Sunday, July 31, 2011

Tracking Mountain Gorillas in Uganada

This morning (22 July) we rise before dawn ready for our Gorilla tracking in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Southwestern Uganda. The Gorilla population here is approximately 320 with the total Gorilla population being estimated at 706, making them the worlds most endangered ape. After a 2 hour drive and a briefing on the rules of being with the Gorillas we find ourselves on the outskirts of the forest. A group of trackers walk ahead of us in search of a Gorilla family based on where they were the day before. The Gorillas can be anywhere from 20 minutes to 8 hours away and yesterdays group walked for 2 hours before spotting one. 8 of us (this is the daily human interaction limit) along with a guide and some armed men enter the forest. I slip almost immediately down a steep hill. There are no paths and our guides use machetes to cut thorny trees out of the way. Despite being covered from head to toe, the plant life seems to reach out and grab at any exposed hair or clothing.

We hit jackpot within half an hour and the trackers radio through that they have found the Gorilla family that we are looking for. We drop our daypacks as no food or drinks are allowed near the Gorillas and follow our guide for 10 minutes or so to the family. From our first sighting the countdown from 1hour begins as this is the stipulated time allowance to avoid behavioral disturbances to the Gorillas. We have been instructed not to move closer than 7 meters to avoid the spread of human borne diseases to the Gorillas who share 98% of our DNA. The first Gorilla we spot leaves me in awe of their sheer size and human like movements. For the next hour or so we push through thorny trees, use vines to pull ourselves up trees and slide down vertical slopes in order to get closer to these gentle beasts. At one point I am standing extremely close to a large Gorilla when he stands up suddenly with a roar and pounds his chest King Kong style. Assuming he is going to charge and against all instincts I crouch down and cover my face as I have previously been instructed. The Gorilla runs off deeper into the forest and leaves me alone with a pounding heart ad sweaty palms. Meanwhile Brent is being entertained by a young Gorilla who almost seems to be posing for the camera, allowing him to get some great snaps. Before long we are told our hour is up and we begin our trek out of the forest. By following the Gorillas for our allocated hour we find we have moved deep into the forest and so our walk out takes almost two hours. Elated and exhausted we sleep all the way back to our campsite, ecstatic with our sightings.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Our little Angel at Lake Bunyonyi

Whilst half our group treks to see the Gorillas the other half stay back at our campsite free to take advantage of the pristine lake and perfectly manicured gardens. Brent and I opt to visit the local orphanage with a Ugandan man named Duncan. Duncan was sponsored by an English couple when he was a child and as a result was able to attend school and get an education. As an adult wishing to somehow repay his sponsor family Duncan used his education to set up an organisation called 'Little Angels'. It is a place for needy children and orphans to get an education, find a guardian to house and feed them or if they are lucky receive a sponsor parent.

The school we visit is little more than 3 small wooden rooms with a few rows of wooden benches and a blackboard. There appears to be no other resources including books and play equipment. After spending a short while with the children in the classrooms we move outside to help feed the children their porridge lunch. Unfortunately there is not enough t go round so several children go hungry that day. After lunch the children gather round to sing to us. One of the songs they sing is called 'Make a melody in my heart' and it is so catchy we find ourselves singing it for days afterward. The children sing like angels and move with rhythm and soul. Their voices bring me to tears.

After some playtime Duncan asks us if we would like to donate some money or sponsor a child. Brent and I hadn't discussed this so I am pleasantly surprised when he responds "yes, we would like to sponsor a girl". I am absolutely beaming at the thought of being able to make the kind of difference Duncan's sponsor family made but then he asks us to choose a child. Brent and I agree that this is too difficult and ask Duncan to choose a child who really needs sponsoring immediately. We can hardly contain our excitement when he brings in 6 year old Samansa. She is shy with gorgeous dark eyes and braided hair. I realise later that during the singing I had mainly photographed Samansa because of her beautiful voice and passion in her eyes. Little did I know then that I would be sponsoring her.

