Erik takes his assignment to write about gorilla trekking for Discovery.com, and evolves it into an 18-day journey to explore Uganda and Rwanda, two countries in eastern central Africa with rainforests known for their populations of chimpanzees and gorillas. What he comes to discover on this monkey tour is that both countries offer much more than just primates; there are opportunities for: one of Africa’s wildest whitewater rafting experiences on the Nile, safaris for elephants, buffalo, hippos, and white rhinos, insightful historical tours, mountain biking on a new lakeside trail — and even an encounter with African royalty.




TRAVEL DISPATCHES (in chronological order)

Getting Ready for the African Rainforest

Posted: December 13, 2011

PROLOGUE: “This is going to sound like I’ve fallen for an Internet scam,” I told Nieve, the friendly branch banker at a Capital One Bank in Brooklyn, NY.  “But I actually need to wire money to Africa.”

She began the money wire process, but not without some casual questions — none of which were about a Nigerian businessman looking for someone to receive his frozen monetary assets. “Are you buying goods there?” she asked me.

“No, I’m going on a gorilla safari,” I told her. “But you need to pay the government first to get a permit.”

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Scumbags in Transit

Posted: December 31, 2011

DAY 1: “Trinidad?” asked the KLM agent reading my passport at JFK’s Terminal 4. She had a coffee complexion and her name tag read “Donna Marie M.”

“Yeah,” I replied. I’d heard this interest before; she was either Trinidadian or…

“Are you related to the boxer?”

“No,” I said, smirking. “I wish I was.”

“So you could get some of that money, huh?” She continued with the mildly flirtatious small talk as she checked me in for my three flights: JFK to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Kigali (Rwanda), which would refuel and continue to my final destination of Entebbe, the main airport about an hour out of Uganda’s capital, Kampala.

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The King and I

Posted: December 31, 2011

NOTE: It should be known that I (like some of my friends) know most, if not all, of the lines from 1988’s Coming to America (starring Eddie Murphy) by heart.

DAY 2 (NEW YEAR’S): “Move! Move!” yelled the Ugandan man to me. He was motioning me to shift to the side of the road — and he wasn’t the only one.

Huh? What’s going on? I wondered. I was in the middle of the road that led up to Lubiri Palace, royal headquarters of the Kingom of Buganda (Uganda’s “largest and most recognized” tribe with a population of 9 million and counting), trying to get a symmetrical shot from the center.

“Move!”

I moved to the side and saw what the commotion was: police cars and military vehicles were escorting a white SUV — one with a hand waving out the window.

Oh crap, he’s here already, I realized as I had arrived to the palace grounds fashionably late. The royal motorcade. (Cue Coming to America motorcade theme now.) His Majesty King Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II, 36th King of Buganda, had arrived at the palace for the New Year’s party, fashionably late as well — at 3:45 pm in the afternoon. (The 12-hour celebration had started at 3 pm.) He was coming from his private home outside the city, where he opted to reside.

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Wild On The Nile

Posted: January 03, 2012

DAY(S 3-)4: “Are you ready to go rafting?” asked Alex, the Italian guy sitting next to me in the hostel lobby at 6:45 am. We had both signed up for a rafting trip with adventure outfitter Adrift, based out of the town of Jinja on the Nile River, about 54 miles from Kampala. Near him were Paul and JD, two Americans I met the day before (Day 3, when I didn’t do much but stay at the hostel to knock out a freelance project and write about my encounter with an African king; I did see two vervet monkeys though). They were from Minnesota, but on vacation from their volunteer work in southern Tanzania.

“Well I’m still jet lagged from the flight from New York,” I told them. “I went to bed at three last night.”

“So it’ll be pure adrenaline then,” Paul said. (He reminded me a little of Sebastian [Morocco].)

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A Gentleman’s Game

Posted: January 08, 2012

DAY 5: “Do you want to play golf?” Alex asked me in his northern Italian accent, looking a little bit like actor Bradley Cooper from certain angles. After rafting the previous night, we had asked the guides where best place to see the lake is — Lake Victoria that is, the source of the Nile River — back near the town center of Jinja (rhymes with “ninja”). One suggested either the bar at the fancy hotel, the official Source Of The Nile site where explorer John Hanning Speke “discovered” it in 1862, or — because those choices might be boring with not much to do there — at the Jinja Club, the local golf course right on the lake shore.

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Rhinobama

Posted: January 08, 2012

DAY 6: “What trip are you booking?” I asked the eastern Asian face at the tours office of the hostel in Kampala. She had been calculating Ugandan schilling exchange rates in the cost of an upcoming trip.

