Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Back safe and sound

I guess this could be our last blog post since our trip is officially over. We arrived safely back in Florida last week after a smooth, 25-hour-long assortment of flights. We spent the 12 hours from Cairo to NYC transfixed by our personal movie screens that came complete with dumb computer games. It was complete luxury --we got three seats all to ourselves instead of the typical 1.5. Jeanette's cousin Michael even met us for lunch/dinner at the JFK airport. The past seven days flew by with shopping and hanging out with Jeanette's family and friends. Soon we're off to my family's Christmas in SC.

Thanks to everyone who's followed our misadventures. Our next plan is to find jobs and move to Anchorage. (Hopefully in that order....) Happy Holidays to everyone and feel free to email us at our real email addresses.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Top Ten Things I look Forward To The Most

Aside from, of course, seeing family and friends and our cats, this is a list of things that we look forward to the most about going home after traveling around Africa for just under nine months.  Anne likes to refer to my list as “I hate east Africa, part 2”.  Although there is often a modicum of truth behind many jokes, I don’t actually hate east Africa at all.  Quite contrary, I’ve really enjoyed the time we’ve spent in Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda.  They are all spectacular countries with a lot to offer any traveler.    I have no doubt that we will be back someday, especially to see Anne’s friends in Tanzania, plus we ran out of time to go to Rwanda ,  western Tanzania, and the rift valley part of Kenya.  And there is exceptional hiking in Uganda when it’s not the rainy season.  We will be back.  Anne has spent almost four years of her adult life on this continent and while she would jump at the chance to live here again, I simply can’t.  I’ve done the best I can to accept eastern African culture and to embrace the differences between here and the Western world,  but the best I can offer is that I’d love to come back to visit.

So, without further adieu, this is what we look forward to the most:

1.       My personal space. 

I never knew there were so many aspects to my personal space and how much I value each and every one of them until I came to Africa.  Our Western culture is so different in terms of personal space, physical contact, and the politeness of staring, and I have to say that I like our way of things better.  Here, touching strangers whether in line at the airport or sitting next to them on the bus is just a completely culturally accepted given.  In the States if you are on a plane sitting next to a stranger you both naturally avoid unnecessary touching.  If one of you is using the armrest and the other puts their elbow up, it’s fine if they don’t touch, but if they do, one or both of you will move away.  Here, when someone sits WAAAYYYY too close to me and I try to move over it’s like I am saying to them “here, I will scoot over so you can in turn scoot even closer to me, that way you can still touch me only you will be more comfortable and I will be squished.”

Another important aspect of my personal space that goes along with unnecessary touching is how many people you crowd onto public transportation.  Here, if there are three seats, they will squeeze in four people, plus however many kids are associated with those people.  Always.  No exceptions.  This means that someone’s elbow is always jamming into your hip or their baby is half in your lap or your hips are so tightly packed it hurts.  I am looking forward to one person per seat.  Period.

I thought the word “mzungu” was kind of funny at first, then I didn’t mind it too much, then it sort of annoyed me, now I roll my eyes, sigh deeply, give Anne a “really, again?” look, and completely ignore the person who spoke it.  I know it is a culturally acceptable thing here to address someone as “mzungu – white person” and I get that, but I feel the word is generally quite abused.  It’s not just said in a sentence or as a greeting or way to address me.  It’s said simply because I am a white person walking by or standing there.  It is one thing when kids do it, but when grown men walk by you and say “mzungu” just because you are white and walking by them, I’m just plain done.  Along these same lines, when walking down a street in the States, any street, I look forward to being anonymous and not being approached just because my skin color is different.  I can’t wait until I blend.

Staring is also culturally acceptable here and we’ve been stared at our fair share.  Ethiopia was the worst.  It makes me slightly uneasy, but I suppose I prefer this to the touching or “mzungu” approach.  It’s only really unsettling when it goes on for most of a bus ride.

