Posts Tagged With: Costa Rica


Jane and Jules, chimp lovers

On the weekend, two friends remarked on how brave I was to go to the Congo. Brave? I was blinded by a passion that didn’t even allow me to consider any ill-fated consequences. I had an opportunity to work with chimpanzees—after hearing that, my mind was already in fast-forward, mentally packing my bag and visualizing my Jane Goodall moment.

When I decided to go to Costa Rica and volunteer for three months at age 20, I was also commended on my bravery. Again, it was a selfish indulgence. Live in a jungle hut and pick bananas off the trees for breakfast? What could possibly go wrong in the jungle? Where do I sign up?

I’ve made a lot of questionable decisions over the years. Again, I blame it on the blinding passion. Like the time I hitchhiked to Clayoquot Sound, BC, to stand on a logging road blocking the path of the trucks ready to level another stand of trees.

My ‘bravery’ can also be blamed for my enthusiasm to have a pint at the most bombed-out bar in all of Europe. Who wouldn’t want to do that? As I sat in the pub across from the Opera House in Belfast, Ireland, I was sure that after 33 bombings, surely a 34th couldn’t happen. Not while I was there. Not on my watch.

Scrappy, the dog who dodged a bullet

In Uganda I stood strong (‘bravely’) as Debby and I had a gun pointed in our direction by a Ugandan Wildlife Authority guard. The guard was ready to shoot Scrappy, one of the dogs from the Jane Goodall office. When Debby remarked on the guard’s ignorance in shooting a dog in front of a young child, the barrel of the gun was suddenly a little too close for comfort. But shoot Scrappy? The guard would definitely have to shoot Debby and I first.

But still, it was ‘bravery’ that made me walk (at incredibly high speeds) away from the corrupt police who wanted to confiscate my camera in Entebbe.  They had guns too (sawed-off shotguns in fact), ready to be used if necessary—however, I could barely hear their threats over the THUMPTHUMPTHUMP of my heart. Was it worth being shot in the back over a stupid camera? On that day, yes. I had a really nice sunset shot from Anderita Beach and a cool picture of a Marabou stork in a dumpster.

Steph commented that I was brave to stay three nights in Nairobi by myself after missing my flight to the Congo. To me, there was no other option. I had heard all the horror stories already—the missionary couple who were attacked with machetes, the brutal carjackings and the bombing of the American Embassy. These highlights were pointed out on the Nairobi tour with my hired driver.

When I think back to my time in Costa Rica, it was clear and present danger on a daily basis. Our group was situated near the Panama border and we passed by drug-runners with flour sacs full of marijuana on a daily basis. We avoided eye contact and both went on our merry, separate ways. Except the drug-runners had AK-47’s slung over their shoulders and machetes on their hip. I had a Swiss Army knife that I couldn’t open at the best of times.

Last week when I told my mother that I had booked a trip to Venezuela there was a gasp. Naturally she was nervous that I was taking off on another four month sojourn. When I told her it was just for a week, she resumed breathing and said, “Well, don’t get yourself kidnapped down there because they want gazillions of dollars in ransom.” Nice.

And this is when I had the flashback of the drug-runners and ‘missing persons’ in the jungle. Locals often disappeared and the mighty Water Tiger that lived in the Cuen River was blamed. I’d put my poker chips on the dudes with the flour sacs.

And it all led to this– the night in the jungle that I didn’t feel very brave at all. I was imagining my story as a Reader’s Digest Drama in Real Life feature. Mostly I hoped I would live to tell the story to someone, anybody.

Jungle Jules, circa age 20

Our volunteer group of 12 lived in a hut with a tree bark floor and palm frond roof. There were no walls. Twelve of us lived in a space the size of a North American living room, with mosquito nets strung about the ‘ceiling’ like a massive spider web. Wild boars lived under the hut and made horrific screaming sounds in the night that sounded like women being murdered.

