A Gorilla encounter

We have just returned from an amazing expedition to Odzala – Kokoua National Park in the Republic of the Congo (aka Congo-Brazzaville not the Congo where Virunga is). Before I get into downloading, editing and combining images and videos and posting about what an experience this was and how our adventure unfolded, I wanted to share something real, something unedited, something that will as much as possible reflect what was happening in a particular moment in time.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about what seeing gorillas for the first time meant to me. I have never been particularly attracted to primates (blame it on looking after baboons for a while) so I was curious to see how I would feel when faced with one of them.

For the first few glances through the thick Marantaceae leaves my feelings were mostly unchanged.. I was there for the rainforest, gorillas, I thought would just be a bonus… that was until I saw the scene below unfold… It is by far not the best video, scene or capture but some moments are better kept raw.

As I was filming through my trusted D600 it all suddenly dawned on me: the movements, the attitude, the physiology, all these characteristics were just too shocking, too familiar.. too alike. Having been lucky to explore the wilds of Africa and observe quite a range of species in their natural environment, feeling such sense of closeness to another animal species was.. unexpected, intimate, powerful, humbling;  it instilled in me a sense more than ever that we are not alone in this world, nor does it belong to us only. This realisation struck me to the core, as it deepened even more my understanding that coexistence is nature’s most beautiful and most difficult gift; this planet doesn’t belong to one, but to us all. When you feel this, your life will forever be changed.

What’s in a name?

One of the most fascinating things I have encountered in Africa are people’s names. I have found them fascinating because they are so very different from the names I encountered in my “western” life. I have met someone called Orange that worked in the same team as someone named Juice; I have met Happiness, Pretty and Remember, I have known a Wax; and I will always remember Mylord, the barman.

You see, for some African cultures, particularly for the Shangaans whom I’ve spent most of my time with, names aren’t just a “something” to identify children from other children. A name is important and more often than not, earned and carefully considered; a name must speak about your identity and you personality.

Giving a name is normally something reserved to the mother of the child and the name chosen is based on circumstances around the child’s birth, blessings the mothers cast upon the child, wishes for their lives, or it can be based upon a child’s personality. This is all part of the complex task that will be influencing someone based purely on the name they chose to give him.

“A name is considered a precious and marvellous gift while a person without a name is regarded as a non-human being,” writes Mkhacani Chauke of the University of Venda in the journal Anthropologist,

Anyone that has worked in the lodge industry know that their personality and their behaviour will or has enticed them to a Shangaan nickname, chances of you ever knowing that nickname however, are pretty rare. You might know someone else’s nickname but no one will tell you yours. This is how I found out that a couple in one of the lodges I worked in, had started being called Hawk Eagle. This nickname was given due to this couple’s ability to work together to screw people over in order to climb the power ladder.

As luck would have it, there are certain conversations in life that will automatically send you on a name quest. If there is something I have learned from Shangaans is that there is much more to a “name”. I can still remember the missed call and the ensuing message “are you free to talk?” that sent me on this quest after a mild panic attack, as the last time she texted me with such urgency it was only to convey the saddest news.

“Hola Gaby”
“Hola Ale”
“What’s wrong, what happened?”

“Nothing wrong. Well, just phoning to tell you you’re going to be an aunt”.

I believe they heard me screaming for joy all the way in Tanzania

Gaby and I grew up together and like sisters we learned how to fight like cats and dog, how to defeat all the monsters of Yoshi’s story, divide equally all our McDonald’s chips, how to lean on each other when boys broke our hearts but more importantly we learned that the fiercest of loves knows no boundaries.

“When, how, what?” were some of the many questions I blurted out with teary eyes.

After an uncontrollable bout of tears and giggles that only girls know, she then blurted out:

“It’s a girl”.

