Friday, February 7, 2014

Uganda and Rwanda 2009


Took a nap this afternoon, and then got up to run some errands. It's an indication of just how shattered I am from 32 straight hours in transit, with two overnight red-eye flights in as many days, and an eleven hour time difference from Seattle, that I got up, put on my shoes and socks, and was half-way to the lobby of my hotel before I realized that I hadn't put on my pants. If I had made it out to the Kampala streets like that, I'm sure I'd have an even more amusing story to tell.
Royal Tombs, Kampala

Shattered, but here in Uganda safe and as sound as I get, plotting my further itinerary. I'm taking the fact that I got bumped into business class for the first leg my trip from Seattle to London as a good omen for the rest of this trip.

Hope you all are well,



Finally got out of Kampala, after comfortably lazing around recovering from jet lag for three days. The bus down here to Kabale, near the Rwandan border, was ten hours instead of six (mostly because it was an "express" that stopped for anybody on the side of the road who waved). I'm not sure when I'll stop being such a sucker and believing african bus timetables. The scenery was extraordinary though: lush, verdant, and heavily cultivated, with terraced hills rolling off into the distance. And the company was congenial, although we were all dozing off much of the time.

As we rolled into town at dusk, we drove by a carnival that had been set up just a short walk from the hotel where I was staying. The fifty-cent entrance gave you access to a soccer field with a range of attractions, from games of chance, to comedy sketches, to beer gardens and most importantly to a set of rickety carnival rides, the most prominent of which had people dangling from chains and spinning forty feet in the air. The lax safety standards allowed me to climb right up into the middle to take some photos. The drunken operator was keen to see the results on the back of my camera. Perhaps because I discovered that the casino in Kampala didn't host tournament poker, and so had a bit of an itch, I spent most of my time at the gambling tent. The biggest (and friendliest) crowd was gathered around a rudimentary roulette table. I'm not sure if anybody else was curious at the inordinate number of times the ball seemed to land on green, clearing all the bets for the house.

From here I'll head up to Kisoro, a small town at the foot of the Virunga volcanoes, where I hope to do some trekking and possibly cough up the $500 to go see the gorillas. I'll likely be offlne for most of the next week or so, until I head south into Rwanda.


Land of Milk and Honey

I was feeling a bit like the portly overspending American when I bought the two front places in the aging Toyota Corolla that serves as the share-taxi from Kabale (surrounded by dairies and full of bikes loaded with big tin milk jugs) and Kisoro (with it's multiple bee-keeping collectives and bikes hauling big bladders of honey), but it was really the only feasible move given my dimensions. That feeling of profligate spending evaporated though, when a Congolese man rushed up and couldn't be bothered waiting until the car filled, and so bought the four remaining places. He sprawled in the back seat snoring as we screamed along the winding 80 kilometers through the mountains.

I stayed three days at the rustic camp near Maghinga National Park outside of Kisoro, and broke down and paid the $500 to go and sit with the mountain gorillas for an hour. Money well spent. Often at Maghinga
finding the gorillas involves hacking through the jungle for up to five hours, a task that the port doesn't really enhance. We were extraordinarily lucky though in that after a pleasant 20-minute stroll through farm fields, we saw our first gorilla literally sitting on the rock wall that marks the boundary of the park. We followed that guy 100 feet into the forest where we found the rest of the family lounging in a sun-dappled meadow. There were only two of us, plus two rangers, which is why we were allowed to sit just six or seven feet from glorious beasts, who spent their time munching on bamboo, tickling their two babies, and occasionally pulling branches down on our heads for entertainment. At times they were so close my camera couldn't focus on them. We'll see if the pics turned out.

I've since crossed the border into Rwanda, and am now in the languid lakeside town of Gisenyi at the north end of huge Lake Kivu. Goma is just next door in the DRC, and fifteen km north of Goma is Mt. Nyiragongo, the live volcano with a lava lake in it's crater, the hope of climbing which is one of the prime reasons I came to central Africa (although again the port will not come in handy). Usually it's possible to camp on the rim of the crater, 600 feet above the lava lake, but a couple of months ago I was told by a couple of agencies in Goma that the mountain was closed due to political wrangling. There's some hope that will change soon, so keep your fingers crossed for me.

