Sunday, November 9, 2014

Back to the US of A!

I've been back in the United States for a whirlwind two weeks; it feels like an eternity, frankly, since so much has changed in my life in that time. My last week in Kampala was a lovely way to leave - an appropriate amount of frantic-ness, a gradual winding down of work, two last game nights, eating my favorite dishes at the Embassy's world-class cafeteria for the last time, reassuring my increasingly-nervous cats, and completing the always-arduous check-out process.

There were a few stressful moments surrounding my evaluation and crates for the cats, but it all came together. I did end up buying two new crates as I decided the cats were just a little too big for the ones we had. Of course I couldn't decide this in time to purchase new crates through a reputable U.S. supplier, so I had to look on the local market. I found a great crate at the USPCA (albeit at an exorbitant price) and a sub-par crate at a local store (Game), also at an exorbitant price. I doctored the sub-par crate with the help of a neighbor and his drill so I could add in a million zip ties for security.

My last day at work flew by and culminated with an awesome lunch with my section, a combination of Lebanese mezze and Ugandan food. It was a perfect ending and not too sad, which I greatly appreciated. I finished up my last few emails, set up my out-of-office message, and took one last look at the section. Then it was time for one last ride in my car before it went to its new owner.

At home I spent the afternoon finishing packing, throwing out the remaining detritus of the last week, and prepping the cats' crates. Callaghan had moved under the couch on Wednesday and didn't seem to have come out much at all, so I was worried about him being dehydrated. I put water under there with him, but no dice. I had to move the couch and surprise him in order to get him in his carrier. Griffin, on the other hand, practically walked into his without any coaxing.

Motorpool was on time, and I got everything loaded and the keys turned over with no issues. Callaghan snapped out of his trance on the way there and started protesting which was, frankly, music to my ears. I had been afraid he'd just give up and not have the will to make it through the trip, so feisty was good. Traffic to the airport wasn't bad, and the expediter met us there to help with the cats.

Going through the first security screening wasn't too bad as they did a physical inspection of the crates so I didn't have to remove the cats (worry #1 eliminated). The price for the cats was $100 less than I'd anticipated, so that was a bonus! Check-in took forever, but I appreciated that they took their time to make sure no steps were missed. The cats each got their own porter and came with me through immigration. We said goodbye outside the gate, and the expediter went to the plane with them and watched them get loaded. He came back and found me at the gate afterwards and confirmed they were safe and happy, which I greatly appreciated.

Boarding was on time, and we took off a few minutes early. The flight attendants confirmed the captain was aware of the cats and had the cargo cabin at the right temperature. I didn't sleep much on the flight thanks to my seatmate who liked to elbow and kick and flail. We arrived in Amsterdam a bit early, and I headed to the transfer service desk to check on the cats. They weren't yet at the pet hotel but had been unloaded from the plane and were with the right people (and both alive, very important to know).

I indulged in a massage to soothe my tired-from-traveling self and then wandered and window shopped and grabbed something to eat. Then it was back to the transfer service desk to check on the cats. The pet hotel folks confirmed they were there and smiling. I didn't believe this last part but appreciated the inclination to soothe me. I settled down near the gate and took advantage of the free wifi until boarding. The boarding gate was way too small for the size of the plane, so I stood while waiting to board, knowing it was another eight hours of sitting ahead of me.

Boarding was on time, but there was a wait to take off, and it was clear we would arrive on time but not early. I finished watching The Fault in Our Stars, not a great choice on the plane since I was sobbing at the end (just like I did reading the book!), but oh well. I had started watching the movie on the previous flight, ending as the characters were on a plane landing in Amsterdam, as I landed in Amsterdam. Fascinating coincidence. The lunch meal was surprisingly tasty - meatballs with mashed red cabbage - and I watched more movies. Sleep was just not happening.

We landed on time but of course had to take one of the ridiculous people movers to the arrivals hall. We arrived at the same time as all 600 million other international flights that day, so the lines were horrid. They were worse in my mind than in reality as I was through in about thirty minutes, but it was still frustrating. The greeter guy did welcome me back home when he saw my dip passport, which was sweet.

I made a beeline for our baggage carousel and saw the KLM baggage desk with a large dog crate next to it and, thank goodness, two cat crates. Two identical cat crates. Which was not what I had put on the plane in Entebbe. But they were indeed my two cats inside them, and they seemed none the worse for wear. Both cats greeted me and purred and rubbed against my hand, and I truly relaxed for the first time in a week. I asked the desk attendant if she wanted to check my claim tags to prove ownership; she didn't. Griffin's crate had a note on it that his sub-par crate had been swapped out in Amsterdam. Stellar customer service, I tell you.

One of my bags came around the carousel quickly; the second one never did. It wasn't until about twenty minutes had passed that they made an announcement that a lot of bags from that flight had been moved to the side to make space. Sure enough, there was my bag. Then the challenge was getting a porter to help us get through customs and to a taxi. This was, amazingly, the hardest part of the whole day. 600 million international flights at one time, remember?

Finally someone came to help me, and we headed to customs. I have never in my life stood in line for customs in any country. Especially not for thirty minutes. There was no distinction for goods to declare or not; it was one massive line. When we finally reached the front of the line I told the CBP guy that I had live animals; he didn't blink and asked if I had wet food for them. I said no, he waved us through. Amazing.

