It's Personal
September/October 2008

Going Deep

How a journey into the Rwandan jungle helped a nervous empty-nester rediscover herself. By Lisa Marshall

It's 1 p.m. on a Saturday, just about the time I'm typically sliding open the minivan door to shuttle a carload of giggling elementary students home from basketball practice. But instead I am 9,000 miles from home, kneeling in the bamboo forest on the flanks of Rwanda's rugged Sabyinyo volcano, a 600-pound mountain gorilla seated peacefully in the grass before me.

He's close enough that I can hear his lips smacking as he tears through a tender bamboo shoot with his massive black hands and eerily human-looking mouth. I can smell his musky scent. And as I look into his coal black eyes, boring into mine, I am overcome with a strange sense of kinship. Suddenly, he lunges to his feet, branches cracking beneath his weight as he barrels toward our small band of startled voyeurs. But I cannot bring myself to move. Instead I stay put as he brushes within inches of me, struck by a newfound bravery that has surfaced more than once on this three-week solo journey. I'm not even afraid right now, I think to myself, surprised.

Just six months earlier, life terrified me. It was my youngest child's first day of kindergarten when I realized just how scared I was. My eyes welled and my stomach churned with a sense of purposelessness as the big yellow bus pulled away from our stop. After a decade of putting mommyhood before job, relationships, and sport, my nest was now empty-at least during school hours. I had no excuse now but to forge ahead with my career. But was I good enough? I could run that other marathon now. But was I fast enough? And now that our kids were older, my husband and I might actually have time to talk to each other. But would we have anything to say?

From deep within my brain-that place to where the adventurous, free spirit of my pre-mom days had mostly retreated-an idea emerged. I wanted desperately to get her back or at least see if she still existed, and doing so would require something extraordinary. It was settled before I pulled into my driveway. I'd go back to Africa. I'd been before, in the summer of 1994, staying in hostels and swilling Tusker beer as I hitched through Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Tanzania with two girlfriends. Meanwhile, in neighboring Rwanda, a much darker scene was unfolding: ethnic Tutsis were being hacked with machetes by Hutu militias. Before the 100-day genocide was over, 1 million would be killed in a land about the size of Vermont. How will they ever recover? I wondered as I watched the news reports from a beachside guesthouse in Zanzibar, Tanzania.

Fourteen years later, with my youngest of four firmly entrenched in kindergarten, I returned as a journalist to discover that Rwanda is recovering remarkably well. With a respected president, a growing economy, and one of the safest capital cities in Africa (Kigali), it has emerged both as a beacon of reconciliation (with Hutus and Tutsis trying to coexist peacefully) and as an unlikely tourist draw, thanks to its verdant hills, lush jungles, and rare primates.

As a woman feeding her wanderlust for the first time in years, I devoured every adventure I could find. "You're alone?" asked my polite but puzzled Rwandan guide, before forging, machete in hand, into an unpenetrated wall of dangling vines and shrub in Nyungwe National Park rain forest. The two young British newlyweds were equally puzzled. "You have little kids? What does your husband think?" they asked, slightly annoying me. But three hours later, as we crawled along the muddy jungle floor, pants torn, CamelBaks near empty, in hot pursuit of a tribe of wild colobus monkeys-or later, as we sat, eyes closed, soaking in the cacophony of 400 of them playing in the canopy above our heads-none of that mattered. I was just a fellow adventurer, gutsy enough to be there with them. Don't lose this moment, I noted to self.

Back at the trailhead at dusk, I missed my bus and had to hitch a ride in a speedy white Sedan with four Rwandan tea factory workers. In the little English they knew, they too expressed their puzzlement at this muddy, bedraggled mom hitching a ride out of the jungle. But my somewhat rusty knack for adult conversation kicked in, and five hours later-when they delivered me to my hotel room in Kigali, after treating me to a cold Tusker at a pub along the way- my Kinyarwandan vocabulary had expanded 10-fold, and we all felt like family.

Then, on my last day in Rwanda, came the trek to see the mountain gorillas. With only 700 left, roughly half of them there, I didn't hesitate to shell out 500 bucks to slog through the fog-shrouded bamboo forest in Volcanoes National Park to spend an hour with these sublime beasts, whom our guide sweetly referred to as "our cousins."Travel weary and slightly feverish, I teared up as I sat in the grass, watching a mother gorilla suckle her baby. It was time for me to go home.

I admit that homecoming was a bit of a buzz-kill. I was eager to see my family, of course, but the drudgery of chores and deadlines left me empty, and those looming uncertainties about my future still nagged. Even now, as I bend to pick up a pile of scattered Barbies in the hallway or spread peanut butter across a slice of bread for yet another school lunch, I sometimes catch myself frozen, eyes glazed, engulfed in a flashback of that carefree, social me forging fearlessly through the African jungle. The difference now: I know she's still real. I'm not afraid anymore.