It’s time for this blog once again to justify the “Abroad” portion of its name. Thursday Steve and I will fly down to Central America. Unless you consider Mexico part of that region (which I don’t), this is an area in which neither of us has ever set foot. It’s not for lack of interest. Rather, we were saving it up. Now the time seems right.
One reason we were saving it is because for some years we dreamed about driving in our aging van all the way from San Diego to Panama, then donating the van to a charity and flying home. That would have been a real adventure, and it would have required a significant chunk of time.
Eventually, however, several factors gave us pause about the wisdom of this plan, not the least of which were the bureaucratic nightmares that would have been involved in taking a personal vehicle across all those borders. On the other hand, unlike Europe and Asia at the moment, all the countries in Central America are once again open to visitors, particularly fully vaccinated ones such as us.
So we scrapped the driving plan, and I worked for a while on concocting an itinerary that would have us flying to all seven countries (Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama). I quickly learned that even if all the countries are open, service on the regional airlines that connect them is far from fully restored. The staggering current cost of short flights into El Salvador and Honduras (troubled countries on other counts too) led me to scratch them from the program. We had wanted to start in Belize and cross the land border into Guatemala (then continue on), but then I learned the Belize government was not allowing visitors out of Belize that way. This annoyed me so much I scratched Belize.
So now the current plan calls for us to fly to Guatemala and spend a week and a half there, followed by visits to Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua (in that order). For me these will be my 66th through 69th countries.
In the short time before we depart, along with packing and otherwise organizing, I’m trying to prepare for other as-yet-unforeseen challenges that may arise in the wake of global pandemic lockdowns. I’m telling myself this trip will be like traveling in the days of yore, when you couldn’t just assume everything would run like clockwork. But some intrepid spirits nonetheless hit the road then, because then, as now, it was better than not going. I can relate.
My pack and I got back from the road last week, and I have to tell you: life has been pretty boring since then. So I’ve volunteered to briefly shift my attention from Sitting and lying Down and Speaking to… Reporting. My puppyraiser/Mom usually handles this task, but on our recent trip she (my p/M) didn’t find anything interesting to write about. She’d be the first to say she had a wonderful time. But really.
(Excuse me while I yawn.)
We drove 2600 miles but never had a flat tire or ran out of gas or got into any accidents. No one asked for bribes or tried to kidnap us. We visited five national parks (and a couple of lesser ones). But who doesn’t know those places are amazing? (I’ll admit I didn’t. But I’m a one-year-old aspiring service dog.) To most folks, that’s not news.
I, however, see (and smell) things from a different perspective. Here are five of my most important takeaways from our adventure:
1) Flying is much more interesting than being driven around in a kennel. And traveling out of a kennel is (slightly) better than traveling inside one.
I flew once before, when I was 8 weeks old and Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), the organization that owns me, shipped me down from Northern California to my San Diego puppyraiser/parents. But for all their travels, my p/ps never before had flown with any CCI puppy. (I’m the 9th one they’ve raised.) Despite their trepidations, our flight from San Diego to Salt Lake City went well. The nice man at the Southwest Airlines counter didn’t even ask to see the rabies-vaccine documentation my p/M had brought along. (I mean, duh, it’s pretty obvious I’m not rabid.) He gave us boarding passes that let us go first through the jetway,so we had tons of room, sitting in the first row. I Stayed in a perfect Down position when the flight attendant gave her speech, and although I got a little nervous during the take-off (and later, the landing), my p/M gave me the Lap command and let me look out the window. I found the sights out the window intriguing, if slightly creepy.
After that, we got around in a rented van. My p/ps had checked a travel kennel for me to ride in. But after a while, they started letting me ride loose, like a Regular Big Dog. Sometimes I took advantage of this, sitting on a seat and looking out the window. Just as often, I napped.
2) Weather can be more interesting than I ever imagined.
I got a big lesson in this our first afternoon in Jackson Hole (Wyoming). My p/D had taken me out for a little afternoon stroll around the compound where we were staying when suddenly the sky got dark and I was being pelted with hundreds of little pebble-sized pieces of ice! Hail, people were calling it. I never saw the like of that in San Diego!Frankly, I’m not a fan.
Several days later when we had moved just outside Yellowstone National Park, my p/M took me out for my morning constitutional, and fluffy white stuff was falling out of the sky. That was cold too, but at least it didn’t hurt! And pretty soon the sun was shining again.
3) National Parks smell amazing.
We hiked an awful lot. One day (I think we were walking along the Rim Trail at Bryce Canyon National Park), my p/M sighed and said, “Dilly, it’s really too bad this can’t appreciate these sights.” They were looking at stuff like this:
My p/D piped up, voicing what I would have said (if I could talk). “Dilly says you can’t begin to appreciate all the smells.” Man, did he get that right! Sometimes there were scary smells, like this stuff, which was HUGE and filled with berry seeds. I didn’t want to get anywhere close to whatever creature produced it.
