Coffee & Chimps

I can’t wake up. My down duvet and the darkness are holding me hostage. I set my alarm forward to what I hope is 15 more minutes and not 15 hours. I’ll soon find out.  The subway rumbles by, as it does. Behind my house the incessant jackhammering in the underground parking garage is already full tilt. The upstairs tenant is busy doing her usual morning laps on the hardwood in army boots.

I pull on a hoodie, do a visual weather check and in one swoop turn on my laptop, the gas fireplace and the left stove burner for the kettle. Scooping towers of coffee grounds into my Bodum I start thinking about how different mornings were in the Congo. Coffee was not a leisurely event with a daily paper spread out before me. In the Congo, provided there was electricity, coffee happened quickly as there were 23 chimpanzees patiently waiting at the sanctuary for hot milk. My alarm routinely sounded at 5 am, not 9:30 am as my Toronto life permits.

I felt like a wayward Starbucks barista in Africa. Dozens of one litre plastic bottles dominated the space beside the sink in the crowded prep kitchen. The six youngest chimps had their own personal bottles with pacifier tops as they were still bottle fed. I never imagined that I’d be making breakfast for chimps. However, pre-sunrise and bleary-eyed, I was stationed in the kitchen, boiling water, carefully measuring honey, propolis, vitamins and powdered milk into a narrow funnel.

This was serious business. Chimps are as particular as we are; if the milk was too hot or too cold, they pushed it away in disgust. Not enough honey or too much propolis and they balked. Tall, full-fat, no-whip, extra honey or else! The adults accepted the warm milk poured into tin cups with handles in a semi-mannerly way. The shrill feeding time pant-hoots and excited displays were deafening.

As I plunge the French press and pour my first cup I stand in two worlds, as I often do. I’m drinking coffee in downtown Toronto, but am transported back to the dust and din of the Congo. All I have to do is look at the enlarged photos hanging on the wall in my kitchen. I step into a sunrise in Masai Mara and stare into the eyes of two curious Congolese children.

I wait for my bagel to toast with crossed arms. I miss waking Micah, the youngest chimp. She stayed with us at the house near the sanctuary because the July nights were too cold, and she was already suffering from bronchitis. After the milk bottles had been filled, I’d wake her (rousing her earlier was too chaotic—imagine a four-armed child on the loose!).

Micah slept in a large dog-type carrier, swathed in blankets, in a tiny t-shirt to keep her core warm. She would gently coo and begin to blink at the light as I folded the blankets back that kept the carrier dark. As I unlocked the carrier door, she instantly reached out for my neck as though it were a tree trunk and gripped me tightly. Her body would be so warm from sleep. Her diaper would be soggy, but, in that moment, she could do no wrong. She’d yawn so innocently and examine me, sometimes reaching her fingers to my mouth to trace my teeth.

Minutes later she would be on a tear. Changing her diaper would turn into a chase scene. She’d have the powdered milk container popped open. She’d be squeezing honey from the bottle when I turned my back. The cat would be hiding behind the curtains avoiding unexpected tail yanks. Micah would appear with matches in her mouth. A bar of soap.  My lip balm. Red paint—from where? I never found out.

I pour more coffee and add too much cream. The chimps would send it back. Micah would have her fingers in my mug already, threatening to tip the contents, her eyes hovering just above my counter, scanning.  She would love my barstools—four of them to swing between. In no time she’d find my porcupine quills and beluga bone. My cowhide rug would have tiny chimp teeth marks at its edge. The wine bottles tucked in the recycling bin would be out and rolling around after she sipped the last sips.

Grabbing the peanut butter from the middle drawer I see all the things Micah would ransack in less than a minute. Spaghetti noodles, oatmeal, popcorn, Nutella. She was a sucker for sweets and would be in the fridge searching for cordial or Coke.  Her guilty face and temporary disappearance always gave her away.

Even though it’s louder here in Toronto, it’s somehow quieter. I should be getting ready for work but somehow find myself scrolling through my Congo photos instead.  It’s a side effect of sharing breakfast with chimps.

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Categories: Congo Line: Once Upon a Time in Africa, Into and Out of Africa | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Coffee & Chimps

  1. Rodney

    Awesome, I love your Congo stories.
    You know if you ever want to have Anthony over for the night, you could experience a very similar morning. 🙂

  2. What I wouldn’t do to be able to feed chimps…I’ve loved them in my awaken dreams, for as long as I can remember…probably since watching Tarzan on tv as a child….you are so fortunate to have those memories…what I wouldn’t do to hold a chimp in my arms…

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