December 6, 2008
I have found my Meryl Streep farm-in-Africa destination: Jinja. In particular, Maredy’s idyllic cottage at the Gately Inn on the Nile. Leaving the chaos of Kampala behind, we drove through rolling sugarcane and tea plantations, and I was instantly smitten (Editor’s note: with Jinja, not Maredy, although she is lovely too).
The cottage offered privacy that I haven’t felt since I arrived, with so many volunteers under one roof at the Jane Goodall office. Here I could reenact Tom Cruise’s Risky Business underwear scene if I wanted, I could sleep in the buff without worry of Debby’s infamous knock-and-walk entrance…I could eat a bag of cashews without sharing. Here, I could become really selfish and a recluse.
Maredy and I reconvened for sundowners on the star-studded balcony of her inn and picked at a mezza plate of fatty salami, olives, warm pita and cheese. As darkness fell upon us we were privy to the celestial display that won’t be witnessed again until 2052 (when I’m 78 and will need a telescope to read the newspaper). It was a spectacular one-night stand, Venus, Jupiter and a thumbnail of a moon clustered together over our heads. We wondered about an apocalypse and decided we should drink more wine just in case. And then Amarula on ice for good measure. The beauty of Africa is that there is an unspoken, universal agreement to stop and enjoy a sundowner wherever you might be.
In the morning I was feeling a bit wobbly, but went for a punishing run anyway. As I rounded the golf course the Amarula hit me like a sucker punch. I was going to shit my pants. The non-beauty of Africa is that there are locals walking everywhere, all the time. I looked behind me and ahead of me, I was doomed. The flag pole on the eighth hole offered little cover, I wasn’t that skinny. I was sweating in overdrive and kept focused on the health club sign ahead. I ran past the guard at the gate and barged inside. The housekeeping staff was milling about and I asked where the washroom was. ‘’Are you a member?” I said no, but with a very panicked look on my face. “Please, I am in dire straits.” The woman rested her chin on her broom, “Your name is Dire what?” Oh god. “I just need the toilet,’’ I nearly yelled at her. “So, you want to shower?’’ I was about ready to shit on her flip flops. I walked away from her and asked someone else who luckily didn’t interrogate me and was saved. Only when I sat on the toilet could I laugh that she thought my name was Dire Straits.
After an African trucker breakfast of milky, spicy tea, eggs and sausage sweetened with nutmeg, I decided to go horse-back riding. The trail was along the Nile, and it seemed like an appropriate thing to do. I always had Brokeback Mountain kind of fantasies, you know—plaid shirts with snap buttons, belt buckles as big as your head with Holsteins on them, eating beans out of a can and slugging whisky out of the bottle around a fire.
I took a boda to the stables, and my driver quickly stopped beside a horse pulling grass from the other side of the fence. ‘’I have never seen before! Only in picture books in school. It is like a cow!’’ I was stunned that a grown man had never seen a horse in his life. Amazing.
I was greeted by Natalie, who looked very much the part of cowgirl with her dusty cowboy hat low on her brow and faded jeans, naturally distressed by wear, not the marketing minds of Diesel and Rock & Republic. I sat down to fill out a form that asked if I had insurance, my nationality, and “how many times ridden?” I laughed. I asked Natalie, “how many times have I been ridden?”She remained stone-faced, like I imagine Clint Eastwood would as well. “Your form, it says, ‘how many times ridden’—that’s funny.” She wasn’t biting and only clarified in slow English, “how many times have you ridden a horse.” Well, clearly this number was different from my first calculation. She made me write ‘’novice.’’ And I was, my Aunt had horses but we looked at them more than we rode them. And that time in Bahamas with my brother and sister, that was horseback hell as our horses decided to bite each other in the ass and randomly swim in the ocean instead of cantering along the beach like in Club Med commercials.
Natalie introduced me to Tuscany, a 15 hander. I took a horse massage course just last year, but I never sat on the horse, I stayed on the ground, hoping I wouldn’t get hoofed in the shins as I pulled the horse’s tail for a low back traction. I bravely saddled up and came to the instant conclusion that horses are fucking tall! I needed a bigger belt buckle. Instead of a cool cowboy hat a la Eastwood, Natalie gave me a dorky helmet which ruined my Brokeback Mountain fantasy in a second. However, I was happy to be helmeted because now I was having awful visions of Christopher Reeve and Madonna’s tumble. If the Material Girl could break three ribs, a collarbone and her wrist, how could I be invincible?
Once I got over how tall Tuscany and I were combined, I was able to take in the surroundings. Daniel, my guide, led us through small mud hut villages where every kid ran out at top speed shouting “mizun-goooo! How ARE YOU!” Instead of the intonation of a question, they were shouting at me. ‘’HOW ARE YOU! HOW ARE YOU!’’ Two kids came to the edge of the trail with pieces of wood pressed to their ears—mimicking cell phones. “Hello? Jambo, Mizungo. HOW ARE YOU!”
We passed through sugarcane plantations and along the rapids of the Nile. In no time my ass was resisting the saddle. Tuscany was resisting me. Three times Daniel scolded me for letting Tuscany eat corn from the villagers crops (which consist of about seven stalks). How was I to stop Tuscany from a corn snack with measly reins? He was like a fat kid on a Smartie, there was no stopping him. Daniel fashioned a discipline stick for me to strike him with when he attempted to steal corn again. I can’t even use a flyswatter, and when Daniel wasn’t looking I accidentally dropped my stick.
Soon I was learning how to do the seated and standing trot. Daniel remarked, “you are very good at trots.” I wanted to tell him just how good I was at trots last week with shigella. Apparently he felt I was advanced enough (despite the few times I had been ridden) to canter. I followed his instruction, and white-knuckle gripped the saddle, with reins in the other hand, feeling like I was holding on to nothing at all.
