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Matriarch's Vision Lives On In International Trips Of Discovery

Sarrah Ghadiali and Suhail Arastu
Suhail Arastu
Sarrah Ghadiali and Suhail Arastu

A San Antonio family has established a tradition that has survived death, and joins one generation to the next in incredible ways. This story has two primary players: Suhail Arastu and Sarrah Ghadiali.

Suhail is Sarrah’s San Antonio uncle, and Sarrah is Suhail’s Ft. Lauderdale niece, his sister’s oldest child. But Suhail said there’s another person here who looms large.

“My family ended up in San Antonio because of my mother. She was a retired flight surgeon, lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force,” he said.

He also thinks his family background plays a role in this story, too.

“I'm Indian. I was raised in a Muslim family and we have 52 first cousins spread out on five continents,” Arastu said. “So we never really grew up going to family reunions, but we went to a lot of weddings and that comprised the majority of our travel growing up.”

So, family travel was primarily weddings and funerals rather than voyages of discovery. But Suhail’s mom wanted to break that mold, and Sarrah picks up the story.

“My grandparents started, in my seventh grade, eighth grade year, began to take me and my younger brother every summer to a foreign country,” she said.

It started out not too far: Canada. But then Suhail said they expanded.

“They've gone to Spain before and to Switzerland, and really having an opportunity and a bonding experience away from just family reunions and weddings, which we do a lot as Indians,” he said.

A great family tradition had begun, and Sarrah and her siblings quickly loved the trips. But then out of the blue, she said they suffered a huge blow.

“My grandmother unfortunately, passed away in December and it caught my entire family by surprise. It was completely unexpected,” she said.

It was staggering. But as Suhail mourned, he reflected on the yearly tradition his grandparents had started, and he didn’t want it to end.

“So, what I vowed to do is at the age of 16, take each one of my nieces nephews individually on a trip and the condition is that it should be a place that neither one of us has visited before,” he said.

On the back of a postcard Suhail made the offer to Sarrah.

“For my 16th birthday, I could choose any country that I'd want to go to and he would take me on it,” she said.

Sarrah was excited when Suhail proposed going to Uganda and trekking to see the mountain Gorillas where naturalist Dian Fossey had worked. Fossey was the inspiration for the movie Gorillas in the Mist.

“She was thrilled and totally over the moon and couldn't wait for the experience,” he said.

One of their preparations for the trip was to read Fossey’s book. The air travel took well over two days, but arrival didn’t mean they were at their destination. Suhail said they still had an 11-hour Jeep ride to endure.

“They have paved roads, but a lot of them are unpaved. They call it an ‘African massage.’ Let's say that you're in a Jeep and there's a lot of bouncing around,” he said.

They finally got there, and “there” was 8,000 to 10,000 feet high in the mountains, which in most places would be cold, and maybe snowy.

“But when you're equatorial, which Uganda is, you're at elevation, but you're in a tropical rainforest,” he said.

Sarrah was said the 60 to 70-degree temperatures were ideal.

“And so it wasn't hot at all. It was, if anything, more cooler. You could feel the humidity of the air around you,” she said.

The compound where they stayed was at the edge of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. As to getting to see the gorillas, they don’t live in one place, and they move around a lot. Sarrah said it takes an intense effort to find them.

Sarrah listens to a guide at Queen Elizabeth National Park
Suhail Arastu
Sarrah listens to a guide at Queen Elizabeth National Park

“They send out these expert trackers, and then they communicate with those back at the camp to where is the closest starting point to trek,” she said.

When she says trek, it means the point where you leave established trails and cut through raw jungle. Suhail details what it was like.

“Your guide has a panga, which is a machete like tool. They’re hacking through the forest. You're holding onto vines or sliding down mud. There are spitting cobras, green adders, vipers, forest elephants, nettle army, ants, everything that you would think of in a tropical jungle, all about you,” he said.

Sarrah recalls the first encounter she had with a gorilla.

Suhail at Biwindi Impenetrable Forest
Sarrah Ghadiali
Suhail at Biwindi Impenetrable Forest

“‘Wait a minute! Did I see something move over there?’ The first time I saw a gorilla it was absolutely incredible. It looked up at me and I was in complete awe,” she said. “But you find that kind of personal connection with them when you look at them straight in the eye. I've never experienced anything like that.”

Suhail agreed. The direct eye contact was like nothing he’d experienced.

“And that eye contact was really, really incredible with a species that is so much like us. We sort of fixed eyes for a moment. And then he kind of went about continuing to eat,” he said.

Suhail said you have to keep in mind that these mountain gorillas are 450-pound animals, and you’re in their space.

“And we were charged twice, actually. And what you're told to do is not run, because if you run, they will chase you and they can tackle you,” he said.

The area outside the Biwindi Impenetrable Forest
Suhail Arastu
The area outside the Biwindi Impenetrable Forest

Sarrah said it was pretty unnerving.

“We had to step back from them because we were getting too close, but that's when when your breath kind of gets caught in your chest, you're like, ‘oh, my gosh,’” she said.

As to how close they came, Suhail said very.

“And that happened to us twice. So when that happened, you know, I was within arm's reach,” he said.

They had two successful gorilla treks, and then the third day they had down time and decided to visit the nearby village of Ruhija. The people who live there are the Batwa tribe. When Biwindi Impenetrable Forest was created to keep the gorillas from going extinct, the Batwa were expelled from the forest. Suhail said there’s an example nearer to home that comes to mind.

“I sort of draw an analogy between Native Americans that have been displaced in this country and the indigenous people there and like many places on earth, have been displaced,” he said.

The villagers shared some of the local songs and dances, then on a whim Sarrah got up and danced. She was playing music from her iphone, and one of the drummers picked up on the beat. Suhail caught the whole thing on video.

Gorilla Mist Camp Lodge where they stayed
Suhail Arastu
Gorilla Mist Camp Lodge where they stayed

“And then all of the others from that little village sort of joined in with what Sarrah was doing,” he said.

She considered the experience one of her young life’s best.

“It was amazing! And it's something that I'll never forget,” she said.

After gorilla trekking Sarrah and Suhail went next to a camera safari in Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park. There they saw lions and elephants and leopards and wildebeests. But Sarrah said the high point seemed to be connecting with the children in Ruhija.

“I don't even have the words to describe how amazing it was and how it made me feel,” she said.

As to the next trip, Suhail’s already begun thinking about where they will travel. Though Sarrah said next year he’ll have a different traveling companion.

“It's my younger brother's 16th birthday next year, so he'll get to go on the trip with my uncle,” she said. “But I do hope to continue traveling and continue exploring and immersing myself in different cultures and different countries.”

And so while Sarrah’s grandmother has been gone since 2019, the tradition she started continues on, bringing a world of discovery and new experiences to her grandchildren.

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Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii