Uganda

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David Lee, editor and long-term independent traveler, will be posting some of my travel stories in the coming weeks, including my couchsurfing experience in Uganda and a tricky Indian visa situation in Zambia. Subscribe to his addictive feed to keep up with all these guest postings and more, a series perhaps, surely to come!

Video of the Week: African Favorite Things

Revamping a classic musical number with a twist on Africa. These lyrics were written while bumping across Zambia on my Dragoman overlanding experience on the Big Journey in 2008. I know this is ridiculous, but I couldn't help myself...

Lyrics:

Cockfights and beach nights and living in classrooms, Drago employees and bush camping cook groups, Elephant charges and subsequent screams, These are a few of my favorite things

Peering out tent flaps at African hippos, Learning sign language and swimming with locals, Feeling at home up in Bujagali, These are a few of my favorite things

When I throw up over Maggie, Cov'ring KJ's lap, I simply remember I'm Zanzibar bound, And then I don't feel so bad

Jambo and mambo, Cheesy camondeezi, Sailing in dhows and learning Kiswahili, Red Bulls and Cholos and beach break dancing, These are a few of my favorite things

Jinja hitch-hiking, couch-surfing Kampala, Canoeing Zambezi and perfect Uganda, The instant traveler camaraderie, These are a few of my favorite things

When my new friends have to leave me, A rolling stone so sad, I simply remember I'm living a dream, And then I don't feel so bad.

DragoWorld...Allow Me to Explain: Near Day 112 also

BounceLike your butt has the hiccups Like you were riding in an overland truck Matatus and jeeps Maggie and Claudia We've managed to find (and feel) every weathered divet in the path between Jinja and Livingstone.

Allow me to explain.

I was scheduled to fly back to Nairobi from Entebbe, Uganda, in order to catch my Dragotrip across the dark continent. But regardless of the fact that Africa is a massive place with billions of people, a former Drago passenger (Shvonne) arrived at my volunteer site, offered me invaluable advice, and managed to not only introduce me to my future trip mates but get me a spot on the truck to Kenya...for the low, low price of beer money for our leader, Jason.

And so began my many weeks of overland adventures. These good times naturally fall into three chapters for their routes and the different ensembles aboard. And so I shall recount my Drago trip with due accentuation on the highlights: the sights, the comforts, the characters, especially the crew.

Chapter One: Hitch-hiking to Nairobi

I came to Adrift camp site in Jinja for a big Drago dinner between Shvonne's old and my future trucks and met the self-proclaimed alcoholics and nut cases that made up my group. I hadn't turned on my wit factor for weeks and was blind sided by the six over 40-year olds who came at me with big smiles, beers in hand. Helen approached us at the bar afterwards and welcomed me to the group...so slow was I to realize this young, blonde woman was one of my leaders. She looked so clean. Get it, girl! And finally, we traced down the leader, Jason, the big kahuna whose decision it was for me to join. He only had a few questions for me upon arrival, this man of whom I've heard numerous party tales about already, and they were: will you buy me some beers? Do you like to party? And how often do you go skinny-dipping? Exciting start, huh? This former party rep lived up to his reputation with the first impression; I immediately admired his spunk. A self-proclaimed "professional bum". I began to take notes right then and there.

Hittin' the road the next day, the roads from Uganda to Kenya thankfully improved, ever so slowly. The landscape stretched exotically out my window and always held a scattering of babies on backs, shops selling phone chargers, matatus packed above capacity, staring men squatting by the road, and police checkpoints for seemingly no reason. The drivers dealt with each officer with nauseating charm, answering their sometimes oddball questions (do you have a fire extinguisher and tire pump on board?) like they were chatting over cocktails. I sat near the front, as quiet as ever, staring out over the dashboard between pages of my Michelangelo biography. Those first few days, I was painfully shy and acted more like a fly on the wall than a passenger, unsure how involved I could be on this trip I hitched onto. I instead retreated into Renaissance Florence and battled to pound out the bio that weighted my bag down to a saggy, formless low. Once I reached success, I loaned it to my first character, Julia, who finished the 750 pages in a staggering few days.

Julia has a not-so-salient, at first, defining feature that, once unearthed, tramples you with laughter: a dry and spot-on, effortless, sense of humor. A business manager from Bristol, England, she and I had little in common on paper besides an obvious wanderlust, but I grew to be magnetized to Julia in hopes osmosis would transfer some wit my way. She could make everyone laugh at the most inappropriate, paper-thin moment. In an attempt to give frame of reference, I'll explain one instance of sporadic humor that sustained giggles for weeks. On our first or second drive day after Jinja, we slowed behind traffic because there was a recently killed body lying in the road. Most of us kept our eyes aimed at the books in hand (worried that shady business had gone down), Helen turned to avert her attention from the scene, and Jase drove on, mumbling a prayer under his breath. Later, Julia recalled the moment in conversation and noted a good headline for the unfortunate incident might read "Man Killed in Yoga Accident." So morbid and inappropriate. Perfect timing and so original. A Julia joke.