It was wonderful to be able to spend some time with Samansa and take photographs with her. Although she is not an orphan her family suffer from extreme poverty and by sponsoring her we are ensuring she receives an education, food, clothing and HIV testing. Brent is already planning her Birthday gift of Hawthorn paraphernalia, although I think books or a doll would be more fitting. As her sponsor parents we can have as many updates on her as we like through Duncan via email and receive photographs every 3 months. AS we part, I wave goodbye to Samansa sincerely hoping that we ca one day return to Uganda to meet with her again.

Let the Safari begin

We begin our tour from Nairobi and drive West to Lake Victoria where we learn to pitch our tents and spend the night before heading to Uganda. The first three days of our safari is little more than long drives on rough and bumpy terrain, but it gives the passengers a chance to get to know each other and become familiar with our tents and truck. Our guide 'Mwungi' devises a roster for everyone to help pitch in with the cooking, cleaning and truck maintainence. This is an all hands on deck safari with little time for luxury.

In all we are a group of 15. (we will be picking up 10 or so more midway through the tour). We come from Australia (there is another Aussie, a retired Gardner from NSW), a Swiss couple, an Austrian couple, a handful of English and Americans, which makes for a good mix of the cultures.

From Saris to Safaris

We left India on July 15th, headed for Nairobi, Kenya in East Africa. It wasn't to be that we would leave India without a final drama as the day before we left 3 bombs went off in a terrorist attack in Mumbai's Opera house killing 18 people. As luck would have it, Brent and I had originally planned to be leaving from Mumbai but a week prior changed our flight to leave from Delhi. Despite the tragedy not affecting us directly, it sent fear and anger soaring through the Nation which will no doubt bring about turmoil and instability, something I do not wish to be apart of.

As we touch down in Nairobi, I finally allow myself to feel the excitement of visiting Africa for the first time. Admittedly, I am weary about the Kenya's capital which has earned itself the nickname 'Nairobbery' but as we pull out of the airport safe in our taxi, I feel a weight lift off my shoulders I didn't know I was carrying. The only way I can describe it is as a kind of reverse culture shock or an undoing of culture shock that had become so embedded into my daily life I wasn't eve aware it was still there. When you first arrive in India, the culture shock and sensory overload is so sudden that it's hard to pinpoint exactly what it is that makes the country so overwhelming. By the time 6 months have flown by, one is immune to all the idiosyncrasies, annoyances and complexities that makes India, India, that its not clear that you have been in shock the whole time until you have left. (In retrospect, despite all the differences, Sri Lanka and Nepal are quite similar to India which could explain why this reverse culture shock has only occurred now)

The first noticeable differences are apparent as soon as we sit in the taxi. Our driver speaks fluent English and we are able to hold a conversation for the entire trip which goes beyond the typical Indian " What your country?" and "You like my India?" American R and B replaces the high trill of Punjabi music and the backseats have seat belts which we are required to wear. We drive in lanes, indicate t turn and only use the horn if necessary.When we arrive at our budget accommodation I am shocked at how lovely it is. The walls in reception are clean and freshly painted, the bathrooms have toilet paper and lack the obligatory diarrhea-stained toilet bowls. The sheets and pillows in our permanently pitched tent are clean and stain free. When we order our food it comes out as expected, without the usual 'curried twist that Indians so generously apply to everything even fruit salad!

I realise perhaps truly for the first time just how challenging our travels in India have been. I am not being naive and realise that Africa will pose some of its own challenges but for now we relax at our campsite in Nairobi before embarking on our 24 day Game Drive and Gorilla Tracking.   

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The story of an ex political prisoner

On my way back from breakfast yesterday, a Monk handed me a flier with an invitation to come and listen to a Tibetan ex-political prisoner talk about his experiences. Having both just read Nelson Mandela's autobiography which describes his 40 odd years as a political prisoner in South Africa, Brent and I jumped at the chance to listen to this man.

For those of you who don't know, Tibet was invaded by China in 1949 in an effort to wipe out Tibetan identity, tradition and culture and take control of this 'snow land' country. China still occupies Tibet today and Tibetans are still subject to repression, intimidation and torture. It is a modern genocide and more than 1.2 million Tibetans have been killed in the process.

