September 23, 2010
In the morning, we headed north to Queen Elizabeth National Park. We entered the park at Ishasha, which is known for having tree-dwelling lions. Unfortunately, we did not see any. Predators are a rare sight, and it didn’t help that there had been lots of burning in that area of the park. We put the top of the van up for the first time, and stood as Dominic drove off-road.
We saw lots of antelope: Kob, which are Uganda’s national animal, waterbucks, and topi. We saw a large herd of buffalo in the distance, and saw the signs of elephants (dozens of smashed and uprooted acacia trees), but did not see them. We found a troop of baboons in a tree, and a group of what Kristi called “varmint” monkeys, which are small and generally considered pests, and which Dominic didn’t even bother to slow down for. I was a little disappointed, because I hadn’t seen them before, but I figure it’s be like bringing someone to New York and them wanting to stop and take pictures of the pigeons.
Dominic would stop and study the antelope through the binoculars to see how they were moving. He said that you could tell when there was a predator around because they would all move away from a single point. But he didn’t see any indication of one.
We turned around when we got in sight of the border to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and headed toward Mweya, where we were staying. As we got closer, the landscape changed. Where Ishasha had been grasslands punctuated by numerous trees, the area around Mweya was much more bushy. The dominant plantlife was a kind of cactus that looks like a tree on the bottom and a cactus on top. Here we saw many warthogs, more waterbuck, and (briefly) a few wild boar.
We got to the hostel at Mweya, and immediately wanted to stay at the fancy lodge just down the street. We called, and the only double room they had left was a luxury one for $360/night. We decided that we didn’t really want to stay there that much, and settled for the $18/night hostel. The upside of the hostel is that it had a family of warthogs hanging out and keeping the lawn short. They are such funny creatures. In order to eat the grass, they’d bend their front legs and kneel on their elbows, even the baby. It was time to wash our clothes, so we got some plastic basins from the bathroom and went over to an outdoor water faucet. Handwashing clothing is hard work, but forty minutes and two beers later I was willing to call my stuff clean enough for government work. We hung them up and cleaned ourselves up for dinner, which we decided to have at the nice safari lodge.
It was excellent food, and the view from the balcony was fantastic. It looked out over the channel between Lake George and Lake Edward, and we could see a herd of dozens of elephants walking along the shore across the channel. We resolved to eat all our meals there.
When we got back, it was well after dark, and our clothes still hadn’t dried, so we brought them into our room. The nice thing about mosquito nets is that every bed is a clothes-drying rack.
September 20, 2010
I woke early and met Dominic by the van at just after six. We were giving a ride to the same ranger we’d transported down the previous night, but I pulled rank and sat in the front seat. I was popping Sudafed and aspirin to make sure I looked as healthy as possible, since if you’re visibly sick, they won’t let you go, and they only refund part of the permit fee. It costs $500 for a chance to see the gorillas. No guarantees. Kristi stayed back in Buhoma because she’s seen the gorillas twice before, and didn’t want to spend the money again.
We got to the ranger station and I met the other people who would be going. There was a Polish couple, a Dutch couple, and a trio from Tuscany. We all sat in a little circular gazebo-hut thing and were briefed on the gorillas. Our guide, Benson, told us that there were an estimated 720 mountain gorillas in the wild, in Uganda, Rwanda, and the DRC, and none in captivity since the 1960s. They tend to not stay alive in captivity. There are three groups in Uganda that are habituated to humans, and the group we would be visiting was 13 gorillas. They passed around pictures of them and told us a little about the gorilla social structure and what to do if one of the gorillas charges (Don’t run. Look down. Pretend to eat a leaf), and not to sneeze on or try to touch the gorillas.
We then piled into some SUVs and drove down the road a ways, before striking out into the jungle. The guides in front and behind carried rifles and machetes, and we were literally hacking and clambering our way through the jungle. We started down a steep hill and then followed along the floor of a small ravine. We walked for about 30 minutes, then stopped in a small clearing where they reiterated the rules about sneezing, touching, and not running, then we went on with just two guides. A few minutes later, we caught the first glimpse of a gorilla through the brush. It was hard to see, but the guides slowly hacked away at the plants between us and the gorilla to give us a better view. Shortly, though, he moved on, and so did we. We continued like this for a while. We’d walk a hundred feet or so, then stop and gather around where we could see movement through the underbrush, but it wouldn’t last long. One time we saw the two infants in the group playing. They were wrestling around on the ground underneath a bush.
One time, just after a blackback gorilla had moved on, and we started to follow, the gorilla turned and ran at us. The front guide was to my right, and just uphill of me. The Dutch lady was at my left. She started to slip down the hill, and the guide said with an urgent stage whisper “Don’t run.” The gorilla stopped about four feet away from us, slapped at the ground with one hand, stood for a moment, then turned and went back up the hill. Everyone stopped in awe, and our guide said “we’ll go a different way.”
