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Thirteen Months

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda: Oct. 16, 2004

Story and photos by Greg "Grace" Stanat '87

WE ARE DEEP IN THE RAINFOREST ON A GORILLA trek, having hiked through muddy ravines and rain-swelled creeks, accompanied by a guide, trackers and four armed guards
whom we see only occasionally as they maintain a loose perimeter around us. We left the trail long ago, and have been proceeding only as quickly as the hacking machetes will allow.
The first gorilla we see is a juvenile. He is playing on a vine, about 15 feet off the ground, swinging back and forth, grabbing at tree trunks about six feet apart. Once in a while he manages to snag one of the trees securely enough to remain suspended at the apex of his swing for a moment, then lets go and starts all over again, twirling around on the vine.

I look around carefully and notice another gorilla in the underbrush. She is an adult female, keeping one eye on “Junior” and the other on us. She’s lazily munching on leaves and seems mostly relaxed, but alert. Then, just a short distance away, we spot the large male silverback! He is sleeping, an enormous gray lump. He rolls over, revealing his true bulk (400 pounds!), glances around at us, checks on his family and goes back to sleep. His name is Mwirima, and he is the leader of this group of mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei). All species of gorillas are endangered, but this subspecies especially is in trouble, numbering only about 700. There are none in captivity; they survive in only two places: the Virunga volcanic mountains bordering Congo, Rwanda and Uganda, and here, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, where 100 percent of the proceeds from guided treks goes toward gorilla conservation.
Our allotted hour for observing the gorillas passes way too quickly, and soon we silently bid farewell to begin the arduous hike back through the rainforest. Glancing at my wife, Susan, I see that she has the same glow that must be on my face.

A Long Way from Home
When I went to Pomona, I had never left the country, or for that matter, the East Coast. I remember wondering what it might be like to visit other parts of the world, but my family did not have the means. I didn’t manage to take a semester abroad either. Then, against the odds, I won a Marshall Scholarship, and suddenly realized that I was not simply going to be visiting a foreign country, but living in one.Between terms at Oxford, I was able to explore some of Europe, and my thirst for seeing how other people live was born. When I returned to California after graduate school, I continued to travel, but finances were again an issue, so trips were few and far between for many years.

Fast forward more than a decade. Having met the woman that I would soon marry, we daydreamed about traveling the world. Not just vacations, but really going for the long haul. It’s easy to accept the routine that life hands you, especially if that routine is comfortable or lucrative. But when we weighed the benefits of long-term travel against the disadvantages of career disruption, possible financial hardship and leaving the comfort of home, there was no question in our minds—we had to go.

So on Oct. 5, 2004, a few months after we married, we flew from San Francisco to London, and five days later to Uganda. Six continents and more than a year later, we returned home
on Oct. 24, 2005.

Outside Siem Reap, Cambodia: Dec. 27, 2004
As we head back into town, we catch a glimpse of a small pagoda set back from the road. According to our driver, it’s not a good place to stop (read: not interesting), but we decide to anyway.

The entryway is plain, flanked by high walls. It appears deserted, so we walk through the gate to find some ornate gravesites (stone constructions five meters in height), but
otherwise the grounds are very simple. Further in is a plain wooden building with an open second floor. We bow and wave to the monk that we see. He smiles. I move a bit closer, intending to ask permission to look around, but we are stymied by an almost complete language barrier. He calls another monk over and, ironically, since we had hoped not to disturb them, the exchange grows to include all four monks in the building. One of them speaks a bit of English, so we are able to ask if it is OK to look around. They tell us the name of the place: Dongroem Pagoda.

They seem quite interested in conversation, so we inquire about the pagoda, and they ask questions about us via the English-speaking monk (his name is Kosal). After 15 minutes of stumbling, but friendly, conversation, we are invited to Kosal’s “class.” This turns out to be the place where he teaches English to the younger monks. It is also where he sleeps, a 10-foot by 10-foot room with a beautiful mural on one wall, a bed against another, a desk and a couple of small wooden stools. Somewhat out of place, there is also a good-sized whiteboard with some English sentences written on it: “Please give me a cup. Please give me a ruler. Please past the cup to me.”

As we chat, more monks arrive; eventually, nine monks are crammed into the small room or standing outside. The conversation is enlightening, interesting and heart-warming. Half of their questions are straight out of English workbooks (e.g., “How many brothers and sisters do you have?”); the others are whatever else they can think up. In turn, we ask them about their lives at the pagoda, their families and why they chose to become monks (Kosal’s is the only
answer we were able to comprehend: he likes learning, and monks spend a lot of time learning). A few hours later, our driver approaches, reminding us that we had promised him we’d return to town by 5 o’clock, so we sadly prepare to leave. Saying goodbye is more emotional than we would have guessed. They thank us many times for visiting their pagoda. They don’t get many visitors, and I believe it was as interesting for them as it was for us. I hug them goodbye while Susan waves and bows and smiles (monks are not allowed physical contact with women).

Cambodia is resplendent with memories for the eye. This one is for the heart.

Returning home after such a long trip is bittersweet. It is a relief to be in the comfort of our own home, but of course we are sad that the journey has come to an end. Sometimes it feels like our trip happened long ago, in another lifetime. But other times, often in the fog of waking up, I catch myself thinking that we have to quickly pack our backpacks and catch a flight to our next destination.

It would be easy to get swept back into the rat race of careers, social status and high-definition flat screen TVs, but there is no doubt that we both view life differently now. We are thankful for the privileges we have, and we realize that so much of a person’s life (as well as his or her opportunities) can be determined simply by where they were born.

Greg “Grace” Stanat ’87 lives with his wife Susan in San Francisco where he runs 415 Productions Inc., a boutique Web design firm (www.415.com). More images and information are available at the Stanats’ Web site at www.thirteenmonths.com.

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