September 11, 2010
Uganda – Day 3 – Buhoma
Ok, at this rate, it’ll be spring before I’ve gotten through the whole trip
We woke late in Bunyoni, and by the time we made it to breakfast, Dominic was already waiting for us. Also, the breakfast, which was a small buffet, was well warmed-over, and whatever had been in the 2nd chafing dish was good enough that it was all gone. But we made a go of it, and ordered tomato and cheese sandwiches to take for lunch, which came to the table still hot. There are no cold sandwiches in Uganda; that is, there are no sandwiches that are intended to remain cold. There are only hot sandwiches which have gone cold. When we were hiking in the Rwenzori mountains, our cooks would fry up our lunch sandwiches every morning, even though we wouldn’t be eating them for a few hours.
We got on the road heading northwest toward Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Yes, it’s really called that, and it feels like it when you approach. The terraced farms on the hillside give way to a wall of forest in a precise line. Inside the park, we saw our first monkey, a golden monkey, which was in a tree above the road. We stopped for a while, and I took some pictures that didn’t turn out, and then the monkey moved on, and so did we.
This was by far the worst road we traveled on in our whole trip. It was actively being converted back into a stream bed, and in places we had to go slower than a walking pace. I had contracted a cold, so I had a sinus headache, and with all the bouncing around, I was semi-miserable. We passed Rohija, where I would go the next day to track gorillas, and my heart sunk as the clock ticked away and I realized that
1. We weren’t that close to Buhoma, our destination.
2. I would have to drive this road up and back again, the next day.
At Rohija, we picked up two park rangers, who crammed into the front seat with Dominic, and gave them a ride down to Buhoma, where they lived. We gave people rides several times over the next few days. At first I thought that Dominic was getting some extra money for routes he was already going to be driving, although I never saw money exchange hands. I had no problem with that, since he never went out of the way, and I did sort of think it was a waste that the two of us had such a large vehicle. But I now think that he was in fact just doing favors for people he knew. Personal relationships with park rangers are very important to his business, as they will help him out when they can, let him know where the good places to go are, or somehow find a way to work in some clients even when the permits are completely sold out (more later).
We got into Buhoma around 3pm and I was immediately hungry. We checked in to the Community Lodge and found our room. We stayed in a semipermanent tent, erected on a wooden deck underneath a corrugated tin roof, with a double bed inside and a bathroom out back. It had a light hung from the ceiling and a light in the bathroom, but the generator was only on for an hour or so in the morning and a few hours in the evening. In addition to the bed, mosquito net, and toiletries, it came with two pairs of plastic flip flops to wear in the bathroom, and an umbrella hung near the front flap. The tents are each named for animals. Ours is labeled “SQUIRAL”. In the dining room, we asked what we could get very quickly for lunch. We still wanted to go on a community walk after lunch, which was reported to take three hours, and the sun sets around seven. We were told spaghetti bolognese would be coming. And it did, after about 20 minutes, except it was fusilli. It was pretty bad, but it had been eight hours since breakfast, and we both finished our plates, and set off to our community walk.
We met Julius, our tour guide, and started the walk down the main street. It looked like it was going to rain, but we forgot our jackets and the umbrella, and headed out in T-shirts. We skipped the tourist-bait shops near the lodge, deciding we could always come back to them on the return trip, and continued down the road. We got maybe a quarter mile before the rain started. It came down in big fat drops and drove us under an awning for a few minutes until it abated somewhat. We continued down the road for a ways, and then turned off it onto a foot path, which headed up a slight hill toward the forest. Julius pointed out the agriculture, asking us if we recognized any of the plants.
I recognized coffee, but blanked on tea (it looks like it should be used as a hedge). Kristi was able to identify cassava, and I wild-ass-guessed pumpkin (from the leaves). He also showed us some stuff I’d never known of, including a plant that makes beads in white, black, grey, and various shades of red. The end of a stalk has one hard fruit that dries on the plant, and when you pull it off it’s already got a hole through the middle. We picked a few to look at, then felt strangely like it would be littering to just throw them on the ground. I think we ended up bringing them all the way back to the states with us.
A little further on, we came to a stream, then turned and followed it. On the opposite side of the stream was pretty much just jungle. Julius explained that they used to have some bananas planted there, but the gorillas would come out of the forest and eat them, so now the community just lets the far side of the stream be jungle. We walked through a pasture with cows, then up to a bend in the stream where people were distilling banana wine into banana gin. It’s distilled three times. Julius explained several times about how this was used locally and helped the economy, in a defensive way, even though we gave no indication that there was anything wrong with them making liquor. I wonder if western disapproval of that is common?
