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Oranges and Obama

The below is a rework of a piece I wrote for a creative writing class a few years ago. I seldom share anything fictional that I’ve written but am trying to get a bit braver in that regard.

Oranges and Obama

Emma lay suspended in the empty space between sleep and waking, wrapped in the nothingness of a time neither past nor present.  Slowly, the curtain of sleep fell back and reality announced itself. Dogs howling in unison, car horns beeping with ever increasing vigour, someone calling exuberantly in a language she could not name.

Emma sat up and looked around her, shaking off the last dregs of sleep. An inoffensive beige room looked back at her. Her rucksack lay open in the corner where she had dropped it. A gecko ran across the wall opposite her bed, looking like he had somewhere terribly important to go.

She raised her arms over her head, releasing the cramps of the journey. Despite the best efforts of the frantically whirring fan, sweat was starting to pool in areas that Emma had previously not known to sweat. Shins. Knuckles. Elbows. The heat was the first thing she had noticed when she stepped off the plane; it had charged towards her in a great wave and settled itself around, over and through her. The taxi journey from the airport had been a confused blur of sweat, colors and a bizarre form of conversation with Moses, her taxi driver. This involved gesticulating and hysterical laughter in equal measure.  ‘You Irish, you like the Guinness’ he said, leaning over conspiratorially as if letting her in on some state secret. ‘Yeah, I guess we do’ said Emma, unleashing another torrent of thigh slapping laughter from Moses. ‘You, eh, I think you will like it here’ he announced, wagging his finger enthusiastically at Emma as he swerved around a wayward goat. Emma caught a glimpse of herself in the rearview mirror. Frizzy hair, blotchy face, and something else from a time she could hardly remember. ‘I hope so, Moses’.

Pulling aside the mosquito screen, Emma looked down at life stretching out its limbs on the street below her.  Everything and everyone moved languidly through the haze of heat, and a sense of unhurriedness saturated the air.  A woman swayed past, her hips rolling leisurely beneath the greens and reds of her wrap, an impossibly large bucket balanced on her head.  A man wobbled along on a rickety bicycle, the live chickens suspended from both handlebars squawking their indignation.  A young man wearing a faded Barack Obama t-shirt sat on a wooden bench, drinking an alarmingly purple beverage from a glass bottle. Taxi drivers debated animatedly over the roofs of their parked cars. Three women sat side by side, legs stretched straight out in front of them, the colours of their wraps dancing against the red dust that stretched in every direction. Each guarded her own small pile of oranges, arranged in a perfect pyramid. Every few minutes, one of them would flick the dust off her oranges with a flourish of a handkerchief.

Emma retreated from the window, licking the sweat off her top lip. ‘How is it’ she wondered, ‘that you can one day be hugging your hysterical mother in a grey and dismal Dublin, and the next you can be here wondering where on earth he got that Obama t-shirt’.

She sat on the bed and opened up her journal. She had spent nearly an hour picking out this journal.  The main image on the cover was of a woman on a horse, both heavily decorated in middle eastern style dress. The horse was rearing up dramatically. The woman stared stonily ahead. Emma had liked the determination in her face. The horse rolled its eye in her direction, straining at the bit, all spirit and rebellion. Emma ran her hands over the cover and opened it on the first page. Clean, fresh, waiting for the memories and moments that would bring it alive.

One of the most hurtful things Hugo ever did was read her journal. She came home after a late meeting in work and found him sitting on their bed, her journal open in his lap. He looked her dead in the face. ‘What else do you want me to do when you are 2 hours late, Em?’ All of the words she wanted to say charged around Emma’s head, falling over each other to tell him of the many, many things she wanted him to do that did not involve reading her journal. But she had just stood there, the silence sitting bitter and heavy between them.  She looked at the man who had set her world on fire and wondered when exactly she had ceased to recognise her own life.

The good days were glorious. He could make her laugh like nobody else. Those days were a freefall of surprise picnics,  impromptu love letters and Sunday mornings dozing on his chest.  Those were the days when he made her head spin and her heart sing, and when the thought of life without him made the bottom drop out of her world. He was loving and supportive to a fault. On the good days.

