Uganda

MILESTONE MOMENTS

A guest post by the wonderful Gypsy Queen who opened her mind and heart to the ways of a bartering nomad. She showed me love, art, inspiration, creation and fed me words of wisdom which I adhere to every day (well, most days).

She comforted me during every hospital visit where I was at the whim of the doctors. She introduced me to a bounty of awesome friends. And she provided a patient ear to chew on whenever my heart and soul needed unraveling

If you’ve ever met her, then you know she truly is an Unbound Gypsy Queen.

Check out her amazing talent on Facebook:  Unbound Ether Photography.

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From the Gypsy Queen:

Please note, I don’t call or refer to myself as the Gypsy Queen but do so here because the Nomad King has generously given me this title in his memoirs and for continuity’s sake, I must respect that in this missive.

It is necessary to admit that I never thought I’d be looking at the opposite side of the Indian Ocean before me. The same trade winds that blew north along the eastern-facing Kenyan coast one year ago, are the ones that are blowing along the western-facing Indian coast, where I am sitting now, one year later, in the little seaside village of Ashvem in Goa, India.

It has been several months now with this testimonial on my plate of things to devour, process and respond to. From day one with the Nomad King, timing has been everything and this missive to The Universe is no different.

Milestone Moments in one’s life have to be patiently awaited for, and even then, it’s only in hindsight do we realise the beauty in those moments. All the pieces of the puzzle needed to fall into place to bring you to that Milestone Moment. When that last dot joins the rest, completing the circle and finally, realisation sets in.

I think of it as Resolution.

Yesterday was one of those days for me. Almost one year ago the Nomad King and I first collided on our paths in Kilifi Creek along the Kenyan coast. I was living and helping build Musafir the boat, and grow the community that surrounded it.

Little did I know that this scruffy, ruggedly handsome Nomad that washed up on our shores was about to jump start my life and put it straight into high gear. Unbeknownst to me at the time, he was exactly who I had asked The Universe for, just two weeks prior to our meeting.

Ro and I

© Aleks Leigh, 2016

But that’s a different story.

Freedom has always been a major theme in my life but never once did I imagine that I was about to be exposed to a new kind of freedom, one I only vaguely knew existed, let alone imagine my own journey taking a radical twist the day the Nomad King and the Gypsy Queen met.

I have the spirit of a gypsy, one who must simultaneously follow the wind and intuition, the stars and the dusty road, the fires of the heart and rhythm of the earth, for they are all one and cannot work alone, in order to truly be happy and healthy in life.

The day we hit the road for the first time a new kind of adrenaline became known to me. My whole being was vibrating with a sensation, a whisper almost, of a whole new world tingling at my fingertips. Each physical step forward, packs and tents and camera equipment included, was a step towards the Unknown.

And what greater high than the Unknown?

Every facet of bartering and hitch hiking reminded me of a way of life that addresses the need for living simply that is almost entirely lost to us today – in theory and in practice. Traveling without money, relying on the kindness of strangers to voluntarily take us to the next destination and then, conjuring faith in humanity, all the while constantly renewing this personal relationship with the earth’s geography, space and time.

All vital aspects of bettering one’s connection to the pulse of Life and The Universe.

I thought I was already pretty well connected, so imagine my surprise when I discovered I had only just scratched the surface, that below sat a locked box of life’s mysteries and the Nomad King held the key.

And open that box I did! Quickly. For the road has many teachers, and one must keep up! Every lesson learned on the road with the Nomad King made up for every wasted day that I spent trying to get an education in formal schooling.

He showed me then, and continues to show me a thousand different ways how a person can give and collect love and kindness. Every barter was a gift that we received and a gift we gave in return; a pure exchange of respect and compassion. Every story swapped, every song, every article, every photo, every second of footage, every peal of laughter, every meal, every sanctuary, every kilometer, hug, handshake and ‘hello’ is given and received in gratitude. Very quickly this cup of gratitude spills over, washing over one’s being like a glorious swell.

A surfer’s wet dream.

Though I have bartered many things in my life, I never fully realised the power that lay in an exchange devoid of anything that even remotely smells like money. I’ve always loved to barter, little keepsakes and presents sent out and returned into the world; reminders of a kindred spirit’s touch.

Sometimes leaving something behind in a place that you may never return to again is like leaving a piece of your legacy. It has always felt like that for me with every installation the Nomad and I created together. A part of our story, not just a barter, but a mark that we were once there. That we loved, laughed and created something beautiful . Something that place inspired in us. Our response to the world in the form of beautiful artwork, song, written word.

Through the life of a Gypsy and a Nomad many kilometers are traversed, many souls encountered, many connections welded together on a string, like beads, each individual but essential in completing the Whole.

So from place to place we travelled, each time making a mere outline, allowing the dots to complete themselves, not worrying about plan B (at least not the Nomad. I, on the other hand, had to learn that there is never a plan B), and simply trust in the process.

Many a time the Nomad gently tossed my philosophical ideas about The Universe back at me – The Universe will never give you more than you can handle, being a favourite. An undeniable truth (among others) that would always bring me back to my centre and the moment I’d let go of fear and doubt, the road would magically open up again, sending us just the right ride, or just the right barter, right when we needed it the most.

For example, 70kms shy of our day’s final destination at the lakeside town of Kisumu, Kenya, while waiting for almost an hour by the roadside with barely a car stopping for us and with the sun setting, I frustratingly asked the Nomad what plan B is.

And he looks at me simply and says, “There is no plan B. Just plan A – we get to Kisumu.”

It took a while, but the moment I resigned myself to whatever fate befell us, a pick-up truck slowed down and the kindest driver the road has ever sent me (I say ‘me’ because I know the Nomad has met many a kind driver and I don’t want to take anything away from them), not only took us to Kisumu, but paid for our bed and a couple of meals for our bellies.

On the latter half of our Ugandan trip in Mbale, the Nomad fell terribly ill and between a dozen bathroom calls had to be rushed to the hospital with a horrendous ear infection.

