Into and Out of Africa

Uganda, Kenya and the Congo

Beer in a Zanzibar Prison, Petting Tortoises and Spice Haggling

Even though we had 12 days of excessive lounging at Kichanga Lodge, it took some will and mutual prodding to journey southwest to Stone Town for a day. We knew it would be hectic and congested but less grating than the commotion of Cairo (where pedestrians are advised to find local “human shields” to help them cross roads) and Kampala, Uganda (where the main transit hub consists of seemingly a thousand, honking minivans crammed into a dust ball of a football field). Still, we were slightly resistant to abandon our bikini attire and paperbacks for the bombardment of touts.

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In 2000, Stone Town was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The decaying core was once a hot bed of slave trade and lucrative spice trading centre. The Arab and Persian influence is obvious in the design—and the ‘doors of Stone Town’ are Zanzibar’s equivalent of a Big 5 safari. In 1866, Livingstone prepared for his final expedition into the interior of East Africa in Stone Town.

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The narrow alleys are like a rabbit’s warren. Many of the roads are nameless and too narrow for cars to travel through, though mopeds and bicycles tear through the maze at lightning speed. Many of the buildings are constructed from coral and have long stone ‘barazas’ at the base that act as benches or, when necessary, elevated sidewalks during the monsoon season.
The carved wooden doors are both medieval and outlandish with big brass studs that served as deterrents to elephants. Indian-designed doors are rounded at the top while Arabian style is defined by a rectangular shape. Doors with chains carved into the length indicated a slave chamber, while others with Indian lotus flowers hoped to channel prosperity.

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We decided to visit Prison Island before venturing into the hamster’s maze. Finding a boat captain involved simply taking one step on the beach. Negotiations were quick—for $35 we booked a dhow (with a motor) and would be free to return to Stone Town (a 25 minute, nearly 6km ride) at our leisure. The ride across the Windex-blue waters was smooth and not the white-knuckler warned about in the guide books.

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Some reports say that the prison was home to rebellious slaves in the 1860s, other references say it was never used—and, though it was designated as a quarantine station during a bubonic plague and cholera outbreak, it remained vacant. Nowadays you can now stay on Prison Island at the posh Changuu Private Island Paradise Hotel for $300 a night.

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Here, Zanzibar’s colony of Giant Aldabran Tortoises roam about at a carefree centurian pace. Imports from the Seychelles in the 19th century, tortoises were a pirate’s idea of take-out. The tortoises could survive on boats for long stretches with very little food, and provided valuable meat when necessary. The tortoises of Prison Island were gifts from the Seychelles government in 1919. For $4 US visitors can share space with the ancient and docile creatures. I was surprised at how mobile and active they were. The Galapagos tortoises that I had seen before seemed to be more like stationary sculptures. Here at Changuu, they are in slow-mo road races, often resembling bumper cars as three tortoises vie for one narrow opening between the trees.

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I was hoping to find a good tortoise postcard or two to fire off to our parents back in Canada (an unlikely proposition as the African postal system is as reliable as Rob Ford), but when we asked for directions to the “Prison Boutique” we were told, “it is there (pointing to the right), but, there are no things.”

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Indeed, the Prison Boutique was long, and possibly forever closed. However, wandering about the ruins was a neat exploration. Especially when we realized that we were drinking beer, in prison. The prison bar (a new addition) was registering sauna-worthy temperatures, so we took our tall Serengeti’s to the edge of the water. If you ever want to have a staring problem, do it here, facing the Indian Ocean.

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After our fill of historical jailhouse enlightenment and tortoise intimacy, we went for a dip in those tempting waters. When shiny brochures say “powder white sand beach and bathtub warm waters”—it can be a true. We found tangible proof.
We didn’t return to Stone Town until 2:30. Aside from the House of Wonders, buying some saffron and curry, lunch at Mercury’s and a sundowner at the Africa House Hotel, our agenda was rather loose.
But, do you think we could find The House of Wonders? Freddie Mercury’s father worked in the old Sultan’s palace as an accountant. It was the first place in Eastern Africa to have an elevator (thus, the House of Wonders!). Martyna, the manager of Ras Mchamvi resort beside Kichanga gushed about the rooftop view and how we MUST go to enjoy the suspended view of Stone Town.
Despite our efforts to walk with conviction, we did appear lost in the alleys as I was trying to look at our tiny map on the sly. Nailed. “What are you looking for?” We hoped that we would get a simple answer and a pointed finger south or west.
“House of Wonders.”
“It is just to the right. And then left. I will show you.”
Kim and I rolled our eyes in tandem. In Egypt, no one gives directions, they must physically show you, which also means they would like a tip for their time. Innocent offers to take our picture in front of the pyramids or the Sphinx were disguised as money grabs. “Now you pay me for my time.” We had an all out battle of profanity with one hothead Egyptian who insisted on spouting off all the history of the Sphinx despite our insistence that we didn’t want a guide. “No, no, I am just a friend. I am just telling you as a friend.” Riiiiiight.
So, we had a new “friend” in Stone Town. The right turn, left turn, turned into nearly 30 minutes of a condensed tour of Stone Town that went in a crazy, convoluted circle BACK TO THE EXACT POINT WE HAD STARTED FROM. Oh, and the House of Wonders wasn’t right and then left—it was immediately in front of us. Fenced off, and looking closed and/or under construction, the building itself said “National Museum” on the front, not House of Wonders.
We gave our friend a few dollars, though we were ready to strangle him. Kim gently accused him of taking on a wild goose chase (entirely true). “Why would I do? I take you where you say.” Which, in his apparent direct route went by a restaurant his cousin owned, Persian baths where we could go for a tour, a coffee shop we should stop at (he likes the vanilla milkshakes there—hint)…Kim and I came to a dead stop a few times and communicated via our eyes to each other “should we ditch him?” He was like static cling though, and he had wound us around the alleys so deep, we were like spun tops. I had no idea which way the ocean, our western landmark was, anymore.
“You said you were going to show us where the House of Wonders was.” Kim said directly and exasperated.
“Why are you so tough,” the guy replied and at that point, in the deserted, sketchy alley we were in, we thought we might be snuffed, mugged or defriended. “I take you.”

*Lesson: if you ever find yourself in Stone Town, unable to find the House of Wonders, or whatever, don’t ask directions.
We quickly renamed our venture The House of No Wonders. We had to wake up the three security guides sitting inside. Though the museum was actually closed for “refurbishment” (probably 10 years in the making), they still wanted to charge us $12 US to enter. I said we just wanted a photo from the rooftop. I’ve seen elevators before, that wasn’t a huge deal.
Though I shouldn’t admit this, we were feeling a bit ripped off from our “friend” and the admission fee to a closed site. I stuffed two folded up dollars into the donation box. We took the winding stairs to the top which, at 140 degrees felt like the staircase to Hell. The security guy was right on our heels and when we got to the third floor Kim realized that there was no rooftop access. We told the guard we wanted to see the rooftop and he shouldered a door open for us after unlocking the bolt.
The roof was ready to collapse. We followed make-shift cement block steps to the edge and could hardly embrace the moment with the toe-tapping guard waiting at the door behind us. Kim shook her head—“not worth $12. What a joke.”

I said, no worries, sharing with Kim that I had craftily only put in $2. We enjoyed the view a little more knowing it was at a discount.
I snapped a few shots and we agreed we’d had enough of the city. “Let’s grab a beer and something to eat.”
As we reached the main floor of the empty, cobweb-clad museum one of the dozing guard’s cleared his throat and said, “You only pay $2. Price is $6 US, each.”
Still annoyed from the House of No Wonders Kim played nice and said, “Oh, sorry, we misunderstood—I read the child’s price here which is $1. So sorry.” I fumbled in my pockets trying to find more dollar bills and tried the trick again, adding another three. I stuffed them in the box and we hurried out.
“Let’s go!” Now we definitely couldn’t walk anywhere in the radius of the House of No Wonders for fear that we might be sent to Prison Island for real.
*Lesson: Colossal rip-off even at $5 US. Here’s our $5 picture instead:

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We found solace and genuinely good thin-crust banana and pineapple-topped pizza at Mercury’s. Cashing in on Freddie Mercury’s fame, the seaside resto near the ferry dock was not the big tribute I thought it would be. They had maybe a dozen framed photos of Mercury and Queen, a little blurb in the front of the menu and a few cocktails named after songs, but, that was the extent of it. No non-stop Queen blasting from the speakers. Still, as a rabid fan of the group, I felt it was a necessary place to see. And, after House of No Wonders, we could find wonder much easier, elsewhere.

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Like, the Big Tree on Mzingani Road. The massive fig is actually marked on the map. I thought it might be a bar or cafe, but, no, it’s a really big tree. It provides shade for over a dozen vehicles and I’m certain a hundred people could circle its base. Now there’s a wonder.