Sometimes when a statement is made out loud into world, it carries a powerful message felt only by those who are willing to listen. The power of this statement and everything it conveyed was a powerful as it was tacit between the two of us. I believe it couldn’t have been any other way, Gaby comes from a line of strong women, to even fathom the idea that her first born wouldn’t have been a girl was impossible, Tia Nery, I’m sure, had something to do with this (sorry Jose, you had no chance).

“What are you going to name her?”

“We don’t know yet. It’s complicated. We don’t want to use a name that’s been used in the family before. It’s gotta be a name easy to pronounce in English, Spanish and Portuguese”

“Oh dear lord. And you’re vetoing all the family names already used?”

“Yip”.

To put it into perspective for you dear reader, we have quite a unique and large family spread across the world, and in many different languages. This task won’t be easy.

“Any ideas?”

“No, but if you find names you like you should send them to me”.

After suggesting a few western names, I decided that the way forward was actually share some of the local African names. The world could use some variety.

Her stunning hand made crib mobile (to become the favorite aunty) from Project Have Hope which seek to empower women in the Acholi Quarter of Uganda. Link in image

This is how I started thinking about the importance of names and sending Gaby all the cool names I would hear around. Pretty, Gift, Remember, Thandiwe, Lindiwe, Thandi (hihi),Kelego, Glory, Patience (God knows we need one in the family!), etc.

Gaby liked Waxela (which means alive in Tswana) however names also have to be pertinent to life, being called Wax in Washingtong DC might not have been the easiest for this little human that’s coming into the world. So we vetoed that one too.

My most favourite one of them all has always been Happiness as I believe the name in itself yields power and a promise of goodness. This was however not a name for me to give. Although she wasn’t planned, Gaby’s little girl showed us all that her soul was done waiting for her parents to find the right moment. Just like Gaby, she decided herself that she was ready to conquer the world and everyone else would just to deal with her timing. Whatever name her parents chose, I will give her African nickname once I’ve met her…we already have a sense of personality of this feisty little human that is coming like a hurricane.

What her name will be, we don’t know, I don’t know, but I’m sure the wind will whisper it to us once we meet her.

If you want to have a look at some more names, because they are really interesting perspectives of life, you click here

 

Not meant to be

Every now and again my inspiration runs dry. The ideas in my head are endless but the right frame of mind to sit down and put it down in that word document in my computer has been put aside briefly mainly due to physical exhaustion.

I complain, but can I really?

After telling everyone about my scorpion incident and recalling that my relationship with them has never meant much to me, I couldn’t help but remember the first time I was faced one-on-one with their kind.

The first time I seriously looked for scorpions, I was just trying to find something cool to talk about on my interview drive. My interview drive was potentially the scariest drive I have ever taken in my life, preparing for it was nerve wrecking. As girl, and as a foreigner, I have always had to prove my worth more than some of my friends and colleagues had to do. In order to try and impress my potential employers, Allan suggested that I stop at the rocks on Puzamanzi and started flipping them to find a cool critter to talk about. The idea behind it was to get guests off the vehicle and involve them in that dam holistic experience lodges preach about.

“I don’t know” – was my answer to Allan’s suggestion.

If you’ve ever met the Ronch, you will know he doesn’t take well to ever hearing the word no in any context. So after he threw his toys , I started flipping rocks to look for scorpions. With him, I learned to chose my battles.

Should have stuck with what I knew best

“Fine we can try, show me how to catch one”.

With these last famous words we started flipping all the rocks with Ash and Sly to try and find any scorpions. Normally it’s not that hard but thanks to Murphy when you looking for one, there are none.

Finally it was Sly who found one.

“Go Ali, grab it”.

Ajá.

“How?”

“By the tail you ninny”.

Right. This multilegged things are not my strong.

Awesome. Got it. I’m queen of the world.
Got it by the tail. Big pincers, small tail – nothing to worry about here.

“It’s so cool. I mean look at it. Wow I didn’t know that they were actually this flexible. I wonder if humans could bends their backs this way like a u”

Ey.. it’s getting really close to my fingers.

“AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH LET ME GOOOO!!!”

Was the title of the song that came out of my mouth when the little disgraceful creature used its pincers to pinch the skin between my finger and my fingernail. How did it even manage?! He was so intent in showing me who was in charge that even when I let go of its tail, he was still pinching my fingers like its life dependent on it.

When he finally released me and bungee jumped to the ground again, Allan, Ash and Sly were having a laughing fit that was borderline hysteric. When I calmed down between the shock, the pain and how absolutely ridiculous the whole situation was that I also started crying of laughter.

When Allan told everyone (of course) this story back at the lodge, he took some creative freedom and slightly changed the ending of the story: “Ali froze like she does when she panicks and instead of putting it on her hand this thing pinched her. Her lip started shaking and she was crying. Hahahaha. Oh Allie, you’re worth your weight, this is gonna make me laugh for days”.

They did laugh for days much to my mortified self.

Thanks Ash Carney for immortalising round 2

What Allan forgot to share about catching a scorpions is that once you grab it by the tail you have to put on your other hand and cover it so that it doesn’t stress out.

Thanks Al – it would have been useful to know this prior to the event!

Two days later I decided to face my demons again. No cockroach with pincers is going to beat me. We spent a good 15minutes looking for and we finally found a tiny little one. This time I had pincers so I decided to use it. Upon further inspection we realised that this little one actually belonged to the Buthidae family – tiny little pincers, thick tails full of angry venom.

 

After these events I retired from a stellar scorpion catching future – little did I know that the universal board wouldn’t have been settled until one of them got me back.

A layer problem

My winter habits are a running joke amongst my friends. Despite me being 50% Latvian and it being logical that I should have some sort of resistance to the cold weather, I have… none. Some girls buy makeup, bags, shoes.. I buy sweaters. In all colours, shape and forms. My soul was born in the Caribbean so any endurance to the cold weather was forever lost upon this choice.

To counter what the weather throws my way I have resolved to wear as many layers as I can. It’s an art I have been perfecting through years of freezing out in Africa. Yes, in Africa. The biggest media lie in the world is that Africa is always hot (and that male lions don’t hunt).

Thanks to JMS for capturing this pic of my “getting warm” routine at 6am

While working in the Khwai area in Botswana I was particularly cold.. all day, everyday. This was due to the fact that the icy winter winds found no barriers in getting to me, I slept in a tent with no front flaps, and worked in an open game drive vehicle. Layering up became part of my survival (along with a hot water bottle for the morning safari).

One particularly cold morning we set out of camp in search of leopards. Our guest was desperate to see one and so when we came across tracks, we had hopes that we would finally get lucky. All of a sudden I felt a sting. The sting was similar to a beed sting, and having seen many bees floating around half empty coke glasses, I assumed that somehow one of them had gotten caught in between my layers. Because I went through a phase where I was always being stung by bees (and develop quite a bad reaction to them), I knew that had this been a bee it had already paid its price and it was likely dead so I didn’t worry too much… until I felt a piercing second sting on my back.

“Stop, no, I didn’t see a leopard. There is something in my clothes I need to find it cause it’s stinging me”.

Confused and searching for a potential mean spider I started stripping off all my layers. One, by, one. When I was down to my last T-shirt and not being able to find anything, the horrified scream from Alex came right through:

“It’s THERE, on your leg!”

To my surprise when I looked down my leg I didn’t find a spider but a tiny, mean scorpion.

“Crap”.

“Throw it away, kill it”.

“No, wait!.” I flicked the little bastard off me (he hurt me first) and proceeded then to take a pic for ID purposes. With so many dangerous and venomous things out there in the bush, rather know for sure than guess as to what it was.

The culprit: Uroplectes vittatus (potentially) or Jack

I had an idea of what scorpion it could be (they have never been my strongpoint) but needed confirmation before letting the panic in the car subdue, and while I waited for Tristan to confirm what it was, the hot water bottle did its trick in easing the pain.

