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Hello. I'm Sean and I live in Japan. I'm glad you've come because I need you to do something for me.
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Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Mountains on the Horizon
The majority of our Saturday morning was spent in Kisoro - finally succumbing to the full extent of our jet lag, Jess and I found ourselves passed out well into the afternoon. Breakfast was had shortly after our eyes cleared and was a simple meal of a fried egg and toast. Interestingly enough, bread in Uganda is sweet, and made with sugar instead of salt. You may not think this would be weird, but it can really throw you off when you're not expecting it. Although personally I don't find it that bad, a few of the other tourists at the hostel were quick to point it out as the worst thing of note; recommending a local bakery that makes specialty salt bread.
Post breakfast activities were primarily confined to getting ready for our stay up in the national park. Since the park has no running water, we had to send someone to pick us up two boxes of water bottles. Twelve, 1.5 L bottles of water in a box for 3000 Ugandan shillings. For those who don't know the conversion, it is about a dollar-fifty. As we were practically heading out the door we ran into our research cohort, a Slovenian named Darja (Dar-ee-ah), who was just heading the other way into town. She warned us that it would be cold and that we'd have a lot of time to ourselves - she was right on both accounts. She promised us that she would be up Monday afternoon and no showed. I saw her a few hours ago at the hostel though - unfortunately she has come down with something and looked to be in rough shape.
The ride up to the park featured a cramming of us into the front of a beaten up pickup truck while it carefully traversed the wrongly accused 'road' up to the park. The road itself is uneven and worn, with huge patches of dirt eroded due to flooding in the wet seasons. The true miracle of the day was that the truck didn't disintegrate before we reached the top. The park and its buildings are very closely linked with the surrounding community, and as a result the trip brought us through the centers of a handful of local villages. Many of the locals are sustenance farmers. As a result it is sometimes funny, and maybe a little mean, to take the time to observe the local apparel - which seems to feature what ever they can get their hands on. Kids in suits, men in sweet 80's styles windbreakers and I even stumbled across someone selling an L.A. Kings backpack in the marketplace - I kid you not.
We reached the place after a forty minute drive (for 14 km!), just as the sun was starting to set. As a result, the unpacking in our powerless banda was done in the company of candle light. The bandas are concrete huts and as a result tend to trap in the cold air - much to our displeasure. You see, since Uganda is just north of the Equator, it happens to be winter right now (Darja wouldn't lie to us). This means that at an elevation of over 2000 m things get a little cold. We were just starting to feel this as the sun was going down. To be positive though, the air in the grounds smells like sweet flowers always, and the many birds begin chirping happily at first light. It gets dark at night though, pitch black. The mountains seem to attract an entourage of fairly constant clouds to the area, such that with the moon and stars covered there is absolutely no light.
Sunday was spent exploring and getting a feel for the area. We had lunch with the local rangers for the Uganda Wildlife Authority (a weird affair consisting of odd corn bread, potatoes, beans and something they affectionately referred to as 'paste') who were all very friendly, and took the time to explain the names of the mountains. As you may have guess, the Virunga Volcano national parks of Rwanda, Congo and Uganda actually contain volcanoes. Three in fact, that loom ever omnipresent over the back drop of the for lying forest. Mt. Muhabura, an oft mist covered monolith, is the biggest and translates locally as 'the guide'. This volcano stands as a beacon in the sky, allowing its use as a compass for many miles. The second tallest, Mt. Sabyinyo is named accurately for its shape. This multi peaked mountain literally means 'old mans teeth' as it has three jutting peaks, and several deep gorges. Wedged between the two, is the comparatively smaller Mt. Gahinga. Gahinga is a word used to describe the piles of volcanic stones that are created when the local farmers take them out of their fields.
Monday was the first chance that we had to enter the forest to view the monkeys, and they nor the forest disappointed. There are two zones to the forest, the first being the woods proper, and the other being an outlying area of scrub brush that is recovering farmland - as the community was evicted from the park back in 91. I can say that it was a truly unique experience that not ten minutes into the outlying zone we came across the foot prints of elephants, gigantic in size, that were only from the night before. Also evident was the many prints and droppings of the water buffalo - the presence to which the armed guard in our entourage would attest. Truly walking in the foot steps of giants.
The forest itself is stunning, one of the great African jungles. The jungle is a mix of traditional tree cover, but also includes sections of very dense bamboo where quarters are tight and imposing. When we first entered the bamboo a mist was creeping its way silently across the upper canopy to create that truly time lost feel. The monkeys themselves were quick to arrive on the scene and we spent hours on Monday morning watching them. Our target group is composed of about sixty members, featuring a dominant male, a few subordinate males and the rest females and juveniles. The animals are beautiful, and were fun to watch.
The extent of the research unfortunately is rather basic. Although I realize that part of the aim is to just habituate the monkeys, the best I can describe what we are doing is research by consensus. We spend hours watching the animals and then have a meeting back at camp to consolidate the day after. However, there is very little novelty and ingenuity - we're not testing hypothesis, merely writing behavior on a sheet day after day over the same time period. The general hope right now is that perhaps when the head research gets back in the next week and a bit we will have a little more freedom. The expeditions are led by a local field guide who although knowledgeable about this forest, seems timid and unwilling to waver from the guidelines that were undoubtedly set for him. I had the chance to talk to him and I found out he is a local man who went to school for arts in Kisoro, and I assume very happy to have such a position - and I don't want to jeopardize that.
I had been having trouble sleeping up until last night. Perhaps, considering I still woke up at 5:30 local time this morning, I'm not out of the woods yet. It has been a collaboration of a bunch of factors, the primary one being that it can be hard to go to bed at nine knowing that it is really only one in the afternoon at home. More so though, I think I have just been having problems shutting my brain off when it comes time for bed. I'm not sure how to feel, as much to my surprise I have found myself quite homesick over these past few days - or possibly sick for anywhere but here.
This is truly the strangest place/thing I've ever done. If the volunteering doesn't change it is possible that we might get our fill after 2 months and spend March a little more mobile - South Africa?
We'll talk. I'm getting kicked out of this internet cafe as it is closing!
Thanks for reading,