The kind souls of Sukali Hostel where we were being hosted, let us stay for days without insisting that he perform. Insisting he get better first, feeding and providing us shelter without question.

Cut to yesterday:

This Gypsy is in limbo at the moment, hanging out along the coast while my new roomy and I await our monsoon retreat to begin in our new home in the hills of Goa. My friends Adrien, Justine and Emma left on their mini-vacation to the big, bad city of Bombay, leaving me to my own devices.

Having been back in India almost a month now, I’ve had to shift gears once again and adapt to a more conventional way of life here. Namely, paying for transportation, accommodation and meals.

Earlier this week I found some distant relatives in a wonderful creative space called Vaayu where artists, travellers and surfers flock to during the cooler, busy seasons. The end of the season is upon us, most places have shut and the majority of people have begun heading for the Himalayan foothills where life is much cooler.

On Thursday morning I made a sincere intention, took a leap of faith and approached the Vaayu tribe to see if I could barter work – any type of work – for a bed. Though there are many people out there who are doing this, it was the first time I was approaching a community/business to let me in, without having any money to offer, alone and in India.

They have never been approached in this way either, although they do host an artist residency program which attracts a very colourful group of people, which has made them open to the barter way of life and those that live it.

Needless to say, they accepted my offer and even offered me three meals a day. So here I am now, working on this piece, reflecting on my life and watching the last dot connect itself to all the other dots that have led me to this moment, closing the circle – a Milestone Moment that marks the end of one chapter in my life and the prophetic beginning of another.

As the Nomad King likes to say, “The end is the power of the beginning.

And I have all this because one year ago, a scruffy, ruggedly handsome Nomad washed up on Kilifi’s shores and I followed my gypsy heart.

I’ll call this, Resolution.

 

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Categories: Adventure Travel, Africa, Hitch Hiking, Kenya, Uganda | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

DE-NILE

AG

Although this adventure happened a few months back, it’s now readable on Africa Geographic.

Special thanks to the amazing folk at the Nile River Porch Lodge and the Nile River Camp, Jinja, Uganda.

Well worth a visit.

Enjoy.

Categories: Adventure Travel, Africa, Conservation, Uganda | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

HITCH HIKING IN UGANDA – PART IX

“Name’s Harley,” said the heavily bearded Kiwi as we shook hands in a break I took between songs.

I was strumming on Ol’ Red by the fire at the Nile River Camp with the Gypsy Queen, Teresa, Saleem and a couple of Austrian girls with their German friend. Carlos the Mexican buzzed around and the Nile River was silent with a lightening storm on display over the horizon.

Harley and his Swedish partner, Emmelie, were driving from Cape Town to Stockholm in their Land Rover Defender, nicknamed Chewie.

“After Chewbacca,” Harley grinned. “Been on the road for about seven months now.”

“We have two months to reach Sweden,” added Emmelie. “We have to reach a wedding in Canada from there.”

A Dutch couple, Nico and Youska, had met the couple driving through Namibia and had bumped into them here and there over the African continent. They too were at the camp and enjoying my music (not to brag or anything). I was chatting with Harley while GQ chatted with Emmelie, both asking the same questions simultaneously.

“Where ya headed next?” we asked.

“Tomorrow gonna head to Sipi Falls and camp there for the night,” they answered separately, “then we gotta get to Karen in Nairobi and get the car serviced before we head off to Ethiopia. Gotta leaky fuel tank.”

“You’re heading to Nairobi?” I confirmed, turning with raised eyebrows to GQ who just received the same news from Emmelie.

Well, this was a blessing. GQ and I were going to hitch to Nairobi the next day. I still had a day to spare on my visa so, “Would you be willing to take on a couple of grubby hitch hikers?” I asked.

Harley looked at Emmelie and they both nodded. “Yeah, not a problem mate. We can squeeze you in.”

“You know what,” I grinned, “even though you’re a Kiwi, you lived in Perth so lemme playa AC\DC in reggae.”

Harley grinned and I strummed Highway to Hell, the thought of seeing Sipi Falls and riding with our two new friends sparking some fire on Ol’ Red. Just after midnight GQ and I thanked the folks at NRC and headed up to the Nile Porch where we sat in front of our safari tent overlooking the still waters of the Nile River chatting with Saleem. At four in the morning we went to bed.

We were meeting Harley and Emmelie at tennish so we had a few hours to sleep. After heart-felt goodbyes and promises of our return in January to install more art pieces, we hit the road with a breakfast stop in Jinja at a place called The Deli.

It was here we parted ways with the Dutch couple and headed off to Sipi Falls, travelling on broken roads that seemed to have been washed away in the El Nino rains covering the region. We drove past Mbale where GQ and I, squashed in among our packs, pointed out Wanale Falls and told our story of climbing it in the rain.

We arrived at a recommended campsite, Crows Nest, that overlooked the majestic Sipi Falls that came off the foothills of Mt Elgon. On the other side of the mountain lay Kenya.

We pitched our tent opposite the falls so the first thing we’d see in the morning as we unzipped ourselves from our mobile home would be Sipi Falls. Harley and Emmelie set up their rooftop tent and later joined us on our ‘balcony’ as we observed our green, watery surroundings.

We later conveyed for dinner at the bar, bringing together our grilled sandwiches (courtesy of The Black Lantern restaurant) and soup in a cup powder that Emmelie boiled up. The manager of the bar happened to be the owner of the property, Brian, so I went to barter with him for the night.

“I’ll write up something about Crows Nest and you’ll be mentioned in our hitch hiking video (coming soon),” I explained to him.

“No problem,” he said. “I will give you my email in the morning so you can send me the information.”

“Sweet as!” I grinned at GQ who was grinning back.

The next morning, after a shared breakfast of toast and some jam GQ got from The Black Lantern, Harley and Emmelie thanked us. “I think they thought we were involved in the barter so they wouldn’t let us pay,” Harley grinned.

