Friday, March 5, 2010

There and Back Again

After spending the last two weeks floundering between Developed World commodities and incessant complaining, I'm finally getting it together. I want to close the circuit with this final blog post, concluding my 5 1/2 month sojourn which brought me there and back again.

9:00 PM: I arrive at the airport in typical international style, fashionably early to avoid the shattering possibility of missing a flight. Forgetting two competing anomalies, the minuscule volume of people passing through an attempted security system and the lackadaisical approach to general efficiency, I have hours to idle away in duty free. Abandoning a last-ditch effort to spend money on worthless trinkets, I read a book to pass the time.

10:00 PM: The airport intercom squawks an incomprehensible string of instructions to particularly nobody that turns out to be an announcing our pre-boarding gate. I shuffle around until discovering the only working officials and propose, “I am flying British Airways to London , is this the correct line?” Not until I show my boarding pass is my inquiry addressed and conveyed that, in fact, this is the only flight leaving at 12:30AM. I make a note not to show up at Entebbe airport in hopes of flying standby somewhere exotic.

10:10 PM: I make it to the front of the queue, where I show my boarding pass and the security guard takes careful precautions to ensure I have sharp objects, liquids, chemicals and grenades. This is my way of articulating that the official monitoring the conveyor belt left his post to observe somebody’s bag while the rest of us slid our carry-ons through unobserved.

10:15 PM: It’s Africa , so I sit and wait

11:00 PM: I realize that I’m waiting in the wrong place and that I need to be waiting about fifty feet that way. I show my boarding pass again to relocate to the correct waiting room and attempt to recall if I’ve had to show my passport at any point so far. I can’t remember.

11: 05 PM: If there is going to be one place with a/c in Uganda , I decide that it must be this room. There is no circulation, it’s pushing 100 degreesF, and there are thousands of mosquito-like insects in desperate pursuit of suffocating in my arm, leg and facial hair. The putrid consortium of various scents proportionately amplified by temperature coming from these people, included but not limited to, Brad’s odorant (without the antagonist prefix of de-), the scented tears of toddlers, typical Ugandan b/o, and the faintest, unidentifiable allusion to teriyaki wafts into my sinuses and penetrates every exposed pore on my body. I propose the World Bank invests in a/c here because the return on investment will manifest in a reduction of business men lost to dysentery.

11:10 PM: While picking dead bugs off the pages of my book, one lands and dies in my tear duct.

11:15 PM: Curious bug #2 dies in my eye. I take this moment to scream at the top of my thoughts. Part of me dies.

11:16 PM: Part of me comes back to life, and I wait patiently.

12:30 AM: Time is noteworthy because it is our scheduled departure time, marked by idle passengers calmly waiting in hellish room.

12:45 AM: Flight attendants call for boarding, at which point we show our boarding passes to leave the room and walk downstairs out into a shuttle, which idles in neutral for some time until the driver shows up and drives us 45 feet to our plane. I show my boarding pass again and get on.

12:59 AM: The captain announces over the intercom that the attendants will be patrolling the aisles before take-off with a cleansing spray. We are warned that “although it is harmless, you are advised to cover your mouth and nose and if you wear contacts, your eyes.” I bury my face in my jacket and curse under the hissing sounds of disinfectant spray blanketing my airways. If you have not had the pleasure of experiencing this pre-flight ritual, I can attest that it is eerily reminiscent of the scene from Outbreak when that guy infects the passengers. However, I seem to be fine.

I’m sure by the cynical tone I’ve carried so far you’re prepared for the following string of events. For the sake of optimism I’ll try to be brief.

#1) My headphones don’t work so I have to steal Caitlin’s while she’s sleeping. Failure. Not only do I wake her up, I don’t get her headphones.

#2) The only two children in the vicinity have contracted the most atrocious cough I’ve heard to date. They tag-teamed the whole night with their phlegm filled, throaty bouts of expelling germs that would probably have been exterminated by the pre-flight, anti-bacterial cancer spray had they not been thriving within and distributed by the children.

#3) British Airways changed my itinerary at some point leaving me with a 30hr layover in London on Valentine’s Day, the same subtle change that had me leaving at 12:30AM instead of 10:00AM. Not the end of the world, except that consequently I could not check my bags through to Seattle, which meant I had to lug them all over London, which meant I also had to go through customs in London AND Seattle, which brought suspicion of my arsenal of machete, bow, arrows, and cane with hidden knife.

After collecting my bags and skating through customs, British Airways decides that they have screwed me and kindly changes my transfer to the same day, eliminating my exotic layover alone on Valentine’s Day. This is GREAT, except that it promptly leads to frustrating situation number four.

