Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Matooke Christmas

(Not our tree, but you get the idea)

Christmas is now past and New Year’s is right around the corner. When I decided to stay in Uganda for Christmas I knew that it would be nothing if not memorable. I wasn’t sure what would happen, but a wanted to take the chance to experience as close as I could to a traditional Ugandan Christmas. I don’t know whether I got that or not, but it was definitely a Christmas I’ll remember for a long time.

The lead up to Christmas I covered in the last couple posts, the important part is basically that the week leading up to Christmas was awesome and the week before that was pretty awful. I woke up on the 23rd to an email in my inbox from my Dad, which is always great. He was letting me know that I got a little visit from Santa (luckily my Pops had my forwarding address), and my family decided to all chip in and finance me to screw around in Africa for a few more months. How could the day get any better? Candy, that’s how. An hour or so later my roommates came home from the post office with a package from my Mom. Packages from Mom = American candy, American candy makes my week/month/year.

My friend Eddie and then hopped in a matatu to head out to the village to see his Mom and wish her a Happy Christmas, and meet with some village community groups we may start working with soon. The village is always really interesting and fun, and Eddie’s village always means eating his Mom’s amazing cooking until I’m way beyond stuffed. The village meetings went great; hanging out with Eddie’s family was great. Up to this point, it was a really really great day. But as is often the case around here, just when things seemed like they couldn’t get any better, they got a lot worse.

On the matatu ride home, Eddie took a dramatic turn and became really sick. He was shivering and had a fever and was passing out all over the place. It was really shocking, within maybe 30 minutes he went from normal and playing around to too weak to even take a shower. We canceled our plan for the night, which was to go to a Christmas benefit concert to support my roommates’ young women’s empowerment project. I took him to the hospital, where we were told he needed to be admitted and put on an IV immediately. So, we spent the next two nights in the hospital. It was pretty scary, both his condition and the hospital itself. There is something tragically ironic about sitting on the mosquito net-less hospital bed next to your friend who’s being treated for malaria and watching a steady stream of bugs pour in through the open window. Although it was kind of cool to lay in bed and watch the fireflies circle over my head. Four IVs later, he was released in time for Christmas breakfast.
(I reallly need a camera)

From there things got more normal. My roommate Rachel took it upon herself to bring an American Christmas to Africa, so we had reasonably close approximations of all the necessities. We had a nice little tree, stockings, and some decorations, very homey. We then all exchanged little gifts we bought at the local market, I bought gifts for my 5 roommates at a total cost of like $10. I myself hauled in a sweet secondhand Mauritius t-shirt, some cheap Chinese sunglasses, whiskey, rockin’ local sandals, and a nice collection of candy. Plus, during the course of my shopping I found a season of The Simpsons on dvd after nine months of looking. The Simpsons for me is like home in a box, I probably watched it at least a few times a week my entire life from when I graduated from Disney movies until I left for Africa. It is really extremely comforting and utterly utterly awesome to sit together with my roommates in a rain storm and watch these old episodes that we all know line for line. Oh plus Rachel brought Champagne home from Kampala, so we day-faded with Mimosas. Not too bad.

Christmas lunch is the big thing around here, and we got a zillion invitations to go have dinner with people we barely knew. I don’t know what memo we missed, but we definitely didn’t grasp the cultural nuances of what a Ugandan Christmas entails. Over the course of the morning we got like three random people telling us that they had thought we would be coming to their house for Christmas and had already gone to all these lengths to prepare it just for us, even though they apparently forgot to extend the invitation or something. Our neighbor who I had never even met told us they had bought a turkey just for us and invited their entire family. It was kind of hectic (the mimosas certainly didn’t help), but we made it through. We had lunch with the family who we share our compound with, which I think was the right thing to do because our lives are very interwoven and they are like family at this point. The food was bomb, the company was great, and we learned that Paul (the very unassuming Dad of the family) has a very surprising life story that I never would have pegged him for. I’m not going to blast his private life over the internet, but suffice it to say witchcraft, religious moments of clarity and multiple wives were involved. Wow.

Merry Christmas everyone.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

My life such as it is

It's been a busy couple weeks with very little time around the ol' computer, so I've kind of continued the downward spiral on blogging. Beyond simply being busy, I have noticed that lately my mental capacities seem to be in decline, and I seem to spend a disproportionate amount of my time staring at walls. I had heard that this is normal (not the wall staring but the mental decline), considering this is the first time I've spent a full year away from structured learning since I learned to count. My experience may be a bit exacerbated by the fact that at the same time I have been forced to go cold turkey on a pretty crippling case of Internet Inspired ADD. When I arrived here, it took the epitome of effort to do only 2 or 3 things at once. Thankfully, with a lot of dedicated noneffort and hard nonwork, I made it to the other side.

I can now comfortably say that I could hold my own with the best of them in a do-nothing contest. Sit in the shade and eat sweet fruits? Done. Stare at a wall pondering the best way to fry an egg for 45 minutes? Way ahead of you. Trace little circles on the desktop with the cursor? Cancel all my appointments for the afternoon. In short, its basically my Dad's worst nightmare and I'm unlearning 18 years of indoctrination to "go out there and be somebody." Instead I think I'd rather just take it slow and lazy. If anybody hears of a job opening for a surf instructor or tiki-bar manager (it would have to be no experience necessary) send it my way. Graduate school, probably someday. For now I'm cool to just be.

