On the Road and In Your Backyard

On The Road and In Your Backyard is a weekday feature spotlighting reader submissions. From the exotic to the familiar, please share your part of the world, whether you’re traveling or just in your locality. Share some photos and a narrative, let us see through your pictures and words. We’re so lucky each and every day to see and appreciate the world around us!

Submissions from commenters are welcome at tools.balloon-juice.com

Today we’re blessed with more pictures from Africa, from a new place – wahoo! Prepare to be wowed.

I’m always blown away by the photos you jackals submit, but the expressiveness arrieve captured in some of the gorillas – just haunting. When I look into their faces/their eyes, I feel a strong bond – kinship, even – like I do with people. I need to get to Africa for an extended trip!

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Today, pictures from valued commenter arrieve.

As many of you know, I went to Africa for a planned month-long trip to four countries at the end of August. Unfortunately I got sick in Rwanda, and that ended up being the only country I visited. It’s been less than 25 years since the genocide killed an estimated 800,000 people in 100 days, and it’s hard to reconcile that grim history with the peaceful, prosperous country you see now. They don’t pretend the slaughter didn’t happen, but they seem to be determined to move forward, and make their country “The Singapore of Africa.” (They’re especially interested in creating IT jobs, and everyone I met who found out I’d worked in IT wanted to talk about it.)

Plus they have gorillas. It’s the money from tourism that makes those ambitions possible and it’s the gorillas that everyone comes to see. And they were definitely the highlight of my trip but I want to share the whole adventure because it was definitely that: an adventure.

Taken on September 2018

Rwanda

Here’s a preview of the best parts– a mother gorilla with her baby, which was only a couple of weeks old. They were back in the trees and so not easily photographed, but it’s still astonishing to me that we were able to get as close as we did.

Taken on September 2018

Kigali, Rwanda

I had two days on my own in Kigali before meeting up with the tour group. Except for a few walks in the neighborhood I didn’t do much except lounge by the pool recovering from my jet lag. I was reading Philip Gourevitch’s chilling account of the genocide, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, conscious that not only
was I reading this book while I was personally safe and staying in a nice hotel like the privileged Westerner that I am, but that nice hotel, the Milles Collines, had been a sanctuary for 1200 people during the genocide, the actual Hotel Rwanda.

This memorial is on the hotel grounds. It says, “Never Again. In memory of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi former Hotel des Milles Collines staff,” and then lists their names. I saw similar memorials at some of the hotels and office buildings in the neighborhood, but unfortunately I missed the visit to the National Genocide Memorial with the group because I was in the hospital.

Taken on September 2018

Kigali, Rwanda

On my walks around Kigali, I occasionally tried to get children to let me take their pictures. They all said no, except for this group. They were speaking French, unlike most of the others, and once they realized I understood them they peppered me with questions: What was my name? Where was I from? Did I like Kigali?

After a few minutes, I asked if I could take pictures, and they immediately started posing for my camera.

Taken on September 2018

Kigali, Rwanda

That’s a mosquito net hanging from the ceiling in the hospital in Kigali where I spent the first night of the official tour. I’ll spare you the details, but I started to feel sick during the welcome dinner and had to excuse myself before the food arrived. A few hours later I was so much worse the hotel called a doctor and I was sent to the hospital, where I spent an unpleasant night being medicated and rehydrated. To make the experience even more surreal, none of the night staff spoke English so we had to communicate in French, fortunately the only language other than English in which I can say, “No, my stomach doesn’t hurt” and “I’m going to die from the nausea.” And if you’re wondering why I was taking pictures of the ceiling above my bed, it was because it made a nice change from lying there moaning.

(What I actually had remains a mystery. They gave me very strong antibiotics in Rwanda, so by the time I got back to New York and the viral secondary infection set in, it was no longer possible to tell what the original illness had been.)

