Monthly Archives: November 2015

ON A PERSONAL NOTE – EARY DAYS

© Stephanie Helber, 2014

“Argh,” I awoke suddenly in the dark. Something was trying to rip out my left ear drum. “Jesus,” I moaned, clutching my ear. The Gypsy Queen woke up.

“What’s wrong?” she asked worryingly.

 

 

“My ear,” I winced. It was turning into a helluva weekend. First the stomach bug that had me running to the bathroom every 20 minutes and now this. By the time the sun rose I was in agony. GQ took the initiative and looked up the nearest ENT specialist. We hopped on a boda-boda (well, GQ hopped. I staggered) and waited 40 minutes to be treated in the Mbale clinic.

“You have an inner ear infection,” announced the doctor. “I will give you three injections for immediate relief and treatment.”

Injections? What the..? “Why injections?” I countered through the pain.

I’m not a fan of pharmaceutical medicine. I don’t get sick very often and when I do I usually prescribe myself whatever solution nature provides. Usually swallow sliced up raw garlic (natural anti-biotic) and drink lemon-honey-ginger tea. It might take a bit longer to recover but my body’s stronger for it by not using pharmaceuticals.

“One will treat the infection, the other is a painkiller and the third is a steroid to bring down the inflammation.”

I despise painkillers. They trick you into thinking there is no pain by numbing the affected area. But they don’t take the pain away. So while you’ve numbed the pain, any action you do could affect the injury\infection worse and you wouldn’t know it – because you’ve numbed the pain.

Unfortunately (or fortunately), I’ve had my fair share of pain. A traumatic treatment of my severe sinus issues in my early twenties has given me the ability to tolerate pain on a level that would have Guntanamo Bay prisoners (hi NSA) confess to killing Tweety Bird.

And if that wasn’t enough, it was an ENT specialist that had given me that trauma and ability to suffer that amount of pain.

“I don’t want painkillers,” I grunted.

“Please, mister, it will ease the pain for you –” the doctor tried to reason with me. GQ also tried to convince me otherwise.

“No painkillers,” I seeped through clenched teeth. “Just fix me up.”

In my state, I wasn’t exactly friendly with the doctor. In fact I was quite hostile but this was coming from the trauma I had received a decade and a bit before. Memories were returning in a flash flood. It was the only time in my life that I had threatened to kill another human being (the doctor treating me) and meant it.

I’ll save you the gory bits for the memoirs but let’s just say that what he inflicted on me had me screaming at a level that cleared out the waiting room in the hospital. I don’t blame the doctor when he then demanded that we go from the clinic to the hospital where, “I will feel safer in the environment there as I’m currently not comfortable in this situation,” he said.

I copped some words from GQ about how I antagonised the good doctor and created that environment. But it was hard to put into words what I was going through and not just because of the pain I was in, but the memories that were consuming me were putting me in a hateful state against this institution that represented that specific traumatic event.

At the hospital we waited on the bench and were summoned into the room within fifteen minutes. It was full of nurses and interns all surrounding me.

I had managed to scoff a bit at the ridiculousness of the situation, that somehow, I had managed to make this doctor feel so unsafe that he needed a room full of people that might need – should it come to it – subdue me. I had no intention of pouncing on anyone. Even if what I was projecting was animosity towards everything these people represented, it wasn’t personal. I know these folks are out to heal me but some things can’t be erased.

GQ sat with me and held my right hand as my left was chosen for the injections. I can handle needles. It wouldn’t be the first jab I’d receive. But it was the first time that I was getting injected in the vein on the top of my wrist, right where the hand and joint meet. I managed to convince the doc that I didn’t want or need the painkiller injection. The antibiotic stab was a standard needle pain. My head hung low. I stared at the floor knowing that I was about to go through some serious shit on a personal, emotional level. I had no idea how destroyed I would be by the end of it.

When the doc began with the last injection, the steroids, he had to do it in the slowest way possible.

“This will hurt a bit,” he warned before inserting the needle.

I clenched.

“Breathe,” GQ reminded me, encouraging me with words. If it wasn’t for her, bad things would probably have happened – mainly to that doctor who had nothing but good intentions.

The pain the slow injection caused consumed me. It opened up the dam that blocked the traumatic past cracking it wide open, flooding the valley of the now with memories I had suppressed for more than a decade. My head collapsed on GQ’s shoulder and I let the tears flow.

I hadn’t cried from physical or emotional pain for more than ten years and it was all coming out now. I’ve always sought for a way to be able to open those tear ducts, to cleanse myself but I could never find it. I was lost but I certainly didn’t want to be found like this. It released a lot. I felt lighter. Slightly weaker at the knees but emotionally, I was lighter. I had dealt with that past trauma and came out on top, stronger (but for that moment, not at the knees).