There was no line for a taxi, so I loaded up into a waiting SUV and was on my way! The fall colors were at peak, and as we wound through the NoVa neighborhoods I was struck by how neat and pretty and clean everything was. Definitely a culture shock.

We arrived at the apartment building and unloaded. Check-in was fast and friendly, and the cats and I were soon home. I unpacked the boxes I'd sent ahead of time with cat litter and food, etc. and let the cats out. They both went straight to the water bowl and drank and drank and drank. I refilled it twice that night.

The rest of the night was spent unpacking and repacking (for a week-long training trip to another state the next day) and ordering in delivery and watching tv and relishing in being back. Both cats were very cuddly and enjoyed snuggling that night. The next morning I couldn't find Callaghan; twenty frantic minutes later I realized he was inside the suitcase under the bed. He spent most of the day under the bed, probably having some transition issues, but came out about an hour before I had to leave to cuddle. I left him on the bed on top of a t-shirt I'd worn, which seemed to soothe him. D said he spent the next day on that but finally warmed up to her and was back to normal by Monday afternoon.

Whew. That's a lot of writing for a blog post, so I'll leave it there. Next up - DC explorations interspersed with long-overdue safari posts.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Updates Coming Soon

I never meant to fall so far behind on blogging, but it has been a busy couple of months. I have so many stories to share, from East Africa safaris to PCS updates to DC exploring. Last night I met up with the lovely ladies of Tuk & Tam, SubjectVerbObject, and Novakistan, and that was the inspiration I needed to get even this short post up.

I'll write a detailed travel post soon, but - spoiler alert - the cats and I made it safely to DC with all our baggage. I took off for training in another state the very next day and then had an awesome visit with my father, so this is my first 'free' weekend since getting back to the United States. But I have plans to see friends each of the next several days and look forward to lots of catching up and lots more luxuriating in being in DC. I have ambitious plans to make it to Trader Joe's, a farmer's market, and the outlet mall in the next few days, but I may just do some get-over-jet-lag sleeping in too :-).

That's all to say that I hope to make use of the next few months and get caught up on the blog! For now, here's a couple gratuitous cat photos, taken by my awesome friend D who moved in to my apartment while I was away at training to ensure Callaghan and Griffin made a good transition.

He is actually a very happy and loving cat, but his facial expressions don't always match his personality.

Callaghan has adopted this scratcher as his new bed.

All is right with the world :-).

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Reflections on a 'Zen PCS'

It's eight days until I leave Kampala. It seems like just yesterday I was brushing off remarks about leaving soon saying I still had eight months. It's harder to do that when you can count the days on your hands.

I'm sitting in my living room surrounded by cats and boxes. The movers did an amazing job yesterday on my storage shipment, and they've been similarly great today. In an hour they'll be back with the scale and crates, and it will all be on its way. The cats are, per their usual, going with the flow, though they have been pretty freaked out by the noises the movers make. The cats have been spending the days in the comfort of a locked room with their litter box, food, water, and a dwindling number of toys. No toys left now, though the boxes seem to suffice. They slept last night on the tower of flat, empty boxes lined up waiting for today.

A few months ago, while watching several friends and their frantic PCS preparation, I decided I didn't want that this year. PCSing sucks enough as it is without the extra anxiety, and I decided then to try for a 'Zen PCS'. What this would look like/entail wasn't entirely clear even when I first envisioned it, but I decided to do as much as I could to control what I could control and not fret over things I couldn't. Eight days away from the end I can't say I've been entirely successful with this approach, but this conscious decision has definitely helped my attitude overall. As has the occasional Nyquil on the nights I can't fall asleep thanks to a racing mind and seemingly endless to-do lists.

I just paused to let GSO in to deliver the welcome kit. I am actually excited because it includes an AFN box, and I haven't had AFN or DSTV in almost a year. So television will be fun this week! Plus the whole kit is brand new, and I saved a few things from my bed that I'll donate when I leave, so I hope to get some decent sleep this week even with the welcome kit stuff.

There have been definitely been some panicky moments along the way, most to do with travel orders and flights. I reserved my flights (and space for the cats) in July, but my orders weren't cut until mid-September. In the middle of this GSA awarded AA/BA the contract for the city-pair fare between Entebbe and Washington, DC. If I was going on home leave first it wouldn't matter. I'm not. So I had to shell out an additional $600 just to be able to fly KLM. That hurt. It doesn't count the $900 it will cost for them to fly (thanks to a long layover in Amsterdam I need to pay for the use of the pet hotel). Pets are oh so costly to move, but it's so incredibly worth it.

I didn't get any bites on selling my car until very recently. Luckily I think I have a buyer; just need to sign the contract, take payment, and give over the keys. This could have been a super anxiety-causing process (especially after I watched D struggle with this until the day she left, finally selling at a loss to a non-diplomat, which meant the buyer had to pay mega taxes; I did NOT want to have to repeat this), but it looks to be working out.

My driver has several jobs lined up that should amount to full time, and I have a lead on a job for my housekeeper. So that's one less thing to stress about.

