Monday, May 25th, 2014
The couch was a bad idea. When a thunderstorm took out the power one of the staff took it upon himself to open the front door to our bungalow, presumably to let in some of the cool air brought by the storm. However a refreshing breeze was not the only thing that made it’s way into our living room. I awoke at around 3 a.m. to a loud buzzing in my ears. I was covered in insects.
I had made the mistake of falling asleep without either a mosquito net or a good coating of DEET which made me a smorgasbord for the thousands of insect that were devouring my flesh. By the time the Muslim call to prayer sounded over loud speakers at a nearby mosque at 5 a.m. I was exhausted and itchy, not having been able to sleep for all of the insects. It looked and felt as though I had a bad case of the chicken pox. Later, while standing and waiting for the rest of the group to pack their things my legs were the source of much speculation. They swelled and turned a blotchy white and purple. Everyone began to diagnose me with anything from bed bugs to scabies, but I didn’t pay them much mind. All I knew was I itched and there was nothing I could do about it.
We arrived early to the ferry, not wanting to miss our ride again and secured our place on board with first class tickets, which meant we could go into the covered cabin.
The boat was packed. Car piled in and people piled on cars and baskets were piled on people. It was hot and the boat moved at a snails pace from the dock and soon the air was thick with exhaust, the smell of smoked meat, and the stink of hundreds of sweating bodies.
After about forty minutes sweating and sitting quietly, I believe we were all a little to tired to talk much, we clambered back into our cars. Suddenly a hand popped up to tap on my window. I looked down and saw the little boy I had befriended the night before imitating some of my faces and sticking his tongue out at me. I smiled that my friend remembered me and stuck my tongue out right back at him.
Men and women carried their belongings off the ferry and soon the cars began to back out, one by one, down the steep ramp onto the concrete slope that led up into Freetown. We were finally off and on our way to Tacugama.
Freetown is full of people. The sidewalks, streets and multitude of shops were packed with men going about their work, women selling their goods, and school children in nicely pressed uniforms and green berets. The school children in their crisp, white button down shirts stood out, an anomaly against the sea of dirty buildings and littered streets.
The ride through Freetown was long and jolting as our car bounced through pothole after pothole on the red dirt road. We passed through the shade of the giant cotton tree, which was blocked off from people by a tall fence and a few armed guards, and circled the president’s clock tower as we climbed higher up the mountains surrounding the city. Soon the people thinned and the forests grew thick and we wound out way up a narrow mountain road.
When we arrived at Tacugama a breakfast of eggs, potatoes and bread awaited us. Having barely eaten the night before we wolfed down the small quiche and readied ourselves for a tour of the sanctuary.
In 1988 a man named Bala and his wife Sharmila were traveling through a village when they spotted a sick, juvenile chimpanzee for sale who would soon become king Bruno. King Bruno helped Bala and his wife begin their journey of rescuing the illegally kept pet chimpanzees scattered across Sierra Leone. They set up permanent residences for the chimpanzees who could not be released, and a detailed curriculum for those who would be able to call the wild jungles of Sierra Leone home once more. This was hindered by the famous civil war of Sierra Leone, but by 1998 Bala was able to procure the funds to fence off 8 acres for the then 21 chimpanzees at the sanctuary. The sanctuary grew in leaps and bounds from there and by 2006 had 85 orphaned chimpanzees. They were even home to Pinkie, the famous albino chimpanzee, although Pinkie tragically died in 2002 after a fall.
We began our tour by walking down a dirt path to the quarantine area where we sighted our first chimp. The way your soul feels when you see a chimpanzee that was born, and will one day die in Africa, is a fantastic feeling. Even now, weeks later as I type up this account there is a huge grin on my face as I remember leaning over to Ryan and whispering, “Those are real African chimpanzees!” and the smile we shared in that moment when we knew we had really made it to Africa. I’ve seen chimps in zoos, but these were young and lively rescues from the pet trade that screamed and pant hooted and attempted to show off by balancing on ropes. They were not the bored and depressed chimps one so often glimpses in captivity. They were not pacing or over grooming, they were acting like chimps should, all be it a hoard of juvenile chimps with no adults to tell them to stop.
After seeing the five stages that the chimps go through before being approved for release into the adjoining national park we headed to our bungalows.
Tacugama is a beautiful place. As I wrote this entry I sat in a hammock on the balcony overlooking the rainforest and the high mountains beyond it. I could hear chimps hooting and all of the birds in my tract of forest hopped to the tree closest to me to get a better look. They must have though I was awfully boring, because after staring and chirping for a few seconds, they flew away.
After our tour and settling in we decided to visit what was promised to be a beautiful waterfall just up the hill from the sanctuary. Well, more down a hill, then up a hill, then down another one, but that is besides the point. After stumbling down a steep trail and coming upon a very ordinary dam and a pile of rocks we decided to continue up the river on an adventure.
We hopped across the stream on mossy rocks and clambered over fallen trees. We were not really trying to get anywhere except somewhere we had never seen before.
Once we arrived back at Tacugama, sweating and upset that there was no where to go swimming we socialized. We had met just two days ago, but there is something about a rainforest that creates fast friends.
Within a few hours we were gathered around a bottle of wine cracking jokes about all that had happened to us in such a short time.
That night, the last member of our group, Nate, arrived and we had our orientation where Tina and Andrew attempted, at least a little, to prepare us for the culture shock of the following day.
“If you see someone beating an animal or a child, do not interfere.”