Gorillas and Monkeys and Chimps (oh my!)

In December I had a chance to combine two of my favorite things – travel and volunteering!  I spent two weeks in Kigali working on the site where the headquarters of Grace Rwanda – a charity promoting literacy and education in Rwanda – are located.  After that, I was lucky enough to take a week long safari to see some of the wildlife of East Africa!

My first stop was Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda where I joined a small group of hikers in search of Golden Monkeys.  In conservation areas like this, visiting primates is nothing like going to a zoo – these animals are wild!  However, researchers have spent years habituating some of the populations to the presence of humans so it’s safe for small groups of visitors to encounter them in the forest.  The process is highly controlled – the group stays together and follows a guide, and you are allowed to stay in their presence for only 1 hour of each day.  We set off through the village and then encountered the Golden Monkeys first on an unused plot of farming land.  After about 20 minutes, they moved on to the forest and so did we.  You can see how they get their name – they are beautiful!

 

 

The following day we set out on a LONG drive for Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda.  Bwindi is home to over 300 Mountain Gorillas and has several family groups that are habituated to visitors.  These beautiful animals are endangered due to poaching and live only in Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC – they cannot survive in captivity so if you’ve seen a gorilla in a zoo, it was likely another gorilla species, probably the Lowland Gorilla.  The hike to find our family was no joke (it’s called the “impenetrable” forest for a reason!) but when we got there it was more than worth the effort.  This group has several juvenile members and they were very active during our 1 hour stay!

The last primates on our itinerary were the Chimpanzees of Kibale National Park, Uganda.  We arrived around 2pm and quickly got ready to go into the forest, hoping to catch the chimps while they were still feeding on the ground.  Once they go into trees for the night we would be out of luck!  We joined our guide and set off on our trek.  It wasn’t overly strenuous, but those chimps move fast!  There were several times when we were running through the forest to keep up. 🙂  These animals share more than 96% of our DNA and we had lots of opportunities to observe them up close, including one elder who clearly likes having his picture taken!

 

What a great week with our primate cousins.  It’s truly an experience you should not miss!  For action shots, check out my short YouTube videos of Golden Monkeys, Chimps and Gorillas.  Plan your own trip to see them in person soon!

Back in Rwanda

I’m back from Rwanda! It was 2 ½ years between my last visits and so much has changed. The city is booming, with construction and development everywhere. Kigali retains it’s place as one of the cleanest cities in Africa, a result of many things, including the fact that the manufacture and use of plastic bags has been illegal in the country since 2008 and once per month all Rwandans participate in Umuganda, mandatory community service to keep their community clean and help their neighbors.

During my recent visit, I had such an awesome experience that I’m prompted to write this post. This is easily my most timely retelling EVER and a great way to reinitiate my blog postings after a long hiatus. 🙂  So what is it that brings me out of the writing drought? Nothing other than a reunion with a young girl and her father….

I met this girl (who I will not name to respect her privacy – if you know this family please also do not refer to them by name) in 2014 when I was volunteering in the small town of Gashora (Bugasera District, Eastern Province) Rwanda. Her dad was one of the construction workers on the project. Before he worked in construction he was in the army – as a morale officer! He doesn’t hold back when he’s happy. 🙂

His daughter used to come to the worksite with him and spend the day hanging out with our team. We didn’t speak the same language but who needs talking when gestures speak a thousand words? Even though (because?) she was extremely shy, we took to each other and she ended up sticking by my side throughout many of our working days. Well, that is, only when she wasn’t playing football!

I have trouble deciding between two favorite memories of her from that time. The first is when she really REALLY wanted to help us with our work. We were painting walls and windows and doors and after so many hours of the same repetitive action, I figured it couldn’t hurt to let her use my paintbrush for a while… She looked so proud as she carefully painted the door trim! The second memory is of when we were sitting down at a break and I caught her eying my work gloves and safety glasses. It was very cute! I knew that if she spoke English, or better yet if I knew more Kinyarwanda than just “hello”(muraho) and “good morning” (mwaramutse!) we’d be having a conversation. Anticipating her thoughts, I held out my gloves and she nodded eagerly.  She put on my safety glasses but what happened next was a surprise. She looked at my gloves but wasn’t sure how to proceed – in a country situated close to the equator with a temperate, tropical climate, she had never had a need to wear gloves and was confused about how to put them on.  We spent a few minutes with me demonstrating how to spread you fingers and slip them into the right slots before she finally got it.  They were twice the size of her hands, but she did it!

