An adventure around the world and back!

It’s taken me awhile to feel settled enough to sit down and write. Over the last 2 months, I’ve had the final adventure of 2018, which has been a full year of unexpected journeys. My life motto, “Adventure Awaits Us All” rang true more than ever this past year, and just keeps going as 2019 rolls around.

Let’s start with the most recent journey. I was called out to the Centre de Conservation des Chimpanzés/Chimpanzee Conservation Centre/CCC, a chimpanzee sanctuary in the Haut Niger National Park, in Guinea, West Africa, on the bank of the Niger River. This is one of a few projects which has successfully released chimps back into the national park after rehabilitation. I was expected to cover a management leave and assist with any veterinary management necessary. I’ll start by saying I always had the impression Guinea was more developed than Sierra Leone aka Salone (for some reason, I always though Salone was the least developed nation in the region). Boy, was I wrong. I thought I would see some beaches. Wrong again. I thought I would see toilets. Oh SO wrong again.

Let’s start with the most recent journey. I was called out to the Centre de Conservation des Chimpanzés/Chimpanzee Conservation Centre/CCC, a chimpanzee sanctuary in the Haut Niger National Park, in Guinea, West Africa, on the bank of the Niger River. This is one of a few projects which has successfully released chimps back into the national park after rehabilitation. I was expected to cover a management leave and assist with any veterinary management necessary. I’ll start by saying I always had the impression Guinea was more developed than Sierra Leone aka Salone (for some reason, I always though Salone was the least developed nation in the region). Boy, was I wrong. I thought I would see some beaches. Wrong again. I thought I would see toilets. Oh SO wrong again.

Rocky, a wannabe alpha

CCC was a mission in itself to even arrive at. Landing in Conakry (a city FULL of garbage and burning piles of garbage on the side of every road), I spent 2 nights there before embarking on a 10 hour drive to Faranah, the closest ‘major’ city. At least most of this was on tarmack. We slept in Faranah, which although living in a house, the toilet was an outhouse with a dank dark squatting hole (and one that wasn’t very deep if you get my drift) and a door that didn’t really close. Sometimes you just need an Imodium for…what I may call…prophylactic purposes – delaying necessary bodily functions until conditions improve? Moving on, we left the next morning for a 5 hour drive on bush roads, which one may barely call roads. And of course you can’t sleep or your head will bash against the window. And it’s so hot and stuffy you need the windows open. But it’s the dry season, so I arrived with a layer of red dust covering my entire skin and all my baggage, and random pieces of leafy material in every pocket and crevice of my being.

Anyways, we arrive to the camp (finally!) at dusk, which again to my surprise does not have ‘houses’ per se. I don’t know what I was expecting (something similar to Salone?) but most of the sleeping arrangements were in mud huts with thatched roofs. I also expected far fewer people – but lo and behold there were something like 8 volunteers + management and staff! Lots of people to socialize with unexpectedly. Now time to unpack and settle in for 2 months without contact with the outside world. The first few days were spent meeting all 60 something chimps and training with the manager who would be going on leave.

There are 3 adult groups who live between their cages for sleeping and an electric fence forested enclosure during the day, plus the babies and nursery groups who go on bush walks with their caregivers twice daily. My job was primarily to oversee the husbandry of the animal care staff for all the feedings and deal with any issues that arose. I also worked in tandem with a vet who was volunteering there to manage any illnesses and assist with preventive healthcare programs.

And me with the third! Bringing them back to camp, mischievous little guys!
Daily life was as such: wake up at 6AM to start preparing food for the chimps, sending them out into the enclosures, and doing rounds to see all the chimps. At 6am, it was FREAKING COLD for Africa. Most days it would be about 12-15 degrees Celsius, with everything wet and covered in dew, and I’d be in full winter gear and toque! It didn’t warm up until about 10AM. By 8-8:30 it was time for breakfast and warming up by the fire! You should’ve seen Jean, the head of maintenance, outfitted in what could only be described as a 10 layered orange spacesuit/jumpsuit – too bad I never got a photo!!! By 3PM it would get above 40 degrees and T-shirts were too much!!!! We worked until 6:30 in the evening when we brought the chimps in, and we worked 7 days a week. Asides from the cold/hot mixture, there were these lovely blackflies called simules. They carry a LOVELY disease called onchocerciasis, a worm that grows in your blood, creates cysts in your skin, and can end up in your eyes causing blindness. More than just that, they are the itchiest flies to have ever met my skin, and they loved elbows, wrists, and ankles. Many of us lived with constant hives and steroid creams. Between the cold and the itching, I barely slept! The camp was usually staffed by the cook who made lunch and dinner for us, and volunteers who assisted with camp maintenance. Fruits were bought from trips to local villages twice a week and major supplies/foods were bought from weekend trips to Faranah once weekly.

