You can watch “Hotel Rwanda” in the Hotel Rwanda, but it isn’t exactly fun (as I’d recently found out), but it’s not the only ironic stunt you can pull when traveling through the central African nation. Gorilla trekking is Rwanda’s big tourism draw these days, and this fact made it possible for me to entertain my weird lexical sense of humor on a visit to Volcanoes National Park, home of the country’s apes. Yes, in the midst of gorillas in the mist, I made sure I had a particular movie starring Sigourney Weaver cued up on my iPhone.
The acclaimed actress received an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Dian Fossey in 1988’s “Gorillas in the Mist,” which depicted the life of history’s most renowned gorilla advocate. From the late 1960s through the early 1980s, Fossey lived among the Virungas volcanoes in Rwanda to study mountain gorillas for the National Geographic Society, only to become completely obsessed with them — their behavior, livelihood, and survival during an era of poaching — which transformed her into a rather controversial character.
These days, her legacy as a conservationist prevails; the Rwandan government now embraces its prized simians, protects them, and has developed responsible eco-tourism around them. Currently, there are just 56 spots open for tourists to see the gorillas each day — that’s eight visitors for each of the park’s seven gorilla families. Access isn’t cheap: The cost for the privilege is $750 (a portion goes to conservation funds) for foreign visitors or $375 for ex-pats living in the region. The fee gets you a mere 60 minutes of quality time with the famed apes — along with an official guide and armed park rangers — but in my experience, it’s completely worth it.
It’s hard to describe the moment when I first encountered the Kuryama gorilla group after hiking up the grassy base of a volcano. On one level, I felt like I was having a close encounter with exotic animals for the first time. But I also felt as if I was visiting something — or someone — familiar. It’s one thing to see gorillas on television or in a zoo, but to be surrounded by them in their natural home is a surreal experience. One look into the eyes of the gorillas just 9 feet in front of me and I instantly felt a connection. After all, they share 98 percent of our DNA.
The gorillas’ eyes and facial expressions convey a lot of human-like emotion, and their behavior and actions make them far more relatable than any other animal. A fuzzy, 5-year-old gorilla boy named Rugira (all Rwandan gorillas are given names) ran around and spun in circles like a human child would. Mahirwe, a 22-year-old mother of three, gave a maternal smile as she held and breastfed her 6-month-old infant. And Kirahuri, the dominant silverback male of the group who sat with his legs and arms crossed, was the epitome of jungle cool…except for the brief moment when I caught him picking his nose. There was a brief, tense moment when he stepped up and approached me; my instinct was to panic and run, but thankfully our guide held me in place, reminding me to allow Kairahuri to simply pass by. As non-intuitive as that was, thank God I stayed put. Otherwise, I might have triggered his instinct to really show everyone who was the boss.
The precious 60 minutes I shared with the gorillas and my my fellow camera-toting tourists went by fast; unsurprisingly, a lot of that time was spent looking through lenses and snapping shutters. I did, however, pause for a moment simply to digest the magnitude of the situation. I put down my camera and truly embraced a moment with the Kuryama family. Of course, that couldn’t happen until after I’d already had someone capture a photo of me watching that cued-up clip of “Gorillas in the Mist” in the midst of gorillas in the mist. Capturing my joke on film certainly wasn’t instrumental to having a momentous experience with these amazing creatures, but still, I couldn’t resist. At the end of the day, after all, I am only human.
All photos courtesy of Erik Trinidad.