Taken on September 2018

Rwanda

A couple hours after being released from the hospital, I was in a Land Rover on my way out of Kigali, heading east to the mountains. (Much of that time was spent driving around town with one of the doctors from the hospital attempting to find an ATM that would accept my card so I could pay the $200 hospital bill. They only took cash and I didn’t have that much Rwandan currency.)

Rwanda is one of the smallest countries in Africa – about the size of Massachusetts – and there’s little arable land. Most of the farms we passed were planted in terraces carved into the hillsides. The roads are always full of people. On Sunday afternoon, many of them were coming from church and dressed for the occasion; others were working, pushing bicycles loaded with stacks of firewood or sacks of potatoes up the steep hills. Women balanced everything from baskets to purses to umbrellas on their heads, while children lugged huge yellow canisters of water after filling them from the wells.

Taken on September 2018

Near Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

This is a view of the mountains from our lodge outside Volcanoes National Park as one of the frequent and intense rainstorms swept in. (The bird is probably a black kite; there were often dozens of them wheeling through the Rwandan skies, even in Kigali.)

Taken on September 2018

Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

Our gorilla trek was scheduled for the third day in the mountains. There were other excursions, some of which I skipped, but I know everyone wants to see the gorillas first.

Visiting the gorillas is tightly regulated. There are 10 families in the Virungas that are habituated to humans, but there are usually 56 permits issued each day, 8 per group, so not every family is visited every day. The visits last one hour.

We had two prep sessions, learning how to show submission if a silverback took offense at our presence and how to make the vocalizations that mean we’re not a threat. (It’s a rumble so deep in the throat that it’s hard to do for more than a minute or so, and for me at least always ended in a fit of coughing.)

Rwanda raised the price of permits last year, from $750 to $1500. A certain percentage of the money goes to local communities, but it’s given in the form of improvements like schools, roads, and electricity instead of cash payments. Some of it benefits the entire country; Rwanda now has universal health care and free public education. And some of it is earmarked for expanding Volcanoes National Park, and creating more of a buffer zone between humans and the gorillas. There are farmers inside the current park; the first part of the trek is through their fields.

Taken on September 2018

Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

Remember that whole being in the hospital in Kigali thing? It turns out that you can’t climb mountains with only a few bits of oatmeal and half a glass of juice in your stomach, which is all I was able to force down.

I knew I was going to have a hard time with the gorilla trek; I wasn’t able to eat much and my legs felt as though I’d borrowed them from a different body and hadn’t bothered to read the instruction manual. Everyone hires a porter to carry their gear; I figured if I hired two one could carry my backpack and one could assist me. But it quickly became obvious that I was struggling, and the tour leader suggested that I use what they called a chariot. I knew I was slowing the group down and we hadn’t even started the serious climbing yet so I agreed.

And so I was literally carried up the mountain in a giant basket. Was it embarrassing? I was mortified. I’m still mortified.

Taken on September 2018

Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

Trackers have gone ahead very early in the morning to locate the assigned family and monitor their location, and they’re in constant contact with the guides.

After an hour or so of climbing, we were told, We’re here. We had to leave our bags, and any food or water, and walk the rest of the way with just our cameras. Suddenly there was a huge crash in the undergrowth and one of the guides whispered, Look up.

And there they were, several young gorillas scampering through the trees.

Taken on September 2018

Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

Unfortunately most of my gorilla pictures were not as good as I would have liked. The foliage was thick and there wasn’t much light, and I couldn’t really use the big telephoto lens the porters had lugged up the mountain for me because we were much closer to the gorillas than I had expected. For once I don’t really care. I was light-headed and shaky-kneed, trying to keep my balance on the steep, slippery trail, and at one point I was less than five feet away from a silverback gorilla who stared at us thoughtfully while munching on leaves, and whether I could get good pictures was the last thing I cared about.

This gorilla was out in the open, far enough away to let me use the Canon.

Rwanda, Part 3

Taken on September 2018

Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

This is Charlie, the silverback of the family we visited. He came quite close to us.

