Posts Tagged With: Uganda

The Best Places we Slept in 2015

As I type this, I am on red hot poker alert for sounding like a gloating schmuck. One doesn’t have to read too many headlines to be aware of the immense life-joy Syrians are finding in a one-way ticket to Canada. And here I am bragging about all the places we slept around the world this year. However, it is with gratitude that we have the means, and with greater thanks to the powers that be that we are Canadians and synonymous with poutine, igloos, nice beer, plaid of all sorts and moose antlers.

So, in no particular order, these were our resounding favourites for 2015, the places that still stir us in the night and tumble into conversation as quickly as commas and Kardashians.

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La Sirena, Palomino, Colombia

$645 CAD for 7 nights

Comes with very cute cat, a bat show and the best French Toast, possibly ever.

Three words: open-sky showers. You can’t beat them—even if they are lukewarm. Palomino was a neat pocket of surfer survivalists. Budget backpackers love Palomino for the cheap beer, cheap tins of tuna, big surf and $4 a night hammocks to sleep in (though many went even thriftier and simply camped en plein air on the beach without issue).

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We don’t sleep in hammocks anymore, and ponied up a few more dollars to sleep in a seaside casita at La Sirena Eco Lodge. The on-site veg resto serves up thick slabs of fruit-studded French toast, lentil burgs, tangy red cabbage slaw and baseball bat-sized burritos nearly made vegetarians of us. There was seaside yoga every day and a dedicated following—we watched over the rim of our wine glass. That counts, right?

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Best? Every night at dusk we’d secure our front of house seats, straining to finish a chapter in the equatorial light and finally close our books for the bat show. At precisely 5:55pm, the bats would swiftly appear, in quick black blurs as the staff lit tiki torches along the beach. When you stay several nights in one place, it’s cool to pick up on the rhythm and the clock of the natural world.

El Dorado Bird Reservo, Minca, Colombia

$230 CAD includes crappy dinner and crappier breakfast, but…how about 100 hummingbirds an hour?

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This was my birthday gift, and swanky to me comes in different forms. For example, like sleeping at 1,700m, far above the coffee plantations and literally in the clouds. Perched above the forest canopy, we had a bird’s eye view of the bird’s eyes. Lots of them. It was hummingbirdpalooza. Gobsmacked, Kim and I stood quite stunned as over fifty hummingbirds circled and buzzed around us at once.

The motorbike ride to the lodge ($75 return) was hair and heartbeat-raising, more akin to an involuntary Dakar rally over washed out bits of road, getting thwacked in the head with fernery and clacking teeth and tongue over potholes—but, wow.

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It was like sleeping in a treehouse, or a bird’s nest I suppose. I spent more time looking out binoculars than using my own eyes.

Best? After checking off endemic birds like crazed lifer birder-types in Tilleys (note: we do not wear Tilleys), we watched a group of Canadian herpetologists go bonkers over the moths and neon katydids attracted to the light of the lodge. These guys knew not only their birds and herps and ghost frogs and anole, but their lunas too–comparing geeked-out notes and trivia. It’s awesome to see people still get as excited about flora and fauna as the return of Star Wars and X-Files.

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Golden Villas, Noord, Aruba

$139/night (January to May)

Comes with Weber Grill, Netflix and Parakeet Migration

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We were beyond impressed with Golden Villas. The apartments are contemporary, spotless and kitted out with Hamilton Beach blenders, Cuisinart coffee makers, black-out blinds (for even the most notorious insomniac), a gorgeous limestone shower (with HOT water, a rarity with most island stays) and NETFLIX even. And there’s never a battle over outdoor lounge chairs!

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With just eight private villas surrounding the courtyard and pool, the experience is intimate and private. Goodbye obnoxious crowds at the all-inclusives and the thumpa thumpa of the disco and badgering to play volleyball or do morning pool aerobics. At Golden Villas, you can watch parakeets fly-by and spend most of your hours without seeing anyone else. It’s so quiet you feel as though you should whisper– most guests depart early in the morning and don’t return until after sunset.

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We took full advantage of the Weber barbecue that was available—(you can pick up groceries just 15-20 minutes away on foot at several Asian supermarkets or the big conglomerate–Super Foods where all the imported Dutch cheese lands by the tonne). Eagle Beach is a 30 minute walk from here–if you are staying for sunset, a headlamp or flashlight would be advised for the return walk. And the beach—not to complain, but the sand is SO white that you can barely read because of the glare. I know, when you’re biggest problem in life is the glare of white sand, SMACK!

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We stayed for a week and loved the sleepy location away from the Palm and Eagle beach madness (they call Aruba “Little Miami” for good reason—all the big hitters are here: Hooters, Senor Frogs, Cinnabon, TGIF, KFC, etc). The owners Richard and Belle are so lovely and helpful–and their young daughter, Juna, has an infectious laugh. We’d recommend Golden Villas to couples wanting a quieter self-catering option. Aruba requires deep pockets outside of the resorts—a pound of peel and eat prawns and two beers will set you back $50US. After staying in solar-powered beach huts in Colombia for three weeks, this was an indulgent spoil! *From the airport it is $25US flat rate.

Summer House at the Summer Garden, Argyle Shores, Prince Edward Island

Rates from $1,000/week (7-night minimum stay)

Includes a jar of honey, best-ever granola and a blitzkrieg of mosquitoes

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I love everything cottagey, right down to the half-filled in crosswords from previous guests, beat-up Scrabble board, sticky UNO cards, bowls of potato chips, astronomy and wildflower guides and Nancy Drew hardbacks. The Summer House had all the quintessential cottage DVDs too: Steel Magnolias and the Big Chill.

Gail and Joe, the vibrant cottage owners and WOOF hosts (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms), were just as groovy as it gets. In their 60s, we saw them perennially bent over in their gardens, in full mosquito swat gear. The mosquitoes were insane in June, but, we can’t blame them for that. The rains came down biblically that week and the decks of cards saw frequent shuffling. Kim’s parents were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, and our quiet group of six quickly escalated to sixty, slab cake and urns of coffee. I’d be breathing into a paper bag if I saw that many people in and out of my rental cottage!

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Best? We were welcomed with a jar of golden honey from Canoe Cove, PEI coffee beans and just-baked homemade granola (stolen in surreptitious handfuls). There was OJ and milk in the fridge, an invite to drop in for a glass of wine and an impromptu lesson on how to make chive flower vinegar.

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Rowdy ravens, rolling jade fields, a veil of fog, devil’s paintbrush in the ditches and serene runs along the cinnamon-sand shore made the Summer House an authentic Maritime escape.

Fronterra Farm Camp Brewery, Prince Edward County, Ontario

$235/night (2 night minimum)

Comes with King bed, just-laid chicken eggs and cilantro and sometimes Veuve.

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This is intelligent camping, people. Whether you die-hard urban or lacking the necessary camping kit, make life easy and dreamy by booking a night in the frontier-style tents at Fronterra. Pick up a bottle of your favourite varietal en route, some organic sausage and pluck greens from their mighty patch behind the farmhouse. Our guacamole with foraged cilantro never tasted so Mex cantina! In the morning, Jens and Inge might deliver some just-laid eggs to fry up in the cast iron griddle. After a night fire side, sticky with mozzie repellant, fear not. Prepare for the hottest shower in your life, with a leafy canopy and an indigo sky above you.

