Monday, January 23, 2012

monkey business for my birthday

My father has always teased me that one day isn’t long enough for me to celebrate my birthday. Who am I to disagree with him – this year I allowed the celebration to last a few days…this may be my only birthday in Rwanda after all. I wanted to be in the Village for my actual birthday because the girls in my family seemed really excited that my birthday was coming up, and I honestly couldn’t think of any other place I would rather be, or any other people I would rather be surrounded by. They didn’t disappoint, as they had a whole celebration planned, complete with candles, a MOUND of confetti, which they threw on my head, songs, and handmade birthday cards. The amount of love they showed me was magnificent and so moving.

Since my brother’s untimely death this past July, I have really been thinking quite a bit about growing older, and I am trying to be thankful for each and every day that I have here on Earth with family and friends. That is honestly what I thought a lot about on my birthday – I want to make each day of my life meaningful and I want to find something to be grateful for in each of those days. My brother accomplished an astounding array of achievements in his short 33 years; however there was still a lot that he never got to encounter, so I am trying to make sure that I make the most of every situation so that I can experience things for the both of us.

I decided to make this weekend MY weekend, and I did something that I have dreamed about since I was a little girl – I went into the jungle and chased around chimpanzees! My friends Melanie (Briggs) and Monica (Timar) have supported my chimpanzee obsession by buying me many things chimp-related (statues, notebooks, key chains, etc.) for years, but the real chimpanzee is so much better! It was a long journey to Nyungwe, Rwanda – about 6 hours by bus across the entire country. The final 2 hours through Nyungwe National Forest reminded me of Tanzania with respect to the roads – they call it an African massage because of the constant bumps/shaking/vibration caused by the rough terrain. The scenery however, reminded me of Costa Rica – I had entered a dense, primary rainforest. It was early to bed because I had to wake up at 4:30am and get ready to meet the guide at 5am. Then I was back on the bumpy road for another hour and 45 minutes toward Cyamudongo Forest, where a family of roughly 40 chimpanzees reside. The terrain was fierce with wet, thick underbrush underfoot, tripping vines grabbing at my ankles, choking vines grasping for my throat, prickly branches sticking to my legs, and lichen-covered trees everywhere in sight. The sky was barely visible, and the make-believe path that we were following was nearly 75 degrees steep (or so it seemed)! As soon as I reached the top of the hill, I got word from the chimpanzee trackers that the chimps had changed course and were headed down the hill, which meant I had to backtrack and run back down the same “path” that I had just climbed! It was more treacherous going down, and I found myself on my butt more often than not. I have to admit that I was tempted to go Romancing-the-Stone-style and just slide down the darn muddy hill. If only I could use all 4 limbs like the chimps!

As soon as I reached the main path, I was told to wait for the chimpanzees to reach the same point because they would cross the “street” and head down the next steep hill, into the valley below. Sure enough, after a few minutes I could hear the “hoot” noises coming closer and in a matter of a few seconds, an entire group crossed the street, one-by-one (with the exception of the one momma chimp with the baby on her back). As each one emerged out of the jungle, they stopped, stared in my direction, and then scampered back into the forest below. It was breathtaking! After another bit of time waiting on the road above, listening to the chimpanzees below, I got word from the trackers to venture down into the forest. After trudging through more vines, trees, moss, and mud, I found them. There was a moment when the tracker pushed me ahead of the group and told me to run down the path…moments later, I found myself 20 feet from a group of chimpanzees who were standing on the same path as I was, staring at me as if to say, “why the hell are you running after us?” I stopped, frozen, unable to grasp the reality of the moment. Who gets the opportunity to truly chase after chimpanzees?! It was an outrageous notion, and I had just done it! As we were staring at each other, the tracker told those of us in the group to turn around – here WE were also being chased…one of the male chimpanzees was following us on the path, keeping a close eye on what we were doing. It was astounding.

The trek wrapped up with our group chasing the family of chimps up and down a few more hills, and then coming to a halt, standing still, watching them swing high above us in the rainforest canopy, from branch to branch, tree to tree. I decided to just put my camera down and watch it all transpire without a camera lens hampering my view. I took many mental pictures, which will be with me long after my digital photos are forgotten. The monkeys’ free-spirited and playful nature made me smile and made me escape the reality of my world for just a few moments. I got lost in the moment, and loved every second of it. I came here to be present and live in each and every moment, and I did that while I was with the chimpanzees. I had lived yet another dream, and crossed yet another thing off my bucket list. What’s next? You’ll have to stay tuned to see…

A memorable moment from this weekend hitchhiking (to save $120), and getting picked up by a dump truck (see photo to the right, inside the cab)! Aside from the ridiculously fun, ultra-bumpy ride, the 40 minute ride was FREE!

Another memorable moment from this weekend while playing cards at the Gisakura guesthouse in the afternoon, my friend Miki and I found ourselves suddenly SURROUNDED by blue monkeys who smelled the bananas we were eating. They swarmed around us and made me giggle like a toddler. It was so thrilling to have so many monkeys so close in proximity to me (at times they were 2 feet away)! (see photo to the right)

Another fun adventure from this past weekend – the canopy walk, complete with a 1 and 1/2 hour hike, high above the Nyungwe Rainforest! The canopy walkway is 200 meters long, and is suspended 70 meters high between giant trees. It offers a magnificent view of the upper canopy. (see photos below)

Stomach-turning moment from this weekend – on the bus ride back to Kigali, the man seated behind me was unable to wait to “pass water” (what they call peeing in Rwanda), and ended up peeing himself. Yes, the bus reeked of urine, and we still had 4 hours left in our ride.


  1. All those amazing experiences and the one thing I think I'll remember is 4 hours on the urine bus. AAahahahahaa! So gross. Sounds like a killer birthday, Barre!! Good on ya!

  2. Wow, Barre! What a memorable Birthday celebration, eh? :) I love that you are seizing each moment and really living it. Keep it up:) And keep posting the stories so that I can experience it through you:)