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.

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.

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.

adventure · Spiritual · Travel

Unplugged: a Gift to Myself.

JoJo Rowden

Silent trees stand solemn, guarding the secrets of the ancients.

Ripples on the river, lazily chasing each other across a mirrored surface.
There is no urgency here.
Time stands still,
And I, with it.

A symphony of birds are my alarm clock,
My soul awakens gently
Stretching itself out towards the tendrils of sunshine
That creep below the tent canvas in a crescendo of dawn colour.

It’s hard to imagine myself now
Pushing through corporate streets of grey and black.
Miserable faces in a crowded prison.
Slave to email and time, confinements of our own creation.
Always connected to the Mothership
Instead of Mother Earth.
We poison ourselves, slowly, digitally.
We forget who we were
Before the world told us who we ought to be.

I remind myself to slow down, to heal.
To breathe in the crisp air deeply, Jasmine Star and wet grass
Exhaling the city smog and all of it’s responsibilities.
Refreshing my creative heart
Instead of browser windows.

I revel in myself; my thoughts and my dreams
And I am aware once again
That alone is not lonely.
My company is a treasured gift
That I give happily to others
Yet not to myself.
Today is different.
Today I am my own bestfriend.

Here, among the patriotic colours of the forest,
Shimmering golds and greens sing of the true heart of this country.
There are no meetings to schedule,
No places to be.
Just me and my yoga mat
Beneath a cloudless cobalt sky.

First published on elephant journal here.

adventure · love · Poetry · Spiritual · Travel

Finding a Message in a Bottle. {Poem}

 

Susanne Nilsson/flickr

The secrets of the universe sheathed in glass, shielded from prying eyes.

Her small fingers wrap longingly around the delicate bottle, cradling it gently to her chest.

She knows that once she lets the world inside, there can be no return to the ecstasy of her unconscious imaginings.

Only the rugged cork guards the tantalizing mystery, preserving the magic inside.

The possibilities are endless and she entertains them all.

 

Azure waters creeping softly onto snow-white sand banks,

Embracing the desolate shore with foam tipped fingers.

Perhaps it contains a tattered map; a trail to rubies and luminous pearls,

Hidden long ago by breathless visitors.

A forgotten island, where stars sparkle brighter than gemstones ever could.

 

Maybe it is a letter from a stranger to his estranged lover.

Words that caress and soothe her troubled heart, that still beats for him.

Silken whispers of her radiant eyes and lustrous hair,

And how they enrapture him.

Promises of eternity, and a plea to meet, that never found her.

How long did he wait for her among the wildflowers?

 

Neither of these seem quite fitting to her.

A beloved recipe then?

A legacy from another lifetime, a window to a war-torn world of hardship.

Passed down from a silver haired grandmother with a knowing smile.

The gift that will be appreciated only after she has left this world behind;

A note scrawled in the margin that the secret ingredient

Is always a dash of love.

 

She can wait no longer.

She releases the genie from the bottle.

The soft note flutters in the ocean breeze, a sailboat on the wind of life

And the secret of the sea shows itself in all its beauty.

“Everything you can imagine is real.” 

 

She nods, serenely, eyes glistening with blissful tears.

She knows what to do.

She starts to wade into the furious ocean, and lets the waves crash over her

Trusting in the possibilities unknown,

that live in all of us.

~

Photos: Susanne Nilsson/flickr

First published on EJ here.

adventure · love · Spiritual · Travel

She’ll Meet you Where the Wild Things Are

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“If she’s amazing, she won’t be easy. If she’s easy, she won’t be amazing. If she’s worth it, you won’t give up. If you give up, you’re not worthy.” ~ Bob Marley

She’s worth it, your wild one.
She will set your world on fire, if you are brave enough to let her.

She will enchant you, fulfill you and challenge you. She wants you to know her, so that you can love her, quirks and all.

She wants you to understand that your adorned magnolia walls can’t hold her inside, not for long. Your expensive beamed ceilings can never be high enough or remarkable enough to be worth missing a glimpse of her beloved azure sky. Your home is a beautiful prison certainly, but it destroys her all the same.

Her spirit paces the enclosed room like a caged tigress, tail swishing furiously, looking for escape. She longs to run free. Show her a meadow full of colour, where she can dance among sunflowers. Let her roam outside with no fancy ornaments or gadgets to distract her creativity, just breeze and rolling hills. Lay with her on cool grass, fingers entwined, and watch the stars blaze a path of glory across an inky midnight sky.

Don’t ask her to sit and play happy family with you. She doesn’t care if you buy the white toaster or the black one, or whether the neighbours have a bigger car than the two of you. She isn’t interested in chasing the extra dollar to have that standard resort vacation, or attending to mindless gossip. Let her dream of a far off glen, glistening ethereally in the soft light of the rising sun. Take her to listen to the song of the dawn birds, for they are all the small talk she needs.

She doesn’t iron the sheets, or, well, anything really. She is too busy curling up with a book, engrossed in a shiny new world waiting to be explored. She has never been able to relate to the domesticated heroines of old; tumbling from her own bed to her next adventure, wild haired and bright eyed. People tell her she is beautiful in her crumpled clothes and muddy boots. Passion always is. Recognise it. Worship it. Not everyone is blessed with it and it’s not something you can fake for too long.