Sleeping at Fronterra makes you want to chop wood, read Farley Mowat and make beer. Thankfully, Jens is taking care of the beer part too. The twist on the Farm Camp is the Brewery—the hops have been lovingly sowed and the beer-making dream is fermenting! The couple have a beautiful vision, and the fact that they are allowing strangers and interlopers to share in on their dream is something to be exceedingly grateful for.

We ended up being their very first guests—I had been following their posts rabidly (the website alone is something to fawn over) and booked us pronto—not realizing we’d be the test subjects! Lucky for us we were treated to a long-coveted bottle of Veuve that they insisted on opening and drinking with us.

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For solitude, and camping that is a far cry from the crammed provincial parks (insert annoying car alarms, inflatable mattresses being blown up at 2am, car doors slamming, blaring music, etc. here). At Fronterra you’re buying into peace, inspiration, and a cheap way to rewire for a few days in the woods.

Ihamba Safari Lodge, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda

$139 US per night, including breakfast and coffee delivered to your doorstep

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When we first arrived at Ihamba Lakeside Safari Lodge I was worried that I made a mistake. I had noticed a 10% room discount on tripadvisor just before we left for Uganda. We decided to book when we arrived, as we hadn’t fully plotted our trip yet. The rate was supposed to be $139 US per night. When we saw the grandness of the lodge and the view of Lake George, I thought–“oh, no! It’s $139 PER PERSON PER NIGHT!” I fretted throughout our welcome session with Fred, especially when we were shown our very own private cottage! From the tripadvisor pictures, I thought the deal was for an interior room–this cottage had a balcony with lakeview and a slipper tub with a panoramic window for hippo watching AND a King bed. It was gorgeous. Royalty could stay here–and royal we were! I casually and slyly asked one of the staff about the price (in shillings) for our entire stay so I could do quick math without seeming like a fretting cheapskate. All this, for indeed $139 a nite, including breakfast. We immediately went to the pool area, which we had completely to ourselves. Philomen kept us hydrated with a steady flow of Tusker–we turned the lounge chairs towards the lake and wondered what kind of dream we had just woken up in.

All the staff were over-the-top professional, catering to all our needs and requests (ice cubes, arranging a vehicle for a game drive, bird book lending while on safari, bowls and cutlery to make guacamole from avocadoes we’d bought nearby) we even asked if the chef could make an eggplant pizza one night as we were looking for lighter fare than the three course option that was available). No problem. Dinners ($25,000 shillings for entrees) were a rotating menu (not a buffet) of decadent choices–eggplant curries, grilled tilapia–and the best beef samosas. Breakfast came with a fruit plate, a bodum of coffee and your choice of eggs, pancakes, bacon, sausage, baked beans, stewed tomatoes. Each night after dinner we would fill out an request form with a time for breakfast. Best? You can opt for a wake-up call with coffee delivery to your room! Now that’s living! (No extra charge).

At night, John, the security guard and resident hippo enthusiast would greet us for an escort with lanterns–asking if we wanted to go look at the hippos closer. They graze on the grass right by the cottages, and you will fall to sleep with sounds of them at your feet–amazing!

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The balcony of the cottage makes for great birdwatching—lapwings, wagtails, go away birds, bishop birds, kingfishers, bats…and the sunrise on Lake George, stunning! We watched a few afternoon storms roll in too! You’ll also see all the fisherman as they head out in their wooden canoes from the local village.

The location of the lodge is technically within Queen Elizabeth National Park, but there is some clause on the property that creates an exception for the hotel. This means you DON’T have to pay the $40US per person park fee per night. The lodge can arrange a driver/guide and safari vehicle for you if you are not travelling with a guided group (like us). It was $140US to hire John (a former QENP guide–patient, experienced and comical)–not including park entry ($80US for two for a 24 hour period, time-stamped).

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If you are looking for serenity, seclusion, a stunning lake view, and a hotel without the park fees, Ihamba is it. The bonus is having a pool, a quiet road to walk on in the mornings if you want to check out the birds or run), hippos at night and lovely staff. And, kudos and karma to the hotel owner for allowing children from the local community use of the pool on Sundays–what a treat for them.

Lakeside Lodge, Jinja, Uganda

$255 US a night, full board. Bring sketch book to recreate the floor plan for your dream home.

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We stayed for a week at the Lakeside Lodge in Jinja and have probably ruined ourselves for any future hotel stays. This one really set the bar to an unreachable place. Have you ever booked a night somewhere and fancied just moving right in–forever? We actually found ourselves sketching out the floorplan–we want to design a house just like the Lakeside Lodge. The master with the en suite bath, open shower, raw wood and stone is really a jaw-dropper. The kitchen, though we didn’t make proper use of it, was one that any aspiring chef would fawn over. And the view–the spiral staircase to the upper deck was total bird’s eye–putting a hum on all the activity below. We were sharing air space with hawks and storks up there!

The bed was so welcome after some stiff sleeps in Murchison. Our only chore was wandering over to the Gately restaurant (just across the road) for more of what we had first experienced at the sister Gately location in Entebbe. Crash in Entebbe for a night while you shake off the jetlag shadows–then make the journey (3-4 hours) to Jinja (the ‘adventure capital of Uganda’. Here you can rip around on ATVs, go horseback riding along the Nile, visit the Nile brewery, chill at the yacht club–which is walking distance and they make potent Long Islands, or book a sunset cruise through Gately for $45US per person to the source of the Nile–a must).

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Gately will restore your senses. Come with books, order a few gins and find a banda. We spent many hours chatting in the bandas, there are three or four tucked along the path that winds from the hotel to the restaurant. The grounds here are just immaculate–it’s like sitting in the botanical gardens with a serious bird soundtrack.

Here’s what you need to order from the kitchen: Cobb salad, Kashmiri chicken, any of the fiery curries and the Nile burger.

You can easily walk to town (15-20 minutes), you can even walk to the golf course (rental clubs available and caddies)—Kim loved navigating a course that involved dodging vervet monkeys, termite mounds, grazing cattle and hippo footprints.

But, if you are also happy just to park yourself and walk about the lodge like a Hollywood starlet, that’s good too. Helen and Georgina are smooth operators and helped us immensely in organizing the Pineapple Express (a $12US per person private van to Kampala) and the future leg of our trip by contacting hotels for us about availability. The security guards were always right on the dot with wake-up calls too!

Again, hot, indulgent showers, lots of places to lie about and feel spoiled. Thanks, Gately! And, somehow I managed to get a decadent surprise birthday cake AND foie gras during my stay too! So appreciated!

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Well, that was 2015. We’ve already kick-started this year off swimmingly with two weeks in Las Galeras and Las Terrenas in northern Samana, Dominican Republic. Where next? Well, we often surprise ourselves. Where was the best place you slept last year?