#4) I arrive in Seattle after being awake for 50 hours and discover that I have to take the light rail to my grandma’s house. After walking through SeaTac airport with 28 kilograms including a bow and arrow strapped to my back I start following signs to the light rail, which turns out to be almost a mile from my terminal. Temporarily basking in an efficient public transportation system, I almost miss my stop, which turns out to be just a few blocks from my grandma’s house. I put one foot on the sidewalk and the clouds open up in an angry downpour, smearing my glasses and causing me to miss the street. Eventually, I end up at my grandma’s house looking (and feeling) like a wet rat.

#5) My grandma’s phone does not work, I have no cell phone, and at some point city officials elected to remove every pay phone within a 3 mile radius of Beacon Hill. I don’t have car insurance and my grandmother does not drive at night. I find myself more isolated in Seattle than I was in the Impenetrable Forest in southwest Uganda . After half-heatedly attempting to fix her phone, I give up and go to bed.

Reflecting on the previous year of my life, I fall asleep feeling surprised, relieved, desperate, alone, confused, ecstatic, hungry, alleviated, impressed, altruistic, egocentric, energized, and exhausted knowing that I was There And now I’m Back Again.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Penetrating the Impenetrable Forest

It is no coincidence that my last blog post aligns with the last day before Asha came to visit me in Uganda. In addition to spending my time celebrating her presence, we were not within earshot of any computers, let alone the internet. Unfortunately, my camera has fallen victim to the slogan “Africa, where electronics go to die,” and I don’t have any pictures to share. However, I will do my best to illustrate the story with words.

After spending the first few weeks gallivanting around East Africa without an itinerary or camera, I decided that she couldn’t come to Africa without observing one of Uganda’s renowned national parks. A decision based solely on our then current geographical location, ignoring things like availability of transportation, food or water, we elected to visit the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Contrary to the suggestion of the title, it was easily penetrated. Getting out was the difficult part.

Beginning from Kisoro, a small boarder town near both Rwanda and DRC, we were told there was no public transport to the park. It took our taxi almost two hours to travel 35km up the most treacherous mountain pass imaginable with landslides that would have slowed down a rhinocerous but which our driver skillfully, even artistically maneuvered his 1981 Toyota Corona around. Once there, we hiked from the southern part of the forest to the northern part, ignoring the guerilla trekkers who had flown into the park in their helicopters wearing $2300 worth of Gucci Safari gear sporting carbon fiber walking sticks. Guerilla permits are $500 per person, the guerillas have all been domesticated (in fact they even have different classes of guerillas: “wild guerillas,” “humanized guerillas,” and “other guerillas”), and if you see a guerilla by chance without a permit, the safari guide is imprisoned for 5 years, which sounds more like the San Francisco Zoo than a Ugandan national park. We saw some guerilla poop, so I’m satisfied.

Once on the northern side, we opted out of staying at the recommended lodging at $500/night/person and picked out a nice bungalow a few km down the road. Exhausted and filthy, we were pleasantly surprised by the availability of hot showers, a commodity I am no longer familiar with. The emphasis here is on HOT shower. There was no cold water. I’ve decided that if I ever write a real piece of literature on my experiences here it’s going to be called “Out of Cold Water,” revolving around the topic of sidestepping basic needs to please the guerilla trekkers. So I stood next to the dripping, scalding hot water and tried to cleanse myself, escaping with burns limited to the first degree. The next day, we tried to leave.

We met a South African, Gordon, who kindly invited us to join us in his taxi to split petrol. Intended to depart at 11:00AM, we hurriedly packed our things and hustled to the meeting point. There was nobody there, and we feared that we had missed our golden opportunity. Our fears subsided when we spotted Gordon, who assured us that the taxi was coming but just a few minutes late. At 4:00PM, we departed for Kabale, slicing through the sticks in our Astro van because a truck had overturned on the main road, blocking traffic both ways. Merely 2 hours from the park, 5 hours had passed and Kabale was nowhere to be seen, nor were there any other cars or a road. We were stuck in some mud when thunder started ripping the sky apart like shotgun blasts and for the first time in as long as I could remember I muttered, “Ohhhh shit.” Before I forget, we already had a flat tire, which the driver replaced with NASCAR-like efficiency but which took over an hour to find a new inner tube.

