Posts Tagged With: Africa

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.
Zanzibar 2014 351
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).

Zanzibar 2014 011
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.

Zanzibar 2014 235
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.

Zanzibar 2014 046
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).

Zanzibar 2014 022

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.

Zanzibar 2014 023
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.”

Zanzibar 2014 060

Zanzibar 2014 221
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

The Year of My Content

Cat crap coffee.

Worms and lime Jell-o.

Eggy burps and frog legs.

Boy/goat oral sex.

Derriere facials.

These are actual “search terms” that people have used, and in turn, have been directed to my blog because of. I will blame (and credit) my Africa posts for the landslide of readers wanting to learn more about parasites, diarrhoea, gin and snake bite remedies.

It’s been a year. A whole long-winded year of blogging. Rona Maynard, former editor of Chatelaine insisted I get my act together last April and take my Facebook community stage performance to a wider audience.  And what does she know? Well, when it comes to anything literary, writerly or necessary, she would be the woman I would choose to represent me for the Double Jeopardy question in any of those categories.  So I did.

“You really MUST have a blog (I say for the hundred and 99th time).”

–Rona Maynard, April 25th, 2009

Rona had been following my colourful (profanity-laden) posts of life in Uganda, when I volunteered with the Jane Goodall Institute. The graphic tales of nearly being shot, shitting my pants, mystery bites, eating termites with piss-warm beer  aged my parents about 20 years.

My blog evolved into an uncensored postcard. We all know letter carriers read our postcards—and with a blog, I was posting postcards to the world, essentially. Now I get immediate disclaimers from my parents and close friends: “Do NOT put that in your blog!” They’ve learned that if there’s no disclaimer, the material is fair game.

Last week, when my brother and I were particularly smiley from drinking old-fashioned whiskeys, we had a revelation. The blog had evolved into another purpose—it was my data bank–the hard drive of my mind! Dax and I were trying to remember my mother’s famous quote about boredom. We struggled for a good five minutes, trying to assist each other’s memory. Dax finally wisely said, “Oh, just look it up on your blog tomorrow.”

(And I did. I knew exactly where to find it. My mother had said, “Only boring people get bored.”)

Writing a weekly blog is self-indulgent. I get to explore all my passions without worrying about parameters (with only my fear of being boring in mind). Readers can tune in or be turned off in mere sentences. I’ve written about many controversial topics (Chaz Bono and her “gender variance”, the bushmeat trade in the Congo, Abbotsford gangs). I’ve detailed the side effects (read: toilet visits) of living in Africa and what happens when one eats fly-infested meat that has been hanging in the equatorial sun for hours.  


There have been posts that I’ve written with tears running down to my collarbones from start to finish (when Mila was dying of cancer). In the Congo, I funnelled rage and sadness into a post about Ikia, the chimpanzee who died in our arms 12 hours after arriving at the sanctuary because of governmental delays.

With my writing, I’ve convinced more people NOT to go to Africa than I have convinced to go. All that was raw, unsettling, dusty and disturbing, I included.  A foodie review of pan-fried goat testicles and crispy frog legs didn’t come across as I intended. I thought I was living high off the hog in the Congo. Or, high off the goat, at least. Noelle from P.E.I. thought otherwise: “You scare the shit out of me, yet make me laugh at the same time. As much as I love Africa and dream about going, the more I read your stories the more I think….yeah, I’ll stick with my Animal Kingdom.  You’re brave and you do belong to Africa.”

The year in review saw posts from Uganda, Kenya, Banff, the Congo (pit stop in Zimbabwe), Amsterdam, British Columbia, Toronto, Nashville, Venezuela and the dozens of places my restless mind travelled to in between. There were tributes to my nearest and dearest, nostalgic excerpts from the diary of my 13-year-old self (that was an out loud love letter to my grade 8 fiancee, Robert LeBovic), fried grasshoppers, Thai cooking classes, bitching about moving across Canada, corrupt Congolese police tales, musings on love,  lost in translation stories, half-marathons…sigh, there was a lot.

I woke up in so many beds, under so many mosquito nets and starry hemispheres, after so much gin and tonic with four Q-tips worth of safari dust in my ears. I packed up a life in BC and unpacked one in Toronto. I quit jobs, found new ones, had fecal-oral contamination, went piranha fishing, had Banff ticks that I flew home to Abbotsford with via Westjet, itched for nearly six months due to something else, and fell in love with the charms of Nashville and the chimps of the Congo.

And you followed me, like shadows, to the corners of the earth, and the corners of my mind. Which puts me in an odd place at times. Is there any mystery left to me? I’ve put it all out there. Strangers know me better than my non-blog reading co-workers. Is this a good or a bad thing?

I’ve spent tonight reading through 60+ of my favourite glowing comments that I’ve saved in my inbox in response to the blog. If I include one, I have to include them all. If  I quote my mom, then I have to have a dad quote, and then I’ll feel awkward and like I’m playing favourites if I don’t include Dax and Kiley. Then there’s Suzanne, and her sister Jo, Kay, Connie, Heidi, Kelly W. Leslie, Wendy G., Mag, Jann, Kristyn, Jules (not me), Wendy M., Rona (of course!), Rodney, Sass, David, Carol, Karen, Carol (another one, I’m not repeating myself), Kim & Kim (not together), Steph, Lynne (and Al who gets the postings read to him by Lynne on drives up to the houseboat)…I’m forgetting important people here—Farrah, Kaitlin, Chantal, Martine, Pamela, Toni, Nunavut Michelle, Karen of way west Queen west (the Nunavut of Toronto), Karin, Martha, Kathleen, Babysnooks, the ever-breeding Twitter population, Andie, my Body Blitz fan club, Rose, Nancy, Corie, Denny, Jennifer Aniston (oh, are you still paying attention?)…

Thank you to all my dedicated and drop-in readers for your rallying cries, support, chides, type-o alerts and genuine blog love. And a special thank you to my parents for not cutting me off the Christmas card list for all the Torti secrets that I have spilled.

The moments we most remember when we look back are the ones that made us feel more deeply than usual. Feel pain, feel elation, feel despair.  There’s a Feist song I like that says, “I feel it all, I feel it all… wings are wide, my wings are wide.” So great.—Staci Frenes

And so another year begins, with wings as wide as an albatross (that’s a 2.4 meter wingspan).

 Join me?

Categories: Polyblogs in a Jar, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | 7 Comments

Wish You Were Here

Last Christmas I was poolside with a gin and tonic in hand, writing about all that I had seen on safari that day in Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda. Our morning had begun in the dark with a slip of a moon, bleary-eyed over 6 am coffees. We left the Myewa Hotel as the last of the stars bled into dawn. There were kob en masse, picking their way through the long grass, two lions and a cub at a distance, long-tailed mousebirds spinning in lazy circles and dozens of startled bushbuck running in a whisper.

The infinity pool at the hotel perched over Lake Edward and Lake George. The sky that day was a violent purple, growling thunder edged closer with the frequent spikes of lightning. Elephants at the water’s edge dragged their trunks along the surface of the lake, spitting and spraying their torsos in a seemingly choreographed dance, oblivious to the storm that would throw down rain in angry torrents in less than an hour.

I wasn’t feeling Christmas at all. No glitter, tinsel, nutcrackers, wet snow, buttery shortbread or carols on repeat. But I was lying by a pool, sweat trickling down into my navel, my mouth raw from eating so many wedges of fresh pineapple at breakfast. I was watching elephants by the lake. My mind was still reeling from the prickly thrill of seeing the gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park just days before.

I thought of how lovely the Canadian landscape would be with marshmallow snow topping fence posts, pristine aprons of snow in the branches of weeping cedars and pines. But, I was in Uganda, and marvelling at the verdant tea plantations and flat expanse of savannah, dotted with the exotic animals that I had completed so many elementary school projects on.

