The Moment Begins Now.

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Mighty Bellow

In the far northern pocket of Rwanda lies an ancient volcano range called the Virungas. They cut an imposing figure chisled into the sky like a grand monument serving as a natural border to Uganda and the Congo. As we drove in, they were shrouded in a mist that only served to further their mystique. Somewhere in the trees, high above the ground we walk, lie our ancient descendents, the endangered mountain gorillas. Our backpacks contained the tracking permits required to witness the creatures in their native habitat.
                                                                                                      Our guide, Placid, began by explaining the infamous 7 meter rule, the distance that we should keep from the gorillas. This, as we found out, was a rule practiced only in theory (“Excuse me gorilla, could you just back up a little bit. Your in my personal 7 meter bubble.”)He then opened up a book of photos, showing us the “Hirwa” group that we would be tracking, a relatively small new group complete with a Silverback, a couple females and some babies to boot.

We began the trek in the early morning haze, up through the lanes of farmers’ fields, passing families busy with harvesting and grazing livestock. When we reached the jungle path of the volcanoes, a guard carrying an AK-47 emerged from the trees to accompany us. More of a precaution than anything, the guard was there to protect us from rogue elephants, water buffalos and poachers intent on killing and maiming gorillas for profit.

Our guide instructed us to put down our backpacks and walking sticks (they could be mistaken as spears) and we hacked our way into the interior, where we could see the trees shaking and bending at unnatural angles.

Out of the dense brush, a black, inky form materialized in front of us and disappeared into the bramble beside us. We inched closer and around the corner came face to face with the leader of the group, the Silverback. He perched on all fours, and appraised us with interest.

Its eyes were large, sentient and had an incredible human-like quality to them. When he took in all of us, he began to grunt loudly. The grunt was rolling and thunder-like, a rhythmic way to communicate with us. It reverberated through the dense air and into my chest, where it settled, and, through instinct, I found myself wanting to grunt back in response. My fear quickly evaporated; he sounded like my Dad when he had a pressing problem on his mind.

The gorilla meant no harm; somehow I was sure of it. The eyes of the creature were speaking of somewhere, of something else. It was but a few seconds that we held eyes, but in the lingering stillness, he held an intense and pure stare, powerful and understanding. In that instance with the world progressing with unstoppable continuance, you are given over to a sole emotion rarely felt; complete and utter respect. The stare transfixed me to the spot until he looked away.

There are under a thousand mountain gorillas left and they are all in East Africa. Only in the last century was it discovered that they are gentle and vegetarian. They share 97% of biological makeup with humans. They spend 30% of their day feeding, 30% moving and foraging for the remainder. They eat bamboo shoots, giant thistles and wild celery, all of which have water, allowing gorillas to survive without drinking.

A groups Silverback, the leader of the group, determines movement and defends the clan. He can pack a punch estimated at 8 times stronger than Muhammad Ali. They communicate through facial expressions and 2 dozen vocalizations. They are the largest primates in the world and weigh as much as 440 pounds.

Simply put, the gorillas are the most fascinating creatures I have ever seen. Our hour flew by too quickly; as the clan stopped taking notice of the strange visitors and continue on with life. The baby gorillas playfully practiced their handstands with limited success, which brought a chorus of laughter from the humans as they grunted and tried their luck again. A large female gently bowled me over as she decided that she wanted to sit in the place I was previously standing. The Silverback, obviously in his prime, found a wide open air to roll over, scratch, yawn, and pose with his hand on his chin, contemplating life’s mysteries.

The fate of the mountain gorilla is still uncertain. Human poverty is the greatest threat to these great creatures, as they live in areas which have some of the highest population densities and lowest adult life spans. This makes conservation a difficult prospect, as habitat loss, local civil unrest and poachers continually threaten their survival.

