By Doris Schaffer
After flying to Uganda, making my way to Rwanda, and actually trekking twice to visit mountain gorillas, I thought I’d be writing a travelogue describing the lush country of a thousand hills and the difficulty of getting to the gorilla habitats.
I was certain I’d be explaining that mountain gorillas are endangered with only 700 or so left in the world; that they’re vegetarians, susceptible to human illnesses, have 97% of the same DNA as humans, are highly social, have an average life span of 35 years, and live in families governed by the oldest male, the silverback. I planned to put into words the satisfaction of observing and photographing a gorilla family for almost two hours, the adorable antics of the juveniles, the tenderness with which a nursing mother cuddles her baby, and the thrill of making eye contact with a large female as she brushed past me in search of some delicious leaves.
Instead, when I look back on the whole experience, the only thing I can focus on is the woman with the iPad!
Gorilla trekking in Uganda and Rwanda is strictly regulated and requires the purchase of a permit entitling the holder to hike in a group of eight, accompanied by a ranger and a guard with a rifle. At Parc des Volcans in northwest Rwanda my group included a couple from Florida. While we were milling about before starting the trek, I overheard the woman telling others she had just celebrated her 60th birthday. She was fit, trim, attractive, and looked much younger than 60.
As we gathered at the starting point, four local men headed toward us carrying a long, stretcher-like basket with a blanket at the bottom. Was somebody injured? When they reached our group, the men lowered the basket to the ground and the woman from Florida hopped in, reclined, smiled broadly, waived her hand at us, whipped out her iPad, and started playing solitaire. The four men lifted the basket to their shoulders, left with their cargo to take a different route than we were about to hike, and disappeared from view.
I looked at her husband and asked what I would have to do to be carried to the forest in a basket and he responded, “Two hundred dollars.” The term “Ugly American” came to mind, but my next thought was that the four men–each presumably earning $50–were probably grateful for the work.
The hike started with a gradual climb through open fields to reach the entrance to the rainforest. The surroundings were beautiful; there were volcanic peaks in the distance, small animals scurried about, and graceful birds floated on air, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the woman with the iPad, wondering if she was playing solitaire all the way to the rainforest or if she thought to look up and out as she was being transported.
After a 45-minute climb, we entered the forest. The woman from Florida was waiting for us, reclining in the basket, still playing solitaire on her iPad. She greeted us with “What took you so long?” as she hopped out of the basket. From there, she had to walk on her own steam with the rest of us, another 20 minutes through thick, wet, green vegetation.
Finally, there they were! A family of 11, with two silverbacks, several females, and some juveniles. I marveled at their size—adults range from 300 to almost 500 pounds (136 to 227 kilograms)—but could see immediately that they are docile creatures, and I didn’t feel threatened. We had been warned to stay at least seven meters (23 feet) away from them, but apparently nobody told the gorillas to stay seven meters away from us! As I was sitting still on a log, a large female came so close as she sauntered past me that I was sure I felt her hair on my arm (or maybe it was just goose bumps brought on by the thrill).
Most of the trekkers were carrying cameras and the clicking and zooming of lenses was in full swing. But I couldn’t concentrate or fully appreciate the unique experience–that woman from Florida was busily taking pictures with her iPad, holding it out in front of her, and managing to shove it in front of everybody else’s shot. She was pushy, too, elbowing me and others out of the way more than once so she could flip up that iPad and snap more pictures. A fellow trekker offered to take a shot of my husband and me with several gorillas; it’s a nice photo too, except that I look awful and that damn woman and her iPad are in our picture!
Everybody using real cameras managed to stay out of the way of their fellow photographers, and I wasn’t the only one annoyed by that woman’s behavior. There were plenty of snide remarks and disgruntled looks going around; even the ranger let it be known to us—not her—that he was not pleased with her “me first” attitude. Her very quiet husband, a considerate photographer, said nothing and nobody else had the guts to tell her she was being rude, selfish, and to knock it off.
When our time with the gorillas was over, the ranger led us back through the forest to the entrance where the four men with the basket were waiting. That woman hopped back in, the men hoisted her to their shoulders, and as they took off, she called out to the rest of us, “Don’t let me hold you up.”
Oh well, it’s all over now and I have my memories, albeit forever marred by the woman with the iPad.
Have you had a travel experience with someone obnoxious? Let us know in the comments.