Day after day at Yellowstone, we hiked past what surely must be some of the weirdest smells on the planet.
But even the simplest stroll in a forest made me want to close my eyes and savor the symphony of scents produced when streams and leaves and pine trees and animals come together.
4) I don’t want to go to the moon.
After Yellowstone, my p/ps and I drove to Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve (in southern Idaho). It’s not actually the moon but a vast, crater-pocked area that was created when lava flowed out of fissures in the Snake River plain between 15,000 and 2,000 years ago. It’s a stark, alien landscape that did NOT smell anywhere near as interesting as the Grand Tetons or Zion canyon. And the scrunchy black gravel kind of hurt my paws.
5) I’m thinking about a career change.
Everywhere we went, I had to wear my official cape and halter and leash (on which I pulled about 1000 times more often than I should have). But I did get one taste of paradise.
This happened when we visited my p/M’s uncle and aunt. They live on a farm in a small town in Utah. Before sunset, we went for a walk through the farm’s corn fields. I was on my leash, as usual, but then we stopped and suddenly they released me. For a moment I was so stunned I couldn’t move. Then I went berserk with joy – racing up and down the road, kicking up clouds of dirt, leaping and twisting and finding sticks and dried corn cobs and stones to chew.
My ecstasy was so obvious, my p/ps brought me back early the next morning. Again I romped and rollicked.
Everyone tells me it will be a great thing if I graduate and work in a life of service. I say….. maybe. But I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be as great as life on a farm.
Here’s the biggest thing I’ve learned from this road trip. If you’ve grown tired of today’s world, if you’re drowning in the digital flood, twisting in the social-media tendrils, overcrowded and over stressed, you might be happy living in the far-northwestern stretches of California (where we spent the five days from Saturday to Tuesday). It felt like we got there in a time machine, rather than our aging Chrysler van. We passed through stretches in which we were more informationally isolated than we were in the Congo, earlier this year. No (T-Mobile) cell phone service; wi-fi that simply didn’t work, even though it was supposed to. We walked Dilly down sections of Highway 101 — the main road connecting the coastline to the rest of the world — when no cars passed us for minutes at a time. Town signs often reported populations in the hundreds; five-digit ones were rare. Buildings in the centers of these villages remind me of those from my childhood. Or maybe my grandparents’ childhood.The coastal vistas were as beautiful and empty as any I’ve seen anywhere.
“Why don’t more people live here?!” I asked Steve, several times. (I had trouble retaining his answer. It made sense but at the same time seemed incredible.) It’s hard to get to these parts, he pointed out. The rugged Klamath mountains cram right up to the coast. Carving roads through them (then maintaining them), looks to be a brutal task. Nor is it easy to make any kind of a living. Even pot-growing, once the economic engine in these parts, reportedly isn’t what it used to be since legalization. Tsunamis can strike at any time and wreck havoc. Then there’s the weather — gray, sodden, and dreary for much of the year. In the height of summer, we enjoyed some sunny spells, but the daytime highs rarely surpassed 60. Nights, the temperatures dipped into the 40s.
For all those reasons, I wouldn’t relocate here. But none of those factors dampened our pleasure in visiting. They in no way interfered with the great thrill accessible here: the chance to spend time with old-growth redwood trees.
Redwoods can be found all the way from Santa Cruz north to the southern reaches of Oregon. Many of them look stately, tall, impressive. But the vast majority — something like 95% —are relatively young specimens that reached for the sky only after the woodchoppers plundered their forebears. To the loggers who found their way to California in the wake of the Forty-Niners, the massive old redwoods were as good as any gold. Did those guys realize they were destroying arboreal gods that were already massive when the last Roman bastions fell? Did they reflect that what they sawed and chopped and floated out to sea to become house frames and fence posts was standing, shading, exhaling oxygen when Jesus was newborn?
I have no idea. But in California’s far northwest corner, in Redwoods National Park, the last few ancient redwoods still thrive. These are trees as tall as a football field is long; too wide in diameter to be spanned by a couple of adult humans. They’re the tallest trees on the planet, and while only half the age of the bristlecone pines, they still feel older than God.
We hiked at their feet, and I couldn’t stop exclaiming childishly, inarticulately: “Wow.” The forests are cool and shady. The ground underneath is springy and soft. The path ahead of us invariably looked shorter than the trees were tall. The scented air invigorated me, and the sculpted shapes surrounding us often stopped us in our tracks.It’s a landscape that competes with the most breathtaking anywhere, I think, and yet it rarely shows up on lists of the natural wonders of the world.