Much of the time, Julia's material was fed by her fellow Bristolian partner'n'crime, a frizzy haired, smily nurse named Maria. I began seeing Maria's spark when we reached Nairobi and were about to welcome the new passengers. The approach of eight new people into our Golden Girl group was a bit threatening, also quite exciting. We all began cracking jokes and blending like the unit we weren't prior (meaning I cracked my shell and joined in). The prospect of a 22 year old male stud-muffin for me on the trip was enough to send her dirty mind spinning with hilarious anecdotes to make me unwind and be myself. That was just the beginning of our many male objectifying gab sessions. The bond was sealed when I captured the exact moment a giraffe pulled away from its kiss with her lips, leaving a double strand of antiseptic saliva, stretching like clotheslines from woman to world's tallest animal. It was what we youngsters know as a "Cruel Intentions" kiss. A classic.

I'm not sure why I wasn't myself at the beginning of this chapter. Patrick, the Kenyan cook on board, thought I was a shy little girl, as did Jase, whose presence always made my mind freeze. It may have been caused by my cyclical mood changes, which always occur after each individual phase of this journey. I had just left the home-grown, natural community that stirred up in Bujagali Falls as fast as a cup of instant coffee. And a tour was still something I was ambivalent towards for its cattle drive tendencies. And it also could have been my expectations that the Golden Girls and I would have little over which to bond. There's no doubt though I was somewhat "star struck" by the living legend I had heard tales of before I met his face. When you ask someone in the area (meaning Africa) if they are acquainted with him and they respond "ooooh yes, I know Jason," it makes one a bit timid to immediately whip out the goofball antics, for fear of clashing with another dominant personality.

I'll take this opportunity to explain the character of Jason, or Jase, as best I know how. He's a force of nature, sometimes a freak of nature (meant in the most endearing of tones, of course), for the things he does and continues to get away with at the youthful age of 37 years young. Bored of school and academic life, he graduated high school at 15 and began his own life that included the military, the police force, a move to the USA, Camp America, and working as an au pair. Considering the fact that he has charisma oozing out his dimples (and never, freakishly, gets hangovers) he became a party representative and moved from exotic beach locales to luxurious ski resorts, making holiday goers smile and amusing himself as a bar keep/manager/Jackass stuntman/etc. Looking for a new scene, he adorned his new scarf and wings and took to the skies, moving up at an incredible rate among the Virgin Air flight attendant hierarchy. There, at 30,000 feet above the Atlantic ocean, he shook up drinks and partied with Robbie Williams, attempted to charm the likes of Kylie Minogue, and dodged the verbal blows of our girl, Whitney Houston. And once he had traversed the heavens and gotten his fill, he moved on to become a DragoMan, to traverse the African plains via cement trucked turned passenger vehicle. He owns only the clothes in his bag and a snowboard somewhere in New Zealand. His home is everywhere and nowhere. A true nomad. To me that meant he was a man with answers. I listened to his words with bated breath; however, still knowing I could never be as displaced as he for decades on end. Jase still asks himself, "What on Earth am I doing with my life? What do I want to be when I grow up?" Just one more person I've met on the way who affirms that the straight shot into careerland is not always the way to go.

He will slide into his grave, rugged and saggy as a leather bag (thanks to his refusal to use and lack of need for sunscreen), thinking with no regrets, "what a ride!" While I don't necessarily think being a mechanic/police officer/Jackass stuntwoman who points vaguely to the nearest exit (which may be behind you!) is the path for me, Jase got me thinking about my youth, my attitude on life, and the art of travel. Under his Ngepi shorts' waistband, he's got 37 years, 77 countries, and 22 years of experience making his life exactly what he wants it to be. His only words of caution for this world was to be weary of the opposite sex, as love will be the only thing that can make you forfeit the path you choose. A bucket full of smarts, that one.

I think I've established to some extent the magnitude of Jase's legend, but that's not to say his current leading lady is a snore. No, Helen, his co-driver and trainee across Africa, is a character herself, the former movie biz powerhouse. Helen began from the ground up in a production house, from receptionist to production manager, and had encounter after envious encounter with everyone from the "star-studded" cast of Stardust to the famous feet of Beckham and Ronaldo. Do we envy? Yes, we do. But even after the loads of cash, the glamorous life, and meeting the potential scientist of her dreams, she needed to satiate the wanderlust and change her day-to-day scene. Enter DragoWoman.

And with Helen, in chapter one, came her mother, Jane, who wanted to see her youngest in action across Africa, getting under trucks, covered in oil, her formerly posh and privileged daughter. Jane, to me, was the British colonial version of Jen Winters, for all who can follow such a reference. She was the fulcrum of her community, had a voice that reeled in your ear, and a sharp humor to cause some gut-paining giggles. And she was a pistol with a drink in her hand, the pace car for nightly consumption. You never feel embarrassed drinking with this woman; if you come to a dry table holding a double, you'll find her already set up with a triple...and a beer for later.

We bumped, from Jinja to Nairobi, up and down, sometimes body dives to the side, and the occasional hidden speed bump sail forward with a bag to the head. We relaxed in Eldoret, sought dry shelter in Nakuru, stalked lion kills and bounded across the Mara, and came to Nairobi ready for paved roads, a glimpse of civilization, and a new flush of passengers to joke about. I'd like to thank the wild roads of Kenya for shaking me loose and making me open and happy for the road ahead. A wild road.

Continue reading about this African adventure with the next chapter: The Game.


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.