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I teach abroad and continue to pursue the life I was given as if it was my last. Many people think it is. In my spare time, I enjoy lapping up ice cream, reading spy novels, and euthanizing manta rays.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanksgiving Day

(Sorry I have no photos on this post. I forgot to bring my camera)

I had to give a final on Thanksgiving. Not that anyone here knew that it was Thanksgiving, but still...a little weird. It was pouring down African rain too. It was the kind of rain a Sunkist Soda ad might start with before a couple of bikini-clad teens go jumping off a tire swing into a lake. Good vibrations...

I was well aware our exam's 8 a.m. start time meant I needed to get on things by 7:30. I had to confirm my boss had all the test booklets and question sheets copied. No and yes to those inquiries. The test booklets were locked in the dean's office, which was of course locked until 7:58, when he casually entered the Faculty of Arts Building parking lot in his Toyota Corona. Mmm...Corona. Four lecturers surrounded him immediately. Our exam room was locked, too, so I ran over to the main building to tell the custodian to open the door. The students were all shivering and wet by the time we got them into the Music Room. Yes, our final was in the Music Room. Funnily enough, it had no piano or any other semblance of musical ambiance whatsoever. In fact, the acoustics were terrible. It was a lot like an airport hangar with a hundred wooden desks in place of an Airbus jet. And students. And me.

Somehow we got all the exams passed out and started by 8:03. The three hour test endured two thunderstorms, three power outages, and an officious university representative checking exam cards (these denote whether a student has paid tuition for the semester or not). My job was to answer questions, update the time, and pace feverishly until it was time to collect the tests. (Note to self: only one cup of coffee before idly sitting for three-hour stretches.)

After collecting the exams, I signed out for them in the department offices, went back home, and began grading them furiously, hoping to get through ten fifteen essays before early afternoon (all in all, there will be 198 to grade before my semester is complete).

At three forty-five, I left campus and drove across Kampala to my contact at the embassy's house for Thanksgiving dinner. She and husband live in quiet, gated home on the outskirts of the capital, replete with security, tiled floors, and a flat screen TV showing American sports. I was pretty much in heaven.

We sat down to eat almost immediately, graciously escorted by our two hosts to seats surrounded by a wonderful spread of food. It was pretty much like any thanksgiving dinner I had sat down to in the U.S., which, when I consider most of my meals in Uganda, is pretty remarkable. How does one find stuffing in Kampala? How about cranberry sauce? Pumpkin pie? Real whip cream??
The answers lie somewhere between clout and creativity. A lot of embassy staff order food online that is shipped directly from warehouse to Kampala. Thus, they have ingredients necessary to cook like a king for pigs like me.


Our table consisted of six marines, two wives, two children, one American contractor, me, and two dogs. Everything was amazing. Turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans, bread rolls, gravy, apple pie, pumpkin pie, real whip cream, a Reese's Pieces crusted thing. Fricking delicioso!

After another rainstorm, a brief cigar break for the marines (I later learned they were all outside smoking stogies in a covered gazebo, although I guessed they were busy doing timed chin ups in the rain, a la "G.I. Jane").

The first game of the day started at approximately 8:30 pm in Uganda. An eleven hour difference from home. Despite the creepy AFN commercials full of military warnings, updates, and melodramatic security re-enactments, watching a live football telecast on Thanksgiving night was pretty much the same experience. Lots of dudes cracking jokes, yelling at the TV, getting up for bathroom breaks, raiding the fridge....good times.

Now it's on to the home stretch, where I'll lock myself in my office (as I am now) and focus on red pens and grammar till the pain is over.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Expat or Tourist

Expat or Tourist

Expat (short for expatriate), noun: a person who lives in a foreign country.

Tourist, noun: a person traveling for the sole purpose of recreation.

Look around a typical east African capital long enough and you will soon realize there are three types of people: locals, expats, and tourists. The first group may be obvious to anyone, but distinguishing the other two can often be confusing. Are there any differences?

The typical day of most expats on some mission of philanthropy, education, or commerce involves the same haunts. It is as if all of them know each other, without knowing each other. Day after day, night after night, expats keep bumping into each other. After years of searching for a completely different culture, thousands of miles from home, they end up meeting facsimiles of themselves.

So how do you spot the two groups? What should you look out for? Here is a how-to-checklist on how to spot the expat from the tourist:

  • Tourists often carry money belts and traveler’s checks, while expats would not be caught dead with either item.

  • The visage of an expat is often frumpy and wrinkled, having spent years in the bush (or at least a bush-like villa). The sun has scorched their skin permanently. A tourist, conversely, has just two shades: piano key ivory and Alaskan King Salmon. There is no in-between.

  • When seeing another expat/tourist, an expat will usually do a 180 and leave the premises immediately. A tourist will run up the expat/tourist, ask them where they are from, and try to keep the conversation going long enough to subtly request to become Facebook Friends.