We had been together since early December, and all threads of patience had been completely frayed. In one exasperated moment, I hid Alex’s drumsticks in the palm fronds because I was visualizing a homicide due to his incessant drumming. Every Sunday we had a meeting to discuss our feelings which basically evolved into a Lord of the Flies-esque scenario. We could barely tolerate each other anymore with such close quarters, paralyzing body odour, Chihuahua-sized mosquitoes and drumming.

Our group was motley—with reps from Costa Rica, Canada and Australia. We had already split into Survivor-type alliances (and this was way before Mark Burnett created the show that would hook millions of viewers all these seasons later). Rachel from Prince Edward Island was my go-to girl, and we often shared our hidden stashes of Oreos, bathtub warm beer and just-discovered orange trees with each other.

But on January 20th? I was looking out for number one.

My loft condo in Alto Cuen, Costa Rica

The Cabecar chief of Alto Cuen had generously offered his own hut to us for the duration of our stay. He also pointed out an abandoned hut a 10 minute walk into the rainforest that we could also use. We decided that one hut would be for cooking and sleeping, and the satellite hut would be a place for reading, writing and siestas. Library voices only. It was a perfect retreat. On the days when the rain pounded down and bounced off the ground, a book, a sleeping bag and some secret chocolate balanced the world.

We were a gruelling 12 km hike from the closest village. The trip involved six tricky river crossings (one of our group members nearly drowned on one occasion when we hiked in with horses. Her backpack caught on the rope that we were using to cross the rapids when one of the horses was startled and moved downstream. Alice was trapped in the current with the weight of the pack on her. But that’s another story). Our trips into ‘town’ were planned for every third week to pickup canned goods, flour, mail and chocolate.

On that January day in 1996, I told Alice I was going to the satellite hut (the “Summer House” as we began to refer to it), with a crappy Costa Rican blueberry chocolate bar stuffed in my bra. I had received some mail from home and was eager to tear into the letters.

The path to the Summer House was like a page out of a fairy tale. Brilliant orchids, butterflies bobbing about in huge clouds of bright yellow and crimson wings, verdant vines snaking up trees, processions of carpenter ants marching along, toucans crash-landing into the palms—the awe of living in a virgin rainforest never escaped me.

I ate my chocolate bar in painfully small rations. Our diet consisted of rice and black beans, oily mackerel, glue-like oatmeal, yucca (which when mashed had the consistency of Vaseline), plantain and bananas. I read my mail, twice probably, licked the chocolate bar foil clean and had a cat nap.

I slept longer than anticipated and awoke with a start at 5:55 pm. I quickly slipped on my rubber boots and turned on my Petzl head lamp and headed off to the main hut. Living on the equator and in a valley, it was completely dark at 6:05. There was no dusk, just day and a very dark night.

(Direct journal entry follows, recounted with a lot of swearing after the ‘event’)

I should have changed the batteries in my Petzl. Oh well, I continued on. And on.  And on. Hmmm. Didn’t recall it taking so long to get to the other hut. Hmmm. No orange tape on the tree to signal the turn in the path. Hmmm. Where the FUCK was the path?

I was totally fucking lost. Self-talk: Don’t panic. Going to die, but don’t panic. The roots and vines were closing in on me.  I turned off my flashlight to preserve batteries while I contemplated my life so far.

–More cursing—

I decided to yell.


Long pause.

A million deafening crickets. No voices. I was listening so hard I was hallucinating voices.

“PHIL? ANDREA? I’m lost in the woods!”

My voice was getting shakier. My legs? Could I feel them? My heart threatening to have an attack. I had a sudden revelation. Not only was I lost in the woods,  I was lost in the JUNGLE. In Costa Rica! In an indigenous village! I was hollering in English and they speak Cabecar and a little Spanish. I was fucked. Think Spanish. Think Spanish. Una cervesa. El gato es en la bano (The cat is in the bathroom—I knew that phrase from Spanish class would come in handy!).

DESCULPE!” That was it! Help! I remembered how to say ‘help’ in Spanish. I begin yelling desculpe. I developed an instant sore throat from yelling. (*I later learn when recounting my story to the group that ‘desculpe’ means ‘excuse me’ not ‘help me. So, I was in the middle of the $&%* jungle yelling “EXCUSE ME!”)

