My alarm sounded at 6 am. I had been awake off and on through the night, worrying I would oversleep, but this time I was startled out of a dream in which I was a preschool teacher trying to create a lesson plan on the spot. It seemed like I had been plopped down into the scene, without any preparation for the task of teaching. The kids were unruly and I felt everyone was looking to me to set some clear boundaries, but I could not think of what to do. I ended up in a pool of warm water holding a squirming preschooler that was as large as me against my belly, with all the other teachers and parents watching expectantly, when my alarm beeped me into another reality. A typical stress dream for me.
I crawled out from under the mosquito netting draped around my hard mattress and headed down the cracked and uneven sidewalk to the bathroom with its peeling vinyl floor, a broken toilet seat that slid to the side when I sat on it, and no place to hang a towel or clothes except a row of nails in the wall about 1 ½ feet above my head. The shower was surprisingly warm and helped calm my nervous stomach. We were going trekking to see mountain gorillas in the Uganda rainforest today. A dream come true for me–I wanted to do this ever since I watched the movie Gorillas in the Mist 30 years ago about Dian Fossey’s groundbreaking research on gorilla behavior and emotions and decided working with her would have been my dream job. But I was scared about something besides a gorilla encounter… Would my knee be up for the adventure we had planned for the day? What if the whole group had to turn around because I couldn’t walk? Would I be in so much pain I wouldn’t even be able to walk out of the forest?
It began hurting intensely after I went to Northern California Dance Camp, just a week and a half before leaving to meet my daughter in Uganda. For three joyful days of dancing my knee felt very little pain, so I just kept on dancing, thinking it must finally be getting better all on its own. The last morning I felt an odd sensation, as if the top of my knee slid off the bottom, leaving everything in terrible alignment. The pain began shortly after breakfast and increased throughout the day. By the time I got groceries on my five hour drive home, I had to use the grocery cart like a walker to get through the store. Sharp tearing sensations persisted throughout the next week. No!! Kira and I had planned this trip for months–hiking, trekking for gorillas, exploring new cities and countryside. How would I even get through the airport with this kind of pain? I couldn’t bear the thought of canceling our trip…
My knee was the worst it’s been in six years since I’ve been treating it with various techniques for what was eventually diagnosed as bone-on-bone osteoarthritis. Physical therapy, meniscus surgery, deep massage to break up scar tissue, a cortisone injection, Simvisc injections, stem cell injections, chiropractic manipulation to loosen tight ligaments, more deep massage by an intuitive healer, more physical therapy, positive affirmations and visualization, supplements to induce an increase in cartilage, and adopting a low-inflammation diet had only improved my knee temporarily, leaving it unstable and vulnerable to injury. I even tried a healing meditation at an energy vortex in Sedona. I had just gone through a period of feeling very little pain for a few months, even after a rigorous seven hour hike in May, so I felt very confident that it was getting better without surgery when I planned on going to Dance Camp. Maybe I was overly confident…
I got Xrays to see if something new was damaged, then consulted an orthopedic specialist who injected some cortisone in the joint. I walked out of his office feeling almost normal, so I bought new hiking boots and a new brace and decided to go for it. With my walking sticks and Ibuprofen, I figured I’d take my chances on the gorilla trek.
I downed my extra extra strength ibuprofen, drank a delicious cup of African tea (black tea steeped in ginger-spiced hot milk), and took a last bite of my Spanish omelette just as our driver, Gideon pulled up. The sky had barely begun to lighten. We drove through the village of Kisoro on the bumpy, rutted dirt streets that split off of the main paved road, and headed toward the distant volcanoes we saw from town. The roads grew narrower, and with the growing sunlight we began to see lush countryside planted with all different kinds of crops interspersed with little huts made of bricks, some of them handmade adobe with bits of straw poking out here and there. Chickens clucked and pecked the ground, goats nibbled along the edges of the road, and children stared as we drove past. Some of them held out their hands and said, “Money! Money!” or “I’m hungry!” and looked at us with pleading eyes.
