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Archive for the ‘Uganda’ Category

9/23/09: Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda to Kampala, Uganda

The first two weeks of our tour will literally get us nowhere. Today we will begin our journey back to where we started: Nairobi, Kenya. Including today, we will do three all-day drives over the beyond bumpy Ugandan and Kenyan roads. Each morning we will wake up just after 5am, break down tents, eat breakfast and pile in the truck in order to reach our next destination before sundown. Each night we will stay at a location we have already explored (the Red Chilli campsite outside of Kampala and the Naiberi resort near Eldoret).

I’m not overly excited about these days.

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Our first segment went pretty much exactly as expected. It was Zhou’s and my turn to sit at the back left table, better known as “the table under the big leak in the roof.” Since we spent all day driving through Uganda, the truck spent all day in the rain, and therefore Zhou and I spent all day in the rain.

The other reason that sitting in the back is so much fun is because you sit over the back wheels. Anyone who’s ever ridden in the back of the bus knows how much fun that is over smooth roads. Over roads with bumps bigger than a small goat (and sometimes including a small goat, unfortunately), you’re pretty much resigned to praying that your seat belt holds and you don’t fly through the hole in the roof.

I don’t know about Zhou, but I went to my happy place starting at 7am and didn’t return until we arrived at the Red Chilli around 4:30.

Once we arrived, it was back to reality. Zhou went to work on her grad school applications and I cleaned the truck with my chore group. (I assume when we get back to the States that’s how it will go: Zhou studying and me cleaning.)

After dinner we spent our last night sitting around the table with our two closest friends on the trip, Shaun and Kwi (the “Belgians”), as their tour ends in Kampala. Shaun, through his infinite wisdom of American culture (he’s seen A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila), noted early on that we Americans can talk to you for a half hour and then consider ourselves your best friend. So that’s what we did with him and Kwi.

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In case you’re curious, here’s all of the Dutch I learned from the two of them during our two weeks on the road together:

“Doodbijten” means “Bite to death”
“Ick see u rragft, zuchen” means “I love you, sweetie”
“Ya” means, as Shaun puts it, “Ya” or as Kwi puts it, “Yes”
“Leaven hass butschin” means “Lady bug”
“Hottentotten” means “South African bushmen”
“Hottentottententententoffslarin” means “A group of tents occupied by South African bushmen”

Anyone who actually knows Dutch and is offended by this, please blame Shaun and Kwi. Looking back on it, I suppose I never learned “hello,” “goodbye” or even the most important word, according to my father-in-law, “bathroom.”
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Picture of the Day: Remember my jump into Lake Bunyonyi from two days ago? Look at how graceful and elegant I was.

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Shaun had jumped that day as well. Look at how Belgian and out of control his form was.

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9/22/09: Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda

A few of the members in our tour group decided to go on a “village walk” today. There have been village walks offered at a few of the places we’ve stayed at – you get a tour of the village, visiting one or two homes and generally seeing how the people there live. Since Kevin and I had been just hanging around camp for the last day, we decided it would be good for us to get out and get some exercise and see the village.

The guide came and picked us up at camp around ten this morning. We were told we would be back around one in the afternoon. Kevin and I both assumed the village would be a short walk up the main road. First mistake. We walked for over an hour on a dusty trail to the top of a hill. When we finally did get to the top of the hill and saw some houses, we assumed that we would be visiting the houses in the village. Second mistake. They took us to a school for orphans. (Side note: the orphans sang a song that went, and I am not making this up, “Welcome visitors, you are so good. We will never forget you…” and again, I kid you not, the English tourist sitting next to me sang this song along with the kids. It was hard not to laugh.)

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After we were done playing with the kids, we then thought we would be taken to see the village and then back to camp. Third mistake. We were actually taken back to the main room of the school where we were asked to sponsor a child or donate money. By this time it was already one in the afternoon and Kevin and I were both getting pretty hungry. We decided to leave early and find our own way back to the campsite.

On the way back down the hill, we kept running into groups of school kids walking up the hill. A lot of them stopped to say hello. Some of them asked our names and where we were going, so we would stop and chat for a minute and then move on. Every now and then we would get a kid who would tug at one of our sleeves and say, “Give me money.” (Today we also heard “Give me sweetie,” and “Give me banana.”) It’s something we’ve sort of gotten used to over the past few days. I am much more heartless than Kevin as I always just shake my head and then move on, but he always stops and says something like, “We didn’t bring any money. We were just taking a walk. Sorry, sorry.” And then we just go along on our way. Except for today – when Kevin turned his back to continue walking after saying his usual “sorry, sorry,” the kid decided that response wasn’t acceptable. So he ran after us and hit Kevin’s bag. And I guess that wasn’t enough to relieve his feelings because a few seconds later, Kevin and I both heard a rock bounce past our heads. We turned around and saw the kid looking at us before scampering back up the hill.