 I looked at my watch. 6:17. Everyone was having dinner, clearly not missing me.

The Bosque

I shouted some more, not willing to take any more time to think of the complete scariness of my predicament. I was so far from the hut that NO ONE could hear me? Then I remembered the Spanish word for forest—‘bosque.’ I holler “El Lost-ay in the bosque!”

Long pause.

They always say to hug a tree and stay in the same spot when you are lost (THEY were obviously not lost in the jungle in short sleeves with malaria-laden mozzies looking for bare skin landing strips).  Blah, blah, blah.  I convince myself that I can find my way back to the path.  Experiencing extreme denial of not being lost, I walk for a few more minutes. I thought I was lost before? Now I was reallllly lost. In the exact middle of fuck-all Costa Rica. Or Panama for all I knew.

 A million eyes were watching me. The whistle that they put on the Suggested Items to Pack list would have come in handy at this precise time.

I went back to yelling desculpe. I yell desculpe until I am hoarse—finally I hear a sound in response. Kind of an “AYE.” I respond with my urgent desculpe and AQUI! (here), hoping I’m not attracting a randy drug runner with gold teeth.

“Excuse me here! I love squash. Do you like green carpet?” Who knows what I was yelling. The voice grew closer. I turned on my headlamp (that I turned off, figuring I might be spending my night in the jungle. Thought I might want some battery power for when the jaguars attacked me). I started walking towards the voice. Did I say walking towards the voice? I was running. Totally bushwhacking. “AQUI! AQUI!”

The voice belonged to a Cabecar man and a woman with a baby in a papoose. I began explaining my Lost-ay in the Bosque story in caveman Spanglish.

I’d been found, but was at a loss. Where did I belong? I pulled a pen and a letter from my pack and began to draw the village church. “Jesu Christo?” I asked. I printed Reto Juvenil (Youth Challenge, the name of the group I was with). No response, they probably couldn’t read. I drew the soccer field. “Octavio?” We’d been working with Octavio, one of the prominent community members on the construction site.

No se.” (I don’t know).

The woman with the papoose took my letter and walked away. The man followed. (I was definitely not sticking around the jungle by myself!) I followed them, stepping on their heels in fact. “Octavio’s casa aqui?” (Octavio’s house here?). There was a grunt response. I was never good at small talk, but kept trying. “El bosque es mucho neigre a la noche.” (The forest is very black at night). No grunt. Nothing. We walked quietly and quickly in the dark.

We walked and walked (15-20 minutes) into a jungle-y dead end. Excellent, now we were all lost-ay. But I heard voices. We were approaching a hut with glowing lanterns. MY HOUSE!! I could see Phil and Tomas by the fire in the kitchen. “WITABADA!” (‘thank you’ in Cabecar). I said this 10 times and shook the hands of my rescuers a little too firmly (Cabecar handshakes are a mere brushing of the palms).

I can’t even remember what my knight in shining armour looked like. The whole hour of lost-ness was such a frantic blur.

I returned to the hut and there were no excited faces or eager embraces. They hadn’t missed me at all. While I was having the most terrifying moment of my life, a near-death experience if you will, my jungle pals were playing gin rummy, drumming and eating my share of the rice and beans. They figured I was sleeping. They didn’t hear my desperate calls for help. I must have been in Panama for sure–all because I didn’t want to share my chocolate bar and wanted a bit of quiet time and personal space. I almost had all the personal space I wanted!

The following day this quote appears in my journal:

Security is mostly a superstition

It does not exist in nature,

Nor do the children of men as a whole experience it

Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run

Than outright exposure

Life is either a daring adventure

Or nothing

To keep our faces towards change and behave like free spirits

In the presence of fate

Is strength undefeatable.

–Helen Keller (1940)

Limon Naval Base, Costa Rica

On February 17th, 1996, our group was evacuated from the jungle by local military and flown to a naval base in Limon. The militia were doing emergency food supply drop-offs in the Astrella Valley due to major flooding of the Cuen River when they discovered us in Alto Cuen. The suspension bridge had been washed out and we had lost radio contact weeks ago.