After forty minutes of following them, we came to a clearing where most of the group was. They started on the ground, but climbed up several trees. In one tree, there was a female and a blackback. Another tree had a silverback and the two infants we’d seen earlier. The infants divided their time between eating leaves and chasing each other, and the silverback broke branches off and tossed them down to a female who was waiting on the ground under a bush. In another nearby tree, another silverback climbed up and began to eat. We stayed there and took it all in for a little while, then the guides told us it was time to go. You are only allowed a maximum of one hour with the gorillas.
When we got back to the lodge, Kristi was still out on a nature tour, so I had some tea and looked out over the jungle. Then she came back and we went with Dominic to a local bar. The hand-lettered sign out front said “Pool Joint”, and they did endeed have a pool table inside. We got some drinks and I played a game of pool against a kid of about 14. I managed to get down to one ball left by the time he sunk the 8-ball, but I think he may have been humoring me. There was another kid in the bar about the same age, drinking out of a small bottle of booze.
Dinner was three courses of absurdity.
September 11, 2010
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.
September 5, 2010
Some pictures from the trip are up at my Picasa album.
September 1, 2010
Woke up to the soft light of morning and the sound of one of those birds that are frequently enlisted for atmosphere in jungle scenes.
“This is it,” I thought. “Africa.”
I took another awesome shower and we went to face the day in the form of a full English breakfast.
After breakfast, we met our driver, Dominic Kizito. Dominic is the proprietor of Assured Uganda Safari, a tour company he began two years ago when he obtained a loan to purchase the vehicle for it. He came to us highly recommended by one of Kristi’s colleagues, and I’m happy to say that we will extend the recommendation. Dominic is soft-spoken, sometimes with a kind of relaxed pronunciation (I think of it as a Ugandan drawl) that put me at ease. His mouth was often set in a slight smile, and he was very friendly and engaging. We had hired him for the full time we’d be traveling, so it was important that we got along well. Also important was his 14 years of experience and his knowledge of routes, locations, and people. More on that later.
Dominic’s car is a 4WD Toyota van with seats for 9 passengers (passenger seat, then 3, 2, 3 seats in 3 rows behind) and a top that can be raised for game drives. We sat in the first row behind the driver and set off out of the city.
Uganda is ostensibly “drive on the left”, but it’s actually more like “drive where you damn well please.” Part of this is due to the generally poor condition of the roads. We traveled on a few good roads, but even in the capital city, there were serious potholes, and once you got out of the city, you were lucky if there was even one lane’s worth of pavement, which both directions of traffic would use until a larger vehicle came along going the other way. Cars definitely had the right of way over pedestrians, and trucks over cars. The bigger the truck, the righter the way. Dominic made liberal use of the horn to alert motorcycle and bicycle riders of our approach, and we regularly forced smaller oncoming traffic off of the pavement (or even off of the road entirely, onto the shoulder) even when we were driving on their side of the road. No one seemed the slightest bit put out by this.
We headed south west out of Kampala toward Masaka. The road was bordered by swamps filled with papyrus, which looks pretty much like what dandelions would look like if they grew eight feet tall. There were a few open markets and, at regular intervals, villages, which appeared at first glance to be about 30% cell phone sales outlets. There are several competing cell phone providers in the area, and they will pay building owners to paint the road-facing sides with their colors and logos. Many people agree, and the result is an odd colorful and commercial juxtaposition with the other brick and mud buildings.
We stopped at the equator and took touristy photos, then ate at a nearby cafe. We ordered some veggie wraps off the Mzungu menu, and Dominic ordered some local food. We asked him about it, and they brought us out a plate as well. The food was matoke, which is green boiled bananas. It was served with a light vinegary tomato sauce with a few other vegetables in it. It was pretty good. There’s a little bit of banana flavor, but it’s mostly just starchy, like potatoes.
After lunch we drove another quite long way, through Mbarara, toward Kabale. Before we got to Mbarara, we passed by the Lake Mburo National park, and Kristi spotted zebras! We pulled over, got out, and walked out into the countryside to get a better look. There were eight or ten of them standing around in the shade of some trees, a few of them eating. We took some pictures and watched them for a few minutes, until they decided that they’d rather go be zebras somewhere else, and wandered off. We drove on. We passed a little village a mile or so later, and I couldn’t help thinking: “Look at all these people just walking around like there aren’t zebras back there!”
As we got near Kabale, the landscape became very hilly, and you could see all the terracing of farms on the hillsides. We eventually arrived at the Bunyoni Overland Resort, on Lake Bunyoni. We arrived not long before sunset, and immediately set off on a hike up the hill. We were joined by several locals, first a boy of about eight, and then later two of his cousins, who were about fourteen. One of them introduced himself as Bernard, and we had quite a discussion with him about many things. He was an orphan. His parents both died of AIDS, and he lived with his brothers and sisters with his aunt and uncle. We enjoyed a nice view of the lake, then started down, since it was growing darker. We stopped by at Bernard’s family’s house, and the children did a traditional dance and sang a few songs for us. I took a picture of them, we gave them a little money, then headed back toward the resort. It was quite dark by the time we finally got down.