When I left Rwanda that February, I felt a strong pull to help her. In a country where the majority of the population is under the age of 20 yet less than 40% have a beyond-primary school education, there is a clear need to support the education of young people. I saw her potential and knew that life was a struggle for her family. The problem was just finding the right way to help.

After some hit-and-miss attempts, I connected with Africa New Life – an organization founded and run by Rwandans while operating in the US out of Portland, OR. They provide sponsorship opportunities for over 7,000 children in several communities around Rwanda, opening up opportunities for education and community. My little friend was vetted and accepted into their program, yippee! She now receives support for school tuition, fees, and materials, participates in monthly programs with other sponsored children, receives medical care when needed and more. I hope her life has changed for the better. I know mine has.

So that brings us to my visit – after 2.5 years, I got a chance to see her once again! First I went to check out the Africa New Life facility in Kigali – the “Dream Center”. It is an oasis in the city and although there were no children there at the time of my visit, I could picture it on a busy Center day. There are many buildings on the grounds including a sponsorship office, a facility for training women who previously worked on the streets (learning to sew or enrolling in beauty school), a theological college with the largest theological library in Rwanda (approximately 20,000 books are available!), a day care center, some administrative buildings and (in progress) a new medical center!

While at the center, we picked up some gifts to deliver to her and her father. You may now be thinking of toys or a bike or other things that any American 12 year old would enjoy. But this is not America. Our most important gifts to her were those of nourishment – in the form of a 25 kg sack of rice, a 25 kg sack of corn flour, cooking oil and other related staples. I did bring along other gifts that were a little bit more “fun”…a backpack filled with pencils, paper, a coloring book, a dress and several pairs of socks. It’s all about perspective.

At last we were on our way to our visit. I had some difficult conversations before we got there about how tough her life can be. But all we can do is try our best to help and provide unwavering support. When things are difficult is the time to dig in and stand your ground.

We arrived in her community and prepared to walk through narrow, winding passageways to reach her home. How nice it was to be greeted by them both! Huge smiles all around. We reached their home and sat down to visit for a while, inquiring about each others lives and families while sharing smiles. I got such a big hug with my delivery of their gifts.

She has not become any less shy but I could see joy in her eyes. Her father was also excited to give me updates on his life. He recently completed his certificate in tailoring and now works regularly as a part of a local sewing cooperative. This is definitely a huge change from construction worker or morale officer, but it means a steady income and an increased capacity to care for his family. Who wouldn’t be proud of that?

When the time came to say goodbye, it was bittersweet. I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to make this visit and hope that the day was as happy for them as it was for me. I am grateful to Africa New Life for the wonderful work that they do and can only hope to hear soon of my friend’s next scholastic achievements. The road may not be easy and the path may not be straight, but with persistence anything is possible.

Best of luck to you my friends. I hope we meet again soon.

Update: Gloria’s family is home!

Hola!  In January, I participated in a volunteer team with Habitat for Humanity‘s Global Village program in Nicaragua.  You may have read about that trip in my previous post. 🙂  Well, if you’ve been wondering…this family has recently moved into their new home.  How fantastic!

When we arrived in San Ceyatano, Nicaragua, our team found Gloria (27 ) living with her husband Fredy (28) and their daughter Ashly (age 6) in a one-room metal structure with a dirt floor, which turns to mud when it rains due to holes in the roof and walls. Fredy works as a mason earning about US$110 monthly to support their family.  Neither Gloria nor Fredy were able to continue their schooling after high school.  Gloria is suffering from an extreme kidney infection, while Fredy has chikungunya, a mosquito-borne illness. Their daughter, Ashly, is in her first year of primary school but often misses class because of illnesses due to the poor conditions of the home.

Over the course of one week, our team of volunteers built a safe and durable home for this family.  When we left Nicaragua, local masons were hired to complete the floor and roof.  Now we’ve received word that their home is complete!  Below are some photos – the smiles say everything.

Gloria_1 Gloria_2 Gloria_3

Thanks to everyone who participated in this project in any way – team members, supporters who made donations or sent positive thoughts, and Habitat for Humanity who enabled this work.  Stay tuned for the next chapter and contact me if you’d like to be a part of a future team!