She may not cook you a gourmet meal, but she loves food and she delights in feeding you. Let her. She won’t follow a recipe; she will trust her imagination, throwing in delicious colours and smells as they appeal to her. Let her wrap you in small strong arms, cover you in flour and sprinkle magic into your life. She will kiss you with a mouth that tingles with spices, leaving you hungry for more. She will never let your lips starve for her.

She won’t knit for you. She is young and restless and her time is too precious to spare. Her hands have more important things to explore right now. Your face, for instance; fingers lovingly remembering every last detail. She memorises the way you shudder when she lightly strokes your collarbone and how your stubble feels against her fingertips. This satisfies her far more than a ball of yarn ever could.

Let her breathe, your wild one. She will only stay if it feels right. Your mortal hands cannot bind her by holding her too tightly. Show her your fantasies and you might inspire her. She will tell you a story about what she longs to do with you, and to you. You should stop speaking then and listen. Her words are enchantments that weave mystery into your life, and her visions will never leave you, even when you ache to forget them. In years to come you will crave the power of her dreams, and others will pale in the shadow of her intensity.

She must run away now, the stars are calling her and life tugs at her soul ready for another adventure. She cannot be tamed. Love her if you will, or let her go. She cannot do this by halves.

She is chaos; she is freedom. She wants you to join her if you can. You know where to find her. You have seen her there in your head.

She will wait for you as always, where the wild things are.

Originally published here on EJ.

Photo: Michelle Hébert/Flickr

adventure · Spiritual · Travel

Discovering India’s magic through it’s own eyes

Read my original article here on elephant journal

 

‘One photo madam, just one photo.’

Another day in India.

This particular morning finds me at the Taj Mahal, enthralled in the splendour of the marble dome shimmering gently in the reflecting pool. The heat pursues me relentlessly as I shade my eyes against the cloudless sky. I feel peaceful here.

No one knows me, and I rejoice in that freedom.

Locals pass me by, not bothering to avert their dark eyes from my strange face. Their curiosity radiates openly and they whisper to one another in magical tongues.

They form a line to have a picture with me. I’m a little embarrassed, giggling nervously. I’ll never understand what the fascination is for them. They reach out to touch my fair skin and gesture to my light eyes. I nod and smile and long to climb inside their heads and understand their world; a kaleidoscope of colours, sounds and aromas to explore.

A world where a blue-eyed girl is worthy of queuing, like some kind of movie star.

I wonder what they would think of me if they could know me as a person. One with thoughts and problems and dreams just like them. Would they view me differently through those mysterious eyes?

I smile obligingly beside each of them as my ‘paparazzi’ have their fill. Their wide grins dazzle me and I find myself wondering where my photo will end up. Perhaps I will live for eternity, trapped in a dust-covered frame among the gods and relics of this strange land. Perhaps I will be dragged out of old boxes to be shown to future grandchildren; the day Papa met the British girl, standing in awe in the shadow of the Taj.

I find my friends as the sun begins its decent from heaven, blazing a hot red fire in its wake. We retreat to the outer walls to admire the way the light plays on the glimmering roof, bathing us all equally in its purifying glow. Poverty, dirt, death are transformed for that brief time. Everything is beautiful for a while.

We buy a coke from a bustling street vendor, and are told not to go off too far. He wants the glass bottle back for the next customer. I don’t let myself think about where the ancient bottle has been during its battered life, or how he is washing them. I just enjoy the cold bubbles washing away the day’s dust from my mouth.

Kids run around us, playing, pushing, shouting. Hands outstretched, they smile shyly as they ask for money in a strange tongue. They rub their tummies to show me they are hungry and my heart melts. I want to stroke their tousled hair and wipe the grime from their tiny faces. I want to love them for a while and show them that the world can be a better place.

I reach into my pocket to give a few rupees, and my friend stops me, shaking her head. I’m confused. She crouches down to eye level with the little girl in front of us; speaking to her in an urgent tone, in words I cant follow. She reaches into her bag and pulls out a packet of biscuits. She hands her a couple and then sends her skipping on her way.

‘Most of the little ones give the money straight to their parents, who send them out to beg.’ she tells me. She always carries food instead to give to them. It’s a good tip, and I decide to do the same from now on.

Darkness creeps in now as the sun peeks out from the horizon. The dusk sees us running across a deserted moor, laughing breathlessly, whooping into the nothingness. Grassy wasteland as far as the eye can see, dry yellow stalks crunching under our feet. My friend is cracking a whip he bought from a street seller, trying to make the same satisfying snapping noise that the vendor could coax out of it.

A figure swathed in orange robes beckons us towards him with a withered old hand. He grips a gnarled staff in the other. He looks at us with a cheeky grin, and poses for photos with us, a cataract creeping across one of his eyes like spilt milk. We take it in turns, looking into the camera, arms firmly around our new friend.

I smile to myself as I realise we are ending the day as I began it, capturing memories through another’s eyes.