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Sleeping Around Uganda

An African recap if you’re just joining the studio audience here: In 2008 I volunteered with the Jane Goodall Institute in Entebbe, Uganda for four months. I was responsible for editing a book on the tribes and totems of Uganda created by local children and members of the Roots & Shoots program. I illustrated and designed colouring books on the primates of Uganda and Rwanda, and quite frankly, had the time of my life.

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I first met Merryde Loosemore at the “Chimp House” (the Jane Goodall Institute headquarters in Entebbe where I also lived). Merryde owned the very posh Gately Inn just a 10 minute walk from our office. It became a favoured spot for Cobb salad, pad Thai, stacks of pancakes on Sunday and lovely Australian reds.

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The night we met, the Chimp House was full of various volunteers, coming and going—we covered all angles from Maine to Toronto to Australia. The universal tie was pizza that had been picked up for the crowd and tall Nile Special beers all around. Wagging dogs were afoot (Tinker, Levi, Scrappy) and even the Chimp House cats made an affectionate round. I had just arrived and was blinkered from the flight via Amsterdam. I hopped up to sit on the counter to take in all the accents and stories being swapped around me. Merryde made her way over and leaned between my legs, casually, as though we’d been friends forever. It oddly seemed that way, instantly. She had been a massage therapist in Chamonix Mont-Blanc (the Rhones-Alps region of southeastern France). She’d slept with the Bedouin (and unfortunately, scorpions) in Morocco. She had tromped around with gorillas in Rwanda and had relatives with a crocodile farm in Oz. I was hooked by her energy and tall tales—it was a soul-meshing night.

Which brings me to present day and returning to Uganda. It’s been 15 years since Merryde opened Gately on the Nile in Jinja and the sister property Gately Inn in Entebbe. It was seven since I’d gazed upon mighty Lake Vic. As Merryde was about to celebrate a landmark birthday in Australia in October, the timing was off for us to reunite in Africa. However, Kim and I would be staying at Gately, a place that is testament to the steely-nerved efforts and persistence of one resilient woman to own a successful boutique hotel chain in Uganda that catered to western appetites.

I told Kim we’d be rather ruined sleeping at the Gately properties at the beginning of our three weeks in Uganda. Aside from eating my way extensively through the Gately menus in 2008, I had also stayed at both hotels and knew of the opulence. Come see, and check out what it’s like to sleep around Uganda.

Gately Inn Entebbe

$269 double occupancy cottage, full board

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Entebbe has grown up remarkably from the dusty Russian pilot and UN outpost I remember it as. Gosh, a mall with all the mod cons is soon opening right across from Gately—with a Diesel store and McDonalds! Just a mile down Airport road there is now a KFC and IMAX. I couldn’t believe it—but, I also insisted that Kim and I and Gately’s manager, Helen, go to see Everest in 3D. The juxtaposition of seeing a 3D film about Mt. Everest in Entebbe floored me! (We skipped the bucket of KFC though.) The (also new) Victoria Mall even has a Nukamatt supermarket. To think, I’d squash into a crammed matatu and travel for an hour to the capital city just to buy bagels back then! Now bagels by the dozen (and donuts and Nutella and glossy mags) were a 15 minute stroll from the Chimp House and Gately.

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But, back to the hotel. What a sanctuary after 19 hours of flying from Toronto. The hot showers here are the type you can’t pull yourself out of. I know, it’s Africa, why are we having hot showers? I always do, even in the dead of summer. The towels were luxury, the linens and mattress all so dreamy after being curled up like a prawn on Ethiopian Airlines.

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Gately had even started bottling its own label of South African red wine. Fresh fragrant petals were strewn in colourful trails on the bed and table surfaces. Outside our cottage we had director chairs tucked just so, for optimal privacy. Our only visitors were sunbirds, dashing weavers, flitting butterflies and enthusiastic goodmornings from Jinja and Sippi, the Gately guard dogs. Plantain eaters gave belly laughs from above—these birds sound like monkeys—and there were monkeys too. From our gin and ginger perch we had a mini safari of marabou storks, hornbills and the odd Russian military plane.

The restaurant at Gately has a thoughtfully crafted menu—Merryde had long ago hired a Thai woman named Nee to teach the staff how to prep curries, spring rolls, pad Thai and traditional soups. The menu now has whopping Nile burgers (with an amazing coriander-yogurt dressing), chicken lollipops and fun pub fare like tilapia fingers. It’s all divine.

The Gately Inn in Entebbe is the perfect crash pad, located just 10 minutes from the airport. Sleep off the fog of the flight and you’re walking distance to the ferry dock for Ngamba Island (a chimp sanctuary for 48 orphaned chimps), the zoo, the botanical gardens (where Tarzan was filmed in the 30s) and Anderita Beach (though the hydroelectric dam project has eaten up most of the beach and the bars and restaurants along the edge of Lake Victoria now have only about a foot of sand). If you’ve read or watched the Last King of Scotland and are familiar with Idi Amin’s reign of terror (his ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Uganda in 1972 involved the mass expulsion of Asians from the country) you can visit the dilapitated hijacked Air France plane on Aero Beach.

When you are in Entebbe, make sure it’s on a Tuesday so you can check out the night market. Prepare to be inundated by vendors eager to sell you everything from fried grasshoppers to shoe polish to knock-off cologne to lace panties to catfish and eggplants. It’s a dizzying display of entrepreneurial work and a jaw-dropping amount of stuff that explodes and disappears a few hours later in the haze of kerosene and fried chicken smoke.

Gately on the Nile, Jinja

$255 US, double occupancy Lakeside Lodge, full board

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Back in the day (2008), you could get to Jinja in a semi-smooth two hours. Now you have to bank on four or five with all the congestion in Kampala. A four-lane highway development is on its way which will make for a convenient artery from Entebbe to Jinja, and the next place you should sleep.

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Gately on the Nile is a completely different entity in atmosphere and vibration. Jinja is a little more relaxed (despite being the adventure capital of Uganda). Expats and travellers tend to hang here a little longer, finding the likes of bookstores, avocado smoothies, a yacht club and pubs serving Guinness and Euro soccer matches on the big screen.

The Gately property, in particular the Lakeside Lodge, has a primo view of the Nile. The spiral staircase to the upper deck leaves you sharing air space with hawks and kite birds, catching a current. The bay below is busy with tilapia fisherman and charcoal delivery. At night, the water is illuminated by fishing boats, the lake seemingly full of fireflies.

At the lodge, Jinja and Sippi’s dog duty is taken over by the lovey-dovey Chili and Beavis. Ferocious if needed, they are also instant love balls off-duty.

Room seven (which is temptingly available long-term) is what we want our future master bedroom to look exactly like. Why? The exposed stone walls and cathedral ceilings—live edge double stainless sink counter top, panoramic windows that allow for birdwatching while you brush your teeth! There’s a soaker tub and an open shower (there’s nothing I love more than reckless showering—ie. No glass doors to squeegee!).

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Merryde’s stealth design and attentive eye to detail are evident in all her choices from the goat skin chair covers to the poofy read-a-book-here love seats and doors that open wide to the exotica outside. We want our house to be this floorplan exactly. With a darling dog like Chili.

