The views expressed on this website are entirely my own and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or the Peace Corps.

Monday, July 1, 2013

In the Time of Butterflies

Family Visit Part I: Uganda

My parents came for a visit, finally. After talking about it for over a year now, they finally committed and came. Now, obviously I understand that things happen…life happens. But still. I’d like to think that I’m an important member of the family and deserve a visit too…just sayin’.

Anyhow, they came to Uganda for a week then we headed to Tanzania for a safari through the Serengeti. 

The days leading up to their arrival were full of anxiety and anticipation, to say the least. At first I was worried that I wouldn’t be any different, that we would all fall into the same habits and conversations that we usually do. Then I started fearing the opposite, that I was too different and that we couldn’t be as jovial and fun as we were before. My fears generally seem to be unwarranted though. There were times when I fell back into my old ways or times when I seemed to be a little out there in terms of observations and opinions I now have, but generally, I like to think that we got on just fine. I guess it helps that we had a very active two weeks together, rather than two weeks sitting at my site staring at the walls.

The funniest thing, which I was worried about most, was how open I had become about talking about my bowel movements and any illness I have experienced. I was worried that throughout this vacation I would make my family uncomfortable by my frequent discussion of my stool and its characteristics. Hilariously, one of the first conversations we had after my parents’ arrival was about poop. This eased my anxieties. 

The first night after their arrival we stayed up late, later than I anticipated, catching up. I got my dad and brother to have their first Ugandan beers, Nile Special and Bell. The next day they got to try Club, rounding off their experience. 

The next day we had a full day in Kampala where we went to see the Gadhafi Mosque, the Kisubi tombs, and the B’hai Temple. It was really great letting them see things around Kampala and also getting to see them myself. I hadn’t been given a chance to see the tourist attractions around Kampala, so it was nice to get to experience that.

On Monday, we woke up bright and early to head to Kibaale National Forest to go chimp tracking. The drive took a good eight hours, including a stop in Fort Portal for lunch. We stayed at the Kibaale Safari Lodge, where we had two very nice luxury tents (yup, I said it…luxury tents). Each tent felt like an entire house. Actually, one tent was at least 3 times the size of my house in Rakai.

The first night in Kibaale was uneventful; though we did run into the tour operator we booked the trip with, which was cool. My brother and I had our own luxury tent so after dinner and drinks we hung out on the balcony to see what we could spot. We even left out a banana to see if we could attract any animals. Unfortunately, this did not work. The next morning we woke up bright and early to go chimp tracking. The hike was not as extreme as my experience in Bwindi, but it was a good bit of physical exercise. We saw the chimps fairly quickly and were with them for about an hour. Most of the chimps we saw were on the group, either eating or relaxing. We got a number of good pictures and also got to experience a few chimps charging us or other chimps. It was really cool to see how they would climb up trees, even the thinnest of trees. Some of the trees they climbed on didn’t look like they were good support, but the chimps seemed to be able to stay on them just fine. 

Toti the Chimp (Photo by Ankur Desai)

After the morning tracking, we headed back to our lodge for lunch and a good break. The food at this lodge is spectacular, though it is a little heavy on the pepper. Maybe it’s because I have gotten used to a lack of flavor, but it seemed like the cooks went a little overboard on the pepper during the cooking process. After lunch we had a few hours to kill, so my parents took naps while my brother and I chilled out on the patio, trying to see if our banana would attract any late feeders. Later on in the afternoon, we went out for a walk through the wetlands. It was nice; we got to see many primates that we didn’t see in the Kibaale Forest. There was one point where we had to walk through the middle of the wetland area using a wooden bridge. I was a little nervous because it was 70 meters long. My past experience, these bridges aren’t always maintained efficiently…most of these types of bridges I’ve used have fallen apart leading to me falling through and injuring myself (never seriously). I was eventually the last one to cross, but at least I can say I did it without falling into the swamp area.

The next day we headed to Ishasha, part of the Queen Elizabeth National Park. There we were staying at another luxury tent accommodation, the Ntungwe Ishasha River Camp. Though it proved less luxurious than the Kibaale Safari Lodge, it was nicer than the places I’m used to staying at. We spent the evening relaxing and checking out the Ntungwe River nearby because one of the service men told us there was a chance to see elephants there! Unfortunately, over the time we spent there we were not lucky enough to spot any elephants at the river. The next morning we woke up for a morning game drive. We saw many herbivores, including the Uganda Cobb, Eland, and the Topi as well as larger animals such as elephants and water buffalo. We also saw smaller animals like baboons, birds, and warthogs. The family was slightly disappointed that we didn’t spot the famous tree-climbing lions, but our driver suggested that we’d have more luck on the evening game drive. He was almost certain in fact that ‘we could not fail to see them twice’. The evening game drive started off about the same as the morning one, where we mostly saw herbivores and smaller animals but we got a tip from another driver that there was a lion in a tree we had passed in the beginning of our drive. We rushed back to the tree and sure enough, there was a lioness in the tree! It looked very full; it seemed to have just eaten and was now relaxing and digesting its food. We sat with the lioness for a while looking out for any friends she may have around, but we didn’t see another lion. We went to another area of the park where there was a potential for more activity because of the water source, but we mostly saw warthogs and herbivores. On the way back to the accommodations, we saw a hyena! I was excited about that because it was the first time I had seen a hyena. We looked for the lioness in the tree again, but she had moved by then.

