adventure · Travel

From Mist to Memories: Tracking Gorillas in Uganda

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It’s dark when we wake, and hard to leave our snug nest of blankets to step into the early morning chill pervading our cottage.

Peering outside we can see the mist has rolled in overnight, an eerie ghost, disguising the mountain peaks in smoke-like cloud.

We dress quickly, with nervous anticipation. We have no idea what to expect today, but our fingers are firmly crossed for a sighting of the mountain gorillas we have travelled so far to see. We know that this may be a once in a lifetime experience to see these beautiful primates in their natural habitat.

After a quick breakfast, our guide drives us to the starting point, where we are briefed about the day ahead. There are only around 880 Mountain Gorillas left in the world, with half of that number found in the Uganda and Rwanda National Park areas. The gesticulation period for a gorilla is 9 months and each mother will only birth one baby every 4 years or so, in order to breastfeed them throughout that time. Increasing their numbers therefore, is a slow process.

Conservation is a massive deal here. If you are sick, you are asked to show the true heart of conservation-and give up your place on the trek you have dreamed of and planned so carefully for. Devastating, but necessary: gorillas are susceptible to our human diseases, and it would be horribly unfair to put them at risk.

We are only permitted to spend an hour with the family, once we find them. This ensures that they get enough space from humans, without us overstepping their boundaries. They are not aggressive animals by nature, unless you threaten or agitate them, and we certainly don’t plan on doing either.

The cost of our permit (though fairly high at $600 USD each) is plowed back into conservation and the local community. The Ranger explains that the pygmies that lived in the forest have now been displaced by the Government’s conservation policies, due to their tendency to hunt the gorillas for meat. I am torn between conflicting feelings: sadness for a culture forced out of their homes, and relief that the gorilla’s only predator is no longer a threat to them. It’s a hard contradiction for me to balance.

The track is long and winding. The hills are pretty brutal and we are each given a walking stick to make the hike more manageable. We are put into a group with others of a similar age and fitness level, because each route has different terrain and lengths, and we will hike until we find the gorillas, even if it takes us 12 hours.

The trackers are out ahead of us, communicating back to the ranger which way the gorillas are headed. It’s impressive to hear about the signs they use to understand the gorillas movements: droppings, flattened grass direction, broken branches, leftover food. Our group is flanked front and back by armed soldiers. The sight of the guns makes me feel uneasy, but the ranger assures us that the guns are only used to fire a scare shot in to the air if animals turn aggressive. There are more than just gorillas in this area, and wild animals are, of course, unpredictable.

We push on, over tree branches and through deep sucking mud. We slip and stumble all over the place, mirroring the footsteps of the person in front. The cicadas sing and their steady hum is punctuated only by birdsong and our laboured breathing. The ranger tells us to watch out for the elephant footprint ahead, which has already filled with muddy water, and would have us knee deep in muck if we stepped into it. I can’t stop staring as I pass it.

After 3 hours we are told that the gorillas are now close. It’s time to leave our backpacks behind and scramble deeper into the rainforest. The trackers go ahead, cutting through vines and branches with machetes. It’s not called the Impenetrable National Park for nothing.

There are several moments where I am massively grateful to be young and fit. As I literally haul myself up and down escarpments, with only mulch underfoot to support my weight, I wonder how many people are forced to give up at this point. A thorn in my socks distracts me, and I look down to free myself, before realising two giant safari ants are caught in the cotton and are biting me ferociously. The tracker bends and plucks them off me with his bare hands, and I smile my thanks gratefully.

The ranger halts our procession and indicates to his right with a nod of his head. I look up and time stands still. Meters away, sits the majestic silverback looking out across his domain. There is nothing between us, and if he wanted, he could reach our group in one minute flat. I am in awe of his colossal size. Muscles ripple across his dark shoulders and chest. He almost doesn’t look real. He turns his huge head and looks directly at us. Those solemn eyes look straight into my soul and I am instantly mesmerised.

He pays us no heed and we whisper and shuffle to get a better view. I snap a few pictures and remember the advice I read earlier in the trip- to just be there in the moment, watching through my own eyes, rather than the lens of a camera.

The big guy is calm. The literal translation of his African name is ‘Peace’ and in the cool dark canopy of his forest, it is easy to see why. This is his kingdom, and he permits us to pay our respects to him.

