12 November

Shrimps were still in the kitchen – I was so worried that they would make an appearance at dinner tonight.  At this stage, I was going freely into the kitchen when I needed something.   It was a standard rule that no volunteers were allowed in the kitchen and for good reason.   They might notice the unhygienic conditions, like the dogs wandering in and out, no fly screen on the back door which had to be kept open because of the heat, food left uncovered, dirty plates left for hours, the lack of hot water.   But to be fair, I didn’t get sick the whole time I was there.

Back to school and alphabet revision again!!  The morning kids were keen and worked hard, but the afternoon group was already tired from school, and not so keen.  I was tired and gave up.  I should have let them do some colouring-in etc, but I was exhausted and let them go home early.   I felt guilty later.   I looked back to my first day when I thought that the 2 hour lunch break was too long.  Now I just collapsing and enjoying the respite!

We decided to investigate the Buddhist pagoda on the way home.  We had driven past it every day, but no-one had been inside.   It always looked deserted, and it was!   I wandered around and finally found someone and asked if we could go in.   After much sign language and waving, someone finally arrived with a key, opened the door and let us in.  The walls were very brightly painted with Buddhist scenes.  And there were two boys inside working in the dark!    Unfortunately it was quite dark, and no-one could explain the paintings, but still it was an experience.   We walked over to the school next door and caused total disruption.   Some of our children saw us and came out to say hello, and that meant other children came out of class as well!  We decided to beat a hasty retreat.

Pork curry for dinner – saved from the shrimps!   The dinners were always tasty – Lom was a good cook.    We learnt over dinner that three doctors were arriving next week to do an assessment of the village children.  It was going to be a very busy week.    

Journal - Hugs, cuddles and vampires - Tuesday 13 November

I must have had a good night’s sleep, because my enthusiasm returned.   I had discovered the Addams Family tune and a song for the days of the week.   I’m not sure the children quite understood what days of the week were, but they loved the tune.  We wrote the days of the week on the board, and the children, with some assistance from Ravy, wrote it in Khymer.   This writing is definitely more like drawing.   The writer writes, then stands back, and adds dots or squiggles, or maybe a wavy line there?   

The children are getting more and more affectionate.  They love hugs and cuddles, and being tickled.   I watched a group of them playing make-believe games over lunch time, which included vampires, and wooden stakes, and the tuk-tuk as a coffin!

We saw a dead snake on the road on the way home.  I think it was poisonous and was a definite reminder that life isn’t so idyllic.  I had been thinking about how different their lives are, no computers, no television, running around with their friends, riding bikes and playing football in the road, but there was a stark reminder that their life has its own dangers, dirty water, poor sanitation, lack of education, and snakes!  

Journal - Kampong Phluk - Sunday 11 November 2012

I was so excited.   We were going to Kampong Phluk, another floating village on Tonle Sap lake.  We had to travel much further on the lake to reach the village.  Tracy had been invited to lunch by a local Cambodian, Sot.  It was his family house, and we were all going.   I was thrilled to be included.    Of course, we had to bring the food, as a local family could not be expected to feed all these foreigners!

We needed two tuk-tuks to carry us all.   It was about an hour and a half drive to the boat hiring place on the edge of the lake, and then half an hour by boat to the actual village.   The price for the boat had to be negotiated with the senior boat man, and he allocated a boat and driver to us.  

The men in our group were pleased that we had bargained successfully and got a good price.   But we soon realized that we were on the slowest boat as everyone else whizzed past us, and then we discovered that we had a time restriction and would have to leave Kampong Phluk as soon as we got there.   A few phone calls back to the manager were required and we had to pay more!!

The houses in this floating village were all on stilts, no houseboats here.   It was laid out just like a normal village.  There were main traffic routes, and then smaller side roads, and little alleyways.   Sot’s house had a side road out front, and an alleyway out back where the neighbours were much closer.  Both entrances had ladders down to the water.  The front one, had two additional landings on which animals were kept, a pigpen and a chicken coop.  

The house was fairly open plan, but with sections that could be divided by curtains, and there was one area that was more permanently enclosed, but I’m not sure what it was used for.  The floor inside was solid planking with a few gaps – not like our school house!  Outside on what I am calling the front, there was an area that was used for general living, with a couple of hammocks, and the kitchen.   The kitchen had a different flooring, which was more open to with lots of gaps to allow scraps and rubbish to fall through to the water below.

It was hard to differentiate, but I think there were 3 families living in the house.   There was a grandmother who had lived through the Pol Pot years, that Tracy was hoping to interview, but she was off at the Buddhist temple.    The Cambodian ladies got busy preparing the meal.  The foreigners weren’t allowed to get involved, so I busied myself taking photos of village life from the back door, and playing with the children.    

This is a photo of some of the neighbours. 

First course for lunch was raw shrimp from the lake and chilies.  The idea was to wrap a shrimp in a green leaf and pop it in your mouth!   I tried to find the smallest shrimp and the biggest leaf, and then declined anymore.   I thought it was too risky!   The chicken and rice that followed was more to my liking.

