About Me

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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.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Taste of Africa

One of the first things I do in a country is adopt a beer for the duration of my stay. It is a rite of passage and helps me to associate with the common man. Find out where the men and women drink, what they drink, and where I can buy that drink when I need a drink. Long after I had graduated college and was a productive member of the working class, I realized that I would never become an alcoholic and that I had the capacity to say no and decide to do other things besides drinking to escape. Like travel. That being said, about the middle of the first bottle of my first Nile Special of the trip, I realized a mood swing. The pain in my lower back - stiffness if we're being specific - receded with the third of fourth gulp, as I sat out on the wooden chair overlooking the Kyamburo gorge, Kazinga Channel and the escarpment some two hundred meters below, where elephants and kob roamed free amidst the acacia and euphorbia inside Queen Elizabeth National Park.

The beer was a heavenly tonic. After six hours of patched tarmac and unannounced shoulder erosion on the roads from Kampala to western Uganda, any beer would have done the trick. But a cold beer, in the searing warmth of the African sun, helps stem the tide. I removed my shirt, played the ends of my toes with my flip flops and watched a man and his three daughters swim effortlessly in the azure water that dropped off to the cliff top.

I dislike many things about driving in Africa: bodas, taxis who just ease into oncoming traffic blindly, kamakazi pedestrians...the list is endless; but elephants are my biggest fear. Mostly because I can never predict their reactions. I can never say with complete confidence, "if I do this, they will then do that." It is completely arbitrary. Which scares the kabagala out of me.

At the park gate, I got out of the car and looked up at the greyish brown sky, an approaching elephant and the rain. The park ranger was on the phone so I waited for him to finish before I asked him about the lions and the trails and the route and paid our park fees. This meeting was very informal and because we had cash and were happy and eager and alone, the rangers smiled and quickly got us through the gate and onto the tracks leading out to Lake George and the salt flats before the elephant charged us or our car or both.

And as I was driving through the Kisenyi plains, under the sun-soaked golden skies of six o'clock in the afternoon after a brief interlude of heavy showers, the image of a herd of elephant struck me in the midst of a carefree tour of the northern flanks of our game drive. Sure enough, minutes before darkness, heading towards the gate and the exit of our game drive, we sneaked up on eight elephants in the middle of the dirt track, feeding on green vegetation some thirty feet in front of us. The enormity of these beasts is awesome no matter how you encounter them. But with the two of us seated tensely in a small saloon car, their size is hard to overstate. And my fear was also hard to overstate.

I reversed away slowly, waiting with bated breath for the last of the group to finish moving across our panorama and disappear into the night wilderness. These moments were seconds and minutes but felt like hours and days. The runnels of sweat along my brow, the dryness at the corners of my lips, the inarticulateness of my speech....all because of the elephant. There is no greater exhale than after a close encounter with an animal that can crush you and car like a coke can. There is no greater release than seeing these beasts disappear into the night. Life continues and you savor it. You relish it. You respect it more.

Twenty minutes later, safely across the bridge, as I navigated pot holes and craters in the middle of our twelve km tarmac journey back to the lodge, Noreen screamed for me to stop. I strained to find a cavernous bogey in the middle of the road but saw nothing. "Wha---?"

And there before us, in the middle of the Mweya Junction, stood one of the largest elephants I had ever seen, walking languidly and dispassionately across the asphalt to yet another clump of growth in the night. With my high beams I could make out the elephant and nothing else. Blackness enveloped us, and the grey beast, taking his sweet time, finally reached a safe distance away from us for us to be able to continue forward and safely back up the ribbon of dark road leading toward the top of the rift valley.

It is with great relish that I shared Uganda with my friend, Noreen. I had great visions of friends far and wide coming to visit me. The reality is they rarely do. People are just too busy. They have jet-set lives. Nuclear Families. Four-figure utility bills. Fish tanks. In any event, during the eight days I hosted my friend, we were able to do so much that I was reminded time and time again just how special this experience and country is to me. How many people can get in their cars, sprint across a verdant valley, cross the equator, buy fried bananas for lunch, wave at barefoot African kids running after you in anonymous villages, swim in the Nile, reach out and nearly touch a lioness on her way out of a fig tree, listen to the cooing and cawing of nightjars and owls, nearly get charged by a family of hippo and spit across the river into the Congo? Am I leaving out anything? Yes, I am leaving out a million things.

Yet the truth is life here can be very frustrating. There is no in between in Uganda. You either love an experience or loathe it. You either feel on top of the world or at the bottom of a trash heap. You either smell roses or steaming hot poo. You either feel rage or compassion. There is no in between.

And thus it was on our recent foray into the green abyss of the southwestern section of Queen Elizabeth, where we delved into one of the most overlooked corners of east Africa, running parallel to Lake Edward, and the border with the Congo. Ishasha's allure was simply the difficulty in getting there and the knowledge that once we had arrived, we wouldn't be disturbed. It also didn't hurt that our wilderness camp provided some of the most jaw-dropping scenery and luxury a safari can offer.