I spent this morning reading my Christmas journal entries from last year, and 1994, when I spent three months volunteering in Costa Rica. The words pull up vivid images of the jungle and the hum that penetrates you as soon as you step into it. I was in the Monteverde Cloud Forest—and when you live in a cloud forest, you wake up in the clouds due to the elevation. The rain was pelting down on the corrugated iron roof of our cabin as we gathered around our makeshift Christmas banana tree.  We made ornaments out of tin cans (and were happy that we`d had tetanus shots before the trip). Alex had tucked away a bottle of Argentinian white wine from his dad`s village, Alice had Australian lollies to share. Phil pulled out a prized bottle of amber Quebec maple syrup and pancake mix that won us over in an instant. There were a few cans of beer as warm as bathtub water, and egg nog that came in cartons with the rum already in it.

I was the Dona in the kitchen that Christmas Day. I had prepared a marmalade-lemon juice-coconut sauce marinade for the chicken and managed to make peanut butter-banana-oatmeal no-bake cookies. The jungle kitchen was very basic—i.e. cooking was done over a fire pit that had to be constantly tended to due to the leaking roof. There was no running water (except off the roof into the fire)—we had to slog up plastic jugs from the river which we treated with iodine tablets. And Mother Hubbard`s kitchen was bare! I often felt like a contestant on Just Like Mom (a TV Ontario show where competing kids had a cookie bake-off (with one minute of prep time), and the poor mothers had to guess which sloppy cookie their kid made. Contestants were given all the same ingredients: chocolate chips, flour, eggs, garlic, wieners, Coke, mustard, relish. It was just a gong show of gross. Jungle cooking was similar considering the pantry was only stocked with cans of mackerel, stewed tomatoes, marmalade, oatmeal and five kilos of peanut butter.

Somebody suggested we sing Christmas carols to channel more of a festive feel in the heart of the rainforest. There were 12 of us—from Canada, Guyana, Costa Rica and Australia. We soon realized that collectively we didn`t know the words to one entire Christmas carol. However, everyone knew the jingle for The Flintstones and Gilligan`s Island.

Flash forward to Christmas 2009 which kind of snuck up on me like my Chad Kruger Nickelback hair that needs a desperate cut. Snow flakes are drifting by the window sideways. There are a few sparkly decorations scattered about the house to induce festiveness. Dogs are walking by in boots and jackets, often wearing more clothing than the children that are also in tow.

My sister is home for a week from Banff and is landing on my doorstep tonight. Her arrival (and too-soon departure on the 28th) reminds me of the impact of my boomerang lifestyle. As much as I love having Christmas abroad in rainforest huts and safari lodges, there is a place where we should be for Christmas, and that`s home.

I selfishly spent one Christmas Eve in Toronto, just because I wanted to buck all tradition and watch Bridget Jones Diary and Love Actually and eat greasy Chinese food. I had friends over who had lost their sense of home, or simply weren`t invited to come home with their loved ones because it wasn`t appropriate. People would talk. Aunt so-and-so can`t handle it. Your father can`t accept it. Meanwhile my father was saying he should play the lottery more often because he had two out of three that were gay. How lucky was he!

I am still appalled by the response to Nova Scotia MP Scott Brison`s Christmas card controversy. The card is a proud photo of Brison and his civil partner, Maxime St. Pierre (married in 2007) in an autumn field by the ocean with their retriever, Simba. Newspaper websites were forced to shut down or disable comment sections on the article because of the backlash. Apparently not everyone is ready to don their gay apparel, even at a time when we are supposed to extend goodwill to men. But maybe only straight men?

As lucky as I am to have spent a Christmas in Uganda with bathing elephants, and in Costa Rica with flocks of toucans barking outside the hut as I wrote in my journal, I`m even luckier to have a home to go home to, where my loved ones are equally loved and embraced.


I have two parents, still married after 37 years, and a brother and sister that I genuinely like. We are as rare as a flock of toucans being spotted in downtown Toronto. Dax, Kiley and I will head home on the 24th as a convoy. My mom will have the phyllo pastry ready for Dax to make his traditional spanokapita. There will be champagne in the freezer and Pavarotti blasting at concert levels (which will send my parents back and forth, alternately, to the stereo in a lower volume, higher volume contest). We will listen to The Cat Carol by Meryn Cadell, as we always do, and cry over the cats and dogs that we loved so much. They each have memorial ornaments on the Christmas tree with engravings that are traced over with fondness.

My dad will eat six slices of toast, waiting for the rest of us to realize that we`ve forgotten about the turkey dinner because we are slowly getting smashed on champagne bubbles. We will laugh at the classic stories that are re-told every year. The story of Dax and the unicycle and his failed attempt to ride it on Christmas morning will be heard, again. How he grabbed the mantle piece and almost took my dad out with the garland and clock that weighed as much as a piano.

We`ll make fun of Kiley and the hockey stick gift she insisted my dad would love. It was signed by all the Toronto Maple Leafs and came with an official document—it should have been The Best Christmas Present in the World. Or so she thought. My dad couldn`t identify a single signature as they were all farm team players and rookies.

Kiley wins the Brooke Shield's Brows award AND owning a shirt that looks like a couch cover prize.

The photo albums will eventually come out and Kiley and I will argue who had the bigger Brooke Shield`s eyebrows. My dad will eat more toast. We will reluctantly sit down to eat, somewhere around 9 o`clock and then decide to open presents somewhere around 11 at which point both my parents will fall asleep watching the other unwrap.

And when they finally tuck into bed, Dax, Kiley, Mark (Kiley`s non-gay partner)a and I will sit on the kitchen counter eating cold turkey and shortbread until we`re sick.

And this year I won`t have to send a postcard to my family with a sappy wish you were here because I`ll be there. Home, and that`s where we all travel back to on sleepless nights, when we are oceans away, submerged in hot baths and at Christmas.

Merry Christmas and all that rot, as my mother would say (but probably deny).

 Last year`s blog entry Egg Nog and Cat Carol Crying–

The controversial Christmas card–

 Just Like Mom footage–

Categories: Polyblogs in a Jar | Tags: , , | Leave a comment


040“Thirty-five is the pivotal year of change,” Merryde informed me as we clinked glasses full of Australian merlot. The night sky was a romantic chandelier of stars—and that particular evening, Venus, Jupiter and the crescent moon aligned in a very apocalyptic way. They were eerily parallel in the November sky. I had just turned 34, and was more preoccupied with the awareness (that still caught me off-guard) of: “Oh my god, I’m in Africa.” I was as far away from 35 as I was from Canada and maple syrup at that moment.

 As for 35 being a year of change, Merryde obviously had a shiny crystal ball under the table that I didn’t see that night. But I do remember being on the verge of something, even then. It wasn’t quite tangible, but hummingbirds had been visiting me in my dreams for months. They were a sign of restlessness and spoke of change, according to a spiritual higher-up that my friend Gillian had consulted.

The moment I laid my head under the mosquito net in Africa, the restless hummingbirds were rudely ousted out of my dreams and replaced by slithering snakes (which I pooh-poohed as a coincidence considering that I was living among the world’s deadliest in Uganda).

Late night Google research investigations revealed that snakes in dreams indicated transformation. Transcendence even. I was advised to employ lucid dreaming techniques to ask the snakes what they wanted. As if that conversation would go over well.

 If the snakes bit me (which they often did), it was a signal that I was “going through a kind of initiation; a psychological and spiritual trial that had the potential to change my life for the better if I dealt with it bravely and with a clear heart.” Bravery and pit vipers don’t usually fall into the same sentence, but I made note of the possible end result.

And here I am, not exactly with three clicks of the ruby slippers, but, I’m back in the hum and vibration of my Toronto. Thanks to the snakes I guess, and the hummingbirds that initially led me to Africa. My spiritual trial has been temporarily adjourned. Or was it just beginning season two?

Birthdays (like red wine and starry nights) have an indirect way of inspiring reflection and microscopic analysis of the years and the dreams that have propelled us along the way. After an indulgent night at the Sultan’s Tent on Friday, celebrating my 35th in fine Moroccan fashion, I was unbearably full of couscous and braised lamb shank. I was sleepless and I was thinking of Bob, again.

Bob was one of my first massage client’s at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel in 2002. He asked me one question that will never leave me. He breezed in almost daily (when he wasn’t golfing in Palm Springs), a Cuban cigar clenched between his professionally-whitened teeth, stylish and sockless in his Gucci loafers. His suit and perfectly-knotted pink tie probably cost more than my entire wardrobe, but he had charm that matched his wealth. And the first question he asked me when we were introduced?

