Couch surfing

A Mzungu in the Midst: Day 92

I am in Africa. This is a place I fear describing inaccurately, so I'm sure to include every miniscule moment that step by step adds to the magnitude of my awe and wonder of its certain and sometimes masked beauty. I will begin with the flight, the trip from Rome to Doha...a gorgeously luxurious flight to a new world region, which is evidently the Eastern hemisphere's crossroads. I'll skip the fact that hot BO replaced AC for the first hour taxing. I fought off sleep in an effort to binge-watch movies in the English language. No dubbing? You must think I jest. However, after half of Ironman, my lack of sleep two nights running got the best of me, and I joined the Indian boy beside me in a "too close for strangers" airplane-style spooning session.

I couldn't see a thing out the window until the tires touched down to a world I've only seen in American Arab-fearing movies. Dust...and sand...and lots of it...a flatness that defies the earth's busty curves. I got cotton mouth just looking outside. At 5:30am in Doha, Qatar, it was over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Ben calls that a typical steamy day.

I was rarely conscious until I got to Nairobi, when I found out my bags didn't follow me on the trip. I can't say I was shocked, and so...after thirty minutes of being in the "dark continent," I had my first TIA moment.

The first time I flew into NYC at night, the infinite stretch of lights had a deep impact on me...seeing the development and magnitude of the world from a pilot's-eye view. A like, yet opposite, moment occurred with the descent into Entebbe, Uganda. There were minutes of time I saw not one single light in the darkness. What was below me was simply nature, no embellishments.

My Host

After immigration, I doddled around the exit, hoping my first couch surfing host would recognize me from my profile picture, since unfortunately my previously given description of "brunette girl with all the bags" was not valid at the time. Paul found me and took me away from the probing taxi drivers and towards the capital city of Kampala.

I knew I made a fantastic decision to couch surf when my drive from the airport got me closer to the real Uganda than I ever could have gotten otherwise. As our chatting and cultural exchange passed the hour-long drive, I realized the scene outside was unfolding something so eerie and intens

The dust of the streets created a fog through which car headlights revealed hundreds of wandering silhouettes. Things didn't feel so familiar anymore, as I realized the streets were littered and webbed with people, even out here in the dark of night...somewhere on a stretch of highway.

Finally came the realization, the zing I sought for months, "Wow, I'm traveling."

The Homestay

Paul lived in a village right on the edge of Kampala, one called Masajja, which was connected by dirt roads, all veined and rutted by the wet season's downpours. The first few bouncy minutes brought to mind Ace Ventura on his jungle rides through Africa, singing Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang with head bouncing from the passenger's seat across and out his driver's side window. I needed a helmet there in the back seat.

The Ssenoga family, Paul and siblings, live in a home attached to a few rooms, which they rent out for their income. My travel goal of never using a squat toilet went out the window when I got a look at the compound latrine. I was in no way discouraged though, as I knew my immersion was deeper than I could have anticipated (and that doesn't mean I fell i

Though I hadn't slept in about three days, I stayed up to chat with my host about his family, his village, and life in Uganda. Outside his window, the sun was far set, but the neighborhood was still throbbing. On the corner, a man made a stand to sell chapatis (essentially flour tortillas) for cast flow. Boda-boda drivers (guys with motorbikes) surfed the dirty waves while trying to find passengers to transport and charge. In this community, everyone was a family man and everyone an entrepreneur.

Noise was a constant, but at 2am, when I awoke to roll over, I could have heard a rooster toot in the next village over.

Old MacDonald lost control of his livestock as they all crowded around my window to oddly awaken me in the morning. Roosters were crowing every thirty seconds, goats were screaming like little children, motorbikes streaking across my sightline...and every human being on the block took to the streets to get it done, whatever "it" was, as they had been since 4am.

I drew my first breath at 8:30am and sought some relief at the long drop. One cannot wander in there half asleep without losing a leg to the earth's dirty mouth and cracking your pelvis on the ...wet cement surrounding the hole. I sure do have a delightfully poetic mind.