Back in Uganda, one of my ranger-guides convinced me that it would be safe to take a bus up to Kidepo National Park in the Kamarajong country in the far north of
Uganda (another prime motivator for making this trip), this despite my worries that were spurred by an incident two months ago where the Ugandan army killed 34 Kamarajong warriors/cattle rustlers while trying to disarm them. I do think I'll be cutting short my time in Rwanda though to give myself the time to make it up there. The first leg will be a grueling 15-hour bus ride to Kotipo (which we all know means more like 24).

So, lot's of things pending as I poke around Gisenyi, trying not to develop two much of a crush on the girl at my hotel's reception desk.



If you thought the various ways for me to look absurd on the back of a moto had been exhausted, think again. In Rwanda it's obligatory for passengers to wear a helmet, as provided by your driver. Any number of people in Gisyeni would seem to agree with you that the image of me riding on the back, with a helmet far to small for my bulbous melon, my diminutive driver a full head shorter, was indeed a hilarious sight. At least road safety seems to be of some concern.

I got the final answer on climbing the volcano, and it was a definitive no, but I still greatly enjoyed Gisenyi (see the pic with the smoldering volcano looming over the bus station).The views from the lakeshore with the thunder clouds rolling in were sublime. Off on the horizon you could see a platform, drilling not for oil, but for methane. Lake Kivu has an enormous concentration of both methane and CO2 at it's bottom, due to all the volcanic activity. Fossil records show that there have been local extinctions every 1000 years or so, due to "limic eruptions" of the gases to the surface, similar to the ones that occurred in Cameroon a few years ago killing nearly 2000 people. It's been about 900 years since the last one on Lake Kivu, so the clock is ticking. It would be a massive disaster, threatening up to two million people. The platform is a pilot project to draw methane up to the surface, it's currently being used to fuel a brewery on the lakeshore. If it proves feasible, it could lead to huge energy reserves for Rwanda, not exactly green, but hopefully with the added benefit of averting the disaster of an eruption, by harmlessly drawing off the gases.

My initial impression of Rwanda proved to be a case of mistaken identity. The bus from the Ugandan border down to Gisenyi was full of large and somewhat surly women, the largest and surliest of whom was sitting next to me. When she saw me noticing a large grasshopper that had landed between us, she picked it up and proceeded to methodically pluck off each of it's legs, wings, and antennae, periodically checking to make sure that I was watching her pointless cruelty. "Lovely" I thought to myself, "is this Rwanda?" It turned out however, that she and all the surly others on the bus were Congolese, I was practically the only one who got off the bus in Gisenyi, before it proceeded across the border to Goma in the DRC.

In contrast, on the bus ride from Gisenyi to Kigali, I was most struck by the kindness and consideration that people showed each other. Mothers with babies and the elderly could count on a quick helping hand. There was a clear sense that we were all in it together.

The last passenger to board, was a young girl of about fourteen. As she boarded, an older woman was screaming at her from the side of the road. There was some sort of conversation amongst the girl, the driver, and some of the passengers which I couldn't sort out, but we proceeded off to Kigali. The impression I got that the girl was getting lecherous attention from one of the male passengers was confirmed for me by the "tsk tsking" that came from the woman seated just behind.

About 45 minutes out of town, we were flagged down by two very smartly dressed national police officers. I assumed we were in the midst of a typical African shakedown of the driver, but then they boarded the bus as we drove on, continuing to question the driver and passengers. One of them noticed me, and seemed to realize that I was thinking it was a shakedown. In broken English he explained that there had been a report of a kidnapped girl, (the fourteen year old) and that now they were taking her back to their base. He then proceeded to take the friendly opportunity to practice his English, and finished by giving me his phone number and insisting that I call him if I "had any problems at all" in Rwanda. Not your typical encounter with African police, Rwanda does indeed seem to be a bit different (although I have to mention that the Ugandan police were also nothing but helpful).

Another night or two here in Kigali, then I'll head south for a bit, possibly into Burundi.



Spent a couple of days in Kigali nearly incapacitated with a bad back, hardly leaving my hotel room at all. But I managed a to find a masseuse (she was enormously pregnant, at least eight months along, hopefully that answers that question). At first I was skeptical that she was helping at all, but she worked the bad spot over and over from multiple angles, at times with her elbows and eve her knees, and miracle of miracles, the pain was gone. Completely. Immediately.

