Posts Tagged With: volunteering

Coffee & Chimps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can We Parent-Proof Our Travels?

I’m not a parent, but I have become proficient in what parents don’t respond favourably to in blog posts and postcards from abroad.  After extensive analysis, I was able to eventually identify key content that WOULD MAKE MY MOTHER REPLY IN CAPITAL LETTERS. Even when I found a distracting collector’s stamp for the postcard.

I didn’t think I had much shock value left in me. I’ve protested on logging roads on Vancouver Island, I’ve had three kinds of intestinal parasites. I’ve exchanged pleasantries with drug runners with AK47s slogging  flour sacs full of marijuana on their backs. Really, my parents are unable to raise their eyebrows anymore. 

Blogging about travels with the notion of friends and virtual strangers tuning in as audience members can dramatically change the body of your posts, and, largely, the profanity.  It’s easy to censor yourself when you think of dad reading the lines and also between the lines, making mental post-it notes for future questioning. And beware the blog savvy grandmothers who link the rest of the family tree in a single swoop of a group email and a cut-and-paste link. It’s like trying to hide your open diary on the internet.

Maybe I’m too honest about bowel movements, the proximity of lions while sleeping and occasional hitchhiking stories. Egged on by the comments of friends who find hilarity and bravery in such tales, these are not topics of parent interest, ever.  

Jungle hut, no wi-fi

Mom and Dad’s preferred reading definitely did not include my dramatic account of being lost in the Costa Rican jungle when I was 20(with the above-mentioned gun-toting drug runners).  Luckily, this was 1994 and wi-fi and weren’t an option in my palm frond-roofed jungle hut.

 I was volunteering with a dozen wanderlust-smacked bohemians from Australia, Canada and Costa Rica. All of us were channelling Indiana Jones with our machetes and embracing the raw jungle existence in boastful postcards home. We were off any flight path and 12 km (and six muddy river crossings) from the suggestion of  civilization (a shack that sold melted chocolate bars and stale plantain chips).

For three months our communication was by radio, but we lost communication completely after the first day. Commandos delivered and retrieved outgoing mail only twice instead of weekly, as promised. This meant that my harrowing tale of being lost, that I hesitantly confessed in a letter home, was also lost and learned about months after I returned to Canada.

 The original letter contained enough exclamation points for a POW! KAZAM! POOF!-filled comic book and minute by minute commentary on potential attacks by jaguars and/or a probable kidnapping by drug warlords.  Back at home a few months later, still full of parasites, I entered a writing contest about my volunteer experience in Central America and told that very story. And won. First prize was a flight to Costa Rica and in my excitement, I blew my previously parent-censored story.  I told them everything. They were not impressed with my lost-ness. The prize package earned forced smiles. “You’re not going back to the same place, are you?”

But sometimes it slips out, you know? When you are talking at hyper-speed about visiting whiskey distilleries and hopping along the hexagonal basalt columns of Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, it’s easy to blurt “and then we went to the most bombed-out bar in all of Europe. Can you believe it has been bombed 33 times?”

To me, the impressive part of this  Belfast pub was that it had cozy snugs with buzzers that allowed you to instantly signal your server for another pint of Guinness. Genius! The fact that it was bombed more than any other bar I’ve been to was just a sidebar.

It’s a saving grace that postcards are so small. Maybe I should only Twitter my parents from afar? That would have instantly cut the story from the Slieve Liag out of my candid reporting. Still, in tiny peppercorn-sized font I blabbed about how I had heaved myself up Ireland’s highest sea cliffs near Donegal. The fact that the Irish fog was like hiking with a blindfold on along 600m-high cliffs was not exciting to my parents. I reassured them that a kind British couple advised to keep the wind to my left, as this would prevent me from getting turned around in the fog. Which would have left me at the bottom of the 600m cliff.

Ireland certainly paled in comparison with the announcement that I was going to volunteer in Uganda for four months. Parents who play Pictionary and pull “Africa” only think of deadly pythons, starving lions, car-jackings, civil war and United Nation planes flying ex-pats out in the middle of the night. They forget about the gentler parts, the explosion of bird sound and the sunsets on Lake Victoria that make poets out of those who bear witness.