  • Tourists are tolerant of life’s little hiccups, while an expat is always on the verge of snapping. Tourists are so tickled pink to be in Africa that they don’t even mind the little annoyances of life here. They might even call African time ‘cute’, or consider handing out a coin to a beggar ‘a really emotional experience’. Expats don’t notice beggars. They usually don’t notice the time, either, unless they are meeting someone more important, which never happens.

  • Tourists spend boatloads of money and have a grand time doing it. Expats remember the last time they spent fifty shillings more than market price for a loaf of bread. And they vow never to make the same mistake.

  • Tourists generally are described as fun-loving. They tend to have great lives and use tourism as a vehicle to add to their personal enjoyment. Expats often are crass, cynical, and edgy people on the periphery of dementia.  Watching tourists struggle in a foreign country is one of the few pleasures expats still have.

  • Tourists usually congregate at shopping malls, for-ex bureaus, and internet cafes. Expats, on the other hand, spend most of their free time in a dark cafĂ© or hotel swimming pool cursing out loud at their cell phone.

  • Expats tend to be masters of several languages. Some completely disengage from English in favor of total immersion in a local language. Tourists are excited if they can say “thank you” and “where is the toilet?” in the local tongue. In fact, they will spend weeks practicing these “useful phrases” before arriving on holiday. Then, once they have arrived, they lament how they can’t understand anybody.

  • Tourists take photos of food they ordered. Expats eat the food they ordered.

  • Tourists buy beads, bracelets and recycled bottle caps for a premium price. Expats usually sell those items to a local retail outlet so they can rip off the aforementioned tourists.

  • Expats drive their own car (appropriate cars to own include Toyota Rav4s, Land Cruisers, or any other high clearance vehicle that can turn a motorcycle into shrapnel). Tourists get around on the back of motorcycle taxis, narrowly avoiding death as they snap photos. An expat on the back of a motorcycle taxi never smiles, snaps photos, or has fun; in fact, his or her face is perpetually dour, knowing full well how much he would prefer to be in his or her own vehicle.

  • Tourists travel in masses. They can usually be heard two hundred to three hundred meters before they can be seen. They tend to take over shopping malls and fruit markets. They buy everything. Expats, conversely, are rarely seen with anybody. Even if they are meeting someone, they prefer to come alone. This is so they can leave alone at any time they see fit. They never buy anything except for coffee, air time, or car accessories.

  • Tourists wear shorts, baseball caps, and whatever beads they bought the day before. Expats wear whatever is clean.

  • Tourists often remark how cheap everything is here. Expats often complain how expensive things have gotten.

  • Tourists wave at locals, take photos of locals and treat locals with respect. Expats date locals, yell at locals, and hire locals to wash their linen.

  • A tourist wants to know everything about everyone they meet and usually wants to capture it all for an upcoming scrapbook. An expat may want to know what you are doing here but never really wants to talk about what they are doing here.

  • Tourists are usually enamored with an expat’s life and have a thousand questions for expats. Expats have zero questions for tourists and will avoid any encounter with a tourist if it is the last thing they do on Earth.

  • Tourists can tell you the exact flight number, date, and time they arrived in Africa. Expats don’t remember when they arrived in Africa, why they arrived in Africa, or what they are currently doing in Africa.

  • A tourist’s first question is normally, “Where are you from?” An expat’s first question normally is “Why are you here?”

As you can tell, these two groups have many distinguishing characteristics that a discerning eye can quickly notice. If you are in one of these two groups and want to meet others like you, it would best to keep your eyes peeled for tourists. If you are in one of these groups and wish to avoid others like you, it would be best to act like an expat. Or just stay at home.  

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Solo Safari

I had to test the Blue Caribou before I cross borders. I had new tires, new shocks, ample time and easy access. Murchison Falls National park was only 210 kilometers of tarmac away. Yeah, it was the rainy season but only the last third of the road was unpaved. It was my nearest and best chance to figure out if I could hack this safari thing without local expertise and security.

Turns out I can, sort of.

I drove until dusk on Saturday, sloshing the last 7 kms through sludge and mud that spun me in every direction possible. My car looked like it had made love to a hog for an hour when I parked it at the Nile Safari Lodge. I must have looked haggard because the staff eyed me contentiously through the prism of a group used to different clientele. More refined. Less muddy. Less sweaty.

And I was camping, which meant they were getting about one-tenth of the income from my arrival as from the other guests sipping wine as their three course meal was being prepared. I had a gas stove, a can of baked beans, bread rolls, three oranges, cereal, milk, and plenty of ramen for the weekend.

The ten minute walk to the campground with Bernard was a stark reminder in the social class system of safari adventuring. The unspoken sentiment of my trek into the nether regions of the campsite was "Get this smelly far, far away from our high-class customers. And make sure he stays there."

