Thursday, April 24, 2008

Uganda

Getting off the plane, Uganda was immediately a pleasant change from Dar es Salaam. The land was green, Lake Victoria was huge, and the air was refreshing. We came to hang out with Megan, a friend who I grew up with and is now halfway through her Peace Corps stint.

Taxi drivers seemed super friendly and we later found out why. Coming from airports, all the taxi drivers have a small monopoly going, so they are pleased to take you for 2-3 times what it should cost. Once we started hanging around Megan things changed a bit because she had a better idea of non-Muzungu prices. "I take you for 4000." "We go for one five. That is fair price." (1500 shillings = $.80) "Ok 3000 and we go." "No, you know that is not fair price and we find someone else." After Megan's take-it-or-leave-it bargaining, taxi drivers would often seem on the verge of tears, mumbling about high gas prices and hungry families. Same went with the drivers of the 14-person vans (aka matatus); Megan has reportedly had screaming matches over 500 shillings ($.30). It’s the principle of it – the injustice of two sets of prices. But many Africans feel entitled to charge white people more nonetheless, and they feel cheated when they can't.

Megan's village was a 15 minute drive from the nearest town, Lugazi. The village is set between sugar cane fields and a dense forest. We would arrive there either in a taxi or on the back of a motorcycle (boda), and the vehicles would slip and slide in the thick, sticky mud that was inevitable after big rains. On sunny days, the red, empty dirt roads were idyllic enough to make any runner or cyclist salivate.

Most of the houses in the village were mud huts, but Megan's and a few others’ were brick and concrete. Arriving, we knew we were in Africa: a dozen women were outside her house singing with some boys drumming, and little piglets were running around the yard. Kids ran up to us: “Muzungu! (white person) How are you?” The kids who didn’t know that much English were satisfied with just pointing and yelling “Muzungu!” until you couldn’t help but laugh.

Megan's main activities on rainy days: cook, clean, read, and sleep. We welcomed this relaxing routine and tried our best to follow Megan's protocols. Shampoo here, silverware here, these tubs for washing dishes, these tubs for bucket baths. She had a newly made couch that was perfect for reading, and the interior decoration was definitely Megan-esque with kitchen items placed neatly, photos of friends arranged perfectly, and small stars painted on the bookshelves. It’s always a nice surprise to step out of the African village and into her little two room apartment; the stark contrast with its surroundings is immediately apparent and you almost feel guilty for living in America again.

The corrugated metal roof was so loud during rain storms that it would wake us up, and we would have to yell to communicate. A few times we couldn't help but think it was about to fall down on us. But Megan's stocked up on some great goodies, some sent from America, some brought by visitors and some left by people heading home. We ate Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, we ate by candlelight, we had sweet chili sauce and parmesan cheese, made bean dip, guacamole with $.10 avocados, homemade chapattis, movie nights with the laptop, and warm bucket baths whenever. Not a rough life by any stretch of the imagination.

I took bodas to the village to get internet and get some work done. One time I bought a 135 liter plastic water tank and a few metal gutters and brought them back to Megan’s place. We had the local carpenter help us install the gutter for 3000 shillings (he had a ladder and a hammer). The new rain collection system got a good workout during a few storms while we were there and should get plenty of use by Megan and her neighbor in the months to come.

Megan's front yard has a small garden surrounded by two buildings for the local preschool. The kids usually assemble around 7:30am to start banging on the car hub that hangs from a stick placed in the middle of the yard. Megan usually gets out of bed by 8am to tell them to be quiet, occasionally putting a few in timeout, which sometimes works. By 9am about 150 kids are receiving lackluster education from 2 teachers (mostly rote memorization). This usually resembled chanting repetitively or copying from a single blackboard. On their way to the bathroom, they would pause and stare at us until one of us waved. They shyly wave back, then scream and laugh as they run away. At 11am, Megan hosts an hour of “art,” where 5 kids shyly enter her room, sit on the concrete floor, and draw on printer paper with crayons. Emma and I helped them build stuff with Megan’s Jenga blocks.

Their creativity, Megan says, has been beaten out of them. We tried providing positive reinforcement to those who finally drew things that hadn’t been featured on the blackboard every day.

Three other Peace Corps volunteers came for a weekend to help out with a soccer camp for the ladies in the village. Megan bought the ladies soccer shorts, and they were clearly embarrassed to put them on, but loved the chance to learn soccer skills and play an hour long game. A few dozen men sat watching from the shade and got drunk from plastic bags of the local moonshine.

After a week in the village we went to Jinja, a town next to the source of the Nile. From there we visited the Hairy Lemon, a small kayaker hangout on an island. Very laidback and picturesque. We also went to another hostel/hotel/campsite/restaurant/rafting-outfitter/British ex-pat hangout called Nile River Explorers. The place has been battered by its fair share of parties, many of them led by rafting guides and kayak bums. The single TV was only allowed to play big rugby games. There was a well stocked bar and a wooden deck looking West over the Nile.

Rafting was a highlight of the trip. With a handful of Category 5 rapids, it was a heart pounding day and we fell out of the raft a few times. Emma was on the lookout for crocodiles but only saw a water snake. I was preoccupied with the fact the river seemed to simply end where the next huge set of rapids began. The waves were huge and the current was fast, and we caught air when the raft got tossed by a monster rapid.

I took a kayaking lesson; it’s way harder than it looks. With the massive amount of water flowing, there are countless different current happening simultaneously, with boils coming from nowhere and threatening to tip your kayak, and the instability on the edges of huge eddies caught me off guard a ton. Even in the Category 1’s and 2’s it was a challenge to stay upright, but it was super exciting and I could see how people get addicted to this sport. They taught me how to roll the kayak and I almost did it, but unfortunately I’ll have to try another day.

As for food, it was great to be able to cook for ourselves again. The best local food I found was called Chicamandos: warm, greasy chapattis with beans dumped on top. It’s a street vendor thing, and it was AWESOME. With some fresh avocados and tomatoes, all served up in a small clear plastic bag. Pure greatness.

It was fun to be here. I won’t miss all the stares we get. I also won’t miss the ever present annoyances: inefficiency, inconsistency, and incompetency. Those things are to be expected while traveling, but it’s one of the things that makes America great.

3 comments:

chelsea said...

my favorite blog post yet! the whole time in the village sounded awesome, i'm glad you guys got to have a little rest from all the traveling and get to know one place pretty well. it was fun to chat the other day, if you guys have more phone access soon let me know so i can skype you. em-keep watching out for all those animals...ha

Peter Spiro said...

Sounds like a great experience in the village.

Got a laugh because the experience reminded us alot of our peace corps time. The rain on the roof was always crazy. You think it can't get any louder and then it does.

Megan said...

thanks so much for visiting! i had so much fun with you guys. hope the rest of your travels are fun and yes, safe.