“Are you ok?”

“Yeah I’m fine, it only burns”.

Barbara and Alex were clearly worried because they thought I was about to die, which never ever helps. Alex went into full panic attack mode, as he was sure he would witness me die and so in turn we had to stop a few times as his worry made him physically sick, twice.

“Maybe we should call the Okavango air rescue”

“I’m fine, let me confirm what it is and then we can worry”.

Eventually Tristan confirmed: “some uroplectes” – immediate relief as I was not going to die and would just have a sore sting.

When I told my family about it my dad’s wisdom had me giggling.

“I’m sure it was a male scorpion though”

“Huh? Why?”
(I was waiting for some lesson as my dad normally has some random animal information that ends up being really useful to know)

“Because of where it stung you”

– Insert my non impressed face here –

My dad was probably right, after all the little bastard did get me on the love handle, twice.

Chai

Heading out to Kenya for a coffee lover like me was too exciting, as the chances of finding good quality and properly made coffee was much higher than in any other African country I had yet visited. Kenyan coffee has a reputation around the globe for its “aroma” and “full bodied flavour” – If you know coffee and treasure these statements, let me tell you Kenyan coffee will not disappoint. Even basic store-bought ground coffee might just elevate you to a higher state of happiness.

While for the world Kenyan coffee is a prized possession, it turns out that in Kenya itself, coffee is more a way of making cash, and it’s really in tea leaves where Kenyan hearts truly lie. Tea, and not coffee means home and it’s the baseline for hospitality and good manners.

Kenya’s dual outlook on life and hospitality

“I’m a tea snob” – Faith announced to me during one of our many Tell-me-all-about-Kenya conversations over breakfast.
“What? That much?”
“Yes, you don’t give guests a tea bag, it has to be brewed. A tea bad is just bad hospitality. You wouldn’t dare give a guest tea in a teabag, that’s just wrong”

I felt my universe expand by a million light years. I had been living in ignorance all my life; I had never bothered to look beyond Kenya’s the coffee fame assuming this was it. How wrong I was. As I started researching a bit more, I understood why we had so many different types of tea in the cupboard, why the Kericho valley tea was the first one to be finished, and why Ali sent us tea as a present. Turns out Kenya’s black tea has the best quality in the world and often and all other tea-producing countries, mix their tea leaves with Kenya’s for a higher quality product.

To this I will testify that Ketepo Valley’s Earl Gray tea is the best I have ever tried in my life. Before my conversation with Faith, I just thought there was something in the water that made tea taste better in the Maasai Mara, when I realised it was the tea itself, my taste buds exploded to a new level; I have truly never tasted such a tea.

In Chai – I found- is where all of Kenya’s Maasai Mara idiosyncrasies combine. Remnants of a colonial time, chai is the local (exquisite) black tea mixed with milk. This particular tea, which is at the base of Kenyan hospitality and everyday life, should never run out in any establishment and to avoid this, massive kettles of chai are made freshly every morning and are meant to last through the day. True to the legends, pasteurised, long life milk was frowned upon by the locals and every morning a local Maasai (man or child) would bring fresh cow’s milk to the camp – much to the delight of every lactose tolerant person in camp.

Everyday Simon or his brother would bring fresh milk from their cows to the camp

As part of the local traditions and way of life, a kettle full with fresh Chai was made by boiling the milk and then adding black tea and sugar, loads and loads of sugar (and If you’re like Jen, hot chocolate to make a Mocha Chai). Once the chai was made, everyone sat down to enjoy a piece of warm bread and a cup of chai around the table before the day started.

Anthony starting to make a new pot of Chai with the fresh milk

This tradition was my favourite part of every morning and I made sure I timed my coffee making with everyone’s Chai drinking, just so that I could experience an deeply Kenyan moment everyday, after all, life is about savouring the local moments of the path you walk.