We arrive in the tiny hall that evening and sit among several dozen other Westerners eager to hear this Tibetan mans experience. Unfortunately, his name was too difficult for me to recall (or record) so for the purpose of this blog I will call him 'Jim'. Here is Jim's story:

In 1994, 19 year old Jim and four of his friends started a harmless protest against the Chinese government in his homeland of Tibet. The protest was started because the five friends who were all Buddhist monks were forced out of their monastery due to a Chinese introduced law that said each monastery could only house 40 monks and this meant that Jim and his friends were forcibly kicked out of theirs. Within five minutes of their protest the men were stopped by Chinese police and taken in to interrogation, a process of torture that lasted four months without a sentence or explanation. During this time Jim was continuously asked who forced him to start a protest with the assumption that he was too young to start one on his own. He was also questioned as to who drew the Tibetan flags he was carrying during the protest and when he answered that he himself drew them and he himself started the protests he was subjected to torture. One such method of torture included having Jim place his hands, palms upwards, underneath a stool on which Chinese officials would take turns sitting on.

Finally after four months, Jim was sentenced to 6 years imprisonment for "disturbing national stability "(how ironic!). Torture and beatings in the prison intensified and food was scarce, 2 momos for breakfast and a small portion of rice with vegetable broth for dinner. At this time, Chinese doctors would regularly visit Jim and take blood from him. When Jim asked one day what the blood was for he was told it was payment for his food. Later these doctors would take vital spinal fluid instead.

Other forms of torture included having his skin pinched and twisted with pliers, standing or kneeling on ice for hours at a time, beatings to the head with mental tools and zappings with cow prodders. Perhaps for Jim the most torturous form of punishment was working in the Chinese "green houses" which required him to use pesticides to kill bugs and insects - something completely against the Buddhist philosophy and way of life. Towards the end of his imprisonment Jim was advised that he would be given the privilege of daily exercise. This turned out to be another form of brutality as he was forced to run from dawn to dusk in the stinking heat with no protection from the elements.

Jim's features soften and sadness washes over his face as he tells the audience that 12 of his fellow political prisoners died from the beatings or lack of medication needed as a result of the torture. He recalls seeing his closest friend being carried by the Chinese officials, his body limp and face covered in blood and being thrown into his cell like a piece of luggage. Jim's friend was dead and he admits that still to this day he has vivid nightmares and flashbacks of his dear friend's face.

Finally in 2000, Jim was released from prison but despite supposedly being granted the same rights as other civilians, Jim and his friends and family were continually haunted by the Chinese officials. Jim was unable to hold a job because the police would threaten his employers with business closure. He was unable to sustain normal relationships with friends and family because they too were threatened by the Chinese government. Realising his inability to live in his own country, Jim finally made the heartbreaking decision in 2005 to take exile in India. A 25 day hike through rough mountainous terrain saw Jim reach Nepal before eventually reaching India, alone and with almost nothing to claim as his own.

Jim finishes his story by pointing out that his is in no way special or the exception to the norm in Tibet and that it is just one of many thousands. His story is a chilling reminder that China still occupies Tibet and continues the same brutal atrocities today. Remarkably, during question and answer time, Jim admits that although he feels "strangely" towards Chinese officials if he sees them today, he has no hard feelings towards the Chinese people in general. When asked if he thought Tibet needed to change its strategy of non-violence towards Chine, he (predictably) answered that he held strong his belief in the Buddhist method of non-violence and following the middle-way.

At the end of the evening Jim simply asked that we share his story with our countries and our people. So many people don't know or have forgotten that Tibet is still under the harsh and unforgiving grip of the Chinese Government and by sharing his story and reminding the West of Tibet's struggle we are putting pressure on China to one day free Tibet. This is why I am sharing this one man's story. Please don't forget about the Tibetan struggle for freedom and spread the word.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Dharamsala home of the Dalai Lama

I'm glad we made the time to visit Dharamsala because along with Varanasi and Rishikesh, it was on my list of must see places in India. When tourists talk about Dharamsala they are usually talking about McCleod Gang, a small town up hill from Dharamsala where the Dalai Lama lives in exile along with thousands of Tibetans who have fled from their China-invaded homeland. We arrive a few days after the Dalai Lama's 76th birthday (it was on the 6th July) and although I am crossing my fingers we might get to see him speak as July is one of the more likely times to catch a glimpse, it turns out he is touring the USA.

