As I was grabbing a quick bite to eat before heading out in search of activity at the hyena den, I got stranded in the kitchen by a storm. I had seen it coming however I wasn’t expecting it so soon. When it rains, it mainly just pours in the rainy season.
With no need to rush, I settled on a chair and poured some tea while simply observing everyone come in and out of the kitchen. Kettle was boiling, coffee, tea and hot cocoa were being made by every individual who felt the chill of the rain in their bones.
Shadrack got caught in the rain too and proceeded to make himself a hot chocolate big enough to keep an entire village warm. We’d been exchanging greetings and pleasantries for the last few weeks but we had never had a proper conversation before. I enjoyed his good-humoured nature, and the fact that he was perhaps one of the most switched-on bush mechanics I have ever met.
As he poured his drink, he turned around and looked at me.
“Where is Tristan?”
“He’s at the bottom, do you need him?”
Silence. A scourge of courage afterwards that started with glinting eyes, he looked straight at me and asked with a smile:
“Do you believe in God?”
I nearly choked on my tea. Not because of the question itself, but because this was not the topic of conversation I was expecting.
I paused to think of my answer. Divinity (for a lack of a better word) has been a complicated topic in my life for a very long time, to the point that I have shaped my own beliefs and have trouble sharing them with others, I like to keep them personal and private.
After assessing where this could go, I answered as honestly as I could:
“Mmm, yeah I do,”
He looked at me while sipping his hot chocolate. I could tell he did not fully believed my answer but it was hard to explain that I had always had troubles with this question. So, I pressed him on:
“My friend said that you mzungus (white people) don’t believe in God, you only believe in science”.
“Oh. Who said that to you?”
“I used to have a friend, he said to me you only believe in Science”.
“Hmm. Ok, maybe that’s what he thought. What do you believe in?”
“I believe in God – he replied with pride – Science can’t make the rain stop now. If it could the rain would have stopped. If Science could, we could make the rain stop with a whatsapp message.”
“Well, that is true, Science can’t make the rain stop”
“Science…” he pressed on timidly “it can’t create a person, it can’t create a heartbeat”.
“If you want to get technical, to my knowledge I don’t suppose we can create a human outside of womb like you say just yet”.
“To me, only God can create a person; Science can’t make a person”.
More people started coming in and out and as the noise grew louder, and so he finished the conversation. With no ill intention, he left me wondering and puzzling over many things in my head while I finished sipping my tea.
I felt he had wanted to have this conversation with a mzungu for a while, why he chose to ask me, I’m not sure. What worried me was the tone in his voice. It made me wonder as to the reason behind the tone and topic of his questions: was this coming from him because a mzungu had belittled his beliefs saying God didn’t exist and that only science could be trusted; or had this come from a conversation with a “friend” and he wanted to confirm if what his friend was saying about mzungus was true?
I know little about religious practices of the Masaai culture. It is my understanding however that they believe in one God whom they call Ngai or Engai. They were of a monotheistic belief even before the arrival of the British and missionaries, and this is probably why many refused to convert to Christianity.
What I found thought provoking about this unexpected conversation was that “mzungus” all around the world, roughly 600 years ago had demeaned other cultures by telling them the God(s) they believed it in were wrong and made cultures around the world believe in new “correct” ones; now, 600 years later some are being told once more the God that now they believe in or have come to believe in isn’t real, but that only Science exists.
In 600 years or more, in one way or another, we haven’t learned our way of living and letting live. Some still try to impose what they believe in onto, hurting sensitivities and allowing grudges to take place.
If we call it God, a higher reason, or science, is it acceptable to tell others that don’t have the same beliefs as us that they are wrong?
My tea grew cold before I could make some sense of all the thoughts in my head left by such a casual conservation.
I wrote this post over a year ago. It was a conversation that struck a cord in me and because of the subject at hand, I wasn’t sure I wanted to share this with the world. In times of introspection I feel everyone needs to talk about more about tolerance. I tried to portray this conversation as it happened with no colouring of reality. Once the conversation was finished, we never approached the subject again although Shadrack and I had many more conservations about a plethora of things.
