Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Where's the Adventure?

I am really missing this type of thing right now. Three guys, two chickens, two bodas and one winding, dusty mountain road. Just a little bit of the ol' fear of God, what with the lack of helmets, the poorly maintained motorcycles and the hundred foot drop over the edge of the cliff.

But come on. The closest thing to adventure I've seen in the last week was a train-full of drunken Sox fans, but considering they'd just clinched the wildcard, I don't even think anybody was looking for somebody to stab.

But I don't know, let's wait and see how the weekend comes together. I have faith.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Just trying to keep (a) my silverware in my hands and (b) my fingers out of my nose

So that's that. I'm back in the US, sleeping on a couch in Cambridge and trying to figure out my life. As it turns out, I'm staying about a block away from the first apartment I lived in here after leaving Middlebury, so it's been a pretty fitting reintroduction to life in the developed world.

I don't even know where to start. The last two weeks have been pretty wild, between the mysterious Kenyan Bus Robbery, a final Restville blowout and one last Dr. James kidnapping, I was just glad to make it on the plane and through immigration without having my passport confiscated. Thanks for the memories Uganda.

And of course, three totally bizarre days in London. Looking back, I think we really just ate. I honestly don't remember much else. I think there were some castles and English gardens. I definitely remember some kind of huge ferris wheel right downtown. But it was mostly food. And beer. Delicious beer. Hopefully Luke can go back to Uganda nice and fat.

After one day back in the US, I'll say this. Cambridge is possibly the cutest place in the world. Almost sickeningly so. Perfect sidewalks, lots of perfectly contained and manicured plants and perfect couples pushing perfect little babies in strollers. Except that apparently when I greet random children here, people think I'm trying to go Michael Jackson on their kiddies. Settle down yuppies, nobody wants to steal your babies.

And another thing. Not that there was any shortage of cell phones in Uganda, but people didn't just sit there yacking away for hours at a time. Based on my scientific observation skills, everybody loves talking, just not to people they can touch. As long as you're not in the same physical area as someone, it's ok. This developed world can be a cold, lonely place.

And now, it's Saturday afternoon, which means it's time to drink and watch football. And not any of that nancy european football. I'm talking about good old fashioned American Football, in all its brief-moments-of-action-followed-by-lots-of-standing-around glory... Good luck Oregon, pray for no lightning yellow.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

"Sometimes the bar, well ... he eats you"

I'm not sure where we went wrong. Maybe it was overconfidence. Maybe it was just bad luck. Either way, Nairobi, you got the best of us.

It started out well enough. We decided that we would try to just cover the 500 miles between Mombasa and Mbale in one day. It would be a long day, but with not too many days left, we figured there was no sense in wasting two days on super long bus rides.

These were deluxe buses, too. I mean, given the typical local conditions. We left Mombasa at 8am, were supposed to arrive in Nairobi "no later than" 5pm, well in time for the 8:30pm bus to Mbale. About halfway between Mombasa and Nairobi, we took a mysterious detour into the mountains. No problem, we got time. Then we took another, even more mysterious, detour to pick up the passengers on a broken down bus. Again, no biggie.

But we dawdle in the mountains for a while. Sun goes down. Dawdle a bit more. We're really getting "down to the wire," which wouldn't be a big deal except that every now and then, these international buses really keep to the schedule. But we're doing ok. We get to the outskirts of Nairobi around 8pm. "Just enough" time, except that the bus breaks down. As in, it really just dies, right in the middle of the street.

We piece together that they are sending another bus to pick us up, because even though it's not too far from the bus station, apparently walking at night in Nairobi = trouble. We get to the bus station around 9, and miracle of miracles, the Mbale bus is still there. We buy tickets, we get on and all is well.

I guess someone up there heard my pleas from the first bus, because not only did the second bus not leave on time, it left like two hours late. Thank you, Africa Time. Not that I'm complaining. That would get us into Mbale at a much more reasonable hour. Plus, the bus didn't leave without us, that was all I asked.

Well, I forgot to ask one thing. We got to the border around 5am. Luke goes digging around for the passports. Check. Good. Then he goes looking for the money to pay the border guy with. Not there. Strange. But things have been disappearing lately, most likely because Luke insulted the evil jaja spirits playing Ouija with a Turkish dinner guest. So we figured the money had escaped to another pocket, or my pack, or his sock. Seriously, don't anger the jajas.