Imagine my parents delight when I arrived back in Toronto safe and sound and parasite-less. “Well, we’re glad you got Africa out of your system.” This was probably the wrong time to tell them that I had met the director of a chimp sanctuary who suggested I come back for a volunteer stint in the Congo.  “The Congo? Oh god. You wouldn’t go there, would you? They still have cannibals there!” I waited until I had my plane ticket to tell them the fantastic news.

In judging responses to previous stories: lost in the jungle, piranha fishing, the near-death whitewater rafting incident, chased by a wild boar– it was wise to wait until the Congo was confirmed. Why worry them for extensive periods? A shorter window of pacing and fretting has been my solution in parent-proofing my travels. Kind of like a surprise party– they enjoy it much more when it’s close and it’s going to be over with sooner than later. Then, maybe, finally I’ll have it all out of my system.

Because they are active blog followers, my parents detect restlessness like owls detect mice on the move. They can sense the hesitation in my words, and like seasoned detectives when I phone home, they say (on speaker phone, of course): “Oh no, where are you going now?”

I thought my time in the Congo would make any other destination appear as though it were covered in cupcake icing and sugar sprinkles. I reminded them that I had been in the Congo and look, it wasn’t so bad, right? The internet and electricity was wonky, the police were corrupt and the worst news was that I voluntarily ate goat testicles and my sunglasses were stolen.

Still, my favourite card to play is, “hey, I lived in Abbotsford (British Columbia). Remember how safe you thought it was there?” (Abbotsford, despite being in the Bible Belt of Canada is a hot bed of murder and gang activity. The Hell’s Angels share turf with the Global United Nations Syndicate (GUNS), the Red Scorpions and the Independent Soldiers). Surely, going to Cairo in September of this year was relatively safer than living with more gang members than Mennonites. Besides, the Revolution that had all eyes on Cairo in January had found a new calm. They were desperate for tourists. The election had been pushed back and Mubarek was in jail. Surely this was a perfect time to go to Egypt.

What I’ve come to realize is that, parent-proofing needs a new approach. Parent desensitizing. If you have siblings, information will be leaked anyway. Any censored stories will be barked out in sensational style over festive dinners.

“Remember when you were told in the Congo that if you hit someone with a vehicle, that you’d have to keep driving because there would be a mob scene and you’d be killed too?”

Or, “pass the cranberries and, oh! What was that story about you and Debbie having a gun pointed at you in Uganda? You were trying to stop a dog from getting shot by a guard and then she threatened to kill you?”

And, once the cranberries have been passed along with a dirty look and I segue into taking pictures of the family around the festive table– “Is that the same camera that the police tried to confiscate from you in Entebbe? You’re lucky you got away.”

Point is, you can’t parent-proof your travels or blog or postcards home. Maybe temporarily, but it all gets revealed like a winter crime scene with a spring thaw.  We have to give our parents credit for allowing us to do anything at all, despite our age and independence. There’s no way I would allow them to go to the Congo or Cairo!

Last night we shared unfiltered pictures of our recent Egypt trip over wine. My mom closely examined the snaps of Tahir Square, with the riot squad police on guard. The next picture showed a tank parked at an intersection near the Egyptian Museum. She had already read my blog, and I had mentioned the beefed up military presence and tanks downtown as a primer.

“Here’s one of the tanks.”

“That’s not a tank,” my mother said. My dad agreed. “Nope, that’s an armoured vehicle. A tank has one of those bulldozer-things on the bottom. Those are just armoured vehicles, that’s all.”

And oddly, they were completely unaffected by all that I thought would have made them squirm and sweat. They were more worried about my diarrhea.  The fact that we had walked past “armoured vehicles” on a daily basis was not as alarming as tanks with “bulldozer-things.”

The conversation quickly moved back to diarrhea and how we survived the hot-air balloon ride in such a state.

So, it worked. I’ve completely desensitized them in a remarkable 20 year time period. I’ve spent so much time worrying about what they might be worrying about, but, apparently, there’s no need to parent-proof at all. Desensitization is the answer!