Let’s just say I’ve had a few experiences that have put my life in an altered perspective. It’s a daring adventure—or nothing. I’m with Helen on this one.

Categories: Congo Line: Once Upon a Time in Africa, Polyblogs in a Jar | Tags: , , , , , | 4 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

Gin Confessions, Tip Taps and How to Make Your Life’s Documentary

October 20, 2008
Gin is the perfect stimulant for late night confessions. In fact, it wasn’t even that late, but the gin was warm in our heads as we sat on the veranda of the Kaniyo-Pabidi Eco-Tourist lodge in the Budongo Forest. We had covered Obama, chimp sex (in graphic detail) and Brian’s travels as a freelance documentary film producer from the Arctic to Guatemala. Crickets were trying to outdo each other with volume levels, and a hyrax (a strange guniea pig/groundhog cross) was screaming like a damsel in distress from the dark depths of the forest.
Jacques,the Roots & Shoots program coordinator at the Jane Goodall Institute, admitted she needed to cut back on her coffee and Coca-Cola addictions. She was confident that she could kick the habit, after all, she had stopped eating clay four years ago. Clay? Her eyes glazed over as she reminisced about the fights she had with her sister over the termite hill close to their home. This was where she found the freshest, finest, powdery clay to eat. Clay? I had heard of pica—a medical disorder where individuals crave coal, soil, chalk, glass and soap. It’s most commonly seen with autism, brain injured children, epileptics and some pregnant women (when dill pickles and dulce de leche Haagen Dazs just aren’t cutting it). Pica cravings also include paint chips, burnt match heads, cornstarch, coffee grounds and buttons. Everyone loves a good button now and again!
The clay confession had me on a Google search as soon as we reached an Internet café in Masindi. I simply typed in “people who eat clay” and discovered that Jacques and her sister fighting over a termite hill was commonplace in places like Africa and the southern United States, and that the clay fetish was better known as “geophagy.” Apparently clay and chalk provide a slam-dunk source of zinc, sulphur, potassium, magnesium, copper and calcium. In some places vendors actually sell earth for consumption. Aboriginals in California and Peru ate earth with acorns and potatoes to help neutralize harmful akaloids (I would choose a syrah with nice legs).Even Italians in Sardinia were incorporating it into their loaves of freshly baked acorn bread.
Mary Lou, who manages the Budongo lodge, told me that pregnant women in the local village often lick the walls of their mud homes. It suddenly seems odd that in North America we moan about our cravings for lime Tostitos, Big Macs with salty fries, butter-saturated movie theatre popcorn and sticky chicken wings at the pub. I wonder if I can create a dirt wave of popularity when I return home? Why haven’t the protein bar makers capitalized on this? Clif bars could reach a whole new market with a Clif Dirt bar. Really, who would want unoriginal flavours like carrot cake and oatmeal raisin when you could bite into genuine African Rift Valley earth?
Naturally, Jacques had to endure our non-stop clay comments for the rest of the week as we would muse over a breakfast of banana muffins and granola, “these muffins are good, but, if they had a little clay in them…”
I seized the opportunity to return to the Budongo Forest (and lodge with the best hot rainwater showers) with Jacques and Brian Knappenberger who was filming a piece for the Discovery Channel on “Eco-Heroes.” A teacher in the Masindi District had created quite a stir when he introduced the concept of the “tiptap” to his school and community after seeing a similar practice in another part of Uganda. The tiptap is a hands-free hand-washing system that is constructed from two sticks, a jerry can and rope. In this area, typhoid, cholera and malaria are rampant, and sanitation is an ever-present issue. At St. Mary’s Biisu Primary School where we would be filming, the “toilets” were pit latrines, which are holes in the ground that you squat and hover over. Toilet paper? Hah, such a luxury. There’s not even enough paper for the kids to do schoolwork assignments. The stench of urine from boys still practicing their aim is the kind that doubles you over.
At St. Mary’s, many of the children walk 5km (one way) to school. They suck on sugarcane for lunch (if anything), or, if they do go home on their lunch break, they often don’t come back. This school of six grades has 688 enrolled students. The classrooms are dark and tired with graffiti on the walls and beat-up desks. There are no text books, no colourful maps of the world, no posters reminding kids of hot dog day on Friday. At recess (which they seem to be on all day), 75 kids chase after a soccer ball made of knotted up banana fiber. There are no swings or hop-scotch or basketball nets. At one point I watch about 20 kids cutting swaths of grass with machetes under a teacher’s supervision.Visiting this school makes me want to tour Canada and visit every elementary school with photos to tell any little unappreciative buggers how good they have it. I watch as barefoot kids line up to drink from a rain barrel with a communal plastic cup. The tiptap is a step forward, but 688 kids sharing the same cup is about five steps back.