Just so nobody gets the wrong idea, I'll also stand by my skills on the open market at plopping down in a random 3rd world country with a few thousand dollars and a small handful of phone numbers and setting-up a functioning NGO in several months. I came here to nothing with very moderate prospects, by the time of my departure we will have had 14 employees from 6 universities and 3 countries through the project, conducted innumerable trainings and one day seminars, and obtained a solid inside-out understanding of development and microfinance in practice in Africa.

*By the way, the conversation I just had at this moment:*
My roommate: Have you written a resume with your Uganda work on it yet?
Me: Nope. That's what I'm supposed to be doing right now.
Roommate: But instead you're sitting on the couch with a tshirt-turban on your head writing a blogpost about how lazy you are?
Me: Yup.

I guess a quick update on my situation is in order. On the 31st of this month my term as Field Director of this organization comes to an end. After the initial 6 month stint that ended in September, I signed on for another stretch which was great. Despite a heap of reservations, I won't be accepting the offer for another 3-6 months on the job. This is not because I don't like the work or the organization, but because I think it's just time for me to move on to a new challenge. Part of me knew it was time to leave Uganda the first time I successfully took a matatu from one place I'd never been to another place I'd never been for the proper price without any significant disasters. So come January first I'm out of here and going to hit the road. The plan is to essentially go the next few months with as little planning as possible. I'm still piecing together my travel plans, but right now I'm thinking I'll head mostly South. First on the list is Malawi because I've heard its really cheap- even by Africa standards. I have this little idea bouncing around in my head of walking/canoeing across a significant portion of the country, since its 1) really small and 2) bordered along one full side by a tropical Lake. And they say Malawi has some of the best freshwater scuba diving in the world. To get to Malawi I'll have to go south through Tanzania, maybe stopping in Zambia for a bit. Then on to Mozambique to hit the pristine beaches and switch my mango eating to coconuts. Finally, since I'm going to be in Southern Africa I'm going to do my best to cash in on the lifelong dream of sharkdiving (You here me calling Noah?). Other than those, I'm just going to be taking it as it comes. If anybody wants to quit whatever they're doing and join me for a week or whatever, I love travel buddies.

So that's my life in a nutshell. It's Christmas, it's easily 80 degrees in the shade, and I have not a care in the world (aside from feeding myself) (and the hiv). I hope everyone at home wherever they are is having a great holiday with the people they care about. And lastly, finally, of course, Happy Hanukkah Dad (and anyone else of the Jewish persuasion).

Friday, December 25, 2009

Kampala at its Best and Rafting the Nile

The last week has been nice and busy and really fun, one of the best I've had here. My friend from college Erin has been doing PeaceCorps in Kenya for the last year or so and came to visit last week. Before this organization was anything, it was me and Erin and a few others sitting around in coffee shops and talking about microfinance, so it was cool to have her here to see what she contributed to creating. We then went to Kampala for a meeting with the business school to talk about getting interns, which was very successful and promising. It was a good meeting, one of the great (though somewhat rare) instances where I feel like a real adult who is actually accomplishing something of note and not just eating mangoes in the shade. We made our pitch, they seemed to buy into it, everyone was happy.

Since we had the whole team together in Kampala for the first time, I took them for a night out in Kampala to meet The Doctor. We are lucky any time we are fortunate enough to get some of his time, because he's quite the Big Fish around the Kampala scene. We are relying on him to get our paperwork through the wheels of bureaucracy to become a recognized NGO because as you may have heard it can be a bit tricky to get the government in developing countries to do anything other than stare at the walls. It is invaluable to have someone who knows how to expedite things and talk to the right people, so it's always good to catch up with our main man and advisor when we're in Kampala. We went for a nice little night out in the casino, as always. And as always it was a lot of fun and we gladhanded with some good contacts. I don't know that everyone was ready for the experience that is a night out with him, but it was a ton of fun. Of course we had to hit the club after, cause what else do you do on a Wednesday night when you have an important meeting early the next morning. Afterward we went and saw some movie about the apocalypse and destruction of the major cities of the earth by every natural disaster possible. It was pretty much the most surreal experience of my life. Then we went and hung out at the mall. It was just like America! All in all, a successful Kampala trip.

But that's the boring part. We went to Jinja for a weekend of whitewater rafting on the headwaters of the mighty Nile river. It was absolutely amazing. I have been rafting on a number of different rivers in the US, and in the Dominican Republic, but this was by far the coolest. First of all it was really warm, so getting flipped was no big deal (I guess bilharzia is still there so maybe it was. On the plus side, I guess now I probably have it so I can swim wherever I want from here on out). Secondly it is enormous, really hard to fathom just how big it is in comparison to your average river. Because of this it had huge huge rapids that made it really wild, at one point we went perpendicular over this rapid easily like 8 feet high. Then we flipped. But the best part is that its uncommonly deep, so it's actually pretty safe despite all the power because there aren't really any rocks to hit. Hells Ya. The rafting companies on the Nile are very professional and legit, with a team of kayakers circling around to pick us up out of the water every time we flipped because the water was moving so fast it would probably take you to Egypt by the time you can blink. We also hit the club in Jinja (so I'm told). Awesome weekend. Thanks for visiting us Erin.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The nice thing about San Francisco...

is that it's pretty close to Santa Barbara.