“Jules, tell me the most amazing thing you’ve done with your life so far.”

Well, no pressure there. I ran with the first flashes that were triggered in my then 28-year-old head. I told him that I had volunteered in the Costa Rican jungle for three months and lived in a hut with a tree bark floor, no walls, and a palm frond roof. That had to be amazing. (Not so amazing was having to bang my boots in the morning to scoot out dormant scorpions and the trench foot that ate at away at my flesh at the same rate as the parasites in my intestines.)

I think of Bob often, especially around my birthday–almost in preparation if I meet him again. I can picture him with his trendy red eyeglasses pushed back on his shock of white hair. “Jules, tell me the most amazing thing you’ve done since I Iast saw you.” It’s a good question—why don’t we ask it of each other more often? We should have answers ready. Are we living our lives to the most amazing capacity?

Of course I would tell Bob of my time in Africa, those precious moments with Micah and the other darling chimps in the Congo hanging around my neck like it was a tree trunk. And how I survived Uganda and the several brushes with death that came in the form of gun-toting wildlife officers wanting to shoot me and my dog, rush-hour boda-boda rides and eating dodgy goat meat from the street vendors. That was amazing too.

But there are other things, and I would need to sit him down for about 35 days to share the rest. What was amazing to me at 25 has become amusing at 35. And at 45? I’ll be writing fortune cookie messages with my profound knowledge and wisdom. 

home-toronto-amster-nairobi 753I remember copying out a passage from one of Douglas Coupland’s books (Shampoo Planet?) in my early 20s about the beauty of hotel rooms. How everyone who stays in a hotel becomes a blank page, waiting to be rewritten. You are allowed to reinvent yourself, over and over again. I loved that—it was strangely reassuring to me then.

And now? I am beginning to crave familiarity. I want to be surrounded by friends who know me and can finish my sentences and bottles of wine. Moving back to Toronto has allowed me to spend an unexpected and treasured amount of time with my parents and brother, Dax. I missed knowing them so intimately. Even though I was just a just a five-hour flight away, many things are lost across the miles. And visiting at Christmas was such a hurried emotional and egg nog-fuelled rush that we were already missing each other on the day of my arrival.

Which doesn’t mean I won’t wander off again to that magnetic place called Africa. I do want to go back, eventually. That won’t change. home-toronto-amster-nairobi 1047Africa has become an integral part of me. I want to see the chimps from the J.A.C.K. sanctuary released into the wild. I want to see Micah, bigger and bolder, finding her place among the group. I want to see the fiery Lubumbashi sunsets that I stared into this past July, and see how far I’ve travelled spiritually since then.

I can’t stop my hungry need to see the world.

My mom told me a few days ago of her plans to travel until she’s physically and financially exhausted. Then she will be happy to be put in a retirement home to stare blankly out the window at the chickadees pecking at the suet feeder. Because then, she will be satisfied and content in what she has seen, comforted by the vivid memories of the misty moors of Scotland, the soupy canals of Ireland, her time in Belgium, Austria, Amsterdam, Italy and beyond.

And this is what it comes down to. What we have seen and who we have shared it with. Our footage changes over the years, as we edit, fast-forward and rewind through certain clips and replace them with others. All that is important is refined, but the structural bones of our life remain, stabilizing us through the years. As we stare out the window at the chickadees, what is it that we will really see before us?

home-toronto-amster-nairobi 881 Just as Jupiter, Venus and the moon realigned, I feel myself doing the same.

 But tell me, what’s the most amazing thing you’ve done with your life so far?

Categories: Polyblogs in a Jar | Tags: , , , | 12 Comments

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Dear Class,

024When I first decided to come to the Congo, it wasn’t the political unrest, black mambas or malaria-laden mosquitoes that worried me. The fighting in Goma (which is as far north as Nunavut is to Yonge street in Toronto) had died down to a near lullaby and the suspected Ebola case in Lubumbashi was exactly that—suspected, but not. I wasn’t worried about a month without peanut butter or having to resemble Pig Pen for all of July. My overriding concern was that I’d fall dangerously, irretrievably in love with the Congo.

There’s some magnetic force, like the smell of burgers dripping and spitting on the grill on a heavy summer night that sucks me in. And that powerful, invisible entity, made me genuinely worry that I would fall for the Congo and rupture the stitches that still left me attached to Canada.

But for all that I am enchanted by, there is also a mild irritation in living here. Like a t-shirt tag that picks and rubs you raw throughout the day. We all know what happens–exasperated, in a moment of agitation, the offending tag gets ripped off with brute force, taking all the critical threads with it. There are many things that I don’t agree with that are an integral part of the Congolese way. However, I don’t think life should be lived in a compound with walls taller than the one that was toppled in Berlin. The barbed wire coiled around the perimeter does not instil a cozy feeling like a white picket fence does. The armed guards with poker faces and rifles on the rooftops of the nearby governor’s family home also make me a bit prickly.

Guns are commonplace, as familiar as the bone-rack street dogs and young boys rubbing their bellies and begging for francs. But it’s not the guns that are feared by this population—it’s poisoning. The most popular way to murder someone in Lubumbashi is a gentle, surreptitious poisoning. Snake bites hardly rank at all on the fear meter. In fact, Chantal has told me that the solution is simple. If you are nabbed by a snake, “you just cut the limb.” I had to clarify her instructions because I’ve seen lots of cowboy movies where they do just that—they slice the guy and then suck the venom out of him. Whisky gets poured down his throat (and down the throat of the snake-bitten chap). What Chantal meant wasn’t like the cowboy movies at all, she meant that you cut the limb OFF. “If you are in the bush you can choose to die in seconds from the mamba, or you can cut off your hand, arm or foot.” Pity the guy who gets bit in other locations.

Again, the snakes don’t bother me. The Bradt guide advised wearing “stout shoes” to prevent such bites. I’m hoping my Nikes qualify as stout. Besides, who is a snake to judge footwear anyway? Unless they slither upon snakeskin boots in the sun-bleached grass, then they can throw judgement. I’ve warded off many dangers so far—even diarrhea, which I think is the greatest achievement for someone who is inclined to eat goat testicles and grasshoppers. C’mon, living in the Congo for a month? it’s the equivalent of licking a dozen Mexican toilet seats. Plus, I am generally covered in chimp piss and/or shit on a daily basis. Not to mention all the other flea and dander-toting animals that I share a house with. The only one I haven’t made intimate contact with is the surly guinea pig because she has the teeth of a shark lunges like an Olympic fencer whenever I drop carrots and radishes in her cage.

Goat testicles, panfried with garlic

Goat testicles, panfried with garlic

Canada is just so safe it’s shocking that any of us get a bruise or break a nail. The warnings are everywhere, when they should already be anticipated. Watch out! Your coffee might be hot! This bag is not a toy! Do not eat this! (Who was the loser who ate the silica gel in the shoebox in the first place?). I wonder how signage would help make the Congo safer? CAUTION: CHOLERA AND GIARDIA IN THIS SOUP! And along the ‘sidewalks’—Watch out: broken ankle terrain for the next 80 km! In the bathrooms: wash your hands because you just touched fecal matter on the doorknob! On menus: *This menu may or may not contain parasites on its surface that will make you shit your pants before you leave the restaurant.

More dangerous than ordering the catch of the day (because who knows what you might catch) would be the streets of Lubumbashi. They should be classified as really wide hiking trails for intrepid climbers. The potholes are as big as bathtubs. Dust can create blind patches that leave vehicles hurtling at each other head-on. The traffic lights are often red AND green simultaneously, but more often, not working at all. What North America would consider a single lane of traffic suddenly becomes a four-lane turning point. It’s like being in a colossal amusement park where everyone has their very own bumper car and toy horn. Beeeeeeeeeeep! Is there any consequence if we smash into each other? Let’s find out! BeepBeep.

North America is so starchy-white and sanitized. I love that. I plan to take a long hot bath in bleach when I return home and drink eight glasses of Listerine a day. In the evening, I’ll pass on the Chardonnay; give me a shot of lemon-scented sanitizer on the rocks.