“Murchinson,” she replied succinctly.

“I’ll see you there then,” I said. I had previously booked the same 3-day safari tour before my rafting excursion near Jinja (rhymes with ninja).

She extended her hand. “Maggie.”

“Erik.”

By the end of the first day of the tour I’d discover she was not exactly a succinct person at all — in fact, quite the opposite. Oh, that and the fact that she’d go missing in the African jungle.

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Alice in Gandaland

Posted: January 12, 2012

DAY 7: “I’m jealous of your first safari,” Maggie admitted to Alice. Alice, the lawyer from London, had been to Africa before (Khartoum, Sudan of all places) but not once on a safari and didn’t really know what to expect.

“Yeah, it usually takes like two hours to see anything,” I told her. (Most of the safaris that you see on television shows edit out the hours of inactivity.)

In less than fifteen minutes after breakfast that morning, we were on a game drive through the African savannah, spotting our first animal — a warthog.

“Pumba!” cried Maggie. She loved how warthogs mostly walked with their tails standing straight up.

 

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Monkey in the Middle

Posted: January 12, 2012

DAY 8: In 1960, British researcher Jane Goodall came to Africa to study wild chimpanzees, and over the past fifty years she’s became a household name associated with the species of ape (ape = tailless monkey) — but I think most of that popularity is contributed by the overall appeal of chimps. I mean, what’s a Tarzan movie or 70’s trucker TV series without them? (R.I.P. “Cheetah”)

Jane Goodall did her most of her work in northwestern Tanzania, near Lake Tanganyika and the border with Burundi, but her influence is seen everywhere chimpanzees are found, as is the case at the Budongo Forest Reserve in Uganda. The Jane Goodall Institute, in cooperation with Uganda’s National Forestry Authority and the Budongo Ecotourism Development Programme*, have established a chimpanzee tracking center, where official trained chimp trackers bring chimp-loving tourists on treks to see the famed monkeys out in the wild. (*Disney’s Animal Kingdom sponsored all the information panels at the center, plus a woman was wearing a Disney Conservation Fund t-shirt, so perhaps Mickey Mouse has a hand in it as well.)

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Jungle to Jungle

Posted: January 12, 2012

DAY 9 (PART 1): “We are lucky he is a small man,” said the Ugandan man sitting next to me on the Jaguar bus coach to Kigali, Rwanda. While the Jaguar bus company was branded as an “executive coach” with a ripped off logo of the luxury car manufacturer, it wasn’t more than a crowded Greyhound bus in the States. In fact, to pack more people in, they had squeezed another line of chairs in the aisle, making it rows of two seats on the left, and three on the right, with not much aisle space to walk down — although that was filled with baggage at times too. I was sitting in the aisle seat of the three-seater, with the guy next to me concerned about the size of person who’d get the window, but it seemed we’d be okay for the long run.

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The Football of Gahese

Posted: January 13, 2012

DAY 9 (PART 2): Mountain gorillas (or “golillas” since Rwandans often pronounce R’s with L’s) live in the rainforest of the Virungas, which technically isn’t a mountain chain; it’s a series of single coned volcanoes near each other — and contained within the appropriately named Volcanoes National Park. The Kinigi Guesthouse, a B&B “village” of cabins and a dorm just 300 meters from the main entrance of the park, is where a handful of tourists show up each afternoon, spend the night in order to wake up early to see gorillas at 7am the next morning, and are out by around noon. I had arrived around one in the afternoon, feeling quite alone, since the previous cycle of guests had just finished — I was the first to arrive in the daily “reset.”

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Damn Dirty Apes

Posted: January 16, 2012

DAY 10: “It’s a lot less scary viewing it like that,” Sarah told me as we played back the video I shot on my DSLR camera of the moment when Kirahuri, a big 300-pound silverback gorilla, advanced towards me when I was in his way. “That was a pretty tense moment.”

No matter how tense, pictures or video never seem to do a moment justice — but at least it was well worth the thrill during a long morning of gorilla trekking.


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Everything’s Better in Rwanda Until Someone Kicks You in the Balls

Posted: January 16, 2012

DAY(S 10-)11: It’s seems rather odd that within the tiny landlocked African nation of Rwanda (which is only about the size of New Jersey), you could have a beach day, but it is in fact, possible to have one there on the shores of Lake Kivu. Situated on the west side of the country — forming a natural border with the DR Congo — Lake Kivu is big enough that from shore it looks as expansive as an ocean. And in the relaxed town of Gisenyi — where I based myself after gorilla trekking — the beaches and warm, year-round tropical climate is like a scene out of the Caribbean.