In sharing this personal episode, I have no intention or interest in sharing or imposing my personal views about this matter onto others, the aim of this story was to share the questions that this conversation provoked in me about the way humanity works – nothing else.
Like in all great adventures, time starts off slowly and before you know it, the end is at your door (or tent?) step. For us, our time in the Congo basin had to come to an end.
Our days exploring Lango bai in wet, dry and muddy conditions were followed by a night at another clearing where the beautiful Mboko lodge sits. Surrounded by beautiful and enormous termite mounds, there is a dramatic beauty to be found in this camp in the rainy season. It was here where we were caught in a furious storm while doing one of our hikes and fully understood the meaning or the term RAINforest, and confirmed that truly there are no Bongos in the Congo.
On our last afternoon, we embarked on a boat cruise down the Lekoli River once more. Water systems are fascinating and the amount of life that can be found around them will always leave returning for more. On our last boat cruise we were particularly silly, having summed up the pros and cons of the trip, we had now all decided and re-affirmed we felt happy and honoured to have had the opportunity to explore such a pristine piece of wilderness.
Being the more sensible one at the silly hour, Adam asked us all for a minute of silence down the river, somewhat reluctantly we agreed. When you focus on being silent, nature unravels itself better, allowing you into her secrets.
It was in this 60 seconds of silence that we came across a sight we had all been hoping to encounter: a forest elephant. We had patiently waited for them at the Lango River deck, looked for them on our hikes and walked on their footsteps to no avail. As if by magic, as we came across a corner, there he was. Unaware of our presence until our gasps and camera clicks gave us away. He was deep in the water looking for minerals. When we got a little to close he let us know that was enough and we eventually retreated to give him his privacy. Adam’s request for silence couldn’t have been timed any better.
Giggling away in a fashion you can only do when your heart is full, we gave thanks to the Universe for this gift. This was a much-awaited sight for us; one we had been looking for since the very beginning of our adventure. We had only heard stories of the mythical forest elephants, a creature that for us had proven to be so elusive and mysterious.
Laying eyes on the forest elephant touched Tristan and I, and we couldn’t help but draw comparison from the Savanna elephant we had come to know so well and had spent hours with.
“What struck me the most were their eyes”
“Yes! Did you notice they are of a honey colour?”
“So silent, I never expected to see one in the river like that”
“We got lucky”
“We did at last”
Intoxicated by our encounter, Jeremy proposed we take a chance and departed early on a last boat cruise the following morning. When rationally thinking about the alternative of sleeping in seemed silly not to go on a last expedition even if it meant travelling back wet. Adventure was calling and we had to answer.
So, early in the morning the river was mesmerising. Maybe because the caffeine hadn’t kicked in, we gently drifted down the river in silence – something that had become unusual for our group. In this last morning, we saw a side of the forest we hadn’t seen before, a much more awake, active and spirited side of it.
We found a small breeding herd of elephants feeding close to water; they nervously retreated back into the safety of the forest without a sound, in contrast to the noisy birdlife and the moustached monkeys.
We then found two more elephant bulls in the water, enjoying the coolness and calmness of the water. In between these two sightings perhaps we had the most unexpected encounter of them all: a hippo. We had seen no signs of them around and it was surreal to see such a creature in the rainforest. It quickly went under water and navigated past the first elephant we encountered. According to our guide, this was only his second sighting ever of a hippo in the 5 years he had been there.
Our final sighting was perhaps the best. The second elephant bull we encountered was not bothered by our presence. If anything he seemed curious about us and – dare I say – almost playful towards us. While searching for mineral at the bottom of the river, he would casually find the time to flick some water in our direction.
Being late for breakfast and for our flights back, we reluctantly bid our goodbye to the elephants and the forest where it dwelled.
