What gets you up in the morning?

Musings of an over-caffeinated but relatively evolved former primate.

In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari argues of mankind’s unique and overwhelming desire to make the world his. Homo Sapiens have evolved over millennia not just to subsist and pass their genes to the next generation, but to thrive in ways unseen before in history. Through a number of technical and cultural revolutions, we have developed the ability to understand our position in life, and with such advances has come a much greater capacity for understanding our place in the world.

EvolutionThere are an estimated 8.3 million species on planet earth, yet only one – humans – divide themselves into such complex social strata, practice religion, engage in global war, and have the ability not just to use resources to turn into tools, but to tinker with and improve them over time. These “simple” ideas of what it means to be human are actually incredibly complex.

Oftentimes (read: almost 100% the time), we take these advances for granted.

It’s a miracle that you’re here – the odds of you being the sperm that made it to fertilize the egg were about 1 in 50,000,000 (exact numbers vary greatly, but suffice it to say that the odds were NOT in your favor).

It’s a miracle that you can read what I’m writing – we’re the only species that has developed written language that follows universal rules.

It’s a miracle that you can [hopefully] understand me – the ability to interpret complex reasoning and draw conclusions based on intangible concepts such as time, space and probability is unique to us.

If we were to venture back to the beginning of the universe and hit the restart button, the chances of us ending up exactly where we are isn’t even on the spectrum.

Feel small yet?

Spirit-of-the-child

What is your purpose?

While many of us accept that death is a part of the circle of life, it is hopefully fair to assume that the majority of us do not want to die; and certainly not suddenly. We have things we want to get done, or perhaps we aspire to gain some measure of public respect or prestige, maybe even make Forbes list of billionaires..

My question is: What is on your list?

In today’s world, we so often get caught up in the act of ‘battening down the hatches’ and putting in the work today so that we can reap some arbitrary reward or promise for ‘a better tomorrow’. There’s nothing wrong with that. But how often do we get so caught up in settling for the stagnant doldrums and banalities of today for unpromised dreams and visions of tomorrow?

To be clear, I’m not in any way arguing that we should abandon our vision of the future or blow our savings on the vacation of a lifetime – but I am suggesting that we take up a different long view:

Is your vision of your future going to be worth what you put yourself through today? Is sacrificing your youth that remains going to be worth that vision? Could you make a change to make today better, more comfortable, more fun, more worthwhile? I think there’s a nearly ironclad argument to be made for worrying about making 2017 worth remembering before being so intently laser focused on 2025 and beyond.

GazeBy being human, you were born blessed with astounding capacity to think, feel, create, and experience. Don’t blow this one, singular fleeting opportunity you have to make it worthwhile by falling victim to the mundane nuances of day to day life.

Where are you going to be, not in 2025, but tomorrow?

I know that personally, I’m going to resolve to live every day with the intent to make my family and friends proud of the man they helped create. The exact path that follows doesn’t need to be crystal clear – I just need to allow my actions to be guided by my vision and my values, and to let the rest of the chips will fall where they may.

If you’re too busy looking for tomorrow, you’re almost certain to miss today.

Who Run the World? Girls.

Days 9-20 at Lugacraft, Uganda. Gearing up, setting expectations, and getting ready to work!

Farming, bowl-making, teaching and being [easily] outworked by a group of women who can literally do it all.

First, I must apologize for the cliffhanger at the end of my last post about Life in Uganda, and the radio silence which followed. I must admit that it became difficult to maintain my 30,000 foot view of what I was doing and how exactly to share it, and I decided to hold off on posting until I got time to experience it all and take account of what happened. I continued to document my journey in photographs and by writing in my journal – which to be honest I don’t really need. Most conversations, interactions and experiences are firmly imprinted in my memory, and in such vivid color and detail that I don’t think I will ever have trouble recalling them.

Alas, I’ve had this recurring image in my head of my mother yelling “what happens next?!” at her screen for the past 20 or so days; a grievance which I hope to amend in the coming paragraphs.

This post is about day to day activities working with Lugacraft Uganda.

Lugacraft Uganda is an organization that seeks to facilitate access to a better life for disadvantaged women and youth by means of teaching life-changing skills*. Run by Robert Dibya and his wife Vivian, it’s been changing the lives of scores of families in the villages around Lugazi, Uganda since 2010.

08:30h

It’s both a blessing and a curse to wake up without an alarm every morning. The blessing is obvious: you awake when your body feels sufficiently rested. It’s natural. The curse side of the coin, however, is a little more obscure: I personally find that a lack of necessity to “get up and go” with a full schedule of things to do and places to be puts me in limbo of wanting to lay around and rest ‘just a little longer’ – and wanting to get up and be productive. After all, I’m here to share culture and help spread ideas, aren’t I?

Breakfast each day consists of either bread or cassava ‘chips’ (fried) and tea. Elsewhere, I’ve commented on the simplicity of the diet compared to what I call my “Western” standards, which includes a variety of foodstuffs; ranges of colors and plentiful vitamins and minerals, should we hold it in high enough priority to eat them.

DSC_0652[1]After letting our food settle and begin the daily process of forced hydration (you do NOT want to let yourself get dehydrated!), we discuss the plan for the day and contact our boda boda driver Derrick. Each day, our first stop is Buyenje (boo-yen-gee), a small subsistence farming village of perhaps a few hundred residents. As the crow flies, we may be just a few hundred meters to a kilometer away, but the peak of a mountain more than 4,000 feet obstructs our path. Thus, we endeavor on a 20 minute ride full of jostles through Martian-colored dust across terrain that would be most suitable for ATVs. We arrive; and we wait.