Then we realize, not only is that money missing... so is Luke's wallet. And his camera. So I look and sure enough, so is my camera. Crap. After the initial rage, we realize that either way we are going to need to pay for these visas, or we'll get stuck in some scruffy, shady transit town on the wrong side of the border while it's still dark.

We wheel and deal. Exchange various weak currencies with the border hooligans for various other stronger currencies. We flat out refuse to pay any bribes to the Kenyan soldiers, who were clearly angling for one ("for chai. promote me"), because we didn't have any shillings to spare (plus, the dude had a weak hustle. he tried to tell us our visas were only good for air travel, not ground. cmon, you need to do better than that, even if you're carrying an automatic weapon. where is your passion for excellence?). We bargained with the Ugandan border guy, who was either (a) sympathetic or (b) too bored/tired to care. And with a combination of Ugandan Shillings, Australian Dollars, US Dollars and Euros, we got through.

Thieves in Nairobi... who knew? On top of all this, Luke's phone "escaped" from his pocket the first night we were in Nairobi, and they even got the GPS toy that doesn't recognize African roads. Enjoy that, I hope it navigates you right into a lake.

And the worst thing is that, despite losing a pretty solid amount of stuff, we don't even have a good story. At some point during a 24 hour bus marathon, some sneak rooted around in our packs and stole some stuff. That's it. He didn't get caught red-handed and try to jump out the bus window, or run up and down the aisles half-naked chewing on raw chicken, or just get some good kiboko from an angry mob.

Oh well. It could have been a lot worse. I'm really just bummed to lose those pictures of the Kenyan coast.

* * * * *

Just to be clear, though. Though the timing couldn't be worse as far as leaving Africa with a sour taste, no thieving Kenyan gypsy is gonna wreck my memories. As far as I'm concerned, this is the take-away from the last six months:

("Thanks for coming up and talking with us about starting businesses. Even though we fed you an outrageous spread of fresh, delicious food, take these chickens. It's our culture to honor guests.")

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Unrest

In case any of you hear it on the news, yes there has been some rioting in Kampala. By all (credible) accounts, though, it should end up not being such a big deal. Of course you never know around here, but things are supposed to settle down, and may already have.

In any case, Mbale is a long way away from Kampala. And since the fighting is about a disagreement between the Buganda King and the President, that's mostly central Uganda. Out in Bugisu country (where Mbale is), there's no trouble.

At least that's what we've been able to piece together. We're traveling on the Kenyan coast, "researching" the operations of successful NGOs here. So what if they work in ecotourism. Non-profit management is non-profit management. It's amazing out here, by the way. Some serious pictures are in the pipeline. As a taste of what's to come, we went for a ride on a catamaran made of driftwood and held together with maybe three feet of fraying rope (as rinkydink as it sounds), then stopped in the Kilifi Yacht Club ("the only decent place to stop North of Dar") for a drink. Listen and repeat: opposite ends of the spectrum.

Anyway, Mom, if you're out there worrying, please stop. It's ok. We're safe. Uganda probably still is too.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Western Region

I’m at that point where I have to accept that I will be really, actually be leaving soon. That means, among other things, tying to fit in a bunch of traveling into a quickly dwindling amount of time. Something about satisfying unlimited desires in a world of limited means.

Fort Portal is a scenic little town in Western Uganda, conveniently located within striking distance of a huge national forest populated by chimps (expensive), another full of gorillas (seriously expensive), a swamp full of birds (birds? Eh. Plus don’t swamps smell bad?) and some crater lakes (wait a tick, we have one of those in Oregon).

(Can you make out the Nancy Drew Jersey?)

(One of those scenic lakes)

Seriously though, you could spend weeks there. With only a few days, we opted for the lakes. As cool as seeing chimps and gorillas would have been, I can’t complain. We camped on a hill overlooking one of these bizarre crater lakers, hiked around, swam in a waterfall and saw one of the more incredible nighttime star displays in a long time.

(Cozy, huh?)

Getting to the lakes was a bit of an adventure. Fort Portal is clearly on the whirlwind mzungu safari circuit, meaning a lot of things were geared towards fat wallets. For example, everyone expected us to just hire a private car to get places, which is just too expensive. Way too expensive. OK, not that expensive, but not that exciting either. Where is the adventure, people? So we relied on public means.

