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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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Saturday, February 12, 2011


Since the turn of the century, modern technology has been steadily introduced into east Africa. Bank machines, cell phones, internet and even something as seemingly basic as electric power can all be listed among the advances still relatively new to certain regions of the continent. As an outsider visiting Africa for the first time, you may do as me and take all these conveniences for granted while visiting - but ask any kid or adult over the age of ten and more than likely they can tell you a tale of being without some or all of the things listed above.

Since the technology is relatively new, the assimilation of it into the every day life would be assumed slow. Furthermore the implications one draws from new technology built on an old, unreliable infrastructure is obviously apparent. You'd expect things not to work. They don't, not always, not well. Therefore the true surprise is how dependent they really have become on it. When power is out the people curse; parents would rather put money on their phones than eat and sit around listlessly when the network is down. But, in this travelers opinion, the most annoying, nay most frustrating thing about all the new technology is that nobody knows how to use it.

An example? Ask any of my traveling cohorts and they will be quick to back me up if I said lines at the bank were often long. At first we had many theories - the bank is out of money, the power is out, the machine is broken, the client base is too big - until we had to overshoot our destination of Bwindi two weeks ago, to drive another hour to Kabale and money.

Our trip to Bwindi on that faithful day, unfortunately, was not to see the Gorillas, but instead to visit a man named Edward who was researching them. Nice man, nice place, fun party. Anyways, there was a group of us and we needed a private car, which normally isn't an issue. However, during that particular week there had been a line in front of the Kisoro bank for hours every day, and we had been unable to withdraw money. The driver probably wasn't going to take us for free, regardless of how seductive Richard, Chris and I acted. Hatching a plan, the decision was made to overshoot our destination to Kabale, which has six banks, and in our minds no such problems.

As we rolled into Kabale, a dusty shanty town of a tourist hub, we were obviously fairly surprised to find that every bank had a line of at least ten people. However, the lines appeared to be moving (slowly), and we had no alternative options, so we waited semi-patiently. After about thirty minutes in line we finally got to the ATM. Thirty seconds later we were all left scratching our heads. Why had every other person taken five to ten minutes?! That is right, folks, they just don't know how to use the damn machines. Days of waiting and a two hour return trip to Kabale to find out that all our issues with money were because everyone wanted to use the technology and didn't know how - instead, putting in their cards and mashing buttons with wadded fists while a thin line of drool runs down their cheek until it spits out money.

Layer on top of this multiple incidents where the power has been out for the majority of the day, a week of no phone service, and an annoying man who asked me to set him up a website (with a picture) for his business and unquestionably we've had our struggles with the 'modern conveniences'.

I can hear you asking questions. I hear it. The question you keep asking me is "what the hell does this have to do with Gorillas? Get to the Gorillas." OK, I will get to them now - but you'll be grateful for this background.

I will indicate with a little denotation where we got lucky with technology.

You see, our expedition to the Gorillas started out rather serendipitous. As we were settling down for bed at the park on Thursday night, Jess and I were disturbed by a flurry of activity at the door. Darja and Wippollo were at our door, both with phones to their ears - one talking to Molly and one to Loy, who are employees at the Golden monkey hostel - and had news of Gorilla permits on the cheap! They also agreed to arrange for us Boda pickup very early from the park and a private car to take us to Bwindi, this time to see the Gorillas!
-> Lucky the phones were working

At five on the dot, the bodas roared up the hill to find us waiting eagerly. The ride down was relatively smooth, although we were caught in the catch-22 of night time boda driving. You see, the roads are terrible, and as a result, and especially at night, the drivers like to go slow and have lots of light. The problem of course is that the lights are directly connected to the throttle. This means you need to gun it to see and consequently hit the bumps, or go slow and careful in the pitch dark. I was oddly amused by this.
-> Good thing the Boda Boda drivers decided to be reliable

We arrived in Kisoro at ten to six and had the drivers drop as off at Stanbic bank. We were pleased to see that the lights were on, and the line non-existant. It is funny to observe us when we approach a bank in day light hours, because every local person gets in a mad rush to beat the Muzungu to the machine. They are right to do so. At just before six on a Friday morning, Jess and I managed to take just under two million shillings out of the bank. Although to us this is only several hundred dollars, it goes a lot further in Africa. I can only imagine the frustration Friday morning when people started lining up to try and use their bank cards only to find it pretty sparse on cash.
-> Power was on, bank had money, there was no line!

We arrived at the hostel just as the car was pulling in, and in no time at all were off and on our way to Bwindi and Gorillas! The ride itself took about two hours, and included a brief stop for us to actually pick up our permits. As I may not have explained, we had our names down on a list for cancellation permits. Basically a cancellation permit is a permit that is sold kind of second hand (and illegally) by a tour company when someone who has booked the Gorilla trekking through them calls off their visit. The benefits are that I only had to pay $300 for a regular $500 permit, and that money goes right into the pocket of the company. Win, win!

So at about 6:30, with the sun rising, we stopped at a crossroads in what can only be described as the middle of nowhere. After about a three minute wait, a boda pulled up beside our car and a man jumped off holding two permits. After a little negotiation and a million plus shilling transaction, Jess and I were left holding two permits made out for Americans: mine saying Alan and the other Ilona with a last name indecipherable.

