Peanuts, Figs & Mayhem- Saying Goodbye to my Furry Friends in the Congo

We’ve arrived- the end of one crazy adventure and on to the next.

I had intended to write more about my experience living in the Congo, but the whole process became next to impossible. On the rare occasion that we had internet, it was usually only for a few hours, and it was excruciatingly slow.

Even if I wrote ahead of time and waited for the internet, I was constantly in a mild state of panic, knowing the electricity would shut off any second. Outlets were also in short supply. It was truly an adrenaline rush when the electricity came back on- all of us scrambling to find at least one outlet to recharge our only means of connecting to rest of the world.

All to say, writing and posting a blog was sometimes a weeks-long endeavor.

When I finally got back to the states, I had no desire to revisit the Congo. Yes, the experience as a whole was life-changing, but so many aspects of my day-to-day were beyond challenging…emotionally more than anything.

But those chimps- those crazy, extraordinary, and sometimes terrifying chimps- forever touched my soul. I fell in love with all 54 of them, each with his or her distinct, funny personality and sometimes annoying quirks.

Goma, for example, an ornery, cantankerous guy who loved to mess with anyone who dared enter the sanctuary. No matter how deep into the forest he was, the minute you walked through the gate, he would suddenly be sitting in the same spot, perfectly positioned to dowse you with spit.

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Goma and his cheeky smirk

It didn’t matter if I sprinted by him, he would always hit his target, meeting my gaze with a look of triumph, then disappearing back into the trees.

But even Goma nestled his way into my heart, gripping it tightly with those long, dexterous fingers and filling it up with awe and reverence.

They were ornery, intelligent, loving beings who taught me the extent to which animals feel emotions, both good and bad…exactly like we do. I saw this firsthand with our newest addition, Manoya, who was rescued the day before I got there.

She arrived emaciated, dehydrated and completely traumatized, then immediately had to be quarantined for 30 days. This meant she had to spend 24 hours a day with a caretaker in a large enclosure that was isolated from all the other animals.

The only details we know about her rescue is that the authorities found her going through customs, stuffed in a tiny crate. She was then handed over to the military who brought her to us by helicopter.

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Namoya right after she arrived

Every time I would check on her from a distance, the look on her face was beyond traumatized…it was sheer heartbreak.

Each of our chimps had a similar story (see Casualties of the Trade), all tortured in some way or another, stuffed in some inhumane contraption, most likely after seeing their entire families murdered.

But despite all of this, or probably because of it, they welcome each new orphan into their chaotic, not-so-functional family…just as they had me. Although be clear, this integration process isn’t without its challenges: clashing personalities, jealousy, power struggles…like any family, I suppose.

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Namoya’s new family

But I had survived. Six very long months later, I was walking up to the sanctuary for the last time…to say goodbye to my furry favorite.

I’ve already shared the chimp crush I had on Kongo (here), so I tried to go see him as much as I could (when I wasn’t working or hiding out trying to avoid running into ‘C’).

Kongo and I quickly established our routine, accompanying each other around the perimeter of the forest enclosure, getting to know each others’ expressions and body language. I learned what his favorite foods were, what type of leaves he preferred and where his favorite tree was. I gradually discovered who his favorite chimp buddies were and the ones who avoided him at all costs (Goma being one of them). I got to know his different moods- when he was grumpy, playful, ornery, or bored.

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I shared my snacks with him, vented about my challenges with ‘C’ (SOS from the Jungles of Congo explains a bit), counted down the months, weeks, and days until Eric came to visit, and then the months, weeks, days until I got to go home.

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That day finally arrived, and I knew it would be the last time I’d see him.

That day was bizarre…as if Kongo knew I was leaving. Every day before, he would greet me at the gate and escort me down our usual path. But not today. I waited a few minutes, looking for him up in the trees. I did my best version of a chimp call (which is pathetic, I might add). But nothing.

I started back toward the entrance, and there he was, peering out from behind the trees. I sat down and waited for him to come out. He just sat there, staring at me and then disappeared back into the forest.

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Now I was pissed. This was seriously how he was going to end it? I waited a few more minutes, then stormed out, slamming the gate behind me.

Realizing I had just thrown a temper tantrum because a chimp wouldn’t come ‘say goodbye’ to me, I pulled myself together and went back in.

