Posts Tagged ‘Africa’

The Plan

The first night we stayed in Arusha ended for me with an African Lounge singer doing “I can be your hero baby,” right outside our window just before I fell asleep. The highlight of the evening was seeing Maria’s face when her chicken soup arrived with an enormous chicken leg hanging out of the bowl.

The next morning we all got our bags and went over to take rooms at the Everest Inn. Then we went over the Tanzania Tourist Board (TTB) to check out Ajabu Adventures. Maria and Clarinha had hitched a ride from the airport the day before with a guide from Ajabu and thought we should arrange our safari with them. We had called them and gone to talk about itenerary.  So after we checked them out at TTB (they were on the recommended list) we called up and said it was a go.  We spent the rest of the day scrambling around town to get enough cash out of ATMs.  At some point our banks wouldn’t allow any more withdrawals so we would have to get the rest the next day, Saturday.  We had a some fun counting our millions (of Tanzanian Shillings).

We hung out the rest of the day at the Everest Inn using internet, watching Tv, basking in the love of Mommy.  The next morning we would start the Safari!

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During our canoe trek, we heard some folk tales, some true stories of the region and some that fall in the probably true but exaggerated category. Some I will try to remember and write-up here. The one below, I read in “The Invisible Weevil” and I thought of it during our trek.

On the second day of the canoe trek, we walked about 20 kilometers, up and down hills. The landscape was really nice. The region is known as the Nepal of Africa and one of the most beautiful lakes in Africa. Up to that point we had paddled our canoe among the 29 islands in Lake Bunyonyi. Then we started the trek that would lead to some nice views of extinct volcanoes and to our home stay. There was not much wildlife on our way, but indeed a lot of small birds that are the reason the lake was named “Place of many little birds”.

Our first stop on the hike was to visit a small group from the Batwa tribe, also known as Pygmies (although the term is not considered polite). There was some uneasiness to the encounter as the situation was rather “artificial.” It was not as if the encounter just naturally happened.  Instead, they left their settlement to meet us on a small road that led to Rwanda.

The Batwas are in a rough spot. They were among the first inhabitants of the Lake Region in Africa. But their subsistence was mainly due to hunting and as the National Parks started to be created, the Batwas were displaced from the Parks and kept from hunting. Now, they are suffering cultural changes, prejudice and poverty. Tourism can be a way out, but as it is, it does have a “human safari” feeling to it that made us very uncomfortable.

After some awkward silence, they gathered to sing and dance. The performance was short, but nice. I was glad to have seen them, but wished the circumstances were different.

After that, we went uphill. As I panted my way up, we passed barefoot women with baskets on their heads and babies on their back going up and down without sweating. And so we gathered a large number of underage followers. At first they would scream, “Hello,” and then what would become a mantra, “Give me money”. We gave none. I’ll justify myself later. They still followed us around for hours.

At some point we met a small group of kids and a 12 year-old carrying her baby sister. The baby panicked when she got too close to me and the older kids would tease her by pushing her closer to me. She looked scared and fascinated at the same time and then we learned two things:

1. Older kids tell their younger siblings that white people (Muzungus) will kidnap them;

2. Adults tell the kids not to tease, rob or provoke Muzungus because, we travel armed. As if that was what we have in our backpacks: cameras and guns.

Which is why this post is named as it is. The story in the “Invisible Weevil” goes like this.  When the first Muzungu (white person/explorer) was spotted near a village in the west of Uganda, a teenage girl saw him and ran back to the village in shock and told everyone that she saw a man without skin. Nobody believed her, but a couple of days later a boy come back from the river saying that he saw the man. The tribe gathered together and went to site of the spotting, at first they saw nothing and then later they all panicked and screamed and ran when they all saw the man without skin and he smiled.

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We woke up early the next day and took the day off in our hotel. We had breakfast, enjoyed the view and planned the visit to the park. It was not an easy task. I was really looking forward to get a 4 wheel drive car with open roof but it somehow seemed an almost impossible task.

First, we tried to arrange the drive at our hotel, but they said they could not find a car as we wanted. So, I called other hotels in the region with no luck. I tried almost all tour companies listed in my travel guide, but once we mentioned that we were at the park already, they would say, “sorry, we only organize tours leaving from Kampala.” I was almost going crazy when the girl from reception called E- and said she have found us a car with a guide and driver. E- confirmed with her many times that the car would be a 4-wheel drive with open roof. We scheduled to leave at 6:00 and went to bed happy and excited.

