Sunday, September 12, 2010
But for now, I'm happy just soaking up all things American. Sick of airplanes, I decided to take the Amtrak up to Boston for the Fair Trade Futures Conference this weekend. I reclined the seat, pressed my forehead up to the glass, gazed at the marshy beaches of the somewhere-north-of-Delaware, and started to reflect.
The sheer enormity of change in 2010 put a damper on reflection - one of my favorite hobbies. Perhaps some years are all about reflecting (2008) while others (2009, 2010) are all about moving.
This year has been filled with dramatic movements - first the circumnavigation of Lake Victoria, then the shifting earth in Haiti. And then working in Pakistan. March. April. June. July. The intoxicating dance of being completely on your own in a place that is completely new.
In July the unthinkable occurred - my Mom and Dad came to Africa. Seeing them take in my Uganda felt like an invisible hand sewing up the giant crevasse that my work there had created.
For Danny this America experiment is a mere stopover to learn a new language before his South American adventure begins in April. For me, it's a homecoming. As fall approaches, so too does my penchant for slow, quiet music and forehead-pressed-against-the-glass reflecting. I suspect that in the coming months, it will be about much more than skinny jeans and fancy phones.
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
He hurried around me with his tasks, but something about his energy filled the room - or maybe it was the rose water he spritzed all over the floor. Or the oil lamp he lit on the bedside table. Suddenly, the little wilty roses in plastic on my pillow took on so much more meaning. We didn't make eye contact, but I sensed that he was smiling as he went about his work
It feels good to be alone, in this dark little room.
It feels good to be back in Pakistan, riding around the leafy streets, watching auto-rickshaws buzz by. Turbaned men in salwar kameez stroll down the street in pairs, or lounge in traffic circles, or sit cross-legged facing each other in the park. Women, so seldom seen on the street, tuck their dupatta a little more closely around their face.
Something about being somewhere so other, so far away and so removed from everything… there’s something about that which is appealing. The lure of the hotel room – the quiet hotel room where I don’t have to listen to anything at all.
Wednesday, June 02, 2010
After four years of working in Uganda, I finally made it to magical Bwindi Impenetrable Forest - the land of the mountain gorilla. As you might have noticed from a blatant lack of blogging, my work life has been all-consuming. So much so that I don't even have time for the typical meta-work (reflection) that I do through the One Mango Tree blog. I outsourced that to Lauranne Boyd, our newest employee. Tying myself down to $500 per person gorilla trekking passes ensured that I would get out of Kampala, and away from my laptop - for four solid days. A small [albeit expensive] victory.
Bwindi is Uganda's piece of national forest where mountain gorillas still roam - the endangered species can be found only in the region where Uganda, Rwanda and DRC intersect. Ten years ago you'd be more likely to find guerillas instead of gorillas in this area, but things have stabilized and tourism is on the rise. The huge permit fee goes towards research and conservation efforts - including community development in the surrounding areas.
Danny and I drove out to Bwindi from Kampala - instead of taking the horrible Masaka-Mbarara route, we headed northwest to Fort Portal. We stopped for lunch at Rwenzori Travellers Inn, and ate what looked like deep-fried bat carcasses (I think it was supposed to be chicken and chips). From Fort Portal the road swings south, following along the base of the Rwenzoris and flirting with the Congolese border. We drove through an eerily empty Queen Elizabeth and Ishasha.
We stayed at Gorilla Forest Camp - as luck would have it, we had the entire lodge to ourselves for the weekend. The altitude in southwestern Uganda creates an autumn-like crispness in the evenings, so we chilled out post-dinner in front of the campfire and found hot water bottles tucked into our bed. The peace and quiet made me nostalgic for autumn back at home.
Our trekking passes were good for Sunday, so we got up early and headed down to the headquarters to meet our guides. On the way from our tent to breakfast (a 2-minute walk), a monkey pooped on my head. I think it also laughed - a premonition of the day ahead, no doubt. I'd heard that tracking gorillas was a "walk in the park," so in my frenzy to pack, I only brought yoga pants and a pair of low-top Chuck Taylors. We were assigned to track the "H" group. I scoffed at the suggestion that I might need a porter to help "pull or push" me in difficult tracking situations. A couple of hours into our hike (?!) we started descending the steep cultivated hillsides. My Chucks were no match. I was instantly rendered a complete un-balanced klutz, and I fell over and over again. I even cried once. Finally, a nice porter (one hired by someone else - someone less arrogant and more practical) rescued me, and I spent the rest of the day clutching onto his hand, trying not to fall off the hillside entirely.