2.       Quiet. 

I miss quiet so much, largely because I haven’t experienced it in over six months.  Nowhere in east Africa is quiet.  If there is a TV around it is not just turned on but the volume is turned up as high as possible.  If there is a stereo, it is blaring despite the quality of the speakers and whether there is music, a talk show, or just static coming out of them.  And the speakers are all blown out.   It is often the loudest when you are trapped inside taxis, buses, or restaurants because there is no escaping the noise.  If there is someone sitting next to you on the bus, they are on their cell phone talking as loud as possible.  If there are people talking to each other, they are right outside your hotel window and they are shouting no matter the time of day.  If there is a vehicle going by, it is honking its horn.  If that vehicle is some kind of taxi they are hollering at you to take a ride.  If I am walking or driving by kids (or sometimes grown men), there is always a chorus of “mzungu” to be heard.  Every single guest house or hotel we’ve stayed in has no insulation and every single bit of noise comes through the walls clear as day.  I’m a light sleeper and it has become a rare occasion when I do not need to sleep with earplugs.

3.       Reliable network of bathrooms. This is a big one for me.  I drink a lot of water, and I have the bladder of a two-year-old, so bathrooms are a vital part of my existence.  I love knowing that I will soon be able to walk into a Publix or Target or national park or any public facility and not only will there be a toilet but it will be relatively clean, it will flush, there will likely be toilet paper, and to top things off, there will be soap and water to wash my hands with.

Of all the bus rides we’ve taken in the past nine months, only two have had toilets on them, both in South Africa.  Our longest bus ride has been 17 hours (remember that fun day, Jay, Pipa, and Pam????).  I’d say most travel days have involved rides of 6 – 12 hours.  This means I always stress out about my next bathroom stop.  On longer bus rides they seem to pull into some sort of gas station or lunch spot with toilets but you never really know if or when this will happen.  Occasionally the bus will just stop on the side of the road and many people will file out and go right there.  This is, of course, easier for men.   Most African women wear khangas or skirts and will just squat down and go in plain view.  For Anne and me it’s been a matter of finding some sort of tree or shrubbery to squat behind, or sometimes there is no way around it other than indecent exposure.  The night before any travel day I begin to limit my liquid intake, then in the morning I will have a sip of water and from then on I only take sips of water when necessary.  My body has gotten to the point where it can sense a travel day approaching and is prepared to enter a sort of comatose state where it requires very little food and water to survive.  I miss toilets.

4.       Straightforward communication. 

I look forward to conversations NOT going as follows (and mind you, these are all actual recent conversations with people in Uganda where English is the national language):

“Is it easier to catch a matatu from here to Fort Portal in the morning or afternoon?”

“When the matatus come through here in the morning are they usually full or do you think there will be seats for us?”
“It comes at 6:30.”

Or… (over the phone)
“How much does it cost to go from Masaka to Kalangala?”
“Are you ready?  I will be right there.”
“No, how much does it cost to go from Masaka to Kalangala.”
“Yes, I am going to Kalangala.  Are you ready?  Where are you?”
“We are not ready because you did not call us back last night and we are just waking up.  How much is it to Kalangala?”
“Where do I pick you up?”
“We are at the Holiday Inn Hotel and there are three of us.  Do you have room for three?”
“Where are you? “
“I said, we are at the Holiday Inn Hotel on Hobart Street.  Do you know it?”
“Where is that?”
“Aren’t you the local taxi driver?  Shouldn’t you know this town better than I do?  How much is it to Kalangala?”
“Are you ready?  I will be there soon.”
“Do you know where the hotel is?”
“No, where are you?”
“I just said I don’t know.  We only just arrived last night and I don’t know this city.  Can you ask your friends because I am not from here? How much is it to Kalangala?”
“Twenty thousand shillings.”
“No, that’s too much.  The price is 15.”
“Okay 15.  Where are you?”

Another part of straightforward communication that I look forward to is not being told what I want to here.  I understand that here in eastern Africa it is part of the culture to basically not tell someone “no”.  However, another way of saying that is that it’s culturally acceptable to lie to someone, especially if they are white, and especially to get their business.  I’m kind of over that.

