GORILLAS IN OUR MIDST

A love affair lingers for years, possibly in relation to the emotions you invested in it. The oddest slivers of memory wedge themselves into your daily routine, and your thoughts constantly derail over a remembered ouch, or a recalled storm of attitudes, or a moment of thrilling fondness.

It's rare to have these moments captured as archives, but my year with Ananda Shields resulted in a library of remembrances. The letters I sent from the Congo while Ananda and I traveled to visit the mountain gorillas serve as the foundation for this project. I can't use the intimate footage of Ananda and me, or quote from her letters to me, so I've spent considerable energy hiring stand-ins for her as I slowly reconstruct the story. Even went back to Africa, which resulted in another project with the photographer Danielle Hubbard, who recorded my attempt to bring a new guitar to a pygmy living in the Bwindi Impenetrable Rainforest.

Gorillas In Our Midst has been grown over with the demands of other projects, even by other projects which resulted from my desire to get this project done. There is a 30-minute movie, another 18-minute short called "Burnt," and then the sprawling "Burn & Scar," which is the fictionalised version of the true story as it unfolds from the streets of Katmandu to the Congo and Amsterdam and to a motel room in Yellowstone, where Ananda suffers a stroke which ultimately drives me out of her life.

It's a fabulous story. 

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The following excerpt is from Chapter 4, where Seanie and his amour Ananda Shields travel out of Kampala to western Uganda and the home of the mountain gorilla.

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FROM CHAPTER FOUR: TRACKING KING KONG 

We have breakfast at a fancy yuppie place called “Sam’s” and find out that our driver into the Congo will be Rashid. A muslim driver, a wrinkle I hadn’t expected but had briefly feared in the new world order only a few months after 9/11. I admit I have a fleeting pang of regret at not having affixed the Canadian flags to our backpacks, and at not having manufactured the Canadian secret service anti-globalization I.D.’s with the warning to the reader that these particular hostages should be safely treated. But then I feel like a puny dickhead when I meet Rashid and find him to be a gentleman wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap.

We dash out of Kampala westward toward the jungle, past the touts on the highway hawking fresh tilapia (perch) out of Lake Victoria, past the lush pasture velt which tantalizes all erstwhile colonialists who imagine themselves at the controls of Uganda’s potential cash spigot, past the small towns filled pell mell with commerce, past shops and stands and one-man enterprises, past farmers’ combines and car junkyards, past my usual surprise to find that everyone in the ‘developing’ world is a businessperson yoked to the same illusions of comfort and retirement we see advertised at halftime or during ‘Friends’ and ‘Frasier.’ We hurtle past the lives of black men and women and children who are just like me except they work harder and have less money, toward the gorilly, who lie content in the bush, farting and snoring, unaware that a couple from California or Zurich or Tokyo will pay easily more than a year’s average Ugandan wage to spend one hour in their midst.

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The gorilla is the eco-yuppie’s zenith, the acme of lip service to environmental awareness, that moral fire so bright in the hearts of our generation. There are only 600 of the beasties left, trapped in a wedge of forest owned (ha ha) by three countries whose names raise shudders among my friends: Rwanda, Uganda, and the former Zaire. Only four families or troops of gorilly have been habituated to human visitors, and each takes in a half-dozen people for one hour a day. Presuming constant sell-outs, only 8760 people may visit gorilla gorilla beringei (the mountain gorilla, different from the lowland gorilla of West Africa) in its own house in one year. If 25 years is a generation, then only 219,000 people will pay their respects to the gorilla, or roughly 0.00004 percent of the world’s population. Since I visited the gorillas in Rwanda in 1988, I have not met a single person who has done the same, such is the scarcity of the event. And yet the visit is as easy as pie, you’ll see.

Time in Uganda fails capture more than in any other country I’ve been except Bolivia. The intercity from Dusseldorf is expected at platform 13A at the Centraal Station in Amsterdam at 10:29 a.m., and I watched it roll in at 10:29 a.m., and I could set my watch by its squeaky brakes. And if the intercity from Dusseldorf gets in at 10:33 a.m. you know the fact will be marked down on somebody’s watch and if it keeps on happening three engineers making 67 grand per annum each will be sent out to the tracks to find out what the hitch is and write it into the sked or else test the driver for cocaine or, more likely for tardiness in Holland, for marijuana.

But Uganda – our six or seven-hour drive from Kampala to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest turns into a ten hour rally with the last three hours conducted despite my protests.