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Our last Stone Town goal was to find spices (and avoid museum security and our dear friend). After about 5 minutes of walking down the alley the demands by shopkeepers “Where from? Come look. Looking is free!” almost put us over the edge. Though we were interested in finding some silver rings, it wasn’t worth the battle. I accidentally touched an item and it was an instant attack of “How much you want to pay for this? How much?” The calculator was pulled out and nearly stuffed in my hand. I wasn’t even interested in the carved giraffe or whatever it was, but, the vendor was right on the back of my flip flops. “I’ll make you special deal.”
Kim was ready to make tracks to the Africa House Hotel and claim early seats for the sunset. “Let’s forget about the spices.”
I begged to try just to the end of the alley—we had already gone to Grenada, the other “Spice Island” and come home empty-handed. We couldn’t travel 17,000km to this Spice Island and have no curry to show for it.
I found a spice display and the vendor quickly handed me a basket. I found some ginger tea for my sister, vanilla beans for Dax and my mom, paprika and curry for Kim’s family and saffron for us. The guy hurried the full basket inside and punched away on his calculator. “Euros or US dollar?”
“Forty-five dollars.”
He showed me the calculator screen and I was flabbergasted. “No way.”
Kim and I laughed at the outrageous amount. Had we thrown in a bag of panned gold as well? I know saffron is expensive, but, c’mon. We did not have $45 of spices.
“No thanks.”
We did the ‘walk of instant negotiation’ and headed to the door. “How much you pay then? How much? How about $40.”
We kept walking.
“What’s the most you pay?”
He let all the air out of his lungs and huffed. “No. $40.”
We resumed walking and were back out in the alley when he shouted, “Okay, $15.”
He still tried to push us into paying $15 in Euros and then conceded. But, he also made use of another nervy tactic by holding our $20US bill, handing us the bag of spices and saying, “okay, and $5 more for me. I keep change.”
We got our five dollars change back and instead spent almost $45 on cocktails at the trendy ex-pat watering hole, The Africa House Hotel.
We eased back into a more relaxed state knowing that we didn’t have to haggle anymore. We found primo seats on the deck for sundown and watched the park below fill with muscle-bound boys practicing a form of Thai martial arts. Another group kicked a soccer ball around barefoot.
We sucked back pina coladas in coconut vessels and I tried the much-publicized Dawa (local gin, honey, lime juice). The drinks are super overpriced at the Africa House, but, it is the best vantage point for sunset. And, the sun put on a blazing, brilliant show. If you’ve never seen an African sunset, you can almost count the seconds and see it dropping—much like the apple at Times Square on New Year’s Eve. It is a true marvel. A wonder, even.
We waved to our driver below and were happy to drive out of Stone Town and back to Kichanga under the spell of sensory exhaustion from warding off touts,  local gin, spice procurement and the rigours of sunsetting.

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Zanzibar: Slave Caves, Monkeys and the Italian Riviera

I’m not sure if it’s age, over-exposure or, masses of people in general that push Kim and I towards destinations that are essentially “the middle-of-nowhere.” Like actively choosing to sleep in the White Desert of Egypt or pushing on from the bustle of Akureyri, Iceland to the fishing village of Dalvik because the population is only 1,400.

I knew Zanzibar would appeal to Kim for the untainted stretches of beach alone. The island itself is about half the size of Prince Edward Island at 90km long and 30km wide. (In contrast PEI is 224km by 6-64 km in width). But, selling the rest of Zanzibar due to its part-of-Africa status took some fancy footwork.

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I insisted that the Spice Island was truly, “soft Africa.” There were no lions or hippos to gobble us up at night. There were no stampeding elephants. The malaria rate was relatively low and the long list of inoculations was just a geographical kink. Beer was readily available despite the Muslim population. Also on the plus side, we’d be ready to travel virtually anywhere after having jabs of meningitis, polio boosters, typhoid , Twinrix (hepatitis) toppers and Dukarol (cholera protectant) cocktails.

It’s usually what you read after you return from a destination when you count your lucky stars. And question your previous rationale. Though we knew about the hijacking of an Ethiopian Airlines plane from Addis Ababa to Rome by the co-pilot just weeks before we departed, we assumed a hijacking couldn’t happen twice, on the same flight path. But, what we didn’t know (and I just discovered in researching this post) was that two homemade bombs blasted the Anglican Cathedral (which we bypassed because it is supposedly always closed—though I did want to see the cross carved out of the fallen mango tree that David Livingstone was buried beneath). However, we were actually at Mercury’s, completely unaware, eating legendary banana and pineapple pizza. The popular seaside bar named after Freddie Mercury of Queen fame, was the other bombing location.

The bombings were on February 25th of this year. Of course, now in the safe cradle of Canada I read further related articles about an attack on two British teens in Stonetown in August, 2013, where acid was thrown into their faces. In the past year attackers have also thrown acid into the faces of both Christian and Muslim leaders. Several churches have been torched in the archipelago with mounting tension. A pastor was shot dead. I guess I missed all those headlines in reading about the darling little elephant shrews and turaco birds.

But, this is the inherent risk of travel. Terrible things happen right here in sleepy, innocent Galt too. If you put too much weight into media headlines and travel advisories, there would be no place left to safely visit. So, back to that sell on “soft Africa.”

Zanzibar offered a competitive blend of fauna, landscape, curries, HEAT and history. Jozani forest had the endemic colobus monkeys, there was a marine turtle sanctuary in the north, slave chambers and a coral cavern and an old prison with a tortoise sanctuary to poke about on Prison Island. I had also scoped out all the places we needed to drink beer: The Rock, Mercury’s and the Africa House Hotel.

Staying on the east coast meant that we were far from the crowds and excess of Kendwa (the “Italian Riviera”). Hurray. But, it also meant that every excursion was a costly one due to transport alone. While a private hire cost upwards of $120 US a day, we still had complete freedom in our ‘schedule’ and no other tourists to contend with. We customized our days.

(*For those who are just tuning in: Kim and I highly allergic to group travel. A cruise (anywhere), Vegas and India are all absolute living nightmares to us. We lean heavily into the far-flung, shoulder season and not-for-everyone type destinations).

Field Trip!

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1. The Rock

Visiting the Rock was a no-brainer. Though, in Googling the place you’ll need to be more specific or you’ll be inundated with Dwayne Johnson “The Rock.” Situated on Michamvi Peninsula, Pingwe Beach was a 20-45 minute beachcomb from our lodge, depending on our distraction level with tide pools, twirly shells and urchin sightings.

The small resto is built upon a coral outcrop. At low tide you can walk to the stairs, but at high tide, you’ll need to hop in a boat back to shore or be a stealth swimmer.

The large deck in the back is like pulling up a lounger inside an oven on broil though. Even for sun-mad people like Kim and I, the heat was relentless. It actually led to excessive hydration by means of Safari beers.

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We didn’t eat at the Rock as we fell in love with the cheese and tomato-stuffed chapattis at Kichanga Lodge. On the second visit to the Rock we were still stuffed from blue marlin burgers. But, we can attest that for a cold beer, this is the best perch.

It makes me think back to the TVO program we watched last night called Indian Ocean with host Steve Reeves. He took a group of Somali boys living in a refugee camp to the ocean (for many, it was the first time they’d seen the sea). When he asked one of the young men how it felt, to experience the ocean he said, “I think it is good for my eyes. To see this. Beautiful.”

Yes, the Rock and the view is very good for your eyes.

2. Jozani Chawkwa Bay National Forest

The main road actually has monkey crossing signs and speed bumps to calm the traffic. Acquiring an admission receipt to the national park was the equivalent of being granted a passport. At $10 US each, we were more than happy to contribute to such a successful conservation education project. Our guide was a flora and fauna junkie and if we didn’t feel like fainting the entire time from the heat and encouraging him to continue on, we would have probably still been in the forest.

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The red colobus monkeys live here—I had no idea we would have such a close encounter with them. Though they are habituated, there is no contact between humans. Of course, we did witness a fine example of two dumb humans thinking they were in a petting zoo, eager to pet the wild monkeys.

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The neat part of Jozani is that there’s a little magic in the woods. Though reported extinct, there have been sightings of the legendary Zanzibar leopard. The only proof of its existence is a taxidermy display at the Zanzibar museum and a few skins in the UK and Boston. Locals believe that the leopard is the pet of sorcerers and aren’t exactly as keen to spot one as we were.

Unfortunately, spotting the elephant shrew is probably the equivalent of seeing a moose on a visit to Canada. Same for the night-friendly bushbabies and hyrax. But, the leap-froggin monkey encounter and walk through impossibly tall mahogany and mango trees was enchanting. At times, standing below African pines buzzing with honey bees collecting sap I wondered what continent we were on.

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Admission to Jozani also includes a visit to the mangrove forest a humpy-bumpy 7 km away. Yes, we’ve all seen the likes of them in Florida and the Caribbean. In Jozani, the mutant mangroves choke out a dark salt water tributary canal. At high tide the waters are full of red snapper. At low tide you can see the filtering process of the trees in the white residue left on the leaves “sweating out” the salt extracted by the tree roots.

Kim thought we’d entered Sleepy Hollow territory. “Aerial branches” of the mangrove trees grown downwards like stalactites to connect with the ground root system, creating a complex matrix of impenetrable forest. It’s downright spooky.

We followed our guide along a boardwalk above black, soupy muck, passing skeletal remains of dead Indian almond trees. Lizards with skin identical to bark clung frozen to tree trunks. High speed yellow and blue lizards teased us with attempts to get a photo.

Top marks for Jozani.

3. The Mangapwani Slave Chambers and Coral Caverns

It seems that travels with Kim seem to always involve being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Just 20 km north of Zanzibar Town, we first went to the slave chamber (an unsettling square cell cut out of coralline rock). Here, boats carrying human cargo would unload slaves on the beach where they would be transferred to the stuffy, dank chamber for re-sale or work in the plantations.