Writing the series about Odzala has been a bit of a mammoth task (Hallelujah it’s done!). It’s perhaps the longest series of posts I have ever written and I would like to thank everyone who has followed this adventure. It has been challenging to put into words this experience but after reliving these moments again I feel more certain that Odzala – Kokoua National Park needs to be protected, celebrated and visited. Few places in the world, like Odzala and the Congo Basin, need tourism so crucially to carry on existing and preserving all life within it; we will not get tired of promoting this treasure we have found within Central Africa’s rainforest, as it is our duty as naturalists to protect such ancient treasures.
I was supposed to write something memorable for the start of the New Year. I was supposed to have words and feelings flowing so that I could put in writing the wishes for a new year. The exact words never came as the end of the year was a tumultuous time. Many experiences, many feelings came rushing back in a time of the year where feel nostalgic and vulnerable and just as a good year ends we feel the memorable times can be eclipsed by regrets, missed opportunities or things we wished we had done differently.
After the rush of the holidays, real life settles in, you materialise new projects and look over your shoulder to the year that was. My overdramatic self settles down a you are able to weigh the experiences past and set an intention for what’s to come. I finished the year in my yellow underwear and my yellow backpack for good luck, for travel and good fortune; and while I leaped into the year by the hand of someone that doesn’t believe in superstitions (but jumped with me nonetheless just in case), I realized more than ever that we are the forgers of our path, a path that cake take many twists and turns in only 365 days.
I welcomed the New Year with my big girl panties on being thankful for what I’ve got. I have lead a life I had never expected and while I wouldn’t change it, I sometimes feel I have let down a younger version of myself for not achieving in time certain milestones I thought were meant to come naturally. While 2018 started with a threat, I decided that I would take care of myself and not let the circumstances decide for me as I had previously allowed.
When I look back at that threat now, I realise that I was my biggest problem. I had to threaten the Universe and blame my luck to defy and change my stars. A rebel loves nothing better than a cause. I decided to let go. I took the plunge. I worked hard, extremely hard. I put what mattered first. I put who mattered first. Way too many times I was out of my comfort zone. Way too many times I walked away. Way too many times I found hope.
2018 might have started with a threat, but it ended with no regrets and a big smile on my face. Sometimes we need to take ourselves out of the equation and get some perspective of what we’ve done, who we’ve met and where we’ve gone. Connecting the dots looking back fills you with a sense of purpose and on some mornings where everything is quiet, also pride. 2018 was one of the most fulfilling years I have ever had.
This year in turn didn’t start with a threat but with a promise: to never stop looking for the magic around us.
The first Christmas tree ever is said to have been put up in Riga in 1510 by a group of professional merchants. These merchants were known to celebrate twice-yearly holidays, amongst which decorating and then burning down the Christmas tree. Testament to the oldest writing in the subject, in Riga (the capital of Latvia) the city center still marks the place were the first Christmas tree was put up and decorated for this festive season.
Christmas and traditions go hand in hand with Latvians and this is perhaps why at Christmas I feel more Latvian than some other times of the year. Growing up in a mixed household traditions flew all around. We were Latvian, Italian and Venezuelan.
My grandparents escaped the USSR after the Second World War and returned to Latvia only in the beginning of the 1990s. Since Latvia’s liberation and proclamation as a sovereign nation, I’ve had many family members that have returned to a land they were once forced to flee.
In moving to Venezuela, a country across the world from everything they knew, my grandparents adjusted in a way that has forever marked my own life: to be grateful and to embrace the cultures of the country you live in, even it’s a different one, no matter how much you miss your own. During Christmas this is when I realised this the most.
Christmas is perhaps the time of the year were perhaps the Latvian side was the more prominent one. Lead by my grandmother and then by my mother and my aunt (only because they became too bossy) and eventually by me (I am my mother’s daughter after all), the beginning of the month of December always signalled a time that smelled like pine trees, tasted like pirags and was embraced by family.