Rashid is a great driver, and we get to Kabale, urbanity’s outpost on the lip of the jungle, in just over five hours. We fill up with gasoline at a station where the diesel is hand-cranked by a grinning elder who assures me the road is good to the mountain gorilla and I keep asking about ‘security’ and he just says the road is good, road is good until he gets what I’m saying and stops pumping to look at me and say, “Security? Security is no problem,” and I feel better until two hours have passed and it’s pitch dark and the car is careening along a pebbled orange dirt road with long stretches of unpopulated timber or stone, perfect ambush spots for a few unemployed soldiers just over for the night from the Congo a few clicks (kilometers) away. The guy at the toll gate told us we had 91 clicks to go, that we should arrive in as little as three hours later, and it’s been two hours and we’ve only got 34 clicks done. My nerves are getting wracked.

I start cross-examining Rashid about the conditions, the darkness and the roughening path, and suddenly he’s like ice-skating around the fact he hasn’t been to Bwindi in more than four years and this is all new to him. I start huffing and puffing about turning back to Kabale. Rashid and Ananda the romance writer (whose fault this journey is, the realization of a dream) out-vote me. We do another 20 clicks and another half hour melts away – at my insistence we stop at a tiny village and ask two homeys for an ETA to Bwindi and they say it’s another 92 clicks and I almost lose it; at this rate 92 kilometers will take another three hours and it’s bloody dark and the ambushes are increasing in frequency. Rashid and Ananda out-vote me on the sensible premise that we’ve come this far might as well press ahead and I sink into my seat with the words of DV ringing in my ear: “The only thing that will kill you in Africa is the mosquitoes or driving at night; take your malaria pills, wear your seatbelt, and stay off the rural roads at night and you’ll get back home unless your plane crashes.”

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Another few clicks and I’m whining again until I see a sign for the town of Kanungu. Rashid asks if I haven’t heard of Kanungu coz it was on CNN a few months back when the local priest burned down his church with the parish in it leading to an investigation which uncovered “one million dead bodies buried behind the church, like that cult in Guyana” and now I lose it, the evidence having overwhelmed me into thinking this is the single stupidest thing I’ve ever done in my life, heading into this hotspot in the pitch black to see a gorilla in the wild when I’ve already seen the gorilla in the wild, and I can only ask meekly, “Are you sure it was a million?” to which Ananda pats my hand and soothingly reminds me it couldn’t have been a million coz such a voodoo holocaust wouldn’t have been missed by both of us. But then I’m wondering why Rashid brought it up to begin with, and I’m about to put up my fourth mutiny attempt, especially after seeing a map in one of the bullshit guides with the road from Kanungu leading directly into the Congo and not into the Impenetrable Forest, when we pull into the Kanungu town square and see a fat shiny sign: “Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, 32 km, this way” with an arrow pointing left, and I endure this last two twisting hours with nary a sign of police or authority or barriers against a two-thousand-foot tumble down the mountain, and we pull in at a quarter to ten and find the lads waiting with fish sautéed in garlic and breadcrumbs with salad and hot tea and the one of the most stunning hotel experiences I’ve ever had:

Just like those black and white photos in the middle of the biographies on Hemingway, our huge two-bedded tent covered by a thatched roof opens onto a large wood terrace with table and camp chairs and kerosene lamp, stars impatient above us, toilet tent at the back of the thatched roof, shower tent in the open, in the jungle, “just tell us 20 minutes before and we bring the hot water,” and a mirror to shave or mascara dangles from a tent-string and they bring me a pot of hot local tea and a shot of liquor besides and I fall asleep happy with relief until a tree falling in the forest awakens me and I pee beneath the clear sky and that familiar velvet carpet bejeweled with a million milky diamonds twinkling a million billion trillion mysteries every night. “Familiar” because such a night sky is only seen in the wild, and I seem to get there, into the real bush, twice a year and it’s never enough but when it happens some inner timepiece, the calculator in my soul, is becalmed and time rewards me with a future I do not deserve since I’ve burned my energy from both ends, relentlessly, but the bonus comes as if the pinball has hit the lit-up replay button, and “ding” I get more time coz I’ve made it out this far away from commerce and civilization, those twin thieves of humanity.

Looking at rhinos or touching dolphins or walking the forested cathedrals of nature are all enlightening endeavors, but only the deepest glances into the mystery enveloping our tiny planet, unfettered by fearful mortal light, yield the peaceful balm of knowing that time has nothing against you personally, and if you allow it to time will make you pregnant with joy, the child of experience and ambition, and that all death, even yours, makes time poignant and valuable because one day there will be no time, for you or me or anybody or anything else, and in that void there will be no rhinos or dolphins or forests or stone and certainly no record of you having applied for a driving license or a bank account last month or for having completed any other chore of society designed to trade your time for a few more passing comforts, for the pillows of ignorance, for the blankets of faith, or for the promise of success . . .  

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NEXT: CHAPTER 17, SEX & LOATHING & LEONARDO DA VINCI 

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