Home, Sweet, Temporary Home

For the last 3 weeks or so, Loes and I did something that goes against both of our preferred traveling styles…we stayed in one place. That place was Mbale, Uganda, a city of roughly 100,000 (a good sized city for Uganda) on the Eastern border. Oddly enough, it was actually Mbale that brought us to Uganda in the first place. Back in August, we were looking for a volunteer opportunity and came across Mbale. We found a host who had several options for us (school, orphanage, farming, AIDS work, etc) and decided it seemed like a good fit. And we were right.

Loes found work at the mental health ward of the local hospital while I spent time helping with finances at a grassroots AIDS organization. Both of us also spent time with the children at Child of Hope, a school in the ghetto district of Namatala, where we were teachers aids and tutors. And human play toys. Not one day went by where I didn’t have at least five kids hanging on me at one time.

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(Above: Gloria, climbing a new swing structure. She was probably my favorite. She was also constantly causing trouble and would rarely listen to me. Sounds a lot like Loes, actually.)

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(Above: Breakfast time. The school provides a morning meal for the children. Sometimes it’s the only guaranteed meal the kids will get that day.)

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(Above: Kids singing during morning prayer. It’s hard not to join in.)

It was an interesting experience to settle down in one area, even for just 3 weeks. We moved into the unforgettably named “Casa Del Turista” where we quickly made friends with others who were volunteering, either on their own or through Peace Corps. In addition to our new friends, we had our favorite restaurants and hangouts, our favorite markets and our jobs. It was almost as if I was back home again, except with less stable electricity and much more chances of malaria. In our free time, we explored the local mountains on long hikes, played jump rope (using banana leaves) with village children, watched a break dancing competition, found a pool to relax by, watched a full solar eclipse and impressed all of our housemates with our cooking skills (Pumpkin soup, anyone?)

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A Dance, A Slim Chance, And A Misunderstood Circumstance

Loes and I spent a relaxing three days in the beautiful town of Fort Portal, surrounded by rolling green hills and the towering Rwenzori Mountains. The days were filled with crater lake hikes, monkey spotting, and pizza, lots of pizza. Let’s just say the waiter was on a first name basis with us by the time we left. And yes, if you are wondering, we ordered a pizza for the car ride back to Kampala. Don’t judge us!

Our time wasn’t entirely spent gorging ourselves on sweet, sweet pizza, though:

A Dance – It was 11:00pm and after Loes gently woke me from my sleep (read: poking me in the arm until I woke up), Loes and I decided we would go out dancing. We spoke to the gate guard earlier that day, and he assured us that he would be there all night. To no ones surprise, when we rolled up to the gate, there wasn’t a guard in sight. No worries. Operation Escape from Y.E.S. Hostel was in effect. We hopped gates, had our cover blown by barking dogs and eventually got busted by the gate guard after we “borrowed” his keys when we came back home (he was surprisingly okay with it all, actually). All so we could go out dancing with locals in Fort Portal. Totally worth it though, just to see a drunk woman try to kiss Loes. Calm down boys, I said try.

A Slim Chance: Earlier on our trip, Loes and I had the opportunity to do a slum outreach tour with Hearts Visions, and we met some amazing kids. There was one child, Maurice, that really had an impact on us. As we left him that day, he was in tears. Both Loes and I had wished we had done more for him, as he was a well spoken child who had yet to delve into the darker side of living on the streets. He had hope and a desire to get back to school, but most importantly, to get back to his mother who lived in a village hours away.

Fast forward about ten days. On our drive back to Kampala from Fort Portal, Loes and I decide to grab some food for the road (we already ate all the pizza. Sad face) at a random village. Up comes Maurice, who recognizes us immediately. Once we realize who it is, our eyes light up. We couldn’t believe it. What are the odds? He had some how made his way back home, back to his family. He had clean clothes and a pair of shoes. He looked good; he looked happy. We shared stories, showed him pictures, and Loes gave him her favorite football jersey. Driving off, we just couldn’t believe what had unfolded. All we could do was smile and shake our heads in disbelief.