And Santa Barbara, my friends, is very nice. Especially when my former home is getting buried in snow.

(A few years old, but you get the idea)

Enjoy the winter, suckers. I'm gonna go fly a kite with my big bro.

Friday, December 11, 2009

This whole gay thing

I've been getting all kinds of articles emailed to me about the anti-gay bill Uganda is talking about. Obviously it's extreme and obviously I think it's wrong. I'm not going to make some political statement, because I think it's kind of a trite argument to make- We're good and right, they're wrong and backwards I think is the basic premise. Maybe Pat will write about it since he needs something other than watching the Pacific Northwest rain to fill his time, and talking politics is probably more up his alley anyway. Anyway, to kind of understand where this thing is coming from you have to understand that society as a whole takes a different stance on homosexuality. The following is taken from the 3rd most read daily newspaper in Uganda, the Red Pepper:

"We have Homos in Cabinet"
-Top Bumshafter Ssebagala Reveals Who Plays Side B

The homos in Uganda have gone on rampage and are now making daring claims that some of their members are cabinet ministers. Ssebagala a top self confessed homo leader who stays in Uganda and in America called Sunday Pepper last night with hair-raising claims that at least four members of the current cabinet are homos.
He sounded furious and abused editors of the Red Pepper for publishing names of homosexuals in Uganda.

He said that the tabloid should stop tampering with the bum shafters because some of them are highly placed in government and have capacity to hit back. “You see, you are not really dealing with people that you can pillory and harass at will and they go away. We are not going anywhere!

“But if your research were as good as you would have Ugandans believe, then you would know that there are many more male and female gays in positions of responsibility in Uganda, and yes, some have served in government and cabinet over the years. Many are married to women and have children so we have to respect their privacy since we understand that they marry to keep their true feelings secret,” he said
Later when Ssebaggala was pressed, he in his fury gave out several names of people in cabinet and parliament whom he claims are homos.

For legal considerations we have decided to withhold the names of these ‘honourable’ members.
Our independent investigations had also zeroed on some members of the August house who are believed to be top homos.“I know some of these people even got money for campaigns from gay organizations abroad,” our source told us last night.


Just another daily reminder that Africa is not California.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

African time is there

I am beginning to worry about my employability when I get back home. It's possible that I may have picked up some habits that won't transfer well to the corporate world. A little window into my life these days:

My phone clock is the only watch I own. The other night one of my roommates picked up my phone to check the time. He was a little perturbed to find that apparently my watch is 45 minutes slow. "How do you function and do things on time," he asked. I guess I just hadn't noticed.

Apparently he thought this issue warranted further consideration because the next morning we had the following conversation:

Brad: "Remember a few days ago when we both set our alarms for like 5am for that basketball game, but I ended up having to wake you up?"
Me: "Yea, I set my alarm for the same time as yours but it didn't go off for some reason..."
Brad: "That's because your clock is 45 minutes slow you idiot."
Me: " I don't know, I guess these things happen."
Brad: "That was two weeks ago."

Ooops. Pole sana brotha.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Home again, home again

I always thought this might be true, but it's a tough statement to back up.

(The Sisters, as seen from Mt. Bachelor)

And yet, having had the good fortune of being able to travel a bit in my young life, I'm starting to get more and more confident in my suspicions.

(The Woods, outside my Parents' Front Door)

So I'm just gonna go right out there and say it.

(Some certain Lake, in some certain Crater)

If you wanted to make a list of the best places in the world, Oregon has to be near the top. Call me a homer if you want to, but it's true.

(The Coast, south of Lincoln City)

Luke, I'm not telling you to hurry back. Stay as long as you can, I'll take good care of your car while you're gone. But when you do decide it's time to come back, and you're sitting in the airport reminiscing about all the great times you had in Africa, barGAINing, handling human waste and eating any little creature that crawls within your grasp, just remember this:

(20% chance of rain)

There are worse places you could be coming back to.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Malaria Dreams, Come to Life

Why yes, that is a 40-foot statue of Babe the Blue Ox. I'm sorry if you've been driving for hours and thought that you might be having a malaria-flashback hallucination, but that's how we get the tourists to stop.

(Notice the little boy appreciating Babe's "virility")

Anyhoo, now that we've got you here, wouldn't you like to buy some Authentic Redwood Carvings(c), made from local, sustainably-harvested cedar? No? You're sure? Well you go ahead and have yourself a nice day. Drive safe now.

(Already can't decide if the Ox was real, or was a result of all the acid he took in the 60s)

What a strange country.

Monday, November 30, 2009

That's Dooty Baby

We did our second big trash cleanup in town on Saturday. It was pretty awesome really. It got off to a rocky start, and looked like the 10 of us might be cleaning up trash on our own. By like 9am we were sitting in the shade in the center of town plotting our excuses to ditch out. I've gotten pretty extreme double takes before, but the 10 of us sitting in the shade of the clock tower at the town center in matching t-shirts got something on a different level entirely. I think the rough equivalent at home would be if you saw a fleet of porpoises in matching funny hats juggling flaming chainsaws in Times Square. It might attract a little crowd.