At 5:30AM we woke up for the drive. Our guide was there and when our car and driver arrived… well, it was just a salon car – neither 4-wheel drive or open roof. Ai ai ai…

We got into the car and headed first to the Kasenyi area in the north part of the park hoping to see hunting lions. We drove around without any luck for lions but many buffalo and gazelles. Then on our way back out we saw a couple of cars parked in one area and rushed there. At first, I only saw one lioness hiding near a rock, carefully staring at some kobs. The gazelles could sense the danger and were all frozen up staring at the area where the lioness was hidden. Then a saw a second lioness. The grass was high and our car low, so even though we were close, it was hard to spot the lioness. Our guide allowed us to open the door of the car in order to stand up on the car holding the door in front of us. Few minutes later one of the other cars passed us and the guide said there were a total of 8 lioness there and a couple of them was really near us. So we immediately got completely in the car and close the door. We waited for the action a while and then had to quit as we still needed to head far south to Ishasha before taking the boat trip we scheduled.

Ishasha is located at the south tip of the park and is very close to a region in Congo with conflicts. During our stay, the area was considered safe, which is great as it is here where you can spot tree climbing lions. We got there at 10:00 and a ranger said lions had been spotted at some fig trees. Our guide was clearly an amateur and not very skillful in spotting animals or discussing their habits. But we were always lucky to have at least one other car in view that could give us indication of where to go. The driver started to chase other cars instead of wildlife, what would invariably lead us to wildlife by default. We saw two cars parked near some fig trees and sure enough, two lionesses taking a nap.

After Ishasha, we headed north again to Kazinga Channel to take a boat trip. On our way we gave a ride to a nice soldier, but later E- confessed that we was a bit uneasy having the soldier with us and he was reading a book by a Ugandan writer which had some unpleasant passages about soldiers from the Idi Amin days. By the time we reached the boat, we were really hungry but we did not have time to stop for food as the boat was ready to leave 😦 . We jumped in for the ride. E- was quite frustrated and upset, specially due the hunger and that bought me almost to tears. We saw many hippos, a few crocodiles, buffalo and all sort of birds. At some point, we passed by a dead buffalo at the side of the river. It had its swollen belly up and tongue sticking out of its mouth. No other animals nearby. Later, we learned that it died of anthrax.

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After the boat trip we were supposed to go back to Kasenyi, but we were starving and asked for a stop somewhere to eat. The food took forever to come and by the time we were done with our late lunch our guide said we did not have enough time to go up Kasenyi again. So, we drove out of the park toward the near village where we had to find another place to stay. The hotel we had spent the last few nights was too expensive and it was time to go budget again.

We checked in a small motel near the road and talked to our guide when it was time to pay about the differences between what was promised and what was delivered. As usual, we stared at a blank face that does not respond when criticized or questioned. E- asked me to give up on the inquisition as it would not take us anywhere, but I was so frustrated by the way many Ugandans do business. I will write a short post on this later. E- went to a more practical approach and simply asked for a discount, which was promptly met.

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After the long ride of the previous day, we took the first day in Fort Portal off. We had lunch at a place on the way into town. There was a TV in the restaurant and we saw the first half of Uganda vs. Angola which Uganda eventually won. The next day we hired a car and driver to take us around the area.

The region is gorgeous, packed with lakes, mountains and volcanoes – all very green. We left the Rwenzori View around 9:30AM after a good breakfast and we drove towards the Semliki National Park. We were tempted by the prospect of tracking chimps and visiting the hot springs, but we opted not to go into the park, and instead just drove to a viewpoint, a couple of kilometers past Buranga Pass, where we could see the Blue Mountains of Congo and the river that establishes the border between the Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. On the east of the river lies the only part of the Congo (forest/jungle) in an East African Country.

The ride took longer than expected because most of the roads were in very poor condition and some were under construction by a Chinese company. Along the way, the views of the western rift valley were great. The Rwenzori Mountains were on our left as we drove towards Semliki. The ancient Greeks called them the “Mountains of the Moon.” They are capped with ice despite being pretty close to the equator and down in the valley it is hot.

We snapped some photos then turned around and went to the Amabere Falls and caves. There was a storm when we first arrived so we saw the falls and caves first. Our guide was from northern Uganda, near Gulu. He had lived in Kampala for some time and was in Fort Portal trying to make a living. He still knew all the local stories of the various caves. Next he led us up to the top of a hill to see the rift valley, which splits into two branches in this area. The rift valley is the longest in the world and can be seen from the moon. On the walk we passed by crater lakes – lakes of rainwater collected in the craters of extinct volcanoes.

We had thought of going to another viewpoint on the Rift Valley escarpment but we were hungry and tired. We decided to go get some lunch and call it a day.