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Eight kilometers away, in the natural coral caverns where slaves were hidden after abolition in 1873, I figured we would get a similar condensed history in the main chamber of the cave and exit. The floor was a jagged, ragged coral that split into two tunnels. Abdul handed me the first flashlight ever invented—a big boxy pink thing with less light than a candle. Kim was golden with her Petzl headlamp at the ready.

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Abdul insisted we penetrate the cave depths—just a five to seven minute walk and we could see the freshwater pools and exit through a hole. Or, we could walk over a mile through the opposite tunnel to the beach. No thanks.

We were all in flip flops—Abdul could probably climb Everest in flip flops. Africans do everything in flip flops. But us? I looked at the cave floor and visualized a sprained ankle or a Polysporin-sponsored vacation after our exit. Abdul insisted we would be fine.

I can’t even compare what the terrain was like to walk on. But, then I had a smack of reality remembering the slaves who did this route without complaint or footwear years ago.

I was totally terrified of a wipe-out and scurried behind Kim with my transistor radio-sized flashlight. The cave lacked any remarkable stalactites or geological colouring, but the history made the walls nearly whisper.

The exit didn’t come soon enough for me. Even then, we had to crouch and emerge into a hole that was seven feet from the surface. Now we were rock-climbing in flip flops, hoping for rooty hand-holds and not a handful of one of the fat sausage-sized millipedes we’d seen.

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We survived, narrowly. This was also a $10 experience of sheer terror and unexpected adventure.

4. Mnarani Natural Aquarium Marine Turtle Sanctuary, Nungwe

This sanctuary is housed in a natural lagoon in the most northern tip of the island. Since 1993, local fisherman who accidentally net green and hawksbill turtles are offered money to safely bring the turtles to the sanctuary. In Zanzibar, they were prized for their meat). The exchange program has been a positive conservation effort and locals take immense pride in the success of the partnership.

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Mnarani (‘the place of the lighthouse’ in Swahili) is very much a homemade zoo. But, they are doing remarkable work in giving hatchlings a boost in survival. Nests on the Nungwe beaches are monitored and hatchlings are brought to holding pens in the lagoon where they are kept for ten months before being released back into the ocean. At 10 inches and 10 months old, their chance to thrive is increased dramatically.

Enthusiastic guides are eager to share their knowledge. You can hand-feed the turtles here and watch an entire school of jackfish skip to the surface upon feeding.

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The sanctuary has a big bone collection to boot. In addition to a humpback whale (though space limits displaying all the vertebrae), several coffee-table sized turtle shells, there are shelves of dolphin skulls—remnants of a haunting die-off of over 700 dolphins that washed ashore at Kendwa and Nungwe. The 2006 incident is still unsolved—whether it was naval sonar, seismic activity or a red tide, scientists are still baffled.

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5. The Italian Riviera—Kendwa Beach

We wanted to spend some lounge time on the west coast beach that gets so much press. It easily confirmed how happy we were to be at Kichanga Lodge on the east. Monster hotels run along the strip with characteristic thumping music, vendors scurrying about selling sunglasses (Kim did find a flashy pair of “Roy Dans”—Ray Ban knock-offs), snorkelling tours and the like. Make-shift shops are staffed by five or six men desperate to pull you from the beach to see their tiny warehouse of ebony carvings and Masaai bead work.

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The beach is of course, beautiful, but it’s the ugly side of tourism. We saw a monkey on a short leash and a bus load handing money to a crew of local kids asking for “dollaros.” The kids here are smart—they’re nearly fluent in Italian.

As per usual, Kim and I made our way to a lonely lagoon, far from the crowds, bobbed in the ocean undisturbed and absorbed the horizon with progressively warmer beers on the beach.

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After such idyllic, suspended days on the Michamvi Peninsula, were we ready for the buzz, touts and congestion of Stonetown?

Stay tuned.

Categories: Into and Out of Africa, Passport Please | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Genesis of Zanzibar

We were almost ready to give up. Our original destination was supposed to be the Philippines in January. Typhoon Haiyan and the mass destruction that followed quashed any notion of travel to Managua for a few years. We zeroed in on Thailand and axed the idea after travel advisories were issued from the Canadian government urging non-essential travel due to political unrest and uprisings in Bangkok. We tried to figure out flight times to Bali that didn’t require 48 hours of travel and incongruent layovers in Tokyo.
Yes, Kim and I have a long list of coveted spots, but lousy weather patterns were wreaking havoc. Monsoons knocked Tanzania and the likes of Gombe stream and a safari in Arusha out of the line-up. Brazil’s weather maps didn’t look promising with daily thunderstorms, long overland travel legs for what we wanted to see, not to mention unsavoury crime reports. Then the Corn Islands in Nicaragua had a ferry strike that would impede getting to our preferred base camp at Little Corn.
The Maldives was our default. Again we trekked to the local library and took out another stack of guide books and dated documentaries. I played around on tripadvisor and and found a few half board resorts that included flights for $3,700 each for nine nights. Plus another $300 seaplane ticket. Each. Kim suggested we look at hotels that could be accessed by ferry on Male or Maafushi, or atolls closer to the airport, eliminating the seaplane expense. But, after deeper research and a few random queries to tripadvisor reviewers we learned that, if you are not staying at an exclusive all-inclusive, there is no beer to be found. Many of the atolls are prohibition era, even with tourist influx. Though the hotels are cheaper, due to the dominant Muslim population, bikinis on the beach aren’t appropriate either. So, for very selfish reasons, we scratched the Maldives off the list due to the no beer, bikinis or bacon situation.
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And that was the genesis of Zanzibar. Though the archipelago is also very Muslim, the European influence has shifted strictness. Some women still wear a full hijab, others pump gas and wear Pradas. Even the Masai have been swept up in contemporary times with cell phones, iPods and lime green Crocs.
Seventeen hours of flying via Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, was worth the crampy calves and chewy bubblegum beef and crunchy rice Ethiopian Air entrees. (On the plus side we were able to watch four of the Oscar buzz movies we’d yet to see.)The entire plane smelled like a diaper and stale hair by the time we felt the first smack of African heat. The soupy temperature was a sharp contrast from the -30 wind chill slam we narrowly escaped. We felt buzzed and electric from the sixty degree difference in temp.
The airport taxi tout bombardment was tamer than Cairo, though, it was still a flash mob for our business. The main road out of the airport north was the typical African obstacle course of oxen pulling carts, braying donkeys, runaway goats, dazed cows, Pee Wee Herman-style bikes (carrying impossible loads of fish, crates of eggs, bunk beds) and kamikaze mopeds. Trucks barrelled by stacked with foam mattresses or loads of coral rubble (used to build homes).

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I was surprised the road was paved. I had already set Kim up for a disc-squashing, bladder-pounding, pot-hole smattered ride to our lodge. Instead we followed the smooth snaking vein of cement through giant mahogany forests, spindly coconut trees, neon rice paddy fields, African pines and the storybook leafy canopy of a three kilometre stretch of ancient mango trees.

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Masai boys leaned against incomplete cinder block buildings, schoolgirls carrying sugarcane stalks walked in tight groups along the roadside. I smiled at the young boy wearing a makeshift hat that he had crafted by cutting the top off of a plastic windshield washer fluid container. Genius.
Though our driver wanted to crank the air-con, we insisted on the windows being down. The smell of red dirt, humidity and sweet smoke was such a relief from the canned air on the plane. And, hearing Kenny Rogers on the radio brought back a flush of Kenyan, Egyptian and Ugandan memories. How “The Gambler” made the equatorial airwaves baffles, but, it’s a sweetly reassuring sound to me.

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Arriving at Kichanga lodge in Michamvi (an hour north of the airport), weary and stoned from travel, the staff graciously welcomed us with ginger-spiked carrot juice, several “Jambo’s” (hello) and “Karibu’s” (welcome). And, to my delight, we had three resident dogs to greet us as well (though the old gal, Cleo, was happy to let the younger mutts do the wagging and barking session).

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Kichanga also has three donkeys—really, what more could you look for in accommodations? The trees were alive with weaver birds and bow-legged crows. The assault of colour in hibiscus flowers, Zanzibarian fabric, and the nearly vibrating verdant landscape made our winter-logged souls sigh.

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We dumped our bags in our rustic and romantic bungalow (think Mosquito Coast—palm frond roof and all) and made our way to the icing-sugar sand beach that had lured us all the way from Canada. There was not an iota of photoshopping here—the Indian Ocean was a surreal streak of cerulean and Listerine green. The clarity of the water! There was no need to snorkel—you could see a shark coming from a mile away! The brine and wet seaweed smell in our nose was instant rehab.
The beach was peppered with a beachcomber’s bonanza. Clown nose-red coral fragments, piles of swirly shells, skittering ghost crabs, and wayward oil-black sea urchins. As we compared shell finds a local stopped to kindly tell us, “be careful—some are still homes.”

