Family Visit

Mom, Dad, Mike and cousin Alice, recently came to visit for a two week tour of Uganda and Rwanda.  It was great to see the family and introduce them to this place that’s now become familiar to me.  Two weeks of vacation wasn’t half bad either.  Here’s the highlights reel – after two consecutive red-eye flights they were pretty content to take it easy in Kampala for the first day.  Mike and Alice crashed in my new apartment and Mom and Dad were just up the road in a hotel.  For anyone wondering, there isn’t a ton to occupy a tourist’s time in Kampala.  The next morning we started out at the big Gaddafi Mosque and then ventured into the depths of downtown.  I guess I wanted them to get a sense of the chaos of the city, but I might have gone a little overboard with a walk past the old taxi park (image here).  But we survived and made it up to the big craft market, which mom proceeded to devastate.  My haggling skills, which I’d like to think have improved in the last year, were simply no match for the mzungu family premium.  Ethiopian dinner was a first for the family – dinner sans utensils was amusing.

Our first of many long drives was up to Murchinson Falls, probably the most prominent national park in Uganda.  Vacation in Uganda, we came to learn, involves a lot of early morning wakeups.  That said, the pre-sunrise departures were well worth it:

Three elephants

Leopard in a tree

After two days in the park we loaded up for a long haul – all told we spent 11 hours traveling from Murchinson to Kibale NP, of which a luxurious 20 miles were paved.  We stopped ever so briefly at URDT to stretch our legs and have a look around.  We made it to Ndali Lodge at dusk – the lodge is beautiful and set above two of the region’s crater lakes but felt, I thought, a bit like traveling back in time to visit an old colonial estate.  The following morning was chimpanzee time.  I did the chimp trekking last year but didn’t have a camera with me at the time.  We saw this guy in a tree for a while but learned that on the overcast mornings, such as that one, the chimps spend more time high in the trees.  Eventually he did swing down out of the trees and took off – seeing these animals move through the dense forest is a pretty awesome sight.

Chimp in a tree

Sunday (yes, just at the end of week one) we headed to Kamwenge.  I showed off my old apartment, checked out an installed and full BOB rainwater bag, toured the market, and then joined my friend Frank and his family for dinner at their house.  It was a pretty incredible experience for my family.  So often there’s no good way (but plenty of bad ways) for tourists to see how people really live and this was a chance to not just see how my friend’s family lives, but actually get to know them even if only for an evening.  After sharing three chickens and some rather poignant stories we headed across the street to the bar to shoot some pool, a national pastime.  The following morning we were back on the road headed to Lake Bunyonyi.  Booyna Amagara is a backpackers paradise on an island in the middle of this beautiful lake, and, as a plus, they also have some great thatched geodomes for a nicer campy experience.  We were all ready to sit and relax for a day or two and did just that – I have to admit that if the stress of learning to play bridge was the hardest part of the day then that’s a win.

Next stop, northern Rwanda for gorilla trekking.  I felt a different vibe almost immediately upon crossing the border – Rwanda is crowded, people fill the rural roads and barely bother to step aside for passing cars.  The lodge bragged about a fireplace in each room and big comforters – being (moderately) cold has become a refreshing experience.

Gorillas.  We first walked through terraced farm fields for maybe 45 minutes, I was feeling the altitude (I like to think).  We then entered the forest and followed a series of small paths to nowhere and then proceeded to bushwhack for another 30 minutes before finding the trackers with the group.  As we approached we saw one through the undergrowth, and then two more directly on the path, and then, as if on cue, this group of 14 gorillas assembled in a small clearing and posed for us for nearly an hour straight.  I think I took more photos in that one hour than in my previous year in Uganda combined.

