Excerpt from Bonobo Handshake by Vanessa Woods, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Bonobo Handshake

A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo

By Vanessa Woods

Bonobo Handshake
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  • Hardcover: May 2010,
    278 pages.
    Paperback: Jun 2011,
    288 pages.

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It was the first time I had to give myself so completely. But I didn't feel trapped or resentful because I never had a moment's rest or a solid night's sleep. Baluku's love was its own reward.

Every day we sat under an old mango tree, playing tug-of-war and hide-and-seek. I chased him around the gnarled trunk and when I caught him, I blew raspberries into his belly and listened to his hoarse laughter. I watched him grow from a shattered husk to a youngster full of mischief. Despite the pee I occasionally slept in, the poop I combed through looking for parasites, and the bottles of milk I had to warm every two hours throughout the night, I woke each morning happier than I had ever been. I was making a difference. I was making Baluku's world a better place.

That was when I decided I was going to be just like Debby, who was part chimpanzee herself. Tough as a brick, proud, and stubborn, she had fits of temper that would send everyone diving under the furniture. But her life was full of meaning and purpose. There were more than forty chimps on Ngamba Island living on a hundred acres of forest, and every one of them had arrived in the same state as Baluku: shivering, terrified, and motherless.

I was going to dedicate my life to saving chimps. I would snatch them from the arms of death and bring them to a sanctuary I would call Chimp Paradise. I would be on good terms with the president of wherever we were and he would listen attentively to my plans for chimpanzee conservation. I would stop deforestation. End global warming.

Unfortunately, I had run out of cash. Debby found me a job with a zebra project in Kenya. I didn't get paid, but we were fed and we slept in tents in the savanna. I counted zebra all the way from Nairobi to Ethiopia and back again, until I was really and truly broke.

I went home to Australia, intending to save up enough money to go back to Uganda, but life kept getting in the way. I took odd jobs. I was a secretary, a receptionist, and a pizza waitress. I managed to move on to more interesting employment, but I had no follow-through.

I went to Antarctica to measure the temperature of the ocean currents but I never published. I wrote a children's book and some magazine articles but I never got serious about writing. I worked in television but I never did any training so my camera work was only ever mediocre. I was a goldfish, swimming until I bumped the glass and then changing direction until I hit glass again.

After a bad breakup with a boyfriend, I decided what I needed was to go back to where it all started—the jungle. I wanted to work with chimpanzees in Africa, but the closest I could get was chasing monkeys in Costa Rica. I took it. And when I got there I remembered everything I hated about the jungle. Bugs. Vines. Four a.m. starts.

It didn't surprise anyone when I bailed out early. I was twenty-eight years old and I hadn't accomplished anything. I was bewildered and slightly traumatized by the whole monkey-chasing experience, so I bumped the glass and flipped again.

I had just finished a filming contract with Disney to film five-minute video postcards of animals in Central America. I talked them into another contract, this time filming animals in Africa. I asked Debby if I could come back to Uganda to film Baluku and the other chimps on Ngamba Island. She said yes, and I booked a plane and was on my way.

My plan was this:

I would make my pilgrimage to the island and call Baluku in from the forest. I would find him with one hand on his belly, serenely contemplating the distance. He would remember me, of course, and when he saw me, he would take both my hands in his, lean close, and whisper my destiny.

That was the plan, anyway.

Debby's house was in Entebbe, a forty-five-minute boat ride from the island. She wasn't home, and I was dirty and exhausted. My plane had been delayed for fifteen hours in the Nairobi airport. My bag, with my filming equipment, was lost somewhere between Uganda and Zanzibar. I dragged myself up the stairs and stumbled into the living room. Sitting on the sofa was a young man reading a book.

Excerpted from Bonobo Handshakeby Vanessa Woods. Copyright © 2010 by Vanessa Woods. Reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.

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