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The terrible trifecta of jet lag: feeling stoned, drunk and exhausted (and still required to conduct yourself in public) put us to bed early. We ate like royalty first, slightly sauced on our new invention of “gin lag” (gin and Stoney Tangawizi ginger beer—a Tanzanian soda pop that is like swallowing fire). Satiated by plates of punchy King fish curry, rice and golden chapattis, we absorbed the night sky and milky way seemingly resting on our heads.
We were off the grid for two weeks. Zero traffic of any sort—no vehicles, no motorized boats. Just red—breasted sunbirds and darting warblers on the move. Noise pollution? Oh, yeah, the crashing waves and cicadas—what a nuisance!
With our mosquito netting pulled down and snugged under our mattress we collapsed into the dream we had designed. The intensity of the cicada buzz amplifyied in the darkness. Already, though we had seen just a blurred glimpse of the Spice Island and the marvel of the Indian Ocean at high tide, we knew we were in trouble. We had ruined ourselves for all future travel.
We had found the most tranquil place on earth.

Zanzibar 2014 188

Categories: Into and Out of Africa, Passport Please | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Job Delusions of Grandeur

“They” say that to channel success, you need to visualize—and more importantly, visualize yourself in that confident and beaming moment, right down to what you might be wearing in said moment. I fancied myself in a somewhat neatly-pressed many-pocketed safari suit, perhaps donning a pith helmet if the job so required.

I would have sweat on my brow and return home redolent of baboon or maybe elephant dung.
My recent dream job fixation was The African Lion Safari, a game park in Cambridge, Ontario with all the makings of a real live safari (3D cheetahs, rhinos, giraffes!) in real live Africa. Six months ago it was the donkey sanctuary in Guelph. The sanctuary is still ranked in the dream category, but, due to geography and a leggy commute, it’s not feasible and would be income neutral. Which means, they only have volunteer positions which are indeed priceless, but, banks like you to pay a mortgage with money, not smiles and pictures of a happy time spent with donkeys.

040I applied to the Lion Safari with grandiose amounts of anticipation in December. I outlined my experience making breakfast for 26 chimps, my ability and desire to shovel any type of manure and emphasized my unswerving attraction to any position they might have in animal care. The game park was advertising positions as a direct animal keeper (YES!!!), in the petting zoo filling pellet machines and corralling wayward children attempting to ride goats (I could still live out my donkey fantasy) and, facilitators for the Birds of Prey show. I thought I was a bird shoo-in with my Intro to Falconry course under my belt and my skill in identifying a sharp-shinned from a rufous-sided raptor at 50 paces.

I easily visualized myself with a falcon alight on my wrist. Whistling for its return as it swooped around the audience (first learning curve here: learning how to whistle). I imagined brushing out donkey tails and throwing prime rib to the pacing lions.

So, when Human Resources called, I practically pounced across the phone line. Yes, I was interested, in absolutely anything that they could offer me! Minimum wage? Why be greedy? Besides, if I was having the time of my life, no price could be put on that. Though, I’d have to buy a vehicle of some sort to get me to the Lion Safari, or, ride one of the donkeys home due to the 26 km roundtrip.
However, in my heart-palpitating excitement, I almost didn’t hear the voice on the other end say, “all our animal care positions have been filled—but, we think you’d be more suited for the Tour Operator position.”

Sure, I could operate tours. I could crack corny jokes and tell off-colour stories about terrible park visitors. I could withstand screaming, probably crying children pawing at me, covering my legs in candy floss and dripping ice cream cone hands.

But, this is when my dream job turned into a nightmare. I felt like I was suddenly eavesdropping in on a horror story. My horror! Now, I was visualizing a walking tour I guess, not a tour on a 50-passenger COACH BUS that I would have to learn how to drive! What terrible job description was this? Not only would I be responsible for learning how to commandeer a bus, but, as a tour operator, I’d also have to man the pontoon boat for 10-minute tours on the faux lake and operate the train to boot! I don’t even like driving a car, let alone something as big as my house!

Again, as the kindly woman explained the gory details, I tried to visualize myself in the above-mentioned safari suit, now seated behind the wheel of a bus (which I would have four to ten days to learn how to drive. And then pass an exam to make it official.

I shuddered, I began to sweat in sauna proportions. My excited heart palpitations turned into stroke symptoms.

Did I still want to come in for an interview? Had I been scared off?

No! I wasn’t scared off! This was my dream job! I couldn’t wait for the interview!
We scheduled it for March 2nd.

I immediately canvassed my friends and polled family members because my girlfriend wasn’t home. Kim is definitely my voice of reason at all times. I love her rational brain, but, I also get swept away in fantasy jobs and wanted to have a diverse collective group answer.

I invited hilarity, caution, advice and cheerleading. Of course, I received all of what I encouraged, in equal amounts. There was no definitive answer. My mother held her breath and said nothing (she visualized me driving the bus into the watering hole and killing a herd of zebra en route). Heidi thought the pontoon boat had serious potential for fun and would negate the bus droning. My brother shot back a rapid fire email: “You’re competing with Kiley now.” This was in direct reference to our sister’s oddball resume of jobs which have included everything from fly-fishing instructor to cookie baker to delivering sermons on Disney Cruise Lines.

004Close friends weighed in with carefully crafted thoughts/support and OMG’s—did I really want to drone into a microphone over and over again to a bunch of screechy kids hopped out on sugar and wildlife? My dad thought it might be the catalyst to getting to the core of my dream job—in the lion cage.

When my Voice of Reason did get home, I barely had to finish relaying the conversation I had with the Lion Safari.

“Babe, you don’t want to drive a bus.”

See? Voice of Reason. I don’t. And, yes, it’s important to listen to your instant gut reaction but, it’s better when you can get someone to second that motion. I didn’t want to be all defeatist right off the bat, or unwilling to chomp at a new learning curve.

I’m now in the process of refining my dream job terms. What I have learned from this is that I’m still okay with multi-pocketed khaki wear…but the reality may be that I just want to GO on safari again, not necessarily work at one.


So, now I’ve set my sights on a career in baking buttertarts, “a logical transistion” as my dear friend Kay would attest.

Categories: Into and Out of Africa, Passport Please | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Tarra & Bella: Love Conquered All

In the olden days (the 1980s to me), I imagine people played records, maybe even cassettes to fully engulf themselves in an emotion. It’s easy to entrench ourselves in despair by cueing up music, that’s universal. There are movie titles that are guaranteed to stir up the quality of weeping reserved for weddings and funerals (Beaches, Fried Green Tomatoes, Love Story). Some books can trigger laughter, but, more easily, melancholy (The Art of Racing in the Rain, Marley & Me—okay, any book about a dying dog).

Sometimes we want to find that emotional rock-bottom place, and dwell in it. We put Jann Arden on repeat and watch reliable broken-heart movies like Out of Africa or Love Affair on Christmas Day. It’s easy to encourage sadness and hopelessness. Rain helps too, a lot.

Now we can go a step further, and instigate crying jags instantaneously with the help of viral YouTube videos.  Who hasn’t found themselves in a sporadic sleep pattern, typing in the words “Christian lion reunion” or “Damian and the gorilla”? How about “orangutan & dog best friends” or “dog and dolphin”?

If you have watched any of this sob-inducing footage on repeat, surely you have also put “Tarra and Bella” on your “I feel-like-drinking-more-wine-and-having-a-good-cry” list.

Masai Mara National Park, Kenya

 The relationship between a stray dog (Bella) and an elephant (Tarra) at The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee found instant fan fare on YouTube. If two species, divided by size alone, could embrace each other, what was our problem as humans?

Tarra was one of the sanctuary’s first elephants. Her devout canine sidekick, Bella, found her comfortable place in Tarra’s shadow in 2003. They were inseparable and appeared like lovers from another lifetime.

The viral video that had viewers wiping tears from their necks showed a distraught Tarra, grieving for the company of her dear dog who had suffered a spinal cord injury and was unable to walk. As Bella was recovering in the sanctuary office, Tarra kept vigil for three weeks, until her best pal was carried down to her enclosure. Tarra’s exuberant trumpet, and her trunk gingerly touching and reassuring injured Bella was heart-splitting. I have probably watched the video 30 times.

Today, my friend Karen sent a link about the tragic news of Bella. Tuesday morning Bella was missing, and sanctuary staff initiated an immediate search that continued until Wednesday.  Her body was found near a barn that Tarra and five other elephants share. The Sanctuary’s vet, Dr. Scott , determined that Bella was a victim of an animal attack, most likely coyote.

But there’s more.

Due to the extent of Bella’s injuries, staff believe it would have been impossible for Bella to be found where she was, without any evidence of struggle around the area. Tarra’s trunk had blood on the underside, which led sanctuary personnel to wonder if she had found her friend and carried her back to a safer resting place.

There are parts of the story that will never be known. Did Tarra witness the attack? Did she arrive too late and in her desperation to protect Bella, carry her from the awful scene? I can’t imagine how heavy her heart felt. The anger she would have in herself for not saving Bella. The rage she would have that a precious life and friendship could be severed so unexpectedly.

Concrete evidence exists that elephants mourn. They experience debilitating sorrow and have their own funeral rites. National Geographic has documented elephants in Kenya as they discover matriarchal bones by a water source. Silently, they created a defensive circle and then elaborately touched the surface of the sacred bones before them, every crevice and notch. They held the bones in their trunks and touched them gently with their hind feet.

Similarly, a BBC documentary showed a herd that happened upon an elephant corpse. It was as though they were paying homage to the deceased with closed eyes and complex thought. They fondled the bones in a way that indicated they were fully aware of not just life, but death.

Tarra was given the opportunity to pay her last respects to Bella, but showed little interest. This is why staff suspect that she may have already said her goodbyes, having endured the night with the knowledge that her friend had passed on to another world.