A Misunderstood Circumstance: So we had this fantastic idea (or so we thought) that we would offer people walking on the main roadways a ride to wherever they were going. Some people have to walk a long way, so we figured we could be some help. We decided to call our car the Mazunga Express (Mazunga is slang for us pale folks), or M.E. for short. Well the idea of M.E. was better than the reality. Oddly enough, most people don’t want to get in the car of some strangers. Weird, right? Maybe there was something wrong with my sales pitch:

Me: “Hey, kid. Want to get in my car? And here, I have some peanuts too. Get in.”

Yeah, no one was interested. Most responses were either silence or fear. I don’t think my original slogan idea would have done any better, though (Muzanga Express: Come inside M.E.).

Truth be told, we did find some kids to give clothes and shoes to and we did get one passenger who was VERY thankful for a ride. A woman at our hostel broke her arm when she fell off a chair. She was using the chair to clean something out of reach. Pro tip: If something is so high you have to use a chair to clean it, chances are no one can see how dirty it is anyways.

 

 

Fun & Funner

Queen Elizabeth National Park…just when I thought our self drive safari couldn’t be any more fruitless, you go and do something like this…

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…AND TOTALLY REDEEM YOURSELF.

This beautiful creature spent a good 10 minutes with us, sniffing and spraying everything in it’s path. It even came up to our car, but we were quickly deemed unworthy, and it moved deeper into the bush. This was the first leopard that Loes or I had ever seen, finally giving us the chance to cross all 5 animals off the Big Five list (rhino, buffalo, elephant, lion, leopard).

This sighting was the highlight of our roughly 24 hours in QENP, but the night before was nearly as fun. Our tent was smack in the middle of the local hippos favorite dining grounds, and to hear those lumbering beasts grazing on grass mere meters from our soft, chewy bodies made for a restless night. Well, restless for Loes. After 2 weeks sharing a tent with me, I would have assumed she was used to big, oafy creatures moving around next to her. But evidently not. As I sat silently, listening to the hippos footsteps, Loes pondered out loud what we should do (yell for help? run for the car?) and then proceeded to do the most logical thing possible…she hid under the blanket.

We made it out alive, so I guess the whole blanket thing worked after all.

Mountain Gorillas and the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

After a very restless night, I awoke at 5:30am and eagerly began gathering my gear. My day with the gorillas had finally arrived, and I was determined not to be late. Loes and I hopped in the car, and with a hired boda-boda to lead the way, made the long and difficult two hour ride up to the Nkringo headquarters in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Located in the southwest corner of Uganda, this forest is home to roughly half of the 700 mountain gorillas left in the wild. We made it to the headquarters with about 15 minutes to spare, and as I hurriedly shoveled a bowl of yogurt into my mouth, our guide summoned us to the trailhead. Our guide was flanked by two gun toting rangers who were there to protect us against elephants or stubborn gorillas. As we began the steep hike into the valley, I couldn’t help but hope the gorillas were in a good mood today.

When I decided on hiking out of the Nkringo headquarters (there are several gorilla groups to choose to track), I was told it was the most arduous hike you could choose and had dense vegetation, but the reward was amazing views and an entertaining gorilla group. Mentally I was prepared for hours of hiking, slipping in mud and/or ant hills as well as some near falls down steep cliff sides. So imagine my surprise when 45 minutes into the hike, the walkie-talkie chirps that the gorillas have been found and they are close by.

We were handed off to two trackers and made our way to the group. In the distance I saw a tree branch shake and a long, black hairy arm grasping branches. As I’m about to say something to my lone trekking partner, Luis, a silverback gorilla emerges from the bushes. The size and strength of this creature is overwhelming as I watch it walk softly to a nearby tree and gracefully begin to climb amongst the limbs.

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We had an hour amongst the gorillas. They spent most of the time grooming, sleeping and eating, which sounds a lot like my own life these days (except maybe the grooming part). Juveniles played amongst themselves while the matriarch groomed and held the youngest of the group close to her chest. A silverback slept with his head resting on his hand, as if deep in thought.