Steve and Dilly and I spent two nights in a cabin in Klamath, then three more in another isolated redwood grove in Mendocino. We didn’t exclusively hike in the redwoods. We found a path to a eerie solitary beach. We spent an afternoon exploring a canyon whose walls are coated with ferns. We got close to wild elk. Another morning we hiked up the mouth of the Big River.We resisted paying to drive through one of the touristic tree wonders.But we drove the Avenue of the Giants, where the huge trees crowd so close to the road people put reflectors on them as a warning.
Then Tuesday we headed south along Highway 1, skirting thrilling precipices (no shoulder! No guard rails!)……until we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and were back in Civilization. We slept in Santa Cruz last night and will spend our final night on the road in Santa Barbara. All that will be anticlimactic. Those hikes through the otherworldly, timeless woods were the climax.
This summer marks my 30th anniversary as a home-exchanger. It was 30 years ago that Steve and I first traded our house in San Diego, that time for a spacious ground-floor apartment in a cool stone building in the most chic neighborhood in Paris. It had a private garden that opened onto a larger shared green space. After that we were hooked. Since then we’ve done almost 20 exchanges all over the planet.
When our sons no longer wanted to accompany us, we started traveling in places where home-exchanging didn’t work as well (e.g. much of South America and Africa). But I got interested again for part of our travels last fall in New Zealand. For this current road trip, I also looked for promising trading partners.
Over the years, I’ve developed a sense of when it’s worth gambling on a house trade. When I saw the listing for the place where we’re staying now, my sensors tingled. The photos on homeexchange.com suggested the house would be impressive, and it was located on what was described as a 75-acre ranch near Cottonwood, in the far northern section of the Sacramento River Valley. I corresponded with the owners, and we reached an agreement: They would stay in our house for a week, while we occupied their ranch house for five days.
Some house-trading partners are like me, compiling bulging guides to their homes and neighborhoods and cities. The ranch owners fell at the opposite end of that scale. I finally pressed the wife for a few crumbs of information, like, would they be wanting us to take care of any animals? She replied that if we would feed their two resident horses, she and her husband would appreciate that.
When I told friends about our upcoming trade, one or two warned that the temperatures in mid-July in this part of the state were certain to be blistering, and as we left Reno, I quailed a bit at the forecast: highs of more than 100 degrees every day.
The forecasts have proven accurate. When we reached the ranch gate around 5:30 Saturday afternoon and opened our van doors to key in the code, the heat smacked me with a brutal force.
Stepping outside every afternoon and early evening since then has felt like walking into a boiler room. Happily, thanks to two key strategies, this hasn’t dampened the intense pleasure we’ve experienced in being here.
The first has been to escape to some of the higher realms nearby. At Lassen Volcanic National Park (where we spent Saturday afternoon), it was warm but pleasant. We passed all of Monday near frosty Mt. Shasta and in the cool mists of the McCloud River and Burney waterfalls.
The second strategy has been to engage in most of our outdoor activities during the cool, pleasant mornings. Every day, Steve and Dilly and I have fed hay and a scoop full of pellets to Madonna and Bingo, the two horses.
Although she feeds herself on the property’s grass, she comes around for a scoop of pellets.
After doling out this breakfast, with the temperatures still in the 70s, we’ve hiked along the Jeep trails that lace through the property.It’s a magical place filled with oak trees…manzanita……and other native flora. Near the house, we can there’s a pond ringed with emerald grass.On the afternoons when we decided not to venture out, we’ve hung out in the sprawling, baronial manor house. A swamp cooler protects the interior from the heat. (To my surprise, this system works as well as any air-conditioning unit and apparently costs a fraction of the price to run.)
We’ve caught up on email; taken naps. I’ve written two blog posts.
I’ve reflected on the fact that never before in my life have I felt so removed from other people. Other ranches adjoin this property, but the house is situated far from any section of the perimeter. You have to walk for several minutes to reach the closest part. A gate and electrified fences guard the entire boundary of the property; I could take off all my clothes and hike the hillsides naked, feeling secure that I’d enjoy as much privacy as I do in my bedroom back at home. This thought shocks me.
We’re packing up now. In an hour or two we will drive off to the redwoods on California’s chilly northernmost coast. I couldn’t find a trading partner there, and if I had, it probably would not have been amazing. But over the years, several, like that first Paris apartment, have been. We’ve lived in a 300-year-old apartment in Venice just a short stroll from the Rialto Bridge. We’ve lived in a suburban American-style house in Tokyo just blocks from the insane electric crowds in Shibuya plaza. We’ve occupied a country house surrounded by its own stream and forest smack in the middle of Ireland. Our time on this sweltering ranch is totally different from any of them, but it will rank on that most delicious list.