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Must do: have the Gately staff arrange for a sunset cruise to the source of the Nile. You will see the fisherman casting their nets, egrets, weavers and a serious kingfisherpalooza in the reeds.

Murchison River Lodge

$255 for triple thatched safari tent, half board (dinner, breakfast)

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Located close to the Paraa ferry, just outside Murchison Falls National Park, the southern bank river lodge is the first place Kim and I have ever slept where a hippo escort is required. At night, lanterns illuminate the path to the restaurant and bar area. You can hear the hippos snorting and chatting at the water’s edge. At our tent’s edge! Our driver expressed concern when he saw our sleeping accommodations asking, “What if the hiphops break your tent?”

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We laughed at the bed arrangement for three. All the single beds were pushed together and Helen (Gately’s GM), who we had just met (though her and I had corresponded for months prior via email), was staying with us. “Helen, do you want the bed in the middle?”

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The shower was gorgeous, we each took turns moaning aloud with enjoyment at the HOT water and pure joy of showering with the hippo soundtrack.

That night the River Lodge staff had the grills busy with beef, chicken and lamb kebabs. We grazed on fried chapatti chips dunked in guacamole, the sun already down and stars taking their place. There was no music in the restaurant which so impressed us—there was no need with the squeak of bats and couckals.

Rest assured, when you are booking a thatched tent here, it is a stunner! Not the crappy canvas tent that I imagined, reeking of mothballs and wet dog (guess I was projecting childhood memories of our big circus tent that we slept in). And, this is bush country—don’t expect air conditioning and telly. Try oogling instead of Googling here.

Fort Murchison, near Murchison Falls National Park

$200 US, triple room, half board (dinner and breakfast)

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I love that we had to stop for elephants en route. Though we were outside the national park, the local wildlife didn’t get the memo. Even after leaving the park gate, we were still seeing bounding Ugandan kobs and duikers and ellies on the move.

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The Fort is located on the eastern banks of the Albert Nile. Designed to appear like a remote outpost for Arab traders, we indeed felt like we had traveled long and far, in need of rest and Swahili care. The four course meal was a complete surprise—I was expecting a line-up of starchy blobs, maybe a fish with it’s eye still intact. Oh no. The server was swift and brought us an avo-beet-olive and caper salad to start, a giant bowl of buttery leek and potato soup, followed by lemon butter tilapia (no eye, filet) on a bed of steamed cabbage and onion. There was a dessert too, but I was ready to undo my capris as is.

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The hippo soundtrack followed us here. We had a laugh over the bed arrangement again—Helen’s option looking like a child’s fort with a makeshift mozzie net. She was the one laughing in the morning. Kim and I could hardly breathe because our mattresses were like bedrock. Really, I couldn’t feel my ear for a good hour, or my arms, because they (not me) had fallen asleep from the slate pillow. Helen’s mattress was a dream—and as we creaked about, she smiled after so many hours of blissful REM not tossing and turning on bedrock.

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But, coffee in the morning at the Fort? Go up top and take it all in. Lizards skittled out to join us on the fort walls, enjoying the warming movement of the sun. We did too. The jasmine in the air, mixed with the coffee was something that can’t translate in a postcard home.

If you’re looking for a firm sleep, a place to eat like a sheik and a surreal cup of morning coffee, this is it.

The Dutchess, Fort Portal

$80 US per night, includes breakfast and BRIE!

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I’ve already bitched about the hell ride on public transport in the previous blog, so I won’t repeat myself. Instead, I’ll say the reward was in finding all the pleasures of the Dutchess versus the first rat-hole hotel we looked at on the main drag. It was dumpy, frumpy and the kind of place where you might go to end your life. Ugh. But, cheap. But, no thanks.

At the Dutchess, I knew goodness was in store when I saw fair trade coffee beans, brie and salami for sale in the lobby. An older gentleman seated outside the Dutchess when we arrived said we’d made a great decision, we wouldn’t be disappointed. We joked that he was probably the owner (he wasn’t).

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The rooms are contemporary, with flat screen televisions even! We had filtered water provided (such a treat as you can go broke buying water in Uganda) and there was a resto below serving eggplant pizza and croc ribs and shockingly cold beer.

The staff slogged our bags to the room and finally, we could use our Visa card! Note to travellers: you will find yourself travelling with uncomfortable sums of money because a) ATM’s are few and far between b) sometimes there is no money left in the ATM c) often your card will be rejected). The hotel has free wifi and for Luddites like us, travelling without tablet or cell, they have two computers for use downstairs.

The Dutchess is the best place to decompress if you’ve travelled the 5 hour leg on bus from Kampala. If you’re heading to Kibale, the walk to the matatu stop is 10 minutes away and you can stock up on picnic stuff in the lobby, or at the supermarkets nearby en route.

Breakfast is quite the affair—let me just say this, god bless Gouda and the Dutch.

Chimp’s Nest, Kibale National Park

$120 per night, cottage for 2, includes breakfast

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This was my birthday pick and we had booked the Chimp’s Nest on booking.com prior to leaving Canada. I loved the idea of a wood-fired shower and the balcony overlooking red-tailed monkey territory. The hotel offers on-site night forest walks (where we saw bushbabies and sleeping kingfishers) and, if you jump on a motorbike you can be on the boardwalk of the nearby Bigodi Swamp in just minutes. The 8km walk is astounding and a bird overload!

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We had the Chimp’s Nest to ourselves, really. Travelling on the edge of the shoulder season has become more and more attractive. We spent idyllic days on the stone deck of the lounge area, ate strange spag bol (served with coleslaw?) and stale bacon and tomato sandwiches that exploded like pinatas when you bit into them. But, crappy meals aside, everything else here was off the charts. I’d sit on the toilet of our open sky (yes, no roof Dad!) en suite and often be calling to Kim to come see the moth show on display. I’d interrupt a pee to grab the camera in case something magnificent took off too soon.

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For privacy, romance, killer cat naps, monkey watching, bushbaby stalking and storm chasing—stay here.

Ihamba Lakeside Safari Lodge, Queen Elizabeth National Park

$139 US per night, includes breakfast and hippo escort

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“Oh no, I’ve pulled a Sandra.” A few years ago my mom booked a night at a hotel in Scotland for a steal of a price. She couldn’t believe it—it was a castle with a lake view and she was surprised the drinking water didn’t have flecks of gold in it. That is, until she checked out and learned that the price in euros was PER PERSON, not total for the room.

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I double-checked my scrawled notes and I had written down $139 US per nite several times. Was it really $139 PER PERSON? I swallowed my panic and my beer even faster as Fred showed us the grounds, our private chalet, King bed and slipper tub where we could watch the hippos emerge from Lake George. There was coffee service in the morning—meaning, they would bring it with hot milk to our door, at whatever time we requested. Holy crap. There were robes and all the finery that made me sweat. Oh well, it would be worth it for one night.

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Again, we had the hotel to ourselves. It was just Kim and I at the pool, pretending that it was our very own villa. Philemon brought us Tuskers before we could finish the last of the first.