Brian interviews five of the most outspoken kids, while a hundred others stand on their tiptoes trying to peer into the classroom windows to see what the mizungos with cameras are doing. Brian and I are like zoo animals. When I step outside the classroom I am stared at by 600 blank eyes, unsure what to make of me and my tattoos. I laugh now thinking of the job interview I had at the Fairmont Royal York where I shared my profound moment of volunteering in the jungles of Costa Rica for three months. I said to Heidi, the health club manager, “the kids in this Alto Cuen village had never seen a person with blue hair and blonde eyes.” Remarkably, I landed the job, despite my blue hair faux pas. However, in the middle of this village, the experience was identical, and I really did feel like my hair was blue and my eyes were blonde! By day’s end, the kids had warmed to us and stampeded Brian (or took off in terror, it was a mixed reaction), whenever he lifted his camera lens.
I am curious to see how Brian will refine three full days of filming into three minutes. But, I suppose this is what we do in life. The places and faces that we meet are constantly condensed into an cell phone call, email, a photograph or a postcard. We live for 80 years (if we are so lucky) and can really only take the very best moments with us. The golden stories that we repeat, those shiver moments (Oprah has aha! moments, I have shiver moments –where the emotional and physical thrill of the moment makes your blood as fizzy as shook-up champagne, and goosepimples race across your skin like fast-moving snakes).
I have four distinct shiver moments that I can instantly define — where I was standing, the smells in my nose, and the pounding of my heart in my ribcage can’t be forgotten. You know that feeling, when you are so stunned with what you see and feel that your eyes burn with hot tears? I was 18 and standing on the dusty logging road of Clayoquot Sound when the logging trucks started their slow grind towards the protesters, headlights and shadows like ghosts in heavy blanket of dark before dawn. Walking into the Monteverde Cloud forest in Costa Rica, toucans shrill above my head as I left the world I knew and stepped into the dripping green of a humming rainforest for the first time. Flying 1,000 km west into the Pacific to touch down on the Galapagos Islands, the place I had dreamed of since I was six: blue-footed boobies, frigate birds, barking seals and tortoises as big as coffee tables. And then, the first scream and pant-hoot of a chimp community, their voices ringing in my ears, the thumping of a chimp as he pounds on an ironwood tree and the canopies above my head swaying with chimpanzees. Their smell, so primal and distinct will stay with me forever.
Africa is certainly taking up a lot of my life’s documentary minutes and I’m okay with that. I haven’t even mentioned the sugarcane fields and the expanse of the Rift Valley that stretches so far my eyes strain to see the other side of the world. Have I described the bruised sky at night with fine veins of lightning splitting the atmosphere between the heavens and earth? Or, hearing the sound of Puvel’s illadopses, a tiny bird that is only found in the Budongo forest? For some birders, the illadopses is their pinnacle. This is their life’s documentary coming to a tidy, satisfied close.
As I let Africa rub its way into deep into my skin, I feel a raw ache for those I wish I could share these moments with. As we drove through the sugarcane fields to Masindi, I imagined my grandfather, his soiled hat tipped to the side, hand on his tired hip as he looked out at the crop. He would talk to the farmer about fertilizers, the desperate need for rain that year, the soil. The life of a farmer is universal, a tug-of-war toil with the weather with years that offer reassurance, and seasons that end in disappointment. My grandmother would love the birds, the brilliant bee-eaters and sunbirds. She would marvel at the spider lilies and sausage trees. I will show her my Africa in photos when I return, but, if only for a day she could walk beside me.
My mother should be here, drinking a warm beer on the verandah overlooking Lake Victoria. She would have binoculars permanently trained on the treetops for colobus and vervet monkeys… and we’d send my dad to the Entebbe Golf Club.
My sister Kiley will see Africa, because she has the incessant travel bugs that bite away at me too. I hope my brother does. I know Dax all too well, he would be up early, drinking black coffee outside and then quietly sneaking off to paddle a kayak around the lake alone. He would come back as the sun was going down, ravenous and exploding with stories.
Wanda will arrive in December to share this world with me, and this brings me comfort. I think of Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild (spoiler here) about 22-year-old Christopher McCandless bravely deciding to walk into the woods of Alaska, away from civilization and the ills of society. He survived a harsh winter of solitude in the North, but realized as he was dying of starvation that “Happiness is best shared.” He carved his last tragic words into the permanency of wood with his knife.
And this is the responsibility I have, to share. Go out and create the documentary that will leave you sitting in the audience (because you are the audience) stunned with what you have seen and done with your life.
Artwork by Tuguinie Sharon whose work will appear in the book The Tribes and Totems of Uganda, the project I have been working on inbetween chimp treks and eating termites.
Categories: Eat This, Sip That, Into and Out of Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lost In Translation