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(Above: Gorillas spooning.)

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(Above : Proof I didn’t just download these pictures from the Internet.)

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(Above: Mmmmm Yum. Even our guide was surprised by this meal choice. Only the secod time in 4 years he had seen this. It’s poop if you can’t tell. Thanks for making me write it out…)

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I said my goodbyes, and the 45 minute hike down into the valley turned into an hour and a half hike up the steep ridge back to our starting point. Loes and I met back up and swapped stories (she did a community walk and pygmy village tour) as we slowly drove back to town. We were exhausted, and were looking forward to some much needed rest. It was a long day, but one well worth the effort.

Reaching out with Hearts Vision

Our last day in Kampala was spent doing a both physically and mentally exhausting five hour slum outreach tour with the Hearts Vision organization. Run and organized by a caring couple (a Dutch woman, Lenneke and her husband, Ronald, a former street child), they have set up a home for children who want to move on from a drug and violence filled street life. Our guide for the day was Martin, another ex-street child who is now dedicating himself to helping those who live like he once did. We started off in one of the cleaner slums, where about 30 young boys were playing football on an uneven and trash strewn field. As Martin and Ronald checked on a boy they had been following as a candidate for their home, Loes and I were surrounded by wide eyed faces searching for attention. Some children cautiously watched us from a safe distance, while others ran up and immediately grabbed our hands, anxious for a connection. One child in particular, maybe three years old, was more energetic than the rest. Wearing a dirty tattered yellow shirt and black pants with more holes than fabric, this little guy wouldn’t be ignored. Like he was shot out of a cannon, he would hurtle himself into us at full speed. Loes and I finally distracted him by each grabbing an arm and swinging him into the air. This of course just fed his desire for more attention. Soon he was doing cartwheels and acrobatics and just wreaking havoc in general (as little ones are supposed to do).

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(Above: Ronald, far left, and Martin, middle)

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Martin caught our attention and we headed off to tour the first of two slums on our itinerary. We found the adults to be friendly and the children curious. One of the more interesting points was when we were shown a small shack were Hearts Vision had helped set up a shoe making operation. Four boys sat on the ground, using cut up tires to create sandals to sell in the markets. Hearts Vision believes not just in schooling, but also skills training. These boys could now make money and had a roof to sleep under. It was an encouraging sign in an otherwise bleak existence.

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The tour continued as we were shown where most of the street children sleep (in an abandoned church) and bathe (a dirty canal) and various markets where they could sell their wares or search for scraps. The tour turned from sad to shocking once we set foot in the second slum district. This district was known for an abundance of drug-addicted children. Glassy eyed kids sat all around us, sniffing bottles filled with rags soaked in a liquid glue like substance. There was no shame in these actions, and was looked on as just a part of life by the residents in the community.

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We were taken to a shack, probably no bigger than 8×8 square feet, where Loes immediately noticed a boy with a wound on his foot. Out came the medical supplies, and once word spread, there was a line of 15 boys out the door, all looking for treatment of some sort. We did our best to help, but we ran out of supplies before we ran out of patients.

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The final portion of the outreach tour was a visit to the Hearts Vision home where ten boys greeted us politely. Each boy was now going to school for an education, had a soft bed, a hard roof, and a full stomach. They had responsibilities and structure, and the difference it has made was profound. One child wanted to build houses, while another wanted to become an airplane mechanic (he even constructed an airplane with working electric propellers. Out of cardboard. So yeah, he’s already smarter than I am.)

It was an intense morning, but it was a good introduction to what we can experience once we start our month of volunteering in Mbale, Uganda. If we weren’t motivated and eager before, we certainly are now.

Uganda be kidding me…

So let me say this first…both Loes and I have really enjoyed our stay in Uganda. However, we have experienced a few speed bumps, both figuratively and literally. And I’m serious about the literally part. You can’t drive 30 meters without coming across those tiny mountains they call speed bumps. I feel like I need 4 wheel drive and a prayer just to get over them.