There he was, sitting in the same spot where we always met. He didn’t even look at me before he started down the path, finally stopping to make sure I was following, but never letting me catch up.

When we turned the corner of our last stretch, he finally sat down but kept his back to me. I couldn’t help but laugh. He was clearly not going to make this easy. 

I rummaged through my bag and pulled out a handful of peanuts, sliding them under the fence. He pretended not to see and waited until I sat back down to casually reach over and grab them. Next was sliced mango, his second favorite treat. He ate them but still acted like he wasn’t interested. I waited a few minutes before I pulled out his favorite, knowing that would do the trick.

He finally turned around to face me, looking at me intensely, then down at my bag, then turned sideways to avoid eye contact.

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I launched into my goodbye speech, lying, saying I would be back, and reminding him there would be another ‘save the world’ type who would take my place.

I slid a larger than normal portion of figs under the fence. He launched forward, grabbed as many as he could, and disappeared into the trees.

And that was it.

I made my way back down the path home, stopping one last time to see if I could spot him in the trees. And there was Goma, staring down with his head cocked back, that same cheeky look on his face.

Just behind him and further up, I saw the leaves start to rustle. A flash of black plunged down, caught a limb and then soared across to catch another and then another. Within a matter of seconds, the forest turned into complete chaos- chimps flying tree to tree, leaves shaking violently as the limbs tried to rebound from the weight of one chimp after another slamming down on them.

Goma finally plunged in, instigating more deafening screams that made even the staff members stop and look up.

I watched until the madness died down and the leaves became still. Several climbed to the top and perched on the branches, some grouped together, some alone, most of them looking down.

I’d seen these crazy displays before, but this one was sheer mayhem. I, of course, convinced myself that this one was for me…a dramatic farewell…

And I have a good idea who was behind it.

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*The number of chimps has grown from 54 to 72 since I was there in 2013.

* Between 5-10 chimpanzees are slaughtered in the process of trying to capture one baby chimp.

*Goma and I eventually made a truce, and I was allowed safe passage, if and only if he was presented with a handful of peanuts upon my entry.

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Below is the link to the documentary that inspired me to go to the Congo:

‘Project Nim’: A Chimp’s Very Human, Very Sad Life

Please help support the efforts of the sanctuary to protect these guys by donating here.

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Warning. Proceed with Caution.

I’m struggling a bit with all of this.

Writing in general. sharing all of this, exposing my mess. This blog is the thing that brings me the most joy these days, but I can’t help but wonder, am I killing you? Are you so over hearing me bleed? I know I am. But shit, I’m still bleeding a little bit.

So I admittedly went into publishing mode, which I certainly don’t think is a bad thing. It makes me happy to see my words out there in a forum that can reach more people. I love seeing people’s comments, even if they aren’t positive (okay, I don’t like seeing those, but I suppose it means that I made them feel something). And I’m not going to lie, it’s pretty fucking cool to see my bio hanging out down there below an article published in the Washington Post. I’m only human.

But then I come back to this, to you: this community that has grown into something akin to a family, kindred spirits who offer me brief glances into your lives. I get to learn your beautiful stories, one post at a time. It feeds my soul on a daily basis. And your writing!! It blows my mind, and I can’t believe you actually want to read mine. But now, I have this crazy fear you’ll stop wanting to. Because goddammit, I’m tired. I’m tired of being sad. I’m tired of writing about being sad. And I can’t help but think that you have to be tired of reading about sad. But I haven’t quite arrived at happy yet, so what the hell do I write about?

On a side note, for you poor souls who think going on a second or third date is a good idea, I have discovered a full proof method to ensure that we definitely won’t. Just say something to this effect:

So I think you should write about…I don’t know, something happier, like your travels or maybe how you are getting through all of the pain…something that might inspire people, maybe give them hope…

Really? You’re joking, right? Because I seem to recall you telling me that is why you loved my writing in the first place. ‘It’s so honest, raw, engaging, bold…’.

Regardless, I’m just not quite at a place where I’m ready to conjure up my favorite memory from childhood, or from Spain or France or Colombia. I will someday, I have countless. But until I’m in the mindset to write about those memories with the same authenticity and passion I can about the not-so-happy parts, then they will remain unwritten.