The real joy for me though was not in seeing the splendor of the game parks, the animals, or the pacifying treble of the Ntungwe River. It was seeing all those things through the eyes of a friend coming to Africa for the first time. It was in sharing in some of my frustration and enjoyment with someone who now knows my life here. And can relate.

In case I am not stating my case, here is a highlight from the eight days and the little reminder of the oddity of African travel.

Night One: 11:15 p.m. Entebbe Airport

Noreen's bag did not arrive from Amsterdam. We waited for an hour at the gate and then finally drove out of the airport. Upon deciding it best to stop and get food before it got too late for any dining, we pulled into a pizzeria, where this exchange occurred.

Me: Do you have any pizza?
Waitress: Only Chicken Pizza?
Me: Okay, we'll take a large. And two beers. Cold. Nile Specials. Please.

(Twenty minutes later, after the beers had been drunk)
Waitress: Do you want two more?
Me: Not yet. How much longer for the pizza?
Waitress: (Pausing) Um, you haven't ordered yet.

(Noreen and I exchange a glance)
Me: We ordered twenty minutes ago.
Waitress: No, you were still deciding.
Me: (Incredulous) Fine. Can you order the pizza now?

The waitress nods and walks away. She returns five minutes later.
Waitress: I'm sorry, we're out of Chicken.
Me: What? So we can't get any pizza?
Waitress: Not tonight. It is finished.

We paid for the beers and drove forty-five minutes home in the dark, along the treacherously dark Entebbe Road, past hundreds of villagers tight-roping the shoulders, as our stomach's rumbled to a dissonant roar.

On her last day in Uganda, we stopped by the Zoo to check out the animals and kill time before her flight left late in the evening. As we were walking near the lion exhibit, I glimpsed an African male reaching over a thorny bush in the attempt to pick something from a sprouting plant on the pedestrian side of the fence protecting us from the animals. I thought nothing of it until moments later, when the man approached me with a pinball sized green bud from the aforementioned plant.

Man: Excuse me, could you rub this on my face?
Me: What? No. Why would I do that?
Man: Do you mind? Just softly put on my bite on my cheek. (He pointed toward a red abrasion just below his  right eye.
Sensing nothing insidious with the man's exterior, I reluctantly grabbed the sticky ball and placed on the red mark on his skin.
Man: Softly please.

When I had finished, I quickly released my fingers and looked at the white mark once the man had taken the ball off the bite.

Man: Thank you, sir.

We turned and left him to his own devices, while I whispered to Noreen laconically, "So that might have been the strangest thing I've ever done."

Four days earlier, on a benign Tuesday evening in Kampala, we entered the National Theatre to watch a percussionist local group play their weekly concert in a second story indoor hall. The traditional group, replete with three or four female dancers and four male musicians, got the audience involved from the get go, pulling both exuberant and unwilling patrons up to the dance floor to mimic the gyrations from the professionals getting paid to shake their booties in public. I, myself, was dragged twice by the same woman in her late forties, dressed in the customary Gomisu, who patiently moved beside me while my face turned crimson as I attempted a weak copy of her dance.
A Japanese girl sat to our right during the concert. As many Japanese youths tend to be, she was mortified of the prospect of getting in front of an audience and dancing publicly with a group of strangers. On two separate occasions, she declined, pleading vociferously to abstain from the spectacle. That is, until a Ugandan guy ripped the plastic chair out from under the girl's backside, sending her butt first onto the floor. The entire audience nearly hit the floor with her. In hysterics. I've never seen a more embarrassed girl or a more entertained assailant behind her. When she finally was shamed into joining the lively group on stage, tears were rolling down her cheeks, either from extreme grief or utter shock.

Driving home on our final day of the trip, the clouds of death rolled out from Lake Victoria north toward the Masaka road. Rain drops became a downpour. A storm became an apocalypse. I had to pull off the road, as the rain seemed to be coming from all angles. I did not have a wiper speed for this tsunami, and it was all we could do to idle in neutral on the red mud of a besieged village, where every man, woman, child and animal sprinted for cover. The windows fogged up, the sky became a car wash, and the vista became a bad dream, until a single car passed us, and then another, and then slowly, with the confidence of a con man in front of a priest, I re-entered the fray and proceeded towards Kampala.

It would be another two hours before we were safely home. Darkness came and we sat at a round-about, clustered among the angry and tired, inching - literally inching - forward through each bottleneck in the blurry pathway of metal and rubber and dust and mud and shit and soot and grime. Besides the blackness of the sky and the pale orange glow from kerosene lanterns dotting the warren of stalls on the roadside, all I could see was trouble: trucks of policemen sitting menacingly in the back cab, armed with AK-47s; bicycles and pedestrians and motorcycles and vans and buses and horns spinning a confusing knot, all seemingly there to personally antagonize me and my nightmarish path home.  You either love it or you loathe it. And at the end of the day, you sometimes need a drink. A cold drink. To take the pain away.

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