So a few things have happened so far that had us shaking our head and muttering incoherently to ourselves:

–       On the first day in Kampala, my prescription glasses were stolen by a boda-boda driver. The joke was on him, because unless he was going to use them and the sun to start fires (which is a great idea, actually), they were useless to him. He must have realized his prized theft wasn’t so valuable after all, because he actually returned them to me. Bad news: I was robbed. Good news: I got it back.  More bad news: I had to pay him to get them back. Four whole dollars!!

–       Loes gets a lot of attention. So we’ve been going with the husband/wife explanation when we get asked about her “availability”. Normally this is respected, but sometimes…not so much. The following conversation was had between Loes, myself and a security officer with a very big gun.

Officer (to me): Are you her husband?

Me: Yep, we are married.

Officer (to Loes): I would love to make babies with an Amazon woman like you. Doesn’t that sound nice?

Loes: *Silence*

Me: Well then….see ya!

–       Mokoros (buses) in Kampala are not necessarily to be trusted. And I don’t mean they are out to get you. I mean they will answer “Yes” no matter what you say. This wasn’t particularly an issue until we were moving all of our gear from our hostel to the car rental building. Instead of taking us to the old taxi station as agreed (at least we thought was agreed), the mokoro dropped us off in a busy center of one of the worst slums in the area. We hopped out, frustrated, and walked down the road to the main street. We didn’t make it half way there before two men had opened the bag on my back (I had one on my front too) and went through my gear. Luckily Loes noticed and came in like a tornado of elbows and fists. She pushed them away while yelling things that aren’t suitable for print. What a gal!

–       We… ok, I…lost the keys to the car. On our first morning. With a deadline to get to the town of Kisoro by nightfall.  Nice. We tore everything apart. The bags, the tent, blankets, anything that could have swallowed up a single car key. We ran through all possible scenarios. Maybe I left it in the door and it was stolen? Maybe I locked it in the car? Maybe one of those giant birds that kept us up all night ate it? Of course, it was actually just sitting on top of my computer in my bag. Opps.

I must say, Loes was very calm and understanding during the whole situation. Well, she was until we actually found it. Then she let me have it. Kind of made me regret finding the key, actually.

–       Guns, guns everywhere. The police and security make it no secret that they are armed to the teeth. But those guns aren’t just for intimidation. They can be used for so much more. We ask for directions, they point with their guns. They have an itch on their nose? They use their guns. Tired and need a place to rest their head? They use their guns. It’s very resourceful if you think about it.

–       I almost knocked myself out. As I pumped up the inflatable mattress, my foot came off the pedal that was holding the equipment down. At what I’m pretty sure was the speed of light, the pump flew straight into the center of my forehead. Blood slowly flowed out of my new wound. Loes and I both agreed that I looked like baby Simba from the Lion King when he was blessed by Rafiki. Sadly, no baboons came by to bless me. Thanks for getting my hopes of Disney. At this rate, I probably should cancel my trip to the Caribbean…

Just Go With It

It didn’t take too long for my trip to take an unexpected detour. Day 2 found Loes and I wiping the sleep from our eyes at 8:30am as our stomachs growled in unison. We sat at a small round table shoveling freshly cut fruit into our mouths and thunder clapped in the background. Our eyes met and a sense of worry bounced between us. Our plan had been to take the four hour boat ride to spend a few days on the Ssese Islands on Lake Victoria before we headed into Kampala, the capital city that didn’t have the best reputation, for a day. But with rough waters awaiting us, and the fresh memory of Loes’ seasickness in South Africa on the mind, we were hesitant to commit. However, Loes wasn’t giving in. She mustered up the courage to go as long as our first stop was to the pharmacy to buy some motion sickness pills.

Easier said than done. Both Loes and I managed to break the first rule of backpacking; travel light. With a bag weighing 50% of her body weight, Loes deserves a gold medal (or perhaps an icepack) every time she manages to maneuver her gear onto her awaiting shoulders. I’ve tried my best to carry her bag for her, but she rarely gives in, and there is no way I’m arguing with a woman who can carry something that heavy.

