Tuesday, August 28, 2007
East African Hospitality
For anyone who is considering travel to Africa, especially solo travel, below are a few stories of the hospitality I have encountered to help you decide to say yes!
While staying at Red Chilli Hideaway, another solo traveler and I met Captain Sandy Newman - a 60 year old Ugandan guy who had come to Red Chilli to watch a soccer match.
The three of us got to talking and the next thing you know, he offers to drive us into town. That then becomes showing us a house he is building, taking us on a tour of Kampala and buying us dinner.
He was one of the first black African airline pilots who was sent to flight school in the US in the 60's and now has a soft spot for Americans. He spent the evening telling us stories, including the time he flew Idi Amin and friends and was given $3000 (keep in mind this is the 70's) cash as a thank you.
While doing a day trip from Nairobi, I was talking to the guide about a place some local people recommended I go dancing on Saturday. He said it was full of tourists and prostitutes and I should go with him to a place for locals. Against someone's better judgement, I agreed.
He took me to a country western bar behind a butcher shop that was filled with 250 Kenyans and me. People were dancing to country songs sung in Swahili and Kikuyu - and eventually an English rendition of Kenny Rodgers' "Coward of the County".
I did my best to represent on the dance floor. Being the only mzungu in the joint, a lot of people watched me every time I got up on the floor. I nodded my head and told people the music was nzuri (good), though honestly some of it was hard to take, and felt like I really did experience a local Kenyan Saturday night.
I have spent the last two days with the monkey guy in Arusha - more on him coming soon.
This afternoon, while I was at his house filming him making the monkey toy, his wife cooked us lunch. The kitchen is the 2 foot space on the floor behind the couch. Here she whipped up ugali and a stew with vegetables and small fish. She even found a fork so I could eat the mzungu way as I was no good at scooping up stew with a handful of ugali. It was very lovely.
Finally, last night as I was walking home, a young woman passed me on the street and said "take care". I knew the area I was staying around the market is not so safe at night but I heard before 10pm is okay and it was only 8pm. Her warning freaked me out a bit but I was only 3 blocks from my hotel.
After one block, the woman came up to me, took my hand, introduced herself as Yasmin and said she would walk me back. "You are like my sister, I know my country, don't worry." My sister appeared to be drunk and/or high, which doesn't seem to make for the best escort. "We must stop by and say hello to my friend, don't worry". What, me worry?
Off the street, through two more doors and we come to a room full of women laying around so we can say hello to Josephine. It is now I realize Yasmin, Josephine and everyone else are most likely hookers.
We leave. Yasmin tells me she has a child buy a German guy, that she knows her country, I am her sister and let's jog the last block. When we arrive, she asks for my email - I give it and can't wait for a message - she writes her phone number while swaying, then kisses me on the cheeks and hugs me goodbye.
The hotel clerk asked where I found her... hey, I was found. We agreed that, there were too many numbers in the phone number Yasmin gave me for it to work, she is a hooker and she is drunk and I am lucky to arrive back safely. But arrive back safely I did escorted most of the way.
These things don't happen when you stay home. Get out there and travel.
P.S. If you haven't read my entry about the Boomu Women's Group in Uganda - go back one space. Coming next... UniquEco Designs!
Saturday, August 25, 2007
Boomu Women's Group
I recently stayed at the Boomu Women's Group, in Kigaragara, Uganda to learn more about this community based tourism group and the lives of rural Ugandans. The group was formed in 1999, by Enda Byabali with the aim of fighting poverty in the area by creating economic and social development through raising the incomes of their members.
I'll be putting together a promotional video for Boomu and UCOTA (the Ugandan Community Tourism Association) to use upon my return to the US.
If you're in Uganda, I encourage you to stay at Boomu. The accommodations are some of the most comfortable I've had on my trip so far, the trees are FILLED (!) with weaver birds and their nests, the food is as fresh as the backyard and Edna will gladly teach you all about the surrounding community. Stay for a few days and learn about the local community or stay for a few weeks and volunteer your time.
If you're not planning a trip to Uganda, plan a trip to the website and shop for some crafts. You will be making a direct contribution to support this community that is working to support itself! And for goodness sakes, let them know that you learned about Boomu from Kristian at HeyMissK!
Lastly, please leave any comments about this program here so the people from UCOTA and Boomu can see them too!