It hadn’t rained during the night and Nico had warned that the road was very bad. Brian had said, “It’s very tough.” A local at the bar had shook his head and simply said, “Good luck.”

But none of that deterred us as we tackled the dirt track and drove around Mt Elgon towards the smallest, ramshackle border post I had ever come across.

“Your visa expires tomorrow,” noted the Ugandan immigration officer.

“Yeah, that’s why I’m leaving,” I said, sadly.

I was stamped out and while Harley and Emmelie were sorting out the paperwork for their car GQ and I walked over the border to Kenya where I asked if they, “Issue an East African Visa?”

“No, you have to go to Busia for that,” answered the immigration officer.

Merde. My outline was to get the EA visa which would allow me travel to Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya over a period of three months at a cost of a hundred dollars (the Ugandan visa on its own is the same price).

Now I’d have to get my second tourist visa for Kenya at $50 and get my EA visa when I returned to Uganda with GQ in January.

Ce la vie, no?

Having been easily cleared by the officials on both sides of the border we trucked on. We were hoping to reach Karen, on the outskirts of Nairobi that night.

“My friend Lucy is having a Pope party,” GQ read the invitation off her phone. “We’re all welcome. She lives in Karen.”

The illustrious Pope was visiting Kenya the next day. A man of his stature causes the entire shutting down of an African city. When President Obama came for a 2-day trot, Nairobi was under siege by security forces. Roads were closed and now with the Pope, the city’ll be shut down for his 3-day stroll. In fact, the Kenyan government declared a public holiday for the Pontiff’s arrival the following day.

We drove down the A104, stopping for lunch in Kitale with the great timing of the rains pouring down while we ate. As soon as we finished, the rains stopped. Chewie had issues aside from the leaky fuel tank. Its door locks, the stereo and the critical windshield wipers that died on us upon entering Eldoret just as the sun disappeared behind the bank of clouds that unleashed their wet fury on us were just a few.

“Was it your intention to buy a broken car?” I asked as the couple laughed.

The idea was to reach a campsite in Iten (pronounced, ‘Ee-ten) that overlooked the Great Rift Valley. But with dead wipers and darkness fast approaching and another 80 K’s to cover, GQ suggested we stay the night in Eldoret.

On my hitching to Uganda two months prior, I had arrived in this same city on Africa’s slowest truck and had bartered a night’s stay at Hotel Horizon where the manager was taken by my travel stories and choice of lifestyle.

“Hi Hilda,” I called her up from the hotel as she wasn’t working there that night. She remembered me and gave us directions to a small guest house she was operating somewhere in downtown nowhere of Eldoret. Blinded by the rain with heavy traffic we somehow made it to Lavilla Guesthouse, sliding on the muddy road on the way. We were warmly met by Hilda and Kip, son of Chris, Hilda’s Aussie brother-in-law who I met when I had spent the night at Horizon.

At 19, Kip had a wealth of life experience having grown up in Canberra, “Sorry mate,” I said upon hearing that. He has lived in Dubai and was schooled in the UK. I couldn’t manage a barter but I did negotiate a hefty discount that all parties involved where happy to accept.

The next morning we parted ways with a group photo and a, “Say ‘hi’ to your folks,” to Kip.

We took the back road to Nairobi, up and down and through the Great Rift Valley in an area that not only had I never been before, but even GQ, who has travelled extensively around Kenya in her six years of living here, hadn’t been.

The Great Rift Valley stretches between Mozambique and all the way up to Syria along the Syrian faultline (although, it’s not Syria’s fault to be on that line). An impressive sight with waterfalls cascading over dominating cliffs. We pulled up at a lookout point where  an entry fee of 200 Kenyan Shillings was stated on the sign – only it was for vans and tour buses.

“We’re a private car,” Harley said.

“You can’t charge for a view you did not create,” I threw in.

“How can you charge for something that god created?” challenged GQ. The poor guy, having been used to dealing with tourists and not travellers (the difference? Tourists see, travellers experience) backed up.

“OK, OK,” he said. “At least support us by buying a soda.”

“We don’t drink sodas,” I countered as we admired the view for a moment and figured we’d get a better, free one further down the road.

We weren’t disappointed when we pulled into a broken glass-ridden car park and graced our eyes with the ever flowing plains of the Great Rift Valley. We continued on, trucking past sisal plantations. As we were making our way to Nakuru, I suggested that, “We could do lunch at my mate’s camp, Punda Milias.” A place GQ and I had bartered and spent four days with Danny and his then fiancee-now-wife, Queen.

“Sounds good,” Harley and Emmelie agreed.

I called Danny to warn him of our arrival once we crossed the equator in Baringo, with the lake of the same name glistening from the valley floor on the horizon.

“We’ll be here,” he said.

An hour later we had introduced all parties to Danny and Queen who showed us their new toy, a 1974 FJ Landcruiser. “Original owner,” Danny beamed proudly.

“Its only had one owner since 1974?” I said, shocked.

“Yup,” Danny grinned.

We ordered lunch and after Danny showed us around Harley said, “I think we might bunk here for the night.”

Danny upgraded all of us from pitching our tents to using the Punda Milias bandas. We planned to hit the road the next day but a long night of drinking had laid out Danny and Harley.

Danny had shuffled into the bar in the morning after going to bed at three am. “You’re not allowed to bring any more of your friends over,” he grumbled jokingly (I hope) at me, blaming Harley for his hangover which was instantly cured with a ten o’clock beer.

And with the Pope’s arrival and Nairobi being shut down we had no choice but to stay another night.

“Besides,” he continued, “it’s Thanksgiving. I’ve got a 12-pound turkey in the oven, chef’s making sauce, stuffing, the works. So you gotta stay.”

I looked at GQ who had grown up in Canada and has done the Thanksgiving thing. “Never thought I’d come to Africa and have my first ever Thanksgiving,” I shook my head in wonderment as the TV showed the Pontiff’s addressing of the Nairobian crowd.

Two million people had squeezed into the city to see the man with the pointy hat.

