Shaila meets the gorillas

I made my way toward town under a bright, star-filled sky. It was 4:30a.m. Locals still meandered their way home from the bars, but I had my hiking boots on in preparation for a new day. I was off to see the gorillas.

An estimated 800 Mountain Gorillas currently live in the hills around the Rwanda, Uganda and Congo borders. The Rwandan government allows visitors to see these rare creatures, but only after allocating a limited number of permits each day. While tourism helps boost the country’s economy, the national parks remain protective. Just 20 years ago, this species faced near extinction, with fewer than 300 reported members of its kind.

Rwanda recently raised its trekking prices to $750 for foreigners. Many would consider this a hefty sum, and this poor traveling grad school student was no exception.

For weeks I considered the cost/benefit analysis of this adventure’s worth. That amount of money could cover my rent, a trip to South America or a several-month supply of food and wine. But, the potential regret of leaving Rwanda without meeting these famous gorillas also weighed on my shoulders. It became a moral dilemma. That is, until Shaila came along.

Shaila is a friend’s friend’s friend who bought a gorilla trekking permit for $500 before the prices increased earlier this year. Unfortunately for Shaila, a last minute change in plans left her unable to visit Rwanda. Fortunately for me, I got to buy her permit – and her identity – for a day.

On trekking day, Sara’s 28-year-old European mut makeup saved $250 by transforming into a 34-year-old Indian named Shaila. And, the experience was worth every penny of what I still could not afford to spend on it.

I have explored rain forests in Peru, Costa Rica and Australia, but have never had so jungly a hike as I did this day. We ducked under vines, tore away horrendously sharp prickers and wiggled through densely packed, tall bamboo shoots. The gorillas wander freely around the jungle, so when we grew closer to them, several guides led our human pack by chopping a trail with machetes.

We visited the Amahoro group, a 16-member gorilla family. Amahoro means “peace” in the native Kinyarwanda language, and this name described the family well. We walked among these gorillas snapping photos of their affectionate mannerisms and gawking at the way they happily chomped on bamboo.

At times, our human and gorilla groups stood fewer than 10 feet apart. The gorillas never seemed to mind. They occasionally looked at us nonchalantly, then continued to carry on with business as usual. We were no more than birds in the bamboo to them.

The Amahoro family had several small babies, one of which curiously crawled within about a four-foot range of my camera lens. Before he made it, though, the three-feet tall tyke became distracted with bamboo snacks and somersaults.

One “handicapped” gorilla laid amongst the crowd with a missing hand, which he once lost in a poaching trap. Park veterinarians helped him heal, so he could remain in the wild with his family. I watched this gorilla peacefully cuddle against his family members, as I grew angry with these hunters I would likely never know.

At the end of the trip, all trekkers received graduation certificates highlighting our great adventure. The guide caught me off guard: “how do you spell your name?” he asked when we returned to the lodge. He wanted to write it clearly on my certificate.

I had memorized Shaila’s nine-letter-long Indian last name for the morning check-in, but had forgotten it by this point. I wondered if the guide would cross reference the original sign-in sheets, learn my secret, report me to the government and kick me out of Rwanda forever. I started planning my plea for immigration as I vocally faked the spelling of my borrowed last name with confidence and certainty.

The guide handed me the certificate and said goodbye. My temporary name looked sort of right. “Thank you Shaila! We hope you come back to see us again,” the guide said with a wave and smile.

I returned a friendly wave goodbye as I exhaled with relief. Maybe if I strike gold someday, I will afford to bring Sara back to meet the extraordinary mountain gorillas.