One day, years ago, someone was on a bushwalk with the nursery chimps and their phone started ringing. They were in shock, as they were in the middle of the National Park with no known reception. It was on this day the staff discovered there was cellphone reception ONLY in this specific 5 square metres of savannah 20 minutes walking from camp. The first day I went there, I even got internet access!!! Mind you it was “Edge” aka 2G instead of 3G or 4G/LTE, and it took 10 minutes to even get some Whatsapp messages, but it was something!!! So this was our once weekly trip in the evenings to let everyone know we were alive.

The chimps were great, as were the staff. The staff was about 15-20 local men who stayed on site, without contact with their families for about 1 month before getting a week off. Clearly they knew each chimp extremely well and cared about them a lot. One of the things we learned about Guinea is that girls get married off super young, as young as 12 in some cases. They have little autonomy and must have and take care of children. It’s also not uncommon for men to be with multiple women long-term. So partially due to logistics/location and culture, and that there was a staff full of likely desperately horny men, there were no local women who worked with us.

There were a few major events that occurred. One was the moving of Coco, or El Presidente as he was affectionately known, for he was truly the chief and we all did his bidding! Coco was the oldest chimp and had an extremely rough life before arriving at CCC. At CCC, due to his psychological trauma, he was not able to mix with any other chimps without significant risk. Someone fell in love with him and donated funds to build an entire new, state-of-the-art, high-security enclosure which was just finishing being built as I arrived. We spent a lot of people hours climbing trees, cutting them with machetes or chainsaws, and pulling them down on ropes to make sure this enclosure was ‘escape-proof’! And finally the day came. A tricky patient, eventually two of us managed to anesthetize him and transfer him to his new space. Coco was terrified but also so excited to be out in a forest after many months of waiting on construction, and be able to see and hear (from afar) his old friends again. He was so thrilled he refused to come back inside for several days, despite the smorgasbord of treats we tried to entice him with! This was a major step forward for the sanctuary’s development and infrastructure, and a major step forward for Coco. I was honoured to play a role in his new life. Coco’s neighbour, Mata, was now without someone to talk to or groom. She was a new arrival who was extremely shy and cautious of everything, but very gentle. We decided to move Labe in with her, another outcast. It was amazing to see these two young ladies discover play (while not new to Labe, this was the first time anyone had seen Mata play, and the first time in months Labe was so excited) and continue to play non-stop throughout the day. Hopefully they become the best of friends!
We also decided to do a ‘Secret Santa’ of sorts, a sanctuary tradition, where you had to make your gift with only items that could be found in the bush/in camp. There were items such as a wire tree on a wooden stand with a wire chimp hanging from it, a table made of bamboo, a comic book of events and funny stories that occurred amongst volunteers, a purse made from local fabric, and a homemade Bailey’s for the Russian! I received a ‘natural bracelet’ made of a bean pod! And my gift was a sketch of a portrait of Kirikou, a big male chimp I had photographed, and framed it in bamboo. We exchanged these gifts to everyone’s anticipation on Christmas Eve as we all made a big dinner together. To my surprise, French people ONLY celebrate Christmas Eve and Christmas is just a normal day!!! Luckily my gift was ready early, or I would totally have failed to deliver!

We had another party prior to leaving, and an amazing midnight discovery happened down by the river. You see, the stars were INCREDIBLE out there, far from civilization. I’m pretty sure we could see the Milky Way Galaxy on a daily basis. Luke arrived back from the remote camp (where they tracked the wild chimps) with an app for viewing constellations live through the phone’s screen. We were so excited to name every star and see the images show up on the phone, but more than us, the Guinean staff were ecstatic to visualize drawings of constellations! I think we spent a good 2 hours just searching constellations.