I spent much of June and July prepping for packout and doing lots of purging. I'm so glad I did, because it meant I didn't have to worry about it while my mom was here or stress about it in September when I was acting section chief and had many, many fires to put out. This was where the zen approach really came into play - I decided to do as much sorting/purging as I could but to ultimately let things happen as they might. This took a lot of pressure off, mentally, and let me enjoy the process. Well, enjoy as much as one can enjoy such a thing. But I did have a good afternoon taking apart my television and electronics and boxing it up. That made me feel like I was accomplishing something! Several local and U.S. holidays helped me not stress out in the final weeks - extra time to get ready without losing my weekends entirely.

My big fail was with consumables. I brought/ordered way too much and couldn't use it all, even with several weeks of 'creative' cooking. I have learned a lot for next time, when I'll stick to liquids and know I can order dry goods as needed. Luckily my neighbors were willing to take all of the extras off my hands and redistribute.

This brings me to the hardest part of leaving. The people. I was very sad this summer to say goodbye to good friends and colleagues. And, as always, some awesome new people moved in, including into my building. The new neighbors have been kind enough to include me in weekly game nights, which has been amazing. I am so sad we've had such a short time together. This is almost always the case, but it sucks nonetheless. Such is FS life, and I know our paths will cross again.

I'm very sad to leave my section and my colleagues, even though I'm mentally ready to move on. The past few months have been quite stressful at work, for many reasons. If you've read news about Uganda in the past month or so you may know some of this. Disengaging is always hard, but it has to be done. I'm getting there. I have a full week of work next week to check out (mentally as well as actual paperwork!) and finish any last-minute things I forgot to tell people about. It's always fascinating to see that - while your own world is completely upended by a PCS - things just keep chugging along at the Embassy. Perspective, folks.

Anyway, the movers will be back in a few minutes, and I need to herd the cats back into a locked room. For the last time. Lots more last times to come this week. I'll try to keep channeling zen. And, overall, this PCS has been fairly smooth. Things always fall into place. How much effort I put into worrying about how/when they'll get there doesn't affect the end result. And I feel like I've done a decent job minimizing said effort, racing mind at bedtime notwithstanding. And that, dear readers, may be the key to a Zen PCS.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Bwindi Gorilla Tracking

I didn't sleep well at all the night before tracking, for a number of reasons. I was worried about Mom (though she slept soundly through the night, thankfully); I was worried about how I'd do the next day on the trek; and the bed was supremely uncomfortable and tilted. We woke in the am, and Mom felt well enough to eat a little breakfast and attempt the trek. We ate and made sure we had everything and then loaded into the car for the (thankfully) short ride to the tracking starting point.

In preparation for this trek I've been really stepping up my workouts since January, working out religiously 4-5 times a week to try and build strength and endurance. While I'd done a lot of resistance work on the elliptical and steep inclines on the treadmill, I hadn't, though, been able to do any hiking. I learned very quickly that I was not in nearly as good shape as I had hoped. Even the 15 minute hike from the car park to the briefing point had me a bit worried. I relaxed a little when our driver said all the gorilla groups were pretty nearby today and they didn't think we'd have too long a hike. There were 40 of there that morning, eight each for the five gorilla groups available for tracking at Rushaga. We had asked for the easiest group, but I think those requests are pretty much ignored - I don't know anybody who's ever gotten what they requested, easy or hard. The rest of our group were from various European countries. One couple was staying at our lodge, and the other three ladies were backpackers who wanted to finish as soon as possible so they could head back to Kampala for an early morning flight the next morning. We were assigned the Mishaya family, introduced to our guide, and M&D and I hired porters to carry our bags and help with the steeper parts of the mountain.

By 8:30 we were off. We were starting from nearby so hiked to the beginning of the trail and were off. It was straight uphill - albeit on a beautiful, wide, well-maintained trail - and we went at way too fast a pace for me for 15 minutes. At the first rest stop the guide explained we'd hike at the pace of the slowest member of the group (me). So I reluctantly took the lead. We kept going uphill for about an hour, taking more breaks than I think the Europeans would have liked. The trail finally evened out a bit as we got toward the top of this mountain, and I was able to go quite a ways without stopping by this point. We reached a crossroads and stopped. All along I'd been asking our guide if the trackers had found them, knowing that if I knew there was an end point I'd be more motivated to go on. He finally said we'd rest here because the trackers had found the gorillas' path and weren't far from us.

I sank onto a log to rest and relax and breathed a sigh of relief. They weren't far! I had done it! Yes, it had been hard, but I had done it. It was only 10:00 - we'd be home by early afternoon! Oh, if only.

After 30 minutes our guide said it was time to go. They were about 30 minutes from us. He had me get in the lead, and we headed down. Not down the nice trail, but down the side of the mountain. The extremely steep mountain, machetes blazing a trail as we went. Down was technically tricky but not terrible. But as we kept going farther down, I started to panic about having to go back up again. Fifteen minutes passed, twenty, thirty, forty-five, and we didn't see or hear any sign of gorillas or trackers. Then we started to go back up a slope. At that point the guide sensed by frustration and let everyone else go ahead of me. That made me feel better since I didn't feel I was holding anybody up. But as we continued to go up through thick forest (they don't call it Bwindi Impenetrable Forest for nothing), I couldn't focus on gorillas. All I could focus on was having to get off this mountain after we found the gorillas. This was when I started to struggle mentally and began to think I couldn't go on.