At the 11th hour, my bulletproof excuse proved unnecessary, Brad called with good news. He was at CRO- Child Restoration Outreach, the organization for streetkids. He says he wrangled some manpower, so we should head over there. Manpower wasn't quite the right term I guess, probably kidpower would have been better. I walked into the compound and was instantly swarmed by zillions of kids. Within fifteen whirlwind minutes I had a sweet CRO tshirt on my back, some latex gloves on my fingers, and some tasty gruel in my stomach ("If you love us you'll taste it"). An hour later the Islamic University Students Union showed up with wheel barrows. Away we went.

The trash pick up was cool I guess, as much as I hate picking up after myself, much less others. Cruising the streets in a huge pack, well, picking up trash was pretty fun. There was something kind of satisfying about getting homeless kids that live on the streets to take ownership and help us clean up those very streets. On the other hand, it's hard to love a society in which children and foreigners come in to pick up the piles and piles of garbage on the streets while grown men sit on the stoops to watch and laugh. Frustration is spending hours cleaning up other people's candy wrappers then turning around to survey the 6 square foot stretch of sidewalk you just finished cleaning, only to see someone dropping a wrapper on it. That would have been bad enough, but he also felt the need to point to it and tell me to pick it up in case I hadn't seen it. Thanks dude, maybe if you understood the concept of sanitation you wouldn't need to worry about cholera in your food.

Everything was moving along nicely, I was on enormous bag number two and had a fleet of kids swarming around doing my bidding. Everything was going well, so I let my mind slip and started to switch to autopilot a little bit. Big mistake.

Bam! Human feces! I don't know how I knew it, but it was just kind of one of those snap to reality instantaneous things. Uh oh, I have anonymous doodiebutter on my hand, that's bad. Hopefully the study I just saw on the news about a 100% failure rate for latex condoms in Kenya doesn't extend to latex gloves in Uganda. Peace out trash cleanup, I got a hot date with some Clorox.

So all in all it was a pretty solid microcosm for my entire life here:

1. We almost failed from the get-go despite good planning, but then everything fell into place at the last second and went great.

2. It was energizing and rewarding to help the community, but 75% of the people we were trying to help didn't actually care.

3. Fine as a whole, but the shitty parts really suck.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Karamojourney- part 2

So after the buildup I pretty much was ready for anything when I got to Karomoja. It's probably the only time where a monkey riding an elephant wouldn't have caused me to significantly reassess my situation.

We stayed two nights in Moroto, the major "town" in the region. It had the feeling of being basically the last outcropping of civilization on the edge of the earth. The only cars were military or NGO, and all looked like they could survive a bomb blast- to be accurate, most looked like they just had survived a bomb blast. It was the kind of place that makes you realize what SUV's were invented for, since the main road into town had a mile or two long stretch of "bumps" easily the size of volkswagons.

On the way up there, we arranged for a friend of a friend of a friend to meet us at the buspark. It was a complete shot in the dark affair, we had no idea if this person was going to rob us, take us to his own or just flat our not exist. It was pretty much an exact repeat of the Rasta affair- if it was bad we could always just get out of dodge, it it was cool it would amazing. We get out of the bus, and shock of shocks- no on there. I had pretty much already marked him off in my head when who should show up, but some dude. "You must be the new friends, I'm Wilbert." (Somehow he spotted 4 whites guys in a crowd). Turns out Wilbert was amazing and the best host anyone could want.

Moroto was a funny place. It was the driest, most inhospitable place I've ever seen. It was the only place I've been that the local children said cute little things like "F*@k your mother. You give me money." I've been to a few other NGO hotspots, and they all sort of feel the same- which is to say not very pleasant. They don't really have the feel of real places where people live. The economy is warped because everything on the market gets baught up by aid workers on USAID dollars, and the locals get like millions of tons of relief food a year. The people are weird because they are subject to an ever changing parade of NGO's trying to fix them without adressing the fundamental problems in their lives. And of course, it is by nature a hostile, inhospitable envirnoment, since you must keep in mind that somtime in the recent past something horrible enough has hapenned to draw the attention of the international community to this previously forgotten corner of the earth.

The comparison between Lira, Gulu and here was very interesting. Lira kind of has the feeling of a shell of a place. It used to be the place to be for NGOs, everyone and their mother in international development had a Lira office up until a couple years ago when they all moved to Gulu. Walk around Lira now and one is struck by the number of nice Mzungu style houses that are sitting empty and for rent. They are too expensive for the vast majority of locals, and owned by rich absentee landlords who'd rather they stay empty than be dwelled in by the unwashed masses. There are broken down signs everywhere annoucing that and this and that project has been generaously provided by the good people of some silly country. Unfortunately, judging by the haggard upkeep of the signs, the generous people of Salt Lake City, Utah may have forgotten that there are real people whose problems never got solved by all the promises and good intentions. When all the NGOs left Lira, they headed for Gulu.