One of the most ew-inducing sanitation stories happened two days ago. The one and only Lubumbashi vet made a home visit to examine Micah, the one-year-old chimp, who had a spiking fever. The vet arrived covered in dried blood from some haemorrhaging dog he had just performed surgery on. The blood was still on his hands as he was about to stick his fingers in Micah’s mouth. Chantal asked if he cared to “Lavez les mains” before he began. Honestly. And this is why I don’t eat finger foods after massaging all day, or here in the Congo. Now that I’m on the vet rant, I should finish. Without a stethoscope (because the vet doesn’t have one) he diagnosed “dry bronchitis” when Micah hadn’t coughed once. He didn’t even listen to her chest sounds. Of course, we demanded a second opinion and had a human doctor from S.O.S. International do his very first chimp check-up. At least he had a stethoscope and non-bloody hands. He diagnosed parasites which probably came from the one and only vet who doesn’t wash his hands after surgery.

Chantal is no longer surprised by this sort of jaw-dropping, icky behaviour. But there are things that are just plain wrong in the Congo, wrong as white pants after Labour Day. There is a hospital here with no running water. “Would you like gangrene with your stitches today?”

At La Brioche, half a dozen amputees routinely lean against the bakery wall with make-shift crutches and primitive hand-pedal powered wheelchairs. I ask Chantal if they are victims of landmine explosions or the civil war. She tells me that they probably had a minor injury or an infection, couldn’t afford the health care (as one has to buy everything during a hospital visit: food, sheets, parasites), and they developed gangrene and lost their leg. However, a hospital visit could have resulted in the same fate.

Living in a place where you are recommended to NOT go to the hospital is strange, no? All the ex-pats take off on the next flight to Johannesburg for any health concerns: a blister or otherwise. This trip has confirmed that hygiene is such a beautiful thing. But could it be achieved in the Congo? The dust here is constant, like tinnitus. People piss where they please, wherever the urge strikes. Unwashed hands that touched unwashed bums prepare breakfasts and lunches and dinners. Beer is poured in glasses washed in water that wouldn’t even be acceptable for a Canadian toilet. And then there’s the money—francs that have been tucked up into secret places for safekeeping. Garbage is strewn everywhere. When a bottle is empty, it’s dropped in that very spot. Plastic bags blow about like fallen leaves should, cans get crunched underfoot with free range chicken shit and condoms. Who needs a garbage can when you throw garbage anywhere?

There’s obviously no recycling here (I think the garbage can situation needs to be tackled first), which tempts me to return home with a backpack full of recyclables. It hurts me to throw plastic and glass into the garbage after twenty plus years of being an eco-hero. But, there is sunshine every day. If you want a 100% sunny day guarantee for your wedding: choose the Congo. As long as you don’t mind your wedding gown not being a whiter shade of pale.

078I love the African sun and sky. I want to bring it home because the sunsets make everything seem possible. They are a reliable feel-good moment at the end of the dusty day. At 6:03 the sun drops as fast as the apple on Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve. I have never seen a more magnificent orange globe. It slips deep into the ground and the cloak of darkness falls in an instant. The Southern Cross appears with adjusted vision and all the stars twinkle like Joan Rivers’ veneers.

Africa definitely gets under my skin like the tumbo fly eggs that must be ironed out of clothes hung outside to dry. I laugh more often than not at the charms and spoils of the Congo, because it’s the secret to survival when your sense of familiarity and expectations go POOF! It begins at breakfast as I open the “Long Life Milk” (which is a bit frightening—should milk last as long as Twinkies on the shelf?), and spread honey on the short life bread. One day it’s fresh and pillowy, the next day? Croutons. Molar-cracking slices.

But still, I have this insatiable appetite for all things Africa. I have learned that when you order a burger and fries—it will take a minimum of two hours. And the fries will arrive at the very end of those two hours as a dessert. This is why the beers are 750ml, to keep you patient and preoccupied. If you’re not a patient personality, the Congo will leave you in a permanent state of panic attack. The electricity is as reliable as a ’74 VW Westfalia. I have become accustomed to living in a house with no electricity, which also means no running water. It doesn’t even phase me when I am told that the power has been out for three days. I have observed 986 Earth Hours in Lubumbashi. The internet connection is on and off as often as Brad and Angelina supposedly are. But these little nuisances are compensated for in those blazing sunsets that make me bleed stories of African days that have passed me by.

067The most dangerous ailment that I will suffer after my time spent in Africa will be incurable emotional arthritis. Periodic aches and pain, general restlessness and insomniac nights that can all be traced to my month in the Congo. And my peacefully restorative days in Uganda and Kenya. Far worse than malaria, or a mamba bite from not wearing stout shoes is emotional arthritis caused by a sutured connection to a place (and 23 darling chimps)so many oceans away. But I can massage that arthritis with memories, and I have so many of them. My mind is racing faster now, covering all the days of this month.

I love Africa a little more for fulfilling that pacing place in my mind in a way that will be difficult to match. Like a mistress, she will haunt me in my dreams and leave her scent on my skin to keep me under her intoxicating spell.

I am leaving Thursday, but I am taking the Congo with me.

Categories: Congo Line: Once Upon a Time in Africa | Tags: , , , | 7 Comments

Lessons in Dying

ikia in bagIt was to be a day of celebration, not a morning of angry tears and bitter rage directed at the ignorance of mankind.

I have always sympathized with Dian Fossey and her misinterpreted passion, I understood how her love for the mountain gorillas ran so deep and fast that strangling poachers bare-handed seemed  like the only viable solution to her. I’d like to stop the beating heart and breathing lungs of the guy who decided to rob Ikia of her life in the wild just to make a quick buck.

Three weeks ago, Julius, a geologist in Kalemie, was approached at his home a chimp trafficker, and the proposal wasn’t out of the ordinary. As a wealthy Congolese mining survey freelancer who frequently entertains expats and foreign nationals, Julius has been targeted as an individual who can afford exotic pets—and would have connections to others who would be interested in similar transactions. Exotic pet traffickers routinely come to his compound with African grey parrots, crocodiles, monkeys, marabou storks, and as of late, three baby chimpanzees.

When Julius saw the grave condition that Ikia was in, he felt there was no other choice but to save the chimp from the greedy hands of the trafficker who had her tucked away in a burlap sack bound with twigs. She was bought for $120US after Julius refused the asking price of $200.

Ikia’s decline was immediate. Julius provided her with shelter in his courtyard, and the young chimp was immediately hostile and aggressive. Attempts at feeding her were in vain—she refused milk and would only eat small amounts of papaya. Julius contacted the Jane Goodall Institute (no response) and Chimfunshi in Zambia (also no response) for advice. The husband of a colleague of Chantal’s who was familiar with her work as co-director of J.A.C.K. in Lubumbashi, cemented a connection between Julius and Chantal. Urgent phone calls and desperate emails ping-ponged between the two as Ikia’s health became critical.

Chantal immediately coordinated a meeting with the Minister of the Environment and an inspector from the Institute for Hunting and Conservation and Nature (notice how it’s the Institute of Hunting before other concerns like Conservation and Nature?) to obtain permission for the seizure and relocation of Ikia to the J.A.C.K. refuge where she could receive appropriate care and veterinary attention (from the one and only vet in Lubumbashi).

The Minister of the Environment was unavailable, but represented by a boozy stand-in, and the IHCN inspector proved to be shadier than a tree, working for financial motives more than animal welfare. The whiff of corruption was immediately evident as both men were asking for money to expedite the process and maintain their interest.

Ikia's arrival at the Lubumbashi airport

Ikia's arrival at the Lubumbashi airport

Kalemie is a two and a half hour flight from Lubumbashi. Due to Ikia’s deplorable condition, immediate decisions were necessary to ensure her survival. The documents that were to be signed by the officials on a Friday afternoon were somehow pushed to Monday in favour of whiskey, despite the urgent request for permission to fly Ikia to Lubumbashi that Saturday. On Monday, Chantal was to hear from the Minister by day’s end, but again, there was a delay in any formal action. When she was finally invited to the “office” of the Minister to receive the required documents, she was offered a seat (a plastic lawn chair) in a windowless office with only a table and one other lawn chair.  The Minister’s stand-in had no paper and asked Chantal to borrow a pen—which confirmed the lack of professionalism and governmental resources from the beginning.