In addition to our guide and the three porters there were two armed guards - one police, one from UWA. They were there to assist in case we encountered unhabituated gorillas or forest elephants or chimps, but they also helped blaze trails. My porter and one of the guards were with me with everyone else up ahead and out of eyesight. We were now climbing over, under, and through very thick trees and bushes, and it was extremely muddy and slippery. I was starting to doubt myself and losing balance. I was just about to give up when I heard a sound. A gorilla! I mustered some more strength and moved on. At this point I could only climb about 10-15 feet before taking a break to reassess footing and catch my breath again, so it was slow going. It was noon, ninety minutes after we'd started down the side of the mountain. Now I started to panic that I'd miss the hour we were allotted because everyone else was with them and I was so far behind. I found out later that the rest of the group wasn't nearly as far ahead as I thought, and the guard/porter just kept telling me they were already at the gorillas to try and motivate me. Which had the opposite effect because I couldn't get anybody to tell me how much farther it was, and I was frustrated. I do well with numbers. When I run I count strides/minutes to the next interval. In Zumba I count steps/beats. On the elliptical I count revolutions. It helps me pace myself and motivates me to keep going. So when the answers to my questions were "not far" or "just a little bit" I started to lose it. I think this is when I started crying a bit. Thank goodness this is about the time the brush started to thin and I saw the rest of the group. At almost the same time I saw my first gorilla - a little baby boy of 18 months - and started to cry harder. My mom caught my eye and came to give me a hug. I told her I had no idea how I was getting off the mountain. She told me she loved me and we'd do it together. And then she pointed out the silverback.

And then, for the next hour, I forgot about the trek and how tired I was and how scared I was about getting back out. And I was able to enjoy the moment. Which was, it must be said, pretty darn spectacular.

An encounter with the gentle giants that are the mountain gorillas can't be explained in words. You're face to face with animals who share an astonishing amount of DNA with you, and you start to realize what an amazing privilege it is to spend an hour with them.

We were tracking the Mishaya group, which has one silverback, Birungi, seven females, and two young ones - the 18 month old boy and a three year old girl.  At first only Birungi and the baby were really visible. We could hear some of the others around us and occasionally caught a flash of black, but it was extremely thick brush.

By this point the rangers were seemingly so happy that I'd made it that they were helping to make sure I could see and take photographs. One of the rangers beckoned me away from the main group. I followed him, ducking under some brush and not sure where we were going. Then he stopped and pointed, and I looked, and I was face to face with a female gorilla sitting in the middle of a cleared path. She was probably fifteen feet away and sitting in the middle of the path, munching away on greenery. Another, smaller, female came over to join her for a bit. I was still the only one from the group in the area. Finally the two females wandered off. The ranger led me a little farther toward where they had been so we could look at the silverback and baby. The brush was pretty thick, and so the ranger started using his machete to cut a little bit away so we could see. Birungi took exception to this and started to get up and charge toward us. The ranger was between Birungi and me, and I think the movement was more a warning than true aggression. Mom and D asked me later if I was scared, and I really wasn't. That didn't really even enter my thoughts.

I rejoined the group and had to maneuver a little harder for good views. We watched the little baby swinging in the tree and teasing his dad - pulling his hair and making branches hit him. Birungi wasn't even a little fazed. He laid down on his side for a bit, which was a great opportunity to see his hands and some of his other features that had been masked by the bush. I know everyone always says it's uncanny how alike gorillas and humans are, but until you actually see it I'm not sure you really 'get' it. Or at least I didn't. Baby boy was quite a ham and showed off for us. I took a great photo of Mom looking at me and the camera with the baby in the background. I call it the best selfie ever, even if it's not quite a selfie. I don't get selfies. I mean, I get the concept, I just don't get the appeal. So maybe that's a poor comparison. But it's a great photo!

Birungi got up started leading the family a little farther away, and we followed. He stopped again and was joined by the larger female I'd seen earlier. The 18 month old - who never strayed more than a few feet from his dad - sat in between them. And there the three sat for several minutes, a sweet little family lineup. I don't know if that was his mother, but it was still lovely.

After a while Birungi moved farther away, and we followed at a respectable distance. Several family members, including both young ones, followed closely. Then Birungi chose a female - and I'm still not sure which one, because all I could see of her were her feet - and began mating. The rangers told us this was rare to see, and we were very lucky. The session was quite long and not particularly interesting since all we saw was Birungi's back and the female's feet and some slight movement. What was fascinating, though, was watching the little ones. The baby was in front of Birungi most of the time, presumably feeding, and we didn't see him at first. The little girl, though, was quite hilarious. She lay down on her stomach facing her dad and watching, seemingly rapt. She wasn't eating, just observing. At one point she had her head propped in her hands, elbows on the ground. At one point the baby boy seemed to emerge from in between the mating pair, prompting giggles and jokes about a quick pregnancy. He then sat down and picked bugs off his dad for a few minutes. The girl finally turned on her side, facing us, and I was able to capture some of the best photos of the day. 

Birungi eventually finished and started to move on. His pace was quicker now, which was fascinating because this is when the rangers said our hour was up. For the entire hour the family had stayed pretty close by, not moving all that fast. Now, though, they seemed to know their human interaction for the day was done, and they moved off into the forest. We watched them go, sighting one additional female who had been farther away and who now walked past us following the rest of the family. And that was that. Amazing.