A Note on Culture

Time slows down in Africa. Routines are always subject to change. If a member of a village passes away (which, I’m sad to report, happened twice in just two weeks), the village abstains from field work for the day to honor their passing. You need to be fluid and adaptable and not have Western expectations of being constantly busy with a full schedule. You do the work that needs to be done in the order of it’s importance: in this case, securing food for your family, cooking, and making sure clothes and living conditions remain clean. Then and only then do find ways to make money.

This is a major culture shock to someone who typically doesn’t have to worry about where today’s meals are coming from (if you’re reading this, you’re in this category). I had assumed that since we were there to “teach life changing skills” that we’d get right to it, but I was wrong in at least this assumption.

First: we farm.

10:00h-11:00h

I’m no stranger to manual labor or the concept of working hard. I’m used to the challenge of pushing myself towards physical limits. I’ve worked with my hands. They can take a beating. I throw my hoe over my shoulder (“African way!” as Robert says) and we walk to the field. I was made for this. I’m ready.

image510:07 rolls around and I’m ready to quit. Holy sh*t this is impossible! My back is sore from bending over. My hands are getting raw from the non-ergonomic wooden handle (in a few days I would buy gloves to protect my pampered hands). Dirt is flying everywhere, including into my gum boots (I should note that all the women are barefoot, which I can’t even fathom). I wipe the sweat from my brow and look to my right and my left and these women all have ear to ear smiles as they hack away at the undergrowth; clearing it faster than you can imagine with efficient but powerful swings that would make Paul Bunyan jealous. For the majority of the first few minutes they’re having the time of their lives watching Americans do manual labor (they’re convinced that machines do all our work for us), but after this initial cacophony of jokes at my expense, we all share a final “ha-ha,” and we get down to it.

In the West, there’s a certain element of pride involved when you do something alone. We hold the concept of being independent and able to make it on your own in very high regard. That doesn’t work here. To be sure, there are plenty of people who are happier working alone, but the far more successful groups, the women from Lugacraft included, have learned to work together. Each individual brings certain talents to the group, and the summation of their abilities and ideas and are far greater than the sum of the parts alone.

11:00h-12:00h

image2After admiring what an hour of teamwork and a little bit (read: buckets) of sweat can accomplish, we return to our initial meeting point and help the women start preparing the next meal. I’ve previously written about the consistency of the diet, and about how it’s structured more on caloric density than nutrient density, and here is no different. Most days, this consists of peeling mountains of harvested cassava, peeling potatoes, stripping banana leaves that are used for steaming, and so on.

Cleanliness

Everything is done right out in the open. There’s no counterspace. No cutting board. “Rinsing” consists of vigorously shaking whatever we’ve just peeled in water that’s ‘too alive’ to drink. When we’re done with it, it’s the color of the red earth. It’s gross. This is why all food must be cooked – to kill all the bacteria that’s left. Sanitation is, to be honest, for those who can afford it. This is just the way things are done out of necessity.

Taking this into consideration, you can start to see how basic education on hand-washing and disease prevention can go a long way. Keeping hands, tools and working areas clean and minimizing the risk of airborne bacteria can have a long and lasting effect on the health of these villages. This is where we come in.

12:30h-14:00h

DSC_0586[1]On to Kiteza (chee-tay-zuh). Once again, a few hundred meters as the crow flies takes a lot longer when you’re descending into green valleys ripe with trellises of passionfruit and climbing back up the other side, trying not to walk under a gigantic ripe jackfruit for fear of it falling on your head. It’s a beautiful walk, but boy is it tough!

image4The women of Kiteza are every bit as remarkable as those of Buyenje, and artistically savvy to boot. In addition to serving as the rock that keeps their families steady, they’ve taken up bowl-making. By binding together long strands of dried banana stalks with recycled material from canvas bags, you’re left with a sturdy, beautiful hand-crafted bowl. Don’t mistake this craft project as an easy one though, for it can take up to 4 days to complete a single pattern (as mentioned, food and family come first, and this can monopolize your time when you’re the one doing it all [by hand!] for a family of 5 or more).

Get Involved

I returned carrying 42 bowls in my luggage, and I’m selling them stateside ($30 each) and sending the money back to the women of Kiteza. See below for 2 examples. These individuals live on around $1 per person, per day, so selling a single bowl in the US market literally means the world to all of us, them in particular.

I’ve created a PayPal account on behalf of Lugacraft – and whether you’d just like to donate to their cause or purchase a bowl, clicking here is the way to do it (type in LugacraftUG@gmail.com as your payment address). 100% of the money goes directly to these women to reward their hard work; and I’d certainly be eternally grateful for the support!

While sitting together and weaving (and trying like the devil not to mess up their beautiful work), we engage in a discussion each day on a variety of topics, including family planning, basic savings (when you visit Uganda one day and the villages are talking about “the Mzungu that taught us about the ‘Piggy Bank’,” that’s me!), and simple business practices.

Where are the men?

This is a question I still don’t really have a great answer to. My best understanding is that men are expected to go out and earn while women are expected to do the housework and cooking. The following is strictly my observation, which admittedly may be biased and also possibly incorrect based on a very small sample size, but this manifests itself as women toiling from sun up to sun down. The men? They wait for work. They congregate in groups of 10 or 15 boda bodas and sit idly until someone needs a ride. They play dice in large groups. They’re all over town – and by my observation, not sharing the work load equally. To be semi-fair to these men, the doors of opportunity aren’t wide open, but the discrepancy in workload and expectations is very real.