Chantal phoned Julius to confirm that the permission had been granted, a pilot had been contacted and the expense of the flight was going to be waived. Except, on that Tuesday, only Julius got on the plane in Kalemie– there wasn’t room in the cargo area of the plane for Ikia. Julius decided to fly to Lubumbashi to assist the refuge with negotiations and his colleague, Patrick, would fly with Ikia the following day.

The refuge staff anxiously prepared the quarantine cage and the vet was contacted. As we paced, waiting for the phone call indicating that Ikia was on the plane, Julius informed us of different news– the flight from Kalemie was cancelled, but Ikia would arrive the next day. On Wednesday the flight was delayed for hours.  When we received the green light that Ikia was on the flight, we headed to the airport with the Minister’s useless sidekick and the seedy, glassy-eyed inspector. Halfway out of the city the sidekick realized he didn’t have the documents to present to the airport officials. We turned around. Then he decided he wanted to take his own vehicle—and asked Chantal for $10 to cover the petrol. 

In separate vehicles we rushed to the airport, exasperated at the behaviour of the ministry. The officials continued to ask Julius for more money. The airport officials in Kalemie demanded $100 US to put Ikia on the plane. The Lubumbashi  airport police stopped us at the gate and said we could only take one vehicle beyond the entrance. After removing the crate for transferring Ikia to the official’s car, he couldn’t unlock the back door of his Jeep, so we reloaded ours, and both cars were granted permission to proceed—with a bribe payment and a crooked smile.

The police officer wore a dusty uniform hat and a sweatshirt that my grandmother would have loved (it might have belonged to her at one point). The sweatshirt had LET IT SNOW written in big, sparkly letters and the snowflakes were carefully sewn-on sequins. The cardinals were also sparkly and of red glitter. I thought of the intense fear locals and the world have for the Congolese police. How could anyone be afraid of an officer wearing a nubby Grandma sweatshirt, even with a rifle slung over his shoulder?

The plane was landing as we made our way through the gate, the LET IT SNOW officer smiling like a fool with extra money in his pocket. Ikia had no idea of the life that was about to unfold for her, but already, the days had been too long. The daily setbacks in the process we tried to hurry would eventually determine her fate.

We don’t know how many days she spent in a burlap bag on the back of a bumpy truck from the mountains. We’ll never know how many chimps were killed in order for the trafficker to get his hands on Ikia. The chimp troop would have defended her and perished in a bloody battle to save their own from the trafficker.

Julius tells us the traffickers are infiltrating the Kalemie area from Tanzania–convincing local Bantus and a pygmy tribe that they can find a reliable income for their families by getting involved in the exotic pet trade.

Historically, the Bantus and Kalemie population have never eaten chimpanzee, but the ever-growing militia numbers in the area do, presenting another threat to the two chimp colonies nearby. No one knows the number of chimps living in this area—a survey has never been done. National Geographic biologists were in the region earlier this year, but their focus was on the snake and frog population.

For the chimps of Kalemie, habitat destruction is pushing them closer to local communities who are torching large stands of forest for charcoal (a major fuel source for locals for cooking) and farmland. Gold mining surveys are presently being carried out which could also upset the delicate ecosystem and range of the chimps in future years as mining exploits are carried out.

Many fingers of blame can be pointed in every direction. To the minister officials with questionable morals, to the inspectors with equally dark motives, to an uneducated population who have found exotic animal trafficking provides a lucrative income. There are no schools in a 120 km radius of Kalemie—the pygmy tribe still lives by nomadic principles, their quiet existence suddenly interrupted by outsiders who have found a valuable resource in their forests. The Tanzanian traders can be blamed too–for fulfilling a demand from Saudi Arabia, to supply wealthy oil barons and army officials asking for chimps to call their very own.

Although J.A.C.K. can celebrate 23 success stories, there is no progress being made when the alarming news of a lively chimp trafficking trade is illuminated. Lwiro Primates in South Kivu (near Goma) recently introduced two more chimps to its primate sanctuary, in addition to the 45 chimps and 50 monkeys that they already house. The existence of sanctuaries and refuges like Lwiro, J.A.C.K. and Ngamba Island (Entebbe, Uganda) are indications of human failure and the tremendously steep climb that is ahead.

Soccer balls, bonbons and old running shoes aren’t going to save Africa. The need for effective educational programs and a support staff to ensure their continuity are essential puzzle pieces in seeking equilibrium in this situation. Without education, poverty and corruption create an ugly piggy-back monster for a population surviving with limited resources.

086Ikia is a product of the conflict, soupy morals and disorientation of the Congo. She died 12 hours after she arrived at J.A.C.K. Severely malnourished and dehydrated, her immune system and vitality was compromised long before we could be of assistance. Her weak, initial cries upon arrival were the last we heard. By morning, she was unresponsive, her limp body was unable to resuscitate. She died in Augie’s arms, unaware of the safety and security that finally surrounded her.

The Congolese traditionally bury their dead the very same day, and by 2:30 that afternoon, Ikia’s body was placed in an elaborate coffin decorated with ivory bows and lined with cloth. She was customarily buried with tree branches pushed into the dirt of her grave, as the branches would take her back to nature when she went to the otherworld. The service was brief; the emotions of the J.A.C.K. staff were visible on drawn faces and in clenched fists. The tug-of-war between anger and inconceivable sadness for her death pulled at each of us.

Ikia reminded us of the consequence of poverty and the desperation of a beleaguered Africa. Her death provided insight into the existence of chimp colonies that were unheard of. Of course we envisioned a different life for her, but understand that her death was for a purpose that will prove to be greater than her life.

Please tell everyone you know about the chimp trafficking situation in the Congo. And if you want to donate money to a cause that will directly influence the future, wild population of chimpanzees in Africa, visit the J.A.C.K. website or Facebook link at:

Lwiro Primates:


Or if you’re bilingual like the Congo believes all Canadians to be due to Celine Dion singing French songs, visit the J.A.C.K. site on Facebook (en francais):


Categories: Congo Line: Once Upon a Time in Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

First Impressions

My deepest apologies to Madame Massicotte for never paying attention in French class. At the time it seemed more important to snip Laura Toth’s split ends or play poker with Scott Berry. Now I find myself in a French-speaking country with the vocabulary of a dumb six-year-old. “Il fait chaud” (it is hot), “Il fait froid” (it is cold), “Je suis fatigue” (I am tired), “Je suis confiture” (I am jam—I want jam, but I can’t remember the word for want).

 I can decipher a menu easy enough, and often the translations have already been made. At the oldest hotel in Lubumbashi, Chantal and I had a real roar over the menu. She had never bothered reading the translations, naturally—but when I questioned her about the croque madam that was described as a “cheese sandwich served with human” I really wasn’t sure what to think. After all, this is the Congo, and as the media paints it, ordering a cheese and human sandwich wouldn’t be out of the ordinary. I was slightly disappointed to learn that the human part was actually an egg. And the “pancakes with comedy” turned out to be crepes with ice cream. Not funny at all! Next time we lunch there I will order the “skewers of beer” and the “ship’s buoy of chocolate.” How can you go wrong with a ship’s buoy?

Wanda actually wonders if I am in Africa at all with my detailed foodie descriptions of dinners involving gruyere, Chambly and brie cheese platters, buttery pastries and dark chocolate. It is the Belgian Congo after all, and when in Congo, one must do as the Belgians do! Undoubtedly, I will return to Canada with gout, which will be a better fate than the Ugandan shigella I had from eating street goat a la flies and grasshoppers laced with fecal matter.

The Congolese response to mizungos is what has surprised me the most. It’s not as ecstatic (i.e.–barely noticed) in comparison to the Ugandan welcome. In Entebbe, kids mobbed me like a red carpet star, yelling “America!” “Obama!””Mizungo!” and more commonly, “Mizungo, give me money!” Here, there is the occasional stare, but the Belgian presence over the years has created an obvious difference of awareness and acceptance. The copper mines in Lubumbashi are largely Asian owned, and there is a sizeable Greek and Lebanese population as well, making the Congo more multicultural than Abbotsford. The excited response usually comes from other whites, surprised to see a familiar face in the crowd.