The trackers cut more branches so that we can all see properly, making gorilla grunting noises as they work, to let the silverback know that we are friends. Now and again he thrills us with a response to them. When he has had enough he hulks himself upright and ambles on massive knuckles into the undergrowth.

We sit stunned, grinning at one another. But our encounter isn’t over yet. The trackers lead us deeper into the foliage, pointing out the baby gorillas that now clamber and swing from branch to branch. We are instructed to stay as one group. If we split up and surround the family, they will think we are trying to capture them. They have long memories, and the fear of poachers is deeply ingrained.

I can’t explain the way I felt in that moment, watching them. The way their age-old faces looked intelligently back at me, wise and all-knowing. The way they played, tumbling and somersaulting for our attention. It was poetry in motion, a natural magic, and I know that my re-telling will never do the memory justice. And that’s ok. Some experiences were never meant to be bound by words or photographs anyway.

The hour passes in wonderment. I’m literally sat on the forest floor; filthy, sweaty and being feasted on by bugs, but I don’t care. I wouldn’t trade places with anyone in the world right now. As we turn to leave, one of the family clambers up into a high tree- a sentinel watching over their lands.

We wave a final goodbye, and head off, back into the mists.

Image: Author’s Own

First Published on Elephant Journal here.

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love · Marriage

Thank You, to the Mother of My Future Husband

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Dearest future mother-in-law,

In just five months, I will walk down the aisle with one of the most amazing humans that I have ever known: your beautiful son.

I don’t need to tell you how special he is, because you already know, probably more so than anyone else. What I will share with you, is that he lights my life in a way no one else has. He demonstrates a peaceful power, without conforming to society’s expectation of a strong alpha male, and I am left in awe, both of him, and of you. I know it takes an extraordinary woman to raise a man so unapologetically himself. For this, and for so many other things, you have my eternal love and respect.

As you know, I come from a family of women. My dad was outnumbered by my mum and three daughters. He complained about it, but we all knew he secretly loved the way we fussed over him and each other. Boys were a mystery to me. I had no brothers, and most of my similar-aged cousins were also girls. My first two romantic relationships introduced me to the world of men, and though they didn’t last, they taught me what I wanted and didn’t want in a life partner.

Then I met your son.

You showed him that emotions were something to embrace. 

He had the air of someone who was not afraid to be himself, a very attractive trait. I noticed his gorgeous sunny smile first, and his easy-flowing tears second. I remember being alarmed though. Tears in my household meant something was terribly wrong, and were hidden away. A stiff upper lip was the norm; a pattern I carried forward into my adult life.

I discovered later the true depth of his sensitivity. He is not scared to let his tears flow freely, nor is he ashamed. You never told him society’s biggest lie, that “boys don’t cry,” and you were comfortable in the face of his emotion. I realized his tears are a beautiful gift. He is connected with his heart and proud to show it. His willingness to be soft, and to let the world in brings a new dimension of openness to our relationship.

You taught him the difference between strength and aggression.
He isn’t a stereotypical macho man, and yet he remains deliciously masculine. At 6 feet 4 inches he towers over me, and yet, his physical attributes never intimidate me. His temper is slow to build, and when it blows, he is firm, with a composure that pacifies my quick and fiery temperament. You have taught him that a message communicated calmly with assertiveness, is much more powerful than knee-jerk aggression, and it is this peaceful warrior stance that commands the respect of all who know him.

You established the value of family.

He adores his family, which says a lot about you, and stirs something deep in me. You give him space to be his own person, but always make your time, wisdom, and your home available when he needs the strength of your love. I admire that. A man who values his mother, and yet remains independent of her, is a keeper in my eyes.

I have seen you live your own truth, that family are the people we choose to keep close, regardless of blood ties, and that appeals to me, because I hold similar beliefs. The way he focuses on fostering and maintaining a connection with you tells me that he will strive for the same when building our family, and that, I cherish.

You banished gender roles.

He tells me about his childhood with fondness. He remembers that once a week you insisted he, alternating with his twin sister and older brother, cook a meal for the family. You guided him and taught him the skills that he then, much later, taught me. When I cook for him today, he is grateful, because he doesn’t take for granted that the woman keeps house. This is a lesson that we want to take forward and instil in our own children, regardless of their gender.

You showed him how to respect and love strong women.

I am his equal in all the ways that matter, socially, intellectually, economically. My voice carries equal weight and he listens to what I have to say before we make decisions. I know that I am lucky to be with such a modern thinking man and also, that his respect for women was inspired by you.

