Thursday, February 26, 2009

Your Daughter lives in Africa?

Guest blog part 1 of 2 from Dad (otherwise known as Jim Babcock)...

Sherra and I are often asked how we deal with Courtney living in Uganda. This is usually coupled with a question: “Isn’t Africa dangerous?” (Actually it is often more of a statement than a question. Many people think of Africa as one, big, homogenous place.) Also we hear, “Isn’t Africa is a long, long way away.”

My answers are that we deal with Courtney living in Africa the same way we dealt with our other daughters and grandkids in the USA: wherever they live, we find ways to see and enjoy them. Sometimes we visit them, sometimes they visit us, or sometimes we pick up the grandkids and go somewhere else.

In truth, visiting Africa is really not much different than getting to Northern Virginia or Denton, Texas, where we also have daughters and grandchildren. To visit, we need to travel. Getting to eastern Africa takes about 14 hours flight time. While that’s a long time in a plane, it’s a lot less that a road trip to Texas; or driving to some vacation spot in the western USA.

Regarding danger, if you go by the State Department travel advisories, Uganda and Rwanda do seem to be somewhat dangerous. But the State Department also cautions about travel to a number of border towns along the USA/Mexican border! So like I do for most things contemporary and involving my daughters’ generation, I ask their advice, trust their judgment and let them decide what is and isn’t a good idea or safe. And so far, they’ve been correct.

So in January, Sherra and I visited Courtney in Uganda and had the opportunity to visit Rwanda as well. And now WE are asked questions like: How far is it? Was it dangerous? How did you get around? You didn’t go with a group? What did you eat? Where did you stay? Weren’t you afraid of being robbed?

People seem think we are somewhat adventurous and daring. And that’s kind of neat!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Kids (and Boda drivers) Say the Darndest Things

Where's Bill Cosby when you need him?

"WAAAAAAAAAAAAGH! Where did that lady's color go?"
-small child to his mother upon seeing me

"You have your own helmet. That is very wise. I can see that you love your life."
-boda driver

"You ask too many questions."
-small child to me after observing my interview with her mother about employment opportunities in Uganda

"You, madam, are worth MANY cows."
-Boda driver pickup line in reference to the Ugandan tradition of bride price

"What tribe is she from?"
-small child asking my Ugandan colleague where I come from

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Me and the Gorillas (by my Mom)

Part 2 of 2 of Mom's guest blogs! And I'm really glad I asked her to do this because she explained our gorilla experience WAY better than I ever could have!

I can tell you about the gorillas much more easily if I can use my hands, which obviously I can’t in a blog. I can stretch out my arms, and tell you that I was “THIS FAR” from the Silverback leader of the troop, separated only by a curtain of bamboo. I can show you how he beat his chest to notify any other gorillas in the area that there is a troop here, in this location in the mountains of Rwanda, and no room for another. I can act out the vision of the baby gorilla learning to swing. I can show you how he held on to one tree with one hand, reaching for the other tree. How he missed a couple of times, and then caught the other branch, holding and swinging and giggling with glee, as he realized that he had succeeded.

Without these visual cues, I must depend only on language to convey what was an amazing, incredible, physical experience.

I became entranced with the African mountain silverbacks when I saw a presentation from a National Geographic Society explorer in 2008. When Courtney told me that we could actually see gorillas in Rwanda, I leapt at the chance. (Little did I know how much more leaping I would do to actually be with them!)