Needless to say she got a nice tip.

Kigali continued to impress. Even the cab drivers, when it became obvious they were grossly overcharging me, could be shamed into slashing the price. They seem genuinely embarrassed to be called out.

The couple of lost days did mean that I bailed on heading further south into Rwanda, or down to Burundi. I wanted to ensure I have enough time to make it up to Kidepo, in the far north of Uganda. That choice was affirmed when Roland, the Dutch guy who runs the camp on Lake Bunyoni where I stayed for a couple of days, told me that hands down it's "the best park in Africa". Pristine, with very few visitors, loads of animals, and surrounded by the interesting Kamarajong country. I'm in Gulu now, in the north of Uganda, and hope to make it out there tomorrow night, or the next morning at the latest, either way after a hard day's travel. Coming from the west this way lets me avoid traveling at night, the last thing that was giving me real worry about the trip. I'll certainly be out of contact for a week or so.

Lake Bunyoni was a great couple of days. High in the mountains just north of the Rwandan border, it's surrounded by steep terraced hills, and filled with forested islands. I was able to rent a canoe and paddle myself around at my liesure. It happened that it was market day, so in the morning I found myself in a flotilla of scores of small boats, laden mostly with charcoal, streaming towards the market just up the lake from my camp. As I cruised by the shore where boys were ferrying passengers the quarter mile across the lake to the market, a saucy woman cried out "hey muzungu (white man), can you give me a lift?". I ran her and an old geezer across the lake, much slower but cheaper than the boys, and then proceeded to fill up for the return trip, and then back an forth several times. It was both good exercise and a good ice-breaker.

Lake Bunyoni
The eight hour bus ride from Bunyoni to Kampala, perhaps because it was just before Christmas, was chock-full of children, which meant we made loads of pee stops. The aisle was piled high with cargo, so that meant that at each stop, the kids from the back of the bus were passed overhead, passenger to passenger, into the arms of the bus-jockey boys who would take them out to pee on the side of the road, after which they would be passed back overhead to their mothers. The load of kids was charming when you had the most adorable pair of toddler sisters making goo-goo eyes at you over the top of the seat, but less charming when you had to lift your baggage out of the sloshing pools of vomit on the floor from their older siblings. I fed them all of my peppermint gum, which seemed to help, but there was still a lot of sloshing.

I spent another day in Kampala planning logistics for the Kidepo trip, which meant many trips through possibly the craziest traffic in the world on the back of moto (called a boda-boda because they were initially used to go from "border to border" between frontier posts). At the very moment I was thinking maybe it was a bit suicidal to be riding around on them, I spotted a middle-aged Indian woman in an immaculate sari, sitting side-saddle on the back of a boda-boda more gracefully than I have ever sat anywhere in my life. Surely she wouldn't be doing anything truly suicidal, would she?
It was generally agreed that heading up to Kidepo over Christmas wouldn't be the best idea, transport would be just to sketchy. So instead I spent three days on an organized trip up to Murchinson Falls national park, the first "tour" I've taken since Vietnam, but really the only feasible way to get up there in any reasonable amount of time. That meant I spent Christmas day face-to-face with elephants, giraffes, crocodiles, buffalo, and various other sundry animals. No leopards or lions, but I should see loads of those at Kidepo.
Happy New Year to all of you.


