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domingo, 22 de mayo de 2011

Endangered Mountain Gorillas

At around 6 in the morning my dad's two colleagues and I labored across the dirt parking lot of the Bird Hotel, a nice place we were staying in, that nonetheless had frequent periods without running water and electricity, to meet the four-by-four that had just pulled up. In less than two minutes we had stopped and were being directed toward a large green national park vehicle. It was a kind of army supply truck with an open air back and a canopy that provided cover for twelve seats arranged back to back and facing out so passengers could see the scenery pass by as the truck began the long journey to Virunga National Park. We left Goma behind and our guide Daniel told us that the flat stretch of land in front of us was home to a large refugee camp after the 1994 genocide, and the hills that flanked its far side were Rwanda. He pointed to a mountain that he said was cut in half by the border between Congo and Rwanda, where "Gorillas can cross border without visa! Hahahahahaha!" Both Rwanda and Congo offer trips to see the gorillas, as their habitat straddles the border. Rwanda, now considered a bit safer and more developed, is more popular but also several hundred dollars more expensive.
It was then that the mountain we were heading to came into view, with wisps of feathery clouds streaking across its middle and the morning sun just starting to rise above its summit. In the foothills of this mountain, Dian Fossey, the famous American biologist, had begun her 13 years of field studies of the endangered mountain gorilla, in hopes that they would offer clues about how our early ancestors may have behaved and organized themselves. An eccentric and talented woman who came to deeply love the mountain gorillas to the point of killing poachers who threatened them, she was killed by a disgruntled villager after a long and fruitful study in and around Virunga National Park.
Slowly the road turned into what cannot really be called a road. Rather it was a sorry streak of mud and rock, abused by rain. It was hard to imagine any other vehicle besides ours making the trip. The vehicle jarred violently to the left and right, to the point where I had to brace myself from striking my head on the metal poles supporting the canopy or being thrown from my seat. Once or twice I believed the truck might have tipped over, and I positioned my body in a way where I thought I'd manage not to get crushed. But I was in good spirits, with the violent ride triggering happy memories of a hellish bus ride in Bolivia, and a milk truck transport into the Corcovado peninsula in Costa Rica. Besides, I couldn't help but smile as our guide yelled, "Free massage!, hahahaha!” during the most violent bits, even while the kindergarten teacher Sarah, seated next to me, was doing all she could to keep from throwing up.

The scenery along the way helped me endure too. We wound are way through banana grove after banana grove, lush green fields, and houses constructed with sticks and filled in with dried mud. Smiling Congolese would look up and wave until I reciprocated, I must have waved a hundred times that day. Groups of children would explode into shouts of MZUNGU!, the Swahili world for white. Some followed us at our excruciatingly slow pace for maybe a mile, hopping on to the ladder in the back to hitch a ride during the calmer parts. At long last, around three hours, our journey was over and the truck rolled to a stop outside a simple national park station built just outside the dense jungle surrounding the slopes of Mount Mikeno, which was now quite close.
We set off paralleling the bush, picking our way through neat rows of crops and a smattering of huts that had been built up right to the edge of the park. The bush had increasingly been turned into agricultural land. To stem this process and protect the incredible lush, high altitude area, Virunga national park was included when the Africa's first national park was created in 1925. After about an hour paralleling the dense foliage, we took a sharp left and penetrated the wall of green for the first time. This time, only one or two of the soldiers carried the standard Kalashnikov. The main tracker said he knew where the gorillas had been yesterday afternoon, but there was no way to be certain if they had moved, and if so, where. In the beginning, we seemed to be following a path made by previous groups looking to make contact. And then suddenly, we emerged into a small open area, still surrounded by the jungle, but the underbrush had been pulled down and pressed flat. To me, it looked like several large deer beds, but I knew that was the temperate pacific northwest forest dweller talking. They were actually gorilla nests, and the family we were tracking had moved elsewhere beyond the deep jungle walls surrounding us. The guides signaled for us to follow and the machetes were put into action for the first time as they widened out hints of a path the gorillas had made during their departure.