In the meantime, I have a bit more bleeding to do.

But I am curious, are you requesting happy because it makes you more comfortable? Is it because, if we did actually start dating, someone you know might read what I write and question why I’m still so sad and heartbroken if we are dating? Shouldn’t I be ‘over it’? Shouldn’t I be happy because I’m with you?

Or maybe you really do just want to read something happy. I totally get it. My favorite new blog, The Incurable Dreamer, is my favorite precisely because it makes me laugh. The author’s writing is honest, raw, engaging…and it’s hilarious. I laugh out loud. And I also cry. Because parts do make my heart hurt, mainly because I can completely relate to her, and because she writes so brilliantly that I feel like am her, in the place where she is, seeing what she sees, and feeling what she feels.

I love it precisely because she does what I so want badly to make others do….she makes me feel.

So apologies if this comes across as bitter, or if it makes you uncomfortable. I want you to feel how you feel, and I want to know what that is, even if it isn’t always what I want to hear.

I won’t, however, write what you will always want to read. And in my defense, I try to set a tone, even throw out a warning in the beginning, to give you a head’s up if what I wrote is going to be especially brutal.

Summary: For those of you interested in a second date, not to worry. I stopped dating altogether, so feel free to offer up any advice you have. And for those of you who are weary of me being sad and writing about it, please know, I am too. But this present state will eventually subside and give way to the me who almost always has a smile on her face and a positive spin on shit situations.  She’s still here, you’ll see glimpses of her in even the most tragic posts, but you have to look a little closer sometimes. And you might actually have to feel something…

So, you have been warned.

proceed

Sneak Preview: Salsa, Heartbreak, and Redemption (or something like that)

Thought I would give a taste of why I have disappeared for a spell. I have no idea where or if this will be published, but I thought I could try to spread a lil’ hope for those of you in the thick of ‘rebounding’ from a heartbreak in the absence of a rebound, at least in the traditional sense….

“Burdened no more is soul for whom life flows through dance like breath.”
― Shah Asad Rizvi

He grabbed my hand and slid his arm around my waist, pulling me closer. Our lips were close enough to kiss. My eyes lingered on them as they made their way up to meet his gaze. He smiled playfully, “Relax. Try not to think, and just let yourself  feel. ”

The music started. A cacophony of horns and percussion thrust us into motion. I knew I was tensing up, and the only thing I could feel was my heart racing. He let go of my waist and slid his hands down the length of my back, letting them rest firmly on my hips. He paused for a second, teasing me like he always did before he sent me spinning. I threw my head back, laughing, as our playful improvisation began, our bodies syncing up perfectly. Without saying a word, he would tell me exactly what he wanted me to do, and I would gladly submit. He had me exactly where he wanted me. I wasn’t thinking about anything other than how I felt, completely immersed in the moment, and deliriously happy. Then the music stopped.

This is how I got over my first heartbreak. I started dancing.

My boyfriend had found someone else. I didn’t blame him. We were going on year four of what had become a vicious cycle of trying ‘just one more time’. I knew it needed to end, but I wasn’t ready to give up. He was, and he did.

So I did what I always do when my heart gets broken; I planned my escape. I sold everything that wouldn’t fit into my suitcase and bought a ticket to Spain. Just over a week before I was supposed to leave, my stepdad called. My mom had been in a car accident.

I didn’t go to Spain; I went to bury my mom instead.

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I finally stopped rambling when he walked over and motioned for my hand. I wiped it on my skirt, confessing,

I’m kind of nervous

He smiled. Really? I had no idea. 

I feigned annoyance, laughed and offered up my sweaty palm. He led me through some basic steps, which I fumbled through, stepping on his feet more than I care to admit. He finally stopped, stepping back and studying me for a minute.

Not bad, he said, acting surprised. Actually, that was pretty good. You clearly know how to dance; we just need to get your confidence back. But first, there is something more important we need to do.

He had my attention.

I think you’ve forgotten how to feel. And you can’ t dance if you can’t feel. So I am going to try something that I think might help.

He most definitely had my attention.

Close your eyes and don’t open them until I tell you.

I stood there, my heart racing, waiting to see what would happen next…..

 

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More to come….   ;o)

 

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