Budongo or Bust

September 29, 2008
I immediately thought, what a silly way to die. Really.
The sun was high in the sky, the market already a zoo of chickens on the run, the smell of blood, women peeling cooking bananas and fish in piles, hanging and sticking out of buckets balanced on top of brave girls heads. I think the string of drying fish will make a perfect photo with the sun just so, and I ask the vendor permission with a Cheshire cat smile. She smiles back, even bigger, but doesn’t nod in either direction. I ask again, and she pulls off a silvery fish, the length of my finger and extends her arm towards me.
I accept the fish, but, I kinda wanted a picture of a hundred of them hung together on a string. Then I realize, oh, this is the great White Woman test. Like the African sorority club–if I eat the fish, I’m in. I accept the challenge and ask her if I am to eat the fish, as is. She laughs and chatters to her friend who laughs even harder. Oh, the mockery, I’ll show them, I’ll swallow it whole. Again, I ask if I should just put it in my mouth, or if you know, the tail fin is sacred, and I should everything but that part. I eye the fish, in particular it’s tiny eye staring back at me. I go for it, and shove it in my mouth, but it’s way to big, it’s hitting my tonsils. I pull it back out, somewhat rudely, the women smirking now, and try again, I will bite it in half and show them my carnivorous ways. The fish is like biting into a leather belt, tearing it in half is impossible. Suddenly, with the tail fin hanging out between my lips, I feel the sharp needles like porcupine quills jabbing into my tongue in 10 different places. Holy shit, they’ve given the naieve White Women a poisonous fish. I pull the stupid fish out in a very un-lady-like manner, scales scraping off on my molars and feel the barbs embedded in my tongue. I pull them out painfully as a man tells me that, “madam, you must boil first.” So, now my death has been guaranteed. I feel my tongue swelling, more psychologically than physically, but I imagine myself passing out in the middle of the marketplace. I imagine them (sadly) checking my pockets before my pulse. The women who set me up are beside themselves with laughter, and I move on, totally not a sorority sister. I quickly buy a bitter lemon soda, thinking the lemon acids will counteract any poisonous fish leeching into my tongue. I think of the Friends episode where Chandler urninated on someone’s leg because they had been stung by a jellyfish. I briefly contemplate whether I should try the same tactic and pee in my soda bottle and rinse. I trusted the bitter lemon, and bought some hard crouton like ‘”energy source” (wheat flour, butter, sugar–really, croutons, everyone eats them like Pringles). They are rock hard and I imagine that I will lose all my dental work and not have to worry about my tongue anymore. The croutons are so hard I feel like I’m eating my own teeth. I leave the market, slightly disgruntled, but kind of laughing at my trusting ways.
I head towards another market and stop to take a picture of a soccer field for my soccer savvy sister, Kiley. There is a gangly Marabu stork picking around inside the dumpster, and the field is more flowerpot-red dirt than grass. No one is playing, but kids do make clever soccer balls out of banana fiber. The ball would probably give me a hundred microfractures, but these kids play barefoot. I have even seen badminton games played with flip-flops as racquets. I zip my camera away in my backpack and am nearly run over by a police vehicle. He barks at me, “Madam, what are you doing? You cannot take photographs.” I apologize but am stumped (I know you can’t take pictures of the police or airport or government buildings–but empty soccer fields and a stork in the dumpster?? The police officer, with his antique rifle in hand yells, “I must confiscate your camera.” He reaches for my bag with his non-gun hand and I tell him that I’ll simply delete the photo, which I do. Again, he yells, spit flying, “I must confiscate your camera! Give it to me.” With the fish-taste in my mouth of my recent sour market, near-death experience, I decide I am not going to be some push-over. Besides, Canada makes more realistic looking water pistols. I refuse and back away. Its back and forth and I say, “sorry, I don’t understand you,” and walk at lightning speed away from the crime scene. I pray that I won’t be shot from behind by his toy gun and enter a hardware store closeby. When you are the only white person (seemingly) on the streets of Entebbe, it’s hard to be a criminal! I don’t really relax until I return home, as I imagine the corrupt police finding me on a side road and putting me in a potato sac. I don’t see the cops again, but I’m sure my face is memorable to them. As if–hand over my camera for taking a picture of a soccer field? My initial fear (i.e. heart pounding so hard in my skull that I couldn’t hear for most of the day) turned to mild anger. I wondered how many tourists had been ripped off that way. What an easy way to get a new camera! The police haven’t seen the end of my paparazzi ways!