The family we were tracking was named after the silver back in charge, Humba. Along with the silver back there was one adult male, the silver back in training, along with adult females, juveniles, and three or four babies. All in all a family of 16 I believe. I stumbled along, the occasional low hanging vine snagging a leg and sending me to the ground. Without warning the head tracker turned around and motioned for us to put our masks on. We had brought white hospital masks along to wear during our allotted hour with the gorilla. Apparently transmission of disease is one of the biggest risks involved when contacting the endangered species. We were directed underneath what looked like a tunnel made of bushes and vines and as I passed through I realized there was a small gorilla directly above me obscured by the trees, and not only that, he, (or she?) was pissing all over. I thought to myself, well of course he is, and continued out into the clearing, where I then heard a long fart. What a contrast! Here I was hiking in near silence for an hour and a half contemplating the encounter that lay ahead, prepared to relish the event in all its profoundness, and I was greeted by a large juicy fart, in the end a perfect and dare I say profound reminder that we are all animals that shit.
But the common animal act of excretion was quickly pushed from my thoughts by another equally fundamental animal experience: fear. There ahead of me was the boss, a four hundred pound silver back lazily reclining in a delightful bush bed he had made for himself and the adult female he happened to fancy at the moment. We locked eyes as he rolled onto his back and looked at me. I held his gaze for a moment, his black eyes fixed on mine, and then without thinking I diverted my eyes. I had lost. And of course I had. In his world, human knowledge and technology mean little compared to his ability to run across the forest floor and break me like a toothpick if it pleased him. I deferred, for I was certainly not the alpha male.
The hour the park rangers gave us with the gorillas was spent in almost complete, hot silence, breathing heavily underneath our masks. I stood there and tried to take in these magnificent animals, but could not open my eyes wide enough. Their hands are huge, but just like ours. They eat lazily, kind of like I chew on a tooth pick. Their children play, swinging on branches and climbing limbs that can't support their weight, only to fall or pendulum downward while hanging on for dear life. The adults grunt sounds of contentment to one another as they bathe in the sun and eat. As they walk on all fours, they reach up and pull down entire trees to clear the path. A massive amount of flies hang around their beds, hovering in the air. We came within a couple meters of many, able to see the outlines of their chests, their broad wrinkled noses, which apparently are as distinct as our fingerprints and is what field researchers use to identify them.
Then, as we were following an adult female along a narrow path flanked on both sides by dense bush, the silver back reappeared behind us, calmly walking in the direction of the female we had been following. The path was too narrow to let him pass, we were already walking single file, and he was not stopping. The guards silently motioned for us to push our bodies up against the dense jungle wall and attempt to make room for the advancing silverback, so we silently and with all the speed thought we could afford without alerting him, lined up against the wall. I was in back with one of the guards and thus the first person the silver back would pass. We stood motionless and watched him approach calmly on all fours down the middle of the trail. He came up to the point directly in front of me and just as I thought he was going to pass me by, he stopped. Another stand off. There I was, pressed against the bushes, less than two feet from a silver back gorilla, his profile almost completely still. He remained just long enough to show me once again that in his world he can do whatever he pleases, and perhaps also to say, "What are you doing following my woman?" I won't soon forget it.