5.       The price is the price and it is clearly marked.

I’m not so into the bargaining thing.  It’s exhausting.  Just tell me the price and don’t double it just because I am white.   Please.

6.       Food.

Although beans and rice are a wonderful staple and quite delicious, I’m ready for some variety.    I miss Mexican food and good pizza and fresh salads that are actual salads and not just coleslaw with tomatoes.    I miss real ice cream.  I miss good beer.  And I miss knowing that when you order something you have a pretty darn good idea what it’s going to be when it arrives.  No “Um, we ordered banana fritters and this is fruit salad.”  “Yes, that’s what we have.”  “Okay then.”  Or “oh, that’s the Greek salad” (a plate of coleslaw dripping with Ranch dressing topped with four black olives) or “oh, that’s the pizza” (are you going to add cheese and cook it?).  Although there has been a fine selection of similar tasting nondescript lagers in east Africa, I really look forward to good beer.

I will miss all the cheap, delicious, and readily available street food though.

7.       Completely functional, non-quirky showers with plenty of hot water.

Although we have had some pretty darn good hot showers on this trip we have had even more that just were not.  Many water heaters take exceptionally long to heat up the water, are broken, or only have enough hot water for one person.  It can be surprisingly tricky to figure out how to turn on the water heater and then which faucet to turn on.  There is often a thin, nay nonexistent, line between scalding hot water and freezing cold water.  I don’t mind bucket baths, they are better than nothing; but I really do prefer a regular shower.  I also like shower curtains.  It’s a small thing but it’s nice to have a separate space to shower in that doesn’t get the toilet and sink all wet.  I will also not miss having to wear shower shoes.

8.       Clean and non-funny tasting tap water.

I really, really love water and I drink a lot of it.  In an attempt to not leave behind our body weights worth of plastic bottles, we have been treating the tap water as often as possible.  While I prefer this to the waste, I look forward to turning a faucet or putting a glass underneath one of those refrigerator filters and having cold, refreshing, clean drinking water come out.  No adding chlorine or no funny brownish water or no dirt or metallic taste to it.  Mmmm, water.

9.       No more mosquito nets.

Although they are a better alternative than malaria, mosquito nets are kind of a pain to tuck in every night and whenever I get up to use the bathroom.

10.   Miscellaneous aspects of driving.

I look forward to being in a vehicle where the brake is used more frequently than the horn, to good, maintained tarred roads, to said roads not containing hordes of livestock and people, to controlling the radio station and volume, to fewer fumes emanating from vehicles, and to one person per seat.

Anne (in no particular order):
1.       Jeanette being happy again.
2.       Not living out of a backpack and having a place to put things so that I don’t lose them and Jeanette doesn’t have to spend so much time looking for them.
3.       Having a purpose. Travel is good and all but I’m kinda looking forward to giving back a bit.
4.       Not being a walking freak show. I mean, yes, I’ll still be eccentric, but at least people won’t point and yell at me anymore.
5.        Chocolate chip cookies, fresh salads, good sandwiches, good desserts, good ice cream, etc.
6.       Being in a place where our relationship is legal if not always accepted.
7.       Being able to call whomever I want, whenever I want.
8.       Decent conditioner. This stuff smells rank.
9.       Not having to question if someone is lying to me or cheating me every time I want to buy something or employ someone for a service.
10.   Fewer things biting me. Like no more ants crawling up my pants or bugs living in my bed or flies biting through clothing. Maybe I won’t break out in hives as much either at home.

The Shocking Ssese Island

I’m not sure if Jeanette has mentioned this before, but traveling by public transport can be exhausting and takes much longer than planned. We decided to break our journey from Queen Elizabeth National Park to the Ssese Islands in Lake Victoria into two parts, that way we wouldn’t stress about getting to the ferry on time. We planned on visiting Sitatunga Corner Observatory in Masaka to see the elusive water antelopes and maybe an infamous shoebill stork. As luck would have it, the observatory is closed until next year. Despite this, our stay in Masaka was shocking. And I mean that literally. The way the water heater and the hand-held showerhead were wired, every time we touched the metal knobs or the metal hose or any part other than the small bit of plastic on the nozzle, electricity coursed through us. Jeanette very cautiously held the nozzle above my head while I tried to avoid touching the metal hose. Clean hair is highly overrated.  Jeanette decided not to shower that night.