Steve and I are now deep into what we have come to think of as our Mop-Up Tour of California. Cut off by corona-restrictions from doing any foreign travel, we’re using this three-week road trip as an opportunity to at last see some of the sights we’ve managed to miss over the last 46 years. For me this includes pretty much everything north of the Napa and Sonoma wine country; I’d never before laid eyes on about half my state.
As mentioned in my last post, we started with a five-day stay in Mammoth in a townhouse we exchanged for our home in San Diego. We had passed through the area years ago but never spent much time there. For this visit, the weather was perfect, and the cozy townhouse made a great base for some excellent day hikes, as well as our excursion to the ancient bristlecone pine forest.
We left Mammoth last Wednesday (July 8), and since then the touristic highlights have included the following.
— A visit to Bodie.
As ghost towns go, Bodie is more than respectable. In the late 1870s, it was a bustling gold-mining center, home to more than 10,000 fortune-seekers and the tradespeople who served them. It continued to be a functional mining center into the 1940s, when the feds shut it down (something about needing copper for the war effort.)
About 13 miles down empty, partly dirt roads off Highway 395 southeast of the town of Bridgeport, it appears beyond a bend in the road, a vision of the Wild Western past. Except that there’s an entrance booth manned by a state historic park ranger…
As in the bristlecone forest, the elevation softened the mid-summer heat, so it wasn’t unpleasant to stroll past the dozens of abandoned buildings. Even in non-pandemic times, visitors can enter only three or four of them. At the moment, they’re all closed, even the little gift shop. So a visit to Bodie is a strikingly non-commercial experience. All there is to do is wander the dirt byways and peer into various windows that reveal the dusty remains of a former world. Still, that’s not a bad way to spend an hour or two.
— Hiking to the monkey’s head above Lake Tahoe.
Our destination after Mammoth was Reno, home to our son Michael and his family (girlfriend Stephanie, her son Nicolas, and their standoffish corgi, Felina.) On Thursday, all of us (except Felina) drove to Lake Tahoe to hike. This wasn’t our first visit to Tahoe. But for me every visit feels new; I never seem to be able to remember that so much beauty can be concentrated into one location.
— Mt. Lassen Volcanic National Park.
Our next destination was another home-exchange in the far-northern reaches of the Sacramento Valley. On the way, we stopped at this national park, established in 1916 (shortly after the mountain last erupted.) The park headquarters building was coronavirally shuttered, but Steve was still able to get a sticker for our national park book in the little gift shop and a map from the temporarily outdoor ranger station.
Considering that we only had the afternoon, we saw and did a lot, including…
…and making the hour-long drive from the park’s north entrance to the southern one.
— Mt. Shasta and the headwaters of the Sacramento River.
You can see Mt. Shasta from where we’re staying (about 70 miles to the south of it). It towers over the landscape, so dramatic that a pilgrimage seems mandatory. Not that we had any interest in climbing it. Crampons and ice picks are recommended even in mid-summer.
Instead we drove to the town at its foot, where locals tout the Headwaters of the Sacramento River as one of their touristic highlights. I’m a sucker for riverine starting points, having previously visited those of the Mississippi River, the Colorado River, and (sort of) the Nile. We parked in the Mt. Shasta City Park and made our way to this spot:
A public sign shattered some of the romance, explaining that actually the Sacramento River has many sources, so others arguably share the Headwaters title. Still, we enjoyed gazing at this humble pond. The park also provides a time warp back to the Sixties, being filled (at least during our visit) with psychedelically painted buses and folks wearing vintage Hippie wear, most of whom appeared to be chemically altering their consciousness.
— Waterfall country.
If you love waterfalls, the section of roads southeast of Mt. Shasta should be on your bucket list. Steve and Dilly and I first stopped at a trail on the McCloud River that led us up past three beautiful cascades.
Beautiful as they are, Burney Falls outdoes them. Gushing out of the rock walls of this canyon, exuding cool mists, this is a place to linger in for more time than we gave it.
— The Sundial Bridge in the town of Redding.
The house where we’re staying is about a half hour outside the town of Redding. This morning we drove to Redding’s 16-year-old Sundial suspension bridge. Famed both for its construction materials (largely glass) and striking design, I can now report that as a sundial, it seems pretty useless. But it’s well worth strolling across.
Only, however, in the morning at this time of year. As I type this (in the late afternoon,) the thermometer outside our back door reads 102. The weather app on my phone claims the temperature will reach 109 tomorrow (our last day here). In my next post I hope to explain how we’ve been having a marvelous time here anyway.
I got to meet the oldest living things on Earth the other day. It exceeded my expectations.
Of all the millions of species on land and sea, the very oldest among them are a type of bristlecone pine known as Pinus longaeva. These trees live in a couple of places in the West, including one cluster in the White Mountains about 45 minutes east of Big Pine, California. Traveling up and down Highway 395 over the years, Steve and I have passed through Big Pine many times. But it was only late in 2018 that we driving through, once again too short of time to stop, that we resolved to make time to see these amazing plants as soon as possible.