*Disclaimer: My mother did say, prior to our departure for Cairo, “I better not see you two joy-riding around in the back of a pick-up truck in Libya.” So, I do have some ground rules still. And part of their desensitization involves posting pictures of them too:

Categories: Passport Please | Tags: , , | 2 Comments


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


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

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

From Your Africa Correspondent, Jules Torti

September 20, 2008

Where do I begin when everything is so radically different from the landcape I have come from? There are familiar aspects, like dogs underfoot. Here at the Jane Goodall office there are five: Levi, the white rhodesian ridgeback, Tinker (black lab who brings sticks smaller than cigarettes for you to throw to him), Scrappy (the true African dog with ears perked up in a manner that resembles a bird coming in for landing, and Buster and Beevis (two pups in guard dog training). There are also two cats, Pops and Juwa, who are probably wondering what the hell they did in their last life to deserve the company of five dogs.
The office (where I also live–enjoying a one minute commute down the stairs to work) overlooks Lake Victoria, which is the cichlid capital of the world, if you are a fish hobbyist like my bro. I’m wondering how I can bring back some cichlids for him with the 100ml liquid restriction with the airlines.
My housemates are Carol (from Boston, but without a Boston accent as she is of Ann Arbor, Michigan blood), Mary-Lou (from Australia, all 6’4 of her), and Aura, who reminds me of Katherine Hepburn–or is it Audrey? She is known as Mother Superior, and is currently on Ngamba Island working at the chimp sanctuary.
Life on the equator means the first break of sunlight is around 6:20 am, and by 7:15 there is a blackness in the sky that Toronto will never see! There are a few solar powered street lamps, but these seem to be a mile apart.

There are mango, avocado and coffee trees–and a thousand birds. Each morning I wake to the sound of a rooster programmed to cockle-doodle-doo at 4:30. Carol tells me the family buys the bird on Sunday, fattens it up all week, then eats it on Friday. So, the weekends are quieter, due to the rooster being roasted. The birds start a ruckus shortly after the rooster, and I am eager to match the bird songs with the bodies. One of the bird’s calls sounds like the “plook, plook” of a leaky faucet.

The hornbills zoom in and sound like kites taking a sharp cut in the wind, fish eagles (like the bald eagle) take the wingspan prize as they soar with wingtips reaching 10 feet, on the wind currents. The blue turacos are the most spectacular but I have a certain fondness for Uganda’s most loathed bird: themarabu stork. They look lheroin addicts with haggard bodies and jerky movements. They are so awkward, they are like the Bambi of the bird world adjusting to their wings and ability to fly. Their heads are bald, and they need a good bath, probably because they spend most of their life poking through the dumpsters.
The vervet monkeys are a comical bunch–and a few days ago, I was nearly robbed by a pack of them in a parking lot. For my birthday, I thought it only proper that I find some sort of African cake but, I haven’t been able to locate the Entebbe Costco yet (haha). So, for 400 shillings(30 cents?) I found my cake. I also bought some buns (from a shop that sold Ugandan sherry, cooking oil, lollipops, yarn, soap and that’s about it). As I cut through the Imperial Beach hotel lot I spied a great picture of monkeys sitting on the arms of a wheelbarrow. I pulled out my camera, zoomed in and felt a tug on my bun bag. I turned around to see a vervet monkey with his mightly little hands tugging at my bag.