 

 

 

Telica – One of Nicaragua’s Most Active Volcanoes

A few weeks ago I traveled to Nicaragua to combine some tourism with a Habitat for Humanity volunteer build.  I’ve been working on a few stories from that trip when suddenly today my inbox was bursting with “breaking news” – the Telica Volcano has erupted!  Wow, really?  I was just there – right on the edge – 2 weeks ago….  Here’s what it was like before the latest eruption. 🙂

Telica is located near León and is a pretty accessible volcano for hikers.  It’s “only” 1061 meters high and if you make the rocky trek, you are rewarded with upfront views of the magnificent 700m wide double crater.  Even though it was not the most physically demanding hike, it truly has some of the most incredible views I’ve seen in a while!  Perhaps my favorite day in Nicaragua.

Getting to Telica is possible on your own, but for $35USD it’s pretty easy to let someone else worry about the rough road and take you right to the base of the volcano.  Is that lazy?  I think it’s smart. 🙂

We went on a sunset tour with Julio Tours and couldn’t have been happier.  When we arrived, just 2 other small groups were at the base and we quickly set off to get a bit of a head start.  Here’s the view as you get ready for the climb (it doesn’t look like much…):

DSC_0014On the way up, there are some views of the valley but nothing that I would describe as spectacular.  Plus, we were mostly looking at our feet to make sure we had secure footing.  And keeping our mouths closed to avoid getting big gulp-fulls of the sulfurous air!

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But OHHHHHHHH when you get near the top!

IMG_9754Now that’s what I call awesome.

DSC_0037You can get right up to the edge of the crater  and check out what’s going on 120m below – no railings, no safety waivers…

DSC_0042 DSC_0045IMG_9745Who could resist taking some selfies here?! 🙂

DSC_0036 (1)We hung out up top for maybe 10-15 minutes but the sulfur was pretty strong so we headed down around the back of the crater to catch some views of the entire range before the sunset.

IMG_9762We stopped for a break…luckily a local entrepreneur schlepped up the volcano (in flip flops, of course) with a cooler of soda and beer to complement the salty snacks we had in our packs.  When it was time for the sunset, it was quick but  beautiful:

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And then….darkness fell fast.  We trekked back up through the sulfur clouds to catch a quick peek at the magma (see it there, those little dots? 🙂 ):

IMG_9783  IMG_9791

And then we hiked down…in the dark…  Bring a headlamp or hire a guide that provides flashlights, you’ll need them.  You can also camp below the rim if that’s your thing.  But whatever you do, just go.  You don’t want to miss this!

 

Bienvenido a Casa!

What a whirlwind!  It’s been two weeks already since I returned from a fabulous volunteer trip with Habitat for Humanity‘s Global Village program in Nicaragua.  In the course of just 5 days, 14 volunteers joined together to build a home for Gloria and Freddie – and had a little fun along the way. 🙂

After meeting in Managua, we traveled about 1.5 hours southwest of the capital to the municipality of San Rafael del Sur, where we would spend the next week working on our project.  After settling in at a fabulous hotel on the Pacific coast, we geared up for our first day of work.

Upon arrival, we met our the homeowner Gloria and had a chance to learn more about her current living conditions.  She is currently unable to work due to a medical condition and her husband, Freddie, works as a night security guard at the chicken processing plant for a national fast food chain.  Their daughter lives with them in the community of San Ceyatano but was visiting her grandmother during the week we were working.

Their current home consists of a small metal shack.  Within one room (separated by curtains), all three family members sleep, eat and relax.  The roof has many leaks and the walls are not secure.

As we started out, there were all of the usual Habitat tasks…

Moving blocks:

5 4

Sifting sand and moving rock:

Mixing mortar and concrete (again and again and again):

10 11Cutting and tying rebar to reinforce the house:

12 13

Pouring the foundation:

14And laying block after block after block:

1516We were constantly running out of water so it was delivery after delivery to unload:

17And don’t forget about the preparation of the floor…

18But despite all of the hard work, there was always time to jump rope or color with the kids:

To take lots and lots of photos or to find a quiet moment:

Or to mess around in the wheelbarrow (I’m coming for YOU! 🙂

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How does all of this come together to build a house?  Check out my lo-tech timelapse for a condensed view of our five days of hard work. 🙂

At the end of the week, the most important goal was met:  a new  home for Gloria, Freddie and their daughter.  The doors, windows and roof would be installed by the masons within a few days of our departure and the family should move in within 3 weeks!  We had a ceremony to bless the house:

26Then Gloria cut the ribbon!

25Such smiles, that’s the best part about the whole week. 🙂
27 28

Good job team!

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Exploring and learning while enjoying life and doing my part. Here, there and everywhere…