GQ apologised for not seeing it my point of view.

“It’s OK,” I mumbled, head down. “You could never know.” I thanked her profoundly. She’s always there when I’m in need of medical assistance. Saying the right words – not just to me but to the presiding staff taking care of me. Without her I’d be a mess surrounded by the dead bodies of medical staff.

But that emotional ride I involuntarily hopped on had exhausted me. I couldn’t even raise my head to the world even though the medicine took immediate effect. I sat silently on the boda-boda back to Sukali and lay quietly in bed for the rest of the day, slowly recovering, smoking cannabis, the only thing that actually takes away the pain.

Doesn’t numb it. It takes it away. So much so that the next day we all climbed up to Wanale Waterfalls in the rain.

The lesson? Face your past if you want release. Face it, embrace it, forgive it and then pack it away because it’s done and dealt with.

And only then can you move forward.

Oh, and avoid ear infections.

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HITCH HIKING IN UGANDA – PART VII

© Unbound Ether Photography, 2015

© Unbound Ether Photography, 2015

“Two rides,” I said to the Gypsy Queen. “I predict two rides to Mbale.”

After a loving and warm night with Ruganzu, Grace and the kids, we were dropped off at the bypass on the road towards Jinja by Ruganzu where we parted ways.

Our first ride was on a truck driven by, Charles, a Kenyan heading to Nairobi via Busia, the main border town on Uganda’s side of the sphere. He wasn’t a fan of Ugandans. Or South Sudanese. In fact, he didn’t much like people but something,

“Told me to stop for you.”

He dropped us off at the turnoff for Busia. From there we hitched another ride on another truck that was also on the way to Kenya only this one was going via Tororo, where I had first entered Uganda.

The turnoff he dropped us at was exactly that – a complete turn off.

“It appears to be that we are in the middle of an African version of Fuckville,” I commented.

The only signs of life were the four boda-bodas and two matatus chilling in the shade. I knew we would be harassed but usually I answer their want of taking us somewhere with,

“It’s OK. We’re waiting for friends,” and the matter is left.

But put two idiots in a round room and tell them to find the corner, you kinda get the feel for what we had to deal with in Fuckville. And it wasn’t enough that they tried to get us to ride with them or get in their matatus (who always have the uncanny timing of stopping and harassing right when a convoy of four potential rides fly past), there’s always one that thinks he’s helping us out by trying to stop a vehicle for us.

“Just go, rafikiki,” I strained, my attempt at remaining calm slowly wavering. “We don’t need your help.”

Eventually the two idiots left and before long a car pulled up heading directly to Mbale.

“Missed by one ride,” I said, referring to my morning’s prediction of two rides. We rode with Ouja who was heading to Mbale for a meeting.

“I work for Child Fund,” he said. “We are working in 39 countries. Maybe you can promote us?” he asked after we shared our Footsteps Through Africa adventure.

“We try to target the lesser known NGOs,” I said politically. “If you’re in 39 countries, you don’t need our promotional abilities.”

He laughed as we hit Mbale, taking the detours due to the broken bridges, watching the waterfalls cascading off the foothills of Mt Elgon, standing at 14,177 feet (4,321 meters). We couldn’t see past the foothills due to the cloud cover but you could feel that something large that nature had created was in there.

Somewhere.

Sukali Hostel is just on the outskirts of the centre of Mbale town. From our room we could see Wanale Falls and the plateau that rises up to Elgon’s peak. We were met by Moses, the manager and that evening after a lovely dinner of spaghetti and a drop of whiskey, we called it a night.

Early the next morning, before the sun was even up, something came knocking on my stomach’s door.

‘Dude, we gotta go,’ it said.

“Gimme a minute,” I responded and headed to the bathroom – an action that would repeat itself throughout the day. In fact that evening I spent 40 minutes in the bathroom. I could barely eat or even drink, forcing myself to take on H2O.

By Sunday afternoon I was a bit better and by the evening I was a little worse.

Shit, and not just figuratively.

“If I’m better tomorrow, we can hike up to the waterfalls,” I suggested after my last run.

Nabifo, the owner and mutual friend of Ruganzu’s, had arrived on Sunday and was keen to hike with us. Just a week prior she had hosted Mbale’s TEDX talk with a strong turnout.

That night, although slightly weaker, my stomach felt settled. I attributed it to the whiskey.

“It looked like the glass wasn’t dry,” GQ had said. “And the tap water here isn’t very good for consumption.”