Founded by Dian Fossey in 1978, The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International is dedicated to gorilla conservation through daily protection, anti-poaching, research, education and helping the communities they work in. Thanks to organizations like this, the Virunga mountain gorilla populations have increased in the past two decades. To learn more about the organization and their work in the Congo and Rwanda, click here.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Turning 24 in Rwanda (By the Numbers)

  • Today, I turn 24 years old. There are the same number of hours in the day as I have years of my life.
  • The average life expectancy in Rwanda is 40. In 19 days, the Rwandan people will be heading to the polls in what I hope to be a peaceful election. 
  • My Mother, the person I should be celebrating this day with, aptly pointed out I have been in Alberta once in the past 5 years during the day of my birth. Eep, sorry Ma! 
  • I have 47 students in my class. We have, on average, 4 hours of class a day. We have a midterm quiz on Friday, that has 25 questions; 8 on the Central Nervous System, 9 on Diabetes and 8 on the Integument. I hope to not fail a student. I am younger than the vast majority of my students. 
  • I have spent 103 days in Rwanda, there are 50 days left before a flight home beckons.
  • For the past 11 days, for the first time in my life, I have not eaten meat. I don't know when the next time I will eat it.
  • I kissed a girl for the first time when I was 16. She later broke it to me I wasn't her first kiss. 
  • I'd like to think that I've participated in more light-saber fights than the average mortal; 4
  • I first sipped an alcoholic beverage when I was 5. After cartwheeling down the stairs in dramatic fashion, it would be 11 years before I would eye another one. 
  • I've smoked 2 cigarettes in my life. After watching an autopsy being done on a smoker and analyzing his lungs, I decided 2 would be all the cigarettes I will ever have.
  • I was hit from behind 4 times that I can remember in Minor Hockey. After the fourth time, I remember quitting the game I loved. In October, for the first time in 10 years, I plan to play out a full season.
  • There are 4 nurses in my immediate family; they are the most caring people I know.
  • I am 13,894 kilometers away from my bed, a new record.
  • I earn approximately $3000 a month less than I could make for doing the same job in Canada.You couldn't put a price on the experience I've gained here. 
  • Wanting to do something exciting last weekend, I went to the 10th most dangerous country on the planet for 4 hours this weekend. I don't ever wanted to return to the Congo. 
  • This is the 19th post on this blog. Usually, an entry takes anywhere from 4-10 hours from memory to finished post. 
  •  This entry was written in 1 hour (birthday's aren't supposed to be spent in front of a computer).

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Kigali International Peace Marathon

Any country that’s nicknamed “Land of a Thousand Hills” should have provided a clue in my mind, a warning, even just an inkling, as to what running a half-marathon in Rwanda would be like. The city of Kigali, which boasts an altitude of 1496 meters above sea level, should have also been a clear indicator of the how hard running 21 kilometers was going to be.

It didn't, and there I was, at the starting line of the 6th edition of the Kigali International Peace Marathon.
There was an eclectic group of individuals haphazardly gathered around the starting gate; a girl attired in black pants and a full-fledged hockey jersey, a man with plastic wings strapped to his back, young adults dressed in Converse high-top shoes. The start time of the race was delayed by 15... 30... 45 minutes, before the organizers decided to put on loud, popular club music. Sporadic dancing instantly began all around me, as I sat down to enjoy the spectacle and conserve my energy.

When the starting gun sounded, the supermarket around the corner proudly advertised the temperature as being 27 degrees, with the sun shyly hiding behind the clouds. It emerged after a short time and boiled for the rest of the run.

The most demoralizing, and incredible moment, was seeing the Kenyans. I stood by a group  in warm up, with complete awe and admiration. My biceps were the equivalent of one of the man’s thighs. Ten minutes into the race, you could hear the elite marathoners coming; like a herd of animals in a stampede, pounding pavement with frantically circular wheel kicks in dogged pursuit of an arbitrary line 42 kilometers away. They flew by in a torrent of focus and adrenaline, jockeying for early positioning, running as if chased by some unseen force. I saw every muscle in their legs flexing and contracting as they moved, treating me to a real live anatomy class far better than any one I had in Nursing school.

The first half of the race was fun, almost easy, as the ten kilometers flew by. Somewhere around the 12 kilometers I began doubting myself, repeating a question over and over in my head, "Why do humans run vast geometric distances?" I had no answer for this.