2,000,000.

For sunset we headed over to the Sunbird Lodge to take on the view of Lake Elementatia before we finished the night by the fire at Punda Milias.

The next day we hit the road with fresh spirits (aside the tequila shots Danny and co had partaken in) and after four days with the amazing Harley and Emmelie, we parted ways at the turnoff to Karen. Since the Pope was leaving for Uganda that afternoon, the roads were opening up.

After we parted ways and the couple continued on to Karen, GQ and I hiked down the road where I managed to flag down a car. GQ knew Nairobi quite well so she took over the conversation with the driver who just happened to be going in the direction and into the very neighbourhood we needed to reach Atah’s place where we were bunking up for the week, writing up all our adventures in Uganda.

“What do you do?” I asked him.

“I’m a taxi driver,” he said. “But I don’t mind helping you.”

Twenty minutes later we were dropped off and hiked the 2 K’s to Atah’s house.

My previous single hitching record was two days on a truck from Iringa to Mwanza in Tanzania covering a distance of 941 kilometers with three truckers that barely spoke English. Now it was broken with four days from Jinja to Nairobi, covering 880 kilometers in a car that had a Kiwi, a Swede, an Aussie and an Indian. It was one of the best hitches I’d ever had thanks to our new friends, Harley and Emmelie.

Expect nothing, always get something.

Categories: Adventure Travel, Africa, Hitch Hiking, Uganda | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

STRINGING UP ART

“So what do you think?” Teresa asked as we stood inside the main room of the restaurant, The Black Lantern, that serves the best pork ribs in Africa – so is the claim. And it was here that our art installation barter would commence. We looked at the walls. Some had spears hanging from them. There were two empty spaces and then another space over the entrance to the porch overlooking the Nile.

“I’m thinking three string art pieces that we could hang on the walls,” GQ envisioned. “Do you have something we could use as a canvas? Wood or something?”

“I’ll have to look,” Teresa replied.

“What about that space in the back?” I asked (which was really the front reception area). A large wall stood bare, yellowish cream painted on it.

“Sometimes we have conferences and we use the wall as a projection screen,” Teresa said.

“What about above the line?” I asked.

“Yes, you could do use that.”

“We’d have to hammer into the wall,” GQ pondered. “Can we do that?”

“Sure,” Teresa nodded.

“We could do a 90 degree angle piece at the end of it,” I started to knock off ideas that were cascading off my rapid-working brain. “And then in the negative space we make three circle mandalas, from small to big, kinda like an evolution thing. No?” I turned to GQ who was nodding along.

I picked up the restaurant’s flyer and stared at the logo of a Grey Crown Crane silhouette (Uganda’s national bird that also appears on its flag) and the writing of The Black Lantern in Kuntsler Script font.

“What if we made the logo?” I suggested. “I mean, just the writing, on the top there? That way, you can still screen on the wall.”

GQ and Teresa looked up, envisioning it.

“We’d have to make stencils,” GQ said.

“Nah, I can copy it, free-hand.” Looking around I saw that it was me who made the claim.

Shit.

As a kid I used to draw, illustrate, cartoon and sketch a lot. It’s in the family genes. It also annoyed my teachers as I wouldn’t pay attention in class (explains a bit). My rebuttal at bullies and anyone that pissed me off would be a cartoon of them in a compromising position. And I’ve drawn on walls before. My childhood bedroom saw me draw a cartoon of a basketball player squashed on the wall behind the door so every time a friend entered the room I’d say, “Watch it, mate. You’ve just squashed him!”

Eventually my years of teacher annoyance paid off and at my high school I was asked to draw on the wall of my class. Something the teachers have yet to regret 14 years later as my mate, who now teaches at the school, sent me a photo with the caption, ‘Remember this?’

Which I didn’t and was surprised when I saw it, barely recalling that I had drawn the clichéd two swans coming together to create a heart in a sunset (I know, I know but I was 17 at the time and not quite rebellious trying to impress girls. That would come years later. The rebellious part, that is. Still trying to impress girls).

Swans

And then there’s the cave paintings I did at Amuka Safari Lodge.img_6648

But I ain’t ever done a font before. And never at 50 times the size of the original (a ballpark figure).

“I like it,” Teresa said.

“Yeah, that could work,” GQ concurred.

 

We got Bingo’s blessing and began to sketch and plan over the next few days while watching a Ross’s Turaco with its striking red wings fly in front of our tent, the song of fish eagles – a pair of which had built a nest in the huge tree in the car park – creating a consistent soundtrack, black and white casqued hornbills buzzing about, the yellow-billed ck8a8633kite raising its young in the nest just off the porch, the red-tailed monkeys and the vervets jumping from branch to branch. The lightening shows in the evening when moon-sized clouds pounded the horizon and the heavy rains that drenched everything.

 

 

And then there are the sunsets.ck8a8098

Oi ve, the sunsets.

At one point we had to move to the Nile River Camp for two nights due to the Nile Porch being fully booked. Luckily, Bingo also owns the NRC (as it is locally known) and we were guided to safari tent number two.

Two nights later we were back at the Nile Porch, this time in tent number 4 with the same incredible view.

THE DOOR

“I noticed there’s a door painted obscurely in the front there,” GQ said to Teresa the next morning. “Do you think Bingo would let us cut it into three canvases?”

“Ah, that door,” Saleem reflected as we watched the sun set over the Nile River. “There’s a story behind it.

That door was used for the house and one night our trusted askari (watchman) came in and stole the door.”

“Stole the door?” I repeated.

“Yes – ” Saleem attempted to continue.

“Who steals a door?” I pressed.

“Bro,” Saleem laid it down, “it’s Africa. Anyway, I went looking for that door. I was asking around, going into the villages and checking every door on every house. I was on the hunt. This kid came up to me and showed me where the door was. It was painted but I recognised my fucking door and I took it from the building. The guy claimed that he bought it for 50,000 shillings ($20 AUD) from my askari.