Living here though, is similar to life inside a vacuum canister, the dust penetrates everything. Lip balm and skin lotion double as adhesive tape for the dirt. My eyeballs are on fire at night, and my eyelids are like sandpaper closing over them. I have underestimated my supply of Q-tips and overestimated on the protein bar front. Instead of pink grapefruit body butter I should have packed cans of lemon-scented Pledge and Swiffer cloths to dust myself.

Most of the roads are paved (thanks to the Asian mining companies), but not-so-paved where the potholes are as big as bathtubs. Drinking a 750 ml Simba beer midday is a challenge in itself, let alone enduring the drive home along the pock-marked “roads” that test the strength of your bladder walls. Cars constantly appear to be driving head-on, but it’s all in mutual avoidance of breaking an axle, which happens frequently. Vehicles are simply abandoned in the meteorite-sized holes for non-existent tow-trucks to remove. At one intersection, if you turn too sharply to the right, your whole vehicle could be lost in a hole that is over six feet deep and as big as the Landcruiser.

There are no traffic rules, occasionally working stoplights—and few fender benders. When there is an accident, everyone dies, and the number of deaths can be shocking. The minivan taxis, “fula fulas,” often carry over 30 people. There are seats in the front, a metal bench for about seven (or thirteen) directly behind it, and then, cargo space in the back where everyone else piles in—sometimes in the middle of the intersection. Chantal tells horrifying accident stories that are commonplace here. A few weeks ago, a fula fula overtook her on the road and collided head-on with a truck—35 dead. But one must keep driving to get out alive. It is a true hit and RUN scenario.

We pass several police officers on a daily basis, called “canaries” for their yellow uniforms. There are random “toll booths” where the suggested payment is 500-1,500 francs. The officers earn about $130 US a month, but pad their wallets with these friendly stops. Oddly, there are no coins in the Congo, and only three bank notes (100, 200 and 500 francs). Your wallet can easily be as thick as a NY sirloin, but contain about 10 bucks (500 francs= $1 US). Yawning men in cowboy hats and rubber boots sit ‘downtown’ with stacks of cold hard francs, ready to exchange for US dollars. This is completely acceptable, and recommended versus a bank exchange with a pocket-gouging rate of return.

In other criminal matters, due to vocal protest from mizungos last year who were infuriated with the frequent stops imposed by police asking for documents and visas, the governor implemented a “Courtesy Month” that will take place every July. For this month, no arrests can be made, and officers are not allowed to ask for any documents. Frankly, paying out a few francs has to be worth the officer’s courtesy in non-courtesy months. The road dotted with canaries and AK-47 armed security that passes by the President’s summer house comes with its own unique regulations. You can’t overtake another car, the speed limit is 40km/hour and there is absolutely no honking permitted. Try to tell that to the one-year-old chimp riding shotgun!

Street kids need to be kept happy as well—and this is achieved by slipping them the police toll booth payment of 500 francs. They are territorial, and can be found at most street corners taking turns running out to vehicles with Cheshire cat grins, rubbing their flat bellies to indicate hunger. Chantal tells me that when the President is in Lubumbashi, the road to his house (which is a major throughfare) is closed, and the street kids are taken about 50 km out of the city for the duration of his stay. I imagine Vancouver will use the same tactic to beautify East Hastings during the Olympics. Bus to Abbotsford, all aboard!

The streets are consistently loud and lively with aggressive vendors hawking eggplants and avocadoes as big as footballs, small birds, wooden ashtrays and mandarins. If you park your car, odds are that when you return it will be washed by entrepreneurial street kids hoping for another 500 francs or so. Chantal told me that in Zambia, the same creative money-making spirit is witnessed along the highways where young men will fill potholes to improve the roads—then stop drivers and demand money to compensate for their selfless road improvement work.

Many vehicles belch diesel, but gasoline is sold in dusty plastic jugs at makeshift lemonade-type stands along the roads, often mixed with fillers. Much like the local hooch derived from maize (corn) which is topped up with methanol for kissy-cool breath and a really cheap date. Overall, there is a great feeling of uselessness here as there is someone to unload the Landcruiser, someone to iron my clothes (there are flies that lay eggs on clothing which can turn your skin into a worm hatchery), someone to empty shopping cart items on the conveyor belt , direct you as you parallel park and even someone to feed the cats and guinea pig at the house I’m staying at. Chantal explains that if you do these things for yourself, somebody is out of a job.

This is life in cosmopolitan Lubumbashi, a city of four million with one fax machine, one vet, a Greek restaurant with a basketball court (that serves tasty garlicky goat testicles and greasy frog legs) and a zoo that is the most popular place to get married and/or take a date. Not exactly the Congo I imagined. Surprisingly there are fewer guns here than I expected. However, my arrival at the airport just one week ago was like film footage for Midnight Express. Chantal was waiting with two “protocols” who whisked me through the crush of locals and armed airport officials like I was a celebrity. The men flanked me and in a fast exchange of US money, passport, visa and immunization card, I was pushed through to the other side of Immigration. The hired men grabbed my bags and ensured that I myself wasn’t grabbed. With such beefed-up security and feverish chaos, I worried for a brief moment about what I had signed up for.

Only days later, as I ran around the leafy Belgian school grounds under a tangerine sky with the smell of roasted corn heavy in the air, the chorus of crickets out-singing The Killers on my iPod was testament to the peacefulness I feel here. Sure, there is clear and present danger if you invite it. For example, homosexuality in the Congo? Totally acceptable if you want to sit in a jail cell for the rest of your gay life. On the other hand, if you wish to have somebody killed, homosexual or not, this can be executed in exchange for twelve beers. They don’t even have to be cold, street kids will happily do anything for beer.

And in this same civilized, quirky city, the local brewery is holding a contest with generous prizes under the bottle caps. There are new cars (that no local could afford to drive due to gas prices), 25 pounds of wheat (that’s what I’m gunning for) and cans of corned beef (which the Belgians feed to the dogs, but the Congolese eat as a meal) that are up for grabs for lucky drinkers. My image of Congo was irregularly shaped by two Australian women, Andrea and Kirsty, who took over floor space in the Jane Goodall office in Entebbe after being evacuated from Goma by the UN last November. But, if you were to play a word association game and the words “war-torn” or “civil war” came up, Congo would probably be an educated match. It has been war-torn to bits, and the stories of countless Congolese women who have been raped by the militia and army in the north bleed true.

The early 90s were savagely turbulent, and the ugly scars of war were most pronounced in a widespread famine that saw the decimation and extinction of many wild animal species. Elephants at the zoo were slaughtered by locals and the wild rhino, giraffe, hyena, okapi, zebras, warthogs and buffaloes were wiped out completely. Gone forever.

Chantal was born in the Congo, and her serene childhood image is one of slithering snakes, fluttering butterflies (now obsolete) the heady scent of coffee plantations, abundant birds—and now, the coffee is imported from Kenya and eerily and few birds sing. The once booming copper mines are even feeling the extended reach of the recession that slammed America last year.

In the same breath, the serenity pales when Chantal tells me of the militia imposed curfews—and how she watched an elementary school classmate at the Ecole Belge killed in front of her young eyes, for opening the gate to the school after the 4:00 curfew. My jaw doesn’t drop as far as it first did, as I am becoming sensitized to the stories. Like the time Chantal and her twin sister were thrown in jail for a day for not producing official identification at age 10. Or, of the vivid memories she shares of the militia invading her home and firing rounds of bullets into the ceiling to ensure that her family wasn’t hiding any mercenaries. Apparently her father was jailed on a regular basis, and this was normal.

I eagerly listen to her Congolese stories as we drive to the chimp sanctuary. The billboards along the main roads advertise all the essentials in Lubumbashi life: cooking oil, Nokia cell phones (there are no land lines here), and skin-lightening lotions because apparently white is the new black. White skin = power. I laugh to think that in North America we strive to be the colour of a Coffee Crisp bar, and in the Congo, they’re trying to achieve the reverse. What an upside-down world.

 In the theme of an upside-down planet of confused cultural values, the strangest sight so far has been the hearse that motored by blaring what would be associated with ice cream truck style-music. I could hear it before I could see it—then the truck blurred past, towing a coffin enclosed in glass, much like a large aquarium. It was gussied up with white=ribbons and bows that seemed more suitable for a wedding, with the god-awful music pumped out over a loud speaker. Although, truth be told, the music was almost a refreshing change from the daily assault of Michael Jackson tributes blasting from the discotheques. Billy Jean, Beat It, Thriller, et al.