After that, we went up to see the medicine man. He was an old man in a little hut, sitting in front of a table covered with pieces of various plants. He spoke in a local language, and Julius translated. But, first, he put on a vest and what can only be described as a pimp hat made of goat skin. He described the process of preparing traditional remedies from the plants. Basically, you pound them and make a tea of them, then the afflicted drinks the water. He passed around different plants and described what they did. One of them was translated by Julius as “African Viagra”. One of them, we didn’t have to wait for the translation, as it was clear from the medicine man’s rapid-fire ptu-ptu-ptu noises that it was a potent cure for constipation. We tasted a few of the herbs, but neither the viagra nor the laxative, just in case. They tasted pretty much like plants. At the end of the talk, he asked if we had any questions. Kristi asked whether he treated AIDS. He said that he could treat some of the symptoms, but did not cure the disease. I asked about the pimp hat. He said that his father and grandfather would have worn clothing made of leopard or gorilla, but that he used goat because the other animals were now protected.
After seeing the medicine man, we went to see how the banana wine was made. They take a large pile of bananas, and bury them underground for a few days to let them ripen. After that, they stomp on them to get all the juice out, then add water and stomp again, to get the various other banana solids out. Then they ferment the juice by burying it again, and you’ve got banana wine. Three distillations later, banana gin (which is really more like banana vodka; they don’t add juniper or anything). We tasted the juice, the wine, and the gin. The juice was very good and very sweet. I didn’t care for the wine at all. It was sort of banana-y tasting, but also quite sour because of the alcohol. Not sweet at all. The gin was rocket fuel.
We went back down the hill and saw the school. It was two long buildings with a large dirt yard in front. There was a goat in the yard, chilling. The buildings had some advisory statements on them. One of them exhorted the children not to accept gifts in exchange for sex. This was the primary school. School was not in session, so we could see inside the classrooms. They were dirty, and had some puddles in them. A pile of personal slates lay in the center of one room. We started to listen to the principal giving a speech in his office, but there was a group of Italian tourists there, so it was quite crowded and hot, and the speech took a very long time because the principle would repeat himself so that the Italian woman who was translating for the group would understand, then she would repeat it all again in Italian. So we gave up on that and went up a different hill to see the pygmies.
I expected them to be short, but they were not. They looked like any other people. They did some traditional songs and dances for us, and then sold us some traditional overpriced souvenirs. They also demonstrated how to make fire with sticks. Two of them spent a while getting it just about ready, then had me give it the last few twists, and acted like I was all buff and manly for doing so. One of the kids lit a cigarette off the small coals to demonstrate that it was fire, then coughed badly.
That was the end of our community walk, so we went back to the lodge for dinner. When we arrived at the restaurant, we told them that I would need a packed lunch and breakfast for the next day, as I was leaving very early to go see the gorillas. They said ok. Dinner was served at a glacial pace. It was three courses. Course one was a soup that was about 40% salt by volume. Course two was a choice between chicken with potatoes or mixed vegetables. I ordered the chicken and Kristi ordered the vegetables. When we got our plates, mine was a few pieces of roasted chicken, some mixed vegetables in a sweet tomato based sauce, and mashed potatoes. Kristi’s was the exact same plate, without the chicken. Like, no larger portions, just an empty spot on the plate where the chicken would have gone. Dessert was a hot slice of pineapple with what we both agreed was jello that had not been allowed to set poured over it. We laughed and I started to believe Kristi about how the food in Africa was not so good.
After dessert had been served, I started to inquire about my packed lunches. Our dinner had taken over an hour and a half, which I considered plenty of time to throw a sandwich together. They said that they were working on it. I kept asking every ten minutes or so, since it was getting late, and I had to get up at 5:30 the next morning. They kept saying it would be there “soon.”
The thing about Uganda is that it runs on a qualitative schedule, not a quantitative one. In a few more days, I would know better than to ask how long something would take in hours or minutes. You have to ask “Will it be long?” or “is it very far?” and get answers like “not long” or “yes, quite far”. But that night I got frustrated. After the third time I’d asked about the status of my lunch, and they said it was almost done, I remarked to Kristi that if their kitchen staff had more than one hand between them all, they could have made a dozen lunches by now. Thankfully, the lunch came soon, and we went back to the tent to sleep.