October 24, 2008

My parents have just returned from Ireland, soggy and overfed from the 3,000 calorie Irish breakfasts that consist of shocking servings of potatoes and rashers (bacon). Of course they returned to find an inbox full of how I have been spending my African days eating termites and avoiding boda boda collisions. I know my mother reads these weekly mass-circulated updates with a bit of trepidation: will I reveal some family secret, or worse, something about Sandra Torti herself? Here it is mom…
Growing up, my mother had some classic lines that we still razz her about today. If we were burning ants with a magnifying glass or poking out the cloudy eyes of dead fish with sharpened sticks, she would say, “Now, how would you like it if a big giant came along and did that to you?” Even more famous was her line about shipping Kiley, Dax and I off to a juvenile detention centre for random things—like honking the horn in the grocery store parking lot or for feeding my unsuspecting sister anchovy paste on the underside of potato chips.
Of course, the all-inclusive Sandra line that I am reminded of daily in Africa is, “Don’t touch that, somebody’s pissed on it.” What? This was especially true for pop cans or beer bottles that we wanted to collect from the roadside ditches for money, or random pieces of clothing that we would find in the tobacco fields. Here in Uganda, with the pit latrines (or lack of), outbreaks of cholera are a regular occurrence (caused by ingesting water contaminated with the “liquid stool” of those suffering from the bacterium). The last reported case of cholera in the US was in 1911. So, mom has been right all along, except here, someone has not only pissed on it, they’ve shit on it too.
Certainly, when I was in Costa Rica, there’s no wonder why I came back with intestinal parasites as long as spaghetti noodles and two other types of worms eating from the inside out. Our drinking water came from the Cuen River where the villagers swam, washed their clothing, bathed, and shit, along with the pigs and chickens on the shore. I needed my mother there to tell me, “Don’t go in the river, everyone has pissed in it.”
At the Entebbe Saturday market I was equally horrified to see a vendor having her toenails clipped with her dusty foot balanced on a cabbage for sale! The young boy attentively working at shaping her nails didn’t seem concerned about the clipped nails flinging into the cabbage pile. Oh, how I miss the sanitation of Canada.
I cringe to watch as the street chicken vendors simply pour water (from an unknown and probably unpurified source with cholera-laden stool) on the wooden tables to clean the surface that they chop the raw, unrefrigerated meat on. And to think, we can go to Starbucks and request a coffee steamed to a particular temperature.
I think of the warnings that bombard us in North America, and how important warning symbols are. This week our staff cook, Ruth, who speaks Lugandan fluently (and English when necessary), quietly pulled me aside. She showed me two packages: one was a bag of cumin seeds, the other parsley seeds to be planted. “They are same?” She asked. They did look identical, but I told her the parsley seeds had to be planted in the ground first, then she could use the green parts for cooking. “So, we not eat?” Her eyes were as big as golf balls, and I wondered if she had already dumped a bunch of parsley seeds into our spicy peas for lunch. I pointed out the line on the back of the parsley package that said HIGHLY POISONOUS. DO NOT EAT. Ruth shrugged. Where was the highly effective skull and crossbones symbol that frightened us as children on the Javex bleach and Ajax containers? I had just saved our lives, and all the JGI staff. There are no warnings that I’ve noticed here for too hot, keep cold, poison! or otherwise. Road rules are of course negotiable as I have described. The milk that I buy is “Long Life” and actually has an oily residue that floats to the top, obviously the integral part that keeps it living long! Bread products clearly have no preservatives and all the cookies and crackers have a rained-on kind of quality to them. I like to refer to the ginger snaps from Nairobi as “ginger snap-less cookies.” You don’t even need teeth to eat these.