This is why the aim of Lugacraft Uganda is to empower women. If we can improve their lives and living conditions, and at the same time ease their burden and provide an education on keeping their families healthy and thriving, and give lessons on how the world does business, it can only create a positive snowball effect that will result in lives improving across the board. It’s something I was proud to be a part of – and something I’ll continue to be an advocate for.

Who run the world? Don’t act like you don’t know..

14:30h-22:00h

As far as “work” is concerned, our days are relatively short. By 2:30pm we’re finished and on our way back to Lugazi via boda. When we arrive Vivian is already preparing lunch, which generally consists of plantain or rice with eggplant and some avocado. As the days passed, Vivian learned of our love of fruit and began cutting up some pineapple to serve as dessert.

How often do you eat?

Robert and Vivian are blown away to learn that our Western diets often recommend eating smaller meals and more often. The traditional “African way” (as Robert loves to call it – which I’ve also adopted) is to eat one major meal per day, and to eat as much as possible. The portions are always mind-boggling. Robert is much smaller than I, and yet I can’t believe how fast and how much he can eat!

The remainder of the day is free for us to use as we please, and often consists of a trip to town to either explore or retrieve more water. A few times I brought my camera out and had some fun taking pictures with the kids in this section of the village.

image1 (1)One day, Vivian brought us to watch a group of children perform a traditional Ugandan dance – a group which Lugacraft is helping train to perform at events and also provide catering, setup and breakdown. Throughout the performance I found myself questioning how they can possibly get their little bodies to move so well, and lo and behold the next thing I knew they were trying to teach me!

Of course, they (I) failed miserably. To add insult to injury, we (they) decide to have a dance-off. If you haven’t seen the video, which I’ve tenderly entitled “White Guy at a Wedding,” you can see it here.

Dinner is usually served late by Western standards (around 10:00pm), but in an effort to have “American dinner,” Robert and Vivian moved it up closer to 8:00pm. While eating our posho (corn flour mixed with boiling water into a mashed potato consistency) and beans, we got into the routine of watching NatGeo together, ogling at the strange fish, or rooting together for the lions to defeat the hyenas in the battle for safari supremacy. It was a simple life, but I enjoyed every second of it.

DSC_0714[1]

Into the Bush: Life as a Ugandan

Days 4-8: Mukono/Lugazi and life off the beaten path.

We’re not in Kansas anymore.

leslieWe left Kampala for the town of Mukono with Leslie Weighill, founder of The Real Uganda on Tuesday morning. Here, it’s impossible to get lost, as instructions to an outsider would be overwhelmingly simple: stay on the paved road, for it’s the only one.

Infrastructure would be a strong word for what exists in Uganda, at least outside of the major hubs and tourist areas. The road we’re on is known as the Jinja Road, which connects the hubs of Kampala and Jinja, near the source of the Nile. The road is full of trucks carrying crops to market like matooke (plantains), “taxis” in the form of a VW bus equivalent, and boda bodas*. If I thought my throat was dry and choked up on the way from the airport to Kampala, boy was I in for a rude awakening. As someone used to breathing relatively clean air, you feel as if you’re breathing straight out of a tail pipe.

*boda boda: a small motorcycle that is the main means of individual transportation. Aside from commuting in and out with luggage, this is how we get around.

Once off the paved road (remember, there’s only one..), the ride gets a little bumpy and tricky to navigate. Boda bodas, taxis, tractors and big rigs alike all do an elegant dance to avoid accidents (though I personally believe they award themselves points for close calls..); and individual vehicles bob and weave around the divots, bumps, puddles and even temporary streams after an abnormally long period of rain. Generally speaking, the larger vehicle has the right of way, so as a pedestrian, you’re low man on the totem pole, and best be careful!

DSC_0413Leslie lives in a 3 bedroom compound in the town of Mukono. The toilets still flush and the power is still on, but it already feels like a different world.

You sleep protected by a mosquito net.

You don’t eat food that isn’t hot.

DSC_0418You don’t drink water that isn’t bottled or boiled.

The ability to eat a variety of foodstuffs is completely dependent on what’s in season (more on this later).

There’s no AC (it’s hot).

You wear ratty clothes on purpose because it’s dirty*.

*According to Leslie, it’s easy to come to Africa and take a picture of a disheveled looking African child with dirty, worn out clothes and no shoes. This is the image that comes to the mind of most Westerners when they think of Africa. This however is a gross misrepresentation. While living conditions are indeed harsh and certainly difficult, every child has their Sunday best. Every child has shoes. They don’t wear them around because A) they’re tougher than we are (my words) and B) its dirty.

Photo May 30, 5 52 38 PMWe spend the afternoon settling in, getting set up on a local data plan (~$26 for 5GB which doubled to 10GB with promotion), buying snacks and peanut butter (for extra calories) and discussing the program, and by the time we all get fed up being serious we spend the remaining hours playing games with Lucas (her son) and EJ (who belongs to Esther, who also lives in the compound).

On to Lugazi

The next morning, we’re met by Robert and Vivian, who together run Lugacraft Uganda and are to be our hosts for the next 2 weeks. They live in a town called Lugazi, which is the next major town on the Jinja Road. I should note that at this time, I’m beginning to have an upset stomach, which lasted for the better part of 3 days*.