The Day in Kampala

The first mission of the day was to make it to the city, as the locals do, wandering up weaving lanes and jumping garbage heaps until Entebbe road appeared, in all its smoggy splendor.

On the way, I began to re-experience the wonder of being a walking spectacle, the extreme and never-before-seen minority, an Average Jean celebrity. Children ran around in circles, announcing to their kin the presence of the Mzungu in their midst. If I responded to their screams, waves, or salutations, huge smiles formed on their faces before they darted home to giggle behind their working mothers.

The taxis. You don't hail taxis...they hail you. One driver, one screamer, and a 14 passenger bus that almost always breaches the legal limit of riders. They get you from A to B, though you may be sitting on someone's lap. These services are offered at a wonderfully reasonable price. 20 minutes of bouncing around Kampala for 30 cents.

Kampala is the result of a tribal collision and explosion, a city smashed with basic homes and millions of people...breathing in a nicely concentrated formula of oxygen and diesel exhaust. Not many people own cars, so it's a bit of a mystery as to why the air is opaque. It's deceiving, but everyone is always on the move, which is why the population calls for the organized chaos of the taxi parks.

Taxis all crowd and congregate like hungry coy fish, drivers jumping for passengers and squeezing through openings not big enough for their cars. You could find a ride to anywhere and meanwhile purchase peanuts, beer, scrunchies, and hair extensions while waiting in your seat by an open window.

Of course, where there are people, there are people selling crap...the biggest taxi park bumping butts with the biggest mad house market. Massive bags of rice and spices, washing soaps and appliances, second hand clothes and dried sardine heaps, and about forty men with wedding proposals for my very eligible hand. I grasped my bag, half hidden under my shirt, and skillfully maneuvered away from the forceful arms trying to grab my attention. Weaving through the roughly covered maze of stalls, I just laughed at the exclamations people would shout at me: "Hey Mzungu!", "Marry me?", "Come come you buy something!", "Lips!". Paul loved the show as well.

It was all a pulsating whirlwind erupting around me. I had to step back and get a hold on where I was. We climbed a closed up shopping center to view the sudden wash of rain that swept the littered streets and nearby music festival in sight. The city was impressive, in a shocking way, as I couldn't believe such a tattered place existed. The essence of "shambles"...but it was mysteriously hypnotizing nonetheless.

From a cathedral on a nearby hill, the improved view gave me a sight more removed and peaceful, where I could finally see the urban rain forest at arm's length. It was a smoggy mess, a sore on the terrestrial crust, but viewing the palms and rolling lushness with raw sugar cane sweetness tossing in my mouth made me find a twang of admiration for the basic nature of Kampala's exhausted inhabitants.

I had a strong desire to stop time and paint the most complex picture of each tiny moment that were cultural time-bomb slaps in the face. This is Africa. TIA.

Meals of plantains by candlelight and chapatis by rooster crows hugged my stomach with simple fulfilling pleasures only possibly by my mental smiles, thankful I was seeing such a real experience. Authenticity, my friends; there's no substitute.

A Day at the Farm

My last day in Kampala was all about family. We strolled to Paul's aunt's home on a nearby hill where I got my first real chicken coop experience. Given it wasn't in the back of a truck after hitchhiking in the countryside, but it still satiated an odd desire to see feathers fly.

I fed little piggies palm leaves and stepped over coffee beans drying on the ground. Baby goats chased each other and dove under the full utters of the mother, only until Paul wrangled one for a quick pet of its soft cowlicked coat.

Just then, the niece of my host came running down the red dirt road from school and joined us for the jaunt back to his abode. We all ate a quick bite of potatoes and avocado before I had to skidaddle. I introduced the young eyes of Latisha to the world of photography and let her Annie Lebovitz it around the family compound. She was so quiet before, but after sharing a smashed airplane Mars bar and clicking the camera shutter, she was glittering.

As I left Masajja for Jinja town, a shower smoothed the rough appearance of Kampala and left the bright red dirt and clean green lushness vibrating in my enamored eyes. Uganda was already a glowing memory and in Kampala nonetheless.