As soon as the school holidays started an endless affair of baking began at Omi’s house. She had the biggest kitchen that would fit all grandchildren and children. When we were little we were allowed to participate only in doing the fun bits, playing with the dough, pouring the flour, using the pastry brush for the egg wash before being pushed to “go outside and play” – no doubt more to the adults benefit than our own.
Growing up I remember Pumperniks were always the first set of cookies we tackled. To this day, these are the best raw cookie dough there has ever been made on the face of the planet – so much that my mom had to bat us off the dough to be able to prepare it. I remember how successful and modern we felt when we convinced Omi to change the raisins for chocolate chip in our pumperniks. We could never completely eliminate the raisin option, but chocolate chips are to this day a win.
After the pumperniks we always made the Mandeļu radziņi– forever my least favourite ones. An almond base cookie dusted in icing sugar. My mom’s forever favourite that we are never allowed to take off the menu.
If two cookie recipes weren’t enough, we also made an endless supply of the ones that became my favourites: the piparkukas. The “pepper” cookies were always a favourite of mine after discussing with my aunt one day how such a strange recipe we so many different ingredients came to be:
“We always used to joke that perhaps during the war someone stumbled in the pantry and knocked everything down; because you wouldn’t through anything away someone started mixing things until something edible came out”
The piparkukas always took the longest to cook as Latvian quantities are always meant for a feast of giants. We would decorate the first hundred (like gingerbread cookies) but give up with the ensuing 300. When the food crisis hit Venezuela, this was one of the recipes that became optional, as we couldn’t always find all the ingredients.
Pirags were without the doubt the highlight of the Christmas preparations. On the pirag baking day everyone would come around during lunchtime in fear of everyone else finishing them all before having a chance to eat at least 10. Pirags are little breads that are filled with a mixture of smoked ham and bacon and they are everyone’s favourites. Tico and Vilis caribbea-nized them by instituting the tradition of having them with “guasacaca” (the Venezuela guacamole). There were no complaints on the Latvian side as avocado is one of the best things Venezuela offered.
After pirags came the longest and most daunting task of them all: making hallacas. Hallacas are the Venezuelan traditional Christmas dish. True to the Venezuelan culture, the hallaca is a mix of many different things. The hallaca includes elements of the European culture (such as raisins and olives) indigenous ingredients (such as the corn meal colored with annatto seeds), and African ingredients (the smoked plantain leaves used for wrapping and cooking). The broth of the hallaca was the first step of the process, one that I always stayed clear of as a bad broth could ruin the quality of the hallaca. The making of the hallaca on the other hand was a process that saw us lose a number of shirts and pants; the annatto used to color the white cornflour is powerful enough to ruin any cleaning will. As I got older the hallacas became a tradition of us women of the family. It was a nightmare to cook as it was long, but no self-respecting Venezuelan household would serve anything else to guests during a december dinner party or have anything else for Christmas dinner. I first learned how to squash the dough on the plantain leaf, add the broth, “forget” the raising when no one was watching, and add an extra piece of ham. I felt I had been accepted into the next level of womanhood when I was allowed to started wrapping my own hallacas in the plantains leaves and then tying them with the string before boiling them.
It was always a long affair that lasted a good full day, we always made arepas while enjoying some good eggnog “Ponche Crema” which became my favourite Christmas drink (because in Venezuela we make proper rum).
Christmas in Venezuela always felt like a rush of baking, cooking and celebrating the so called “Christmas spirit” during the month of December. There was a chill in the air (Pacheco) that lingered on the houses every night, that made Caracas an even more pleasant city to be in, even as the city itself emptied out leaving only a few of us behind.
To this day I only truly feel like Christmas when the smells of that Astral kitchen come to me. I may live far away, my family scattered across the globe, but they taught me that the traditions you are brought up with will always live in your heart and it’s up to us to keep them alive. Because of this every year I try to bake a little bit more of what feels like home.