Now the panic set back in. How on earth was I going to get off of this mountain? I was not in any condition to go back the way we'd come. The rangers told us they had a shortcut to the trail, only ten minutes of uphill through the bush and we'd rejoin the trail and have lunch. We set off, me back in the lead. That didn't last long, as I felt extra pressure going first, and I asked for the others to go ahead again. By this time the adrenaline was starting to wear off, my feet were starting to feel blistery, and I was exhausted. My balance was declining steadily, and I needed to stop more often to regroup and plan my next steps. This area was even more slippery than some of the earlier paths.

The rangers tried to keep my mind busy by talking about life in the big city (Kampala) and exclaiming over what we'd just seen. I appreciated their efforts but was focused on not falling off the side of the mountain. Finally I could see more sunlight and knew the trail was ahead. I made one last push and emerged onto the large trail, exuberant and so incredibly relieved. The rangers were whispering excitedly and pointing down the trail. At first I thought they were pointing at the rest of the group, but it was actually a duiker that had just popped out of the bush. It's rare to see these shy antelopes, so I like to think it was rewarding me for making it to the trail!

I rejoined the group and sat down to eat lunch. I found out that my 45 minutes of going uphill had been only 5-10 minutes behind everyone else. So. yeah. Not ten minutes to the trail. At this point I knew that it really was, literally, all downhill from here, and I finally relaxed and started to reflect. We were all still in happy shock by what we'd just experienced, and it was fun to start recounting stories. After we finished eating we repacked our gear and started down. It took us only about 30 minutes to make it down to the briefing station, where we arrived just as it started to drizzle. Our guide met us there with hugs; he'd been in phone contact with the rangers and knew we'd had a tough climb.

I had heard before that we'd receive a certificate from UWA, but I'd forgotten, so it was really sweet to have a little 'graduation' ceremony with the rangers and porters. We generously tipped them and headed to the car. I am completely serious when I say I wouldn't have made it without them.

We headed back to the car, drove back to the lodge, made it to our rooms, and collapsed. Mom and I managed to get our icky hiking boots off before needing to get our feet up. We eventually took turns showering - though the poor water pressure made it very hard to feel like we got any of the dirt off - and then just laid on our beds listing off the litany of aches and pains that were starting to appear now that the adrenaline was well and truly gone.

Tracking the gorillas was by far the hardest thing I've ever done physically - and, because of that, one of the hardest mentally as well - but I am so thankful I persevered and completed the trek. What an amazing experience, one I'll treasure forever. And while the trek was incredibly difficult - don't get me wrong - I think a big part of my struggle was not getting accurate answers about distance to things. Anyway, there are some pretty amazing stories to tell for a long time to come about this day!

I've consolidated some photos into collages below. None of the scenery pics accurately depict the difficulty of the terrain or the steepness of the mountain, but it does give a glimpse into the impenetrability of the forest. I have hundreds of photos with only small glimpses of black among the green; these are some of the best in terms of visibility.

More posts on the rest of the trip coming soon; it's been quite busy since I've gotten back, but I'm plugging away. This one was by far the hardest to recap, and I fear I haven't done it justice. As more occurs to me I'll try to insert updates.






Monday, September 8, 2014

Getting to the good stuff

It's pretty daunting to start writing blog posts about three straight weeks of awesome vacationing and safari-ing, but what makes it even more daunting is that the first part of the trip was the most emotional and physically/emotionally difficult and physically/emotionally rewarding. So I think I'll break it up a bit so I don't have to overwhelm myself.

My mom and our friend D arrived late on a Saturday night. I spent the day making sure their rooms were ready, last-minute grocery shopping, and napping. I had a mani/pedi in the evening and headed straight to the airport. Their flight was on time, and it was so exciting to see them come through the doors after immigration and customs! We had a thankfully short trip back into Kampala, and I got them home and settled in and to bed. The next day we had brunch at one of my favorite haunts followed by a quick city tour. After a short rest at home we headed for dinner and a show at the Ndere Cultural Center. The dancers and performers were absolutely wonderful, and I'm glad I finally went. The show was a lot longer than it needed to be, especially since I had to work the next day.

While I worked on Monday, M&D toured a few Kampala sights with my driver and then picked me up after work. We had a nice dinner out and a quiet evening. Tuesday they had lunch at the Embassy with me and then got to sit in on one of my outreach sessions and meet all my coworkers. We had dinner at home that night and packed for our first adventure - gorilla tracking and safari in Queen Elizabeth National Park!

Wednesday morning, though, didn't start well. Mom had somehow gotten food poisoning and wasn't really in any shape for a nine hour drive. We were headed out for six days, though, so unfortunately she didn't have a lot of options. We brought a ton of meds and ziploc bags with us and told our driver we might need frequent stops. It was a very rough journey - literally, and especially for Mom - but we finally made it to our lodge after 11.5 hours on the road. Mom was showing some signs of recovery but definitely couldn't stomach food that night for dinner and went to bed early. At that point we weren't sure she'd be well enough to trek in the morning, though the good news was that she wasn't contagious and wouldn't pose a health risk to the gorillas if she did feel better in the am. D and I had a quiet dinner with our driver/guide and headed to bed.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Coming Soon: East African Wildlife Extravaganza Recaps

My mom and our good friend D just left Kampala after a phenomenal three week visit. We spent 2.5 weeks straight on safari (minus travel time) and accomplished/saw so much. We visited three parks in Uganda and then three more in Tanzania and had an absolutely amazing time. We tracked mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (the hardest/most amazing thing I've ever done), saw the Big 5 and much more, and learned a lot about different cultures in Uganda and Tanzania. What an adventure! And how special was it to be able to share my life here with my mom? I know when she visited me in South Africa (pre-FS) for a similarly-packed itinerary, it was so special for her to get a glimpse into my life. They even got to visit the Embassy and meet my colleagues and observe a session of one of my outreach initiatives.