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Puzzles for Postcards

Where Flexible Gorillas Live? Anagram

Nimble Apes Tree Fort

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Picture of the Day: I cannot be bothered to learn the alphabet. There is a huge boogie I need to take care of.

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9/21/09: Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda

Sometimes it’s good to take a day off. Today we did just that. We did laundry, caught up with the blog, read, and I wrote in my journal. In Africa though, even in days off, we experience many things unlike we ever have before. A few highlights from today:

Laundry: Drying laundry is a pain in the butt in a country where it rains nearly every hour. (I’m still not sure how we made it through the Gorilla Trek with such good weather. We’ve already moved our clothes three times today to avoid the intermittent thunderstorms. Nothing’s dry.

Lunch money: In America, you are given a bill detailing how much you owe after a meal. Not here. After our lunch, I asked the waiter how much we owed him for the food. “20,000 shillings,” came the reply. I knew for a fact that this was incorrect, so I pulled him closer and walked through the meal with him item by item. We owed 15,500 (approximately $8.25).

This reminds me of another interesting habit of many people here in Uganda. If you owe 15,500 Ugandan shillings, and give them a 20,000 shilling bill, they will immediately state that they don’t have change. However, if you talk to them for a while and butter them up a little, they’ll pull a huge wad of cash out of their pocket, clearly having enough change to buy a goat.

Dinner dancing: Before dinner, a large group of children came to the campsite and began singing, dancing and playing drums. They continued to do so for about half an hour, pulling in people from the growing audience to dance with them. We would later find out that the children were from an orphanage over an hour’s walk away. The skies opened up midway through their dance, but it didn’t faze them at all.

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Dinner: At this particular campgrounds restaurant, there is bold print at the bottom of each menu telling the customer to expect a wait of 15 – 60 minutes for the food to be prepared. Apparently 60 African minutes is the equivalent of 150 American minutes, as several people at our table weren’t served for 2.5 hours.

During the long wait for dinner, a familiar sight came on the TV at the bar here. I nearly jumped out of my pants when I saw it.

Sportscenter!

In the middle of the African jungle thousands of miles from home, this was my first reminder of life in the States. As nice as it was though, I’m nowhere near ready to go back. (Which is good, I suppose, since we still have over ten months left on our trip…)

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Picture of the Day: Nowhere else in the world can you jump into the East side of Lake Bunyonyi in Uganda from a platform over 20 feet above the water’s surface.

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9/20/09: Nkuringo, Uganda

This is a gorillapod.

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It’s nice, lightweight and will definitely come in handy when Zhou and I don’t have anyone nearby to take photos of us around the world.

This is a gorilla pod.

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See the difference a space makes?

Zhou described much of our experience in yesterday’s post, but I feel it bears repeating from my point of view. When we originally planned the trip, she was so adamant about seeing the gorillas that I didn’t voice my opinion too much. After all, there are things I want to do as well (Easter Island, skydiving in New Zealand), so our rule was that if one of us felt really strongly about something, we’d do it. I’ll be honest though, I wasn’t quite sure about this part of the trip.

First of all, permits cost $500 per person, and you only get one hour with the gorillas. That would make this the most expensive single day of our trip. Secondly, they’re just gorillas! I’ve seen them in the zoo, I think. Thirdly, it was very difficult to find a tour that fit our start (Nairobi) and stop (Johannesburg) criteria and still did the gorilla tracking.

I’m glad Zhou was so set on this.

There are only 720 mountain gorillas left in the world, including 345 in the Bwindi National Park that we hiked. We would wind up seeing 14 of them. For you English majors, that’s 14 out of 720. As a percentage of humans, that’s like seeing over 125 million people just chilling in a forest – the big ones watching mindfully while the smaller, younger ones play and poop on the elders’ backs.

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Although the brochures said not to get closer than 21 feet from the gorillas to avoid the spread of germs (gorillas are humans’ closest relatives, sharing about 98.4% of genes), our guides found us a nice spot less than ten feet away. One of the silverbacks (older, dominant males) even walked within a foot or two of a member of our group.

The best part about it all though is that this is their environment, and we were just there enjoying it. If a gorilla wanted to go somewhere, we moved to let it pass. I felt kind of like a lowly intern in a big office meeting. Absorb your surroundings, but stay out of the big dogs’ ways. But this time the big dogs were 500 pound gorillas.

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The hikes to and from the gorillas were far and away the most difficult of my life. Since the location of the gorillas changes every day, for much of the time we were blazing new trails up and down steep countryside. I’m so impressed with my wife, as she kept pace with our guide, who finished eighth in the 10K at the Ugandan Olympic trials. I could barely keep up myself.

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Throughout the hikes, I made it a point to stop and enjoy the incredible scenery that the Ugandan mountainsides have to offer. My opinion probably doesn’t matter here because I’ve only visited about five countries, but Zhou called Uganda the most beautiful country she’s ever seen. I can’t argue with that.

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So the next time someone hands you $500 and an otherwise all-expenses paid trip to Uganda, please please please go see the gorillas. You won’t regret it.