*Symptoms included lots of stomach pain, nearly no appetite, very unpleasant and acidic burps and . Even the thought of food made me nauseous. We arrived at the decision that the culprit is the malaria medication (malarone), and making the mistake of taking it too late at night and not with food.

image1 (3).JPG

We arrive in the village of Namengo, in the southern portion of Lugazi, at Robert and Vivian’s home. The homes are tightly packed together, and even as I’m writing I can hear conversation-level chatter of the neighbors, local African music is playing (reminiscent of a Caribbean style), and life is just plugging right along. The village is a small community – but it’s exactly that: community.

The Home

DSC_0599By Western standards it is compact, but it has everything we need and there’s certainly nothing frilly taking up space. The name of the game is conservation. As we learn is the custom, we remove our shoes before entering the 2 bedroom abode (remember, it’s dirty outside!). The rooms have beds and a “shower room” where water is gravity fed through a spigot that is used for bathing and brushing teeth. The living room contains two chairs and a sofa, small tube-style tv, and a 4 tiered cart with mugs, bowls, plates and utensils. A coffee table that doubles as a dining room table takes up the remaining space. Vivian handles the cooking outside in what I would call a closet-sized kitchen, which contains a charcoal stove, a few pots and pans and some utensils. As is customary, I’ve saved the best for last: we go to the bathroom in a pit latrine. Literally: a giant pit covered by a concrete slab, with a 6 inch by 8 inch hole in which we do our business. By far the best technique is to throw caution to the wind and get your bottom as close to the ground as possible – minimizing the amount of aiming that has to take place is key!

DSC_0555Compared to some of the villages we’ve visited with Lugacraft, and even to many of the homes within this village, we live very well. During the day there’s the same garbage soap operas (albeit worse than at home as they’re voice-overs from Spanish), and at night we end up watching either BBC news or one of the local Ugandan stations or a soccer match when available. It’s kept very clean, and the small geckos whom I’ve learned to befriend help keep the bugs in check. As an American, by far the most challenging part is not having clean water on command, and that the electricity shuts off without warning every so often (I kid you not, the power just went out as I type) – all things which we view as basic commodities that are generally at our beck and call.

Food

Vivian is a tremendous cook, and we eat to satiety 3 times a day. At each village or home we visit you can always count on our host rolling out the red carpet and feeding us steamed corn or matooke. Even people with very little are always more than gracious to us as guests.

DSC_0400From a nutrition standpoint, we’re at the mercy of what is available at the markets. The majority of food is very carb heavy and (in scope) relatively limited in nutrients. To be sure, the food is naturally organic and very nutrient-dense, but the point I’m making is that what is lacking is the wide variety we’re used to in the States. For comparison, on an average day in the US, I’d estimate I eat 4-5 different types of fruit, 4-5 types of grains or starchy carbs, and as many as 10-12 different types of vegetables – in varying amounts of course. Thus far in Uganda, I’m averaging 1 or 2 fruits per day, 3-4 starchy carbs (white rice, cassava, plantain, bread), and I’m lucky to get 2 types of vegetables.

In an environment where just about anything will grow if planted, you’d think this wouldn’t be an issue – but when you remember that the name of the game is sustaining life for the masses versus being able to worry about the breadth and variety of your nutrients, caloric energy must come first. As a Westerner, this is difficult to adjust to, and even harder to explain to locals.

Conservation

DSC_0437It’s not possible to overstate how very little goes to waste. 3 days ago I threw the plastic top to my water bottle in the trash, and it’s still the only thing in there. If it’s compostable, it goes back to the ground. If it’s flammable, it gets used to start a fire. Conservation when resources are limited is the name of the game.

Everyone is in it together.

Tomorrow, it’s back to the farming villages. In my next post, I’ll talk about the day to day schedule, and share what it is we do at Lugacraft Uganda!

On to Kampala, Uganda

Off to Uganda! Day 3 flying into Entebbe and staying in Kampala

I’m no stranger to flying at night. I’m used to knowing generally how close to the ground I am, judging how high we are and how much longer I’ll be stuck with my seat in its upright position. I know that once I come underneath the clouds I can start to see lights stretching far and wide – and as the altimeter continues to drop, the lights become closer and begin to move faster.

Finally, I can make out individual cars moving along the road and the tops of trees as we make our final approach. In most cities it looks exactly the same (beautiful), and makes a nice chance for a photo opp that never really comes out quite as magnificent as it looks in person. For this very reason, Las Vegas is one of my favorite places to fly into at night.

This isn’t the case as you approach Entebbe.

Blackness. All you can see is dark – with the occasional (single) light dotting the countryside more like specks than groups of high-powered LEDs.

Forgive my strange recollections (as it was closing in on 4am.. sans sleep..), but I sincerely was questioning where I was as I stepped off the plane in Entebbe, Uganda, home of Entebbe International Airport.

Between the sound of crickets chirping, feeling the clamminess of the temperate but humid air and the smells that seemed all so familiar, I could’ve been in rural Tennessee and wouldn’t have noticed a difference. Had it not been for the plane crew spraying down the inside of the aircraft before landing (which I must assume is deadly if you’re a mosquito), I might have actually assumed I was somewhere other than where I was – dreaming perhaps.