Gorilla

Silverback with baby / fluffball

That evening we continued on to Kigali – between the size of the country and the incredible road network crossing Rwanda from north to south is probably no more than an easy five hours.  The following morning we ate breakfast at the Hotel des Milles Collines, of Hotel Rwanda fame, and then managed to walk all of downtown Kigali in under an hour.  Kigali is small, orderly, clean and growing.  That afternoon we visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial.  The memorial is very well designed and informative but I really wasn’t moved as I had expected I might be.  I guess for me, especially being there for just a few days, it’s still nearly impossible to internalize that the genocide actually did take place on those streets and in my lifetime.  While there are now dozens of books on Rwanda, we read A Thousand Hills and I would say it’s definitely worth reading before a visit.  It’s probably a better book about Rwanda than any written on Uganda.  That Saturday evening we flew back to Uganda – a 33 minute flight rather than a 12 hour drive – and spent the night in an airport hotel.  The following morning it poured rain, a rarity in June, as I dropped the family at the airport and headed back to Kampala.  And then I slept.

Family on safari

It was a blast and although not someplace they would have otherwise visited I think the family enjoyed the experience.  More visitors are welcomed..

Quick Trip to Juba

Easter in Uganda is a four day holiday and Kampala quickly purges itself of expats who head in various directions for the long weekend.  Matt Lowes and I decided on north.  Juba is the capital of the soon to be independent country of South Sudan.  Neither of us knew/know much about South Sudan so we emailed a couple folks who have recently worked there.  Here’s a taste of their responses:

“You’re probably looking at a near 24 hour journey by bus.”

“In any case, do not walk at night! The odds you’ll get mugged while walking at night are near 100%.”

“There is nothing to see.  [My other friend] risks his life climbing around on the Jebel [nearby mountain] because he is so bored..”

“You should drink beer by the Nile. Visiting Rejaf is fun too. And don’t forget to sweat. Lots.”

With that we were sold.  Wednesday we visited the Government of South Sudan (GOSS) office in Kampala and were very impressed by how simply and efficiently they processed visas.  Thursday afternoon we purchased bus tickets from a rickety picnic table under a umbrella in the bus park and promised to return that night for a 10pm departure.  By 7am, after eight glorious hours of rocking out to blaring Ugandan hip-hop (yep, all night long), we reached the border, stood in some lines, ate an overpriced rolex, drank some tea, and tried to take in what seemed like dozens of languages being spoken all around us.  We finally made it to Juba by around 2pm and I distinctly remember saying to Matt, “Hey, lets go find an ATM, grab some water, and then head to the hotel to rest for a bit.”  Fateful words.  We took bodas across town to one ATM, and then the next, and then the third and final ATM in Juba, no luck.  Plus, it was Good Friday and so everyone assured us, oh, don’t worry, the banks will reopen on Tuesday…  Finally we headed back to the hotel with no Sudanese Pounds and some thinking to do.  We decided it was as simple as calling our parents (yeah, that’s our first response) to have them call the banks and to enable our ATM cards to work in Sudan.  The reply from my mother was priceless and at least a little bit surprising: “You clearly didn’t do your research before going to Juba!  American ATM cards do not work in Sudan, period.”  Whoops.  Unfortunately that wasn’t a piece of advice shared by any of our informal trip advisers/detractors.

We took stock of our supply of Ugandan Shillings and calculated that we could now afford only a two night stay, instead of three, and probably no souvenirs (not that any were readily available).  That settled, we crashed in our cramped, overpriced, air-conditioned, pre-fabricated room at the Sunflower Inn for a few solid hours.  We reemerged in the evening and headed to Juba Town to wander around and get some dinner.  Mzungus on foot is apparently a pretty rare sight because people frequently asked us what we were looking for or if they could help us.  All in all nearly everyone we bumped into was very friendly and ready to give some guidance to two wanderers.  The food was great – fool, a flatbread called Kisra that is essentially a thinner version of the Ethiopian injera, lentils, and beef in sauce.  Every restaurant, no matter how small, had an array of fans which were much appreciated even at 8pm.  At this point we had fed ourselves and were content with this small victory and called it quits for the day.

Saturday we walked across town to see what we could see.  Highlights include an exchange with a woman at the market:

How much is that pineapple?

Seven Pounds [$3].

Seven Pounds?!

Yes, it comes from Kampala.

Oh, we came from Kampala just yesterday.

Oh.

Where are you from?