After lunch, we went by boat to a jetty area where all the Cambodians hang out on the weekends.   It was really strange, like the first stage of a big building, just the beams.  So people would perch on and hang off the beams, and dive into the water.  We weren’t that brave.  After all the village wasn’t that far away, and we were aware of what was being thrown into the water!

All too soon, it was time to make the boat trip back.   What chaos awaited us.   I hadn’t realized how many people were out on the lake, and all return to one central point, and then down one narrow track to the main road.  What a  traffic jam! Apparently there had been a major festival celebrated at Grandma’s Buddhist temple, and there were so many tourist buses blocking the way.  Just the traffic would have been nightmare enough, but add to that heat and dust, and there were some very unhappy people about!

We ran out of petrol on the way back, but this wasn’t the problem I thought it would be.  Someone appeared very quickly with petrol in a plastic container and sold us enough petrol to get home!  Apparently this is normal. 

The left over shrimps came home with us.  I was perturbed as they had sat in the sun for a large part of the time, and were covered in dust from the ride.   

When we got home, we were too exhausted to go out.   Had toast and peanut butter for dinner – definitely didn’t want the shrimps.   Claire would have been horrified.   She had calculated exactly how many slices we were allowed to eat each day, and we were most probably eating our breakfast!

Journal - Finishing off the Temples - Saturday 10 November

I was up before the neighbours to be ready at 6am for Simorn and his tuk-tuk, for my final day of temple viewing.  We stopped for breakfast – a banana wrapped in sticky rice mixed coconut milk wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled over an open brazier.   Chuom bought four for US$1, he ate two, I ate one, and we gave the last one to a little girl and received an enormous smile in payment. 

When the temples were done, we headed out to the floating village in Tonle Sap lake.  This is the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia, and it expands or shrinks dramatically depending on the season.  From 2,700 sq kms to 16,000 sq kms!  The floating village consisted of house boats, a school boat and shop boats.  The police station looked more permanent.  The boats are towed around to different positions by motor boats, depending on the weather and the water level.  

  On the way back I stopped to take some photos of a ‘bridge’, which was just a large undressed tree trunk between the houses.  I walked all the way down to the water, down a little alleyway, past houses on stilts, and could see right into their homes.  It seemed a very poor area, with lots of rubbish, and undressed children, but everyone was welcoming and there were big smiles.  I was too embarrassed to take photos, I felt I was invading their privacy.  But I saw quite a few big TV screens!

Journal - Test Day – Friday 9th November

I was really worried about what was going to happen on test day.   So far Elaine and I had done nearly all the teaching and we improvised as we went along.   I looked for ideas on the internet in the evening, and we would try it out the next day.  So it had been extremely haphazard.   I didn’t want to give a test to these children.  It smacked too much of real school and we weren’t a school.   We couldn’t force the children to come.   We needed them to want to come.  And I didn’t want any of them to think they had failed.  They all tried so hard.  If we provided the children with a vision of a different life, of something to dream for, then I thought we had achieved something.  We didn’t need tests.

For the first time I went to school with a feeling of dread.   The children were waiting for us as usual, but so many children!  There were children everywhere.  Children we had never seen before.

What Tracy hadn’t know was that she had chosen the worst possible day to hold the test, a school holiday!  It was going to be worse than even I had imagined.   Tracy selected which children would do the test in the morning and who would sit the test in the afternoon.   All those children not included in the test would remain outside.    Easier said than done as all the children outside wanted to see what was happening inside.   It was really unfortunate that we hadn’t known about the holiday.  A wasted opportunity when we could have made our classroom look inviting and fun to those children who hadn’t been before.  Instead we locked them out and chased them away!

We had to protect the children writing the test to give them a fair chance.  Ravy locked the front door, but he couldn’t lock the back door because they needed the ventilation.  So boys climbed into the vegetable garden and swarmed up the posts.  I was outside on my own, and found it impossible to control the children.  There were about 40 children running everywhere.  Tracy, Ravy and Elaine were inside holding the test, and then marking papers.  I was pleased I wasn’t inside, but boy, it was tough going outside.  I tried to get some games going, but it was impossible.   I had to spend my time pulling kids off the steps and out of the vegetable garden.   What a nightmare!

Tracy had originally decided that only those children with full marks were going to get a prize.  There were children who had tried really hard, but whose learning
wasn’t at the same level as others.  They just didn’t know enough to get full marks but had made an enormous effort.  Tracy quickly realised that her plan could backfire, so she gave out prizes for effort as well as achievement.   But that meant there weren’t any prizes left for the afternoon test!

Lunch-time was spent improvising and trying to make more prizes.   It was at this stage that I discovered many hidden treasures in the classroom boxes!  If only I’d known earlier!

To end a nightmare day, Elaine lost her camera on the way home.   We drove back and forth, and even walked along the road trying to search every puddle, but couldn’t find it.  Poor Elaine was devastated.
This is a picture of the road we travelled on each day, so you can see how difficult it was to find the phone once it had fallen out the tuk-tuk!

Everyone went out that night to celebrate Ravy’s birthday  and to farewell Sally who was off to India the next day, with the sleepy friend who had emerged about 3 times in total from her bed!  A few wines took the edge off an exhausting day.