Information About the Boomu Women's Group (from their website)
All our members are subsistence farmers meaning that most food that is grown is for domestic consumption and what is left is taken to the market. However in order to raise incomes, some families increase the amount they take to the market leaving themselves hungry. Income from farming, due to the low amount produced and lack of access to markets, rarely cover all the expenses people have: education costs such as secondary school fees, textbooks, and uniforms, soap, paraffin, clothes once a year and occasionally meat. For our members’ there are few alternate livelihoods in particular for women so the group was formed to provide another income stream through weaving baskets.
As the number of baskets sold is very variable, we decided to diversify our activities by setting up a small tourism project. The group brought land in the village of Kigaragara, next to Murchison Falls National Park, using 15% of the income from baskets towards this project. We built accommodation in 2004 with assistance from UCOTA (Ugandan Community Tourism Association). and received further seed funding in 2006 to furnish the bandas.
The objective for this tourism project is for it to be a participatory experience: for our group, the local community and for the visitor. The surrounding community has been involved in the development of the project and would be happy to have people visiting them, seeing their everyday life and their needs such as education that our project is trying to address. Our chairperson will be delighted to share with you everything she knows about local life, history, culture, traditions and the issues that affect us. This means visitors will directly engage with the recipients of their tourism spend and can see exactly what the impact of their stay will be.
As well as bringing economic and social development directly to our members and the local communities - plans include a nursery school for the community - we also wish to create economic development indirectly. We hope that if the project becomes successful we can inspire other people to come together and also work towards economic and social development.
Thursday, August 23, 2007
Float Down My Stream of Conscience
A random collection of thoughts from my travel weary mind...
Favorite Ugandan Town Names:
Powers I Wished I Possessed:
- photographic memory and companion color printer, for everything I see out the bus window but don't have my camera ready for (my new favorite being the "Tick Hotel" in Uganda)
- ability to teleport from one location to another so I didn't have to take the bus
Last State I Thought of in My Time Killing Quest to Name All 50 (which I did):
Miss K By the Numbers:
3 - number of times I will pass in and out of Kenya
4 - number of buses I have ridden in the past 5 days
5 - shortest amount of hours spent on said buses
14 - longest amount of hours spent on said buses
27 - number of different hotel rooms, dorm beds, campsites, etc. I have slept in so far
52 - number of consecutive speed bumps placed 30 feet apart, causing the bus driver to speed-break-babump, speed-brake-babump down the road and Kristian to almost snap and jump off the bus
On Transport Cost:
$4.50 gets you a ride on Supa Coach (don't be fooled by the name) from Kampala to Masinda, Uganda. You will have to sit on the bus for 2 (to 3) hours before it leaves and over the course of the 5 hour bus ride, you will have to coordinate shifting your legs with the old woman facing you as there are 16 people in a space designed for 9 and you only fit if you alternate legs (my leg/her leg/my leg/her leg). When the bus stops, you can not get out but you can buy meat on a stick through the window. Choose wisely or like me, you will end up with a stick of grilled intestines and realize you weren't as hungry as you thought.
$30.00 gets you a ride on Akamba from Kampala, Uganda to Nairobi, Kenya. You get your own seat, the bus leaves on time and they give you samosas and juice in the morning. Though the windows don't open for food purchases, you do get a 20-minute stop for lunch and a bathroom break 7 hours into the trip at the halfway point. If your ride is more than 5 hours, I would recommend digging into your wallet for the extra cash.
On Transport Stability:
Those of you who have been in my car know she is low to the ground. An advantage of this is that I never feel like I will tip over. Get run over? Sure. Tip over? Never.
As Supa Coach raced down the road, swerving around slower cars, driving in the shoulder and leaning at what felt like 30 degree angles, I was sure we would tip. Maybe I got the idea from The Simpsons episode where the SUVs took a gentle curve and all rolled over and caught fire. Maybe these thoughts are an effect of the Larium. Maybe it's because I've seen one bus and two trucks on their sides along the roads. In any event, I'm happy to report we stayed upright the whole time.
And just so you know it's not just me. I met a Spanish woman in Masindi who said she spent most of the time on the bus praying because she literally thought she would die. Now she laughs about it. But that's now.
People, love your cars, your public transportation and your roads. You've got it good.
Keep on truckin',
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
"Mama, this is Africa"
What, pray tell, was I doing in a car full of Ugandans, dust and body odor? Bouncing down one of the worst dirt roads in Uganda, listening to Voice of America radio on a 50 mile, 3.5 hour drive trying to make my way to Kisoro, to track gorillas. "But didn't you sign up for a safari that came with a private vehicle", you ask? Why yes, I did.