Kampala.

We met more Ugandans, Kenyans and Somalis than we did Sudanese.  Boda drivers, restaurant owners, women in the market, transporters – everyone sees South Sudan as the best place to make money now.  No one we spoke with plans to stay for too long but everyone insists that if you have some capital or business connections, now is the time to work in Juba.  They also discussed that the Sudanese are none too pleased with this arrangement but in reality these foreign arbitrageurs are needed because they are the only people with enough capital to start businesses and engage in international trade.  On a more tender note, multiple very articulate foreigners raised the issue that thirty years of war, a generation of war, has bred a culture that they, as outsiders, find difficult to understand.  One exasperated restaurateur, a Somali who grew up in the Netherlands and worked in hotels in the UK before coming to Juba to open his own shop, seemed resigned when he said “for them, what’s right is wrong and what’s wrong is right.”  It’s impossible to pass judgment on these sorts of attitudes during such a brief visit but it was an interesting sentiment.

Just as we were warned, Juba is a sprawling hot dusty city with wide roads – some paved, some in progress – positioned in the first stage of a massive construction boom.  Interesting sights include: many empty small plots of land with thatched fences being constructed to demarcate boundaries; a recently constructed and very clean market area at the foot of Jebel mountain with large stores on solid concrete slabs; a slew of UN and GOSS ministries along the main paved road leading towards Juba Town; some really great grilled chicken restaurants; the requisite third-world-capital Chinese restaurant; and finally, a sign of the growing pains of development, two large plots of land adjacent to the current Juba University, scattered with the razed remains of hundreds if not thousands of temporary homes.  The government has recently moved to reclaim the land to rebuild the university and, as one boda driver put it, life for the former inhabitants “it is very hard these days.”

Sunday morning we hitched a ride to the bus park in the back of some NGO truck for our 6am bus headed south.  We saw the sun rise over the Nile as we headed out of town and made it back across the border with about $15 in our pockets.  All in all it was a fascinating if brief experience.  Matt’s Arabic was a big hit but you can certainly get by in English.  Wiki-travel should update their page with a large bold warning regarding money access, but I imagine / hope that will change soon.  As I said before I went, I wasn’t expecting to see much but I don’t know when the next time we’ll get a chance to see the birth of a new country and that wasn’t an opportunity I wanted to pass up.  And for a souvenir I have a copy of The Citizen, South Sudan’s daily newspaper, from April 23rd, 2011.

The Nile

Jinja is an industrial city on Lake Victoria about 2 hours east of Kampala.  It is also the source of the longest river in the world, the Nile.  I got back into Kampala Friday night just in time to hear about a gathering headed over for a weekend stay on the river.  The primary attraction for tourists on this part of the Nile is a whitewater rafting trip that is, by all reports, a lot of fun.  It’s also a big destination for kayakers.  I had been told by a few friends that I had to go do the kayaking but the guided trips run $250 a day and quite frankly I’m just not a very good kayaker, meaning I just don’t feel inclined to pay that kind of money for a half day of kayaking and a half day of swimming.

We show up at the Hairy Lemon to learn that the place is the hostel of choice for most of the serious kayakers who come to Uganda.  There are two very large play waves just 500 meters upriver from the campsite and the beach had maybe 40 kayaks lined up under the palm trees.  The New River Academy is a kayak academy much like the ski academy I attended during high school and they were there with 20 athletes and a staff of coaches / teachers.  Others came from Slovenia, France, Chile, Australia and the UK.

From the looks of these kayakers it was clear that I had no business trying the stuff they were doing but I did want to watch and the only way to get there was to kayak up the side and hang out next to the play wave.  I eventually got to talking to one of the Ugandan guides who agreed to let me borrow his friend’s gear and up we went.  Of course we come around the corner to learn that you have to cross the rapid in order to get to the rock that they launch from.  So across we go and upside-down I go and to the surprise of everyone present, myself included, I rolled back up and made it across.  One nice part about the Nile is that it’s deep – meaning that even though it took me four tries to get the roll I knew I wasn’t headed towards any rocks.  I had never seen a play wave in person and it was pretty wild  (if you have no idea what I’m talking about, watch this).