Depiction of the shower incident.

I can’t tell you much about the Ssese Islands other than the view from our beachside bungalow is very nice. My mom, though, has explored everything within walking distance. We’re staying at a very, very relaxing hotel with the best manager we’ve met on this continent. Hopefully we won’t get bilharzias from the water, but I’ve always wanted to swim in Lake Victoria so Jeanette and I are risking it. Mom is not. She found 200 different species of birds in Uganda. And tomorrow, we head home. It’s been a fabulous nine months of travel, but it’s time to go. More on that in the next (and possibly last??) post.

View of Lake Victoria from our porch.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Queen Elizabeth National Park

Clearly a visit to East Africa isn’t completely without a game drive. My mother visited me twice in Tanzania and had already seen the big animals, but we decided to spend a day in Queen Elizabeth National Park since it was close by. In a hired car from Fort Portal we tooled about the Kasenyi Plains and didn’t see much other than two new species of ungulate, the Ugandan kob and Defassa waterbuck. As we were pulling out of the plains a car stopped to look at something. We drove up to them and they said a group of lions was hanging out in the bushes. We couldn’t see the lions, so our driver took us around the corner on another road. Standing on top of the car and using Mom’s binoculars he found one lion in the distance—sitting in a tree! Our pathetic game drive was rewarded with a view of a rare tree-climbing lion’s butt.

Anne's mom at the equator.

Ugandan kob

Defassa waterbuck


Lion butt in tree (look for the tail).
The main reason we went to the park was to take a boat down the Kazinga Channel that connects two large lakes. As the tour boat chugged along we watched hippos and buffalos in the water and identified new birds. The pouring rain didn’t detract from the scenery and sightings much, and at the end of the journey we were lucky enough to see a few more lions in the distance and a herd of elephants very close up. It wasn’t the most exciting of our park visits, but it was nice.

Cape buffalo in pouring rain with lots of birds in the background.

Elephant bath time.

Drying out after the storm.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Portal to Another World