Long story short (is it really possible with me?), the 4x4 my guide was driving broke down 2 hours into the trip. We had to use a combo of taxis and matatus (14 passenger vans filled with 23 people that regulary smash into each other and kill people in Kenya) and free rides to make it, which we didn't and that left us scrambling for another permit and extending the safari by 2 days. It's been both a drag and a memorable experience.
On a good note, I did get my mzungu in the mist moment - twice!
The first tracking was to Mgahina National Park. 3 hours of hiking to find the family... once we did, we got to spend an hour following them, oohing, aahing and taking photos. As you see in this photo, I obviously didn't clear things with the gorilla's agent before snapping this picture. (the gorilla is the tiny black blob over my right shoulder) On a bit of a gorilla high, our group of 5 started walking back down the mountain - the Virunga volcano range really that is shared between Uganda, Rwanda and Congo.
We didn't even notice the first drops. But then the rain came down in a deluge, a deluge I tell you! For 1.5 hours we walked in the rain. Every time you thought it can't rain any harder, it did. At the end, I was up to my ankles in running brown water, trying to make it to the car. All this for a monkey? Oh yeah.
After a night of drying my shoes by the fire and securing a second permit - having been thrown off schedule by our delay - I was tracking again, this time at Nkuringo in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. This time, we found the gorillas in only 30 minutes - but they were hiding, well really just trying to take a nap, deep in the forest. Despite the name, the forest is penetrable, but it ain't easy. Our guides hacked away at the bushes to reveal Posho, who stared at us while we stared at him.
Not content with spotting only one gorilla (a Dutch group at our guest house had seen a group of 18 the other day - a feat not to be repeated by us) we went searching for the others under the branches and over the vines. No one tells you about the ants. You know they're there when they bite you.
Moving on. We see two silverbacks, Safari and Kisoro. I'm busy trying to take still pictures of them and don't have the video camera on which is a shame because we get charged by another gorilla. In the time it takes me to mumble "oh jesus", hit record and cower by a tree (about 2 seconds) it's over. It was scary hearing the screeching and crashing through the bush coming from the side, but in the end it was all for show - and to show us who is boss. Again the hour goes quickly.
Although it is more expensive to see gorillas in Uganda than neighboring Congo, the Uganda Wildlife Authority really does a good job of working with the local people to recognize that the tourism the gorillas bring can have a positive impact for the surrounding communities.
To those of you thinking about traveling to Uganda, I would encourage you to do it! It's been great and I wish I had more time here but I've got people to see and things to do.
Coming soon... thoughts on transportation and the Boomu Womens' Group!
Saturday, August 11, 2007
Wanawake This Way
In the event you are ever on a 13.5 hour bus ride from Kenya to Uganda and you want to make sure you go into the right rest stop bathroom - and you are a woman - look for the "wanawake" sign. As I am now in a country where it is not spoken, this concludes our Kiswahili lesson for the day.
I have successfully propelled myself into a new country and have started connecting with other solo travelers, and a bunch of wanawake at that! Yesterday I went with two people I met to Ngamba Island to see the sanctuary for orphaned chimpanzees. The people who care for these animals are very knowledgeable and very passionate about promoting chimpanzee survival in the wild. The chimps are very polite, raising their hands when they want more fruit to be thrown their way at feeding time. The sanctuary and community involvement is a good response to a bad situation
Upcoming Interviews for "Dream" Footage
I'm scheduled to go back to Nairobi to interview a woman who is a marine conservationist working with a community of women on the coast of Kenya. The women collect washed up flip flops and turn them into key chains, placemats, jewelry and many other products which are then sold to people like you and me. I will interview the woman who started the company as well as some of the artists. UniquEco
I will also go back to Arusha, Tanzania to interview a man who collects the plastic bags that litter the city, disinfects them and uses them as stuffing for animals he makes. Mazingira Mokey Project
All that and I plan to visit Habitat people in Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia! Hooray!
Favorite Shop Signs in Kenya on the road to Uganda:
1. "Democracy Bar And" - and what? it hurts not knowing
2. "God's Will Cafe" - think how much money you save on menus
3. "Modern Fly Cleaners" - for the modern fly
Favorite Shop Signs in Uganda between Kampala and Entebbe:
1. "Hope Medical Centre" - when medicine isn't enough
2. "Wood de Pearl" - better than pearl de wood I suppose
3. "Queen Latifah Beauty Salon" - no sign of her there but maybe it was her lunch break
In two days I leave for Bwindi to go see (hopefully) the mountain gorillas. Will definitely send pictures of those when I'm back.