Taken on September 2018

Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

Another picture of Charlie, with one of the women in our group, so you can see how close he came to us. We were supposed to stay 20 feet away from the gorillas (for their safety as well as ours — they can catch colds and other illnesses from us) but when they come close, the thick jungle means you can only back away so far.

The trust that the gorillas showed us was humbling. After eating some delicious wild celery, Charlie stretched out just on the other side of those low bushes and went to sleep.

Taken on September 2018

Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

I think this was a female gorilla — she had such an expressive face.

Taken on September 2018

Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

This young gorilla way up in the trees was eating the flowers.

Taken on September 2018

Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

Not gorillas, but one of my favorite pictures from Volcanoes National Park. There was a young boy, maybe 10, taking care of these cows, and this little guy was helping.

 

Thank you so much arrieve, do send us more when you can.

 

Travel safely everybody, and do share some stories in the comments, even if you’re joining the conversation late. Many folks confide that they go back and read old threads, one reason these are available on the Quick Links menu.

 

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14 replies
  1. 1
    Amir Khalid says:

    It always floors me how human a gorilla seems, how much contemplation you see in its expression.

  2. 2
    Mary G says:

    Your photos are great and what an experience to see them up close! @Amir Khalid: I agree; their eyes are mesmerizing.

  3. 3
    JPL says:

    Netflix just added a drama about the genocide in Rwanda, Black Earth Rising. I’m so sorry that you had to shorten your visit to Africa, but even though you only saw one country you were able to take some amazing photos.

  4. 4
    evap says:

    Just beautiful. I’m putting Rwanda on my bucket list!

  5. 5
    Adria McDowell says:

    Roger Stone has been arrested.

  6. 6
    arrieve says:

    @JPL: Thanks for the tip — I’ll try to watch this weekend. It’s inspiring how far Rwanda has come from such unbelievable horrors.

    @Amir Khalid: You do feel such an amazing kinship with the gorillas, and the sense that they know it as well. When I look at these pictures I have to pinch myself — I actually saw that!

  7. 7
    Le Comte de Monte Cristo, fka Edmund Dantes says:

    Wow wow wow!

  8. 8
    BretH says:

    Great story, great photos. Thanks for sharing!

  9. 9

    @arrieve: Good shots of the gorillas.

  10. 10
    waratah says:

    @arrieve: lovely photos and story. The gorillas are majestic. The children are beautiful.
    I am so glad you were able to get the carrier to see the gorillas, and I hope you are feeling well enough to plan your next trip.

  11. 11
    spudgun says:

    Wow, thank you so much for these, arrieve – just stunning. What an experience, and thank you for sharing it with us!

  12. 12
    Elizabelle says:

    Arrieve: again, sorry that illness upended your plans, and don’t be embarrassed about the chariot. Major props for having the strength to get out there at all. Such a hilly and beautiful country.

    The gorillas are soulful looking. Not your usual “here’s a gorilla” photo. Maybe because they’re so relaxed in their own environment; not stressed out in a zoo. I would bet some of them know some human language, too, but whether French or another ….

    I read Gourevich’s book years ago. It was so well written, and haunts one forever. The Hutus systematically tested the limits. It seems to me the West could have stopped that genocide. “We” didn’t learn enough from Radio Milles Collines, did we? Some others observing sure did.

    Glad to hear about the pricey visit to the gorillas, and that it benefits Rwanda’s people. Universal healthcare. Developing an IT presence.

    Moar travel and moar pictures, arrieve!

  13. 13
    arrieve says:

    @Elizabelle: Thanks, Elizabelle! I couldn’t have made it without the chariot so there’s no question it was worth it. It definitely gave me a good story, and I’m old enough to know you don’t die of embarrassment, however much you might want to at the time.

    I would love to know what the gorillas think about the funny creatures with the clicky cameras. Looking at them, eye to eye, was such an emotional experience.

  14. 14
    J R in WV says:

    So wonderful !! Thanks so much for sharing, hope you are fully recovered from your mystery illness!

    Roger Stone ;-) whee, I read that there were 13 sealed indictments handed up by yesterday’s grand jury, whee.

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