When we got back I saw the girl whose kayak I borrowed and introduced myself to fellow Middlebury alum Kira Tenney (‘08.5) who is one of the coaches / teachers at the New River Academy.  We’d never met at school but shared a group of mutual friends and it was a pretty incredible coincidence.  The next day while Kira was teaching I again went out with her boat and pushed it a little further.  I’ve never kayaked anything other than small and relatively tame rivers in Vermont and it’s a completely different feel.  There was a rafting trip taking lunch on the rocks and I did my best to entertain with many failed attempts to catch the wave, getting caught in boils and eventually swimming after 5+ attempted rolls.

I had a blast and am glad I got to see the river before a new dam comes online later this month.  Apparently it shouldn’t change this lower section of the rapids but one of the upon sections will be lost.  The Nile is the source of most of Uganda’s (and much of Rwanda’s) electricity and believe it or not most of the locals aren’t that interested in paying higher electricity prices to preserve the rapids.

A Couple Safari Photos

Below are a couple shots from Queen Elizabeth National Park this past Saturday.  I’m using a pretty hefty zoom lens, so no, I was not nearly eaten by a water buffalo and I only wish I had actually been able to see that lion as clearly as below.  I’m quickly learning that it takes more than a nice camera to get nice pictures.  Fortunately it seems about one in 200 come out well even though I have no clue what I’m doing out there.

Ugandan Cob

Water Buffalo

Hippo

... and a lion in a tree.

D.I.Y. Safari in Q.E.N.P.

This past Friday I decided to ditch work and the laptop for the weekend and head off on a little adventure.  There is surely a full post to come about the successes and shortcomings of my packing job, but one definite miss was not bringing a Lonely Planet guidebook.  They actually cover the tourist destinations of East Africa pretty well.  Instead I took off with nothing but a fuzzy mental map of the two main roads between here and Queen Elizabeth National Park and the name of one budget hostel.  Moving around Uganda by road is somewhat of a paradox; it’s super easy to get almost anywhere you need to go, but the time it can take to do so is not necessarily something you want to think about in advance – such forethought would seriously discourage my sort of spontaneous travels.

I left the house around 4pm on Friday – arguably too late to be heading much of anywhere – and over the next 36 hours I would travel by foot, bicycle, boda, taxi (sedan), taxi (matatu), bus, and boat.  First it was into the back of a sedan with eight of my new best friends.  Up to Fort Portal in a fleeting 2.5 hours and then caught a matatu for another 2 hours on to Kasese.  I had this very flawed idea that a small village for wanderers existed somewhere within the park, and that this village would be easy to reach after sundown on a Friday night.  Wrong on all accounts.  In Kasese I transferred from matatu to bicycle and got pedaled around town until we found the empty bus terminal and then went in search of a bed for the night.  Kasese is a pretty big town, home what was once a serious copper industry and neighboring the large Hima cement plant –  back in the day it was the final destination of the now defunct Ugandan railroad.  At night it’s all but a ghost town with the only exception being the “red light district” as a man on the street called it – it looked more like two decrepit bars trying to be more.  By comparison, Kamwenge is by all reports just about the smallest district capital in the country (there are 100 districts in this country the size of Oregon) but at night the town is alive with people milling about taking street food and just kind of hanging out, it’s a great atmosphere.  I eventually stumbled upon the New Saad Guest House where I bargained down the price of a hotel room (a personal first) and settled in for a few hours.  I received some general instructions from the gracious and quite articulate proprietor which were immediately abandoned upon waking up at 5:30 Saturday morning to realize that the 6am bus just wasn’t coming that day.  So back out to the main road, back into a matatu, and headed generally in the right direction.

I got off by the bridge.  It was the only place with people and there were a couple cars that appeared to be in working condition and so that seemed the place to be.   Still disillusioned that that there was some meeting place for young and half-witted tourists trying to piece together a safari, I tried to thumb a ride into the park – I wish I had photos of the expressions I received from passing tourists!  In the end I started chatting with a driver on the side of the road who promised that nobody was interested in letting me join their prearranged safari package but he could provide a full day of guided service for a mere $120.  After some rather comical negotiations we settled on a price well less than half of that and Pasco and I took off for the day.