After a half hour of bumping uphill in Gideon’s car we came to a pile of bricks blocking the road. Gideon stopped, turned off the key, and said, “Here we get out.” What??? There were no signs. We were at the edge of a field of crops with nothing but a deep path heading off to the left and a gated driveway to the right. Where were we? Gideon was a tall, quiet man who never smiled. Could we trust him? “I’ll walk with you”, he said, as he locked the car in the middle of the blocked road and directed Kira to take the little path to the left. We walked, up and up toward the forest we could see in the distance, clamboring over large rocks embedded in the dark red-brown soil. Once in awhile there would be a Y in the path and Gideon told Kira to take the one going up, as he followed behind me. My knee was surprisingly happy with all of this, but I was out of breath. I later found out we were at about 7000′ elevation.
We kept getting closer to the pointed volcano in the distance. To be honest, there were a couple of times I wondered if we were foolishly walking into some sort of trap to capture white women and turn us into sex slaves, but then I realized I was probably too old to be appealing for that sort of thing anymore. Maybe that made me dispensable, though. Men were constantly turning their heads to look at Kira. We had, after all, refused the more expensive driver the tour company recommended in order to save a hundred or so dollars on a driver we found from our hotel. I breathed that thought in, then let it go with a deep sigh and gave thanks to my knee for carrying me up the steep hill and for the beautiful scenery around me.
Finally we came to the edge of the forest and saw an open-sided building above and a sign that said Mgahinga Gorilla Forest. Gideon said he would meet us back at the car when we were done and headed back down the hill. As we approached the building Bernardo, dressed in camo pants and black boots that laced up to the middle of his calf, warmly welcomed us. He had more of a military look than a park ranger look. We were used to seeing men in military dress with rifles slung over their shoulder, as they were in front of all banks and many stores. He asked for our permits–it costs $600 for a permit to trek into the forest to see gorillas–and disappeared into the next room for several minutes to check our paperwork. Kira and I looked at some pamphlets about the gorillas, one of which had photos of the troop we hoped to see, including ages and birthdays, names, their position in the troop, sex, and a description of their nose print (gorillas noseprints are kind of like our fingerprints). The troop consisted of 10 individuals.
Eight more people arrived after about 20 minutes, two from the States (another mother daughter pair), two from South Africa, two from Wales, and two from another European country, all with fancy cameras dangling around their necks. At least half of them were my age or older, and one walked with a cane, so I felt reassured that I may not be the one holding up progress because of my knee. We listened to a welcome speech which included rules:
- If you’re sick, stay behind–they will issue another permit at no extra cost
- Cover your mouth if you cough or sneeze–we don’t want to give them any of our diseases
- If a gorilla comes toward you, crouch down and DO NOT run away
- Quiet voices the whole time we are near the gorillas–but you can ask questions
- Only follow the guides and trackers and stay in one group–do not go off on your own
- No food or drinks around the gorillas
We were each offered a bamboo walking stick and a porter to carry our bags and help us up steep terrain for $15 extra. I decided to take a porter, just in case I had knee problems, and was introduced to Ben, who shook my hand with a warm smile as he slid my backpack over his shoulders. Offering to hold my hand any time there was a big rock or steep slope, he actually pulled me up a little bit, which I let myself appreciate even though my independent one inside rebelled slightly. I was amazed–my knee felt better than it had before Dance Camp. Was it because I was living my dream, or because climbing on uneven terrain worked a variety of muscles and gave relief to my creaky joint?
We hiked for about 30-40 minutes when someone passed back the message to be quiet. Bernardo told us to hand over our sticks and backpacks to our porters because the trackers had located the gorillas nearby. Following single file on the small trail freshly cut through the dense jungle (they call it the Impenetrable Forest in one area), we focused on not slipping or getting cut by branches and vines all around us. Suddenly, there they were, right next to us! We saw three small female adults and two youngsters lounging in a grassy opening under the forest canopy. The females calmly pulled on vines and stripped the leaves off to eat while the little ones alternately ate and frolicked in the forest, bounding on top of each other and sometimes rolling and bouncing across the spongy forest floor in a ball of gorilla fur. They exploded out of the ball and scrambled up a tree, chasing each other and swinging from lianas and branches that sometimes gave way, surprising them with a swooping and risky ride through the tree canopy. Every now and then one would stand up and beat its chest rapidly, creating a reverberating percussive sound. I giggled, my eyes glowing with delight.