Gulu is a bloated bizzaro-world place if ever there was one. Walking down the streets, there are white people everywhere. The shops are full of weird comfort items for internationals that have no place in Gulu. $5 can of Pringles anyone? Gulu is on the gateway to Darfur, so it feels kind of like human suffering Disneyland. Everyone is there transiently, looking to have their life affirming help-experience. The money comes in bizzare waves because every time your Aunt Sally from Grand Rapids, Michegan hears about Darfur on the news, her $20 filters through here. The classic Gulu story is this: It's harvest season, but there is no corn to be found in Gulu. Corn field after corn field and no corn. The people are hungry, and have money to buy corn. But, the corn is not there. It turns out NGOs had swooped in and bought up all the corn in town, entire fields, to ship to the Sudan where the price of corn was much much higher. So, the locals were relying on food aid because there was no corn to be had because all the corn was being shipped to the Sudan as food aid. Hmmm...

In Moroto I had the feeling that I was a little early to the party. The NGOs were there, but it still felt very lonely compared to Lira and Gulu. I have no evidence to base this on, but somehow feel that 3 years from now when Gulu is Lira, Moroto will be the new place to be. Kind of like LA nightclubs, everyone has to be at the new hottest place. The dark little question no one wants to ask of course, is: did the NGOs leave the people of Lira any better off than the people of Moroto are now?

On Sunday we set off for the village. One car, one driver, one guide, 4 silly white dudes. Ready to hit it.

The rest of the story will follow hopefully soonish. I'm having trouble securing computer time to write these days, because we currently have 7 people in an office trying to share 3 computers and 1 internet connection. For some reason people seem to think that work should take precedence over me writing stories about poop. I'm doing my best, bear with me.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Basin and Range

For all you non-geologists out there, that means that crossing Nevada is a whole lot of boring flat stretches, maybe 20-30 miles wide, broken up by some pretty steep hills. On the whole, that is less boring than just the flat (here's looking at you kansas), but possibly more annoying.

And here's the reason why. Not only did the mountains severely impact my ability to learn about the horrors of Obamacare ("git your guvment paws off my medicare." confusing, I know. That's why I wanted to listen), but I guess that Thursday also happened to be the trip to the last big rodeo in the sky for all the cows in Eastern Nevada.

I figured this out, based on three clues and my excellent skills of deduction:

(1) There was a mysterious wet, brown streak down the right hand side of my lane, even though I was driving through a desert.

(2) When we went through the mountains, the massive trucks slowed to maybe 20 mph, much slower than would have been necessary for most cargo.

(3) When I eventually had the chance to pass the trucks, I saw cows inside. Over and over again.

The third clue really gives it away, I know. But it also explains the mystery of the first two. You see, at the crest of each pass, these trucks would start leaking what I will delicately describe as a runny, foul smelling and mud-like substance. Except, in the immortal words of Paul Barish "that doesn't smell like mud." The dripping would continue for miles and miles.

And here's the clincher. Not only did the narrow desert lanes leave no choice but to drive in the mud streak for hundreds of miles. Not to mention these yahoo truckers did like 90 in the flats (which the Jimmy really can't abide) and 30 in the hills. With the added bonus that my only company was very intermittent sermons on the radio, a dead iPod and a murderous drifter with a lazy eye who kept telling me I had "purty skin." As if all that weren't enough, there was a big storm coming into Tahoe that night, so I had to push straight to the Bay. 600-something miles.

(Made it, though)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving Y'all

How big is our thanksgiving turkey?

Big enough to ride.

Karamojourney up North

This was definitely a weekend to remember. I heard some crazy mind blowing stories, I reevaluated my perspective on life a little bit, and I spent seven hours staring out the window of a bus debating whether to quit my job. Needless to say, I did more than just sit by the pool and drink margaritas. It was basically a “go to the hardest, scariest place you can think of” type weekend.

Together with two of my roommates I trekked up to Karamoja, a region in rural northeast Uganda. Talk to any Ugandan and they’ll give you their assessment of Karamoja, generally it falls under the category of super unsafe and crazy to even think about going up there. On the other hand, almost no one has been up there, and those who have say that it gets a bad rap. Upon leaving I assumed it would be something in between, particularly since they said something similar (though much less emphatically) about Lira. A few tidbits, mostly if not exclusively hearsay, to get to know to get a basic idea of where our heads were at upon leaving for the trip:

My friend read a book which described it as: “where the Karamajongs all wear traditional clothing and assault rifles are as common as walking sticks and blankets.” (Traditional clothes are primarily blanket based, so basically that’s a lot of guns).

A person in Northern Uganda, whose current address was within an IDP camp when I was in highschool, told us “Watch out for those people, they’re uncivilized. They walk around naked and shit in the streets.”

The Karamajongs are said to be one of not too many cultures left that are resisting the influence of the “modern world.” They live basically the same life they’ve been living for countless generations, keeping cattle and hunter gatherer ing. The karamajongs believe that all cows on earth were ordained to them and them specifically by god. It is their divine right and duty to take by force all the cows they see. They have been raiding villages back and forth with the neighboring tribes for a zillion years, and until recently it wasn’t such a huge problem. Trouble came with the influx of cheap guns from Southern Sudan and the Congo, and it came in a big way. I was told that the average Karamajong adult male has more guns than changes of clothes.

We asked someone what the traditional Karamajong foods were, the answer: “UN relief.”

I was told by a Rasta that “Karamoja is fine, as long as you bring plenty of cigarettes, soap and salt. Kids will come up to your car with guns and demand you give them something, if it’s not one of those they’ll probably kill you. But other than that it’s just fine.”