Their relationship is a confirmation that regardless of our species, we are intimately connected. It would be ignorant to think that only humans could experience the crisis and hollowness of a life lost.

Dog, elephant, man—we are sharing a fragile planet. Our relationships to and with each other define us. They evolve and present a continual opportunity to change, and be better. When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, remarkable things can happen.

Bella’s life should be a reminder of just that.

Categories: Into and Out of Africa, Polyblogs in a Jar, Things with Fur and Feathers | Tags: , | 3 Comments

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.

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

Geography Lessons

Yesterday I was at Hanlan’s Point, my GPS location for self-imposed exile. Here, I lie supine and allow the lake to pull my mind away. The trembling aspens rustle and cicadas buzz at a pitch that is more of an alarm to me—summer is already gathering up its carefree days in fast pursuit of the fall. The cicadas are early this year, they are usually indicative of sizzling late August afternoons where humidity hangs like a wet duvet on our shoulders.

The sun is already setting a minute earlier each night. Yesterday the sun set at 8:45, tonight, 8:44. While the sun was still blistering hot and turning the pale-skinned gingers into Maine lobsters, I snapped open a beer. The bathtub-warm Mill Street Lemon Tea beer was effervescent in my mouth, and the tepid temperature hurled me several latitudes over, to Simba beers in the Congo sun.

Two men walked past me at Hanlan’s as I skimmed the condensation off the beer can and dragged my hand across the back of my neck. The men were holding hands, laughing without inhibition, ankle-deep in the lake water. They were the colour of teak furniture. A Porter jet took to the sky with a distant growl—Boston? New York? Chicago? It banked and slid into the atmosphere and pillowy clouds beyond the aspens above my head.

I dog-eared the 37th page of The Outport People, a book about the zany brood that breathe life into a seemingly uninhabitable island called Baleena. There are no roads, no cars, no telephones. It’s Claire Mowatss best-selling memoir based on the five years she and Farley lived in Newfoundland. My mind was already in too many places to focus on Newfoundland.

Again, I disappeared to the Congo despite staring at the Toronto skyline and the sailboats skating across the surface of the water in front of me. Just one year ago I was popping the remaining Malarone anti-malarial pills out of their foil seal into my cupped hand, sad to see the numbers dwindle by day. My eyes were strained from trying to absorb all the jacaranda trees, brilliant hibiscus and termite hills as tall as flagpoles. I was desperate to take in all that surrounded me. I studied the texture of Mikai’s hair and cool skin. I searched for the history and future in her eyes that were as dark as the African coffee I sipped. The chimp I held in my arms would be a mighty adult next time I saw her. She would no longer be gently accepting spoonfuls of strawberry yogurt and sucking on warm milk sweetened with honey.  In a year, she would find her place among the troop, no longer coddled and fussed over as the babe in arms.

A year ago I was running around the fairways of the Lubumbashi Golf Course, listening to the same songs on my iPod that fuel my route through Riverdale Park and along the Don River in Toronto today. Chantal would meet me after my run and we would sit in the still of the morning, watching the copper mine bigwigs teeing off in ill-fitting plaids and stripes. More often it was the wives of the bigwigs in wide-brimmed hats and equally wide-rimmed sunglasses.

Days later, far from the idyllic morning runs around the greens with the fanfare of grinning, waving Congolese children, I was touching down in Harare, Zimbabwe and Nairobi. All that was familiar and quintissential Africa grew smaller and smaller, until it seemed like a child’s train set, not a real world, below the plane. The dust was still under my nails, in my nose, and deep in the stitching of everything I had worn.

I was leaving, again. And returning. And leaving. My brain needed sutures to hold everything I had seen together.

A  year ago, I held a hastily stamped Kenya exit visa in my hand.  My passport felt heavier with the miles that it had permitted. I landed in Toronto, elated and exhausted. I shared startling stories with my parents like a kid strung out on Halloween candy. I pulled up the photos on my laptop and sat in disbelief that I had actually been to such a place. I described each of the chimps, all 23, their names, their quirks. I watched my mom laugh until she couldn’t breathe over video footage of Mikai clobbering the kitten with a stuffed animal. I felt like I was describing someone else’s life.

We drank champagne in my parents zen backyard with Yanni and the babbling fish pond and citronella candles creating a path that replicated a parade of fireflies. The humming mosquitoes were a nuisance, but not a constant worry like their African counterparts.

I said goodbye, again, to my parents, to Dax, to the backyard that I hadn’t sat in long enough. I didn’t know what my five year plan was. Hell, I wasn’t even sure what my five day plan was.

The urban sprawl of paved Toronto lit up like the most fantastic Lite Brite display, glowing and blurring until I let myself find sleep on the flight to the west coast.

A year ago, and a week from now, I was in BC. The Fraser Valley spread wide below the plane’s wings in a neat patchwork quilt of blueberry and raspberry fields. The snow on Mt. Baker’s peak bounced the glare of the sun back onto my window.

I was coming home, but felt split between the provinces and the peace found in the burning sunsets of the Congo. Home was a sharp slap of reality. My stories stalled in the face of Mila, the most darling lab in the world. She was dying and I felt like I had five hearts beating in my chest, and still, not enough blood for all my limbs.

I unpacked from Africa, and packed again for Toronto. For good. A once familiar life and routine was dissolving and passing through my hands that could only grasp the immediate moment. I spent hours in the grass with Mila, crying like a fool, begging her to slip away. It would be okay. I’m not sure who I was reassuring– myself, or her. Both of us, I think.

I felt like I had live goldfish living in my stomach. My eyes burned like they were full of poison ivy. A year ago and a week from today, I wondered what was right. What was wrong?

Nothing felt right, even my skin felt unfamiliar over my bones. Jann reminded me, “life is fleeting.”

And I touched down at Pearson a week later. Mila died the very next day. I found solace in unexpected places, and comfort, even on the hardwood floor of Dax’s condo.

A year ago, I stood at the edge of the quarry in the Congo, knowing life was changing as fast as the landscapes would be under my feet in that week. I stood on a ferry the next day, crossing Lake Ontario to Ward’s Island with my anxious parents, who didn’t expect to see me again until Christmas. The next day I was at Hayward Lake, BC, watching Mila swim out into the cool depths for the very last time.

And I return. To Lake Ontario, with my feet in the sand. I still see Hayward Lake, I see Lake Victoria too. I see the quarry and all of the Congo. My mind revisits the year and all the geography in between. 

I am lucky not for what I have seen, but for what I have felt.  And there’s no passport to show for that. Just this.

Categories: Into and Out of Africa, The Kitchen Sink | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

What On Earth Are We Doing?

An "eco-tourism lodge attraction" in the Congo

My original intention was to Google the story about the 32 monkeys that died when a Nevada lab overheated. Charles River Laboratories is one of 26 registered US  importers of primates (others on the list include zoos, universities and private labs). An article on indicated that 27, 388 primates were imported into the US in 2008, with an average of 25,000 primates being imported in the last four years. In 2008, Charles River housed over 10,000 primates at their facility alone.

Ikia's arrival at the Lubumbashi airport

The company’s history traces back to the 1940s when veterinarian  Dr. Henry L. Foster bought a Maryland rat farm for breeding purposes. Later, on a trapping expedition in the Himalayas, Foster returned to the states with several Rhesus monkeys to create a quick-breeding stock of 800. The monkeys were bred on two Florida islands where workers captured 400-500 a year to be sold to labs worldwide.

When I keyed “monkey” into the search engine, “monkeys for sale” immediately appeared in the drop-down list. Curious and appalled, I clicked on it. Monkeys for sale in Canada? I clicked through the pages and found a Japanese Snow monkey for $6,500, posted by Northern Exotics near Sudbury, Ontario. “This is a legit sale and not a scam as so often seen with monkeys.” There was also a baby female Snow monkey for $3,500, OBO.

The Northern Exotics site also boasted Jamaican Fruit bats, armadillos, sugar gliders and Fennec foxes.  In Montreal, Quebec, Pastor Emmanuel and his wife Cindy have an advert that says they “are giving out cute baby marmosets for adoption to any Christian, pet loving and caring family.” The babies are house-raised, diaper and leash trained, wear clothes and like to watch TV.

The primatestore. com had a Christmas special on infant black-handed spider monkeys—only $9,000 each. Tentatively, I keyed in “Chimps for sale.” I was stunned. There were several listings for chimps in Texas and Ohio.  One of the links led me to a 2008 SPCA report on the rescue of Henry, a 23-year-old chimp who was found at an emaciated 60 pounds (half the body weight of a healthy chimp) in a cage so small that it caused him severe spinal deformities. The cage was littered with empty soda cans and cigarette butts.

On the site PRLog Free Press Release I came across this headline: “We Sale Big Monkeys, Chimpanzees, Orang tuans, Gorillas.” They advertised worldwide delivery in two to three working days to America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Europe. Here’s a cut and paste of the ad at :

PR Log (Press Release)Mar 08, 2010 – You need a monkey babies or old ?  a chimpanzee, orang utans, gorillas, big cats, panter  please call us tehn we can get it done within 2 working days deliver to your home  or you can pick it up payment upon receival   we can also trains this animals for you  in additional 6 weeks  time.