So I told him to come and find me at the Porch. Meanwhile I had called the askari and told him to come over. I deducted 50,000 shillings from the askari’s pay and gave it back to the guy in front of him.”

“And now we’re gonna chop it up and stick it on the wall,” GQ erupted into laughter as did we.

Speaking of, “Shall we get to work?” I asked.

I sawed the door into three almost-equal pieces and hammered in nails after GQ drew the circles.

She created the first two pieces and had a momentary lapse of sanity when she decided to let me do the, “Pièce de résistance,” on the last canvas.

While GQ strung up the first two pieces I spent my time free drawing the font onto the wall. It’d been awhile since I’ve used my brain to this artistic and engineering capacity so it was a little overwhelming at first.

The fuck am I doing? ck8a8305I can’t fuckin’ draw this shit. And on a ladder? The fuck was I thinking. Who put me up to this?

Oh.

Right.

Me.

Shit.

Self-doubt is a bitch of a dog that just wants to bite you in the ass as you try to hop over the fence to safety. But I whipped around and bit that bitch right back. Add on some encouraging words from GQ, the staff (“Well done.”) and some guests and three days later the font was on the wall, somehow looking exactly like the font on the flyer.

“Jesus,” I said aloud standing with GQ, Saleem and Teresa, admiring the sketch. “That was fuckin’ exhausting.”

But now came the hard part – hammering in 1700 nails.

Perhaps we were caught in the euphoria of seeing the work actually coming to life, or perhaps it was the amazing food that distracted us, either way, we were all unaware that the reason why the nails were bending was because they were wood nails.

Even though I was attempting to drill in pilot holes the drill bit wore down and the nails still bent. Turns out it helps if you use a drill bit for concrete rather than for steel.

“Let me call Joque and ask him if he has any drill bits,” Saleem whipped out his phone. “Concrete-steel nails?” I heard him repeat Joque’s suggestion. “Yeah, we could try that.”

Wouldn’t be my first ‘D’oh!’ moment.

Once we had the nails it took two days to hammer them into the points GQ marked.

“Yessis, you guys have patience, aye?” Bingo said on his occasional visit to see how much destruction we were doing to his wall.

Teresa had overheard him explaining what we were doing to some of the guys at the NRC.

“So the guy asks him, ‘But how do they have so much patience to hammer in all those nails?’ and Bingo says, ‘Because they are artists, bru’.”

ck8a8603

“You spelt Lantern wrong,” said a guest, attempting suicidal humour.

GQ and I began to string up the letters – which also took two days. When we were done, we stood back like proud parents, admiring our creation.

“Looks amazing,” Bingo said.

“It’s fuckin’ amazing,” Saleem concurred.

“It’s very beautiful,” Teresa added.

“Quite chuffed,” I grinned.

“Quite chuffed,” agreed GQ.

Quite.

*Check out the Timelapse video here

 

Categories: Africa, Uganda | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

HITCH HIKING IN UGANDA – PART VIII

“I’m almost tempted to drive you to Jinja myself,” Nabifo said as she pulled into the petrol station as far out of town as she could go.

“So let’s go!” I said.

“Yeah, come with us!” GQ threw in.

“I’m expecting a large group,” she said sadly.

 

 

We hugged as we parted ways, setting up shop just outside of the petrol station (a pump and a shack). After a weekend of an upset stomach and an inner ear infection that had me face my demons and a wet climb up Wanale Falls, GQ and I were finally on our way to Jinja – our last stop on our Ugandan adventure.

A truck pulled up but the driver wanted money. Ten minutes later a bakkie pulled over.

“I’m going to Kampala,” said Frank.

“Are you passing by Jinja?” I asked knowing that he had too.

“Yes.”

“Can we go with you?”

“No problem,” he grinned. “Let’s go.”

Frank was a telecommunications engineer. “I work on the mobile towers,” he said.

“Do you climb them?” I asked.

“Sometimes but most of my work is on the generators,” he shrugged.

“You probably drive around all over Uganda with this job,” GQ added.

“Yes,” he said.

“Gotta favourite place?” I asked.

“Western Uganda.”

“Yeah, that place is phenomenal,” I reflected on our time in Rubuguri.

“I just have to get my co-worker to sign this paper,” Frank said as he turned off the road and headed through a small village to the nearest mobile tower, a menacing metal structure standing at about 60 feet. He called out to his mate who guided him to another tower that then lead us to the third tower where we finally found him.

“Hello boss,” he grinned at me.

I grinned back playing the part. Company vehicles aren’t allowed to have non-company passengers in them. Once the paperwork was signed we hit the road and continued on our way. Frank wasn’t married but had a girlfriend in Kampala, where he lives.

“I plan to marry next year,” he said. “But I have a son.”

Mbale to Jinja is a two-hour drive through green rice fields that line the road and vast papyrus plants and wetlands.

“You have a beautiful country,” GQ said to Frank. She had told this to every driver we had, reminding the locals of what they have. “And Ugandans are so friendly and generous.” Also good to remind them that not everyone is an asshole (unless they’re from Birhalwe).

Before reaching Nalubaale Hydroelectric Power Station in Jinja (previously named Owen’s Dam which submerged Rippon Falls in 1954, named by John Hanning Specke, the first European to reach Lake Nalubaale which he christened Lake Victoria. He discovered the source of the White Nile back in 1859) we passed the big roundabout where the Ling-Ling Chinese restaurant on the highway towards the town of Jinja is located.

It was here that we were to meet Teresa who, along with Saleem, co-manages the Nile Porch River Lodge and The Black Lantern à la carte fine-dining restaurant, a Jinja institute. This barter was all GQ. I just tagged along looking pretty. But I was also throwing in the usual: play a few gigs, write an article and GQ was to create an art installation on which I would be the pretty assistant.

The Nile Porch River Lodge (NPR) is wedged between the Nile River Camp (NRC) and the Nile River Explorers (NRE. Who knew Jinja would be a town of acronyms?) where I had played for food and bed when I first entered this great country.