That took us to this past May, when we were planning our itinerary for the road trip we started on last Friday. We figured we’d make a day trip to the bristlecones from the condo in Mammoth Lakes where we’d be staying for the first five nights (a trade for our house in San Diego). But once we settled into the condo, I began to harbor doubts about the side trip. We would have to backtrack down 395 to get to Big Pine from Mammoth. The condo turned out to be idyllic, overlooking a stream that adjoins a beautiful meadow and rugged, tree-dense mountains.
The weather was sublime, nippy in the morning but warming to the mid-70s in the afternoons. I began to dread the thought of leaving this paradise for a multi-hour drive that might end in some blistering hell-hole where we wouldn’t feel like leaving our air-conditioned van. Probably all the visitor’s centers would be closed, due to Covid-19. Maybe we should defer the outing yet again, I suggested.
But Steve’s heart was set on the adventure, so we set off a little after 9 Monday. Ominously, both the visitor’s centers that we stopped at in Bishop were shuttered. We continued south to Big Pine, where some informational posters suggested we would find a dedicated bristlecone pine visitor’s center at the Schulman Grove, about 24 miles off the highway. So we pressed on, driving along a two-lane road so empty it reinforced the fact we were entering a true wilderness. We climbed higher and higher, eventually passing a sign announcing the elevation to be 10,000 feet. As we ascended, the air grew cooler, and by the time we reached the large, well-maintained parking lot at the Schulman Grove, the weather was as pleasant as it had been in Mammoth.
A dozen or so cars were in the parking lot, and at the far end of it, the visitor’s center promised to be impressive. But sadly, it too was closed for the pandemic. Still a host of clear, informative outdoor signs told us a lot about the amazing trees. Some of the tall, straight ones near the visitor’s center looked not so different from ordinary pines, albeit ones with distinctive thick needles and resinous little cones that felt like pin-cushions.
From the signs, however, we learned that these particular specimens, living in relatively nutrient-rich soil, were markedly weaker and shorter-lived than their cousins just up the hill, rooted in a barren, inhospitable soil known as dolomite. Those were the ancient bristlecones; we wanted to get closer to those. Three hiking trails start near the visitor’s center. We chose the mile-long Discovery Trail. It led us to the section where in 1953 a dendrochronologist named Avery Schulman learned one night that he had just cut a core out of a tree whose rings indicated it was more than 4000 years old.
The wood of these ancient trees is incredibly dense and resinous — qualities that protect it from insects, fire, and other tree hazards. Over the millennia the bristlecone pine wood twists into weird sinuous forms, many of which are bare of vegetation. But green branches cluster low to the ground. They make it clear that, though the trees may look half dead, they’re still very much alive. When Nero was burning Rome, some of these very specimens were already more than two thousand years old.
We took our time, ogling and admiring them, though I forgot to wrap my arms around a section of one, something I now regret. The trail was only a mile long, but it took us up through a couple hundred more feet of altitude gain, so by the time we completed the loop, it was almost 2, too late to head down one of the other trails.
One of them is a four-mile loop that leads to the Methuselah Tree, the very oldest bristlecone known to exist. It’s thought to be more than 5000 years old. I’d like to return some day to visit it. It takes two to four hours to hike that loop. Maybe we’d come in a vehicle that could also safely take us the 12 miles further down a twisty dirt road to reach the Patriarch Grove, home to largest bristlecone pine on earth. I’m not sure I ever will make it back. But if I do, I won’t forget that tree hug.
I’m not a wildlife expert, and maybe even the experts don’t know what the future holds for bonobos. But what I want to say is: after visiting the Congo, I feel optimistic.
That may be naive. The DRC is one of the most corrupt countries on earth. Its national politics are still in turmoil. Atrocities continue to unfold in the war-torn east, where Ebola has broken out again. And yet… the biggest threat to bonobos isn’t habitat loss, as it is for so many animals in so many places. Congo still has plenty of equatorial rainforest where bonobos can thrive. The bonobo population has plunged because Congolese people eat them. And even that isn’t as bad as it sounds. People don’t think bonobos are endowed with any magical properties (like rhinos, for example, burdened with their theoretically aphrodisiacal horns.) Bonobos are just meat, for which Africans have a big appetite.
Still, just as most humans (even hungry ones) don’t eat other humans, when people learn how similar bonobos are to humans, they can change their minds about bonobos’ place on the menu. And if protecting bonobos instead of eating them can make communities more prosperous, folks can be marshaled to protect them.
