We had been trekking through the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda when the guy with the rifle held up his hand. We instantly stopped walking and became very quiet while he stepped off the path and disappeared into the midst of the dense green foliage. I took the opportunity to sit down where I stood and inspect my shoe wear.
I had arrived to Uganda for a short mission and while packing made the choice to leave my hiking shoes behind. It never occurred to me that during my short time in Uganda there would be the possibility of a gorilla trekking safari that would involve a day’s worth of hiking in a jungle. I looked at my pull-on Skechers and laughed. This was the first trek I had been on in which the guides wore better footwear than I did.
I took a moment to put myself into the right mental zone and accepted that the only way out of this jungle was to go through it. I would have to walk through the pain while remaining completely mindful of the beauty surrounding me. The guy with the rifle rematerialized and we gathered around to hear his account on what he had found on the other side of the foliage.
A troop of gorillas, including a male silverback, was “just there” he whispered. What we had been seeking for nearly half a day was “just there” on the other side of the dense foliage. A second guide, this one unarmed, took over the briefing and laid down the ground rules. He informed us that this particular troop of gorillas had only recently been socialized to humans. There were about twelve of them ranging in age and again, not fully used to the presence of humans. The two guides with rifles would be watching closely. We were to step through the foliage and once on the other side we were to quickly and quietly sit down and avoid eye contact with the gorillas.
Assuming the gorillas weren’t going anywhere I stood back and watched the frantic rush to get through the foliage. In the back of my mind was the scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. After Indiana Jones opened the lid to the pit and peered down, he looked over to her and said “Snakes. You go first.” I now fully understand this sentiment. Eventually all had gone through and it was my turn. Not having heard screams of terror from those who went before, I put a Skechered foot out and into the foliage then allowed my body to follow in its wake. In moments I was through. My shoes made sucking sounds and pulled off my heels as I slogged through the mud on the other side doing my utmost to quickly and quietly to find a spot.
Once settled, I heard the low rumblings of appreciation from my fellow trekkers and the sound of cameras clicking. I looked ahead and saw nothing. The guy with the rifle saw my blank look. He crept over and asked “Do you see?” I shook my head and continued looking out and far ahead. “He is just there.” the guide said pointing over my shoulder. I followed his finger and still saw nothing. The guide looked at my gaze and said in frustration “Just there!” I then heard a noise and instantly understood that I had been looking too far ahead. I felt my brain catch up to my vision as I adjusted my focus from 30 feet ahead to a mere 15 feet ahead. Pixel by pixel a full grown silverback male gorilla came into focus. From the moment my Skechers entered his territory, he had been watching me the entire time while munching on leaves. I never even saw him. It was almost as if he had been waiting patiently for me to settle in and pull my shoes back over my heels until I was able to fully focus on and appreciate his magnificence.
A wave of awe flooded my senses and I sat in amazement. It was impossible not to make direct eye contact with this creature whose genetic makeup is over 95% similar to mine. I sat in the mud thinking how great and yet how small 5% is depending on one’s perspective. The silverback continued to munch on leaves daring me not to break eye contact. Soon, I began to perceive other movement in the area and there was in fact an entire troop of gorillas all around us. Females holding and caring for babies, a younger male keeping an eye on one of the guides, juveniles swinging in trees and chasing one another as juveniles do; all of them living their lives in spite of the intrusion of another species. And it was all “just there”.
We stayed with the troop for about thirty minutes before it was time to leave. As I brought up the rear feeling pain in each step from wearing the wrong footwear, I pondered the significance of what had just happened and concluded that it was all very simple.
First, always pack proper hiking shoes because you never know when you might be in a jungle. Second and more importantly, know that magnificence in life is “just there”. It is closer than we think and for this very reason we often lose sight of it. We spend so much time looking out and far ahead to an unknown future; planning for perfection, getting lost in the logistics and managing our unreasonable expectations that our focus on what is right next to us becomes blurred. Our solutions are where we stand. The tools, information and support we desire is “just there. What we seek for is munching on leaves, watching our every move and patiently waiting for us to recognize and appreciate the very magnificence that is “just there”.