Mcleod Ganj reminds me of Nepal, with green mountains surrounding colourful rooftops and prayer flags flapping gently in the breeze. According to the Dalai Lama it is also not unlike Tibet. It is probably safe to say that there are just as many Tibetans in Mcleod Ganj as there are Indians and that means the town is full of Tibetan foods, trinkets and Buddhist temples.

We spend our first morning searching out a good Yoga studio (there are plenty to choose from) and interestingly we find the same yoga teacher whose class I attended in Goa. Vijay, the Indian owner, is a world renowned  yoga instructor who also gives yoga teacher training. When he is not touring the West he divids his time between Goa and Mcleod Ganj. I am excited to be in his class again, for the sessions in Goa were incredible. I am not suprised when I arrive at my first class to find the room filled to the brim with eager yoga students. I am suprised though when Vijay gets up and leaves the room to make way for one of his sidekicks to take the lesson. Unfortunately, this man doesn't seem to have the same knack as Vijay and unlike our gentle teacher in Rishikesh he stalks the room, roughly and abruptly slapping people in areas that need correcting. The poor man next to me who has never set foot in a yoga class and struggles to sit cross-legged cops many slaps to the back and has his shoulders are pulled back repeatedly. Despite this we soon fall into a routine of attending twice daily and spend the time in between browsing the streets, reading and hunting for the best places to eat.

Due to the large expat community in this town there are excellent coffee houses. I haven't had a 'real' coffee since leaving Australia so I was a tad excited when I was served my first delicious latte. Stupidly, I ordered a second and was so caffine sensitive I thought I was going to drop dead of a heart attack and had to go and lie down for a few hours. I think all this yoga and lack of processed food and coffee has left me detoxed!

Tomorrow we will visit the home of the Dalai Lama, even though he won't be home (I'm pretty sure you can't go in anyway!).

Yoga town of Rishikesh

The drive to Rishikesh is a welcome relief after the hot Rajasthan desert. Once we were past the two dead bloated cows on the side of the road and the stoned anorexic Indian man striding stark naked (apart from a pair of gloves) down the middle of the highway, the lush green trees and paddocks make for a pleasant change.

The city of Rishikesh is similar to any other Indian city, except perhaps for a few more temples and shrines and certainly a lot more ashrams and yoga centres. Across a large swing bridge which is evidently used for pedestrians, motorbikes, livestock and as a hangout for cranky monkeys is High bank. Nestled among the trees and away from the hustle and bustle, High bank is a small cluster of guesthouses, cafes and yoga studios.

Because it is off season we find ourselves a great hotel complete with hot water, cable tv and a Hatha/Iyenga Yoga studio next door for just $4/night. We spend our week in Rishikesh taking early morning Yoga followed by breakfast, reading, watching movies, another evening session of yoga followed by dinner and more reading. Our Indian yoga teacher is brilliant and due to the small class sizes he is able to attend to each student, gently manipulating our bodies into correct postures for maximum benefit. After each class we emerge even more relaxed, centred and flexible than the last one.

On one occassion we decide to venture from our High bank sanctuary to take a look around Rishikesh city. In the thick humid heat we walk to the ashram made famous by th Beatles in 1960. We arrive only to find it closed off to tourists but from our view it appears to be  almost completely knocked down, surrounded by rubbish and rubble. The Ganges gushes through the middle of Rishikesh and because we are reasonably high up there is little rubbish in it, so we both dip our feet into its ice cold waters, not for a moment believing that it is washing our so-called 'sins' away.

Our intention was to spend our last two weeks in India in Rishikesh but as usual we get itchy feet and book a last minute overnight bus to Daramsala, home of the Dalai Lama.