While the 1980s era Toyota sedan didn’t offer the open roof viewing platform of the shiny Range Rovers, Pasco has been doing this gig for 20 years and knows not only every road in the park but the cell number of every other driver, which means that whatever the Range Rovers spotted, we got to see not 2 minutes later.  News flash: lions are all the rage.  Queen Elizabeth doesn’t have a ton of diversity; two species of antelope, water buffalo, waterbuck (picture deer on steroids with straight antlers), warthogs, hippos, some elephants that had wandered off for the rainy season, and one leopard that nobody has ever seen.  But they have lions, and people go nuts for lions.  There are a fair number of trails in the park and some days the lions are near the trails and some days they are not.  It’s not that they fear or dislike cars, it’s just kind of where they happen to be chilling that day.  With eyes twice as strong as my contact prescription, Pasco spotted 10 lions about 1km off the trail and so we stopped to see where they might be headed.  They appeared to feel rather sedentary that Saturday morning and just sat there.  Soon a Range Rover carrying some lion crazed Europeans showed up and, after confirming that no park rangers were snooping around, made a bee-line run straight for the lions.  90 seconds later they came hauling back – putting up a dust cloud that nobody around could miss – with now smiling Europeans who had gotten their 5 photos of lions and were content for the day.

I like to think that it was karma, but a couple hours later and back on the main road we pulled over and caught a napping lion in a tree from maybe 20 meters.  I had never seen one up close and I can only imagine that it is even more stunning when they don’t appear to be dead in the crotch of a tree.  Another purpose of this adventure was to conduct some reconnaissance for my family’s visit next summer so after lunch I pulled the whitey card and Pasco and I gave ourselves a tour of the upscale Mweya Safari Lodge.  Well positioned on a bluff at the end of a peninsula that divides the Kazinga Channel from Lake Edward (or Lac Edouard if you’re on the D.R.C. side):  it’s nice.  Next, the two hour boat cruise with more hippos and buffaloes than you can shake a digital camera at.  Also, recently introduced crocodiles.  Why?  Because tourists like exotic things.  Why not?  Well the kids on the banks of the channel, and their parents, don’t like exotic things that bite.  Tourists win every time.  The hippos are dangerous as well.  Although purportedly not a common event, as we were taking lunch the body of a fisherman was recovered from the water after a hippo sank his boat in the middle of the channel.  It was a rather sullen reminder that while the low profile wooden skiffs make for colorful photos and are easy to romanticize, in reality the life of a local fisherman is hardly all sun and sand.

I took off immediately after the cruise to make sure I made it back to Fort Portal that night and managed to catch the second half of the Arsenal game while eating PIZZA!  In a pizzeria owned and run by an Italian no less!  All in all Queen Elizabeth was not as spectacular as the other two parks I have been to in East Africa but certainly provided a good adventure.  And the Do It Yourself safari is far more entertaining and far less expensive than any package your going to find online.  Photos to come soon.

Gaddafi Mosque

As I’ve mentioned, the massive and prominent Gaddafi Mosque is right up the road from my current residency.  This past weekend I dressed up like a mzungu tourist – sunglasses and a camera in addition to my regular attire – and went for a walkabout.  Given that my only real experience visiting religious sites in foreign countries has been confined to Europe and Istanbul, I was expecting some rich history and a view into some previous era of religious worship in Uganda.  After the guard at the gate retrieved the napping tour guide I was given a private tour of the mosque inside and out (not sure anyone else came through that day).