Getting from Gulu to Kidepo happened in a day, and wasn't as grueling as it could have been. The first leg was three hours to Kitgum in a jam-packed minibus, a three-year-old boy in his Sunday best sitting on my lap, with his equally smartly-dressed and well-behaved sisters (four and seven) just to my side making eyes at me in the rear-view mirror. With an early departure I Arrived in Kitgum in late morning, and entered uncertainty. A UWA (Ugandan Wildlife Authority) vehicle was reported to be coming though "soon" and would give me a ride directly to the park, not only for free, but without having to switch vehicles to get there. "Soon" turned out to be about six hours later, but Kitgum was friendly, so the only unpleasant part was not knowing if I was actually going to be going anywhere (a feeling that was common this last week). The vehicle turned out to be a pickup carrying the superintendent of the park who had been in Gulu shopping for his wife. I piled in the back along with the groceries, a pile of sugar cane, six workers from the park (returning from their holiday break), and our AK-47 toting park guard: required for the possibility of encounters with either poachers or animals. The four-hour twilight drive through the desert was stunningly beautiful, the mountains of southern Sudan off to the north, the setting sun playing off the towering thunderheads, lightning striking all around, as we initially skirted the accompanying downpours. Shortly after we left, a couple of mechanics pulled out small bags of vodka. When I then pulled out a pint of whiskey I had bought while waiting in Kitgum, things took on a particularly festive air. Our luck in skirting the rain ran out after about three hours, and sheets of water began to fall, but luckily the guard and one of the workers had rubber poncho's that were large enough to cover us all as we crouched together. A shared experience that led to a lot of laughing encounters as we ran into each other over the next few days while I was in the park.

My hopes of seeing any large cats were foiled by that same rain, which continued each afternoon I was in the park. It just wasn't hot enough for them to be found lounging on termite mounds like they usually are. But the zebras, giraffes, elephants, and buffalo were abundant. I glanced up from my book one afternoon to see a group of zebra at the watering hole a hundred feet in front of me, a herd of elephants filing across five hundred yards away, and moving trees in the background that turned out to be giraffes. Not bad. The worst thing that happened was getting stranded in a downpour during a game-walk, the driver who was supposed to pick my guide and I up confused our location, but even then we were quickly rescued by a land rover full of pretty Belgian girls from the luxury lodge next door. My recent string of pleasant ambassadorial encounters was continued when during my stay at the park I was taken under the wing of the Dutch ambassador to Uganda and his extended family (his wife, her parents, a son and two daughters, a Ugandan son-in-law, his best friend, and a three-year-old grandson). The wife ended up feeling comfortable enough to slug me hard in the shoulder when she realized I was teasing her (a bit sweetly gullible, she was an easy mark), to her children's horrified delight. Late nights around the campfire were finished with a tipsy stumble past the grazing (and dangerously skittish) buffalo that invaded the camp at night, along with hordes of jackals.

Another enjoyable thing at Kidepo was the very large bull elephant that had developed a taste for the beer castings discarded by the camp staff. He wandered through camp every afternoon, and apparently only causes trouble if he finds no alcohol.

On leaving Kidepo, a UWA vehicle again gave me a lift to the entrance of the park, but from there things became very uncertain. The tiny little village at the park gate has no regular transport, but there was a large truck parked, and it was facing in the right direction, so I had some hope. I managed to find the driver, Peter, and he confirmed that indeed he could give me a lift to Kabaang, and that he would be leaving at "10 AM sharp". Of course this meant that he would begin loading at about eleven, and we then departed at about 1 PM. Officially a beer truck, our cargo was largely human. My white skin (and a premium price) gave me a comfortable seat up front, along with Peter's mother, and the national ruling party's local party chairman, Abraham, along with his son. We were far more comfortable than the fifty or so Kamarajong who crowded into the back with the crates of empty beer bottles, but they still seemed grateful for the transport. The chairman gave me a running commentary on the scenery as we drove along, the most interesting of which was the story of the hundreds of Kamarjong warrior/herders who were streaming into one of the villages we passed, along with a herd of about a thousand cattle. Apparently there had been a recent raid by Kamarjong from further south (near Kotido where I was headed next), a number of people had been killed and 3000 cattle stolen. These 1000 were the ones that had been recovered by the army so far, and everybody was coming to claim their livestock. Quite the scene. Cattle rustling is pretty much the norm, but the recent drought of three years has made it worse, as people are literally struggling to survive. The Ugandan government and various NGOs have been reasonably responsive, in contrast to the Kenyan government which has responded to the similar situation across the border primarily with denial.