On the weekend, Carol, Mary Lou and I went to Budongo. The trip is four hours, white-knuckled and hair-raising. Even my eyebrow hairs were raised. Aside from the usual zoo of foot traffic, goats, meandering long horned cattle, the chicken who crossed the road (at the very last minute), there are charcoal trucks stacked with bags of charcoal seemingly 30-feet high. There are horns, bleating goats, fires burning, and people at our truck window selling shoes, light bulbs, kindling and kid’s clothing. The insect repellant I have sprayed to keep the tsetse flies at bay has worked only as an adhesive for the red grime that will take 3 days to sneeze out, and 7 Q-tips to remove. I am sweating, stuck like Saran Wrap to the leather seat, and feel like I have wet myself. Indeed, if I had any incontinence issues I would have–the ‘”road” (think one-vehicle country laneway) is a series of meteorite craters. We hit bottom several times and narrowly miss several baboons and a warthog family slick with mud from the wallowing hole.
We reach Masindi and stop at the hotel to let our rattled bones stop vibrating for a bit. Lou and I chug Guinness, Carol–our all American hero has a cheeseburger, fries and a Coca-Cola. I choose the goat stew and am mocked for choosing Ugandan food when burgers and steak are on the menu. But, I would choose goat anywhere. There’s no fighting with these two who cease every opportunity for western food. We even had pizza the night before we left, so I felt quite in touch with my Canadian tastebuds.
At the Budongo Forest Reserve we unpack our bags in the cabins that were just built in March. They could be in Banff, or some other mountain-lodge town. Baboons bark at our arrival, and the groundhog hyrax screams at another for invading its territory. Hornbills in the canopy carry on creating a sound like pigs being murdered. Then, there is calm. Frogs that sound like icecubes tinkling in a glass chatter back and forth among the crickets who seem to have mini-sound systems attached to their legs.
We have hot showers, so hot they almost burn–and the water is like a torrential rainfall. The red dirt puddles at my feet as I shampoo the day’s drive out of my hair. The scenery has exhausted me,l it’s difficult to take in so much wonderful. The only un-wonderful part was the tsetse flies that (sorry mom) make you say fuck a lot .They land on the whites of your eyes if possible, up your nostirls and in your ear drum. Ugh. And, when they bite they take a divot out of you bigger than the one I make at the golf course!
In the morning I go chimp-trekking and have my authentic Jane Goodall moment. After an hour with Sauda and Sipi (being followed by a nuisance baboon who keeps alarming the chimps of our arrival), we spot a male. I train my binoculars on him, and we enjoy eye contact as he eats tiny berries like a movie-goer eating popcorn. Then, feeling invaded, he climbs higher, turns his back, and all my binoculars pick up are his giant testicles. Still, I am thrilled.
In the afternoon Carol and I bang along the road to Murchison Falls National Park. The water is angry and frothing–this is the Nile at its best! In true African style, there are no safety barricades a la Niagara Falls, so, you could just walk to the edge and step in if you wanted to be sent roaring through the chasm. The falls are deafening, and the wet spray on my skin reminds me that this is what life is all about.
The tsetse flies continue to snack on me and Carol develops lipstick kiss-size welts. The danger of these flies is sleeping sickness, which I’ve had for most of my life anyway, so I’m not certain if the symptoms would be obvious.
On Sunday we return to the Nile for a gentle boat ride upcurrent, towards the powerful falls. The river’s edge is active with Nile crocs, jaws opened wide (showcasing some lovely pearlies), and hippos that at first appear like wet, smooth stones. The stones suddenly snort and buoy up, then submerge again. They have no sweat glands, which explains their affection for being underwater. If they are exposed to the sun, their bodies secrete a sticky red fluid that makes them look like they’re bleeding.
We also spot waterbuffalo, waterbuck and Ugandan kobs (antelope) that would take Lasik eye surgery for me to distinguish. There are watersnakes, chocolate-backed kingfishers, gorgeous red-throated bee-eaters and the reserved Goliath heron (the largest heron in the world). It is a birder’s orgasm.
The trip up the Nile is only 15 dollars US, which, can you even go to a Silvercity movie for that price anymore? This interactive Nile movie was three hours long, and totally suspenseful.
I am now back to ‘work’, we left Lou behind at Budongo as that is where she is stationed. I spent today reading children’s books on chimpanzees as research for my next project here: creating a colouring book on the great apes of Uganda.
If I could offer you the sagest advice? Come to Africa. See this world for yourself. But, until then, I will tell you all about it through my eyes, fingertips and tastebuds. But, no more dried fish. Or crouton-like things.
Thanks for reading,
Love, Jules America
or, as the African children would sign their names,
I remain, Jules Torti
Categories: Eat This, Sip That, Into and Out of Africa | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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