Suzy Kwetuenda at Lola ya Bonobo has spent countless hours talking to Congolese villagers in the rainforest about why bonobos deserve protection. She says some of them bristle at the notion of outsiders trying to stop them from eating their bush meat. But she retorts, “You know, we are lucky to be the only ones in the world to have bonobos! They are very precious. The BIG value of bonobos is not in your stomach! It’s very important to have bonobos for development. If you protect them, this area will have more and more visitors. They will come and help you!”
This has always been a core premise of the Lola team: that the communities surrounding any bonobo release site must see concrete benefits from fighting against the hunters and poachers. Les Amies des Bonobos du Congo and its US-based fundraising arm, Friends of Bonobos, don’t have huge budgets. The money has come mostly from small and medium-sized donors. But a part of those limited resources has been devoted to improving the schools, infrastructure, health care and other services near the Ekola ya Bonobo release site. In the ten years since the Lola team began releasing bonobos back into the wilderness, more and more of the bonobos’ neighbors have become believers.
I’ve seen first-hand how a similar approach has worked in Uganda. There tourists who come from around the world to see mountain gorillas have become an engine of prosperity. Ugandan communities that have benefited now see the animals as a priceless resource. It’s possible to imagine something similar unfolding in the Congo.
What Claudine Andre has accomplished in the last 25 years also fills me with admiration and awe. Starting from nothing, she’s built a team that’s adept at saving baby bonobos on the verge of death. These survivors now routinely thrive in the garden that is Lola. The team also now knows what’s required to successfully reintroduce these very special creatures into the wild. (Only one of the 60-odd reintroduced bonobos has died, a youngster who was bitten by a poisonous snake.) And back at Lola more than 30,000 Congolese school kids already have visited Lola and been inspired by these stories.
It saddens me that so many people still don’t know what bonobos are. (I’ve gotten a lot of blank stares when I’ve mentioned our recent travel plans.) But that can change. A hundred years ago no one had heard of pandas.
A hundred years from now our closest animal relatives could be thriving in the African rainforests, showing us a different model for primate behavior than that demonstrated by chimpanzees and us. If that happens, a lot of things will have made it happen.
Some have already unfolded. Claudine has already dedicated a big chunk of her life to the bonobos’ preservation. Field researchers and veterinarians and the sanctuary crew and others have already learned a lot about what it takes to keep bonobos flourishing. But more will be required. Humans all over the planet will need to recognize bonobos as readily as they do pandas, and many will donate money to help them out. Congolese people will have to learn to treasure them.
That would be the happy ending to the bonobos’ story. Maybe it won’t come to pass, but it should. I’m hoping it will.
Fifteen years ago, a close friend and I began keeping (and comparing) lists of all the countries in the world, ranking our priorities for where we most would like to travel. There were only about 30 in which I never wanted to set foot, and two-thirds of those were tiny islands (e.g. Vanuatu, Dominica, Comoros). They don’t interest me. Among the other places to which I was sure I would never go was the Democratic Republic of the Congo. To which I can now say: never say never.
Since then I fell in love with bonobos and learned about the sanctuary for them outside Kinshasa, all of which led to the trip we just completed. Visiting Lola ya Bonobo was why we went and what we wanted to do with 90% of our time in Congo. But since we were going to be in the neighborhood, Steve and I both yearned to see the mighty Congo River and a bit of Kinshasa (the capital city and home to more than 11 million Congolese). In email, someone at Lola said we might be able to arrange a little city tour, but no details had firmed up by the time we arrived.
What we glimpsed on our ride from the airport to Lola — insane traffic, filthy streets, open sewers — was so bad it almost erased my desire to see any more.
Still, I couldn’t help noting that almost everyone looked clean and well-fed. Some had a definite sense of style.
Then we heard from Claudine André, Lola’s founder, that the center city, where all the ex-patriots live, was very nice, with some good hotels and many restaurants. She claimed that the cost of living there was the second highest in the world (after Luanda in Angola). When Steve broached the question of whether a little tour might be possible, Claudine made it possible.
So it was that on the final morning of our stay, Lola’s driver, Constant, wound up chauffeuring Claudine, Steve, and me to her house in the city. We dropped her off and got a chance to meet her gigantic manual, Leon, (a dog herding breed originally from Turkey). Then we set off with Constant.
He drove us through a pleasant private housing complex filled with comfortable looking homes……and views of Brazzaville, just across the river.
It’s the capital of the Republic of Congo, a separate country that was once a French colony. (The DRC was the domain of the Belgians.) Today there’s almost no commerce between the two, which baffles me.
We drove around the central core for a while, where the streets were wide and the Sunday morning traffic was light.
A few buildings looked inviting…
We drove on and finally stopped at a cafe by the side of the river where we drank a couple of Cokes.
The terrace commanded good views of the river. The rapids begin here, and soon become so violent that boat traffic between Kinshasa and the ocean is impossible.