I had two security guards who stood guard while I drank a beer, cooked my food, and picked their brain for the sounds of the park at night. Bats flew in between us with unnerving regularity. Hippos honked from the riverbed just below our perch. And after one beer and a sloppy plate of bread and beans I was ready for the sack. I had to be at the jetty at six thirty to cross the Nile for a game drive, which meant I had to break camp and pack up all my gear by six at the latest.

I nearly missed the ferry. And when I got there I felt a bit out of it, minus caffeine or any sustenance since the night before. I poured myself a makeshift iced coffee from bottled water and instant starbucks, peeled an orange, and waited while six cars crossed the Nile onto the northern park of Murchison.

The day was all about giraffes. I have never seen herds of giraffe anywhere in Africa like I do at Murchison Falls. At one stretch there must have been thirty grazing at the hollow of a valley of acacia and borassis palms. A beautiful, beautiful sight it was. Two herds of elephant passed by early on the drive as well. But no lions. No leopards.

At eleven, with the midday heat making most of the animals retreat to the shade, I followed suit, crossing the ferry back to Red Chillis for a hot lunch, a beer, and a quick shower.

I had forgotten about the pet wart hogs sleeping next to my car. I walked too close past a group of them and nearly lost my big toes as three chain-smoking Britons had simultaneous coronaries.

An hour before, as I was waiting at the ferry in my car, I stepped outside to get some fresh air with a box of orange juice in my hand. From the passenger side of my car, a baboon emerged and started straight for me with a purposeful gait. Those SOBs are about as scary as any animal from four feet away. If you look up bully in the dictionary there is a photo of a baboon. I dropped the juice box and retreated from it as fast as possible. Once the box was on the ground he took it in his incisors and hopped to enjoy the treat, going full "Teen Wolf" into the middle of the box until the juice was lapped up in his salivating tongue. I watched in dismay. There went my vitamin C for the weekend.

Despite the setbacks, I had an epic day doing two tours of the park in my car. I had it mind to see cats, only cats, and nothing back cats. And by cats I don't mean tabbies. I mean leopards and lions. But of course you can say you want to see cats and not even sniff one. This time of the year the savanna grasses are at their highest. This makes a lion sighting a really tough chore, especially with my low-clearance vehicle. Despite searching high and low, not one. Leopards are even more reclusive. They hunt at night and sleep in trees during the day. Trees that hide their skin very very well. I literally looked up every tree in neutral for the better part of the entire afternoon. Fruitless. What irked me even more was that an Indian family had spotted two at 7:15 a.m. that same day. So they are there. It's just a matter of knowing where to look, when to look, and how to look. Follow movement. Look for discoloration. Be still. Wait.

At sunset I raced for the turn off to the "Top of the Falls" campsite, 12 km off the main murrem road. I had thirty minutes of sunlight to navigate the slippery slope, find the campsite, park, and set up my tent in time. But as I turned left onto the dirt road and admired a salmon-streaked sky across the Nile, I ran into six buffaloes blocking the road; the large bull in front was a good fifty yards in front of the others. As I emerged into his view he stopped dead, eyeing me sternly. Then he started walking towards me.
I put the car in reverse immediately, weaving maniacally between s-curves the way I had come. The buffalo continued at me with venom. All the way back to the turn-off, as it happened, where I had no choice but to drive 20 kms back the way I came to the next closest campsite.

An hour later I was sharing the story with a local guide, who kept me company during a violent thunderstorm. Violent enough to shake the tarp free from my tent, leaving me with the unenviable choice of  a) sleeping on wet canvas, wet mat, and wet sleeping bag, or b) sleeping in my car.

I chose b, woke up with six to eight fresh bites the size of dimes and drove back furiously towards Kampala as soon as I had downed a cold water mixed with instant coffee.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Culture Week

I kept waiting.

And the signs kept changing.

First it was October 15 - 22. Then the 22nd thru the 29th. Then again, it was pushed back to the following week. It finally kicked off on the last Sunday in October, on the eve of Halloween, when tribes from all over Uganda seemingly invaded the hallowed and peaceful Sunday church services with the thrumming of bongos, drums, shrieks and cadenced marches. And it was well worth the wait.

The following day was even better. Each tribe competed for seven minutes on stage, showcasing their culture's traditional dance to the entire student body of Kyambogo. And me.

Here are some photos to display the pageantry and fashion of this wonderful cultural gala. In many ways, it has been my favorite day of the year on campus the past two years. I have to humbly admit I was nearly as big a spectacle as the dancers themselves. Although I am not pictured, I couldn't walk ten feet without a sea of eyes following my every move. Maybe I have been more reclusive this year, but it appeared that many of these students had never seen me before. Or I had mustard on my pants.

The Acholi men from Gulu get ready to go on stage

Langi tribe for Lira Town jump for joy

The Langi passion. They finished 3rd behind Baganda and Karamajong tribes.

Karamajong tribe lifts female off ground in grand finale


Female dancer collapses on stage due to heat exhaustion. 

Baganda dancers whirl and contort on stage. They won the competition.