This is the beauty of travel, the strange and peculiar, learning the inner workings of another culture and the inevitable lost in translation moments. Last night I watched an obviously pirated copy of Rocky IV. I realize that beefcake Sly Stallone is difficult to understand at the best of times, but this movie was apparently translated into English as a second language (despite the movie being in English already). I ended up reading the subtitles because they offered an entirely different (and more intriguing) story line.
“You do not there, our shoe escape.”
“That Patrick is the same thing last year.”
“There no something there.”
“Do not what they push.”
“Yesterday is crummy, that is myself. Forgiveness I no do this again.”
”Big no matter. I are is stupid.”
This was Rocky’s conversation with Paulie about the death of his wife. Even better was this line: “When you last tread a measure?” This was Rocky asking a woman when she last went dancing. Who doesn’t love to tread a measure on a Friday night?
With the diversity in staff at JGI, my vocabulary is also expanding. Mary-Lou informed me that Speedos are called “budgie holders” in Australia. A flashlight is a “torch” of course, and a beer cooler is an “eskie.” Jacques, a Ugandan, informed me that if someone has put on weight, you say that “they are fatting.” Imagine! And, this is totally acceptable! Jacques said for Ugandans, not much changes in their appearance because they either have no hair, or it is so slow to grow, and their skin is always the same colour. Think of how often we make remarks about how tanned or pale someone is. Or, blushing for that matter. If anyone told me I was fatting I would be devastated. I would have to start treading a measure everyday. Jacques says it’s okay to be told that you’re fatting, it is actually a complement that you are healthy. In an AIDS-ravaged country being slim associates you with being sick. In fact, in one village, they call AIDS “Slims.” As in, “he’s got the slims.”
Driving through Kampala the signs spell it out, this acceptance of fatting. There are posters everywhere for “MAKE BIG HIPS AND BUM.” Speaking of bums, at the Chinese grocer in uptown Entebbe, there was a sale on toilet paper yesterday, advertised as “Cheap Whiper!” When I Googled Masai Mara National Park game drives, a Kenyan safari group promised that they would provide “hospitality and a homely atmosphere.”
When Jacques, Brian (Discovery Channel Dude) and I went to Masindi and stopped at the Travellers Internet Café and Restaurant, we laughed until we nearly wet ourselves over the menu. Under salads, they listed chocolate bars. Twix, Mars or Bounty. When I asked my chocolate fiend friend Denny which salad she would choose she replied: “It’s quite simple. The Mars bar is the only real chocolate bar of the bunch. Bounty is made of coconut, therefore it’s practically health food, kissin’ cousin to the humble granola bar! Twix contains a large amount of what Brits call “biscuit” and must really bear the moniker of “cookie”. Salad is a relative term and since some of my relatives used to work for Mars, I would have no option but to order the Mars Bar!”
In addition to the Mars Bar salad, guests could enjoy “lime jice” (juice) with a tot (what we would call shots they call tots). There were cigarettes listed below the toast and eggs, and we wondered if we should have stopped for the “Finger Linking Chicken” that we saw on the way through Kampala.
I’ve had even more laughs—like seeing a photo shop called “Trust God.” Or, when I was walking Levi, the Rhodesian Ridgeback (my unicorn on a leash), a guy riding a bike actually stopped to ask me, “How long does it last?” Meaning, how long would Levi live? Dogs never last long enough.
