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.

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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.