I called the US embassy before leaving (in itself noteworthy) they connected me to “Ranger Station B.” The guy there gave me some helpful info: “don’t ever ever go outside of the town centers after dark,” “if you get ambushed, give away anything you have to to get out alive,” and “there is daily gunfire between the army and gunfire, so keep your eyes open.” He gave me the cellphone number of the UN security chief and told me to check in with him periodically. You know just to be on the safe side.

The stage was set for a notable weekend.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Arches National Park

I think it's official, the coldest night of the trip was in Arches. Despite waking up to a massive blizzard in Colorado, somehow I was much colder here. I think it was related to my choice of campsite. I had the option of "protected site" or "spectacular view;" I went for the latter. I'm pretty sure the ground was frozen beneath my tent, which would explain the cold, I guess.

Other than that, Arches was pretty nice. Although I have to say, I'm not sure how I feel about being able to tour parks by motorized wheelchair. It's nice that a lot of people can visit the parks, I guess, but it isn't very rugged. And it means that a night of camping will run you $30. That is just outrageous, if you ask me.

Pretty cool scenery though. Pretty cool, indeed.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Kansas (empty silence)

Really not too much to say about Kansas, so I'll let someone else handle it:
The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call "out there." Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes. The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveler reaches them.

Extra credit if you can ID the passage without Google.

My Punk Ass Landlord

How about this for a strange little story that kind of changes my perspective on everything:

First the backstory: I don't like my landlord, he's kind of a punkass. Everyone hates their landlord and thinks theirs is the worst ever, but this one is on another level from home. He is allegedly the richest man in the district (vaugely like a state), and allegedly gets personal phone calls from the president. He is very fat, in a country where being fat is a major statement of wealth. Everytime I see him he tries to renegotiate the terms and fanangle us out of more money, contract be damned. The last time I paid rent he said he was tired of dealing with us and that he'd just evict us that night unless I paid him more money on top (I didn't). During the months it took to get him to sign the contract and my organization to clear the funds to pay the rent, he would just randomly show up at our house unannouced at like 7 am ready to do business and demanding money. I had thought he was just generally difficult and kind of an a-hole. Turns out the rabbit hole goes a little deeper.

I was driving up in the village the other day with some of my roommates and our friend Juliet who is super well connected around Mbale. I pointed out the house where I was told our landlord lives. Since Juliet knows virtually everyone and everything in Mbale, she chimed in. "Oh really? Who's your landlord?" I told her his name, and she of course knew who he was.

"No, that's not his house. His one is that one there, with the really high wall and big gate. He has to have a house with very high security." Ok, fair enough, he is pretty rich. Had the conversation ended there, it wouldn't have been anything worth writing about. But then:

"I don't know if you know this, but your landlord is one of the 'wanted men of Uganda'. He's known to be a very bad man and is very dangerous. It's common knowlege that people who cross him get killed or die mysteriously, but you know how Uganda is- people with money never go to jail."

This is the same Punk Ass Landlord that I hate with a passion and have habitually been crossing for the last 6 months. Maybe next time I'll just fix the sink myself.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Bourbon, Tent, Snow

Given Luke's latest post, I thought it would be fun to contrast his camping experience with mine last night. Yesterday I finally left the plains behind, and crossed into the Rockies. First stop was Great Sand Dunes National Park, which for those who don't know, consists of an expanse of sand dunes, tucked away against the Sangre de Cristo mountains in southern Colorado. Pretty striking landscape, given that I'm used to seeing dunes on the Oregon Coast.

(Not much sign of ocean around here though)

I got here in the early afternoon, wandered around on the dunes for a bit, and couldn't help but notice some ominous looking clouds on the horizon. Sure enough, I found out that there might be some snow headed my way overnight. Nothing too serious though, or at least that was the story. I took a big nip of an Extra Special Super Select Bourbon I picked up in Kentucky to give me strength for what would inevitably be a cold, windy night at around 8,000 ft, and tucked myself in to bed.

(Goodnight Colorado)

I wake up this morning to that pervading, numbing silence that can only mean one thing. I was hoping that maybe the wind had just stopped because it was another, cold, clear and beautiful day up in the mountains, but no such luck.

(Just like camping in Uganda, except not at all)

Given the overnight low of -1, plus expected accumulation of I-don't-know-how-many inches of additional snow, I'll be spending the night in a hotel in lovely Alamosa, Colorado. For the record, that means sleeping in a bed, a shower, a proper meal, etc. It's hard to be too upset about that.

(Lucky for these guys nobody taught me how to slaughter deer in Africa)

Waragi, tent, stars

(What a view, huh?)

We went for a quick work/camping trip last night, Africa style. We cruised to Tororo, the next town over to talk to an organization doing basically the same thing as us. It was kind of a uniquely African thing all around, to start with we drove 2 hours to pop in at their office because despite two weeks of looking we couldn't find any way to get in contact with them. No phone number, no website, nothing.

We hopped in a matatu and set off. A little cramped, a little slow, but business as usual. After a brief stint of wandering around lost in an unknown town, we found our bearings and strolled into the office. "Hi! Remember us? We're white, can we have a minute of your time?" Done and done.

We had a nice little meeting in the morning, and set an appointment next week to trek out into the sticks in the village and visit a bunch of their projects and clients. We had an afternoon to kill, so we decided to check out Tororo Rock, a volcanic formation looming above the town. We set out about an hour before sunset so unfortunately we had to adjust our plans and settle for sitting on top of a reservoir.