IcvrayfThe rest is par for the course (save for having to present my “Yellow Card,” proving I’ve been vaccinated against Yellow Fever), until we begin the long 60 minute drive to Kampala. Drivers sit on the right side (thanks British Colonialism), and I’d venture to guess that not a single car on the road would pass the most rudimentary of emissions tests. Within 10 minutes I already have a headache from the fumes being released.

The countryside is just as dark from the ground as it is from the air. Gradually more and more developments on the road from Entebbe to Kampala begin to pop up, and even though it’s 430am, I can’t help but notice that a large number of people walking the sides of the road – and it’s impossible to determine if this is residual from the night prior or if many are just getting a good jump on the day.

I have to admit it was a little nerve racking not knowing if anyone would even be at the hotel at this hour (and then what to do for 3 hours..) or if any room would even be situated, but my nerves were calmed when we were allowed to check in, even at that ungodly hour.

But first, coffee.

DSC_0335 (2)First thing is always first in the morning, or in this case, the early afternoon. There’s a coffee shop not far from the HBT Russel Hotel in downtown Kampala called 1000cups Coffee. It’s set within rows of vertical plants so that it’s hidden from passers-by on the street; and this makeshift divider provides plenty of shade and the feeling of privacy while still allowing the breeze to freely roll through. There are a few men sitting scattered throughout, mostly just leafing through a newspaper or chatting with one another. It is here that we’re introduced to what is known as “Hawaiian toast,” which is essentially an assorted fruit sandwich with peanut butter and Ugandan honey. If you’re a fan of peanut butter and banana, this is a homerun.

DSC_0360 (2)After paying 40,000 Ugandan Schillings (~$11 US) for two filling sandwiches with sides of fruit and two coffees (good luck finding that in the US!), we take it upon ourselves to get in a good walk, taking pictures of local monuments and some of the sights (found throughout this post) along the way, being greeted by nearly everyone we meet as “ahhh, Mzungu!” (a term used for anyone of seemingly-European descent).

Never in my life have I been such a commodity. In a country where everyone looks mostly the same in height, build, hair, eye and skin color, I am the outcast. I stick out like a sore thumb.

To have a word for “people like you” can be marginalizing, and I can see now, with much clarity, why it is such a problem to prejudge and place people into categories. To be clear, being called Mzungu doesn’t bother me – I tell myself this is what Justin Bieber must feel like – and my response is always a smile, wave, and a “hey!” The real issue is that there are a number of assumptions tied to my being a Mzungu, not the least of which are that I’m a wealthy and powerful man from a foreign country that is to be idolized for being “from the outside,” and that I am to be feared. Those of you that know me well can attest that there’s only one of the above assumptions that’s even close to true. The fact of the matter is that still, I’m protected by my white male privilege everywhere I go. While few people alive are were affected directly by British Colonization, which ended in 1962, the principles of racial hierarchy and patriarchy are alive and well.

To me, change starts when we all realize that we have far more in common than we think; not a single one of us is better or above another – even when we look nothing alike. Let’s make a promise to each other to change that. People who have never met a white person shouldn’t live in fear of what we’re like. That, together racism and discrimination, are without a doubt learned traits.

DSC_0337 (2)I find the landscape to be far more picturesque during the day. With the remainder of the light (~ 5 hours worth), we venture to an area a few miles away from downtown Kampala. I take great pleasure dodging and weaving through minute holes in the traffic (as the locals do), where the number of close calls are too many to count. As much as it looks like chaos, I’d actually call it more of a waltz than anything else – somehow nobody gets hit. Contrast that with the cars in Cairo, each of which looks like it had just barely survived a demolition derby.

DSC_0364 (2)You see lots of things in different cultures that might make you uneasy. Uganda is of course no different, but after so many adventures, you learn to take most of it with a grain of salt. In Egypt its the sight of a man yelling with and eventually shoving a police officer, in Uganda its the non-chalantness of the men in uniform carrying weapons. You begin to learn that not everywhere is like where you’re from, and that’s great! Life has survived before you were there, and it will very likely continue after you leave. People will act this way with or without you – so you might as well just soak it all in.

As the sun sets, we agree not to attempt a walk back, and discover that Uber is not only a thing in Kampala, but also definitely the cheapest (and safest) mode of transport. For just 8,000 UGX, we catch a ride back to the hotel. We hop out early to take a walk through the famous Nakasero Market, which is still crammed with vendors pedaling their produce. Everything is lit by candle, and it’s so busy that the intended “walk” turns into more of a dance, bobbing and weaving between the mobs of people. It amazes me the hours these people put in to make a days living.

Nothing more on tap once we get back, however, for the next morning we’re off to Mukono, a village about an hour away, to meet with Leslie, the founder of The Real Uganda.

Next stop: Mukono/Lugazi. The REAL Uganda.

1st Stop: Cairo

Days 1+2 including the Pyramids at Giza, Khan el-Khalili Market and more.

Imagine a desert.

Not just any desert, but the most vast desert in the entire world.

Picture a sprawling metropolis rising quite literally out of the desert, yet almost indistinguishable from the sand itself.

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Picture friendly people who want to know where you’re from and what brings you to town.

image2Picture markets, stalls nearly bursting at the seams with any type of good you could dream of. Actually, any scene from Aladdin will suffice.

Envision being at the epicenter of thousands of years of history and rich human culture; where civilization itself began.

Now envision basting yourself in hot oil and laying in a frying pan.