The next day, we departed after our several month journey. Natalya had decided to join me in my planned trip to Sierra Leone and managed to get a visa in time. Luke joined us by surprise at the last moment with no visa and no plan! So off we went on another adventure. We started our taxi ride at 6 in the morning and thought we were going crazy. At first, a goat jumped in front of our car on it’s hindlimbs and started dancing, and we narrowly missed it. We all thought we were dreaming. Then someone asked for a lift 5 hours away. We told him there was no space, and 3 minutes later as the car was speeding away, we saw him jump on to the roof! He stayed there (in the cold wind!!) for a good 2 hours before hitching a ride with another pickup truck. We ended up passing him again at the 5 hour mark smiling and waving at us next to the pickup LOL. After 2 days of travelling (AGAIN) back to Conakry, with not a real meal since we left, and being stopped by the police in Conakry for HOURS because we were foreigners and they wanted money, we were so thankful to finally arrive at our host’s house and have a nice meal. Lo and behold, he wasn’t home – no one was! We were stuffed into one room with one bed. His wife “forgot” we were arriving (despite several phone calls the day before and the day of) and not only was there no dinner but the housekeeper told us there was zero food in the house!!! And we were in a residential area foreign to us, so we couldn’t just walk on the street to get anything! She kindly went to get us some spaghetti, after indicating multiple times we were vegetarian. She came back with a bowl of spaghetti we were so grateful for, only to find it FULL of minced meat. It came with a half baguette, so we completed our journey with the breaking of the bread amongst 3 peasants. And of course we had another 10 hour journey ahead the next morning to Freetown.
Sadly we had to leave Luke behind as he didn’t have a visa, but he managed to get it the following day. So Nat and I went on our 10 hour drive in a public taxi (see photo above) with approximately 15 other people in the car, and managed to get across with relatively few issues (minus Nat almost being left behind several times due to having to pee). Luke however, had a breakdown in his taxi, and ended up getting towed to the border, which had closed by then. After being prepared to sleep at the border, a police officer offered to take him across on a motorbike and jump in another taxi to Freetown. However, he needed money to ‘wake up a customs officer’ to stamp his passport. Having run out of money, the guy let him cross anyways, and told him to go to immigration and get a stamp tomorrow!!!! So now we had an illegal alien on our hands!!!
Finally arriving at Tacugama, we had a few days to relax, catch up on internet things, and enjoy the company of a whole new set of chimpanzees! We then spent a few nights on River # 2 beach, where to our surprise, the room we rented also had one bed (what can I say, we were poor and super comfortable with each other by this point!) and a bathroom with no door, which faced the entrance to the room. Well, let’s just say we got even a little closer!!
All in all, it was SUPER relaxing to be on the beach with nowhere to be, with friends new and old, bonfires, and dance parties as well as quiet and relaxing times. We spent hours and hours between sun and water. But alas, we were still somewhat starving as food options were pretty limited and well, we may have all had bathroom issues come and go…
@ Tacugama introducing my chimp friends
Leaving was SOOOOOOOOOO hard. But also a good story. We arranged a private taxi days in advance. You see, all of us had return flights from Conakry, so had to venture BACK into Guinea to go home. Yet another border crossing. I called and confirmed the taxi multiple times, and the driver was to show up at 4:30AM with a tour operator who would drive him to our pickup location. Lo and behold, a car shows up with someone driving, and a drunk old man passenger yelling in excitement (who I assumed by default was our driver?!?!). Not having any idea what is happening, we get in the car and go down the hill, at which point the drunk man exits the car. I then ask the driver what is happening, and he says ‘Oh, I’m not the tour operator, I’m the driver you spoke to! The tour operator didn’t answer his phone this morning, so I picked up this man to direct me to your location and now I am dropping him where I found him. Oh by the way, I don’t have a license for Guinea, so I wont be driving you. I will drop you at the taxi station, and you will go with my friend. But you should pay me and not him.’ We’re like ohhhhhhh mannnnn what is happening!!! Another early morning hallucination of a taxi ride! At least he showed up, and on time! And he was speedy!!! What took us 10 hours the first time, was 6 hours with this driver!
We arrived safely at the airport and parted ways eventually, a solemn parting after a week and a half’s worth of absolutely unexpected adventures that would come to an abrupt end. Of course my meals on the plane were mixed up and hunger struck again, and while rushing to stuff my face and get on the next plane in Amsterdam, the plane had been found to be carrying narcotics so I could’ve had a nice relaxing meal as I had to wait hours to board!