I anticipate it will take some time for me to sort through the many thousands of photos I took and to recap our amazing travels, so bear with me.

More coming soon...

Friday, July 25, 2014

Just an Update on Life in Kampala

I haven't posted about regular life in quite a while. Let's see, what's been happening?

It's departure season. The Embassy is emptying out, almost on cue, as people leave on R&R and PCS. I have only cried twice so far, including once tonight as my good friend and travel buddy D left. We'll see each other in DC in a few months, but it's still hard to see her leave. We have been friends since A-100 and have had a blast in Kampala together, so it feels like the end of an era for this tour.

Departure season also coincides with busy season for work, so I thankfully don't have a lot of time to dwell on people leaving. I like staying busy, and that's easy to do these days especially. Plus new people are starting to arrive, which is always a fun time.

My own departure is just three short months away. Departing off-cycle is turning out to be great as I can learn from others about what needs to happen and feel like I have a little more time to prepare. My flights home are booked, the cats have reserved space, my packout is scheduled, my training schedule is set, I have housing in DC, and my travel orders should be done in the next week or so. Every weekend I'm tackling a different room in an effort to purge and clean out. I've been giving away a lot of stuff to my housekeeper and love feeling lighter with each box that's no longer in my apartment.

At the same time, I've been acquiring some great paintings as a reminder of my time here. D and I spent several weekends at a couple of galleries talking with artists and looking around. I ended up buying six paintings from three artists, all of whom I met and got to learn about the paintings from. I spent more money than I had planned, but I fell head over heels in love with these last two paintings that I splurged on. I spent an hour trying to choose between them (they're part of a series and go well together) and finally decided I couldn't decide and needed both. The artist gave me a deal that we both could be comfortable with, and I haven't regretted it - I love looking at them every day! All six are awesome reminders of my time in Uganda in different ways.

My cats are doing well. They had shots a few weeks ago, and Callaghan had an immune reaction that kept him pretty low for a few days. It was a little scary to see him so lethargic, but he bounced right back and is my wonderful baby once again. Griffin has become more of a cuddle bug lately and loves to be with me wherever I am. I'm not complaining!

Lola has become quite a loyal and friendly cat. She was spayed a few weeks ago but recovered very quickly and is quick to greet us when we leave for work in the morning and come back in the evening. She has two surviving kittens, but they are petrified of people and run if you so much as look at them. All three spend time on my porch, though I'm working to wean them off food from humans so they become self-sufficient. One of the kittens has a home if we can catch it. That's a big if. The older kitten from Lola's first litter has been resettled with his forever family and is happy as can be.

And in very exciting news, my mom arrives soon! She and one of our friends are flying over for several weeks of safari and exploring. I can't wait! There will be lots of travel posts, but I know it'll take me forever to get them up after they leave because we'll be pretty go-go-go the whole time they're here.

It was sad not to be home in NH a few weeks ago for my dad's retirement party and to meet my parents' new puppy, but FaceTime does make it a little easier. Knowing I'll be home for Christmas again this year is very comforting. I'm very much looking forward to time in DC and do wish I had a little more time there, but I'm also getting more and more excited for Beirut.

Time is flying, and all's well here.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Masai Mara: Day 5

Sorry for the extended hiatus; apparently uploading gobs of safari photos to Facebook and Blogger eats through my monthly internet bandwidth pretty quickly! Now it's finally July, albeit almost the middle of the month, and I can finish up the Mara posts.

I woke up on our final day at Olonana feeling much, much better. I could see out of both eyes, which was about the best thing I could hope for! We had another 6:15 departure scheduled, so it was an early start again. When I met D and Joseph at the vehicle, Joseph proposed going back to the Mara River area we'd gone two days before to try and see a crossing. It looked like it'd be a beautiful day, and we had time, so we decided to do that. From what others had said about that area the day before, most of the herd had moved back to Serengeti. Nobody had seen cheetahs in two days either. But, we'd been having great luck, so we headed out.

We drove by the leopard-sighting area just to see, but no luck. No sightings or roarings. We did, however, happen upon a family of crested cranes - two adults and several babies. We stopped to watch for several minutes - I'd never seen babies, and they were adorable! Both parents showed them how to look for food, and it was just generally adorable.

As we passed the gate at Little Governor's Camp, the ranger told us he could see rhino up ahead. Joseph was skeptical at first, but pretty soon we too could see rhino. It was the mom and two babies from the night before. This time we got to a spot where Joseph thought they'd cross and watched as they came closer. Sure enough, they crossed right in front of us! Joseph told us the older baby was supposed to have left her mom a while ago but was stubborn and wouldn't go, so now they were a trio. The little one is a male, and he was much more headstrong. We had a great time watching them - our closest rhino sightings yet - and got some great photos.