I finally worked up the courage to ask Julius about the payment on the sly. “So, what would our total for four nights be in shillings?” This way I could do the math (or Kim could) and we’d know if I’d pulled a Sandra in Scotland or not.

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It was $139 per night, per cottage, not per person. WOW.

Deluxe. “Ihamba” means ‘wilderness’ and you will find yourself plunk in the middle of it. Though there are nearby goats that cruise through too (including two that were eager to have a swim in the pool). Cattle graze close to the hippos and we were told, “Please watch for hippos at night and give them 7 metres distance.” Right, where’s my tape measure?

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This place is straight out of the pages of Conde Naste. For the best dose of relaxation after lion stalking at Queen Elizabeth National Park, go here. If you are travelling sans group, as we were, the staff can arrange a driver and safari for you ($150US plus park entry fees of $40US per day, per person).

Listen for the tambourine doves (they sound exactly like the spinning wheel on the Price is Right). Don’t miss the crispy golden beef samosas (I think Kim had them three nights in a row) or fiery eggplant curry. Watch the fishing boats slide out and edge into the horizon. Sit on that perfect balcony and watch the bishop birds and wagtails and go away birds until dusk swoops in because you’ll miss every bit of this place and scene and sound as soon as you leave it.

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So, isn’t it time you slept around Uganda?

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Under the Tusker Sun: Back to Uganda

I’ll blame it on my dad. Thirty years ago, CKPC, Brantford’s top radio station, was offering a free family pass to the African Lion Safari to the first caller. However, the lucky first caller also had to roar like a lion to officially win the pass. That was my dad, and roar he did at the savings and windfall!

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The African Lion Safari is a schmaltzy zoo slash theme park that once upon a time, allowed you to drive your own vehicle through the simulated game park. The experience was so authentic that many vehicles left the safari drive without windshield wipers. Oh and how the baboons loved the soft-top of the convertible ahead of us.

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As kids, this was a thousand times better than a visit to the zoo. We were temporarily transported to Africa, even though we were in sleepy Cambridge, Ontario. When Kim and I moved to the area my African Lion Safari fascination was reignited—so much so that I applied for a job there. They get swamped with applicants—the proximity to Guelph University means every vet student and their brother apply for animal keeper positions. I was thrilled to get a call-back, though they offered me a nightmare position. “We think you’d be best suited for a position dealing directly with the public. How would you feel about driving a 55-passenger bus, small train and boat?”

Yes, it was a job delusion of grandeur. I didn’t want to do any of those things, let alone with 55 crazed hyper cripes kids on board. I imagined having a breakdown and decimating the zebra herd as my monster bus veered off the game track.

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But, back to Africa, and the real thing. I first went in 2008, on a sabbatical of sorts. I didn’t even know where Uganda was at the time, but I applied to volunteer with the Jane Goodall Institute in Entebbe. The condensed version is, that despite my void of hard skills necessary for the job, they wanted me and I wanted them. After four months I was rather in love with Uganda and knew I would be back like a boomerang.

I’ve always said my life is more than circles—it’s a Spirograph. Returning to Africa was necessary, but I worried my shiny kaleidoscope of nostalgia might be tainted after years away from the pesky tsetse flies, dust and dodgy squat toilets. Kim had warmed to the idea (after the ebola headlines thinned), and our time in Zanzibar was a defining example of how awesome Africa was. Except this time—all the things I promised Zanzibar wouldn’t be (malaria zone, human snacking zone for big game), Uganda would be. I warned Kim of the honking chaos of Kampala, lukewarm or possible accidental raw sewage showers, starch-heavy lunches with rice, potatoes and fried yucca all in one serving, tsetse flies up her nostrils, ATMs with no money, matatu taxis packed like sardine cans with people and chickens and car engine. We would see it all, raw and uncensored. Zanzibar was soft Africa and the best starting block in my mind (because you know Madagascar is going to be part of the future scheming).

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To me, all this stuff is quintessential Africa—it’s a fine teetertotter between amazement and annoyance. But, it’s a small price to pay and endure for the rest: brilliant bee eaters in flight, trumpeting elephants, violent earth-rumbling sonic boom storms over Lake Victoria, trance-inducing sunsets on safari, cutting the engine just feet away from a hippo pod, the STARS in the squid ink black sky—so many it seems like one should be ready to pass out from lightheadedness. There will always be tsetse flies but there are also rainbows, falling right out of the sky and the spray of Murchison on our faces—and that thunder of the ages, the mighty Nile rushing ever forward.

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I knew everything Uganda would be—and it was, as reliable as a wagging Golden Retriever. Of course there were sticky logistics and long haul buses to Fort Portal that left our nerves shattered from hitting so many speed bumps at Indy 500 rates–thinking the plate glass bus windows were finally going to give way. Those coaster buses are like traveling on trampolines (think 70s velour covered in plastic with exposed rod iron arm rests. The matatus (mini-van sized taxis) are like involuntarily participating in a Dakar rally–with 23 people instead of the suggested 14. A woman breastfeeds, another eats an entire charred yam as big as a baseball bat with a purple soda (that explodes upon opening and showers half the bus, another dry-brushes her teeth. A dozen others are texting. Someone clips their nails. It’s just like the TTC I suppose. Oh, and then there was that time when the bus (with our packs on it) started to drive off while we were drinking a Tusker nearby. But that’s another story.

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I don’t even know where to begin or where to end with this blog post. We were in Uganda for three weeks and everyday was a sensory overload in the best possible way. The heady waft of jasmine, the wingbeat of hornbills landing just above our cottage, that first stiff coffee on the balcony at Ihamba Lakeside Lodge in a robe, hair slicked back and wet from the steamy rainfall shower.

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I get lost in the soundtrack. (Even the ever-present Lionel Richie hits).

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My tastebuds run through a hard drive of saved taste documents: crocodile ribs at the Dutchess, spicy Tangawizi ginger beer with a glug of gin at my friend Merryde’s brick-and-mortar dream-come-true boutique inn, Gately on the Nile. I taste it all—the foie gras and sweet onion jam that Gately’s manager (and our new precious South African friend) Helen pulled out from her cache for my/our birthday, and a bottle of aged  rum that spilled out stories as fast as nightfall.

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There were warm beers at makeshift bus stops, where the bus was actually the back of a motorbike. There were dreamy beds fit for Will and Kate and then mattresses that were the equivalent of sleeping on slate pool tables. Some of the pillows seemed to be filled with popcorn.

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But, every day was full of remarkable. When your day’s agenda is “look for lions.” Or, climb aboard boat at 3pm to the falls so you can watch the pastel sky catch fire with sunset. When research is kicking off flip-flops and rolling up t-shirt sleeves and spending an hour thumbing through a bird book to document over 30 species sightings in less than an hour—wow. This is living.

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The highlight reel must include our night walk at the Chimps’ Nest. With a guide and an armed guard (What? Charging forest elephants? Sorry Babe, missed reading about them), Kim and I enthusiastically followed the men deep into the woods and night. Though we were looking for bushbabies (which we did see), the greater thrill was finding three sleeping birds. We were within petting distance of a pygmy kingfisher, totally, blissfully asleep—even with three high-powered flashlights trained on his tiny breathing body.