We made it to Kabale at 9:56PM, and the only bus in Uganda that I’ve seen leave on time had a 10:00PM departure scheduled. We were hustled in through the door as the bus was pulling away, only to find that this 6 hour ride was already full, meaning the seats were occupied as well as the standing room in the aisle. One man in the back saw a distressed, female mzungu and immediately offered his seat. A very, very generous gesture. After standing for some time, the man now sitting next to Asha offered me his seat. I accepted. Props to these most charitable acts of kindness. Except for the unknown wet substance I was sitting on (by my sophisticated deduction and experience, probably vomit), I was content. The woman sitting next to Asha promptly handed Asha her baby and meandered to the front of the bus without uttering a word. I couldn’t help laughing, until I saw the unspoken discourse converging in her eyes, which probably went something like this:

Internal Monologue Step #1) Ummmm, what?

Step 2) OMG this woman just gave me her baby

Step 3) Oh you’re sooooo adorable! [Looks at me] Can I keep it?! Please!!!!!!

My verbal response to this developing scenario was, “It’s cute right now, but it’s going to spit up on your jacket,” which it did a little bit, but she dodged a bullet without the full projectile. Being in the back row, every speed bump catapulted us about 8 inches off our seats, and we were lucky to land in our original arrangement. If unlucky, we landed on the metal bars segregating the seats, bruising our tailbones. The baby slept through this carnival ride while I tried not to bite my tongue.

We entered Kampala at 3:00AM, waiting for the 5:00AM bus to take us to Jinja. We made it to Jinja at 6:30, and waited for the reception at the hostel to open at 8:00AM. We waited in silence because I know myself well enough to realize that the only possible thing that could come from my vocal cords were songs of contempt and disgust. Then, we slept.

Named the Impenetrable Forest for deceiving reasons, it should have been named the Singularity for its disproportionate difficulty to gravitate from this dense rainforest.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Long Time

It has been some time since I have posted anything original. Unfortunately, I am still under the impression that I have nothing original to say. I only want to share a few insights into the hilarity that is my everyday life.

First, I have now met not one, nor two, but three people named Wilberforce. I have gone as far as to check the spelling of this name, as well as verify the pronunciation. It's phonetic.

Second, there are words that are frequently misspelled, which I hope to dedicate an entire blog to at some point. However, here are some of the highlights: Menus are an abomination. I have ordered "Cock Tall Juice," "Sand Witches" and several other anomalies I had not previously encountered. A few weeks ago I was selecting between "Vag" and "Non-Vag" options.

Finally, I think this guy really has it figured out. I need to take a page from his book of cool.

He's spotting his move....

His window of opportunity is quickly closing.....

He's got it! Gooooooooaaaaaaaaaaallllllllll!!!!!!!!!!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Uganda Considering Death Penalty for Homosexuals

Check this one out

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Journey up North

Karamoja is a region in the Northern sector of Uganda, one littered by raids, ambushes and worst of all, NGOs. We were instructed by a semi-reliable Rastafarian gentleman who Luke knows somehow that traveling up north is perfectly fine as long as you travel with cigarettes, soap and salt (quite the triple threat I might add; what can’t you accomplish with such an arsenal?) to appease any ambushers. Described by Lonely Planet as a region “where the Karamojong dress in traditional clothes, and AK-47s are as common as walking sticks and blankets,” we simply had to check it out.

The bus broke down precisely as we crossed the boarder into Karamoja, conveniently the most desolate, unpopulated dyke I’ve had the pleasure to grace with my presence. As people roused and an unsettled aura descended over the passengers, I observed one gentlemen wearing a grin suggesting he obtained the location of Atlantis and couldn’t wait to spill the beans. Curious, I spewed a serious of innocuous jibberish hoping to gain insight into our precarious situation. He looked in my direction and exclaimed with the passion of a schoolboy’s first love, “The bus broke down!” In Uganda, when Joel orates a monologue rather than emit a simple question, his sophisticated lexicon is usually reciprocated with a blank stare suggesting he’s actually speaking Mandarin. This time, it was my turn to gawk in disbelief at his eagerness to further my understanding by stating facts I had previously observed. To further my elation, he announced, “They’re going to pour water on it!” Oddly relieved by his enthusiasm, I quickly regained my precautions when the smell of burning rubber and charred brakes wafted into the cab. After dubiously taking in my surroundings, trying to decide if my stamina, accrued by many years of intramural collegiate sports, would allow me to run back to Soroti (a mere 50 kilometers), I heard somebody shout from halfway along the bus, “Don’t worry, they’ve got the water!” About a minute later, the bus was shimmying along like a drunken caterpillar attempting to avoid the police by pretending to be accompanied by a hive of bees.