Two youngsters playing with each other
Soon they moved through the forest and we followed the trackers on a trail slightly above where the gorillas went. I saw a little bit easier path just below the one we were on, so decided to take it for the benefit of my knee. Suddenly I noticed I was right above a big male silverback I hadn’t noticed because he was so quiet. I worried I was too close, but he didn’t even look at me. I scrambled up the trail to be closer to the rest of the group and moved in behind Kira, who was looking down on Mark, the dominant silverback of the troop. Everyone snapped photos for several minutes, then Mark began to move. He was coming toward Kira! Her wide eyes looked up at me and she mouthed, “Do I just stay here?” I shook my head yes. Mark ambled up the slope, passing within 5 feet of Kira, and settled in a new, nest-like clearing, then turned his back on us and resumed munching on leaves from the vines dangling all around him. I wondered how it would feel to be surrounded by your favorite foods, all in easy arm’s reach.
Kira was photographing Mark when he decided to move to a new location–he walked within 5′ of Kira! When he settled in a new spot he sat with his back facing us.
Silverbacks weigh about 400 lbs. Their arms are massive and long, and their backs broad and bulky. The crown of their head rises up into a ridge that frames their face, giving it a menacing look, but when I watched Mark eat I saw a mellow being, just focused on his food and being near his family. Every now and then we heard a low rumble that reminded me of a cat’s purr, only an octave lower. After 10 minutes or so he turned around to face us and just watched calmly. My whole being buzzed with a blissful sensation. I felt joy in my heart at sharing space with another being whose species has been murdered and treated horribly for so many years by ours. How can they possibly trust us? Male gorillas’ hands were cut off by poachers to sell as ashtrays in foreign markets and babies were snatched from their mothers to be sold to zoos, though they rarely survived living in captivity. There are now less than 1000 mountain gorillas left in the world. Part of the money we paid for the permit goes to protecting their habitat from poaching, and to pay for a doctor that knows each gorilla.
We spent an hour in the presence of these magnificent and peaceful beings, observing each other respectfully, breathing in each other’s essence (sometimes we heard farting when we were near Mark, followed by a strong onion-like scent). I thought about the fact that our DNA is 98.5% the same as gorillas, so the whole time I looked for ways we are alike and wondered what our common ancestors must have been like. From following Koko, the gorilla who was raised by Penny Patterson in a facility on Stanford campus and learned to communicate with sign language, I knew that gorillas laugh and cry, and like to be tickled. I actually met Koko once, when I applied for an internship to work with Michael, one of the gorillas that was hoped to be her mate. Koko never fell for Michael as a partner, but they became friends and she taught him sign language. Though I was in awe at Michael and Koko’s size and power, I sensed a deep intelligence and calmness in their presence. Gorillas express grief and outrage at troop members being mistreated, but mostly they are shy, peaceful creatures. Males and females have long term relationships. Moms are strongly protective of their babies, which is why poachers taking babies from moms usually required killing the mother and traumatizing the infant. If you want to see a very graphic example of this, watch the film Gorillas in the Mist, or the newer one Virunga, which shows how recent political upheaval has decimated their population.
When Bernardo said it was time to go, none of us wanted to. We kept snapping just one last photo because there would be an irresistible sweet pose or playful interaction between the two little ones. Finally, we headed back down the little trail to meet our porters, then back to the beginning, our faces beaming with smiles, our hearts elated, and minds savoring what we had just experienced. My dream of 30 years had been realized, and I felt immensely satisfied. Did I have the power in myself to manifest such a perfect experience–especially how wonderful my knee felt? I was thriving! I felt deep gratitude for still being able to experience something somewhat rigorous and a bit risky at this stage in my life. Maybe the lesson is to keep on pursuing my dreams, even if they seem unreachable in the moment–they are a key to living life at its fullest!
You can see a slideshow I made that includes videos Kira and I took of our experience at https://youtu.be/6CA2Hdp3d1g