This is Cairo.

image2 (1)If it were up to the West and the internet didn’t exist, the only thing we would know about Cairo are that it was once inhabited by Kings who really, REALLY liked gold, its a hotbed for terrorism and something about there being an Arab Spring a few years ago..

What you won’t find in the news is the vibrance, you won’t see the smiles on their faces, you won’t hear the kindness in their voices. You won’t feel the calm of walking in a city where the majority of people are wearing hijabs; and you’re feeling right at home amongst them.

How it went down:

It’s a long flight. I paid to upgrade my seat to an exit row (behind a bulkhead was my second choice). From NYC (JFK), the flight was 10.5 hours; not the longest flight possible to be sure, but definitely too long to have your knees crammed into your throat (other 6+ footers know what I mean). I’ve previously written about how to book a long layover, and in somewhere as diverse as Cairo, I’d recommend at least a full day, if not more. Don’t forget that you’ll be jet-lagged!

After purchasing an entry visa ($25 US), changing money ($100 US = 1800 EGP) and receiving our luggage, it was off to find a taxi. I knew from research that a trip from the airport to downtown shouldn’t cost more than 100 Egyptian Pounds (and even that was pushing it..).

No sooner do we walk through the exit doors the barrage of offers for a taxi begin. From experience, I know to act as if I’ve been 100x, and continue walking as if I know where I’m going (I don’t..).

“How much?” I ask.

“220 pounds.” He replies.

“Ha, no thank you.”

We go back and forth 3 or 4 times before finally settling on 120 pounds. Now, I know this is certainly too expensive, but keep in mind the perspective of coming from the US where a 45 minute cab ride is incredibly expensive, compared to this (about $7). For me, it’s about the principle; I’m not afraid to spend money for a great experience, but I also will not let myself be taken!

Google searches (cross-referenced with lots of reviews) can reap tremendous savings and wonderful experiences. It is through this technique I ended up finding the Golden Hotel near Tahrir Square in Cairo. The Golden Hotel lies a few blocks from Tahrir Square, the site of the beginning of the Egyptian Revolution in 2011, and is walking distance to both the Nile River and world famous Eqyptian Museum. Depending on the time of year, you can find a great deal. One night set us back $40 US, and I’d gladly stay there again.

CherimoyaI took the afternoon to check out the area, and was dumbfounded not only by the sheer volume of shops, but how many were closed. Within minutes, I met a gentleman named Marwan, who became my tour guide for the area and mentioned that many shops close early during Ramadan. We walked to a nearby street market where I got to practice my negotiating skills again, this time for a cherimoya (best fruit ever..). As was expected, he finally eluded to his true aim, which was to get me to visit his cousins souvenir shop just around the corner. Marwan the wily Egyptian had duped me with promises of tea and his business card should I have any questions, and next thing I know I’m awkwardly browsing Egyptian memorabilia in his cousins shop. The first time I tried to escape, I was offered 25% off, then 30%; by the time I finally got away, it was up to 50% off – which I also politely declined. Don’t ever let anyone tell you there aren’t bargains to be had in Cairo!

Part of this behavior is spurred by the entrepreneurial spirit, but I’m sure the majority has to do with the present condition and the Egyptian economy. In Egypt, the average person earns just over $3,600 per year, with the majority of the wealth located at the extreme top, with almost no middle class to speak of. To be fair to the Egyptian government, the GDP per person has been steadily and consistently climbing since before 1970, but hardship is still felt everywhere. Like many other places, there is still work left to do.

We were awoken the next morning by a knock on the door. Apparently more jet-lagged than we had anticipated, it was time to check out (noon). I scurried downstairs and was able to negotiate an extra half day and ride to the airport for 540 pounds ($30), which I was quite proud of.

We caught an Uber (yup!) to Giza, which is about 30 or so minutes away. Uber in a place like Cairo is certainly the cheapest way to go, and you save yourself the hassle of having to negotiate a price or demand the driver use the meter (Cairo hack #1,038 – ALWAYS demand the meter).

image1 (1)Wow.

I wish it were possible to put into words how small one can feel standing in the shadows of something man-made that’s withstood the ravages of time for over 4,500 years – and show no signs of slowing down. All it took were tens of thousands of workers, some brilliant engineering, a hundred-or-so years, and what was likely an ocean’s worth of sweat.

Here is no different from any of the other tourist-sites, and upon arrival we were immediately greeted by Omar – who didn’t hesitate to talk us along a walking tour. It is apparently required to take the ever-so-tacky “pinching the top” picture, which he directed us through, and then into the tomb of Khufu’s grandmother (included in the base price of a ticket).

image1 (2)If you aren’t into confined spaces or you overheat easily, the depths of a pyramid are not for you! You have to crawl backwards (one at a time) down what is essentially just a long plank. It’s insane to imagine what the inside of one of these tombs would have looked like had they not been looted.

The blazing sun was actually welcome once we emerged from the perhaps 75 foot deep shaft. Unfortunately for Omar, he had long worn out his welcome once we figured out he was just peddling us through trying to sell us vastly overpriced camel rides (50 pounds versus his attempted sell at 240 each..). We were finally able to rid ourselves of him, and he stormed off after realizing we weren’t going to be taken.

Key tips for Cairo:

1. Don’t let yourself get hustled!

Everything is a negotiation, and the original price is NEVER the actual price. Do your research. Know that a trip from the airport to downtown shouldn’t be more than 75-80 Egyptian pounds, and absolutely say no when the first driver offers you the trip for 220. No matter what it is, don’t be afraid to walk away. I guarantee you there’s another vendor just feet away! One truly has to admire the hustler spirit of the Egyptians.