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Random scene: Murchison River Lodge, Burchell’s couckals (known as the “rain bird”) are filling the dead quiet with their familiar and comical  “boo-boo-boo-boo-boo-boo.” The sinewy staff are lighting kerosene lanterns to illuminate the path to the bar and restaurant on the river’s edge. There’s the distinct and goosebump-eliciting muffle of hippos below. Africa’s most dangerous animal—they kill more humans than crocs or lions every year. But still, we choose to sleep in the cool thatch-roof canvas tents while they graze a few grass blades from our heads.

We eat fancy-pants like (lemon butter tilapia and beet with caper salads, pancake stacks with caramel honey, eggs Benny, pad Thai), we eat simply: packages of g-nuts (ground nuts), a few bruised finger bananas, an avocado as big as a football, a can of tuna.

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We float among saddle-billed storks, burpy hippos, Goliath herons and three tons of aggression—sunning crocs.

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Image: The weaving, open cinnamon road. Jade fields of sugarcane, Dr. Seuss-like papyrus, ancient mango trees and life: women carrying bundles of firewood for miles, girls with jerri cans balanced on their heads, young shirtless boys pushing bikes loaded with charcoal. Truly free-range chickens skittle here and there, goats bleat and buck around.

It’s fry-an-egg hot by 10am. Here’s where you get your solid dose of unbridled nature, the very best narcotic going. The roadsides are a blur of vendors, every Ugandan is an entrepreneur. The micro economy is thriving and built on bananas, cobs of corn, pyramids of used shoes, steering wheel covers, some plastic bags of g-nuts and sugarcane stalks.

That same road is like travelling on the moon—the craters threaten to swallow us up. Kim decides to golf in Jinja and finds similar terrain challenges in the termite mounds. Even the scorecard has rules about what to do if your golf ball ends up in a hippo footprint.

The Virgo moon is rising. There is a bonfire, a Burning Man fest worthy pyre. Can you see all this? There are wheelbarrows full of beautiful watermelons (non-GMO!), piles of ‘PUMAA and LAVI jeans’—a line-up of a dozen old school Singer sewing machines and dedicated seamstresses (men and women) at the wheel. A soccer match blaring on a surprisingly large flat screen. The lake flies are like snow flurries at dusk and fly in to your mouth faster than you can seal your lips around the safety of a beer bottle. By day, dragonflies with neon and hot red bodies take their place.

Can you smell this? Split chicken on open grills, chapatti dough being rolled out with an old chair leg and fried in a swirl of spitting oil. That wet, wormyfresh earth after a pounding rain where you inhale like a non-stop yoga class participant. And that sweet wood—like cinnamon sticks and pipe tobacco…

We move from extreme isolation, far from any flight-path or wi-fi. Our entertainment is Cirque de Soleil-ready red-tailed monkeys bouncing in the tree limbs across from our cabin. We move into the capital city of  Kampala and the taxi park that is bigger than a football field and a woman walks past with a loudspeaker ATTACHED to her head. A boda boda (moto taxi) edges past with a bunk bed as cargo. ON a motorcycle. People walk with crates of eggs piled six trays high on their head. With live chickens slung over their shoulder, flapping away.

But back to the beauty: flame trees, hot orange tulip trees, lemongrass. Verdant fields of tea and coffee seedlings being nursed. Big horned ankole cattle—and then over a hundred men, distant, all in yellow jumpsuits. We’re told it’s a farm prison. We pass several and shake our heads at the manual toil that our combines and tractors would till in a day.

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We see everything—elephants parading across the road, a dominant male hippo killing a newborn, a young boy with a machete, angry and seething–threatening our guide Owen in his tribal language (“if you come back tonite, I will cut you!”) Owen told us we shouldn’t buy the small clay crafts the boy had run out to sell us. “He is skipping out of school. This is not good. You shouldn’t buy from him, as it will encourage him to not learn.” We pass by a woman hoeing in a field. She waves at us wildly and makes the universal symbol for “give me money.” Owen says “she is dumb. I mean, she doesn’t talk or hear.

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Kids run out to us at all angles. Yes, some ask for money (why not?). Some just want to touch our white skin (though Kim is as dark as a coconut husk). They trace our tattoos with curious fingers. They want to have their pictures taken—again and again. Many haven’t seen themselves, ever. Kim gives the kids a lesson on using binoculars, though half the group of 40 crowd out the kid who is also being mosh-pitted from behind eager for a turn. I’m sure all he can see is the fuzzy eyeballs of the kid hanging on to the other end of the binoculars.

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The days are pure adrenalin. Your blood begins to feel like warm Red Bull. When you see a leopard with a fresh kill and a mighty fish eagle with talons clutching TWO fish, it’s just pinch-me, kick-me territory.

It’s more than a blog here, it’s a book. Or, a few nights by a fire with a bottles of wine and our stack of matte photos. Then you could feel the goat-skin sheath of the knife we bought in your hands. The cool soapstone of the globe that so represents us (where next?). The warm leather and rough pages of the bound book, the continent of Africa burned into the belly of it. A found feather that once glided on the currents of equatorial air.

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The flashbacks are steady and lovely. Like a pile of favourite Polaroids, familiar and memorized. Our routine was this: books, binoculars, (beer), barefoot, being. We’d read a few chapters in the dying light nursing gin-laced lemon Crest, feet balanced on gum poles. One of us would spot the tuxedo-wearing lapwing or point to a Go Away bird (really, such a great name!). We’d smile at the bats, almost serenading us, signalling the near end of another spoiled African day. Fireflies would emerge, the low frequency of crickets would suddenly be turned on high. Chain lightning would soon streak the sky like a Stones concert.

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As we drank our last coffee with hot milk at Ihamba, on the edge of Queen Elizabeth Park, in the still of the morning, the sun sliding higher in the sky, Kim said, “don’t forget these sounds.”

I can’t. And I know Kim won’t either.

Which means we should probably start planning a trip to Botswana.

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My Seven Wonders of the World

At some point all of us have fallen into the quicksand powers of distractify.com. Who doesn’t want to put off _____________________(insert any task of importance) in favour of scrolling through gauzy photos of the world’s best beaches or caves you can sleep in? I’m a sucker for all those treehouse and igloo hotels. I can’t get enough of the sunsetty images that channel humidity and kick up that inner well of travel-induced adrenalin. It’s nice to put our brains on slide show mode and dream from the comfort of our home and pajamas.

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Every time I distractify I’m eager to see how many of the coveted places I’ve been to. It’s like a scavenger hunt I didn’t even know I was actively a part of. On a recent post of 41 Secretly Incredible Travel Destinations I felt an inner glow to see the Ancient Library of Alexandria in Egypt included. Ohhh, and Giant’s Causeway in Ireland! Been there! And Grindavik, Iceland. But having scored only 3 out of 41 destinations I thought I should create my own list. Because what’s secretly incredible to me didn’t make that list and wherever we choose to travel, it’s like love and our devotion to certain coffee beans or dog breeds or Sons of Anarchy. It’s deeply personal but the neat part is in the sharing and finding overlaps with each other. Surprisingly, album-creeping on Facebook has presented unexpected travel ideas and networking—from lattes at D’Espresso in New York to a $100-a-plate fish and chip joint in the Yukon to the merits of running a marathon in France.