I remember the day Chantal, Sevrine and I were driving out to a quarry for a picnic (in the Congo). We saw a sinewy Congolese boy in his early teens at the roadside. As our vehicle approached he lifted a dik dik in the air (a dik dik is a small, antelope-like animal). He began shouting at us as we slowed down. The dik dik was for sale. I hadn’t even seen a dik dik in the wild the entire month I was there, and was saddened to see a young one for sale that would most likely be bought as a pet by an expat, or slaughtered.

The image of the dik dik still haunts me, as does the arrival of Ikia, the chimp who was flown to the J.A.C.K. chimp sanctuary where I volunteered in Lubumbashi. She arrived dehydrated and limp-bodied, and died less than 12 hours later in the arms of Augustin. She was bought for $120 US on the roadside of Kalemie in a burlap sack bound with twigs.

Ikia, sold for $120 in Kalemie, Congo

Writing this post, I feel the dull pulse of a headache. It’s one that stems from frustration, and when I find another ad for a chimp for sale in Yellowknife, posted December 28th, I am exasperated. For $700, “King,” an eight-month-old chimp comes with a complete instruction book and other toys and accessories.

I need Jane Goodall on speed dial. Chimps and monkeys are not intended as pets. We can all easily recall the disturbing images of Charla Nash who was attacked by her friend’s chimp in Stamford, Connecticut, can’t we? The chimp was eventually shot by police due to his aggression. Nash is suing her friend, Sandra Herold, for $50 million saying she “was negligent and reckless for lacking the ability to control a wild animal with violent propensities.”

Travis, Herold’s chimp, had lived with her for 14 years. He had appeared in several TV commercials and a television pilot, as well as promotional events for Herold’s towing business. Nash is left blind, wearing a veil so she doesn’t scare people with her unsightly appearance.

I returned to the article on the Nevada research monkeys that were killed by human error. The company was charged just last year when a monkey was scalded to death after it was accidentally sent through an automatic cage washer.

Ikia at the J.A.C.K. sanctuary

Andrew Westoll, author of The Riverbones had posted the original article on his Facebook profile page. Westoll, a former biologist and primatologist who decided to focus on his dynamic writing talent is to publish Thirteen Chimpanzees in the spring of 2011. The thirteen chimps he writes about have spent decades in US biomedical research labs and have now found a safe haven at the Fauna Foundation in Quebec. The chimps share the farm with over a hundred other rehabilitating animals rescued from the entertainment industry, research labs or agriculture. Fauna is their forever home. As the home page for the Foundation promises, the animals are provided with companionship and enrichment, “free from the fear and hardships they have known.”

I clicked on the chimp In Remembrance page, knowing that I would be inconsolable. I read about Donna Rae, the chimp who came from the Animal Kingdom Talent Service. She learned to ride a bike and how to play the guitar. In her last five years at a lab, she was used in HIV studies that involved lymph node and bone marrow biopsies. Following one intervention, she actually went into shock from the pain. The obituary reads: “constantly mutilating herself, Donna always looked as though she had given up all hope.”

I read about Pablo who chewed off one of his fingers, clearly the direct result of being darted over 220 times, enduring 30 biopsies and being injected with 10,000 times the lethal dose of HIV.

In 1959, Annie was stolen from her family in Africa. She became part of the circus before spending 21 years in the lab as a breeder. Billy was often found having panic attacks so violent that he would be left convulsing. His teeth had been knocked out by a crow bar. After 15 years in the entertainment industry, he was knocked out 289 times for 40 liver and lymph node biopsies. He eventually chewed off  his own thumbs. Jean was inoculated with HIV after several cervical biopsies. After a nervous breakdown she removed all of her fingernails. Her aggressive seizures led to “floating hand and foot,” a condition that led her to attack her own feet and hands, as though they were not her own.

Fifteen years ago I wrote a feature for Cockroach magazine, a publication of the Environmental Youth Alliance, where I worked in Vancouver, BC. It was an expose of the bear bile and bear part trade industry in China. There are currently 7,000 bears on bear bile farms in China, caged and exploited for their bile which is used in traditional Chinese medicine. The bears have surgically implanted tubes in their gall bladders and are “milked” twice a day. Once they stop producing bile (between five and ten years of age), the bears are left to die of starvation or illness, or killed so the farm can sell their paws ($250 each). In the15 years since I wrote that article, the farms have grown in size and production.

In the documentary The Cove I watched the waters of Taiji, Japan turn scarlet red with the slaughter of dolphins. Over 20,000 dolphins and porpoises are killed every year, driven to shore by the fishing boats where they are harpooned. Due to suffocating media pressure and response to the documentary, Taiji actually called for a temporary ban on killing bottlenose dolphins.

Exposure brings education, hope and change.

The news seems to be littered with abominable stories of animal abuse lately. Like the 11 rare Siberian tigers who died at a zoo in Beijing. There is speculation that zoos in China may be deliberately breeding more animals than they can afford, selling the carcasses to the black market for use in traditional medicines and liquor. An article in the Hamilton Spectator reported the tigers starved to death, having been fed nothing but chicken bones. Since, there have been reports of tiger farms steeping the bones of deceased tigers in liquor which is then sold to visitors.

There are 300 Siberian tigers left in the wild, 50 in China. Five thousand more live in captivity on farms and wildlife parks across China.

I could go on.

However, there is hope. Jane Goodall says so. She is lecturing in Toronto next week, celebrating the 50th anniversary of her plight to bring the story of her chimps in Gombe, Tanzania to the world. Her latest book, Hope For Animals and Their World, How Endangered Species are Being Rescued From the Brink (co-authored with Thane Maynard and Gail Hudson) spotlights the enormous efforts of several individuals and field biologists who have truly saved several species from the brink. Her message is uplifting, and instils motivation. She dedicates the book to “the memory of Martha, the last passenger pigeon—and to the last Miss Waldron’s colobus monkey and the last Yangtze River dolphin. As we think of their lonely end, may we be inspired to work harder to prevent others suffering a similar fate.”

Please watch The Cove. Read about the Flora Foundation. Become a fan of Andrew Westoll’s Thirteen Chimpanzees on Facebook.. Buy tickets to see empowering speakers like Jane, a woman who has given her life to a crusade that should remind us all of the fragility and interconnectedness we share with animals on this Earth.

“The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope.” –Barbara Kingsolver

Andrew Westoll’s site:

Jane Goodall’s Hope For the Animals:

More on the bear trade industry:

The Cove

Fox News article on Nevada research monkeys:

Christian marmosets for sale:

Northern Exotics:

The Fauna Foundation:

Categories: Congo Line: Once Upon a Time in Africa, Into and Out of Africa, Polyblogs in a Jar, Things with Fur and Feathers | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Up in the Air, Elephants and Entebbe

By now all the rabid George Clooney fans have oooh-ed and ahhhh-ed over his schmoozy Ryan Bingham persona in Up In the Air. The Golden Globes are always a convincing force, pushing everyone else into the theatres to see the greedy award-grabbers like Avatar, The Hangover and Up in the Air for themselves.

So I went, because I like to be pop-culturally informed. If you are holding out for the rental so you don’t have to pay $12 for popcorn, there’s no spoiler here. Ryan Bingham’s life revolves around flying. In fact, being grounded leaves him unbalanced and twitchy. However, when love tempts him, he begins to reconsider his whole life. Maybe everyone else has it right. Maybe love, permanency and a home with a full fridge and drawers is attractive and natural. Bingham’s solace had long been the routine and simplicity of airline travel.  He had no baggage other than what he checked in at the airport. Or did he?

His motivational speeches on the absurd weight of the physical and emotional baggage that we carry turns as flat as an open Coke left on the counter overnight. His sister’s impending marriage reveals his estranged relationship with his entire family. When he meets his match in Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), Bingham re-evaluates his life spent in the sky, travelling 320 days of the year.

The movie should have convinced the audience that baggage is good. It represents a life well-lived, friends and partners well-loved, dogs, cats, the whole sloppy and gorgeous mess. 

So, why did I find myself in the travel section of Indigo Books minutes after the movie ended? Up in the Air reminded me of the anticipation that pulsates in airports. I wondered where I would/should go next. I pulled a guide book from the shelf on volunteer opportunities abroad and decided to play a game with myself. I let the book fall open to a random page, and decided that would be my next destination. I averted my gaze (to avoid cheating myself). I looked at the page that fate had opened to:  Thailand’s Elephant Sanctuary.

Because I’m a Switzerland when it comes to making decisions, I’ve decided this will be my new tactic. The 100-acre sanctuary is located 50km from Chiang Mai in the Mai Taman Valley. Many of the elephants are rescued in an injured state from poaching activity, as seen with one individual who arrived with only one tusk. Once rehabilitated the elephants are released into “Elephant Haven,” a 2,000-acre natural forest where they can live safely with the herd of 25 that has already found a forever home in the Haven.

Volunteers stay in bamboo chalets, collect fodder with machetes during the dry season and can accompany a vet on the “Jumbo Express.” Working elephants kept by remote hill tribes receive veterinary care during such missions. Mornings begin with car-washing the elephants in the river. Because they are prone to parasites and other skin conditions, they require a daily squeegee job. At noon, when the pick-up truck rolls in with papayas, pineapples and bananas, “you are covered in fruit pulp and elephant snot” in minutes. Awesome!