The elusive "H" group had decided to hang out all afternoon munching vegetation on a steep (and heavily shrubbed) hillside above a river. Danny got all National-Geographic-up-close-and-personal with the gorillas, while I clung onto tree trunks and branches and tried not to think about falling. I still managed to snap a few good shots, but I couldn't help wondering how in the hell we would get out of this precarious gorilla observing perch. The answer was a stumble-fall-crash down the hill and across the river, while our trackers hacked through thick sugar cane to create a path out of the ravine.
When we made it back to the Defender 8 hours after our journey began, I was exhausted and happy that I'd made it out with both of my ankles intact. Back at Gorilla Forest Camp we were rewarded with another gorilla sighting - another group had passed into our camp and was eating fruit near the toilet. Check it out:
When I think about the leisurely stroll that other gorillas trekkers had reported, I'm not really sure what happened. I think I get it now about the monkey pooping on my head. He was laughing so hard when he saw my Chucks that he shit himself.
In any case, we earned it, and what a reward it is to be only a meter away from a mountain gorilla. It truly was an amazing experience, and three days later, I'm finally able to walk again.
Saturday, March 13, 2010
I'm in Lahore because I took a consultancy with FIRMS Project - a USAID-funded project which is tasked with:
developing a dynamic, internationally competitive, business sector in Pakistan that is increasing exports, employing more people and producing higher value added products and services.
I am working on the Market Readiness Program - providing training and support to women-owned businesses in the garment, jewelry and home decor sectors in Multan and Karachi.
After numerous delays because of visa issues (a dark and dingy Pakistani Consulate office in Hotel Diplomate in Kampala, a leap of faith in Fed-Exing my passport to DC, the freak snow storm that delayed it, and one Officer McTernan who held onto my passport for a long time for no good reason), I finally got the stamp and boarded the plane... Only to land in Lahore during the worst week in recent history. I arrived on Wednesday. Last week, Pakistani intelligence captured the leader of the TTP in Karachi (that's Tehrak-i-Taliban, the Pakistani version). On Monday, in retaliation, a suicide car bomber rammed into a police interrogation building in Lahore.
After a routine security briefing on Thursday in the FIRMS office, I felt fairly doubtful that I'd come to understand what "lockdown" even meant. After all, some friends were silly enough to compare suicide bombs to that old adage about lightening never striking the same place twice. Then, just as I was in a meeting thinking about lunch on Friday, the PA came on and twin suicide bombs in the Cantonment area of Lahore were announced. Lockdown = check.
I didn't hear anything, feel anything or see anything, other than concern on the local staff's faces as they called their families and tried to resume work. One woman brought over menus for lunch - Subway, McDonald's, or KFC. The Subway man still delivered our lunch, we just weren't allowed to leave the building.
I finally made it back to my hotel around 8 pm, and was once again contemplating food when I received a text message from the office reporting another bomb blast in Moon Market. And then two more, and then more. The sound of an SMS started to make me flinch. I ate my room service - red snapper, mashed potatoes, red carrots and French apple pie. I finally fell asleep, fitfully, and spent my Saturday indoors - mostly in my hotel room, locked down once again until further notice. So much for kurta shopping.
Monday, February 01, 2010
And a day later, he was gone. He took a one-month assignment to help out at the US Embassy in Haiti, so we went from circumnavigation of Lake Vic mode into crisis-earthquake-goodbye mode. I guess that's how these things happen.
Saturday, January 23, 2010
On the morning of the 12th, we drove through central Kigali to exit the city and head north, and made a stop off at Bourbon Coffee for some joe and breakfast sandwiches for the road. We bought a bag of coffee to feed Aisha (our housekeeper). I unfortunately had gotten her hooked on caffeine, and we thought it best to give her her own stash.