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In no particular order, I’ve flushed out my personal seven wonders of the world. With time, I’m sure this list will be revised again and replaced with more marvelous encounters, but at this very moment—these places are deeply embedded in my mind. Come see why.

1. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda

I’ve always been enamoured with Dian Fossey’s brave and brazen attempt to protect the mountain gorillas of the Virungas from poachers. I have the January 1979 issue of National Geographic that refers to her as “Miss Fossey” throughout. In tandem, Miss Fossey and Jane Goodall brought Africa to my bedroom in Brantford, Ontario. Of course, just as every 10-year-old envisions a fancy marine biologist or vet career, I thought I might be a primatologist and observe gorillas eating bamboo all day long. Somehow I became a massage therapist instead (and sometimes massage backs as hairy as gorillas I suppose), but, for one surreal moment, I slept in those verdant mountains of Fossey’s tuned into the echoes of life and death.

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Only 32 $500 US permits are issued per day at Bwindi. Our permits were included in a package with G Adventures—otherwise, they are issued on a lottery basis. The encounters with the gorillas are strictly timed to ensure that they are not inundated with human distraction. The hour begins upon the first sighting and armed rangers are quick to get the group moving out of the area immediately. You can’t help but feel Dian Fossey’s presence, struggle and the patience in her passion.
But that hour? That musky smell of gorilla deep in your nose? The wet jungle, hot piss and humidity stays with you. Being spitting-distance away from a docile silverback and youngsters somersaulting about is a pure wonder. Have you ever held your breath for an hour? Have you ever been so transfixed by your surroundings that the trance feels like a super drug you might not be able to shake? This is Bwindi.

2. Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, Iceland

The guide book warned us that sometimes startled drivers slam on brakes or skid off the road when they come over the rise and see the lagoon for the first time. Despite expecting it, and realizing that we were nearing the lagoon, the sudden appearance of sheer dream-like icebergs bobbing along stops everything dead in its tracks. Your conversation, your mind, the rental vehicle. Wow.

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On the edge of Vatnajokull National Park in southeast Iceland the 18 square kilometre lagoon is full of calved icebergs making a silent procession towards the Atlantic. The layers of sky blue and black ice make for a photo frenzy. Unfortunately, we had 160km an hour winds whipping off the lagoon and threatening to blow us into the Atlantic as well.
The lagoon has been a Hollywood star, providing the setting for James Bond, Batman and Tomb Raider flicks. On a side note, in the wind shelter of the nearby cafe, we sucked back perhaps the best latte on the island. Though, the view over the latte froth might have greatly influenced us.
Even with gale force winds and bare skin pelted with fine gravel and debris, the magic of that lagoon still shakes my marvel meter.

3. The White Desert, Egypt

We were already high on life after staying at a Shali fortress in the Siwa Oasis. We’d spent days traveling around by donkey, watched the sunrise over the salt flats, drank hibiscus tea and smoked the sheesha pipe by a fire after being buried in a traditional sand sauna. We had eaten camel stew on the rooftop of the fortress under a bazillion stars, soaked in cold springs and discovered a thermal lake. Yes, we were fully spoiled by the makings of a very dreamy time in Egypt already.

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Of course, we already had knotted stomachs and daily blasts of diarrhea, but, travel can’t be 100% sunshine and lollipops. Oh wait, we did have 100% sunshine and 100 degree days. It was the desert after all. After barreling along unmarked ‘roads’ ( I use the term as loosely as our bowels), we entered the White Desert. The alien landscape is 200 square kilometers of bone-white natural sculptures that resemble hawks, hearts, mushrooms and pythons. Without a guide, you would never find your way out. The silence here is almost overwhelming. Far from any source of light or noise pollution, the White Desert is a retreat for all your senses.

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After hours of being awe-struck, the pink and tangerine hues that dusk brings upon the stone and sand makes way for an incredible cosmic show. Here, you sleep under the stars and remember how tiny and insignificant your presence is.

4. Bartolome Island, The Galapagos

I had five solid Jeopardy categories that dominated my childhood. Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall, Birds of North America, Pop Tarts and The Galapagos. I made sure my dreams came true the year I turned 30. I was headstrong about seeing the blue-footed boobies, frigates and tortoises that I had become consumed with.

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When I arrived in Quito, Ecuador (flights depart from Quito to Puerto Ayora—a 1,000km flight west to the Pacific isles), I met a charming Aussie who insisted we drink pisco sours and try guinea pig. Something went sour in my gut and I’m not sure who or what to blame. The following morning I had a bowl of entirely raw eggs, so, whether it was the pig, the pisco, the Aussie or the eggs, I’ll never know. Add a huge, rolling Pacific to that mix and I was throwing up most days of the nine day trip. But, despite heaving overboard, I was stunned for nine days straight.
The boobies and the frigates performed and displayed. The animals and birds of the Galapagos have no predators, and, incredibly there is no fear of humans. You can be mere feet from sea lions and iguanas. I was in birding la-la land.

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Bartolome was probably the island that struck me with the biggest wow wave. Like Neil Armstrong said, it’s the closest landscape to the moon that you’ll find on earth. The hardened lava tubes and windswept harshness is nearly unsettling. Barren and beautiful—a sharp contrast to the chain of islands that are alive and vibrating with bird life.

5. Michamvi Peninsula, East Zanzibar

Have you ever felt like you’ve walked into a postcard? The beaches are icing sugar white. The water is so many shades of blue that a paint company could find a whole new line of Indian Ocean tints.
It’s breezy and soupy with African heat. The sky is an opposing mix of brilliant blues and sometimes it’s difficult to determine the ocean from the sky. Sunrises here made me want to write poetry and smoke long menthol cigarettes (not really Mom).

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The tide tables were erratic and amazing to witness. At night, the ghostly roar of the waves pushing back in woke Kim up, even with ear plugs. Watching the tide pull out was like listening to the ocean funnel down a far away drain. It was a torrent of water rushing reverse through the tidal beds.
We spent hours squatting by the pools, looking at the black urchins and tiny starfish. Some of the pools were hot tub hot by noon. The water was as clear as the Perrier I’m drinking—no guff.
Here, life revolves around the tides and the flux of fisherman and women collecting seaweed were indicators of this balance. After heading to the Rock for a beer, we learned quite quickly of the speed and power of the ocean as we high-stepped it back to our lodge. The coral cliffs and coral underfooting made for a nervous and grateful walk back. Inlet to inlet the level of water pushing into shore proved that Mother Nature is boss.
Whether you find yourself on a dhow at a distance, on the balcony of the Rock, having a blue marlin burger at Ras Mchamvi or distracted from your book at Kichanga Lodge, the Indian Ocean and its ever-changing “oh-my-god-look-at-it-now” beauty has established the benchmark for all oceans.