And this is the part where I leave you hanging, like a chimp. The chimps that lured me here will hog most of the space in my upcoming blogs–but I had to introduce you to the sandbox landscape I have settled in first. And now I plan to settle even deeper into my bed that feels like a pile of lumpy banana skins.

 This is the only time I am clean, when I am sleeping. Goodnight, bon soir. Je suis confiture. I am jam.

Categories: Congo Line: Once Upon a Time in Africa | Tags: , , , | 7 Comments

An Unexpected Life

When a local game ranger brought a malnourished and sickly chimpanzee to Shelia Siddle in Zambia in 1983, she never anticipated that one day her cattle ranch would become the largest chimp sanctuary in the world.

With only a copy of Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man to refer to, Shelia and her husband Dave committed to the daunting task of nursing “Pal” back to health, following parenting instincts more than anything else.  After Pal came Liza Do Little, Girly, Junior and Charley, each with their own troubling story of abuse. When Shelia’s book In My Family Tree—A Life With Chimpanzees was published in 2002, her Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage had welcomed over 85 injured and abused chimps, dozens of monkeys, baboons, African grey parrots, bushbucks and a hippo named Billy.

For Shelia, who was ready to embrace a golden retirement on the Kafue River, Pal and those who followed forever changed the path of her life. Shelia had moved to Africa in 1947 with her wanderlust-driven parents and became a race-car driver, contrary to what her generation accepted as a traditional female role. She had five children and a cattle ranch, and never dreamed that her life would be dedicated to chimps.

Mac at Ngamba Island, Uganda

Chimps arrived at Chimfunshi addicted to cigarettes and beer from young lives spent as circus performers in local bars. Some chimpanzees didn’t recognize their own kind after being raised in human households. Others struggled for dominance, or sometimes just acceptance amongst the motley crew. Wide-eyed in their new territory, some of the youngsters had to watch the older chimps for lessons on how to build nests. The Siddles had built large enclosures so the chimps could sleep in the cages at night, or, in the open acreage in trees as they would in the wild.

Rita preferred the company of humans, and their shoes. She would remove the laces of every guest’s shoes, then carefully attempt to relace them, missing a few eyes, but would attempt to tie them up again. An artistic soul, Rita also used American scientist Mark Wright’s notepad and pen to draw. When other chimps were around though, they would annoy Rita by stealing her artwork. Eventually, Mark would wait until the other chimps were napping before he passed Rita the notepad. She would sometimes sit and draw for half an hour or more.

Pal was more concerned with Shelia’s complexion than doodling. Chimps love to groom one another, but Pal became consumed with the hairs on Shelia’s face. He would use his lips and teeth to pull out offending hairs and even squeeze pimples between his fingers!

The antics of Sandy had me laughing out loud. His natural reaction was to throw anything he could get his hands on at whoever might be in range. Oranges became perfect weapons, and Shelia finally realized she was perpetuating his behavior by returning the thrown objects back to him. When she held on to the thrown orange longer than usual, Sandy became sharply aware of the consequences. Shelia eventually returned the orange which Sandy immediately ate—quickly throwing the wadded-up orange peel at Shelia as she walked away.

Sunday at Ngamba Island

When the Siddles began offering sugarcane to the chimps to eat, Sandy found a dual purpose. He took great pleasure in thwacking unsuspecting chimps in the back of the head with the sugarcane stalks, creating instant chaos.

“It wasn’t long before mealtimes became a regular battlefield with Sandy around, as bits of fruits and vegetables filled the skies like V-2 rockets. Sandy eventually became a connoisseur of throwable food, preferring more solid bits like apple cores or apricot pits, or fruits that had peels that he could was into a tight ball. He clearly eschewed leafy foods like lettuce and cabbage though. The few times Sandy threw those, the leaves just fluttered harmlessly to the ground, and he trudged away disgusted.”

Sandy eventually found a partner in crime, Tara. The sanctuary was open to the public, and Sandy and Tara were known to pounce on visitors from their hiding spots on low branches. Other times they would pull back saplings like catapults and release them in perfect time to slap an unsuspecting visitor. Sandy also liked to race ahead and then quietly double back from which point he would dive on to the shoulders and heads of somebody. Many guests returned from the bush walks with bruises and torn clothing, but always full of smiles and stories.

Sandy was also dramatic—nearly convincing Shelia that he was near death one day.  He had refused his morning milk and was incredibly mopey. He appeared too weak to stand and “spent the entire day on the verge of death.” The following morning Sandy showed Shelia the source of his moping– his tooth had fallen out and he showed her by pulling back his lips with his fingers.

Rita was known for her nursing sense. When she couldn’t remove a splinter from Tara’s foot, she thrust Tara’s foot through the bars of the cage to show Shelia. When Donna had a thorn in her foot, Rita was first on the scene, placing her hand on Donna for reassurance as she prodded the tender area.

In 1990, Jane Goodall contacted the Siddles, asking if they could take another chimp. Milla had been a barroom attraction at an Arusha hotel in Tanzania. They arrived in a single-engine plane with a UK vet. Jane and the vet rode in the back of the truck on a pile of sugarcane , wrapping blankets around Milla’s cage to keep her warm. Milla “went one better: She pulled the blankets through the bars and wrapped herself in them.”

Ngamba Island Chimp Sanctuary

Milla was discovered in a meat market in Cameroon when she was a very tiny baby, tethered alongside the body of her dead mother, and was bought by a very generous British couple, who brought Milla to Kenya and looked after her as their own child until she was about five years old. When the Brit couple had to leave the country, they left Milla with caretakers in Arusha, where she was introduced to the bar lifestyle, smoking and drinking.

Shelia’s description of Millla’s adjustment to Chimfunshi is tremendously emotional—she eventually  integrates, retaining her curious habits of walking upright on two legs, and carrying her blanket with her everywhere. Milla found several uses for her blanket—once flicking it through the bars of the cage to hit a dog who had his nose in the chimps’ food. She would also flick peacocks or geese if they were out of reach. Once she filled her blanket with six sweet potatoes, two guavas and an orange. She neatly folded the corners up and made the blanket into a small parcel so she could pick up her meal and find a quiet place to eat away from the other chimps.

When Billy the hippo arrived, Shelia could no longer be surprised at the evolution of her life and purpose.  Local hunters had killed the mother, and at 10 days old, survival in the wild would have been impossible. The crowd that had gathered has inflicted several wounds and severe gashes on the baby with sharp sticks. With little guidance on how to care for a hippo, Shelia and Dave bravely attempted to help her thrive. In three months she weighed 330 pounds and followed Shelia around like a dog, wagging her stubby tail. Most of the older chimps were terrified of Billy, but she grew incredibly fond of The Infants—Trixie, Diana, Doc, Zsabu and Violet. Billy adopted the chimps as her own and nap beside them or  would be found “gazing happily at them through the wire mesh.” The chimps would slap her hide playfully, pull her ears, and jump down from the trees onto her back.

Billy also became attached to the dogs at the sanctuary. She would mimic their behavior and grab automobile tires like chew toys, flinging it around as the dogs did with their smaller toys. Her closest companion was Gretchen, a Rottweiler who she slept with at night. When Gretchen died in her sleep Billy was inconsolable. She kept nudging Shelia, begging her to do something to revive her friend, Gretchen. For two days Billy refused to eat or take milk and “kept a silent vigil near the kennel.” In her lonesome state, Billy broke into Shelia and Dave’s house three times looking for comfort.

Then there was Ole, a tiny barred owl who had fallen from his nest. For two months he’d swoop tentatively around the livingroom of Shelia’s house, test-driving his new found wings. Ole soon learned how to dive bomb their dinner plates as well, grabbing fried eggs and currant bread to eat from the safety of his curtain rod perch. Eager that he return to the wild, Shelia left all the house windows open, and Ole took short flights to neighbouring trees, always returning to the safety of the house. His longest sojourn was three nights, and then the days between his visits stretched even further with only rare appearances around their house.