2. Don’t be afraid to talk to locals.

You won’t have much of a choice here, because more often than not you’ll find yourself approached. I found most Egyptians to be incredibly kind (something I can’t say about the US), and more than willing to help navigate a menu or offer a suggestion on where to eat or what to see. Virtually everything is written in Arabic, with perhaps only 60% also appearing in English – so again, don’t be afraid to ask!

That being said, don’t forget that everyone, no matter how kind, will eventually have something to ask of you that involves the transfer of money (re: my experience with Omar). Whether they ask you to come see their store, or for a tip, you can politely say no, thank you, and continue on your way. Always err on the side of courteous.

3. Don’t let your assumptions about the Middle East get the best of you.

Have an open mind, and let it cultivate itself. I can guarantee that you’ll shatter almost every pre-conceived notion you once held, and you’ll have a much more in-depth cultural experience to boot.

Imagine the world if we all looked for the similarities that bind us together, rather than the differences that set us apart.

 

Next stop: Uganda.

The Calcium Myth

Milk does the body good, right?

The infamous “Got Milk?” campaign reads like a who’s who of famous athletes and celebrities known the world over. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find an A-lister who hasn’t posed donning the famous milk mustache. As an accompaniment to their fierce looks, strong physique and milky mug, powerfully worded quips such as “Want strong kids?” or evidence speaking to the many benefits of milk are always found nearby.

Milk contains calcium. Calcium builds strong bones. What is there to argue?

Plenty.

Dairy Fractures
A Fitted Line Plot showing the correlation between Hip Fracture rates per 100000 and Dairy Consumption, using data from 40 countries in Africa, Europe, Latin America, North America, Asia and Oceania.

The idea that drinking milk, or simply getting adequate calcium in your diet, somehow yields strong bones or a decreased risk of degenerative bone diseases such as osteoporosis, is simply not the case. The plot above (source: Nature.com) shows the correlation between calcium consumption of over 40 world nations, and the incidence of hip fractures in each country.

The data is clear as day: more calcium in the diet does absolutely nothing to deter fractures or osteoporosis, as advertised. It even appears to have the opposite of the desired affect.

strong-bonesWhat then, if anything, makes strong bones?

There is a principle in kinesiology known as Wolff’s Law, stating that a bone will grow and adapt, over time, to the stresses under which it is placed. In Layman’s terms, excess mechanical stress builds strong bones, and not the consumption of some purportedly miracle nutrient.

This means that to build bone density and ward off degenerative bone diseases such as osteoporosis or age-related fractures, we need to subject our bones to resistance training on at least a semi-regular basis.

Add that to the growing list of reasons to exercise.

Why else we should re-think milk and dairy consumption.

As a human, ingesting dairy doesn’t make sense. I defer to Michael Klaper, MD, to explain further:
(Click here to be directed to YouTube if video loads incorrectly)

Type I_Milk

Cow’s milk is just one of a host of animal products that show an alarmingly linear relationship with diseases of affluence. These diseases include: Type I diabetes, hypertension and other diseases of the heart, and cancers of almost every variety. Chart 9.3 indicates the relationship between cow’s milk consumption and Type I diabetes in wealthy countries. While in science it is important to remember that correlation does not directly prove causation, the overwhelming picture drawn by the data, in my view, is becoming harder to ignore.

Where do we go from here?

Allow me to be clear, I am not suggesting that we all give up dairy tomorrow. To be sure, its a product that’s been ingrained in our culture for hundreds of years, and is an ingredient in thousands of products we love. The cold turkey approach just doesn’t work.

However, this shouldn’t stop anyone from making decisions in their own life that are guided by the very best information that evidence-based research has to offer. I’ve previously written a guide on adopting more plant-based options into the diet, which you can read here.

As per usual, what you do with this information is up to you!

The Only ‘Diet’ Nobody Is Selling – Part II

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

And what does it have to do with Newton’s Cradle?

Welcome back – if you haven’t checked out Part I (it’s important!), do that right now then come right back!

Cradle

If you’re unfamiliar, Newton’s Cradle is a very simple device that demonstrates the principle of conservation of energy.

So what does this have to do with anything?

Glad you asked – we all have a finite amount of room in our lives. Every time you make any positive choice for yourself – whether its something physical like taking a class or a dietary choice like snacking on an apple – a potential bad choice (or a choice that simply isn’t as good) is removed from the equation.

But make no mistake, this phenomenon works in both directions. Every time you opt for that second beer or for the nachos, you’re pushing something good off the other end..

Can I live?

Of course! You didn’t let me finish. I’m the last person to stand on a high horse and bark out orders as if I’m always perfect. The key is simply to start making the good choice more often, and to slow (with the goal of ending) the excuses. The more good you feed into your life (more on this momentarily), the more bad you weed out. Our actions become our habits, and these habits – good or bad – become who we are.

How do you judge Good vs Bad?

One simple concept. Nutrient Density.

# of NutrientsNutrient Density is, quite literally, how densely packed a food is with nutrients relative to its caloric content. Take something like a bowl of carrots. Carrots are packed with nutrients like Vitamin A, carotene, fiber, etc – and have very few calories.. we would call carrots a very nutrient dense food.