After that we headed for a long trip to the other side of the Triangle area. We saw some hyena and tons of antelope but didn't really stop until we were closer in. We came across a herd of zebra, and one of them stuck out. He had clearly been attacked by a crocodile in a crossing and had lost a big chunk of his hide. While he was walking fine and eating, Joseph said it would likely be a fatal wound. Poor guy.

We moved on in search of lions, having noticed that there were no large herds of wildebeest on either side of the river. We went up to the hill where we'd seen the third pair of mating lions two days before and found nothing. Just then Joseph took a call on the radio, and we headed out to see three lions - two large males and a female. Joseph thinks the female and larger male were the mating pair and the other male may have been fighting for dominance. They were all pretty sleepy when we found them, and we watched them for more than thirty minutes to see if one or the other males would mate and/or if the males would fight. Neither happened, so we moved on to a trio of lionesses who had just had a botched attempt to take down a wildebeest, as another vehicle told us. They were pretty lazy when we saw them, though one did walk around our car and get very close. Joseph told us not to look her in the eyes, which was hard to do as we wanted to watch what she was doing. Lots of side eyes and using the camera to see. She finally settled down with the other two and went back to sleep.

It was about time to start heading back, so we turned around and drove back towards Olonana. It was very quiet today, few other vehicles but absolutely gorgeous weather. There were lots of antelope around, but we didn't really stop until we turned off the main road to check out a string of 'picnic' trees, places where vehicles can set up a meal in the shade - checking, of course, for predators first. Joseph was looking for a leopard who lived in the area, so our eyes were trained on the tops of the trees. They probably should have been focused on the ground as well, as we found two large male lions underneath the second tree! They weren't very bothered by us and barely looked up to acknowledge our presence. We checked the other trees for the unlikely presence of a leopard but found nothing. Oh well.

On the way back we detoured to a section of the Mara River we hadn't seen before to check out some large crocs. There were only a few of them that day, though, and not nearly as large as in Selous or Murchison. Joseph told us this spot was also known as "BBC Crossing" as so much footage is filmed there during the migration of amazing crossings. We used our imaginations. We did finally see a couple of hartebeest - some of my favorite antelope but apparently not too common in Masai Mara.

A few giraffes and a hyena popping out of a bush were the final sightings as we made our way back to Olonana. After changing clothes, finishing packing, and one last lunch overlooking the river, it was time to go. We bade farewell to our amazing hosts and promised to come back. Joseph was gleeful that our plane was slightly delayed, so he took us leopard spotting one more time. We were almost to the clump of trees where we'd seen the leopards when we heard the roar of a plane - our plane! It was fifteen minutes early. We turned around and sped to the airstrip, stopping only to observe a large monitor lizard with a missing tail.

We made it to the airstrip just as the plane turned around and the pilots emerged, so we weren't late. More goodbyes, and we were off. It was just us and one other woman on board; we made one stop to pick up another couple and then headed to Nairobi.

As we landed at Wilson Airport we noticed a red carpet at the next terminal and inquired who was landing. The President, everybody said excitedly. We wavered between wanting to stick around and see the hoopla and wanting to get to the other airport without being stuck in presidential traffic and chose the former. We arrived at Jomo Kenyatta Intl Airport with more than three hours to kill but were able to check our bags right away. We walked the terminal several times, poking into souvenir shops and checking out the wares. D ran into a few of her contacts from Uganda, so we spent some time chatting with them and then grabbed a bite to eat at the very crowded only restaurant in the terminal. Finally it was time to board. Boarding was long and chaotic - I never understand why airports don't use the jetways except as stairs and instead bus you to far-off parking spots - and then we were off.

We landed exactly at 11:45, unfortunately, and it took a while to get through immigration and wait for our bags. Our driver was waiting and, thankfully, the ride home was blissfully quick. You never know how traffic will be. Still, I didn't get to bed until 2am and had to be up a few hours later. The next day was rough, but I made it through, and this trip was definitely worth it! It's not too long until the next safari, so stay tuned!



Mama and baby crested crane

Family forage time!

Mama and two babies.

Pretty rhinos!

Crossing the ravine.


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Smelling the air, not, as we thought, sticking out her tongue.

Mama and daughter.

Crossing the road.


Poor zebra :-(.

Lioness and male #1.


Male #2.

So gorgeous!

One of the three hunters.


Checking out our vehicle.

Lots of scars, poor dear.


And, all is right with the world again.

Surprise!

Cox Hartebeest.

BBC Crossing



Lovely markings!

This guy was in a bush on the side of the road and surprised us!

Cattle at the manyatta closest to Olonana.

Tail-less monitor lizard.


Sunday, June 22, 2014

Masai Mara: Day 4 Part 3

We left at four for our final afternoon game drive, sad to realize we only had 24 hours left at Olonana. This drive was, spoiler alert, the only one of the whole trip where we did not see lions. We did, however, see the other four of the Big 5.

Shortly after entering the park we found a tower of giraffes who were very content to pose for us among the acacia trees. I don't know about you, but giraffes and acacia trees are quintessential safari images for me.

Joseph was a man on a singular mission today, hell-bent on finding a leopard. We weren't really complaining, because we saw some pretty neat things and some different areas of the park. We had two and a half hours before we needed to be out of the gates and intended to make the most of it. We headed to an area known to be home to a large male leopard. We didn't find him but had a grand time with a pair of lilac-breasted rollers and then a couple of snake eagles.