Fast forward about thirty minutes to find us in line behind two french girls at the debriefing banda for Gorilla trekking, waiting to register. In one hand we had our permits with our American identities and in the other we had our passports with the names our parents chose; all we could do was stare at each other and then at our documents. When we finally reached the table, he looked at the documents briefly, comparing, then quickly glanced at us and kept on writing without saying a word. You did it Alan, you got to see your Gorillas after all!

Things really had worked out perfectly. All these tiny variables that could have gone wrong and had us up the night before in a pessimistic fret worked to a tee. We were at the park, with valid permits in hand, lined up to be the only two actually going out to see our selected group. Everything was perfect!

Que reality. To the rhythmic sound of shuffling feet, in entered the all German 70+ Bridge Club / mall walker society (I called them both interchangeably) in a whirl of beige and khaki. Button up shirts, trousers hiked to the chest and pant legs tucked neatly into the socks, arriving to set the pace for the whole trek. I must say that I am at least a little proud of them in the way they managed to turn a potentially compact five-hour trek into a nine hour mission.

Let me begin by saying that the park gets its name Bwindi Impenetrable Forest for a reason: this was not an easy hike. At it's easiest parts, you were walking through dense foliage on the edge of a pretty large drop. The angle of the path was severe and tested the strength of your ankles as it went over slippery rocks and slick grass. At first the continuous falling of the ladies was sadly humorous, but as the minutes turned to hours, it became much more frustrating.

The whole group of women was so beat up and tired, that after we made it to the apes, half of them just kind of wilted onto the vegetation and handed their camera limply to the trackers, not even bothering to take the time to view for themselves. I was fairly annoyed with them come that point, because I couldn't for the life of me figure out why they had come. Please know your limits, readers of this blog, the Gorilla trek in Bwindi is exactly that, a trek. It is not a catered safari in the back of a land cruiser - it is one hell of a walk. It is a lot of up and down hills, through very thick vegetation at an elevation of 2000 m above sea level (hence mountain Gorillas). I don't want to sound like a bigot, or an impatient ruffian but I couldn't help but feel like it was just very inconsiderate to us and the guides/porters who literally at times had to push and pull them up the hills. End Rant.

The gorillas themselves were amazing. It was simply astonishing how after the longest three hour hike of my life, how short the hour with the animals felt. We heard the animals before we could see them, and were greeted on arrival with the sounds of breaking branches and the trampling of foliage. After another minute of walking through grass, we came out into a semi-clearing where a baby gorilla was sitting alone, very cutely, eating the shoots of a plant. That was the start of the magic.

From that point on it was non-stop Gorilla action for the next hour. We saw everything! There were gorillas climbing trees, females punching the trackers and Jess even managed to get on camera a fight between the dominate silver back and a lesser one. While those two were fighting, the third silver back, who was only about 2 feet away from me was getting very agitated and making all sorts of aggressive calls and growls. "Stand still, keeping taking pictures, don't run, you're fine" was what the tracker kept repeating to us, as Jess and I (the old women had passed out somewhere further away) were encased by a triangle of three silver backs in the midst of a fight. While the males were fighting, the females and the baby were up in a tree eating fruit and then throwing them at us. So, so, so cool!

The walk back was very similar to the walk there, except without the excitement of Gorillas for motivation. Rest stops would usually include Jess and I tapping our feet for twenty minutes with the lead tracker as we waited for the rest to catch up. By this time in the day, I was pretty much dying. Since the planning had been done at 10:00 pm the night before, we had not been able to get any food, water or sleep. Therefore during the hike back I had yet to eat, had long run out of the little water I brought and was exhausted from the trekking - all the while having to wait for the ladies to catch up.

Eventually we managed to convince one tracker to take us back without the group, and I think it saved us about two hours. The hardest part of the trek is a big hill at the very end, and I'm glad I didn't have to be there for them climbing it. After finally dragging our half-dead selves to the top of the hill, and fighting off the many types of merchandise thrown at us (every t-shirt is the same gross green) we were finally back in the car and on our way to Kisoro.

After dinner and some much deserved beer we caught the pickup truck back to Mgahinga, where we promptly fell asleep and finished off one of the longest, if not coolest days ever. We walked back into Kisoro today, and after finding some liquids, basically threw ourselves into the first internet place we found. The power keeps flickering, and it's really warm, but I'm enjoying the rest.

Other than that, the only real news is that Jess and I have been teaching science at the local primary school. I've been teaching grade 6 and the classification of animals, while Jess does 5th grade and is teaching about poultry and keeping birds. I'm basically Bill Nye, you should call me that.

Thanks for reading,



  1. It is such an amazing opportunity to go gorilla trekking and to be able to see them in their natural habitat. It is definitely a once in a life time sort of deal, and one that you will never forget. Very nice pictures!

  2. Wow Bill...aka Alan... aka Sean of the jungle, could you be having any more fun??? I mean, I thought when you left our little circle of friends at the mill that you'd be in semi-mourning for at least a few months... but no! I have to read about all your fun and excitement while sitting, sitting, sitting at my desk... typing, typing, typing. How depressing! Seriously though, I'm glad you're having a great adventure... send us an email soon! (or maybe you don't have access to email???) Well, I'll keep watching your posts to see if you're going to mention how much you miss your JFM friends... waiting... waiting... LOL Lori S