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We walked up the hill from the Zoo to the main road that goes to Kampala in the heat of the day. We quickly found a Matatu. A Matatu is a minibus that is called a taxi but functions more like an informal bus that is licensed for something like 14 passengers but in reality usually carries as many as are willing to cram, twist and contort themselves for the sake of saving a few sheckles. T- and I pretended we didn’t speak English and, we found out later, bargained a lower price than the locals paid and rode all the way into the madness of Kampala near the taxi park and market area.

When we got out in Kampala we were very near to the place we planed to stay, the Aponye Hotel on Williams Street. Practically every inch of sidewalk was in use for some form of commerce. The number of people, cars, buses/minibuses, motorcycles and bicycles that we waded through was shocking; a new level of chaos for us. Mix in that we were not used to the English driving system. We were very thankful that a local took pity on us and led us on a shortcut through a building full of shops from one Williams Street/Court to the other and showed us our hotel. We had read that Kampala was calm in comparison with other African capitals. After our introduction to Kampala we were not sure of what to expect from the others.

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It was good that we stopped in Entebbe to get acclimated and rested before going to Kampala. T- said that the traffic in Kampala makes carnival in Brazil seem relaxing. We decided to stay in Kampala for a few days to continue our acclimation. It was hard to believe we were there. There was no compelling reason to be there other than the urge to expose ourselves to new situations we were unfamiliar with. While we were in Uganda, we inevitably spent a lot of time comparing everything with our homes and other places we had been. Soon, Kampala and Uganda created a new place in our hearts.

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I was very excited when we got on our plane from Paris to Entebbe, Uganda. I was concerned though, as for the first time we were asked to check our luggage. Our flight had a stopover in Cairo and from the change in planes I could already see that it would be a special, different experience.

The signs at the airport in Cairo were in Arabic (I think) and you could see Hindus, Muslims in full bekas and guys (Indians?) dressed like Gandhi. The flights were relatively on time and we arrived in Entebee at 3:30AM. E- had scheduled for someone from the Uganda Wildlife Preserve (The Zoo) to pick us up at the airport. So we got our luggage, which arrived fine, got our Visas and walked out looking for a sign with our names. No one there. We waited as time in Africa is not the same as most Western Countries.

A couple of taxi drivers were looking for clients and one in particular came a couple of times to offer his services. We declined and waited until daylight to get a bus. Walking for the bus station we decided to take a taxi that seemed fine and accepted a good price (5000 Ugandan Shillings). So by 7:30AM we arrived happy, tired and a bit confused at the Zoo. No one was there except the security guy. There were lots of monkeys, picking through the trash for tasty morsels. The security guy let us in to wait and I enjoyed my welcome by photographing the Vervet monkeys. It was a good start.

When people from the reception arrived we were asked to wait a bit longer before getting the keys to our banda, but we could wait at the local restaurant while having breakfast. We did so. When we finally got into our banda it felt like heaven. A banda is a round room with a bed at minimum. It can also contain a bathroom and cooking facilities. This on at the Zoo had it all. We slept a bit and after we went for a walk around the zoo. Then we went out to find a supermarket so we could save money by cooking at least a couple of meals for ourselves. E- was a bit concerned as he could not yet feel what was safe or not. But we walked to a supermarket and took a Boda Boda back without problems. A Boda (or Boda Boda) is a motorcycle taxi, so named because they can take you from Boda to Boda (border to border).

The Zoo is right on the shore of Lake Victoria, largest lake in Africa and where the Nile River starts. The Lake is quite large and beautiful and we sat near enjoying the landscape and watching some fisherman. By 8:00PM it start to get darker and we went to our banda, which had very little light. We cooked dinner (trip favorite: buttered pasta) by head torch-light and went to bed for a long night of sleep.

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I got the J.M. Coetzee book Disgrace from the couch surfing library of our hosts in Zürich.  I finished reading it in Geneva.  These days I am inclined to be scared of places I have not been and that could be dangerous.  Maybe I’m just getting older.  Maybe I value my life more. It wasn’t always so – I haven’t always had so much good in my life that I was afraid to lose.

This book made me very afraid to go to South Africa.  It was a thought-provoking book.  After thinking about it more, I realize that it probably shouldn’t be read as a “true” story.  It don’t think some of the things the characters in the book do ring true.  I’m inclined to think it is more of an allegory.  The message I got from the book is that the apartheid system did sever psychological damage to both the whites and blacks in South Africa.  And that damage is still manifesting itself today in more psychological and physical cruelty.

While I’m still scared, I would like to someday go to South Africa to form a first hand opinion.

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