(Mighty Tororo Rock)

(Brad, Me and Nasser taking in the sights)

The following is a brief budget of everything involved:

Matatu fare (public transportation): $1.50
Boda-boda motorcycles taxis: $2
5th of Waragi gin: $7.50 between 3 people
2L water: $1 between 3 people
tent rental: $2 between 3 people
camping fee: $2.50, and few slugs of waragi and a cigarette for the night watchman
lunch: $1
dinner: $6- all you can eat
breakfast: $.75
Sketchy Mexican blanket borrowed from roommate: free

Total: about $15 for two days.

(Goodnight Uganda)

As I think will become a common thing here, thanks to Joel for hooking up the great pictures.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Redneck Fish Fry

If those words don't get you just a little bit excited, then you and I have have very different priorities in this life. Picture the scene. I pulled into a campsite in western Kentucky as the sun was going down, and see a few RVs huddled together. In the middle was a circle of rednecks, complete with camouflage hunting jackets, bud heavies in koozies and a seriously large campfire. As I pitched my tent, listening to the guttural, hacking hoohaw laughter, I started to wonder if I hadn't made a mistake.

Then one of the guys came over. He wanted to invite me to sit around the campfire once I finished setting up camp. "Come and be neighborly," he said with a laugh, "if'n you don't mind a bunch 'er fellers settin' aroun' and gittin' lit."

Cue one of the more entertaining nights in a while, and definitely the most culturally foreign experience I've had since getting back from Africa. It started innocently enough, just beer and chatter, about how they'd been fishing all day, and I'd been in Africa, and such. Then the guys started getting a little more drunk (because they had all been drunk since noon).

"Ya know, we're all kin aroun this here fire," one guy told me. I didn't know, but I guess it makes sense. It was the day before Veteran's Day. "Yessir. One big, happy inbred family. Family tree looks like a telephone pole." (laughter) "Did you know, I once went to a fambly reunion to find me a date? It worked too. That's where I met my wife, only problem is, she's ugly like me." (more laughter) "So, is you inbred?" I told him I didn't think so, but how can you be sure. "Well, we'll take care of that before the night is over." Not sure how that would work, but funny, in a creepy sort of way.

Then someone gave the call that the food was ready. I played it cool, not wanting to move too quick, when the guy sitting next to me slapped me on the shoulder, yelling "this ain boston, now, go and hep yoursef to some food." Don't need to tell me twice. I filled my plate with fried fish, fried potatoes, hushpuppies (that's fried cornbread) and hashbrown casserole, which upon further inspection appeared to be more fried potatoes, swimming in cream cheese. Light fare, but so delicious.

("Eat Beef - The West wasn't won on salad")

Now, during this whole time, there was a rotating cast of guys in cut-off tee shirts and jeans, playing guitars and singing hilarious old cowboy songs. The fact that I'd never heard any of these songs made me really reconsider my life decisions, but they told me not to worry, since they were all "purty old."

As the night goes on, beers keep appearing in my hand and the songs keep coming, punctuated by stories of various uncles getting thrown in jail for drunken misdeeds. Then, from across the fire, the head chef, patriarch and big bull moose points at me. What followed was a monologue I can't hope to recreate, but I'll give you the gist. Picture a big, drunk good ol' boy, splashing beer all over everyone around him as he gestures with his two enormous hands:

"Listen here, fella. I been watchin you since you set down therr, and you aint hardly took your eyes off'n them git-fiddle players the whole dang night. The way I figure it, you prolly dyin to play us a lil tune. Well, have at it now, give them boys a rest."

I tried to beg off, saying that they were doing fine, I just wanted to listen, that I didn't know any songs, but he would have any of it. "You better play fer all that fish you jus ate," he told me laughing. "Play fer ya supper."

So what the hell. I grabbed the happiest, drunkest, most story-telling of the rednecks, and asked him if he wanted to sing a little blues. What followed was a hilarious, long and utterly filthy story about a young cowboy, out trying to make a name for himself in the world and looking for a pretty, young Holstein with big udders. I'm can't be sure, but I don't think he was really singing about a cow.

After we finished, while everybody was laughing and clapping, the big bull moose was still sitting back in his chair with his beer perched on his belly and his hands behind his head. Once things quieted down he bit, he looked at me, nodding with a big grin, " I knew you could play, boy. I knew from the second you set down here. Nicely done."

The next day, I was going to go out fishing with them, but it turned out to be too windy. So, after some coffee, I had to say goodbye. Big Bull Moose grabbed my hand, put one of those enormous paws on my shoulder and told me that when that I get tired of eating all that salmon out in Oregon, "come on back to Marshall County. Us boys'll be here, drinkin and singin and eatin all the fried crappie we can find. You're always welcome."

(Somewhere in Missouri)

Friday, November 13, 2009

Another day in the Village

As I think I mentioned, we went back to Veronica's village the other day. Since I no longer have a camera of my own (thanks Kenya), here are a few pictures my roommate Joel took. His blog is The White Nile, and its on the Our Peeps list on the far right. Give his blog a look, it's pretty hilarious.
Not a lot to say, I think the pictures speak for themselves in this instance.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Look at me, I am Good! (Part 2)

In the past few months several new people have joined the team living in the house here in Mbale. Among them, Joel and Brad really hit the ground running. Before they arrived, I had spent months talking about how we should organize a neighborhood trash pickup. Within a week, they had taken on the project and developed a far reaching framework bringing in the local government and community groups for a monthly neighborhood trash cleanup.