martes, 10 de mayo de 2011

First Week in Congo


I had been warned about Kinshasa's airport, where my father told me I was almost sure to pay a bribe and jump through useless administrative hoops before I could see him let alone get my baggage.  All went well as a "protocol", a Congolese man hired by my father's school put out his hands to show me a piece of paper with my name on it and motioned for me to follow him out of the small, hot and chaotic baggage claim into the parking lot outside where I saw my dad standing on the curb waiting.  We waited a couple hours before the protocol was able to retrieve my bag, but not before being told to move away from the doors as a turf war began to smolder between the blue uniformed Kinshasa police force and the Congolese soldiers, dressed in army fatigues.    As I have come to learn, the military and police are ever present in Kinshasa.  As we made our way through the capital city of the DRC in one of The American School of Kinshasa's vehicles, I got my first glimpse of the city.  Women wearing  immaculate, tailor made dresses of bright fabric decorated with those distinct, unmistakable geometric African designs did not fit with the dust and grime of the street where they walked.  Barely running passenger vans screeched by, the woefully inadequate public transportation system for a city said to be home to 8 million people, the largest francophone city on earth.   Others, dressed in simple western t shirts, walked serenely on the shoulder of the road with bananas, baguettes and almost anything else one could reasonably expect to sell, effortlessly balanced on their heads.  Young boys came up to the car as it was stuck in the frequent traffic to sell bottles of water, you can't drink water from the tap here, a welcome site as we baked in the tropical sun.  The vast majority of people in Kinshasa make a living in the informal sector like these women and children.  The ride seemed to last forever, but I didn’t mind as my dad and I began the long process of catching up after 8 months.  We had both experienced so much, he in African and I in Latin America, and our infrequent phone calls had not done our adventures justice.  Eventually we made it to a surprisingly wide and smooth boulevard that the Chinese had apparently just put the finishing touches on.   My father informed me that the Chinese had built stadiums all over the country and were heavily investing in Congolese infrastructure.  As we passed some of their ongoing road projects, I saw dozens of Congolese men laboring to remove dirt from a deep ditch along the side of the street and the occasional Chinese supervisor standing on the ground above dressed in baggy blue clothes and straw hats.  Questioning my dad's colleagues later on about Chinese investment, they voiced the concern that this type of investment still left the Congolese without the knowledge or means to maintain the roads or build new ones, meaning they will continue to be dependent on the Chinese and other foreign nations.  The Chinese, of course, are making it possible to access the vast natural resources of the Congo more easily by improving the nation's infrastructure.  The Congo is home to large amounts of diamonds, copper, tin and cobalt, along with several valuable metals important in the manufacturing of cell phones and other electronic equipment.  In fact, it is one of the most resource rich countries on the planet, but its development has been stunted by two incredibly complex and vicious wars beginning in 1996 and ending in 2003.  The first of those wars toppled the dictatorship of Mobutu, an autocratic leader who took power shortly after the Belgians pulled out in 1960.   He enjoyed American support for most of his 32 year reign, in which he deliberately undermined state institutions to keep them weak, viewing them as a threat to his hold on power, and used state resources to buy political support and the military's loyalty rather than invest in his country's economy.  The city finally seemed to peter out as we approached the American School of Kinshasa, which is next to a military base, and Mobutu's old private zoo.  The campus covers several acres and is completely surrounded by a wall topped with barbed wire.  It is also incredibly lush and green.  Teachers like my dad live on campus and because of this he and his colleagues sometimes resemble a group of intelligent, adventurous and well traveled summer camp counselors.  Their students, as you may have guessed, are generally very privileged, apart from students of the missionary community that lives on campus.  Missionary's have been active in the Congo since colonization by the Belgians, when King Leopold made it his personal backyard and cash cow, and apparently they had a hand in founding the school shortly after independence.  As the State Departments "choice," in Kinshasa, American embassy will pay for its employees kids to attend the school.  Congolese president Joseph Kabila's daughter and niece also attend, as well as the children of many business moguls and government ministers, including that of education ironically.  His son says he's embarrassed about it but wants his kid to get a good education. 
But my time to settle in to this new city was short lived.  My dad had arranged a trip to Goma,  a city in the Eastern Congo on the border with Rwanda, to climb a volcano and see the endangered mountain gorillas made famous by Diane Fossey.  However, this area is now known for its central role in the beginning of a conflict that would consume the nation, involving 8 foreign countries and dozens of armed groups.  Hutu refugees set up camp along Goma's periphery after the Rwandan genocide and the subsequent rise to power of a Tutsi government in 1994.  This event helped to trigger years of conflict that claimed the lives of over 5 million people, many from war-related diseases that sprung up in refugee camps.  I just finished reading an excellent book called "Dancing in the Glory of Monsters" by Jason Stearns.  It was published at the end of 2010 and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to understand more about a war that is all too often unknown, forgotten, or explained away with vague allusions to tribalism or greedy rebel groups fighting over mineral wealth. 