We slowly struggled down a red dirt road with a clear light blue sky above us (the storm passed!), wondering where all those damn boda-bodas (taxi motorcycles) we saw the day before had disappeared to. Finally we hailed a mokoro, a white taxi van used by locals to get pretty much anywhere. Similar to Southeast Asia, no seat was left unfilled. We asked to be taken to the city center for the pharmacy and hopped in. We peered out the windows and watched the world rush by.  Smiles were exchanged and we were both excited to be moving. There is something about the movement of travel that affects me in a way I can’t explain. It both calms and excites me.

We struck up a conversation with two Swedish girls working a social services internship in Kampala. We exchanged stories as the clock ticked on. Fifteen minutes. Thirty minutes. After about forty minutes we realized this mokoro wasn’t taking us to the city center of Entebbe. Nope, it was taking us to the city center of Kampala.  Opps. No worries though. We resolved the problem with a simple shrug of the shoulders and an “I guess we’re going to Kampala”.

Kampala and Entebbe might be geographically close, but in style they couldn’t be farther apart. The relaxed atmosphere of Entebbe was a distant memory when we pulled up into Old Taxi Station. The mokoro doors opened and the chaotic nature of the city assaulted every one of our five senses. The boda-boda ride to the hostel was interesting, too. Loes finally let me wear her backpack and as I basked in my gentlemanly victory, I slowly realized what I had gotten myself into. My driver darted in and out of traffic and as he took on some steep hills, I felt that death trap of a bag pulling me backwards. I leaned forward, pressing my face into my drivers back, forgoing all sense of personal space. Each hill was met with “Oh god” and I clung to my driver. Somewhere in Kampala, there is a jacket with my face imprinted on it. Hopefully the style catches on and I can get some royalties out of it.

Once unpacked, we headed out with a whole new city to explore. Two hours was spent walking in no direction in particular. If we saw something we liked, if we had a “feeling” about a street, we just went with it. People were friendly enough, often striking up conversations in broken English. Salesmanship was out in full force, and we were offered the expected (sunglasses, shoes, pants) to the unexpected (mattresses and pigeons).

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(Above: My hostel bed. So comfy!)

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(Above: With nothing else to worry about, the Kampala police are focused on illegal parking.)

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Want to know something interesting? When you travel in no direction in particular, you often end up lost. Very lost. We pulled out our Lonely Planet (tourist alert!) and garnered the help from roughly six or seven different good Samaritans until we found the way back to the main street, just in time for the Kampala City Festival. Music, floats, food and thousands of people flooded the streets. We walked amongst the sea of smiles and often got more attention than the parade itself. We saw maybe a handful of other foreigners in our five hours of exploring, so it’s still a novelty to see tourists in the city.

In fact, I was even mistaken for the Ambassador of Spain. Ok, maybe mistaken isn’t the word for it. To get to the festival, we had to go through metal detectors. The men and women were separated, so there I was, no Loes, in a pulsing mob of Ugandans pushing towards the entrance. To my left I hear “Let us in, I’m here with the Spanish Ambassador!” as the guy next to me is pointing in my direction. Others started yelling out “ Yes, yes…we are his bodyguards”. This might just work, I thought, so I went with it. I began yelling out whatever Spanish words I could recall from my days in high school. I must have said something about his madre, because the guard in front of us was none to pleased. Thankfully, everyone else seemed to enjoy it as the joking kept on until I got through safely.

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(Above: The difference between these two children’s lives is pretty clear.)

The evening ended with some much-needed Indian food and 30 minutes of people posing for pictures with us (let’s be real, they were mainly posing with Loes).

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(Above: Even using all of her charm, the police officer wouldn’t Loes wear his beret. No fun, that guy.)

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(Above: I look cool, right guys? Guys?)

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(Above: I should have worn my Uganda flag t-shirt)

Tired and happy, Loes and I made it back to the room for some much needed rest. Tomorrow will be more Kampala, including a trip to the Ugandan Wildlife Association building to arrange a trek with mountain gorillas. Just another full day to be had.