We went to the resort’s restaurant, and ordered goat curry and goat stew, and a few drinks. After a long while, they brought out some chips, because the goat was still not ready. After another bit, the food came out. The two bowls looked identical, and tasted like the only difference was a bit of chili powder had been added to the curry. The goat was so tough as to be inedible. We ate the vegetables, made a heroic attempt to obfuscate how little goat we’d actually eaten, then went to bed.
August 30, 2010
I arrived in Entebbe at around 11pm. The first thing I noticed as I stepped off the plane was the scent of woodsmoke in the air. It wasn’t overpowering, but it felt out of place at what otherwise seemed like a modern airport. The smell would be a constant companion for the next two weeks; even in relatively urban areas, a significant amount of cooking is powered by wood or charcoal fires.
I found my bag quickly, quite thankful that it arrived at all after four planes over three continents, and was one of the first in line to go through immigration. I provided my passport and immigration form, and the agent behind the counter told me that the visa fee was $50. I was ready for this, and handed over a crisp $50 bill. She put it into a drawer, shuffled some papers around, asked me a question, stamped some papers, and told me that I needed to pay $50 for the visa. I was ready for this, too, since Kristi had warned me that the same had been tried on her. I pointed out that I already gave her $50. She pretended not to hear me, and told me again that the fee was $50. I said, more loudly, this time. “I already gave you $50. You put it in that drawer.” and pointed. She pretended to check, stamped my passport, and I was on my way.
Kristi met me near the airport exit and introduced me to her friend Leanne (from the States) and Leanne’s boyfriend Emma, a native Ugandan, who were giving us a ride. The car was one that Emma had borrowed. Actually, not borrowed: was holding as collateral on a debt that was owed him. It was a heap. When they’d gone through airport security they’d popped the trunk, then discovered that they couldn’t get it closed again. It still wasn’t closed so, after a bit of ineffectual pounding, we used a piece of the clothesline I carry with me when traveling to tie it closed. I felt very boyscouty.
We drove about an hour into Kampala, to the Emin Pasha, a very swanky hotel there, and I experienced the best shower of my life. The shower head was a large disk, about a foot in diameter, with evenly spaced water outlets, and it poured such a torrential flow of water that, were you to be subjected to it involuntarily, it would qualify as a war crime.
March 1, 2010
Kristi and I are watching a movie. It is not a particularly violent or gory movie, or we would probably not be watching it. It is, mostly, a starkly eerie movie with bits of oddball humor. It is a Sam Rockwell movie, so there is lots of squinty smirking.
But, at this particular moment, it is Sam Rockwell bleeding. He has gotten into a fight, and his face is pretty well bashed in. It is not a pretty sight, and as I take it in, I notice that Kristi does not. She has turned on the couch to look at me, and cupped her hands up around her eyes so that the movie cannot enter her field of view. Kristi has a thing about blood.
She offers, as explanation: “I’d rather look at you than look at him beaten up and bleeding all over everything.”
“That may be the least nice thing anyone has ever said to me,” I say.
November 16, 2009
Last Tuesday, I met with my book club. Caitlin asked me what I was up to, and I mentioned that I was writing a novel for NaNoWriMo. I told them about the concept and they asked me about my novel.
I told them that it was set in post apocalyptic San Francisco, but I was still figuring out the story.
sound of a record skipping
Why did I do that? I brushed past it and changed the topic. On the drive home I kept thinking about it. I was embarrassed that I was writing a story about zombies. But that wasn’t it; I wasn’t embarrassed by the zombies. I was embarrassed that I was writing toward a goal that was meaningless.
Two years ago, when I failed to complete the novel I was writing, it was because I didn’t know how to write it. I was so out of touch with my romantic side that I looked forward into the heart of the story and froze up. This year, as the beginning of November approached, I chose my topic because I knew it would not be challenging. It turns out that it was, but in a way I didn’t expect. It was challenging to even work on it because it felt hollow.
Driving home, I was fired up about just chucking what I had done and starting over completely. A day later, I realized that I was still thinking about it the wrong way. One of the reasons that NaNoWriMo is great is that it provides an external motivation for something that I really wish I’d do more of on my own. But in this case, it was an external crutch. I was focused on meeting that goal, but it was a completely arbitrary one. It’s not actually what I want to do.
Three years ago, after I had finished my first novel, I decided that the next year, I was going to write short stories instead of another novel. I never did it, but I should have, because I love short stories and I want to write them. So, that’s what I’m going to do for the rest of the month.
Three short stories in 15 days.
Then at least one each month for the next eleven months.
November 2, 2009
I’ve started NaNoWriMo again this year, for the first time in 2 years. I’m off to a fairly unimpressive start, with only 275 words written yesterday.
My stated plan is write a murder mystery slash political thriller set in a post-zombiepocalypse world. It should be awesome and/or gruesome.
You can follow my progress via this image: . At least, once it starts working, you can.
September 22, 2009
A Parisian man just attempted to ask me… something about my computer. I replied that I don’t speak French (in French. One of the few things I know how to say). He then spoke more loudly and slowly.
Sorry, dude, I don’t speak loud slow French either.