When I went to the market Tuesday night (not to buy cabbages with toenails), I almost bought a pair of jeans for 25,000 shillings (13 bucks). They were called LIVES and had a red tab and stitching, just like Levis, but made in Thailand. They fit like some of my grandmother’s early knitted sweaters—the Nordic knits that would cut off my circulation at the too-small armpit, and then stovepipe out into blooming sleeves. That is, if I could force the too-small neck hole over my head!
I passed on the LIVES and bought some mystery Arabic perfume instead. I have no idea what it really is, probably vegetable oil with goat extract—but it was 90 cents for 3ml and I haven’t had an adverse reaction to it yet. Although, the scent only lasts as long as the flavour in a stick of Juicy Fruit gum.
Some of you have asked if I inherited the travel bug from my parents. Well, my dad would scream at the sight of any bug, especially a travel one and the expense that comes with my mother’s travel itinerary. Certainly, my mom has been an intrepid armchair traveler for years and once my siblings and I were old enough (read: mature enough to not beat each other to tears), we began our family adventures, much like the National Lampoon’s Vacation—without the station wagon. Until then we had thought the mountain at Canada’s Wonderland was Everest.
We still fought to near death, mostly because my brat brother was guaranteed the front seat for every trip because he would get “headaches from the fumes” if he sat in the back. We drove up and down the US Eastern Seaboard (Pennsylvania, Maine, New Hampshire, Georgia, Sanibel Island, Hilton Head) several times, earning our first real trip on a plane to Bahamas when our behavior improved. Then Puerto Vallarta (because every family should visit the gay male mecca), Seattle, Vancouver–and when my parents became empty nesters, we still reconvened to visit my sister in Banff, en masse, twice. Now they travel to Austria, Scotland and Ireland, creeping a little further overseas each time.
It’s my mother’s travel writing that makes me smile the most, and even though she will probably be fretting that I have exposed her to the world, this is where I come from.
From burgeoning travel writer, Sandra (in part), from Ireland:
Drove all along the Antrim Coast – saw the Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge. Of course had to walk the Giant’s Causeway – bravely climbed up then was crapping when I had to get back down. Crossed Sally’s Gap (highest point I think). Walked through Newgrange, a Passage Grave 85M in diameter x 11M high (got to the entrance and couldn’t go in — big chicken). This is in the cradle of civilization from Neolitic times, built in 3200 BC (estimated 40-80 years to build).
While I was taking pictures of the rocks we were on I thought I would get a couple shots of the kelp and stuff – slipped on the rocks – my camera went flying out of my hand and I grazed my shin on the rocks – I thought OH SHIT I haven’t got any medical coverage if It is fractured. But It just really hurt, my camera survived the incident with only a dent (good thing it didn’t land in a tidal pool that would have really been my luck)….
Hope all is well, love your letters, puts me right there (scared shitless sometimes for your safety but still want to hear all your stories just the same!) Be careful chat soon!
What never gets lost in translation is how travel stains and tattoos our skin. Wherever I am in the world, fatting or treading a measure, or sipping a lime jice with a Twix salad, the rest of my world follows me. All the remarkable places that I have stood follow me like a shadow, or is that my mother?

The often misinterpreted Marabou Stork. They have two inflatable air sacs (a bright red one at the hindneck and a pinkish pendulous one that hangs below their neck). The field guide to Birds of East Africa describes them as having “bald heads and naked pink necks with scabby black spots.” They look like knock-kneed heroin addicts and hang out in the city’s rubbish dumps clattering their bills, but are also known to bleat, grunt and squeal.
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