Although I had not noticed from afar, the mosque is very modern.  The original plans were designed during the Amin era but the site lay dormant for decades until in 2003 Col. Muammar Gaddafi of Libya stepped in to fund the entire project from scratch.  At that time they scrapped the original drawings in favor of the current design.  Gaddafi covered all construction costs and a generous 25 year endowment to cover operations and maintenance.  He and Amin were buddies back in the day but I’m still not too sure what led him to get involved again.  The mosque is beautiful but stark – and came across as slightly out of place.  With prayer space for 7,000 men and 1,000 women, the interior is cavernous but on Eid – the largest prayer service of the year – the Muslim population of Kampala can barely fill even half the hall.  To provide a more intimate environment they usually opt for a smaller side building for daily prayers and only  use the main hall on special occasions.

Gaddafi didn’t cut any corners – the rugs are Libyan, the stained glass comes from Ethiopia, the solid mahogany doors and window trim came from the DRC, all the masonry was done by Egyptians flown in for the job.  The bright sunlight filters through the soft yellow, blue and green glass to light the room nicely – but my guide insisted on showing off the chandeliers which when fired up cast down the sharp white glare of 1,000 little CFLs.  It’s beautiful, but in a different sense.  The guide made multiple comments about the inability for Uganda to cover even maintenance of such a site, much less the construction.

6/21 – More Chimps, Brazil, & Rolex

One of the other IPA Uganda projects just getting started is a study of payment schemes to farmers to preserve their wooded lands which act as corridors for chimps to access various forests and reserves. One of the partners on that project is the Chimpanzee Sanctuary Wildlife Conservation Trust (CSWCT) which owns and operates Ngamba Island, a sanctuary for chimps that have been rescued from human abuses (being kept as pets, attempts to smuggle them out of the country, etc: crazy stuff) or injury. On Sunday the partner was kind enough to invite IPA out for a free tour of their island and operation. 15 miles from shore, out on Lake Victoria, the 100 acre island is home to 44 chimps and a handful of staff and researchers. We arrived just in time for feeding and watched the frenzy from observatory platforms. Interestingly, unlike on Friday when we were in the woods no more than 30 feet from these guys, the staffers at the island never interact with the chimps without a solid steel fence in the middle (unless it’s just some of the younger more playful ones). In my mind it would be the wild chimps one would worry about but our guide explained that many of these animals have had very bad experiences with humans in the past, and our closest relatives have pretty good memories.

Sunday evening we decided to look for a different venue for the Brazil – Cote D’Ivoire game (I already swallowed my pride for supporting Cote D’Ivoire) and found ourselves in Kyebando on the outskirts of Kampala. Previously I had commented that Kampala had nicer roads then Nairobi, but I realized that I am staying much closer to downtown Kampala than I even did to downtown Nairobi, so who knows. Just across Northern Bypass Road (the equivalent to Rt 128 outside Boston) the blacktop disappeared altogether and the dark dusty streets were lit by headlights and small lanterns or candles in the street-side kiosks. I had gotten directions from a friend but didn’t really know where to go from the main market so when I got off the boda I must have looked somewhat lost. One man mentioned, almost in passing, that my two friends were just up ahead on the right – unlike in downtown Kampala, mzungus are a pretty rare sighting in such areas. We crammed into a room with rows of tightly packed benches and paid about 25 cents each to watch the game on three decent screens up front. We had thought we were headed to a bar, but there were no distractions from the game in this joint – it got pretty exciting for a while until Brazil started to dominate and interest waned considerably.

For a couple days I had been doing chapatti and bananas for breakfast but had been too stubborn to ask what all the eggs were about. My best discovery of the week: Rolex. Rolex, which apparently comes from “rolled eggs”, is a two egg omelet sandwiched between two chapatti and then rolled up into a sort of deep fried breakfast burrito. Both parts could do with significantly less vegetable oil but they’re mighty tasty and filling for about 40 cents every morning. One interesting contrast to Kenya – most of the small street food vendors are men or young boys, whereas in Kenya it was almost exclusively women. Also, the intersection up the road specializes in rotisserie chicken, and I got a whole chicken (I didn’t know at the time you could ask for a half…) with cabbage and chapatti from Obama’s Chicken Takeaway for dinner the other night. I even heard an Obama speech ringtone in the office yesterday…

About

A collection of observations, thoughts and experienced going back to 2010.