J.A.C.K. Lubumbashi, Congo

I walked home from Indigo in the spitting rain, inspired and imagining elephant snot. I went online and read more. I checked out the Tennessee elephant sanctuary again and made notes in my not-so-official Five Year Plan book. Then I saw a Facebook posting from PASA Primates in need of volunteers at the Drill Ranch in Nigeria, working with orphaned chimps and mandrills. I jetted off an email immediately for more details.  Then I received news that the J.A.C.K. sanctuary in the Congo (where I volunteered in July) has three more chimps arriving after being found at an abandoned captive facility in DR Congo. That made me want to fly back to Lubumbashi tomorrow.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I will probably volunteer more than I will work in my life.

It was just over a year ago that I watched Entebbe, Uganda disappear below me. The tears in my eyes made the few lights of the ‘city’ double. Landing at Schipol and taking the train into Amsterdam was a rude slap. Winter! That hospitable African sun no longer warmed my skin. I immediately forgot about the nuisance red dust that came with that lovely sunshine.

I rented Out of Africa the very next day. I looked at all 800 of my pictures on a regular basis and cried for the dogs and pals that I left behind. I missed the frenetic pace of the Tuesday night market. Having a warm Nile beer with a bowl of salty grasshoppers as the sun dropped into Lake Victoria. I wanted a Stoney Tangawizi (fiery ginger beer) and a rolex (an omelette with chopped cabbage and tomoato rolled into a greasy chapatti) from a shifty street vendor. As I ran in the sopping BC rain along McKee creek, I wanted to feel that stupid dust in my eyes and ears. I was sad to not be dodging scrawny goats and fleet-footed chickens and ‘boda-bodas’ (mopeds) with 400-pound Nile perch flapping on the back.  I missed Africa in an almost pathetic way. Like a heart-broken lover.

And then my friend Heidi reminded me of all the things I had casually forgotten about when living in Africa. Travelling as a videographer with World Vision, she spent the last two weeks in Entebbe, Gulu and Kampala. I was thrilled to tell her about each place—what she had to eat (pizza at Anderita Beach, Nee’s green curry at the Gately) and how the sunsets would catch the sky on fire. My only warning was about the darling vervet monkeys who were prone to stealing bananas from your hand, or anything else that they assumed was edible.


And I think I mentioned that Kampala was a zoo, but I didn’t want to be like a movie reviewer with a spoiler in the first sentence. I did send a photo of the Kampala taxi park as a subtle warning though. It’s a football field of ‘matatus’ (mini-van taxis), each with a horn which is blared in response to other blaring horns. Just like barking dogs, one starts, and the rest join in. But Heidi had been to Zambia, she knew the drill.

The flight to Entebbe alone is enough to cause exasperation in any sane person. Sitting upright for what seems like 108 hours is the first hurdle. Sleepless and rattled by disappearing time zones, you arrive in the vacuum cylinder that is Entebbe. It smells like one big armpit. The skeletal dogs you pass by are like a non-stop Humane Society commercial with some achy Sarah McLachlan song cooing in the background.

The dust begins to blow, the sweat begins to drip until you feel like you’ve taken a dip and are stuck wearing your wet swimsuit for the rest of the five hour car ride.

Heidi’s first post mentioned her exhilaration in finally arriving in Uganda, despite the cold shower (yeah, I forgot about the frequency of those too). She was looking forward to sleeping on her single bed with the lumpy foam mattress. I nearly spit wine all over my laptop screen. I remembered the foam mattresses well. They make you sweat so much that when you wake up, you think you’ve pissed the bed. And then there’s the mosquito net to wrangle with.  If they are hung from the ceiling on a hoop, there is a fantastic chance that by morning, there is a huge gap somewhere in the netting and 500 malaria-carrying mosquitoes are trapped inside the net with you.

Heidi’s Twitter-ed dinner reports were the most dramatic (and realistic). I think after being in Entebbe for four months, I had become used to the starch intake. A typical lunch or dinner would include: matoke (steamed green plantain), potatoes, yams and rice. Served with, as Heidi eloquently described it, “chicken parts.”

Yes, there were always mystery parts. I think I had part of a goat’s stomach in some broth once. But I conveniently forgot about the stench of fish for sale on the sidewalk in Kampala. The body odour that permeates all air molecules. There were several matatu rides where I had to do a lot of self-talk in tandem with my iPod and The Killers at a deafening level.

And then there was the internet and electricity issue. The patchy communications home made my mother routinely WRITE IN CAPITAL LETTERS. In Entebbe, the power went off in the airport as soon as I arrived. The luggage carousel was halted, but speech was not! The airport was alive with the raised voices of wilting missionaries and UN workers and Tilly-hatted tourists in safari suits fanning themselves as they complained to anyone who made eye contact.

I forgot about the crappy internet connection. I forgot about the stretches of three or four days without electricity. And the hurried cold showers that accompanied them.

When Heidi returned to Nashville, I relived my return home. Clean sheets, clean surfaces, meat without flies on it, ice cubes, soap! Deodorized people! No one yelling “Mizungo! Mizungo! Give me money! Mizungo, buy this!”

And I had space. I have probably only yelled twice in my life, and not even at a dog the other time. However, when I was flying out of Lubumbashi in July I had to yell against my will. Maybe it was more of a really loud voice than a yell, but, the man behind me had his passport pressed into my back. His jacket was practically slung over my shoulder and I could feel his hot, stale breath on my neck. I could feel myself cracking my own molars, trying to resist an eruption. “STANDING CLOSER TO ME DOES NOT MAKE THE LINE GO FASTER.” I erupted. It happens to the best of us when travelling.

And this is another blessing of North America (besides meat without flies and reliable wi-fi). We give each other personal space. It’s an unspoken rule that doesn’t exist everywhere in the world.

But, if we don’t travel and put ourselves in unfamiliar landscapes, how do we ever appreciate laundry detergent, $5 coffees and toilet seats? Or being served chicken instead of chicken parts? Distance from comfort, family and friends refines gratitude.

Public washroom in Kampala, Uganda

Even though I was reminded of all the nerve-fraying aspects of African travel, I am still halfway there in my head. I can always come home to a toilet seat and pocket-coil mattress again. It might be time to rent Out of Africa again. Apparently I miss corruption, using 500 Q-tips a month, parasites, starch and riding in matatus with 19 people, 6 chickens, blaring gospel music and an oily car-engine half on my lap.

Doesn’t everyone?

“Once you have travelled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.” –Pat Conroy

Heidi’s World Vision Zambia footage featuring “All the Days” by Jann Arden:

Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand:

Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee:

The Drill Ranch in Nigeria:

J.A.C.K. in Lubumbashi:

Categories: Into and Out of Africa, Passport Please | Tags: , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Chimp Rules of Engagement


1. If a chimp bites you, it is imperative that you bite back to show dominance.

2. Beware of Bashi—he likes to throw fistfuls of stones and dirt when you least expect it. And Shasha, she has shit in her hand most of the time, but there is no need to worry, she eats it. As she defecates she catches it in her hand as it’s best served warm.

3. Chimps are very curious about blemishes, moles and anything on human skin that shouldn’t be.  Pasa has nearly picked a mole completely off my leg while the others distract me. Mwisho was more fixated on the veins in my hand. With great determination he tried with all his chimp might (which is a lot) to squeeze my veins between his fingers. Surely he thought I had a severe case of worms.  Africa was also occupied with my freckles, scratching many of them to see if they were removable.  Upon discovering my tattoos, she licked and sucked at the ink, desperate to remove them.

4. When first being introduced to a chimp, you offer the back of your hand, much like meeting Prince Charming.  You will be well sniffed and stared at with gentle eyes the colour of hazelnuts.

5. Chimps are as particular as we are. The morning and afternoon milk must be at a consistently palatable temperature. Tall, no whip, full fat, shot of honey and propolis. If it is too hot or too cold they push the bottle away in utter disgust at the barista (me).

6. A morning in the baby enclosure with six young chimps will prove to be the ultimate test of Q-tips, Irish Spring and Tide. The settings of my Filth-o-Meter had to be altered to accommodate the dry season in the Congo—and the somersaulting antics of dusty chimps for several hours.

7.  A one-year-old chimp is like a bowling ball with four arms. Nothing is safe—forget the Royal Doulton collection and bananas at waist-level.

8. Pockets provide ongoing scavenger hunts for chimps (as do nostrils and ears). Cell phones, keys, lip balm and ob tampons are always great discoveries that require exchanges of fruit, bread, or something better than their new-found treasure.

9. Beware of Kimo who enjoys flinging himself at the most unexpected moment on to your head. If a flying leap isn’t possible, watch out for the thwack of the branch that he has pulled to the ground to smack back in your face.

10. Your neck will become a reasonable facsimile for a tree trunk in no time.

So, you wonder—what is a typical day in the life at J.A.C.K. (Jeunes Animaux Confisques Au Katanga) chimp refuge?

Weekend mornings begin at 5:30 when the equatorial sky is still black with stars. Mornings can run as smooth as pudding as long as there is electricity, which, generally there isn’t. If there is no electricity, there is no running water.  Even when the power is on, the stove top isn’t optimal—bringing a pot of water to a boiling point is exasperating–a task that takes over an hour and a half.