The heat, with the unrelenting uphills of the last half of the race, destroyed me. The injuries I had sustained through the past month crept into play as the race entered it's last stages; from the sprained ankles from falling in potholes on a basketball court, a  runners knee overuse injury that continually pulsed and nagged, and a delightful cold which left me sniffling and chilly in the thirty degree heat.

I plowed through, using the doused water-sponges and bottled water breaks to rejuvenate and regroup, trying to motivate myself for a final push that didn't exist. It was too hard and too hot. The last four kilometers seemed like forty, as I entered the stadium to circle the track once before the finish line. I stamped down at the finish line, triumphant and defiant in a distance that simply was too much for me on that day. As I regrouped with Anthony, we watched numerous competitors cross the line and faint straightaway into the arms of waiting medics (including the guy with wings).

The race was an incredible experience, and finishing was a special bonus, but my most memorable moment came a month before the race on one long, unplanned training run.

The sun was setting, almost lazily, emitting the last of its warm rays for the night, winking as it prepared to bring light to another part of the globe. I began my ascent up a sharp, steep cobblestone street of a slum which carved and amazingly constructed itself on a jagged hillside. The fires of the slum could be seen, as mothers were busy boiling water and preparing food for the following morning.

Word spread quickly, almost telepathically, as I continued to stumble my way up the hill, to all neighborhood kids to run/jog/amble beside me on my quest for the top. Within moments, I was doubled over in laughter with the kids, lost in the absurdity of it all; I was lost in a slum as kids continued to come, numbering well over a dozen with the span of a minute. They circled my now slow jog with their dance-ramba-steps and high kicked, as I tried unsuccessfully to cartwheel and attempt some sort of dance, which left them in fits. After exhausting my Kinyarwandan vocabulary, I switched to English, huffing and puffing... "you... don't (gulp)... have to... (haaaah) follow... me.This hill is... steeeeeep. " None of the kids were out of breath when we reached the top, and a group of parents waited alongside a narrow path which led up to more houses on the steep slope. As the parents gathered their kids I waved to them and they all laughed, obviously witnessing my earlier dance attempt.

For its beauty and simplicity, the moment was perfect. Normally, I would feel self-conscious and uncomfortable in that neighborhood, almost ashamed of the divide that exists between me and those who live in the slum. That experience, that hill and those kids made me forget all of that.

I took one last look at the large, sloping, cobblestone hill, and wheeled around to return home. That's why I run, I thought. For moments like that.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Convocating in Kenya

"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes." Marcel Proust

I remember the day, late last year, that we were asked to confirm our spot at our convocation ceremony that was to take place in early June 2010. I clicked the "Will Attend" option with hope, but something inside of me tingled with anticipation. Without any tangible explanation to explain it, I had a feeling that I was not going to be around for it.

At the same time, fate was dealing the cards to land me in Rwanda, far removed from the Edmonton celebration.

I am addicted to the world; the pulses, people, cities, cultures and general chaos that comprise our lot here on earth. It's taken me to the top of distant mountains, and dozens of meters under the sea. I've seen a small city struggle to overcome a devastating earthquake, while on the same trip watched as a thief struggled to keep me subdued while grabbing my wallet. I'm a proud survivor of multiple infamous 24 hour bus trips, have endured more travelers diarrhea than I should care to admit, and have emerged from it all with experiences, friends and memories I will keep for the rest of my life.
That being said, nothing is all sunshine and mangoes. By being here, I have missed out on things at home; Ultimate Frisbee season, weddings (Congratulations Pablo and Theresa!) BBQ's, beach parties, friends, family gatherings... heck, the short Canadian summer. Convocation is lumped in with this crowd, one of those things I wanted to be home for.

Thirteen thousand and three hundred kilometers away from where I sit (13,348 kilometers to be exact), my Nursing graduating class walked across the stage to shake hands with the higher-ups and collect degrees that we have poured our souls into for the past four years. I've idly replayed the moment hundreds of times in my head, hearing my name and walking across the stage clapping and fist-pumping the whole way, turning at the end of the line and sending a hearty "WooHoo" to my already embarrassed parents sitting in the stands.