Billy eventually discovered his wild instincts too, and when Shelia finally successfully coaxed him into the Kafue River she was like a porpoise. Shelia lured her further into the water while she sat in a boat (nervous of crocodiles, otherwise she would have been in the river herself). Billy soon established a pattern of roaming, joining other hippos in the Kafue, feeding and courting with them as she should.

Not all of the animals that arrived at Chimfunshi survived, and the stories of abuse are tragic. More often though, hope is renewed in chimps like Leben and Choco who arrived from the Tel Aviv Zoo. When they first arrived they were both sullen and unresponsive and “clung to each other like magnets. Only when a visitor from Israel spoke to them in Hebrew several months later did they spring to life and begin hugging one another and laughing out loud. It turned out that they spoke Hebrew, not English.”

In 1995, Sheila and Dave bought a neighbouring farm , a 13,000 acre property. The thick jungle, fruit groves and open grassland would allow the chimps to establish territory, and roam as they would in the wild. It would be the largest area ever set aside for captive primates. “It wasn’t freedom—we knew that—but in a world where chimpanzees are hunted for meat and forests are decimated daily, it was probably as close to freedom as any of our chimps might ever get.”

When it came time to release the chimps into the acreage, Sheila was only able to focus on one chimp, Pal.  Nobody thought Pal would survive, and his scars and droopy lip reminded her of how he arrived 18 years before, desperate, with his face split open and broken teeth.

“My heart was in my throat as I placed a hand on the sliding metal door and peered into Pal’s cage. I leaned in close. “I promised you this,” I whispered. “Now off you go.”

Before Pal rushed off with the others, Tobar and Spencer, he turned to look back at Shelia. He was “staring straight into my eyes. And maybe it was my imagination, but for just that magical second, I believe he was thanking me.”

In My Family Tree is a remarkable book that reminds us of how moments that seem accidental can change the course of our lives. Thank you to the Shelia and Dave Siddle for their unswerving determination to provide a safe haven for orphaned and abused chimps (and even a darling hippo) to frolic and thrive.

David Siddle died  in June 2006, at age 78. “We shall miss David terribly, of course, perhaps no one more than I,” said Sheila Siddle. “But we must keep working for the chimps. We must make sure they are well cared for. That’s what David would have wanted.”

More about Chimfunshi:

Ngamba Island Chimp Sanctuary:

Where I’ll be in July (J.A.C.K., Congo):

And, for more info about the woman who introduced the world to the plight of the chimpanzees:

Categories: Into and Out of Africa, On My Bookshelf | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Why All the Talk About Africa?

It was past midnight last May when I was waiting for an epiphany. I had been dreaming of hummingbirds biting me, which I learned later was a sign of restlessness. I had no idea at that time that such restlessness would see me flying to Africa in September.

The semester at Douglas College had just drawn to a close, and I was wondering what I could do to marry my interests of creative writing and my passion for animals. A colleague had landed a cool copywriter gig at the Telus World of Science in Vancouver. That’s when I realized that there were broader possibilities out there—and I Googled the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI).

I scrolled through the job postings and randomly applied for a position designing an environmental studies-based curriculum, despite being totally unqualified. I thought of Peter Mansbridge and his early days, working as a clerk at an airport in Manitoba. The airport announcer had called in sick, and with no short notice replacement available, the supervisor asked Mansbridge to announce a delayed flight. A local radio station manager was in the wings, heard his voice and recruited Mansbridge on the spot. He was shuffled to CBC radio’s northern service shortly thereafter. This is how things happen.

Chimp at Ngamba Island Sanctuary, Entebbe, Uganda

With an urge to do something bigger and stretch my mind into a downward dog of its own, I sent off the application with my beefed-up resume and then looked for Uganda on the globe. At that point, I had no idea where in Africa it sat. The curriculum designer position was for six months, beginning in July. When April and May rolled by, I assumed that the position had been filled.

During the last week of June I received an email from JGI Uganda. A posting that my skill set would be better suited for had become available. Would I be interested in editing a book on the tribes and totems of Uganda? As soon as possible?

It’s no secret that I find great difficulty in decision-making. Choosing between the coconut curry stew and the lemongrass chicken at New Saigon is agonizing. Do I want a skim latte or a mochacinno? A Sidekick or a VW Golf? How was I supposed to make a snap decision like going to Africa, as soon as possible? Sending off an application in May was cerrtainly spontaneous, but my nature is to brood, fret, think, re-think and create pro and con lists as thick as a phone book. God, really? Me? Uganda? I hadn’t told anyone about applying for the job…

And then I was there (after much see-sawing), from September 2008, to January 2009. The Tribes and Totems of Uganda project was a fascinating project, and the pile of 500 submissions from local elementary students soon narrowed into a comprehensive collection. The learning curve was exactly what my restless self needed. When I roared through that assignment and found myself with two months left in my volunteer stint, Debby Cox, then director of JGI, asked if I could draw primates. I guessed yes, I probably could. My days were soon consumed by designing a colouring book on the primates of Uganda. When an employee of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Foundation came to visit, I was suddenly drawing the primates of Rwanda to be used in a colouring book format for them.

I was in my element, drawing bushbabies and monkeys all day. What could be more fulfilling? Well, I will find out this July.

On safari in Queen Elizabeth Park (Uganda) at Christmas, I met Chantal Jacques, co-director of J.A.C.K. (Jeunes Animaux Confisques au Katanga—Young Animals Confiscated in Katanga), a refuge centre for orphaned chimps confiscated by the Ministry of the Environment in the Congo. Chantal was interested in hearing more about my work with JGI and we exchanged emails as our tour groups were heading in different directions. What I didn’t expect a few months later was her email asking if I might like to visit the Congo in July and volunteer for a month.

This decision came quicker, yes. Yes!

Mac, at Ngamba Island

The opportunity to volunteer at J.A.C.K. will allow direct contact with the chimps, unlike my JGI experience. Chantal has pre-warned me of early mornings, preparing milk for the chimps. The house where I will be staying has no water (yet), electricity is dodgy, and Internet connections are patchy at best. And there is no postal service. Did I really want to come?

I was already knee-deep in my Congo research. Reading the refuge blog pulled me in even further. I have learned that the refuge has nearly insurmountable barriers to conquer. The Swahili word for wildlife,“nyama,” is the same term used for “meat.” Great apes and primates continue to be killed as a food source in the lucrative bushmeat trade, and as ancestral custom. One Congolese tribe believes that crushing and cooking the bones of an ape will allow the child who drinks the powder the strength of the chimpanzee that was killed. Infant chimps are smuggled by members of the Congo Army, high ranking Congolese and by request for expatriates wanting a darling little pet. Ten chimpanzees usually die for every baby taken as the family struggles and fights to defend the infant from poachers.

Franck and Roxanne Chantereau, co-directors of J.A.C.K. estimate that chimp trafficking in the last 10 years in the Congo has resulted in the death of over 4,000 chimpanzees. Still, chimps are found being sold for small change on roadsides in Lubumbashi. J.A.C.K., a self-funded NGO was started in April 2006 in response. The refuge, located in the Lubumbashi Zoo, was created to provide a safe space for orphaned chimps to live, as they wouldn’t have the ability to survive in the wild.

Education is key focus of the the refuge, and their accessibility (no admission fee) helps expose locals to the consequence of poaching, eating bushmeat and smuggling. There are plans to build a visitor’s centre with informative displays showing the correlation between local lifestyle and the impact on the future of chimpanzees in the Congo, where 40% of the remaining African population lives.

Even though my parents and partner aren’t exactly doing cartwheels about me travelling to the Congo, they see the lure. Of course they worry that I will pull a Meryl Streep and become an Out of Africa story, deciding to stay, buying myself a nice coffee plantation to live on. But that was Karen Blixen’s story, and I have my own to write!

* To immediately transport yourself to Africa, check  the “Into and Out of Africa” category on my site. Here, in chronological order, you can travel with me all over again beginning with From Your African Correspondent, Jules Torti (September 20, 2008) to Stories From Across the Water (January 23, 2009), which was posted shortly after my return to Canada.

For more information on J.A.C.K.:

J.A.C.K. Blog:

Jane Goodall Institute Africa programs:

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

Blog at