034Like a Starbucks employee, I prep an order for 23 chimps. Fourteen one litre bottles with six scoops of milk powder, a big dollop of honey and a propolis capsule for each.  Six 200ml bottles are prepped for the babies: Africa, Dian, Pasa, Santa and Kimo. Micah, the darling one-year-old still in a diaper gets her own special order of half homo, half hot water. During the day the chimps also hydrate with water mixed with a teaspoon of sugar and salt (Gatorade for chimps). Kimo gets a bottle of diluted raspberry grenadine as too much milk gives him the shits.

We actually share 98.7% of the same DNA as chimpanzees. I often wonder why some smarty-pants dietician hasn’t introduced a chimp knock-off diet that would rock our ever-fattening world. The chimp menu is actually quite appealing—hot milk, papaya, watermelon, mango, apples, pears, oranges, bananas (#1 pick), pumpkin, kale, radish, broccoli, cauliflower, turnip, carrots, leeks, bush onions (my taste-test results:  vinegary, sour with a lime juice punch, with fiery seeds like peppercorns), peanuts and buns from Le Brioche bakery. The  bukari balls made of manioc (similar appearance to a yam) are also a crowd pleaser—the chimps and Congolese alike eat them with the same zest as a North American near a bag of Doritos during Superbowl.

The chimps have their lattes around 8:15 am, followed by a bread toss into the enclosure around 9 am. It’s a mad scramble for the buns and many of the chimps end up walking around on two legs with their bread cache safe in their arms. At 11 am and 4:30 they are fed the fruit and vegetables.  Medications are given as necessary while the chimps are preoccupied with the dinner entree. For runny noses they get a swipe of Vicks Vapo-Rub, for coughs—cherry flavoured human-grade syrup. Eucalyptus essential oil is applied externally, as curious chimps will inevitably taste and lick anything that is on their body. The eucalyptus has proven to be a successful remedy for the many bronchial infections and common colds that the chimps suffer during the colder months.



When the chimps are ill with snotty noses, it is a sad sight. Like a children’s daycare, the cold passes chimp to chimp like Hollywood gossip. They seem so helpless, unable to blow their noses into Kleenexes. Instead, they rub the back of their arm against their nose and watch as the snot sticks to their arm, still connected to their nose in a long string. Then they eat it. Micah is a nose-picker at the best of times, totally unaware of the social taboo. She picks, examines it and eats it. Or, sometimes she dips her booger-clad finger into Chantal’s coffee if it is within reach. And if you’re not paying attention, sometimes that same finger finds its way into your mouth.

Micah stays with us at home as she is too young to overnight at the refuge with the extreme temperature drops. During the day, temps can reach a favourable 28 degrees, but at night, there is a plummet to 15 teeth-chattering degrees. Chantal tells me now that I have arrived during the African winter. No kidding! I can see my breath most mornings, and not because I have eaten goat testicles the night before!

The J.A.C.K. refuge is a short drive from home, located within the Lubumbashi Zoo (which is ranked as the number one place to take your hot Congolese date). Micah joins the others in the baby enclosure during the day—losing her diaper and tiny t-shirt to become a member of the wild again. She climbs as high as the others, and walks in tandem with Santa on the ground–as though they are practicing for a three-legged race. Dian is the cry baby of the lot, she sticks to Africa like Saran Wrap and wails if they  are separated. If she doesn’t get her bottle fast enough, or a banana is stolen from her hands, she is crying like a kid sister.

Pasa is easily picked out of the crowd. As soon as he is within your tickling reach, he is on his back, squirming, desperate for a good tickle. He laughs and pulls all his limbs into a tight ball—but begs for more.

Cyril, a French vet student and I in the baby enclosure at J.A.C.K.

Cyril, a French vet student and I in the baby enclosure at J.A.C.K.

I tell you, there is no greater feeling than holding a little chimp in your arms. If only they could talk for but a moment, and tell their story—all that they have seen and suffered. Like Santa who was the “lucky star” of the Congolese military, bringing them good luck and protection in battle in Kivu.  She would be carried at the front of the line as they went into combat. Coco belonged to the Congolese President’s family and when the President learned that keeping a chimp was illegal, he brought Coco to J.A.C.K. (with a camera crew in tow). Wanza arrived at the refuge as an alcoholic who refused to accept milk for the first six months.

Each chimp has a history that makes my stomach turn in angry knots. The humans responsible for such atrocities may receive a week in jail, but this has only happened once since Chantal’s involvement with the refuge two years ago.

Timid Kala was owned by a Chinese copper mine big wig who carted her around to the bars as a circus act. She has a scarred, hairless patch on her right shoulder where cigarettes werebutted out on her skin. Other chimps have been caught and injured in wire snare traps. The traps are set on the ground, and because chimps walk on their knuckles, they easily step into the hidden wire loops and become dangerously and sometimes fatally entangled.

Many are victims of the pet trade, where up to 10 chimps can be violently killed in order to capture the infant to sell on the roadside for $600 U.S. in a wooden crate the size of a bread box. Driving home with Micah in the front seat of the Landcruiser doesn’t spark any reaction from locals who see her sitting on my lap. The lack of response indicates that owning a chimp is acceptable.

Unfortunately, the J.A.C.K. refuge doesn’t have the authority to seize a chimp off the streets, or from wealthy expats keeping them as pets.  In the Congo, if you have money, anything can be bought—and if you illegally have chimps in your house, certain higher-up individuals can be paid off to ensure no further hassles or confrontations.

Unfortunately, agreeing to buy a chimp for sale (which might seem logical to ensure its immediate safety and future) only contributes to the exotic animal trade. Such a purchase would confirm that there is a demand for chimps, and locals would respond by finding more chimps to sell on the streets.

The Minister of the Environment must approve each seizure, and sometimes this involves bribe money to speed up the process. The media is contacted and the local (and only) vet assists in every new chimp’s arrival to identify any health concerns. The quarantine period for new chimps is usually two to three months, depending on their response to care, feeding and socialization.

The J.A.C.K. refuge, established in 2006 by Frank and Roxanne Chantereau (supported by six highly attentive Congolese staff and Chantal, co-director) is a unique haven for chimps that have fallen prey to human greed and ignorance. At the sanctuary, they orphaned chimps are introduced to a group that will provide companionship, stimulation and camaraderie.

Some of the chimps have arrived at the refuge with no knowledge of how to groom or make a nest because they were taken from their mothers at such a young age. They are provided with hay to make nests in their night enclosure where they sleep, but there are also tarpaulin hammocks available. Chantal has observed remarkable progression among the newly introduced chimps as they teach one another and mimic skills that their mothers would have taught them.  

Tongo, the smallest and youngest of the adult group, is constantly being pulled between Seki and Mwisho. They fight over her, wanting to take care of the youngster.  Mwisho, who doesn’t like bread at all, actually collects bread for Tongo and keeps it protected in his arms while the others prowl for pieces to steal from the younger ones.

Cheetah and Seki who arrived at the refuge together are attached at the hairy hip, and walk as though they are wearing a donkey costume. Cheetah is the head and Seki pulls up the rear. Two years ago there was a tragic fire in the night enclosure. An arsonist set fire to the dry hay in the cage and two of the chimps died—one of smoke inhalation, the other of severe burns to her entire body. When bush fires burn in Lubumbashi, Cheetah and Seki become extremely anxious. The smell of smoke terrifies them, a painful reminder of the night they escaped, and two of their family members perished.

Watching the chimps interact, there is reassurance that they are truly content.  J.A.C.K. has recently obtained a parcel of land that will allow for future release of the chimps into a wild space. This is the ultimate goal. Because chimp groups are impenetrable by outsiders, it would be impossible for an individual chimp to be released and accepted into another group. The J.A.C.K. group will be released together and be slowly weaned off food rations. This will be a phenomenal success, if the chimps can resume an independent life in the wild, with their adopted family.

I am incredibly lucky to be part of this organization. The faces of the chimps, their comical antics and pant-hoots of excitement when we arrive with bottles of hot milk are unforgettable. Each morning, as I hold Micah, feeding her spoonfuls of strawberry yogurt, I feel the beginning of a terrible ache that will split my heart the day I have to leave. 

Micah and I

Micah and I

The memories will remain solid in my mind. The way the sun sets in a hazy blur of smokey orange on the horizon. The wide-eyes of the five nocturnal bushbabies at the refuge as they crawl down to feed on cay eggs, tomatoes and papaya. Long after I go, I will hear Pasa calling out to us, wanting company as he falls asleep. I will feel Santa’s lips on my neck and her pot belly in my arms.

Yes, I am hooked on a feeling. Where this may lead, I don’t know. Does it have to lead somewhere? Can’t I just have this experience for the purely selfish exhilaration it brings? Maybe I’ll look into a zoology program, maybe I’ll write a book on the chimps that have found a home in J.A.C.K.—maybe I will simply tell stories for the rest of my life about the time in the Congo when time didn’t matter. When I spent my days with the chimps, absorbed and consumed by the fragility and beauty of life.

At night, when I close my eyes, the Congo will be there, alive and vivid. Kimo, Coco, Micah, Santa, Pasa—they will all be there too.  The chimps who have made my heart beat so fast and hard will always be with me.


To learn more about J.A.C.K. and how you can help (like adopting a chimp for $150 US a month) visit:

And if you missed the post about Shelia and Dave Siddle and the Chimfunshi chimp sanctuary in Zambia:

Categories: Congo Line: Once Upon a Time in Africa, Into and Out of Africa | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

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