The most remarkable thing about this last leg of the trip was crossing the border back into Uganda. While it still held that feeling of "home," after visiting Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda, we couldn't shake the feeling that something is just not right with Uganda. I freshened up on the history of dictators, reading aloud from the guide book. Danny tried his damndest to avoid the idiot drivers trying to run us off the road. Admittedly, that last chunk of road from the border, up through Mbarara and Masaka is quite bad - we knew that. But somehow, after the smooth tarmac of Tanzania and Rwanda, we were quite pissed off.
Remembering our trip out to Mihingo in October, we counted off the clustered items on sale on the way back into Kampala - the drum section, the woven mats, the painted stools, the asparagus-like unidentifiable veggies, the FISH. We pulled back into Kampala, sat in jams and finally pulled into the compound in Muyenga. Greeted with waggy butts of Henry and Neilos, we gave a collective sigh and started to unload the car. Home.
Friday, January 22, 2010
Eventually we had to say good-bye to Hotel Tilapia and pretty little Mwanza, and get back on the road. We were a little over halfway around the lake - and we only had two days to get Danny back to the office. It was appropriately rainy when we woke up, packed the car and hit the road. Due to some bad instructions from the hotel front desk, we ended up at the wrong ferry. When we finally found the right one about an hour away, the ferry was pulling away from the shore. I silently read the New Yorker (about how to make Jews feel included on Christmas) while Danny fumed.
As always happens on a trip so long on the road, a melt-down occurred. I wanted to read him the New Yorker story and he wanted to be mad. Then I got mad that he was mad and he cheered up by purchasing a monkey hat off a vendor. We rode the ferry silently, with arms crossed.
The road from Mwanza to Kigali was a good one. We reached the border at Rusomo Falls, I walked across the little bridge over a raging orange rapid, and met Danny on the other side. The "no-corruption" policies of the Rwandan border control made for a quick crossing, and we were on our way - on the right-hand side of the road. Rwanda is called the "land of a thousand hills," and we wound our way, zig-zagged and swooped all over the country, heading north, then west into the city. Everything about the Rwanda seemed tidy - from the cleanly swept yards to the impeccable dresses worn by the women. The road was smooth and free of potholes. We remarked at how something must be going right here.
We ended the evening crashing at my friend Julie's house in Kigali. We walked through the residential neighborhood and had dinner at Papyrus, drank oodles of wine and walked back home.
Thursday, January 21, 2010
It was high fives all around when we got back onto the tarmac and made our way to Mwanza. I think I even heard the Defender give a loud sigh of relief.
The rock outcroppings of Mwanza are unmistakable, surrounding the lake shore with scenery. They reflected pink, dusky light as we entered the town from the east. Mwanza is Tanzania's third-largest city. At the suggestion of my Kampala Book Club friend, Anna, we drove straight to Hotel Tilapia.
We spent two days in Mwanza, without really leaving Hotel Tilapia. The permanently-docked room listed to the left, so you had to do a bit of a gravity-dance in the bathroom so as not to slip and hit the wall. All part of the charm. On the second night we ordered in, Indian food by candlelight on the bow/patio, amidst the old cranks and chains. The rest of the time we caught up on Al-Jazeera and watched Religulous on my netbook. I could have stayed there for a month.
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
The road to Ngorongoro Crater was just as bad as the road to Seronera. If you can ignore the bumps caused by the grading technique used to make the road, it's possible to spend the journey in awe of the landscape. The Serengeti plains were made by layers and layers of volcanic ash from the huge volcano that collapsed into the Ngorongoro Crater. The soil is thin, which accounts for the tree-less plains punctuated by kopjes - the tops of what were once mountains, now just rocks on the surface of the plains.
We passed the turn off for Olduvai Gorge and the landscape changed again, now ascending into verdant green hills, passing Maasai herders as we climbed higher and higher. The temperature dropped quickly and dramatically, and we arrived at the edge of the crater in the middle of the afternoon - lucky to grasp a brief moment of clear before the clouds swept across the rim.
The next morning, after much discussion and debate, we decided to splurge and pay the fee to go into the crater. We got this far...
After a visit to the Crater Park HQ for fees and fuel, we descended into the crater. The setting seemed surreal, with the lake rimmed with pink flamingos and a giant male lion napping next to the road.
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
6 and 7 Jan.