I kicked Tuscany as told (apologizing at the same time), and we were off, chickens running like hell across the path, goats threatening to cross, kids chanting, and me, thinking this was my Madonna moment. I was starting to list to the right and Daniel was yelling something but I could only feel and hear and smell inertia, and kept my eye on the ground that I thought I might soon be flat out and bleeding upon. He stopped ahead of me, and so did Tuscany. I told Daniel that was enough cantering for me. Besides sliding sideways, my bladder wasn’t cut out for the Wild West. Instead, we did seated and standing trots back to the stable where I was happy to hop off my Hummer of a horse.
The following day, feeling every bit of my bruised rump, I agreed to go 4×4-ing with Nee. It was her 41st birthday and she was keen on the quad bikes. Why not? Now, this is when my Brokeback fantasy fell flat and I realized my true redneck nature. We donned the heavy overalls, Steven knotted a bandana behind my head, put on my helmet and aviator goggles. Now, this was cool. I loved the outfit, and the aviator goggles topped off the experience. We roared along the trails, past that famous Nile and were told not to race or pop wheelies. Well, as if I would even know how to pop a wheelie on a quad bike. Nee and I were both in our element, even when I went for a near tip. I misjudged the incline and went on a decline instead, but Steven was quick to hop off his bike and reverse me. We rode for an hour, and I was actually sad that it had to come to an end. I had no idea that I had 4×4 blood in me! We had a beer, even though it wasn’t the prescribed sundowner time and looked over the menu at the De Nile Café. At the Adrift bar the night before they advertised ‘’humbergers,’’ while De Nile offered a beef party with chips! Who doesn’t love a good beef party, especially after 4×4-ing?
And that was Jinja. I was sad to leave my cottage and Maredy’s company, but it was time to push on to meet my Jane Goodall crew in Kampala to head to Budongo to paint murals. Maredy’s engineer, Steve, came with me on the ‘’coaster’’ (bus). At 6’3 he was folded up like origami in the seat beside me. After two hours I was back to my public transit self-talk. I had to sit sideways because the bus seats were built for African pygmies. My knees were dented from the cross bars and I felt like I had hip dysplasia. If the bus were to slam on its brakes, I would have fractured both my knee caps into puzzle pieces. The bus was ripe with body odour, I wanted to pass around my Ban Mountain Breeze deodorant stick out of goodwill to men. I’m beginning to develop armpit-itis.
In Kampala I rushed to the underground parking lot which is also the very odd location of NY Style Bagels. I wolfed one back while a group of Missionaries ate pizza behind me and talked Jesus in the exhaust of the parking garage. Would you like some diesel with the pepperoni on your medium pizza?
I met up with Mary-lou at our agreed upon destination and we were off to Budongo, the bliss of Jinja long gone from my mind. We arrived at the eco-tourist center in the dark, my ass still feeling the horse, and my back feeling every elephant-sized pothole. We had beer and beef curry then limped off to our cabins, ready to be in a horizontal position.
My rude awakening came in the form of Debby, who I shared a cabin with, barfing. Big barfs, in the sink. Then, the quick pounding heels to and fro to the toilet as she spent equal time heaving and shitting her pants. I can handle cat fur balls, and my nearest and dearest barfing, but anyone else? Mmm, not in sickness and in health. I went from feeling fine to wondering if I too was ill. Then, when the cabin became somewhat quiet, I listened, terrified, to what had to be a snorting bush pig in our cabin! The longer I listened, I realized it wasn’t a bush pig, it was my other roomie, Julie (one of Maredy’s inn staff on holiday), having a sleep apnea attack. Great, just great. I couldn’t decide what was worse, the guttural barfs or the sound of someone suffocating in their sleep.
Morning came far too early, and Debby was done in. She was so quiet it was almost disturbing. I wasn’t accustomed to her being mute! At this point everything started going sideways. The Budongo forest guides decided to strike, leaving Mary Lou to deal with four eager Germans waiting to see chimps. Then there were death threats from the guides, talks of witch doctors, hexes, Lou getting run off the road by the Ugandan Wildlife Authority as they drove at her head on and at the last minute sheared the mirror off. It was all too Dian Fossey for me.
The palpable danger and potential violence of the striking guides was sending Mary Lou into a tailspin. To avoid Debby’s cooties and also to offer some sense of safety and protection, Julie and I slept with Lou. In one bed. At 6’4, Lou is like sleeping with a small giraffe, and Julie had her knees tucked into my bum within minutes. One sleep apnea attack and I was outta there. Plus, Lou in her frantic state had tried to encourage serenity now with lavender oil on the pillows and I felt like I was sleeping with someone’s grandmother’s feet. I returned to the contaminated cabin in hopes that my bacteria fighter-off-er’s were in fine form after shigella.
We left by noon the next day, with a near-comatose Debby who gave a few good heaves into a towel just as we pulled away. The road back to Kampala was like driving across the prairies. I ate macadamia nuts and listened to my iPod until it was dead. We stopped at The Surgery for Debby to see a doctor and arrived home eight hours later. The dust in my ears was a three Q-tipper. I ate a tuna and apple sandwich in the silence of my room, my body trying to readjust to not banging over the roads. My duvet was covered in a hundred dead lake flies, but they were on top, I could deal with them in the morning.
And I found sleep. No barfing. No pseudo-bush pig apnea. No grandma’s feet in my nose. Just me, dead lake flies, the incessant hum of mosquitoes, Pops on my left and Levi on my right. My Jupiter and Venus, we were all aligned again.