As an extreme counter example, compare that to a Big Mac. Not totally deficient of nutrients, a Big Mac has a decent amount of iron, vitamin B-12 and potassium.. but (and that’s a big but..) it also packs 540 calories. We would obviously call this a food with very low nutrient density. It shouldn’t be all too surprising that we should avoid these types of foods.

Admittedly, not all foods are so cut and dry, and a lot of times we’re told what to eat and how to purchase by very well-funded (and defended) marketing firms who appeal to our emotions. Buzz words like “gluten free,” “low fat,” and “heart healthy” have taken over the shelves, and cartons picturing happy and healthy families or cows roaming freely in beautiful pastures dominate the labeling scene.

But, much like you are trained (and thus highly skilled) in your profession, the experts from whom I have learned and I are highly skilled in ours. We spend our time poring through research and figuring out the healthiest ways to live so that we can share it with you. With a little effort and guided education, you can make the necessary adjustments for yourself.

InterventionBefore we begin, the difficult [but necessary] truth:

Health isn’t easy. In fact, its the reason I’m able to support myself by working full time in the industry.. If it was, everyone would be running around with 6-packs and resting heart rates in the 40s, and I’d be employed elsewhere.

We’ve reached the point where I need to share with you, that if you don’t make the decision to take charge of your own situation, it will never improve. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you can have the best team of doctors in the world – but all they can do is prescribe you medication and perform your bypass surgery before it’s too late.

Please understand that I don’t say this to be rude or dismissive towards the challenges many people undoubtedly face, of which there are many. We simply need to acknowledge the elephant in the room that it is not enough to simply show up and expect the rest to fall into place.

The Nutrient Density Chart

Density Fuhrman

These numbers, while seemingly arbitrary, place foods on a spectrum of 1,000 all the way down to 1. This quantification is known as a food’s ANDI score, popularized by Dr. Joel Fuhrman. At the top left of the list you’ll find foods we all know and appreciate to be amongst the healthiest available, and as you first move down and then to the right, you’ll find foods that are less nutrient dense.

For our purposes, the formula couldn’t possibly be any simpler. Choose more foods with higher nutrient density, and more often. Much like Newton’s Cradle, by simply inputting more smart options, you have less room for the bad. Don’t argue with physics.

While there is room for debate on exactly what constitutes a necessary nutrient and its overall value in the diet, the fact remains: to live better, you must give your body as broad a spectrum of plant-based nutrients as you can. The rest will work itself out.

The Good:

LeafySome choices like kale and broccoli are obvious, but others may be more difficult.. Where do grains like brown rice fall, for example? How about lean proteins like fish? Aren’t these staple health foods?

Stick to the formula. Do the investigative work. The beauty of this knowledge is that once you know it – you know it. As an example, I know that when I have the option of brown rice versus quinoa or lentils, I should choose the latter as often as possible.

Yes, it’s one little decision, made one time. But these decisions add up. $1 in your IRA today is worth $2 tomorrow – but that’s exactly the point: you have to do it, and you have to start today.

As a simple and general rule of thumb, the hierarchy is as such:

  1. Leafy greens. Kale, collards, romaine, cilantro.
  2. Cruciferous vegetables. Broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts.
  3. Colorful vegetables. Carrots, cabbage, peppers, eggplant.
  4. Fruits. Apples, papaya, oranges, lemon.
  5. Whole grains. Lentils, quinoa, wild rice, brown rice.
  6. Nuts/seeds. Chia, flax, almonds, walnuts.

The Bad:

Meat DairyOdds are you already know what’s coming – but luckily these points are simply for your review. Again, some choices are obvious such as soda or candy, but what about things like milk, honey or granola? Stick to the formula!

For a rule of thumb, products you should shy away from when possible (listed from abysmal to just not-so-great):

  1. Soda. Zero nutritional value.
  2. Cheeses. Concentrated fat that packs calories with few nutrients.
  3. Other dairy such as yogurt/milk. Even when low fat.
  4. Red meat. Very high in cholesterol and saturated fat.
  5. White potato/white rice. Very few nutrients.
  6. Lean protein such as chicken/fish. Contain less fat compared to red meat but are generally still devoid of any worthwhile nutrients.

An [Ugly] Truth:

The debate is over: animal products are not good for you. This is no longer an argument. The evidence is overwhelming, If you rebuke those who deny climate change even as they hold mounds of  their version of “scientific evidence,” The only people still trying to sell you on the idea of animal products, are those who are literally selling you animal products. To embrace one and not the other would be hypocritical! You must hold all sciences to the same standard – even those you wish told a different story.
     Source 1     Source 2     Source 3

In Closing:

I share this information not with the goal of turning everyone into a vegan, but to at the least get everyone on board with the idea of making better choices and exactly how you can quantify them. In these last two posts (Part I here), a few ideas should have been made abundantly clear:

Healthcare CartoonWhat we have:

  • Healthcare, and the state of healthcare in the United States, is in morbid disarray
    • We’re fat (getting fatter), sick (getting sicker), and costs to consumers and to the government are rising with no signs of slowing
  • The consumer has been led astray by confusing and conflicting advertising and information that is centered on profit to shareholders instead of their health

What we need:

  • The simplest way to start the process of improvement starts with the idea of making better choices
    • More good IN = more bad OUT
  • Nutrient Density is by far the most important concept in making good dietary choices
  • Plant-based options provide far more nutrients than any other food choice
    • Especially when viewed in the context of nutrient density, quite literally how many nutrients they provide per calorie

What happens next is up to you..

Happy-People