Lastly, a photo of one of the many kids that see foreigners and shout "mzungu (foreigner) how are you?".
Monday, August 6, 2007
Kickin' It In Kenya
Downtown Nairobi reminds me a lot of downtown San Francisco - people in suits on cellphones, signs in English, coffee shops everywhere - EXCEPT... everyone is African, the cars drive on the opposite side of the road and the homeless people tell you they are refugees from Sudan. Otherwise, same same.
It's Monday now and I'm here through Thursday morning. After meeting with some employees of Habitat Kenya and interviewing them on video, I learned that a Global Village team will be returning from their build on Tuesday night. So, I'm staying at the guest house where they will be staying, essentially stalking them in the hopes that I can get more interviews before heading to Uganda.
I spent the weekend with the friend of a friend of a friend and it was great. Life for the people working at any of the embassies or the UN involves a lot of gates, guards and golfing but is otherwise much like life in the US - driving your kids to their friend's house, going shopping and ordering pizza for dinner. I was shepherded around all the sites in Nairobi... animal orphanages, elephant orphanages, giraffe center, Karen Blixen's house/restaurant, cultural dances. It was fabulous, though now it leaves me with not much to do over the next few days but to hang out at coffee shops.
I'm now at a guest house full of missionaries. It's not laughing hyenas that makes me put my earplugs in but loud evangelizing on the tv in the common area. Oh well. It's right next to a shopping center and certainly seems safe. This morning I was on a bus downtown (so proud of my first use of public transit) when I heard that the police had already shot dead 4 potential robbers in separate incidents in the city this morning. I'm not quire sure how reassured I feel about that.
In any event, I did accomplish my main mission of the day. Getting a bus ticket to Kampala - I splurged for the bus with air conditioning but we'll see. The bus from Arusha was supposed to have it too but they only had air on the condition that you opened the window. I also booked a bed in the dorm at a place in Kampala where I will hang out until my gorilla tour: http://www.redchillihideaway.com/index.htm They help with other sightseeing and I have high hopes of meeting other solo traveler's there.
I'll post this now but try to add the picture of me petting the (tame? drugged?) orphaned cheetah when I get back to the Gracia guest house.
Thanks for reading and I'll try to check in before I head to Uganda.
Thursday, August 2, 2007
Knackered in Nairobi
I am in Nairobi and I am wiped out (and hopefully not getting sick) from all the early mornings and long bus rides. Tracy leaves tomorrow morning so a quick update before we go out for our last dinner... I'm using my new favorite way of communicating - lists.
Things I Wish I Hadn't Already Lost in Transit:
1. My watch with the alarm in it.
2. My sleeping bag.
3. My extra key to the lock for the small bag where I keep my passport.
Tracy is loaning me her sleeping bag for the duration and her alarm clock too. Good lord. I've been so focused on not losing the video camera - or having it stolen, other items are falling out of my possession faster than I can shout "mother f---er!"
Situations That Can Only Be Explained With "This Is Africa":
1. At a big store in Nairobi which sells groceries, household goods and clothing I can buy a motorcycle, but not a watch.
2. Our bus from Dar Es Salaam to Nairobi lurches to the curb 3 blocks from the station. Instead of sending another bus or having us walk back, the onboard mechanic/flight attendant spends over 2 hours fixing our broken hydrolic brakes.
3. The higher quality buses show bad American movies, while the lower quality buses show bad Nigerian movies. After watching "She Devil" a movie about a gang of mermaids who teleport to the surface of the earth and hypnotize people by shooting lasers out of their eyes only to be undone by the power of Jesus, ala the Exorcist ("the power of Christ compels you") - it is clear, bad Nigerian movies are a higher quality experience.
Tomorrow I have a meeting with the Habitat, Nairobi group and then will visit a friend of a friend of a friend, who I met last night, at the US Embassy where she works before heading to her house to take advantage of an extra bed. Later need to book another 12 hour bus trip from Nairobi to Kampala to see the mountain gorillas.
Pictures I Wish I Had My Camera Out and Ready For:
1. Woman walking down the side of the road outside of Nairobi in a santa hat.
2. Man walking in downtown Nairobi with a Star Wars tie, which featured the faces of the characters.
3. Grocery store security guards with black riot gear helmets.
That's it for now. Thanks for reading!