Instead, the last time I would see my classmates before we all set off on our own adventures would be last December, at our graduation ceremony.

At that ceremony, Laura and I were nominated by our teacher to leave our class with an "uplifting message in these dark times" (meaning the current hiring freeze for nurses in Alberta). We decided to speak about happiness and entitled our talk, "Happiness and the Carrot." The premise was exceedingly simple; in Nursing school, we realized we were guilty of keeping happiness at bay, like someone would dangle a carrot in front of a rabbit.

We always had excuses for this. "When I finish this class, then I will be let myself enjoy this" became "When I finish this year," which, upon nearing graduation became "Well... maybe when I find a job." There never was a moment where we would let ourselves be truly happy, we were always busy looking for the next big thing. We then reached into the podium and extracted a bushel of large-stalked, earthy carrots to show to the crowd.

We had it all wrong, we argued. Being happy was something not to be rationed and controlled. Once you find yourself enjoying a single carrot, you found that it multiplied and grew. The speech ended symbolically with us biting into our carrots, encouraging our graduation class to not let happiness be an abstract, elusive dream.

I thought back to the simple truth in that speech, that you have to take happiness whenever it presents itself as I glanced around at where life had led me; sitting in a crowded open-air courtyard in Nairobi, Kenya surrounded by my closest Canadian friends on the continent who were together for a brief reunion. I realized, with a little shock, that I didn't miss Convocation as much as I thought I would.

The waiter pulled up to the table with a fresh round of beers as I resigned myself to enjoy where I am and how it all turned out as I stood up to address the gang with a smile, "Halfway across the world right now, my nursing class is convocating. This one's for them. Cheers!"

The clink of glasses was loud and hearty, a collision that sounded not unlike the crunching of a carrot. A sound I now associate with happiness.

Three Cheers and Congratulations Nursing Students.... We Did It :)

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Two Minute Tales

Thanks to a well-timed tip from a friend, I scurried to re-work two stories from South America for the Two Minute Tales Writing Contest. The stories were asked to, in five-hundred words or less, describe a travel story that changed you. Here are two of three of my entries.

A New Hope, A New Home

Take a colonial power (England). Then take thousands of indentured slaves from their homes in India (my great great grandparents). Go to Africa and take thousands more. Plop them onto a piece of land, make them toil for decades, then breed racism between the two classes of slaves, subtract the colonial power and what do you get?

The Republic of Guyana, birthplace of my parents.

Oh hey Dad, what you got there? Dad?? Dad??? DAD???

Despite the warnings from the Canadian Government that ¨travel to Guyana is not advised due to safety concerns,¨my brother, father and I found ourselves landing on a narrow strip of concrete that constituted an airstrip in Georgetown, Guyana.

Before this trip, Guyana was simply a place on a map where I could tell people my parents were from.

My family in Guyana lives in poverty. That is according to Western standards, anyways. At first, I found it difficult to completely comprehend. But my family was not despairing, or worried about what they did not have. Life was how it always was, and they lived it differently.

It is a culture of giving. I have never drank so much delicious rum, ate so many varying types of curries (sometimes out of a leaf) and felt so much love from strangers who my father told us were family.

We spent long nights on the porch of the house of my great grandfather listening to Dad tell tales of his childhood, while swatting mosquitoes and sipping sugar cane juice. We took walks along the sea-wall, where he and his friends used to play cricket when the tide was out and visited the trenches where they used to bathe, fish and run from anacondas and alligators.

My Dad recounted how before the British gave Guyana its independence, they instigated hate between the Indian and African people who were previously in harmony with each other. Villages segregated themselves according to color, and to venture through the other races village could mean death. Today, that segregation still occurs with all-Black or all-Brown schools, and the two major political parties being composed mainly of persons from one color.

Guyana is a land untouched by foreign investment, tourism and heck, even a decent road to another country. Chock full of mosquitoes, jungle, fruits I will never be able to pronounce, and family I may never see again, it is largely an entity in itself.

To me, its no longer just a place on a map.To me, its both the beauty of the people and the problems of the nation give it the unique flavor that is Guyana.

To me, it´s a second home.