We were on the lookout for the Chinese restaurant. Luckily, it was built in the Chinese architectural style so it stood out like a kangaroo might in the Serengeti. Frank pulled over and we hopped out just as three boda-bodas made their way over.

“We go?” one asked.

“Sure,” I grinned. “We go – over there to meet our friend. I dunno what you’re doing though.”

They shrugged and biked off. What is it with these bodas? Its as though they’ve never attempted to use their feet other than to change gears on their bike. They seem perpetually glued to the seat of their two-wheels, just hanging around, pouncing on unsuspecting foreigners, scavenging like hyenas.

Perhaps I should carry a sign that would read: ‘Have legs, will walk’.

Teresa was already in the car park when we trekked over. She drove us into town to pick up her carpenter, Ronald, before we headed off to the lodge where I met Saleem and their two incredible kids, four-year-old Kanaya and six-year-old Khaleel.

“You guys can stay in tent 8,” Teresa said, as we were shown around the vast, green property. “Bingo really likes trees,” she referred to the owner as we walked among the tall jack-fruit trees.

“Looks like tree testicles,” GQ remarked.

“There’s a visual,” I grinned.

Teresa laughed. “Bingo planted all the trees here,” she continued. “He was the first one to put a raft on the water when the Bujigali Falls were still falls.”

According to local legend, the falls are the sacred site of the Spirit of Bujabald, embodied in a man, Jaja Bujabald, the 39th incarnation – the spirit doctor – who lives by the falls. The 95-year-old fella (four years ago. May have aged since) protects the community by performing rituals at the falls using local plants and herbs for medicine. There have even been reports that he can walk over the water (hmm, what would Jesus do?).

During the ’94 Rwandan genocide dead bodies dumped in Lake Victoria would float all the way to the Bujigali Falls and were wedged on the rocks. It was Jaja Bujabald that removed and buried them. His prophecy is that many people will have to die and others will fall mad if nature is destroyed and the dam built (enter ISIS).

About four years ago the Ugandan government constructed the dam even though they promised that the last dam would be the last dam. It turned Bujigali Falls – which were the first rapids when you went white water rafting – into a lake.

Next year, the Ugandan government is yet again constructing another dam that will turn the rest of the rapids into a lake and end white water rafting in the region forever and cause irreversible environmental repercussions that would affect the already decimated Lake Nalubaale.

Our tent was a combination of concrete and canvas. We had our own shower, toilet, a choice of double or single bed and even a lounging area.

And then there was the view. Here’s a picture since I can’t really put it into words:img_7938

“Not a bad barter,” I hugged GQ as a yellow-billed kite swooped around looking for prey or that perfect twig to add to its nest it had built in the tree off the porch of the restaurant.

“Quite chuffed,” she grinned. “Our word for pleasure.”

Categories: Adventure Travel, Africa, Hitch Hiking, Uganda | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Categories: Adventure Travel, Africa, Uganda | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

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.

Categories: Adventure Travel, Africa, Hitch Hiking, Uganda | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Categories: Adventure Travel, Africa, Hitch Hiking, Uganda | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

FOOTSTEPS THROUGH AFRICA

img_6921

“Excuse me,” one of the administrators entered the ranger’s office I was sat in. “There is a Jo to meet you.”

Jo? I searched my brain. Unlike Google, I came up with nothing. “Who is Jo?” I asked her as I followed her across the grass.

“He says he knows you,” she said, leading me to the restaurant of the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary where at the bar stood a tall South African with dreadlocks.

“Are you Jo?” I asked.

“Yes,” he grinned, sticking his hand out. “I’m Erin’s boyfriend. I was told to buy you a beer. So which beer do you want?”

I blinked. Well, this is a first.

Erin was a Canadian I’d met in Kilifi, Kenya. She’d told me how she and her partner had started an NGO in Uganda. And the global village just shrank a little more.

“Howzit, bru?” I said, connecting the dots. “I’ve just quit alcohol for medical reasons but I appreciate the offer.”

We sat down to chat and by the end of the hour Jo had invited the Gypsy Queen and myself to become his NGO’s first volunteers.

“We need to get the word out, bru,” he said. “If you want to barter a small paragraph –”

“Stop,” I stopped him. He blinked. “I don’t do paragraphs. I write.”

He grinned. “You’ll stay at my friend’s lodge, you’ll get food, take you hiking to waterfalls,” Jo was selling it well.

“I’m there,” I grinned. “We can do a little video for you too.”

13 rides and a party at the cop shop (which could have ended up in the holding cell) the Gypsy Queen and I had finally arrived at the rolling green hills of Rubuguri, a small, picturesque village deep in the heart of the Kisoro district in western Uganda. Beyond its surrounding hills lies Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, where Uganda’s endangered mountain gorilla population reside. It was here that we met Gordon and Ben, Jo’s two right-hand men that were to take care of us for the week we were volunteering. We were bedded in Wagtail Eco Lodge, owned by Mr Rubbs.

“He’s the local mayor,” Jo had told us.

A crafty politician he was immediately taken by us and offered us to stay for, “Two months. We make business together. We make money.”

I tried to explain our non-monetary ways but it fell on deaf ears.ck8a7035

Footsteps Through Africa had begun back in April, 2015. In the seven months since it started up they managed to get a donation of 22,000 books from the USA and have about 22 kids sponsored. They’ve started up a community library and another one in the village boarding school.

Quite an impressive accomplishment for such a short period of time and more so for an NGO that has no corporate financial backing.

“In June next year I’d like to hitch hike through Africa,” Jo had told me back at Ziwa. “Raise awareness, raise funds, find remote villages off the beaten track and see what Footsteps can do for them.”

Gordon and Ben showed us the community library in the building where an 80-year-old mzee (term of respect for the senior) greeted us daily. Even though he looked more like he might be scraping 60. When we visited the school the kids were let out and what was supposed to be a playful afternoon soon became a mini-riot as the kids screamed and reached out to us like we were candy. Some kids even touched my legs, having never come across a non-African before.

img_7033For the week we were there, it rained every day. It rained when Gordon and Ben took us on a hike up the hills, passed terrace farms and all the way to the Bwindi forest, through the woods where mushrooms scattered the forest floors. Through the mist the area was infamous for.