PART 2 – REFLECTIONS ON 2018

The adventure taught me the importance of spontaneity, of not having to plan every little detail or have my life planned out. We had some pretty deep conversations and explored aspects of our lives we wouldn’t have shared with anyone. On New Year’s Eve and all throughout our travels, I was able to reflect on and give thanks for the incredible road I’ve been on this year, and be inspired by each other’s adventures and life challenges. By being open to opportunities and possibilities, and being able to say YES much more often, life opened up a whole new chapter. It started with volunteering in Sierra Leone for 3 months during a difficult season with lots of challenging chimp health issues last February. It was the first time I’d been back and I had experiences I will never forget.
The following few months were just spontaneous opportunity after the next. I ended up working with the only (known) chimps in Canada and forming new connections to people doing amazing things for animals. We were able to rescue 3 monkeys who had spent their lives in research and whom we had spent 2 years trying to retire. My wonderful friends then had what I can only describe as THE most beautiful and loving wedding I have ever seen, with a backdrop of sunset over the lakes in New York State, and one in which we all got to spend QUALITY time together, something often difficult to achieve in the Western world especially at big gatherings. I could not be happier for them and so grateful to be a part of this weekend!
In a surprising twist (there seems to be a trend here…no?), I had what I can only describe as one of the, if not the, most powerful moment of my entire life, being graced with the presence of the Aga Khan. Our community of Ismaili Muslims was blessed enough to be invited to the first ever global congregation, a weeklong Arts & Culture celebration and spiritual visit in Lisbon, Portugal, in celebration of the Aga Khan’s Diamond Jubilee (60th year) as our spiritual leader. I could write a whole blog on this (and should) – but between being together with Ismailis from over 50 countries (including Tajikistan, Australia, all of Africa, and places I never even knew Ismailis existed), connecting with the global network of queer Ismailis for the first time in-person and having hours of deep meaningful debate and conversation, and experiencing visual, film and performance art from all the aforementioned countries I can say it was life-changing experience. Of course the highlight, and moment of utmost power, was the spiritual visit from the Aga Khan, which moved me in ways I am still processing and cannot begin to describe or explain (despite having had these experiences several times previously). It also included a surprise visit by the President of Portugal into our prayer hall, where he welcomed us all as brothers and sisters of Portugal. I am so glad to have shared this moment with my Ismaili brothers and sisters from around the world (including another surprise visit by my very own brother!) and SO glad I decided to go at the last minute.
Denver and Steph's wedding - so nice to reunite with our Guelph crew!!!!
Then there was this. I have been marching in the Toronto Pride Parade for just about a decade representing our global community of Ismaili Queers. Friends and family have almost always been supportive, but it’s mostly my LGBTQ+ friends that end up watching the parade. My dad was always hesistant about the ‘public displays/advertising your sexuality’ though my mom would often watch on TV at home hoping to catch a glimpse. Due to mom’s multiple sclerosis, she can’t handle heat or large crowds. But to my surprise, for the first time in my life, my dad surprised me at the Parade cheering from the rafters and even stopping to take a selfie. I secretly have always wanted this, after seeing it happen to so many other young participants in the parade, and never thought I would see the day but always found myself hoping for it to happen. I am SO proud of the strides my family has made in supporting our community, understanding what it means to be gay or LGBTQ+, and even to the point now of celebrating us and coming to our defence amongst their friends. I have never been so proud and so touched by my family’s unwavering support, despite the struggle that it has taken to get here. I love you guys to the moon and back (and beyond!).

The year went on with my first presentation at a scientific conference about our work in Sierra Leone, with a mini beach vacation and visit to see one of my dear friends/mentors, Mom’s first ever surprise birthday party where the whole family flew in from around the world to show her how much she meants to them, a surprise trip to Italy for my mom’s (and accidentally mine too) birthday, an amazing backyard birthday party with live music by “I can’t believe it’s not Ed Sheeran” aka an Uber passenger with a guitar my dad hired and was AMAZING, finally meeting “Esther” the Wonder Pig!!!!, and a Thanksgiving that I’ll never forget.

Thanksgiving was the best I could ever have imagined. After a somewhat ‘surprise’ monkey surgery with one of my best mentors, we had an all vegan meal (thanks Ingrid!!!) surrounded by animal-loving sanctuary folk. Thanksgiving is always difficult with family insisting on serving turkey carcasses and celebrating gratitude with death (even if they are accommodating for vegans). This was the first time I’ve had a thanksgiving celebration that literally warmed my heart (and belly), surrounded by the family we chose and not the one we are given, and being able to have zero anxieties. We then proceeded to spend a day with a lovely family who runs an organic farm and had the most wonderful conversations with kindred spirits. And to top it all off, we had a final dinner with my family and my guest of honour, and just got to spend quality time together.

All that I can ask for in 2019 and onwards is for more quality time with people I love. The value of this cannot be understated. It is what I realized is all that matters in the end, no matter how you live life. Take time for people. We all lead busy lives and sometimes that means MAKING time. I hope the run of spontaneous and amazing life events just keeps going and that 2019 is even better than 2018, for all of you as well!!! So far it’s looking at way, as I’m off to Sierra Leone this weekend to meet Jane Goodall, and then off to India for another 3 month adventure! Write more soon 🙂

Lots of love,

Izzy

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