Before you read this, please note that my mother agreed to every form of transport and that she was never in any danger. In fact, every family member who reads this should really be grateful that Mom gets to go on grand adventures and you don’t have to be the one to escort her. What I’m really trying to say is, don’t be mad at me or Jeanette or Mom. Nothing was as bad as that bus we took Stuart on… On to the story.
Our first major destination in Uganda was Fort Portal, a town in the southwestern part of the country near many forested national parks. Because Jeanette and I are cursed, the theoretically four-hour-long drive took nine hours, including waiting time at the bus station and being caught in traffic. By the time we arrived we decided it would be best to go a short distance the next day to the crater lakes next to Kibale Forest instead of trekking all the way up to Semliki National Park. Of course, that was the day the minibuses decided to go on strike, so we had to pay too much for a private taxi to get there.
 The crater lakes are exactly as they sound: old volcanic craters that are now filled with water. We stayed at a “resort” on a lake fed by seven different streams and surrounded mostly by farmland with some forest remnants. We took a walk to look for birds, it rained, I swam for a bit, it was nice. Unfortunately our relaxing resort was a bit further away from the start of the chimp walk that we planned on taking the next day than we thought. Hiring a private car would have been very expensive, so the men at the park headquarters helped us arrange motorcycle taxis for the next day. Please note that Mom did agree to this plan.
We hoped to have three different bikes to take us the 12 km to the park in order to safely carry us and our massive bags. Come 7 am when the drivers were to arrive, only two awaited us. We strapped our packs onto the back of a reasonably solid-looking motorbike and I hopped on. Jeanette held onto Mom on the back of the other bike, and we roared off down the dirt road. Okay, so roared is a bit of an overstatement. I honestly could have ridden a bicycle faster than these motorbikes moved. We puttered up and down the hills, and Mom was only vaguely petrified for the first part of the ride. Then their bike got a flat tire. The plan was to take me to the visitor center to meet up with the chimpanzee tracking group, and my driver would turn back for Mom and Jeanette. Problematically, my bike was so slow that I got their 15 minutes late. By the time the bike turned back for Mom and Jeanette they had already walked for 25 minutes then found another motorcycle taxi to take them. They arrived just as the chimp tracking groups were taking off, luckily more than 30 minutes later than scheduled.
Our chimp tracking was a success! A short car ride followed by a short hike then a short wait and there they were: lots of chimps hanging out far, far above us in trees. Our first good view was mostly the swollen butt of a female chimp in estros, but soon we saw other chimps lounging in trees and grooming each other. A mother and a medium-sized baby climbed down but they ran away too quickly to see well. A male swung from branch to branch then sat to play with his foot. They calmly ignored us and led their normal lives. Meanwhile, we frantically tried to get the evil, massive biting ants off of our legs and feet. It’s hard to watch chimps when flesh eating insects are literally up your pants. One even got on my neck and when I reached back to pick it off, I pricked my finger on its pinchers and it drew blood. But picking insects off of each other was a fantastic reminder that chimps are our closest relatives.
The next day we headed to Bigodi Swamp in search of birds and more monkeys. We arrived as soon as they opened to increase Mom’s chances of seeing good birds. We diligently pulled on our borrowed gum boots, headed down the path with our guide, and within two minutes it started to downpour. The guide said it was best to wait until the rain abated. After four hours of hanging out in a craft shop playing the Ugandan version of Uno, we set out into the swamp. Trudging through water up to our ankles we passed papyrus swamps and saw four different types of monkeys and a Great Blue Turaco. The swamp was well worth the wait.
Our next destination was Semliki National Park. Our park experience started with a number of miscommunications. When the man from the park said over the phone that there were cabins that cost about $3 per person that were equipped with a kitchen, what he meant was we could ask nicely to cook over the staff fire, maybe, and the cabins that cost $24. After 30 more minutes of painful, round-about conversation we decided not to spend $135 to see some hot springs or to stay in the cabins and would only enter the park for one day for a long forest walk. We then had to find transport to the nearby town with a hotel.
We plopped down by the side of the dirt track to wait. And wait and wait. Finally, a lorry came by with dozens of people sitting on large baskets of fish. Mom said she was willing to ride on the back of the truck, and we climbed aboard. Jeanette and I clutched onto some baskets on the edge while Mom was perched precariously on top. It took about 30 seconds of driving for everyone in the vehicle to see this was a horrible idea. The men got the driver to stop, and people quickly readjusted to make Mom enough room on the baskets of fish where she could never fall out or hurt her back. Within a few minutes the man hanging on next to me figured out my Swahili was better than his English, and I chatted with all of the men at the back of the truck. Once I confirmed that yes, white people can in fact have relationships with Africans, Jeanette was instantly proposed to by a man who already had four wives and purportedly 32 children. Though I had to reject the proposal on her behalf, they still bought us all ears of corn.
Our hike the next day was slow but rewarding as far as birds were concerned. We even saw a rare monkey species, and I was only bit by two or three ants. Even our forms of transportation were fairly easy, if not comfortable. The next day we headed back to Fort Portal and decided to rent a car for visiting Queen Elizabeth National Park.

Lake view from near our hotel.

Superhighway of vicious, biting fire ants.

Chimp in its natural habitat (i.e. no free lunches).

Two dung beetles rolling a ball of dung.

Red Tailed Monkey

Red tailed monkey.

Boardwalk in Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary.

Left: the backside of a grey-cheecked mangaby.  Right: blue turaco.

Grey-cheecked Mangaby Monkeys.

Extreme closeup of a grey-cheeked mangaby.

Black and white colobus monkey.
Butterflies feasting on a cherished delicacy - monkey urine.

Red colobus monkey.