Rewind to mid-October 2015. I left Jinja, Uganda, to travel to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park to track silverback gorillas. It was by far the most expensive thing I've done, including airfare, but from my incredibly scientific polling system of other travelers all over East Africa, it received the coveted 100% thumbs up rating of tourist activities, provided, of course, you could afford it. Okay, here it goes, I'm cringing as I'm typing this: the permit was $600.
The actual tracking took all day long. There were five mzungus and nine locals: the guide, two trackers that went on ahead of us, four porters (I was the only one that didn't use a porter since I'll be damned if they squeeze another penny out of me after the price of that permit), and two guards flanking us at the front and the back carrying AK-47's to "scare away elephants," they said. The man with the assault rifle behind me was named Innocent, and his unwillingness to carry on an extended conversation made it hard to determine if it was more ironic that his name was "Innocent" or that he was cradling a loaded AK-47.
It was a rough hard hike, up and down muddy rocky hills with one woman suffering a dislocated finger within the first few minutes. Her husband took one look at it and turned away to face me, scrunching up his face as I peered over his shoulder to watch her porter and the guide pop it back into place. Since they were a sweet middle-aged British couple, I was pretty sure it was impossible for them to say anything that wasn't completely polite and politically correct to each other, so I turned up my sarcasm radar to see if they'd say anything remotely off-putting. Nope, they were pleasantly polite the entire time and laughed at all my puns. God bless the Queen.
An hour and a half later, we were told to leave everything behind except our cameras. This time, we were just following the two trackers, each holding a machete. As we clambered up steep forest slopes off the trail toward the gorillas, every branch and plant I grabbed made me wonder "Is this poisonous? Will this leave a rash that will lead to a slow agonizing death? Does this have thorns? Does my insurance cover this?" I had no idea, but there wasn't much to do besides keep moving forward.
The gorillas were spectacular. We spend an hour following a family of two males, six or seven females, and two babies. The trackers said that in the past six months, our group by far had the best viewing. And you get really close. The dominant male decided we were in his way, so he just meandered past, glancing dismissively back at us over his shoulder like we were telemarketers calling during dinner. I had to refrain from extending my arm, because that's all the movement it would have taken to reach out and touch him. They were huge and I really wanted to hug one of them, but I also felt like living, so my super-ego chalked up another life-saving win that day.
You're not technically supposed to look them in the eye since it's an aggressive action for them, but we all spent a significant amount of time gazing into their eyes. It's hard not to. Their hands, feet, and faces just look so human, you expect to find a kindred soul when you make eye contact with them. Instead, there was a lot of butt scratching and farting done especially by the males, but that just reminded me even more of some humans I know.
The next day, I had signed up for another short hike through the forest organized by the backpackers lodge I was staying at. My legs were so stiff and sore from the day before that I wanted to keep active to help stave off cramps and limping. While most of the hikes the lodge offered operated around seeing the local forest pygmy community, I tried to pick the most nature-centered hike because these "Come see local Africans in their old-fashioned habitat/slum!" type tours often feel exploitive and voyeuristic, so I avoid them at all costs. I honestly just wanted to learn about trees.
So that's why I had to fight back tears as fifteen minutes into our hike, the guide led me to a small fake village where fourteen or so pygmies were lined up, in full pygmy garb, ready with a full lineup of songs and dances for the mzungu. The guide almost got irritated that I didn't want to dance with them and that I didn't want to pull out my camera to take photos and videos. I'm sorry, but we're not at a zoo. I would have given anything for the earth that was vibrating with the stamping of their bare feet to have opened up and swallowed me whole. I could feel my face burning with shame and humiliation both for myself, feeling like a duped tourist in a situation that I work really hard to avoid, and for the pygmies, performing like a circus for a meagre income.
The final straw was when I asked the guide why their faces were painted with ash. He said it was to signify that they didn't have much access to water, so they're just generally dirty people. After that comment, and after it was obvious by his tone and body language that he didn't have much respect for these people anyway, I completely stopped interacting with him. I figured that the pygmies and I had at least one thing in common: that we didn't really want to be there, so that must have been enough of a basis for a bond. While we didn't share the language, it's amazing how much you can communicate through pantomime and just acting melodramatic. A few of the pygmies and I ended up laughing non-stop over photos on my iPhone, or me pantomiming a head injury after hitting my head on the low ceiling of their short huts, or doing our best goat impressions as one older woman put her goat-skin apron thing over my shoulders. I don't know how often the pygmies have to perform for tourists, but I'd much rather them remember me as the funny idiot white lady than just another tourist snapping away on a camera. And my pride wanted them to understand that I was there to get to know them; that I was on their side and not affiliated with this jerk of a guide who was an hour and a half late to pick me up, by the way.
It was really conflicting and confusing. I mulled over everything constantly in my head on the two and a half hour car ride over nearly impassable dirt roads back to the nearest town. I was lamenting over my tourist status and craving home and some familiarity when we suddenly came around a curve and passed a huge cliff face of stark white rock. The rock itself was stunning, but what really made me pause and catch my breath was the contrast of the dark shirtless bodies of the men laboring as they excavated huge chunks of this rock by hand. Since they were engrossed in their slow and intentional work, they didn't have time to stare back at me and shout "Mzungu! I love you! Give me money!" like many other people that we passed did.
The whole scene looked like a painting perfectly capturing the beautiful but rough and raw relationship between earth and body that many of these people labor through every day. I wanted to throw my arm across the driver and yell "STOP!", but I knew that if we slowed down or stopped, my skin would draw attention and I would ruin the scene. So we drove past, leaving them in my mind to eternally labor in their own fallen paradise, but one that's not disturbed by tourists.
And that has been one of the harder things to realize on this trip: that I'll never not be a tourist. No matter how hard I try to "go local" or avoid tourist traps or learn the language, I'll never belong here. There's certainly still a significant potential to love my life abroad, be it temporary or permanent, but sometimes the more travelers try to dig deeper into the local culture, the more curated it becomes. If someone asks me where local Ugandans love to eat, it honestly doesn't get more local than the KFC in the mall. When we're trying to "do as the locals do," sometimes we don't like their answers, so we look for something else. It's hard to realize that on your quest to get to know local culture, it's really rare to encounter something that's not been fabricated or tampered by the tourism industry already. This is why I tend to like to stay places for a while, long enough for the hawkers to stop asking if I'll take a look at whatever they're selling, long enough for restaurant employees to know what my usual order is, long enough to know shopkeepers by name. I'll never fit in as long as I travel, I always stick out, but sometimes I'm so happy to be neither black-skinned nor white-skinned, but just invisible.