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Trailblazers

Posted: January 17, 2012

DAYS 11-13 (PART 1): “When you see the hills, you’ll see why you have a porter and nothing on your back,” said Tom of Rwandan Adventures, my guide for a two-day bike tour down the Congo Nile Trail (CNT), from Gisenyi to the trail’s mid-way point in Kabuye. Rwanda’s nickname is the “Land of A Thousand Hills,” and when cycling up my first big one (of 1,000), I knew exactly why Tom talked me into hiring a guy to carry my stuff — especially since my body’s sitting region was still sore from just having been kicked in the balls.

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It’s Not All Black and White Along Lake Kivu

Posted: January 18, 2012

DAYS 11-13 (PART 2): “They’re not quite sure what to make of you,” my guide Tom had told me when were were visited by curious villagers upon arrival in Kinunu village. He had noticed during our bicycle tour on the Congo Nile Trail that in the children’s usual calls to mzungus (foreigners, specifically White ones), some would start shouting “Abazungu!” (the plural form) but switch to “Umuzungu!” (singular) when seeing me, a nationality-ambiguous-but-obviously-not-White Filipino-American — Tom was the only White guy in our trio.

“I’ve been mistaken for about thirty-four nationalities so far,” I told Tom.

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Run DRC?

Posted: January 19, 2012

DAY(S 13-)14: It’s ironic that the relaxed, peaceful lake town of Gisenyi lies right on the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo — not to be confused with the other country, the Republic of Congo (confusing, I know) — a nation constantly making headlines for civil unrest. In late 2011 (just a month before I’d left for this trip), national elections in DR Congo — and the unagreeable results thereof — stirred up tensions throughout the country. Concurrently, it was around that time that a UN official deemed it “the Rape Capital of the World.”

Regardless of that bad press, I had an inclination to go there, not for the rape but for the passport stamp, mostly because the border was so close; it was literally walking distance away (about 20 minutes on foot from my hotel).

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Remembering 1994

Posted: January 20, 2012

DAY 15: Ah, 1994. Ace of Base, Snoop Dogg, The Lion King, The Cranberries, Pulp Fiction, and Forrest Gump. Most, if not all of you reading this travel blog were alive in 1994, and some of you may even remember what you were doing in the April of that year. I remember being in a painting class chatting up this girl, and she mentioned, “Have you heard about what’s going on in Rwanda?” At the time, I hadn’t; I was more concerned with whether or not I might score with her (turns out she had a boyfriend), and besides, back then, Africa was sooo far away. In 1994, the only thing I knew about Africa was that “Hakuna Matata” means “no worries.”

The reality was that in the tiny African nation of Rwanda, all hell had broken loose. Tensions between two formerly peace-keeping tribes — Hutus and Tutsis — boiled over into chaos on an unimaginable scale. On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying Juvenal Habyarimana, the then Hutu-favored Rwandan president, had been mysteriously shot down, triggering a premeditated massacre so relentless that the numbers of the subsequent death toll constituted it as a genocide. During a period of about a hundred days, extremist Hutus slaughtered about one million Tutsi and moderate Hutu people, and about another million were displaced as escaped refugees in neighboring countries. Meanwhile, the world — including the U.N. — underestimated Rwanda’s civil unrest, watched, and let it happen.

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Securing Peace with Hot Sauce

Posted: January 22, 2012

DAY 16: “We have a problem,” said the KK Security guard with U.S. Embassy clearance displayed on the badge hanging from his neck. He called in for backup on his radio and awaited further instructions on how to handle me, a suspect with ambiguous motives, in front of the U.S. Peace Corps gates in Kigali.

Just my luck, I thought. I decided I’d just be honest and play dumb American tourist because I was in fact, a tourist, an American, and totally dumb for getting into the situation in the first place.

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Forget “Africa”

Posted: January 22, 2012

DAYS 17-18: “Are you talking about Akabanga?” asked the man waiting in the queue for Business Class check-in at Kigali International Airport, next to where I was waiting for Economy. He noticed I was talking about a certain Rwandan hot sauce to Gearoid, a fellow former guest of the Hotel des Mille Collines that I had shared the complimentary airport taxi with. I was describing the size of the hot sauce’s small eye dropper bottle with my fingers.

“Yeah,” I answered the man in Business Class, smiling at our apparent shared appreciation of Akabanga. “You know it?”

“I have twelve [bottles],” he announced proudly.

I told him I had over two dozen myself, packed in my checked luggage bound for New York via Amsterdam.

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MONKEYING AROUND (in chronological order):



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