It rained when we hiked to the waterfalls and the caves the next day. It rained so heavily that we took shelter in a nearby hut, trying to dry our clothes, succeeding in burning a hole in my camera bag. We eventually turned back to the village and tried again the next day that appeared sunnier.

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It still rained on us for a bit as we finally made it to the waterfall.

Gordon also trains the local kids in athletics at the village football field which also doubles as the cows feeding grounds. When it rains it triples as the local swimming pool. One sunny afternoon with a break in the rains, I found myself playing football with the kids. I played barefoot, sliding on every attempt to get the ball, the locals laughing hysterically until I scored a Maradona inspired goal (but without the Hand of God).

Which, turns out, didn’t count.

img_6933

“That is my bar,” Gordon indicated to the sign that read, ‘The Cave’.

He showed us his humble establishment and the Gypsy Queen latched onto a wall. “If you want, I can do some string art here for you.”

After explaining what string art was he agreed to get the wool and nails. GQ and I then proceeded to spend our last day making what would become The Cave Mandala.

To inspire our work, we shared a bottle of Old Monk rum that GQ had brought from India. By evening, when we had finished, I had whipped out Ol’ Red and had Gordon, Ben and everyone within earshot dancing to my tunes. We retired to Wagtail lodge where, while cooking dinner, I continued to play as the staff suddenly turned the kitchen into a dance hall.

There are thousands of NGOs in Africa. Some are dodgy that just want money and don’t care about community impact like the one that is already in Rubuguri who shall remain unnamed. In the six years its been present in the district, the community has seen no contribution from its presence.

In the seven months that Footsteps Through Africa have operated here, lives have changed for the better. Children are getting an education, life’s doors of opportunity are and will open up for them. 22,000 books? Some libraries in the Western world could only dream of having such a collection.

The Rubuguri community has had a positive impact thanks to Jo and Erin’s Footsteps Through Africa. Volunteering is available by contacting Jo or Erin at https://www.facebook.com/footstepsthroughafrica/

 

Categories: Adventure Travel, Africa, Conservation, Uganda | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

PARTY AT THE COP SHOP

“Sounds like a party in there,” I smiled at the female officer at the desk. I was referring to the noise coming from the holding cells.

“They are suspects celebrating the primary elections we just had,” she said, smiling back.

Gypsy Queen and I explained our want of pitching our tent somewhere safe and the officer passed the word around. The station chief wasn’t there yet but having made contact with him over the phone we were told that, “He won’t allow you to pitch a tent here. It is not safe due to the primary elections.”

Across the road I spied the silhouette of a church. I’ve never slept in a church and I figured that they couldn’t refuse our request to pitch our tent on their grass. The female officer hiked over on our behalf and came back saying, “The reverend says it is not safe to pitch there.”

“Listen,” I began and told how I’ve been sleeping in, “Police stations from Namibia all the way to Kenya. Never had a problem. We just want to pitch our tent and go to sleep.”

An hour later an officer in a white uniform said we could sleep in the traffic police office. “Even me, I’m sleeping here tonight.”

The room had two desks and floor space for a snail. There were colourful and highly graphic images on the wall of horrific accidents and what a human body looks like after its been run over.

The Gypsy Queen looked at me. “Lovely,” she said.

“We’d really just rather pitch our tent,” I said to the officer.

Ten minutes later the station chief appeared with an entourage of officers. One was in full riot gear and the only officer I’ve ever met who didn’t smile. He looked at us as though we were political prisoners.

“How can you travel without money?” he questioned, pointing fingers accusingly. “I have been in Kampala and have dealt with foreigners but never heard of this travel method.”

He simply couldn’t get it through his thick, riot helmet that our lifestyle was real and able.

“I play music in exchange for food and bed,” I explained for the umpteenth time, frustrated, tired and just craving sleep.

“Prove that you are a musician,” demanded the station chief.

I sighed and pulled out Ol’ Red. As I tuned her we were suddenly surrounded by 15 cops. I looked over at the Gypsy Queen. “What should I play?” I asked. As she pondered it hit me. “Folsom Prison Blues?”

She laughed. “The irony will be lost on them.”

I ripped out a country-rock version of Johnny Cash’s classic which had everyone staring at me with one officer even dancing a bit. Our riot-geared interrogator still wasn’t convinced and demanded to see our passports. Neither he nor the station chief could understand how the Gypsy Queen’s Canadian passport could have been issued in Kenya when in fact, she was originally from India.

“If you went to Australia,” I explained with extreme patience, “and your passport expired, you would then go to the Ugandan embassy to renew it. On the passport it will say, ‘Issued in Australia’. OK?”

He nodded as the riot-gear officer demanded we call Ruganzu in Kampala to prove our existence.

“We don’t have a phone,” I said.

He almost fainted from shock. “How do you communicate?” he asked menacingly.

“Internet,” the Gypsy Queen said and I hoped we weren’t going to have to explain the ways of the world-wide-web.

He continued to interrogate us and even demanded that we call GQ’s parents in India.

“I do not want to bother them,” she said, maintaining an impressive calmness about her. “It is very late over there now.”

“So nobody knows you are here?” his shifty eyes narrowed, a dodgy scheming happening behind them making me jump in with,

“My website has a vast audience. There are more than a thousand people around the world who know exactly where we are.” I stared him down. He was about to say something I probably would have ignored when his commanding officer told him and two other cops trying to intimidate us to get in the car and respond to a call.

After they left I approached the officer. “Listen, its late, we just want to put up our tent and go to sleep. In the morning, we are gone before the sun comes up. Please?”

The officer smiled. He looked at one of his goons. “Search their bags thoroughly, then they can go to sleep in the traffic police office,” he said before he headed off to cool down the post-election celebrations in town. “And keep their passports with Major. They can collect them in the morning.”