We (Luke, Joel, Justice and yours truly) arrived in Moroto, Karamoja, and were promptly blasted by a surging hot wind carrying as many dust particles as the World Bank carries rumors about its accomplishments. It was like being slapped in the face by a beach. Coupled with the equatorial sun, this introduction to the northern region left my pours seeping enough fluid to irrigate an Iowan corn farm. Fortunately for my comrades, the protruding vulgarity that would make a bottle of Febreeze lactate in fear and incompetence was dwarfed by their own perfumes, of which I might label Mid-Summers Day Stench.

Stepping onto The Street (emphasized to demonstrate the structural characteristics of this civil engineering debacle), we discovered an instant dichotomy: inhabitants vs. NGOs. U.N. Land Cruisers littered the road like termites below the roots of a Honey Teak, scampering in every direction attempting to appease the queen while gnawing away the foundation. The NGO compound was located some 10 minutes walk outside the town, surrounded by 4 meters of barbed wire, suggesting in equal proportion their inability to accept nonwestern ideals as their refusal to release harbored intentions of inequality. Fighting poverty and violence with wealth and armed guards equates to fighting fire with watermelons: almost comical, but tragically ineffective. The most functional policy I have unearthed in Karamoja is that if you are caught in possession of a firearm, you are shot.

Chronic water shortages coupled with a daily electric allowance between 7PM & 11PM left us with little to do but drink warm beer. Traveling proposes a stipend for beer, proportionately accentuated with assumed risk, so we purchased some Luke-warm cervecas and strolled up a nearby hummock to observe the sunset, pictures of which are posted below.

Because it was the Christian Sabbath, our courier allowed us additional beauty sleep, a much needed commodity these days. Although my brother maintains traits from our Norwegian heritage and produced an encompassing beard at the ripe age of fifteen, I inherited from my father’s side the prepubescent facial characteristics of a rabid mountain goat at the age of twenty-four, which necessitates a disproportionate amount of sleep. I was aggressively denied my rest beginning at 4:30AM when the busses started communicating with each other in Morse Code, toting their horns to discuss the previous day’s cricket test over the roof of our hotel. The raucous subsided around 6:00AM only to be replaced by the arousal of hotel staff, announced by “All the Single Ladies,” a universal slow jam favorite among Ugandans. My brother’s beard is a fiery red, while mine is quickly turning gray.

Our experiences in Karamoja were jarring, but I am consciously choosing to highlight the events in a droll manner to avoid ruining someone’s day, illustrated during our departure with the vendors approaching the bus windows.

Bus vendor #1: “Mzungu! Water?”
Me: “No thanks”
Bus vendor #2: “Mzungu! Ciapatti? Samosas?”
Me: “No thank you!”
Bus Vendor #3: “Mzungu! Bow and arrow?
Me: “I said NO THAN… Wait, what? Give me that! How much?!”
Excited Vendor #3: “5,000” (about $2.75)

In the land where AK-47s are outlawed, the bow and arrow salesman is king.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

I have been blogging, but the posts have turned out to be more personal than I intended. Also, they have been somewhat morbid, due to the nature of my experiences of late, so I have elected to reserve the entries and spare the sob stories. The last thing I want is to elicit feelings of empathy when most look to a blog for a relaxing, humorous experience.

I have recently discovered that this terrapin-esque internet connection does support the uploading of pictures, illustrated in my last post. Infatuated with my new creative outlet, I will once again share some of the more disparate photos for your own edification, and so you have some clue as to what I'm referencing without necessitating a copy of National Geographic as a visual dictionary.
Ugandan pre-funk before our most recent, wildly successful trash cleanup. These are the kids of Childhood Restoration Outreach, meaning that each and every one of these children that helped us clean Mbale were rescued from the streets, most of whom are orphans.

Joel, Luke and Brad lead a parade of village kids down the mountain after our 7 hour hike

Sunset in Tororo

Eddie lets the turkey bleed out before Rachel cut its head off in preparation for our Thanksgiving feast. This was one of two turkeys, both of which were fried because we couldn't find an oven big enough to support either.

"Cuz I'm an OG, sippin on 40 ounces of OE"

This is the rest of our support for the trash pickup, students from Islamic University In Uganda

Sunset in Moroto, Karamoja
Dennis celebrates what he refers to as "his most difficult challenge in 22 years." A 25 minute, albeit practically vertical hike up Tororo Rock.

View from my back yard. Life is good.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Luke selects the guest of honor

Luke honors the guest before the feast
Justice, Luke, Brad and Joel enjoy the sunset with some beer
The sun sets over northern Uganda through beer goggles
Words of wisdom for the children of the Northern Region
Caitlin, Brad and Joel pose for picture with trash cleanup crew. Only 1/5 of the crew stuck around for this magnificent photo.