So I finally swore off all consumption of alcohol. It had taken its toll on me – health-wise. Besides, being an Australian I’ve drunken enough for two lifetimes.

But it was the next day that would render me void of a want to live.

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HITCH HIKING IN UGANDA – PART VI

Mr Rubbs’ driver dropped us on the Kisoro-Kabale road at the carwash. Sure, sounds exotic, a fun place with scantly-clad folk on rollerskates sipping on chocolate milkshakes with Rose Royce’s, At The Carwash playing in the background with everyone groovin’ to it, suds of soap floating all around.

Well in Africa a carwash is any parking spot you find by the nearest water outlet – be it a lake, river, brook or flash flood puddle. Bodas and cars will park, drivers or whoever gets the coin, whip out scrubbers, soap and wash their vehicle with the determination of removing every speck of oil, grease and dirt.

From the serenity of Lake Bunyonyi that was spread out before us, we hiked around a curve. On our left was a fast-flowing brook. Too our right, rising green hills of terrace farms. And on the road?

Nothing.

Nothing but the asphalt used to tar it.

We were about to set up to make a little video when a Landcruiser came ‘round the bend. It was a flatbed fitting three in the single-cabin – places that were taken up by the driver, Herbert and his two companions.

“If you don’t mind sitting in the back,” he said.

Being it quite the desolate road and with rain about to hit us, the Gypsy Queen and I piled into the back. Herbert drove like one who knows the windy, hilly roads of a rural area – fast. We held on for dear life as our driver tested his brakes about a meter before the speed humps. Rain started to pound us as we drove into it. Luckily, Herbert was going fast enough that the cabin protected us from the wet – until he stopped in a small hillside village to inform us that,

“I wish I could give you some protection from the rain but I don’t have.”

“It’s fine, mate,” I said through the rain drops.

“Just keep driving and we’ll be OK,” added GQ.

He got back in behind the wheel and sped us off. All we could do was hold on tight and watch the entertainment the front seat was providing – the two companions dancing along to the music being blasted from the radio.

About forty minutes later we were dropped in Kabale where a street vendor thought that throwing a live grasshopper at me would scare me. I picked it up and threw it back. We walked to the service station on the outskirts of town. After an hour and a toilet break, a truck pulled over.

“I’m reaching Kampala but I can drop you in Mbarara,” offered Izu.

We took him on and his woes.

“Today I lost both my brothers,” he said mournfully. “I am on the way to Kampala to claim the bodies and arrange the burial.”

“Where are you coming from?” I asked gently.

“Congo,” he said.

“How do you stay awake?”

“I take alcohol.”

I blinked and stared at GQ. “Did he just say he takes alcohol to stay awake?” I whispered to her. She nodded.

I turned back to our driver. “What kind?”

“UG,” he said and pointed at the small plastic soda bottle filled halfway with the clear liquid of the local gin.

Izu was completely sober and was one of the better drives we rode with in Uganda. Yet here he was, sipping on pure grain alcohol to stay awake.

“If I don’t drink, I cannot drive. It helps me function,” he said.

Well I’ll be an apple’s core.

Our aim was to reach Masindi via the back roads but the Universe had other plans for us. While we had passed through Mbarara on the way to Western Uganda our then driver, Peter, informed us of a place we might be able to barter for the night.

As it was just before sunset we asked our drunk (yet sober… how?) driver to drop us at Mazizu Gardens. James, the owner, accepted our barter of music for food and bed and allowed us to pitch a tent at the bottom of his garden.

The manager, Anna, upon seeing the Gypsy Queen, exclaimed, “Are you Indian?”

“Yes I am,” she said proudly.

“I love Indians,” Anna gasped. “I love Indian movies.”

While they traded Bollywood names I sussed out the place. A living-room feel as most local bars have in Africa, the highway rest-stop was empty of clients.

“You’ll let me know when to play?” I said after we ate a meal of rice and beef stew.

“Yes,” said Anna.

GQ and I retired to our tent to chill out when, at around 19:00, James came down to visit.

“I cannot let you stay in the tent. It will rain,” he said.

“We have a rain cover,” GQ indicated our fly.

“No, take a room. You don’t pay. We are happy to help.”

We looked at each other and said our thanks as we began to pack everything up. At 20:30 GQ had passed out on the bed. I stayed awake until 22:00 when music was heard being blasted from the bar area but no one came to collect me for playing. In the morning we thanked James and hit the road.

“Weird,” I said aloud.

“What?” GQ asked.

It was a grey-covered day with drizzles of rain. “We didn’t actually barter anything,” I scratched my head looking up and down the road. We were by a speed hump with plenty of room for cars to stop. But none did. I was staring at the map we had and walked across the road to confirm the road with the driver sitting in a large, tinted SUV.