I love the way that he appreciates my strength, and is not threatened by my successes. You have been a solid female role model throughout his life. He has watched you overcome your own difficulties to have a career, raise three beautiful children, and develop a loving relationship with his beloved stepdad. You have shown him that women can have it all, and now he wants the same for his partner. He tells me that I can do anything, and with him at my side, I believe it.
And finally,
You let him go with grace.

You will forever be his first love, a precious bond that I always aim to protect. As we move into a future where we share your boy, I thank you for raising such an emotionally intelligent, loving man, who has already made this world a better place just by being in it.

All my love,

Your daughter-in-law-to-be,

JoJo


Originally published on The Good Men Project here.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

adventure · Travel

Letting Go of Our Preconceptions: A Lesson From Bosnia.

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I’ll admit that when my husband suggested Bosnia as part of our three month honeymoon adventure, I hesitated.

My initial thoughts flew to abandoned buildings, water dripping on to rusting corrugated iron, and walls riddled with bullet holes. I googled ‘landmines in Bosnia’ and immediately wished that I hadn’t. 

I mentioned our plans to my sister, who voiced my own concerns incredulously. “Bosnia? That sounds…dangerous?” 

But I had been waiting for an adventure, and here was one just asking to be had. I was fed up of letting media images and fear dictate where I could wander. More research promised that Bosnia and Herzegovina (to give the country its full name) was full of natural beauty, a vibrant culture and low violent crime rates. I felt reassured that we were being responsible, safety-wise, and was ready to head off of the popular tourist track to see for myself.

We hopped onto our waiting coach from Dubrovnik, following the glistening ocean along a dramatic coastline. The coach was pretty empty, which felt telling to say the least. 

As we reached the outskirts of Mostar, I began to feel a little nervous. The ghosts of war hang heavier around these parts. The roadside is punctuated by individual graves and street graffiti calls on us to remember those years of chaos. 

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The ruined buildings stand solemn, creeping with lush green plants through now empty window frames. The abundance of natural life is a stark contrast to the destruction wreaked here. ‘Danger‘ and ‘Do Not Enter‘ signs remind us that despite the rebuild efforts, the scars of the war remain visible, some 20 years later. 

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Our cab driver is a jolly man, who slips interchangeably between German and English. We discover that he took his children to Germany during the war to keep them safe, but he, unlike many others, decided to return to his homeland once it had ended. Approximately half the population made an escape at that time, especially those with inter-religious/cultural marriages, who would have been forced to fight against the family of their loved ones. It suddenly feels much more real to me; no longer nameless faces on the news, but living, breathing families with lives that were seriously impacted by the violence around them.

A local man, Sacha, guides us around. He is warm, funny, and there’s no subject off limits. “People will tell you we have made no progress,” he tells us, “they just like to complain. We really have moved forwards- socially, economically and politically. Not as much, or as quickly as we would like, but enough to be proud of. Things here are changing.” 

After our tour ends he invites us to accompany him on his walk back to his office, beyond the old town. There are less tourists out here, and it feels like we are seeing some of the ‘real’ Mostar. We pass construction sites, schools and monuments, before crossing the old front line dividing the Christian and Muslim sides of the city. “That wouldn’t have been safe to do 15 years ago,” he explains, “you would have been killed on sight. But no one blinks an eye now.”

Sobering to say the least. 

After a farewell fit for old friends, we leave Sacha and pass a cemetery. There’s something strange about this one and it takes me a few minutes to work out what it is. The realisation hits me like a punch to the stomach. Every single year of death marked is 1992. Many of these war victims were just kids, their pictures captured in stone for eternity. My heart aches as we walk silently among them.

Later we return to the old bridge through the comforting hubbub of old town. Architecturally, the bridge is stunning: a single arch defying the laws of physics. We sit awhile, watching the white stone rainbow float over the river Neretva. It is a proud symbol of reconciliation and communities connected once again. 

Crowds of locals gather here, singing, talking, eating. Two men laugh and gesticulate wildly to each other. Even without their native tongue, I understand the universal language of the dare. They egg each other on until both are removing their shirts and shoes, leaping (with their trousers still firmly in place), into eight-degree water.  Everyone cheers and claps, as they swagger proudly to the shore, posing for photographs. 

The biggest excitement comes when the Mostari, the keepers of the bridge, leap from the tallest point of the bridge, at around 24 meters high. My stomach leaps into my throat as they plummet to the surface. For a fee, you can be trained to do the same and earn a lifetime membership as a Mostari. Not for me thank you very much.