There was no transport leaving Kabaang that day which ended up being a good thing, it was an incredibly friendly and enjoyable place. After I managed to find the one real restaurant in town for some lunch, I settled in for an afternoon beer with a group of three flirtatious women who were nursing their own beers as they each nursed their babies. Not quite vodka in the milk bottle, but close, those babies slept soundly. As those women drifted off, I was joined by Moses (with no legs and one arm, he got around admirably in a hand-cranked cart, his dog in the back. That one arm was huge) and a couple of friends. After a few beers, and likely because of them, I failed to use my usual dodge when the question of religion came up. My atheism appalled them, and led to a good-natured but spirited theological discussion ("how can I be a devil worshiper if I believe there is no devil?"). My cousin David, who is officially my godfather, nearly got a call right then and there, demanding an explantion for his obvious failure. They only paused when I told them it was 4AM in Portland, so a call would just piss him off. After a couple more beers, Moses offered to settle the issue with a boxing match (again, that one arm was huge), but I deferred. With nobody having changed anybody's mind, we bid farewell. Slightly tipsy, I sauntered back to my hotel, in front of which I found a circle of women doing bead work. Part of a handicrafts collective, they were madly making use of the last of the day's light. A couple of them were elderly, and clearly struggling to see as they worked. This immediately made me go and grab the spare pair of reading glasses I had bought in Kigali when I thought I had lost mine. Gratitude for the gift would be a bit of an understatement. I settled in for a chat, which always leads (with the women) to questions about my marital status. They were nearly as appalled that I'm single as Moses and company had been that I'm an atheist. I explained to them the sad truth, that in my country I'm considered "very ugly". This elicited gratifying howls of protest, and proclamations that I needed to get myself a good Kamarajong girl. "Even Moses, who has no legs and one arm, has a wife and child" said the woman who turned out to be his mother. That night was New Year's but the universal advice I got was that due to the likely drunken antics by the local young men, it would probably be wise for me to make an early night of it, so I did.

The next day there was no regular transport headed south because of the holiday, and by mid-day it looked like I would be spending another night in Kabaang, not a horrible prospect, but I did need to keep moving. This is where the wonders of modern technology came to my rescue. The group of truck drivers who had been jokingly quoting me absurd prices to make a special trip to Kotido for me, discovered my iPhone. I fired up the app that lets you take somebody's picture, and then stretch and distort it with your finger. I took a picture of the owner of the truck, gave him bug eyes and a square head, and minutes later he "remembered" that a truck had just left for Kotido. I went to grab my bag while he sent a boy out on a motorcycle to stop the truck, and then he ran me out to meet it, all for free. It was an ancient, absurdly dilapidated, toyota, overloaded with engine parts to the point that it could only make progress of about ten miles per hour. But progress it was, none-the-less.

We made it into Kotido in time for me to grab some dinner and then settle into a roadside shack for a beer with what turned out to be the mayor and a group of local bureaucrats, just as the sky opened up with a deluge that was the first rain of any sort they had gotten in eleven months, and the heaviest since the drought started three years ago. When I explained to them that it had rained when I arrived in Gulu, then again in Kitgum, and upon my arrival in Kidepo and Kabaang, and now really in Kotido, they immediately christened me Lokiru: "blessings" or "rain" or "one who brings them" as far as I could make out. I didn't explain my atheism to them.

I caught the bus going south the next morning at 5AM, and what was supposed to be a 6-7 hour drive ended up taking 13 because of the condition of the roads after the rain and then a couple of breakdowns (I've never been in a full sized bus doing a sideways powerslide through the mud before), but arrived here in Mbale safely just in time for Saturday night festivities. A big part of which was a stage set up by a local beer company with DJays, singers and other "talent", the crowd favorite of whom was a lady MC from Kampala. Part of her act was to call young men up onto the stage and perform lap dances, trying to give them erections that were apparent to the crowd. The wily ones tucked thier junk up under their belt before going out on stage, trying to prolong the experience, a ruse she would eventually call them out on. Good times.

Tomorrow I'm headed off to Sipi Falls for a couple of days before heading back to Kampala (with a stop in Jinja), to fly home next Saturday.

Happy New Year to all of you,



After finding cause to linger a couple of extra nights in Jinja, I made it back to Kampala, and then slipped through the snowstorms in London to make it home as scheduled.

I'm feeling grateful for all the ease and comfort of home, particularly when I think of all the Ugandans I met who were excited for Christmas because it was the one meal a year where they could afford to eat meat.

Here's hoping that you all are well, and that I remember to wear pants today.


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