We’ve talked about public transportation in the past, but this time was a little different. I guess there weren’t enough people traveling on those routes to support the typical “14” passenger matatu taxi van, so the taxis were corolla-type cars. Typical capacity for a sedan-taxi? Seven passengers, which naturally only includes full-sized people. Kiddies go on someone’s lap, so they’re bonus and don’t count towards the total. Neither does the driver. In case you’re wondering, that’s four in the back, two in the front and one squeezed in with the driver.

(I bet this guy doesn't mind public means...)

But you know, just when you think you’ve gotten the hang of something around here, they go and change it on you. On our way back out of the lakes, we got dropped at this tiny little village/trading center by some retired British schoolteachers who rescued us from a hot, dusty walk. We talked to the taxi guys, bargained for a while and agreed on terms. Then he said “get in, we’re ready.” I only counted four passengers, but whatever. I guess we’ll just pick someone up along the way.

Sure enough, we stopped a ways up the road at a big crowd of people. They were all mobbed around something, so figured we were going to pick up a big bunch of matooke or some other delicious starchy food. As it turned out, our taxi was doubling as an ambulance. They brought over a guy on a mattress, who they proceeded to stuff into the back seat. Next stop, Fort Portal General Hospital.

Yikes. And the guy was in serious pain.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Check Out my Shine

"Be fully prepared to drink hella haterade, cause ya'll about to see how good it is to be me and how bad it is to be you."

-Thugnificent


Pretty good lookin' kicks, huh? Yeah, I know. Expensive too, cause them is real hundred dollar bills on the outside. At least that's what the guy that sold them to me said.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Hard to Believe...

But I'm down to my last few weeks here. It really seems like just yesterday that we were sitting in a hostel, discussing how utterly charmless Kampala was and wondering how in the hell we would (a) survive being here for six months and (b) create an NGO out of six phone numbers (of which, probably half were disconnected) and a general interest in microfinance.

And now here we are. Luke has officially signed on for another four months. I'm trying to find a way to continue doing this stuff for real (i.e., get paid) back in the Land of the Morbidly Obese. As for MAPLE, the group has a house/office, clients and a product to offer, not to mention a pretty solid niche to work within, focusing on a real need that people here have and that we as a group can reasonably expect to address. All in all, not a bad use of the last six months. Not bad at all.

(Personalized Business Skills Training Seminar? Yeah, why not)

It's really gonna be tough to leave. People always talk about how we [fill in the blank] love our personal space, but I'd always thought of it more in terms of physical space. Really though, it's emotional space as much as anything else. You see someone, you greet that person and shake that hand. Maybe you don't let go of that hand until you've talked about family, religion and marital status. These days, I find myself thinking less about the casual hand-holding and more about the intimacy of the conversation you can have with a total stranger without feeling uncomfortable.

Or, and this is really my absolute favorite, you see some cute little kid just gaping at you, so you stop to greet that wide-eyed kid. Get yourself a sticky, sweaty mini-handshake. If you're lucky and the kid isn't too shy, maybe make both of your days by sticking around and playing for a few minutes.

(If only I had a mini-American flag to give him... or not)

And of course, I'll miss the adventures. Being fully unprepared to deal with the daily problems of Africa is just non-stop entertainment. For example, we've developed a bit of a mouse issue over the last few months. It had been ok, but lately, the critters have just gotten a bit too cavalier about running around in the daytime and eating our delicious White People Food. So we have a kitten on order, but in the meantime, we have been trying to bring the wrath of God to these cute, pink-footed cookie thieves.

The other day, I came into the kitchen to find the trashcan squeaking and rustling. I did what any quick-thinking Field Director would do in that situation, and threw the lit on, trapping the mouse inside. Immediately, though, I found myself faced with a new problem: What am I going to do with this mouse?

Obviously, I can't just throw it outside, because it would just run back in through the three inch "ventilation gap" at the bottom of our kitchen door. I'm not cold enough to just reach in and snap its little neck. Plus, this wasn't some clean and hairless American Lab Mouse. I don't even think we have names for all the diseases this guy was carrying around. In any case, you can bet I wasn't going to touch it. I've even heard that putting a mouse in the freezer is a humane way of killing it, but with our intermittent power, it would probably end up being more like an air-conditioned movie theater than an icy grave.

So I did what I usually do in these situations. I consulted with Eddie. The Solution? Shake that trashcan. Vigorously. Repeat as necessary.

(Rest in Peace, Mouse. The rest of your Family will be joining you shortly.)

Let there be no doubt, Eddie is one hard dude.