After a quick chat I returned to GQ. “What did he say?” she asked.

I sighed. “When the driver struggles to figure out how to open his own electronic window, you know the guy barely has a clue about the roads.”

There was a weird vibe in the air. For some reason, tension was building up between us. We were snapping at each other for no reason at all. As no vehicles stopped for us I suggested, “We hike through the town and try on the outskirts. It’ll be easier to avoid the boda-bodas.” GQ agreed and we headed down the road.

There was definitely something about the atmosphere of the place. A shift in the energy field. We said, “Jebaleko,” to the locals with a smile but for the first time since I’ve hit the African continent, no one was responding. Instead we were receiving dirty looks.

Ahead of us, a motorbike with a milk churn strapped on its passenger seat suddenly slid out of control and crashed on the road. Unharmed, the driver got up and a local assisted him. I picked up a piece of motorbike and handed it to him.

A car then stopped for us heading to Kampala. After the usual greetings the driver popped the boot. I was just about to throw in my big pack when the tinted backdoor opened.

“You said you don’t use money?” said the passenger, relaying our answer to the driver who threw the car into gear and drove off, the boot still open, my backpack on one shoulder.

“What the fuck?” I said aloud.

GQ stared at me and blinked. “Imagine if you had put your bag in,” she said.

There was something strange about this place. It was starting to feel like a town in a Stephen King novel. We kept hiking. For a small town it seemed that every car that passed was a taxi. With some of the questions we were being asked, it seemed to be a place low on the IQ demands as one fella proved when he pulled up beside us.

“Come, let’s go. You only pay five thousand,” he said.

“We don’t use money,” I said through clenched teeth as the first five times of telling him that hadn’t gone through his skull.

“How many are you?” the driver then asked.

I had to stop and turn towards him to see if he was for real. “How many do you see?” I asked, GQ hiked on to avoid the conversation.

“Two of you? OK, let’s go. You pay only three thousand.”

There’s a point where you start to just ignore people, especially the stupid ones, otherwise your liable to slap some sense into someone. And I didn’t want that kind of responsibility. We passed by a sign that named the town Bihalrwe. As soon as we passed it the energy shifted. Birds began to sing. The sky cleared up. And when GQ laughed I knew we were back in the good energy field.

“That was weird, aye?” I said to her.

“Yeah, there’s definitely some weird energy going on back there,” she concurred.

A bakkie pulled up behind us. Abraham offered us to sit in the open tray. “I have a tarp to give you in case it rains,” he handed over the blue waterproof material. Already a good vibe, we explained to him the road we were seeking.

“I know it,” he said. “I can drop you there.”

An hour later GQ and I were upgraded to the cabin after Abraham had dropped off a few passengers. She turned to me and said, “I think we passed the road.”

I looked at the map and looked at our surroundings to get a bearing. Yup, we were definitely passed the road and were well on our way to Kampala.

“Why don’t we do this,” she suggested, “let’s head to Kampala, stay the night at Ruganzu’s, then head up to Mbale, from there we’ll head down to Jinja and do the art installation. We skip Masindi. We’re back in January. Maybe we can go then.

What do you think?”

Thinking.

My visa clock was running. GQ, being a Kenyan resident, didn’t have a ticking clock. “I guess we can go to the rhino sanctuary then, if they’ll still have us,” I pondered. “OK, let’s go to Kampala.”

We called up Ruganzu who was more than happy to have us. Settled on a direction, Abraham inspired our vibe by buying us grilled chicken maryland on a skewer hawked off by hawkers surrounding the car like a mob at the backstage of a concert.

“Your husband is beautiful,” exclaimed one hawker.

“What did he say?” I raised an eyebrow.

“He said you are beautiful,” GQ laughed. She turned to him. “What about me? Am I not beautiful?”

“You are,” he said. “But your husband is a very beautiful man.”

Abraham was collecting some delegates from the Entebbe airport. But his last passenger, Moses (the front seat being occupied by Abraham and Moses. Yes, yes.), was getting dropped in Kampala where we parted ways and made our way to the University where Ruganzu was teaching.

I talked with his friend, Frida, over the phone. She had, via one of Ruganzu’s posts on Facebook, invited GQ and I to spend some time at her hostel in Mbale, Sukali. I explained our barter and she agreed on it.

That night we cooked an impressive dinner for Grace, Ruganzu and Freddy. In the middle of the night, Freddy had a bad dream and crawled from his crib into our bed. Snoring lightly as the pigs competed with the rooster over who gets to bring up the sun.

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