Then, heading back to the leopard area from this morning, we happened upon a colony of safari ants moving their nest. Thousands of these sizable black ants moved in impressive order to and from the old nest, ferrying larva and food to the new location. We stopped and watched them as they crossed the road for about 10 minutes. D, who adores ants in motion, got out to get a better look with Joseph; they both tried to get close enough to observe without being bitten by the soldier ants intent on keeping them away.

This was about the time when I got sunscreen in my eye. A sad tradition, I almost always have a drive on a safari when my super-duper SPF 100 (seriously) sunscreen melts on my face and migrates to my eye, irritating it to the point of not being able to see. Water flushes and time are the only antidotes, but it's painful and frustrating. My left eye was the compromised one, but this time my right eye wasn't feeling up to compensating, so I was basically visually impaired for the remainder of the drive. I was pouring water in my eyes as much as I could and doing lots of blinking, but it wasn't helping. I tried alternating covering one eye and then the other, which helped some; it was basically too painful to keep both eyes open. My eyes were watering like crazy, so I also looked like I was crying, but there wasn't a whole lot anyone could do. So, I made do.

We stopped next to another vehicle and located three rhino in a stand of trees, very close to where we'd seen the first rhino on Day 2. This was a mama and two babies. We never got great views, but we did see them again the next day. As we were watching a vehicle pulled up with two U.S. PhD students who work with a rhino tracking/protection unit from the Ann K. Taylor Foundation (AKTF). We talked to them for a few minutes - one went to Duke and noticed I was wearing a Georgetown hat, so we laughed about rivalry - and they asked Joseph for an update on a particular rhino. I looked up the AKTF later - seems like a good organization doing good things. Joseph was very positive about their impact.

It was about 6:00 by now, and we were headed for one last sweep of the leopard area from this morning before heading back. We'd been on the radio all day with people; nobody had seen any leopards for days. The only exception was a leopard that walked across the path of a few guests staying at Little Governor's Camp late the previous night. We were just passing Little Governor's Camp when another Olonana vehicle came on the radio:  leopards, on the move.

We sped up, and Joseph was beyond excited to get there in time to see not one, but two leopards. By this time I could barely see, but I was still determined to enjoy my fourth and fifth leopard sightings.

We arrived in the trees to find the other Olonana vehicle and one other there. Nobody seemed to see anything at that moment; Joseph was just asking where they'd last been seen when all of a sudden two leopards walk out of the bush and right in front of us. OMG. I have had three leopard sightings before, but nothing like this. This was a father and an adolescent son, who was really too old to be hanging around Dad still, and Dad was obviously aggrieved. They ambled around, occasionally resting in the bushes, almost out of sight, and covered a bit of distance as we tailed behind. They were EXACTLY where we'd heard the roar this morning. Amazing. Dad had a kill inside a bush and was intent on keeping the younger one away, so we were treated to a bit of roaring and growling. They were so close! I had never seen leopards so close before, even in a zoo. Unbelievable.

As I reflect now, it's easy to forget about how much pain I was in and how poorly I could see at all and how frustrated I was that it was dusk and photos weren't coming out, but this was one of the most stressful safari moments I've had for these reasons. I got some decent photos (totally by accident as I went through a million settings on my camera hoping something would come out), and I was trying to squint out of only one eye, so my vision was definitely compromised, but it still was a phenomenal experience. Our very own leap of leopards! They finally walked out of range, and we had to speed to make it to the gates, a bit late, but very energized. How amazingly cool was that? Joseph was even more excited than D and me, if that's possible. What an amazing end to the evening. Big 5, all in one day!!

We made it back to camp, and I was pretty miserable by now. I went to the bathroom and did some major eye flushes, which helped for a few seconds, and then we settled in for pre-dinner drinks. I was getting a bit cranky by now from the pain and inability to see, and I almost went to bed without eating, but I knew I was too hungry to make it to breakfast like that. D and I were some of the first to find a table, and we had a pretty quick dinner because I literally kept my eyes closed as much as possible and could never open both at once. She felt bad and told me I could leave anytime, but I stuck it out. Finally we headed back to the tents, and I managed to shower - which helped some - and lay out clothes for the next day. I settled into bed and tried to read, but my eyes were just not up to it. I put down the iPad and fell asleep quickly, relieved to be able to close both eyes and let them heal. I did feel MUCH better in the morning.


Afternoon giraffe!


This guy was just chilling, laying down in the grass.

Hello! So inquisitive.

Just gorgeous scenery.

Quintessential safari.

Lilac-breasted roller.

One of my favorite birds to see on safari.


Snake eagle - think this one was brown, but we also saw a black one.

Safari ant moving party.

Elephant crossing.


This was a very old elephant - shortened tusks, beat up ears, lots of battle scars. Still trucking along!

Mama rhino in the middle, one baby to the left, one to the right (barely visible).

LEOPARD!!!!!


This is Dad - he was much more camera shy.

And son, who did his best to pose.

Ignore the blur, focus on the pretty markings.

So incredibly gorgeous. And close!



Proof there really were two. Dad is on the left.


Last decent photo before he went into the bush to rejoin Dad.

Sunset giraffe to top things off.