They worked through countless ludicrus frustrations, for example one meeting with the Mbale Industrial Division Municipal Council: They waited an hour before a single councilman showed up. After an hour and a half of waiting, they finally managed to get the meeting underway. Ten minutes later the group had reached a consensus: another planning meeting with the same group of people in 3 weeks- the day of the proposed trash cleanup they were meeting to plan. It took them weeks of no-show meetings and gallons of waragi, but eventually they got the project rolling with the personal backing of the Mayor, the Minister of Health, and the Chairman of the East Africa Corporate Club.

The big day rolled around; another cloudless, sunny day in Africa. Perfect for rooting around in other people’s refuse. The speaker truck with music and a PA showed up, so we were all set to get noticed. The neighborhood secondary school showed up in full force, so we had man power. The Rotarian doctor showed up, so we had surgical gloves. The mayor didn’t show up unfortunately, so we had a keynote timeslot with no key note speaker. MAPLE dance-off anyone? All in all it was a smashing success, and we are excited for next month when we will have a Coca-Cola sponsorship and TV/radio advertisements. Mwebaale nyo (thank you so much) Brad and Joel! Mujebaale (well done)!

(Trash is bad)

Building on the huge success of Brad and Joel, the rest of us are currently developing their own community projects:

Tree Farm
Our MUBS intern Denis and I have begun rallying the populace to start a community tree farm. So far, we have secured 7 acres of land in the village from our surrogate Father and MUWA member Mr. Mungoma. Recently we spent a day slogging through the mud and beating back bushes to check out the land. We verified that the land in fact does exist and is most definitely fertile.

(Trees are good)

We have grassroots support and a pool of free labor in the kids of MUWA members who will be home from boarding school for the holidays with nothing to do and a semester worth of chores to make up for. Next week we will be meeting with Denis’ dad who owns a commercial tree farm to absorb some knowledge. Soon we will begin talks with the powers-that-be in local and regional government and academia to get buy in from the top. The plan is to combine this program with a series of small trainings focusing on environmentally friendly entrepreneurship and sustainable cooking methods. With a little grit and determination, and a lot of the Ol’ Marple luck, hopefully we can build on the success of the trash cleanup.

The women of our house aren’t slacking either. They are hard at work organizing a Girls’ Empowerment Slumber Party. They have a date set with the lovely ladies of University Link Highschool, and are getting their nail polish all organized. Jokes aside, they are going to start a weekly session giving the girls some sort of “You are beautiful, you have a future” talks or something. I’m not really sure what they're actually doing, but I’m sure it will be cool.

(Hooray for feminism!)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Two Things:

1. I like listening to country music when I'm driving. Without even considering the just awful alternative on the radio (except for you, NPR, and your cousin, the local-affiliate music show), Country and/or Western is storytelling music and, because of that, it helps to pass the time. Plus, driving along these back roads, slapping the steering wheel and singing along about beer drinking, sexy tractors and wrong-doing women, it just feels right (my mustache is coming in quite nicely, by the way. I'll fit in in no time).

(near London, KY)

2. On a related note, I had figured that my favorite little country sweetheart came out with a new album while I was in Africa, because of all that trouble with Kanye. That's about all I knew though. Then the other day, while I'm driving through Coal Country, West Virginia, home of all your favorite mountaintop-removing, stream-poisoning, State-Supreme-Court-Seat-Buying coal executives, this song comes on. The thing is, even though it was the first time I heard it, even though I didn't even know she had "new" music out, I knew it had to be my girl. Nobody else writes lyrics quite like this:

She wears short skits, I wear tee shirts,
She's cheer captain and I'm in the bleachers.

That's solid gold. I should probably be embarrassed for being such a fan of teenage girl music. I should probably be more embarrassed for recognizing her song-writing. I should definitely be too embarrassed to admit all this publicly. But you know what? Whatever. She can write a mean song. Ask any teenage girl.

(Cumberland Falls, KY)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Day of Rest

Russellville, KY- I decided yesterday was as good a day as any to lay off the driving for a bit, and explore. I woke up in the Daniel Boone National Forest, whipped up a delicious breakfast of instant oatmeal and bananas, then went for a nice little hike. All in all, not a bad way to start the day.

(Just missed me...)

Then I drove to various streams, waterfalls, natural arches and lookouts within a thirty mile radius of where I slept. All told, maybe one hour of driving time. A nice little break.

And because I got to my campsite early enough, I had time to gather wood for my first campfire of the trip. Nature's TV, as some grizzly through-hiker on the Long Trail once told me, laughing as I tried not to breath through my nose. He's right though, it does pass the time.

(Look Ma, no paper)

Since I just crossed into the Central Time Zone and gained an hour, I'm rewarding myself by sitting on a couch, charging my various electronic devices and enjoying some speedy, free wireless at the local public library. As I plot out my next few days of travel, I just have to say, these libraries are an underappreciated resource. Other than a shower, I can't think of one thing that they don't have here.

(Still in one piece, though getting a bit ripe)