First there was the experience of getting a permit. Courtney took care of the logistics, but we had to decide if the experience was worth $1500 ($500 each for the three of us). Rwanda issues only 40 passes each day, and guides groups of eight to visit each of five habituated troops. (Habituated means that they are not afraid or intimidated by us; they treat us as another friendly animal in the jungle - an odd friendly animal that stares at them, carries a box that clicks every now and then but doesn’t flash – no flashes allowed!) Your permit pays the villages nearby for access and protection of the gorillas’ habitat, and for seven staff members for each group of eight human animals. Two rangers go in early each morning to FIND the gorillas (they know where they were the day before, but can move about a kilometer in any direction in the course of gorilla daily life). Two more rangers lead the group of eight in. A porter’s primary function is to use his machete to cut through the bamboo and other heavy vines so that we can get there. Finally, each group is preceded and followed by two Rwandan soldiers with AK-47’s to protect us from the cape buffalo and elephants who are also in the jungle. (They wouldn’t shoot at these animals – though buffalo are known to be the most aggressive animals in this part of Africa, and elephants who think their babies are threatened can be pretty protective. They would shoot in the air to frighten them away). We also learned that the AK-47’s were to protect the gorillas should any one of us turn out to be a poacher who might have the very bad idea to pose as a tourist to kidnap the baby (worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to a “private zoo.”

Kidnapping the baby would require killing the Silverback and the mother first. The AK-47’s will kill the poacher first.) Back to getting the permit, reasonable people would probably work with a safari company. With our own daughter-safari-guide, we wired the money to the Rwandan park service, and Courtney worked with an office in Kigali, who wired the tickets to a woman outside the jungle, who met us in a little hotel in a little town, to pass them to us. This took Courtney several emails, phone calls, and a fairly significant amount of worry.

Then there was the assignment of the group of eight on the morning of the trek. We were told in advance that there were five gorilla troops, and we could choose “easy,” “medium,” or “hard” trekking to reach one of them. In respect for my 60-year-old arthritic hip, Courtney and Jim agreed to the “easy” designation. However, we were not asked to choose. In fact, Jim and I were (of course!) the oldest members of our group, and Courtney, at 27, was next. The other five were Courtney’s colleague Jillian (who is working on another Harvard project in Uganda), a young man from University of Michigan who had just completed an environmental internship in the Democratic Republic of Congo (tall and rugged and did not carry a camera!), and three young women from Australia and Ireland who had just climbed Kilimanjaro together. After three hours in, one hour moving around with the gorillas, and two hours out, with two trips over a volcanic-rock fence, I wondered what the HARD trek would have been like.

Was it worth the money and effort? Absolutely! Looking into the soulful eyes of seven gorillas, the Silverback, two adult females (one the mother of the eight-month-old baby), a “Black Back” (an adult male who may become a Silverback some day), and two juvenile males - this is a spiritual experience! Discovery about the troops, how the females find another troop after giving birth to the Silverback’s boy and raising him to age three or four, thus naturally creating variety in the gene pool of the troop, how the juvenile males beat their chests in practice for the future possibility of leading a troop – this is the way to learn science and sociology! Hearing the bass resonance of the chest-beating of the Silverback vs. the tinny “snare drum” of the juvenile - what a parable for wisdom!

Leaving the jungle and the mountain, I realized that this should probably be my last really physical vacation. The ranger who held my hand throughout was patient and kind, and encouraged me to set the pace. Once they realized that we were allowed to spend only an hour with the gorillas regardless of how quickly we reached them, the kids in our group thanked me for slowing them down so that they could take pictures and enjoy the journey. But the hike was long, the mountain steep, and I’m still paying for the physical effort. BUT WHAT A WAY TO GO!!!

Dean Babcock's Top Ten

On their recent trip to Uganda, I asked my parents to guest blog (because I thought it would be interesting to hear what they have to say AND it allows me to slack a little bit longer on posting!). Apparently Mom took this as an excuse to brag about MOI (I am pretty adorable if I do say so myself...) Part 1 in Mom's 2 Part Uganda Blog Series...

Top Ten Reasons Why Parents Brag about their Children:

10. Their children grow up and do things they can’t do.
9. It makes them (the parents) feel important.
8. They have nothing else to talk about!
7. They think their kids are a chip off the old block.
6. They think they have something to do with the way their offspring are turning out.
5. When they brag about their children, they don’t have to brag about themselves.
4. No one else ever brags about their BRILLIANT offspring.
3. No one bragged about THEM when they were young :((which is not true in my case)
2. It feels good to brag about one’s own progeny.

And the Number One Reason Why Parents Brag about their Children:
1.Their children truly are amazing!