Tree Climbing Lioness (Photo by Ankur Desai)

The next morning we got to sleep in a bit because we were only going for a short drive to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The drive was only a couple hours, but the road was horrible so I didn’t get to sleep that much. When we got to Bwindi we hung out at the camp site and went on a short walk through the small town outside of the park gate. We did a little shopping and I got a Uganda Cranes jersey for pretty cheap ($8 when I would have gotten it for at least $15 in Kampala. There were some children doing the traditional dance and we watched them for a few minutes, but I never really like to hang around and watch because I know they’ll want money afterwards and I would rather give my money to them knowing it is being used for school or something (like paying for their school directly) or buy them a good meal. 

The first night was nothing short of hilarious. When my brother and I headed to our tent, we were bombarded by a throng of insects. We somehow made it into the tent but whenever we turned on the lights, the bugs would find their way in and attack the light and us. My brother went to try and take a shower and while he was taking a shower a praying mantis attacked him. It was crawling on one of the sides of the bathroom part of the tent and in my vain attempt to try and take a picture I was tapping at it. That just made it angrier…it attacked my brother even more (I could tell by the shrill sounds of his screams that it was not leaving him alone). After his short shower, he ran inside and luckily the praying mantis didn’t follow. Unfortunately, neither of us brushed out teeth so we had to venture back into the bathroom area. When I put on my headlamp to do so, in an attempt to avoid turning on the light and making the insects crazy, I thought I was playing it smart. Nope. Apparently that makes the praying mantis even angrier. As I tried to walk into the bathroom it flew at my face. I swear it was the size of my hand. Of course I screamed like a little girl and ran back out of the bathroom. We tried to tag team the sucker by using my brother’s small flashlight to distract him. For a while it seemed to work, but it seemed to be attracted to our toothpaste so it flew into the sink. It seemed to be slightly incompetent because it couldn’t figure out its way out of the sink area…apparently it forgot it had wings. My brother and I were thus prevented from using the sink so we spit into the bathtub (yup, there was a bathtub in a tent).  After a few seconds the praying mantis remembered it had wings and flew towards the bathtub, hitting my brother in the process. He screamed and jumped around, leading me to scream and jump around, causing a whole lot of noise. We probably woke up the rest of the town. The praying mantis landed on the edge of the tub and seemed to want to stay there so I quickly finished up and went back into the other part of the tent, rushing my brother to do the same. When he was finished he ran in and we zipped ourselves in, hoping to not have to cross that barrier before sunrise (we were working under the assumption that the praying mantis and other insects would go away by then). 

The next morning we headed out bright and early to being our gorilla tracking of the H group (Habinyanja). 

The trek was no joke. It was six hours long. When I did the Rushegura group, I thought that was difficult enough and that wasn’t even difficult, it was only three hours long. There were points where I was on all fours just straight up crawling up and down the mountain. I mean, come on…I can’t make up this stuff. It took us at least 4 hours to get to the point where the gorillas were. My mom and I were going slower because of the steep incline and our relative lack of ability to deal with oxygen depletion.  I was so proud that my mom made it to the gorillas, there were so many points where I thought I was going to give up; I had no idea what she was thinking about. I probably slipped and fell at least 15 times during the trek. My brother had an epic double slide down the mountain and my mom had a couple hilarious stumbles. I think my favorite fall was when I was walking along a fairly flat portion of the forest and all of a sudden I lost my balance and just fell into a bunch of bushes. It wasn’t on a slope, it wasn’t on a very treacherous path…it was on a level, straight portion. Hilarious.

When we got to the gorillas, we stayed with them for an hour. There was a silver back and two adult females. The silver back showed its dominance when we first arrived by grunting and false-charging. The females, on the other hand, were just hanging out and eating. Eventually the silver back got its fill of food and went to lay down with the other females and a few of the juvenile and infant gorillas. While the silver back was relaxing, the juvenile and infant gorillas were playing around, climbing up slim braches and breaking them. It was really cute to see the active young gorillas. At once point one of the juveniles was walking up to my brother and we’re almost certain if he hadn’t turned around to look, the chimp would have tried to climb my brother (my brother is about 6 feet tall…pretty giant for an Indian guy). We got about 5 or 6 feet from the gorillas at some points. I was a little anxious being that close to the silver back, but I figured the trackers and guides should know what they’re doing and they wouldn’t let us get that close if it weren’t relatively safe…right?

Baby Gorilla (Photo by Ankur Desai)

In the end, it was an awesome adventure and we were all really exhausted afterwards. We got back to the lodge and had some celebratory beers and just relaxed. Unfortunately, there was no hot water so I couldn’t wash the disgusting grime from the hike off me.  I’m glad we did a different gorilla group. I know I wanted us to have the easy group initially, and during the hike I was cursing the travel agent for getting permits for this group, but after the time we spent with the gorillas and the high level of activity from the younger gorillas, I’m glad we got this group. It was a lot more active than the group I saw the first time, plus it was just something different to experience. How many other people in the world can say they saw two of the handful of gorillas groups open to tourists IN THE WORLD?

The last night in Uganda was spent in Entebbe. We went out for pizza and then went to the beach for a bit, nothing crazy. Overall the week in Uganda was pretty great.

Now on to Tanzania!

No comments:

Post a Comment