It wasn’t much of a tour. But it was enough to transform Kinshasa from a scary dark hole in my mental map to a bustling metropolis. It’s not one I yearn to see again. But who knows? Sometimes you wind up in unexpected places.
Steve and I climbed into a rowboat a couple of times with Suzy Kwetuenda and Stanis, the manager of Lola’s “Enclosure 1.”
The Congolese bonobo sanctuary has three enclosures, a word that to me evokes the image of a cage. But nothing could be more misleading. Lola’s enclosures are wild jungle, ranging in area from 15 to 38 acres. A canopy of trees tower over undergrowth so dense you can’t see more than a few feet into it. The bonobos disappear into this bush every day. Those who have tracked them report that they nap, play, snack on leaves and fruit. But a couple of times daily, the humans appear bearing supplemental rations: starchy balls made fresh every day from corn, flour, and other nutrients, as well as fruit, vegetables, tubers, and sugar cane chunks (a natural toothbrush). At those times, the troupe ambles down to the shore to enjoy the goodies.
On our second day at Lola, Stanis had loaded a plastic bin that held sweet potatoes, cucumbers, and a few bananas. He quietly pulled on the oars and lobbed the food chunks onto the shore.
Nineteen individuals make up the Enclosure 1 family, and all of them (except for Oshwe the previous day’s escapee and another male who was recovering from an accidental injury) had assembled to catch the morsels, then sit and savor them. We saw little to nothing that looked like competition. It felt more like a lazy picnic in the steamy morning heat.
Suzy knows each individual at a glance, just as the bonobos all know and respond to their names. She regaled us with great stories about various individuals. The dominant female Semendwa, for example, can shoot her hand out, through two layers of fencing (one electrified and one chain-link) to snatch a watch or sunglasses. Once she pinched a visitor’s brand-new iPhone and began holding it up to her face, as she’d seen the humans do. Then she somehow hit the music app on it and disappeared into the jungle to the strains of Wagner.
Over the course of our four-day stay, I fell in love with Suzy as much as I did with the bonobos. She was born in the eastern Congo, but her family eventually fled to Kinshasa to escape the grisly warfare in the east. Suzy pursued a biology degree, and as she neared the end of her studies, her father mentioned he’d heard about a recently opened bonobo sanctuary not far outside town. He suggested she look into it. She did. She reenacts her reaction at her first sight of a bonobo: Her eyes bug out; her mouth falls open. A hunger to work with these amazing creatures seized her.
She found Claudine that day and shyly asked if she might do some volunteer work at the sanctuary and write about it for a school report. Claudine welcomed her, and in the months that followed, Suzy’s gutsy character impressed people. Some time later, when an American researcher was coming to Lola and asked if Claudine could help him find a local assistant, Suzy got the job. She’s worked for Lola more or less ever since. In 2009, when the sanctuary released its first bonobos into the remote section of jungle that’s now known as Ekolo ya Bonobo (“The Country of Bonobos”). Suzy spent more than two years there, tracking the primates through the chest-high swamp water; recording their interactions; working with the local villagers. “It’s a patriarchy there,” Claudine says. But the men yielded to Suzy’s steeliness. “I tell them, ‘Don’t look at my breasts! Look at my BRAIN!’” Suzy bellows. If James Earl Jones were smaller and more compact (and had breasts), he could play her in a movie.
I found myself alternately struck by how human the bonobos look, at times.
…and how alien, at others.
We heard loud shrieking that first morning. Suzy scanned the trees and declared the cause of the noise to be “fun.” It took us a few seconds, but then I spotted a couple maybe 50 feet up in the branches of a nearby tree, having sex in the missionary position, shaking the branches with the vigor of their movements. I couldn’t tell if the pair was heterosexual or a couple of females. Bonobos are pretty indiscriminate. Also quick. The couplings we saw rarely lasted more than 15 seconds.
I have great respect for the field scientists who study animal behavior . It takes such patience, and with bonobos, there are so many complex interactions. Suzy and Claudine filled in some of the blanks for us. But one of my favorite memories of our time in the sanctuary came late on our final afternoon, when Steve and I were on our own.
It was Sunday. Claudine had returned to her home in Kinshasa that morning, and Suzy had taken the day off, spending the time with her husband and four young boys. Steve and I strolled to the spot near the night quarters of the troupe from Enclosure 1. Earlier in the week, we’d been amazed to learn that after hanging out all day in the jungle, the bonobos routinely make their way on their own to their concrete dormitories, where they climb into their plastic hammocks. “They’re bourgeois,” Claudine had told us, with a shrug. In the wild, they build nests every night, high in the trees. But it’s easier (and drier) to climb into a hammock, so they choose that, if it’s an option.