We took our chances and flew on a Congolese airline called Hewa Bora.  It was quite comfortable, though Congolese airlines are notoriously unsafe.  Even a United Nations plane crashed killing over thirty people shortly before I arrived in Kinshasa.  We touched down on an airfield littered with the carcasses of old aircraft from better days, kind of like an airplane graveyard.  My dad and I spent a day or two exploring Goma.  We set off walking through its dirt streets without a destination, in my opinion the best way to introduce oneself to a place.  We wound our way deeper and deeper into dense neighborhoods of small wooden houses with metal roofs, tightly paced along dirt roads built more for walking than for cars, and the occasional shack selling something advertized with a handwritten sign.  It began to rain a little after midday and the busy street emptied immediately as people took cover, apparently very accustomed to this seemingly daily ritual.  The one exception was the naked and barely clothed children playing in the muddy puddles, happy as ever.
 Goma has a port on Lake Kivu, the gigantic body of water along the border with Rwanda, where large and dilapidated boats make the journey to Bukavu, on the south end.  The day before we got there 72 people died when one sunk mid journey.  Along the road to the port, children were swimming in the huge lake in close proximity to piles of garbage on the shore.  Some creative young men had made their own pinball table out of wood and springs.    One of the most striking features of Goma was the omnipresent homemade wooden bicycle used for transporting goods through the city.  With a long slanting ramp and handle bars like the Y shape of a sling shot, the Chukaduru as they are called, seemed to be owned by any enterprising young man.   Without a load,  Congolese men would sail downhill standing upright on the long slanting seat, or push the bike along with one leg, the other knee resting on the seat.  When the bikes are loaded the men have to not only keep the thing from falling over, but push it forward, even up hill.   There are a few trucks, SUV's owned by rich Congolese, and 4 by 4s belonging to the alphabet soup of NGO's operating in Goma.  Other than that the Cukadurus rule the roost. 
Eventually the time came to scale the Volcano Nyiragongo with my father and two of his young, fit female colleagues.  The volcano lies just outside of the city and its recent lava flows in the last decade have inflicted considerable damage on Goma.  Hardened lava flows are ubiquitous even in the city center, and the volcanic rock is frequently used for building.  Our guide, Norbert, was a very friendly guy who could speak English fairly well, heads and shoulders above my French.  As we set off through the Jungle, Norbert and his soldier friends toting their Kalashnikovs, I felt oddly safer for the extra fire power.  For the past week the mountain had been closed because a Ranger had been shot and killed by a rebel.  We were the first group to ascend since its opening, a slightly disconcerting role.  Obviously, there are still rebels and a low level of violence in the area.  One of the Congolese men I spoke with suggested it was kept in check by the presence of the United Nations peace keeping force, which roams around Goma in four by fours and tanks.   But aside from the stabilizing factor, the general consensus around here as far as I can tell is that the UN spends millions of dollars a day in their operations in the Congo, which is the UN's most expensive venture, and does very little.
As the trail became steeper and turned into sharp dark volcanic rock, and we emerged above the tree line, a view of the massive Kivu lake appeared and I could make out the long thin shape of Goma stretching along its shore.  After six hours of hiking, we were approaching the rim and their seemed to be even more soldiers who had joined us.  As my dad labored up the last pitch, fighting dizziness induced by the more than 11,000 feet in elevation, he said, "I don’t mind a challenge, but I have never had quite the audience."  I glanced behind him and said, "What, you mean the 5 Congolese soldiers with Kalashnikovs bantering in Swahili behind you?" 
But the hard work was worth it.  I stepped up to the rim of the volcano and something completely novel came into sight.  Below, at perhaps a thousand vertical feet, was a circular lake of lava, bubbling, bursting and flaming red.  Some of it was hardened and gray, and these parts were criss-crossed with cracks and fissures that shined red, illuminated by the molten lava below, creating a blood red, capillary like pattern.  After a cold night in two man huts we started our descent early in the morning and arrived at the base a little after noon. Our guide from the tourist agency who had arranged the outing,  a 60 year old Congolese man and an ardent supporter of Congolese tourism named Daniel, interviewed my dad with a stick substituting for a microphone.  Daniel's most common refrain was, "Please, tell Lonely Planet to stop saying, ' Don’t go to Congo, it’s not safe.'"  Well, it's not exactly safe, but it doesn't seem all that dangerous either.  It is, however, very beautiful and so far its people have been friendly.
More to come on the Gorillas.