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Ohio Picture: A couple of guys at the office and I decided it would be fun to shoot these pictures throughout the world. The Os in this picture are the porters who came with us on the hike. Gordon Gee, if you’re reading this, you now have supporters in Nkuringo, Uganda… Go Bucks!

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Picture of the Day: Our tracking group (all from the Acacia overland tour that we’re on) standing on top of a mountain overlooking the Impenetrable Forest.

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9/20/09: Nkuringo, Uganda

When Kevin and I planned this trip, the one thing at the very top of my must-do list was to see the gorillas. I wanted to see gorillas more than I wanted to do anything else. More than Machu Picchu, more than the pyramids, more than the Himalayas, even more than Thailand and mango sticky rice. So now that we were finally going to see the gorillas, you can imagine how nervous I was that I might be disappointed after having such high expectations.

But really, it’s not like anything you can imagine.

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It was a really amazing and totally surreal experience. Even looking back on it now it’s hard to believe that it actually happened, except we have the pictures to prove it. I wish I could describe to you how it felt, but I can’t. The one thing I can tell you that comes close to explaining how it was is this: after we saw the gorillas and hiked back up to the top of the hill and I looked over at the forest, I was so overwhelmed by the experience we had and the beauty of the country that I started to cry.

I have never felt that way before.

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A little bit on the logistics:

There are six gorilla families in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park that can be visited by people. Each family can only be visited once per day and only for one hour. The trackers go into the forest early in the morning to the place the gorillas were the day before. They then follow the path the gorillas took – if there is plenty of food, the gorillas don’t travel far; if there is little food, they may go more than a mile away from their last nesting site. They communicate with the guide via walkie-talkies. When they find the gorillas, the guide can then take the group on a shorter path straight to the gorillas. Besides the guide, there are also two guards with guns – one at the front of the group and one at the end. They are there to scare off any aggressive gorilla families (ones that haven’t been habitualized to humans) or any other aggressive animals (mountain elephants live in the forest as well, but we didn’t see any).

The gorilla family we visited was the Nkuringo family. We were lucky enough to see the biggest silverback (though I think he napped the whole time we were there), several of the younger males and the 9-month old twins. I wanted to take one of the twins home, but Kevin wouldn’t let me. I guess that’s for the best.

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Picture of the Day: Mr. Turtle does not get to meet the gorillas. He runs away in protest.

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9/19/09: Nkuringo, Uganda

I was heading to the toilets to pee when a large animal ran across my path. It was well after sunset, so through the beam on my headlamp I struggled to make out the mighty figure rushing past me down the hill toward the village. A jackal? A lion? A woolly mammoth? Any of these things could eat me alive, so I made the firm decision then to pee right where I was (outside the neighboring cabin’s door). As the figure disappeared into the night, I figured out what it was: the campsite’s dog. Oh well.

I finished up and was about to head back into our cabin (side note: this was the first night we’ve spent not in a tent since the London Heathrow) when our tour group and a guide from the campsite came around the corner, clearly rushing to go see something. I grabbed Zhou and joined them.

We rounded the corner and turned off all our headlamps, and our guide pointed to the faint light of a mountain that he told us was less than 200 kilometers away. As we sat there watching, the light turned red – it was very faint, but it was clear that the mountain was not a mountain at all, but instead an active volcano. We sat watching it for ten or 15 minutes, turning red, then back again.

It was not the most spectacular thing I’ve ever seen, but it’s just another example that when you allow yourself to experience things, you never know what else you’ll see.

I wasn’t able to get a picture of it erupting, but I did take one the next morning.

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Puzzles for Postcards

Rhyme Time! (Solve all three of these African flavored rhymes)

Noodles cooked on the African plains
Makeup needed in the African desert
A short segment of the longest river in Africa (and the world)

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Picture of the Day: Our two closest Belgian friends on the trip: Shaun and Kwi. Shaun’s usually a normal-looking white guy, but I was trying out the Color Swap feature on my camera.

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9/19/09: Uganda

You really have no idea how bad the roads are here. I’ve said it many times before, but it bears repeating. Today our minibus drove up and down bumpy mountainsides with reckless abandon, literally a foot away from sending us tumbling to ours deaths hundreds of feet below.

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About three hours into our perilous ride – after passing herds of cattle in the roadway, children waving and some yelling at us to give them money, workers hand building a small stretch of paved roadway, semis filling our bus with dust – we came upon a gathering of happy people in colorful clothing. In the middle of the gathering was a woman in white. A veil covered her somewhat uncomfortable expression as our bus of tourists drove through her day.

There we were: in the middle of the Ugandan jungle, high above the low hanging clouds, miles from a town of any size; and a small village was celebrating a marriage with many of the same traditions that we have back in America. It’s amazing how different things are here, yet how similar they are at the same time.

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Picture of the Day: These kids, like many others, were so excited to get their picture taken. I didn’t find out until right afterwards that it was only because they wanted money from me. I didn’t give them any.

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