We'd heard from lots of people to be prepared to spend a fortune in Tanzania. The visa alone is $100 for Americans. Entry to the parks is $50 per person per day, with another $40 per vehicle per day and $30 each per night of camping. Get out your calculator - that's $200 per day if you do safari entirely on your own. Maybe that was why I expected big things. Or maybe it was that the Mara was so spectacular, that Serengeti just had to be bigger and better and... more.
I clung to my relentless optimism as we passed through the gate to embark on the "two hour" journey to Seronera camp site. Four and a half hours later, after heavy rains, horrific roads, killer tsetse flies and a looming sense that something must be wrong, we saw the sign for Serena Seronera Serengeti Safari Lodge. We were so frustrated by the drive that we shelled out $427 to stay for one night at the lodge instead of camping. Danny awoke in the morning announcing the "best night of sleep ever in his whole entire life." I just wanted to sit next to the pool. We had a fabulous breakfast with tasty little plums, and one of the staff washed the muck from the Defender and the increasingly smelly muck from our cooler (melted ice + spilled milk + spoiling meat).
And then, of course, we got back on the road.
Monday, January 18, 2010
With the waning light painting a magical horizon around us, we tried once again to find that idyllic off-the-road spot that eluded us in Kisii. We pulled off to see about camping on a farmer's property, and were quickly surrounded by every Tanzanian in a 5-mile radius - none of whom could speak English. We drew pictures of tents and tried our best to convey our need for a scenic and private campsite, but to no avail.
We pressed on in the dark, eventually arriving at Tembo Beach Hotel in Musoma - a small town on the shores of Lake Victoria. Tembo Beach is a common stopping point for ginormous overland trucks, and when we pulled into the car park, there was a circle of travelers chatting next to one of the large, lumbering vehicles. We set up our tent in a sandy spot and cooked chicken spaghetti. I turned in early and left Danny to the devices of an older woman from the overland group - who'd taken a liking to him and his scotch.
Upon leaving the next morning, we saw what we'd missed in the cover of night. Musoma is a really neat town, with sand-swept streets and a languid beachy feel. As we drove through on our way to Serengeti, we were both sad that we didn't have time to walk around and get a better feel for the place.
Sunday, January 17, 2010
This is my will:
In an anthill.
After one week
Of this feast,
Set the ants on fire.
Make me a funeral pyre.
Let my smoke rise
Into the eyes
Of those crows
On the telephone wire.
Startle those birds
With my last words:
I loved my life.
~ Sherman Alexie, from War Dances
Saturday, January 16, 2010
Home to the first 360 degree sunset.
Several people had suggested we stay at Sand River Camp. The site, which is actually a park gate, is nestled in the hills, on the winding banks of aptly-named Sand River. We were the only campers, which added to the feeling of remoteness of the place.
When we pulled up to talk to the rangers on the first day, they all shrieked and ran away. Turns out it wasn't because of us, but rather a young green mamba that showed up on the walls of the gate. Here's the deadly little guy eating a lizard. The ranger gave us a full lecture on the deadliness of the green mamba.
The first night at Sand River, after the amazing sunset, night fell and we were sitting at our campfire - when suddenly we heard what can only be described as munching. We took out the spotlight to check it out - a family of five elephants was walking along, eating grass on the other side of the car - not 25 yards from where we were sitting.
Our second night at Sand River, we decided to cross the river and camp a bit further from the gate. We picked a perfect spot with a tree on a bending bank. After a full day of incredible safari, we pulled up in the drizzle to set up camp. It had been drizzling all day, and it turned into full-on rain as night fell. Sometime while I was cooking dinner (minestrone soup mix with pasta and chicken added in), there was this strange howling sound. It gave me goosebumps. Again, out with the spotlight... but this time it wasn't animals, but rather a fast-rising river. Within minutes, Sand River had risen about 6 feet and was now a raging torrent of dark brown water.
We weren't alone. A vervet monkey crept up on our campsite and perched himself in the tree. It didn't take long to figure out he was casing the joint, and as we were merrily photographing his blue balls, he chose the perfect moment to run into our campsite, tucking a bag of rainbow-colored pasta under his arm football-style, looked both ways and ran. Danny was fast behind him (yes, he chased a wild monkey to retrieve our pasta), returning and fist-pumping the bag of pasta he stole back from the monkey.