We hoped to witness some of this, but at first we found only a solitary male. He was sitting on the grass picking out fruit from a branch of a palm oil tree.After a while, some movement in one of the nearby trees caught my eye: it was two young males playing high in the branches. Nothing happened for several minutes. Then gradually, other individuals appeared, strolling down the path leading from the jungle. They lay on the grass, some grooming each other.Some scrounged for leftover fruit or palm nut seeds. A few waded into the water and lolled in it like an evening bath.
We saw a little bit of sex, but not much. It seemed like everyone was too relaxed to need it. Bonobos groomed some of the big females. They sprawled out and stretched.
Finally, a man appeared in a little enclosure, and he filled a big bottle of water. The dominant females stood up and walked to the fence and drank deeply from the bottle. One after another of the bigger animals got their drinks, then the biggest females led the way up the hill to the dormitory.I didn’t understand everything I’d just seen, but I got the big picture. Maybe I was projecting my feelings on them, but it looked like the end of another beautiful day in a very special place.
On this trip, I have learned it’s more fun to watch baby bonobos play than it is to watch many movies. The action is almost nonstop. They sock each other; pounce. One chases another, catches up, and smashes into him. They tickle each other and make a noise that sounds like panting, but it’s not; it’s the sound of bonobo laughter. Sometimes they go too far and someone gets hurt. Ear-piercing shrieks erupt. Others may beat up the bully in retaliation. The smallest ones never stray far from their surrogate mothers. Older ones sometimes mimic copulation. They’re far too young to actually have sex. It’s just instinctive, practice with the tool they will use soon use daily to diffuse social tensions.
Here’s a glimpse:
I don’t think there’s anywhere else on earth where you can watch a whole pack of young bonobos play, by themselves. Seven little ones were living in Lola’s nursery during Steve’s and my stay. They ranged in age from two to five, and they all had shiny black fur and boundless energy. Most (if not all) had arrived malnourished, ill, and so traumatized they were close to death.
Over the years, Claudine and her team have developed a detailed protocol for caring for the tiny victims, many of whom have seen poachers shoot their mother before their eyes, then hack her into pieces to be sold as meat. After a thorough medical screening and treatment for any critical health problems, the orphan must be quarantined for six weeks to ensure it’s not carrying any disease that could decimate Lola’s entire bonobo population. But you can’t confine a young bonobo to a cage, all alone. It would die from the absence of love and physical contact. Instead at Lola, each newly arrived youngster is assigned a human surrogate mother who rocks and cuddles it, feeding and caring for the little one in a way that’s looks even more challenging than caring for a human toddler.
I can’t imagine what the surrogate moms go through during this quarantine period. Claudine says usually it takes about two weeks before the newcomer begins to accept and trust the human female. The mom has to try everything she can think of to get the orphan to eat. The poacher/trafficker may have fed it beer or tainted water or scraps of offal or handfuls of rice. The Lola staff says Coke is often the thing that will entice a baby into taking its first sips before transitioning to a more nutritious formula. During a quarantine, the mom returns to her own home at night, but then she got back to work each day without any break until the baby at last can be integrated into the larger group.
Being a surrogate mom to one or more bonobos may get easier after that, but it’s still hard work. The youngsters cling to the women. They climb (or pounce) on their backs and arms. They tug at their pant legs. It’s intensely physical and also essential to the youngsters’ survival.
Day visitors to the sanctuary must view the youngsters through this glass. As resident visitors, Steve and I got to go a bit closer. But to lessen the chances of the youngsters catching some germ, only the surrogate mothers get to hold them.
Steve and I visited the nursery several times. We went early one morning to observe the morning ritual: a daily bath.
Twice we also returned late in the afternoon to watch the bedtime preparations. (The residents sleep in hammocks in a couple of large cages.)
We heard all their names, but we only memorized one: Balangala, that of a 5-year-old male, the most confident member of the gang. One morning we watched him climb a large bamboo stalk that was growing into the enclosure. His weight bent it over, and he jumped from it onto a trampoline. After a while he lured most of the younger ones up onto it with him. Eventually the stalk broke, and the moms had to call for a staff member to cut and haul it away.
Balangala came right up to the fence where we were observing. He threw dust at us, demanding our attention. He reached through the the bars to grab Steve’s ear. He bullied the little guys.
At the end of the day, he swung through the tunnel that leads to the nursery’s night enclosure, then stopped when he reached the place where we were standing. Penis erect, he thrust his hand through the grating: the classic bonobo handshake (the title of Vanessa Woods’ entrancing book).
Staff members say Balangala is probably ready to join one of the troupes outside the nursery. But he’ll do better if he can go with another youngster, and none of the others was quite ready yet. Bonobo societies are complicated. Before we arrived at Lola, Steve and I already knew that. But our time observing the older primates underscored that.