November 07, 2009

Gorillas in the Mist, H1N1 in the Guest House, Heaven in the Church, Mud Against the Wall

Help, I have a lot more to say! Here's a very quick recap:

1. I previously opined that the church service was disappointing, but the following Sunday we all went to another one, at the same church, that knocked our socks off. We'd come too late for the choir the first time, but on Sunday we were fully present and armed with the spirit. They sang beautiful African gospel harmonies, dancing to the music, passing the microphone from one section of the choir to the other; and two or three of the women, including a pair of knockout fortyish sisters (alas, I did not get their phone numbers), were possessed with the greatest joy, hopping up and down, pointing ecstatically to the congregation, and had voices to match. The visiting preacher was a visiting bishop from Kenya who oversees 500 churches, and not only the power, but the benignity, of his preaching was beautiful.

2. We went to work on finishing two traditional houses made of mud brick, funded by Groundwork Opportunities, a nonprofit that helps fund our host Costa's work. No time to link now - I'll do it in future posts so you can donate! What we did was pick up handfuls of coarse wet mud that were poured onto the ground in heaps, and sling them hard against the handmade bricks of the wall. The mud gets smoothed down with a long horizontal stick, and after drying, is stuccoed. The owners of the two neighboring houses are families that were on opposite sides of the genocide and are now close friends. They are delighted with their new homes, into which they invited us with the greatest kindness. Among them was a six-month-old girl, Giselle, who loved to chew my index finger and thumb.

3. A member of our group and I rode four buses and a moto (motorcycle taxi) through rain and mist and bad roads from Kigali in the center of the country to Volcanoes National Park in the north to visit the world's last remaining mountain gorillas. The population is a bit over 700 and gradually rising. It costs $500 a person for admission (mostly applied to conservation and community projects), up to $50 for a guest house room, and $80 for a short jeep ride to the park, and it's worth every penny. We hiked up through the rain forest for about an hour, then reached the area where the trackers said the gorillas were. (There are several gorilla troops, and small groups of up to 8 tourists are assigned to each.) Our first contact was when the silverback rose up before us at a distance of about four feet to check us out. Our lead guide went into a crouch of submission, lowering his head and covering it with his hands, showing the boss that we meant no harm. We spent an hour with our gorilla friends, who included five females and five children as well as Mr. Big. Hundreds of photos were taken; locations were carefully shifted with those of the gorilla troop; the scientifically recommended distance of 7m was maintained. It was one of the highs of a lifetime.

4. We returned to a guest house increasingly full of sick muzungus wearing useless but bureaucratically required surgical masks. Step by step the situation became a farce. A doctor with his driver drove an hour from Kigali to swab-test the First World visitors; shortly afterward, an ambulance with another doctor drove up to the community center where we were doing The Work of Byron Katie with a group of HIV-infected women. The second doctor didn't believe in the existence of the first doctor, but they were put into telephone contact after much crosstalk among many interested parties. Upshot: we do have two confirmed cases of H1N1, but no severe symptoms, and some of us may have other viruses instead. Costa, Pamela, Brenda, and I have no symptoms, and quickly tossed away the surgical masks that were presented to us as solemn necessities when we returned to our home guest house. The crucial goal now is to be declared uninfected so that one can be put back on the plane on Tuesday instead of having to spend seven days in quarantine. We'll see!


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