It was the good days that kept her there, walking the tightrope between his love and his anger.   

It was a Saturday morning when Emma realised that she no longer cared about the good days. She was dabbing concealer tentatively around her eyes, the hateful and hurtful words of the night before pounding in her head. She could already envisage her sister’s pinched, concerned face, the probing questions, the hand proffered across the table. She could already hear her own chirpy reply,  could already feel the anxiety start to bubble in her chest as she diverted the conversation to shopping, or family, or holidays.

She turned away from the sink, her ribs aching and her heart wrapped in a dark cloud.  As her feet moved themselves towards the door,  a single thought walked itself into her mind;

‘I can’t remember what’s it’s like to not feel like this’

She carried that thought with her into the bedroom and held it in front of her as she looked at him spread out across the bed.

Emma already knew what the next hour would involve. Soon he would wake up and look for her. He would take her face in both his hands and look straight at her, apologising over and over. They would both be crying. She would reach out and touch his cheek, and he would pull her to him and mumble his endless repentance into her hair. Emma would close her eyes tight and inhale the scent of his neck and begin the process of waiting for the next time.  She held the thought close to her and the glory days and glowing moments fell away and she knew that if she did not leave at that exact moment, she would never find herself again.

Emma looked down at the few words she had written and sighed.

‘He never thought I’d do it. He never thought I had it in me’

She closed her journal and thought about going out to buy some oranges.

Small steps.

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Kunyoni

Thick red mud sucks at my boots. Fire ants pinch my skin. Sweat trickles down my shins. A medley of sounds echo through the thick forest air; rain pattering on leaves, machetes swiping at dense vegetation, monkeys calling to each other.

I trip over tree roots and step ankle deep in the footprints of forest elephants, sweaty, breathless and determined to keep up with our guide who is striding effortlessly through the verdant jungle, guided by his internal compass and the radio calls of the trackers.

Seeing mountain gorillas in Uganda had long been on my bucket list, and my anticipation is palpable. The guides make low grunting sounds as they walk ever deeper into the undergrowth. Suddenly there is an answering grunt and everything shakes. Just like that I find myself mere metres away from Kunyoni, a fully grown silverback mountain gorilla.

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Kunyoni is one of less than 1,000 Eastern mountain gorillas left in the world, all of whom are located in Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo. For years numbers plummeted due to civil conflict and poaching. Now, thanks to inspiring conservation efforts numbers are slowly increasing. Permits are strictly limited and get you no more than 60 minutes in the company of the gorillas. The $500 price tag and the physical exertion required means that tracking is unlikely to fall prey to mass tourism, which I view as a positive for such a sensitive area of conservation. However, the high cost did present a moral dilemma for me. I debated long and hard over whether or not I could justify undertaking something that was so far beyond the means of many Ugandans.

Kunyoni and his family make up the Mubare group, the first gorilla group to have been habituated in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Habituated gorillas are slowly accustomed to human presence over a number of years. You are very much a guest in their territory, taking a privileged peek into their lives. Kunyoni and his family regarded us with mild curiosity while they sat around munching on wild celery. Mothers groomed their moon-eyed babies with furious concentration. A hopeful female strutted in front of the silverback. He responded by idly scratching his head, yawning, and then rolling over on his back like a dog.

As I crouched down to take a photo, Kunyoni looked steadily at me with an unnameable energy that made the hairs on my arms stand on end. He was an unapologetic power, a wild beauty.

My brief interaction with the mountain gorillas was worth every penny and every laborious step. It totally surpassed my bucket-list level expectations. There was more beauty, humanity and intelligence in their faces than I ever imagined. The commitment and pride of the conservation staff and local community was beyond inspiring.  

Standing in the personal fiefdom of a greatly endangered animal who could rip your arms off is a powerful lesson from nature. Sometimes travel throws an experience at you that is, quite simply, priceless.