If there’s one thing I hate, is handing over my passport. Especially to police. Especially to police in a country run by a dictator.

“Who is Major?” I asked around. A small man in a black leather jacket wearing a police beret smiled at me. “What’s your name?” I asked him.

“Major,” he smiled. “You just call me Major.”

The whole scene was beginning to feel like something out of a bad movie in which our heroes end up thrown in an African jail. I wouldn’t have minded having our bags searched as we had nothing to hide.

Well, except for a small joint. The Gypsy Queen was hiding it, I just didn’t know where. So just when we thought our long day was over, here we were, getting our bags thoroughly searched at 22:30. Knowing what could happen, adrenaline was rushing through me. I was wide awake now.

“Look,” I said, exhausted already from the emotional torment these cops were putting us through. “We just want to get some sleep and go in the morning. You searching our bags is gonna take an hour.”

“30 minutes,” smiled the search-conducting officer. “Please, place your bag on the counter.”

I placed my big, Northridge Nomad 65 pack on the counter and took off the rain cover.

“Please, untie the tent,” the officer continued to grin, “and unpack it.”

For fuck’s sake, “It’ll take forever to pack it back,” I complained.

Never, in the two and a half years that I’ve been on the road, have I been searched by police whenever I’d ask to sleep in the station. Heck, I’ve never even been searched at borders. And it was times like these that I wished I had more than one pair of used underwear for the police to rummage through.

I leaned over to GQ. “Maybe you should go to the toilet?” I suggested, hoping that my meaning would be taken by her. It was.

“No, I’m OK,” she said calmly.

When my bags were repacked, the female officer stepped up. In Africa, a woman is not allowed to be searched by a man. The thing is, our female police officer flipped from the smiling, warm inviting look we were greeted with to something along the lines of the Grim Reaper about to cart off another soul.

With me, only my bags were searched. With GQ, she got the full treatment, just shy of a cavity search.

Sweating.

Nervous.

Nervous sweating.

While she was being searched, the officer who searched me began to beat two prisoners – suspects – that were sitting by the counter. He beat them with a smile on his face.

I was trying to figure out a way that, in case they found the joint, what explanation we could give.

Glaucoma?

“OK, you can go,” the female officer suddenly smiled.

I blinked as GQ gathered her bags and looked at me with, “You coming?” and headed down the hall.

“How?” I began. “I don’t… I mean, how? Where?”

She grinned. “While you were being searched I managed to grab the little pouch and sneak into my underwear. She just missed it when she patted me down.”

I breathed out long and hard. “Jesus,” I reflected on the two close calls I’ve had when it came to drugs in Africa – my arrest in Zanzibar (talked out of) and GQ’s and mine getting an attempted extortion on a rooftop in Nairobi (had to protect the would-be extortionists from GQ). But here? In the cop shop? Nothing is impossible but I’m sure we would have had some extreme difficulty to get out of this one had it gone left instead of right.

I laid out my sleeping bag, then placed our bed sheet on top, then two gamchas that the Gypsy Queen had brought from her recent trip to India, my kikoy, a cotton blanket and we covered up in my Maasai shuka.

Only three mosquitoes bothered us and, despite the unwanted adventure, we slept pretty well.

In the morning we packed up at sunrise, thanked the officers and bee-lined it to the main road in early morning mist. After 45 minutes I spotted a red-plated government car.

“They never stop,” I said to the Gypsy Queen. “But I’mma try.” I sang out for them and suddenly they pulled over.

Thomas and Eddie were conducting a census count and were happy to take us through the windy roads rolling through the greenest hills I’ve ever seen. Terraced hillsides showed where all the locals were farming their food as cows, goats and sheep lined the roadside. We were dropped off in the town of Kabale where the main road was under construction. We hiked a bit, waving off the boda-bodas and I flagged down an open-bed truck.

Turns out that no one in the area has heard of the small village of Rubuguri. We were taken about 10 K’s down the road and dropped off at the wrong turn-off. Having been corrected by the locals we hit the road with a young woman walking along with us.

“Us, we like white man. They always give us something,” she said repeatedly. I knew what she was hinting at and it was pissing me off. She had her eye on Animal. “Why don’t you give me that doll? I can give it to my son. It will make him very happy.”

“Excuse me,” I said, maintaining a forced calmness. “But the only reason you are talking to us is because all you see is the colour of our skin. You think that because we are not African than it automatically means we are walking cash machines. If you want something from me, you have to first be my friend, earn my respect and then, if I feel like it, then I will give you something. But just from asking? No –” fuckin’ “– way.

We are not white and you are not black,” I preached. “We are human. When you accept that, then we can be friends.”

She laughed, a slight embarrassment about her. Then she eyed Animal again. “Why don’t you give me that doll? I can give it to my son. It will make him very happy. White man always gives us something. Make us very happy.”

I huffed as the Gypsy Queen signaled me to ignore her and we plodded on. A car came down the road and, although it was a taxi, was gracious enough to take us to the next village where some men asked us if we were footing it.

“Yes,” GQ said and the men almost fell over themselves with laughter.

“Never gets old,” I grinned as I flagged down the oncoming AMREF Landcruiser that took us to the turnoff to Rubuguri. We had a 20 K hike before us unless a vehicle came along. Within five minutes two trucks rattled up behind us.

The blue one took us on in the open tray which we shared with four guys.

“Are you on your way to work?” GQ asked them.

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They nodded and smiled as we bounced along the red track, valleys, terraced hillsides and pine trees escorted us to where we were dropped off, 7 K’s from Rubuguri. Shaken, rattled and rolled we began to hike along the dirt track. Within 15 minutes a young American couple drove up and took us to Wagtail lodge where we met Gordon and Ben, the two guys who help Jo and Erin with the NGO Footsteps Through Africa.

We were to become their first volunteers.

 

 

Categories: Adventure Travel, Africa, Conservation, Uganda | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

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