And THAT was the end of our stay at Sand River.
Friday, January 15, 2010
We entered Masai Mara through the seldom-used western gate - most tourists come from Nairobi, which puts you at the northeastern corner of the park. Seeing that Kenya had been receiving huge amounts of off-season rain, the last stretch of road into the park was horrific. Danny got to use more than his fair share of his defensive driving skills getting through this mucky mud pit that was eating everyone else's cars. I don't know how he did it. The actual arrival at the park is stunning - we didn't realize we'd been driving atop an escarpment, which promptly opened to the widest, most beautiful and empty scene you can imagine - yellow-green grass, acacia trees, and rainstorms on the horizon.
After a brief stop off to check out Kichwa Tembo Camp (a luxury camp - we stopped for a beer, tour and some ice for the coolers), we reached the main gate.
Our campsite, Sand River Camp, was on the complete opposite end (southeast corner) of the park, so we got to drive through the entire park on our way there.
Thursday, January 14, 2010
Danny and I are unfortunately getting a reputation for being late to things. We were definitely late for our trip - luckily there was no plane to catch - just the Defender sitting in the driveway, waiting patiently. We spent most of New Years Day packing: a trunk with our clothes; a bin filled with canned beans and corn, chili, pasta, oatmeal, coffee, mac & cheese, packets of tuna; foldable camp chairs and table; lanterns and cooking stove; yellow jerry cans of drinking water; "the kitchen" - a backpack filled with cooking and eating utensils; coolers with meat for the early days on the road; our two guitars (in a romantic ideal of our trip, we were musical vagrants), and an inexplicable amount of booze for two people for 12 days (you know, just in case). Neilos hopped in the back seat and put on a VERY depressed face.
We finally hit the road just before dark, and ran into rain on the Kampala-Jinja Road, realizing the headlights were not sufficient to be driving in the dark. So, on our first day, we made it about 90 km. We stopped for the night at our friend Wim's place, staying in his cottage for the night.
2 Jan - time to get serious. We got on the road to Kenya and crossed the border at Busia. Kenya greeted us with rain and shitty roads (yes, worse than Uganda). We drove into Kisumu for money and bread - Kisumu is a lakeside town, and Kenya's third largest city. Then on further south to Kisii. I'd been reading about what an utter crap hole Kisii was - litter-strewn streets, lots of weird unfinished construction - a sort of Tijuana in the Kenyan hills. Unfortunately, darkness was again fast approaching, and we recognized that there was no possible way we'd make it to the Mara before dark. We both shared the dream of setting up camp in some idyllic spot just off the road, with stunning views.
Instead of scenery, we were awarded with an evening at the Kisii police barracks. Danny pulled his international policeman card and we parked the Defender between two buildings housing about ten officers. Surely the highlight of their new year.
The highlight of my morning, however, was when Danny tried to turn last night's mashed potatoes (accidentally made enough for an army) into potato pancakes. Note: mashed potatoes fry up nicely the next day as.... mashed potatoes, nothing more. So we had mashed potatoes for breakfast and hit the road.
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
Sometime this past fall, Danny and I decided we wanted to take a big trip - a road trip. His affinity for Land Rovers made it an easy thing to envision - hitting up some of the hottest spots in East Africa on an over-land adventure all our own, in the world's coolest car. Danny already had a Land Rover Discovery when I met him. Sometime in 2009, he came home with a beat-to-hell white Defender, made sometime in the late 80s, with doors that didn't entirely work, and a constant smell of petrol - reminiscent of going out on the boat at home. As much as I loved that Defender, the thought of relying on it to get us around East Africa made me nervous. The solution? Buy one more Land Rover Defender - this time a late 90s model (also white) with a roof rack.
I came back from the holidays with maps of TZ, Kenya and Rwanda. A friend loaned us his South African rooftop tent, which involved a few Clubs and Danny sawing off part of his roof rack with a handsaw. After that we were more or less ready to go. Except that we didn't have the slightest clue of where, exactly, we were headed. At some point we'd gotten it into our heads that we'd just drive all the way around Lake Victoria - seeing everything we could along the way. Eastern Uganda, western Kenya, Masai Mara, Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, Lake Vic's coastline, Rwanda's hills, western Uganda and home again.
In twelve days.