02 May 2012

Travel-Inspired Series {Part 4}: Mo from New On U

Next up in my travel-inspired series is Mo from New On U!  

In short, this girl is awesome and someone that everyone should needs to know.  Although she now works as a Conference Coordinator in Washington DC {and has a job that allows her to travel all over the world!}, she also studied Zoo Science and has worked as a Zoo Keeper in the past {dream job alert!}.  Once I discovered that she had worked as a Zoo Keeper we started talking about our love for animals and she told me that she had volunteered in animal conservation in South Africa.  Basically, she's a girl after my own heart and I'm so glad that I discovered her blog and now consider her to be a good friend. 

Today she is here guest posting about the time she spent volunteering at a Baboon Sanctuary in Northeastern South Africa!  

{Note: This post had me laughing and crying at the same time - it's one of the sweetest posts ever}

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Hi there fellow fans of Jenna!  I'm Mo from New on U. Jenna and I first connected over a shared love of her current residence, beautiful South Africa.  Since then, I think we've become such close blog friends because we both put a high value on travel and on what those experiences can teach you - not only about another culture, but about yourself.

My first trip to South Africa was back in 2006. I was 24 years old and had returned to school for my second bachelors degree (because one just isn't enough) in Zoo Science.  One day while watching Animal Planet, the show Growing Up Baboon came on.  I was immediately smitten. I mean, who wouldn't be:

This is El. She picked me up from the airport.  (circa 2006)

I applied immediately to the baboon sanctuary featured on the program, CARE (Center for Animal Rehabilitation & Education). Founded by Rita Miljo, the center takes in orphaned, abused and "retired" laboratory baboons with the hopes of rehabilitation and eventual release back into the wild.  As is the case with most places like this, while the cause is wonderful, you wish they didn't have to exist in the first place.

After a loooong series of flights from Kansas City to New York, to Amsterdam, to Johannesburg, I caught a tiny prop plane to Phalaborwa, in the northeastern part of South Africa.  I was greeted by a fellow volunteer and her "baby", El (above), whose mother had been killed by farmers.  During the two hour drive to the center, I got a briefing on what life at CARE would be like, and became totally enamored with baboon kisses. But nothing could really prepare me for what I actually experienced once I got there.

Let me preface this by saying, I've never been your camping kind of girl.  I grew up with a phobia of public bathrooms.  I refused to go to the bathroom on a plane, and porta-potties? Totally out of the question.

While the above building looks deceptively nice, let me tell you IT WAS NOT.  The biggest issue? RATS. Rats EVERYWHERE. There were no solid walls in the place (you could see through those wooden slats), so each of our beds had mosquito netting, which was effectively just rat netting.  You had to lay towels over the top of the netting so that the rats wouldn't pee on you as you slept.

I'm going to share a secret with you.  One I don't like to tell many people. That first night, as I lied in bed, wide awake with jet-lag, I listened to the rats burrow under my bed frame.  I saw them running across the floor.  I felt them brush up against my arm as they scurried along the the side of my bed. And rather than get up in the middle of the dark, foreign, rat infested night, I PEED MY BED.  That's right.  Spending the rest of the night in my own urine was more appealing to me than facing those rats without the perceived safety of the rat netting. 

The next morning, I climbed up a large hill to find at least one bar of reception and called my mom.  We couldn't really hear each other, but she caught my voice and started looking at plane tickets home.  I'd just have to last a week, and I'd be out.

But then, I met this guy:

Bowie came to our center after people killed his mother and kept him as a "pet". Baboons his age should have beautiful pink faces (seen on El, above), but months of trauma, stress and abuse turned this little guy old and dark before his time.

When we got him, he was scared, scarred, and had no idea how to be a baboon or how to trust anyone.  He was entrusted to me and I became his surrogate mom. This means Bowie and I slept together, ate together, and at first, even showered together.  We spent 24/7 snuggling, laughing, and sometimes crying, as we both explored this strange new place together.

It wasn't always easy.  Bowie had night terrors and would wake up screaming and clawing to get to my face, one of the places he felt most secure, if we had accidentally rolled away from each other at night.

He left some pretty serious battle wounds and I was lucky to get a couple hours of sleep at night during our first few weeks together.

But he grew strong. He grew confident.  And as it turned out, being there for him made ME stronger and more confident myself.

This photo was taken one of my last days at the center. By this point, Bowie was spending his days and nights with his baboon friends, fighting, playing and foraging, but always rushed over to give me a big kiss when I came in. And I had changed too -  I was pulling rat tails that hung through the thatching as I sat on the toilet, chasing them away from my belongings in the dark of night, and feeling that I never wanted to leave. I seriously couldn't even remember why I was so afraid of rats to begin with.

During my stay there, many other volunteers came and turned right around and left.  It happened during my second visit as well.  I remember telling my mom that very first day "If I would have known what it was really like, I would have never come!"

Well, here's to not knowing, and to doing it anyway. Sometimes the things we don't know about ourselves are the ones most worth learning :)

My travels these days are quite as exotic, but I still do get out and see a lot.  Please stop by and say hi - I'd love to meet you!

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Thanks so much for guest posting for me Mo!

If you ever want to come for a visit, you're more than welcome to crash on my couch!
{I promise there aren't any rats ;)}

Do yourselves a favor and hop on over to her blog here.


  1. Wow, what a wildly different world over there compared to here! I don't have ANY fondness for rats, but I think it would be worth it to get to experience that. Those baboons are AMAZING.

  2. Wow-that's an amazing story. It made me teary eyed.

  3. This is a wonderful story! The photos of Bowie are adorable.

  4. This is so beautiful...I had tears when you were describing your bond with the Bowie...how important you were in his life! And I love how you could set your fears aside to accomplish the greater mission. Well done!

  5. I would never be able to deal with the rats... just reading this sent shivers up my spine!

    On the other hand, now I really want my own little baboon. Super adorable! :)

  6. Wow! This is amazing. It has always been a dream of mine to work at a monkey rescue. I then moved from South Africa to New York, so I guess that is on the back burner for now! I'm glad you stuck it out. What an experiance!


Thanks for the love!