We are welcomed with smiles everywhere we go. A copper smith shows us his workshop and gives me a gift when I buy some of his work. The hotel staff go above and beyond, carrying my heavy case up and down stairs, despite my protests. Beautiful strains of traditional song drift over to us as we eat hearty home cooked meals and we talk and joke with restaurant owners. There is joy here, and laughter comes easily, made even more poignant by the tragic history that is never far from my mind. 

As we head on to Sarajevo, we pass some of the most stunning scenery I have ever seen, anywhere. Mountains soar above a turquoise green river, picture perfect. The media never shows us this side of this beautiful country and I start to feel ashamed for having lived in ignorance for so long. For letting the news reels of burning buildings and tanks influence my impressions.

And yet, isn’t this all part of the joy of travelling? Expanding our horizons? Overcoming our fears and preconceptions?

I have learned a valuable lesson from this vulnerable, beautiful place. I decide that I will always seek to explore with my own two eyes, and come to my own conclusions, safety permitting. All I can do is share my findings in the hope that they inspire others to do the same for themselves.

Hvala ti Bosna. Until we meet again. 

~

Author: JoJo Rowden

Image: Author’s own

Originally Published on Elephant Journal here.

love

Who’s the Fairest of Them All?

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She looks at her. She sees her in all of her radiant glory. Her strength. Her passion. Her unique beauty.

And the biggest tragedy in life, she thinks, is that she will never believe it.

She tells her anyway.

“You are beautiful,” she whispers softly, “In the way that the forest is beautiful in the first embrace of the morning sun. Its dark imperfections framed in pinks and golds, as luminous sunbeams race to kiss the dew awake.”

Blue eyes stare back at her, unwavering, unconvinced. But she is just getting started.

“You are strong. Your body is a shrine to be worshiped, to nourish, to adore, no matter what shape it inhabits. It is your ticket to freedom, as it lifts, moves and dances you through this life. It is powerful beyond the physical, and if you nurture it, it will not let you down, despite the insecurities that claw longingly for you.”

She watches the silent gaze flick longingly along the length of her own limbs. She does not move.

“You are an enigma; an ocean of thoughts that glitter on tides, of secrets that flow in the darkness. Not all may navigate your hidden depths, but those who are brave enough are blessed with your treasures. Those who do not drown in you will return often to bathe in your calm stillness.”

Her hand reaches out to touch a cold, smooth cheek. Her expression is stone. Disbelief lingers still.

She won’t give up.

“You are a rainbow against the grey light of the passing storm. In a world of darkness, your love is the sun and people long to feel your warmth on their face for as long as you will allow them to.”

No response.

“If you believe nothing else, you must know just one thing. You are enough. Just as you are. Right now, in this moment. And I will love you, without question, until we are gone from this world.”

In the darkened room, the mirror glimmers back at her as though a curse has finally been lifted. Perhaps it has. A familiar smile tugs at the lips that she knows so well. She bites them shyly.

Her reflection believes her at last

Author: JoJo Rowden

Image: Marta Nørgaard/flickr

Originally published on Elephant Journal here.

adventure · Travel

How to Have an Adventure Every Damn Day.

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For as long as I can remember, there has been a part of me that longs for the sublime.

grief · love

The Limited Edition {Poem}

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He has never been loved.

He tries it on
Shrugging his shoulders to slip beneath its heavy weight,
Admiring its warmth, that cozy glow.
He feels safe.
Powerful.

He turns to the side,
Admiring himself for the first time
Drinking it in.
He’ll never take it off
He tells her.
Tells himself.

This is not an everyday magic.
Others will attempt to imitate her,
To recreate this love.
They cannot help themselves.
Yet they are plain, shallow copies;
A lesson in mass produced boredom.
They are cotton, and cotton has its uses-
But she is silk.

She is an exquisite lesson in burning desire
And soothing nurture both,
The stitching of lust and love.
This heart is a once in a lifetime gift,
An enchantment to treasure.

And when he lets her slip away
Remembering her softness beneath his waiting hand,
When he feels the cold empty place inside
Where once she draped herself-
He will wrap himself up
In regret instead.

Author: JoJo Rowden

Image: Alex/flickr

Originally published on Elephant Journal here.

grief · love

Every Saint Has a Past, Every Sinner Has a Future