Then, I was swarmed–it was the monkey bun mafia!! I pulled and pulled, and the monkey was actually hanging, suspended, from my bun bag!! The others edged closer, trying to intimidate me, but I stood my ground. It was my birthday cake, dammit!! Finally, he let go, but the monkeys stayed close on my heels, still plotting how to get my goods. Eventually they dropped off and clamboured up into the trees, Barrel of Monkeys style.
So, the cake. It tasted like bread. And the buns? Tasted like cake. I had made a sandwich and it was like fresh tomato and cheese on a donut. And, with no presvatives in this country, it crumbled apart like a taco. Carol informed me later that there are two varieties of bun: salt buns and sweet buns. I would have to check the ingredients.
My first market experience was a complete sensory massage. Every Tuesday, vendors congregate to sell everything from rat traps to knock-off watches, to pineapples and eggplants. There are heaps and heaps of second-hand clothes, apparently shipped from North America as Value Village rejects. There are winter parkas for sale, skinned goats, and rolexes. By rolex, I mean the ultimate Ugandan street food (although there are knock-off Rolex watches too). It’s a greasy cabbage and tomato omelette rolled up in a chapati for, about 75 cents. Carol insisted that we have a rolex, and street chicken. This was the ultimate test for my Dukoral, the travellers anti-diarrhea medication. I thought for sure I’d be shitting my pants in the night, tangled up in my mosquito net trying to get to the toilet. We sat at a table below the street level, just as night was falling. Kerosene torches lit the length of the street as crowds pushed along. Wild cats circled under the table as a young boy provided water for us to wash our hands. I wondered later where the water came from, but thougt, eating street chicken was the worst evil.
The market just hums. Many of the vendors sell the same produce (mostly onions, tomatoes, peppers, bananas, peas, limes, ginger), so there are great attempts to make their blanket area the most visually appealing. Tomatoes are stacked 4-5 high and the best eggplants are fanned out in front with open sacs showcasing tiny minnow-sized dried fish. I asked for four tomatoes, but was given 8–Carol told me that this is normal. “They always give you 3-4 rottten ones to get rid of them.”
The grocery ‘stores’ sell peanut butter, sardines, Cadbury chocolate, unrefrigerated eggs and bottled Coca-Cola. There are cassava and matoke (cooking banana) chips and even a local icecream.
On the streets there is constant motion. As they drive UK style (opposite side of the road), my morning runs have been a test of dodging bikes carrying six foot lengths of aluminum, sacs of pineapples, matatus (SUV taxi) honking horns, and boda-bodas (moped taxis) zooming by with 3 people on them. Women sit sidesaddle, sometimes there is a smiley kid in front, and everything gets transported this way. Yesterday a boda boda driver had a suitcase in the front, a rolled up duvet and a live chicken in his hand. A version of the African motorhome?
Poverty is very close at hand. The road I lived on has two 3-star hotels, a golf course, the zoo, and an AIDS clinic. However, turn off this road in any direction and there are mud huts, women sweeping dirt from the dirt in front of their homes. Fires of rubbish are burning, skinny dogs run along the ditches, and chickens run truly free range.
The roads are red, like burnt sienna of Crayola crayons. In the morning, the roads are dotted with kids immaculately dressed in school uniforms (bright purple, yellow and green, pink & red–they certainly make fine use of the colour wheel). With so many people all at once, it seems as though a concert or movie has just ended. Where did everyone come from, and where are they going? The kids yell out to me: “Mizungo! Mizungo!” I am a celebrity for my skin colour alone here. The men holler out, “America!” I like to think it’s because I look like Miss America. But, it is again my skin, white=America.

During the week I am actively working on my project: to compile and edit stories and artwork about the tribes and totems of Uganda. The Jane Goodall Institute runs a program for kids called Roots & Shoots, and this book development is part of that. There were over 500 submissions from 40 local schools to sift through. The stories are dramatic, and some of the drawings quite comical. The lion seems to garner the most intriguing interpretations.
Ruth, our housekeeper provides lunches during the week that are wonderful, but leave me in a starch coma. The diet here is very soft–bananas, rice, matoke (mashed banana), eggplant, millet loaf–Wanda, my saviour is sending All-Bran bars in hope that I can have a bowel movement at least once a month.


There is a calm here, of suspended time. Technology is ever-present (many Ugandans have cell phones pressed to their ears, and Big Brother Africa 3 has a huge following), but I have found pleasure in reading more and eating breakfast with nothing more than the scenery to read (part of me does miss the Vancouver Sun folded out though!). With early dark nights, it is easy to follow the pattern of the sun. Plus, I have yet to find the switch that turns the early morning birds off.
That’s my first week in Africa…the condensed version. It is difficult to communicate the vibrant colours and peculiar sounds and warmth of the equator, because it is so very different from the landscapes of my life so far. Aside from missing my gal and dog incredibly, the richness of this experience illuminates the reason why we live: to pursue our dreams and stretch our minds a little farther, into uncomfortable and new places. And, to share those dynamic experiences with those we love and find comfort in.

Categories: Eat This, Sip That, Into and Out of Africa | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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