The Return from Dzanga

- Ana Verahrami, August 29, 2018

Who knew that the feeling of one lone ant crawling across the back of my neck could transport me over 10,000 kilometers in a single moment. With my eyes closed and my face tipped up towards the sun, I felt a soothing warmth linger momentarily on my cheeks and then slowly drip down my arms, as shivers drifted up my spine.

I sat there, in this urban forest, scattered behind the sprawling mansions of Potomac, MD, searching hopelessly for the same noise, the same peace, the same feeling I had once felt not long ago.

I strained my ears, desperate to morph the sounds of birds flying overhead into that of the playful Moustached monkeys swinging through the canopy at camp. I opened my eyes and fixated on a single location, keeping completely still on my sitting rock, in fear of averting my gaze even a single millimeter to expose the very proximal fence line into my field of view.

Moustached monkey enjoying a treat © Anahita VerahramiMoustached monkey enjoying a treat © Anahita Verahrami

After about fifteen minutes of this, I became frustrated and gave up on my futile attempts of teleportation. I followed a narrow path through the woods back to my house. If it were not for the heavy accumulation of rocks underneath and the sparse existence of any other vegetation besides grass on either side of the path, I might have been convinced I was walking to the bai.

I arrived at an especially muddy portion of the path, though this mud was no longer the beautiful red I had become so accustomed to. After navigating this, the path opened up into a recently mowed field and before I knew it, I felt asphalt under my shoes and unrestricted heat beating down on the back of my neck.

Dzanga Bai – my paradise © Anahita Verahrami

I have received many queries over the last several weeks into how I am feeling after my return from the Central African Republic. But I am still struggling to find an answer to this question. In the physical sense, I am very much back in the states, but it does not always feel as if my thoughts have found their way back with my feet.

During the days leading up to my departure, I was frantically making a mental list of things I was excited to be back around to convince myself that leaving was an ok thing to do. Bullet points of the list included Oscar (my dog), mozzarella sticks, reliable internet, iced-coffee, water pressure, the new Mamma Mia movie, and of course, my friends and family. And while returning back to the open arms of friends and family and being able to snuggle with my 90 lbs. lap dog have been nothing but wonderful, I am feeling less fulfilled by the other things I was so excited to experience and that has been a bit confusing.

Traveling from Bayanga to Bangui was useful in my readjustment. Bangui has more than two spots that allow for adequate cell phone reception, pizza with actual cheese, tequila, and my hotel had air-conditioning. But then I flew from Bangui to Yaoundé and after a quick layover, from Yaoundé to Paris. And once I arrived in Paris and found myself having to spend seven hours in Charles de Gaulle airport, the land of Louis Vuitton, Prada, and more, I felt extremely lost.

It was at this point that I attempted to check one of my “excited to experience again” points off my list when I got in line at Starbucks to order a Frappuccino. But as my turn approached, I suddenly felt very overwhelmed. A few minutes later, I found myself sitting on a bench with a bag of beef jerky and the closest thing I could get to a Bangui cola, a coke. I sat there for the remainder of the layover, drifting occasionally into a light sleep as I felt my body give in to physical and emotional exhaustion.

Even six weeks later, this exhaustion has not departed. I often find thoughts of the forest and Bayanga drifting into my mind. I sit and wonder about moments I wish so badly to be experiencing. How many elephants are there at the bai today? How are Bounga and Mobeawe, my trackers, doing? What music are the guys from Arie’s shop dancing to lately as they stock the shelves? Is that juvenile male with long tusks I frequently saw at the bai still alive? Is Swoop still taking up residence in my hut?

My bat tenant, Swoop © Anahita Verahrami
Mobeawe and Bounga (left to right) at the bai © Anahita Verahrami

To answer the question of how I feel upon my return is quite a difficult one indeed, because often, it does not feel like all of me has returned. This has become especially palpable during my doctor visits as I am forced to recount each and every insect, food, medication, and water source I may have come in contact with during my time in the Central African Republic. I had put great faith into the American health care system, and that faith still exists to an extent, though it is rapidly dwindling. I have had countless tests completed, most searching for a parasite that could cause a skin rash, a high eosinophil count, and increasing liver values. Just this past week alone, I had twenty-four tubes of blood drawn over a period of five days, and as I write this, I sit with newly added stitches in my legs from the skin biopsies I had done earlier today. But as days have turned into weeks, I feel no closer to an answer and I feel further and further from the chi I experienced within the forest, no matter how hard I shut my eyes and imagine the sounds of the bai or the musty smell of elephants foraging near camp.

Curious Forest Buffalo © Anahita Verahrami

I do not know how long I will feel like this, I am unsure about how these feelings may evolve over time, and I certainly am undecided on which adjectives I can offer up as answers to how I feel. But while I may feel a strange mixture of homesickness and joy from my return, I am incredibly thankful for these feelings because they prove that what I experienced there is now very much a part of me.

The walk home from the bai © Anahita Verahrami

I have returned as an advocate with more faith in myself and my capabilities. I know that I can survive an arrest in Bangui and that I will persist while being stung by countless red ants and wasps at once. I now recognize that seeing wild elephants can make me cry at times, a cry catalyzed by feelings of wonder and amazement and even fear, as I wonder if my children may ever experience a moment like this. I acknowledge that I am capable of living with a bat in my hut and eating nothing but lentils, rice, and pasta for months and sacrificing my previously unscarred skin for moments of chi with lone mongooses in the forest.

I still feel the magic of the place in my every thought and I know this will transmit into my every action.

Notes: Please check out Ana’s blog from Dzanga during her field work.