6. Masai Mara National Park, Kenya

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It’s Out of Africa in 3D. It’s blonde savannah, blurs of zebras, trumpeting elephants and sun-bathing lions. I had binoculars fixed to my eyes until dark. And at night? Falling asleep in a tent with Masaai keeping watch by a snapping fire and hearing a cheetah in the distance (think of a log being sawn in half—that’s how they sound). This is the good Green Hills of Africa-esque Hemingway life. In the morning the flies are incessant jerks though, swarming your milky tea and dive-bombing the surface until you have a pool of 30 flies in your mug. Oh, and their fly friends are buzzing in your ears and hanging off your eyelashes.

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But, if you can surrender to the fly annoyance and forget about all the red dirt up your nose (where the flies are sometimes too), a safari in Kenya is a bonanza of animals. It’s a full time job to take in all the meerkats and water buffalo and dik diks and impala without rest. Because you don’t see just one—you are bombarded with fauna.

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Before VCRs were invented (or, maybe they were and we were just unaware, content with the old TV aerial and snowy five channels in the country), I used to record Lorne Greene’s New Wilderness on my tape deck. I’d listen to old episodes about this very view in my lower bunkbed. The real thing will make you want to return—physically and mentally whenever you close your eyes.
I can’t tell you how many about-Africa books I’ve read since I’ve been to Uganda, Kenya and the Congo. But, to get in the groove—shortlist these:

The Poisonwood Bible—Barbara Kingsolver
Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight—Alexandra Fuller
West With the Night—Beryl Markham
Land of a Thousand Hills: My Life in Rwanda—Rosamond Halsey Carr

7. Caye Caulker, Belize

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There are no cars here and this is so refreshing. And, the fact that there is ‘nothing’ to do (hurray!). Kim and I get so lusty thinking about a Belizean retirement. The beach shacks are simple, life is simple and the curries are outstanding. Every single thing we ate on Caulker was instagram-worthy. I’m talking tangy shrimp ceviche, ham and Cheese Whiz waffles, perfect fried chicken and fire-breathing curry from Fran’s. Oh, and then there are the panty-ripper rum drinks to enhance the sunsets where everyone gathers for an applause-worthy show.

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We spent time on the mainland (Placencia, Cahal Pech and Hopkins Village) and zoomed out on a choppy ride to see the Blue Lagoon and the red-footed booby colony on Lighthouse Caye, but memories of the coral island just 8km by 1.6km wide resonate bigger and brighter.
If you want a break from the wi-fi and masses of people, you can truly live here barefoot. No shirt, no shoes is really no problem. Ever.

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Okay, so now I get why those distractify lists are always 40+ destinations long. At seven wonders, I’m cutting myself short. My best advice? Travel with someone you adore and can’t get enough of. And, advice to myself? Buy a new hoodie and hat already!

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The Year of My Content

Cat crap coffee.

Worms and lime Jell-o.

Eggy burps and frog legs.

Boy/goat oral sex.

Derriere facials.

These are actual “search terms” that people have used, and in turn, have been directed to my blog because of. I will blame (and credit) my Africa posts for the landslide of readers wanting to learn more about parasites, diarrhoea, gin and snake bite remedies.

It’s been a year. A whole long-winded year of blogging. Rona Maynard, former editor of Chatelaine insisted I get my act together last April and take my Facebook community stage performance to a wider audience.  And what does she know? Well, when it comes to anything literary, writerly or necessary, she would be the woman I would choose to represent me for the Double Jeopardy question in any of those categories.  So I did.

“You really MUST have a blog (I say for the hundred and 99th time).”

–Rona Maynard, April 25th, 2009

Rona had been following my colourful (profanity-laden) posts of life in Uganda, when I volunteered with the Jane Goodall Institute. The graphic tales of nearly being shot, shitting my pants, mystery bites, eating termites with piss-warm beer  aged my parents about 20 years.

My blog evolved into an uncensored postcard. We all know letter carriers read our postcards—and with a blog, I was posting postcards to the world, essentially. Now I get immediate disclaimers from my parents and close friends: “Do NOT put that in your blog!” They’ve learned that if there’s no disclaimer, the material is fair game.

Last week, when my brother and I were particularly smiley from drinking old-fashioned whiskeys, we had a revelation. The blog had evolved into another purpose—it was my data bank–the hard drive of my mind! Dax and I were trying to remember my mother’s famous quote about boredom. We struggled for a good five minutes, trying to assist each other’s memory. Dax finally wisely said, “Oh, just look it up on your blog tomorrow.”

(And I did. I knew exactly where to find it. My mother had said, “Only boring people get bored.”)

Writing a weekly blog is self-indulgent. I get to explore all my passions without worrying about parameters (with only my fear of being boring in mind). Readers can tune in or be turned off in mere sentences. I’ve written about many controversial topics (Chaz Bono and her “gender variance”, the bushmeat trade in the Congo, Abbotsford gangs). I’ve detailed the side effects (read: toilet visits) of living in Africa and what happens when one eats fly-infested meat that has been hanging in the equatorial sun for hours.  

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There have been posts that I’ve written with tears running down to my collarbones from start to finish (when Mila was dying of cancer). In the Congo, I funnelled rage and sadness into a post about Ikia, the chimpanzee who died in our arms 12 hours after arriving at the sanctuary because of governmental delays.

With my writing, I’ve convinced more people NOT to go to Africa than I have convinced to go. All that was raw, unsettling, dusty and disturbing, I included.  A foodie review of pan-fried goat testicles and crispy frog legs didn’t come across as I intended. I thought I was living high off the hog in the Congo. Or, high off the goat, at least. Noelle from P.E.I. thought otherwise: “You scare the shit out of me, yet make me laugh at the same time. As much as I love Africa and dream about going, the more I read your stories the more I think….yeah, I’ll stick with my Animal Kingdom.  You’re brave and you do belong to Africa.”

The year in review saw posts from Uganda, Kenya, Banff, the Congo (pit stop in Zimbabwe), Amsterdam, British Columbia, Toronto, Nashville, Venezuela and the dozens of places my restless mind travelled to in between. There were tributes to my nearest and dearest, nostalgic excerpts from the diary of my 13-year-old self (that was an out loud love letter to my grade 8 fiancee, Robert LeBovic), fried grasshoppers, Thai cooking classes, bitching about moving across Canada, corrupt Congolese police tales, musings on love,  lost in translation stories, half-marathons…sigh, there was a lot.

I woke up in so many beds, under so many mosquito nets and starry hemispheres, after so much gin and tonic with four Q-tips worth of safari dust in my ears. I packed up a life in BC and unpacked one in Toronto. I quit jobs, found new ones, had fecal-oral contamination, went piranha fishing, had Banff ticks that I flew home to Abbotsford with via Westjet, itched for nearly six months due to something else, and fell in love with the charms of Nashville and the chimps of the Congo.

And you followed me, like shadows, to the corners of the earth, and the corners of my mind. Which puts me in an odd place at times. Is there any mystery left to me? I’ve put it all out there. Strangers know me better than my non-blog reading co-workers. Is this a good or a bad thing?

I’ve spent tonight reading through 60+ of my favourite glowing comments that I’ve saved in my inbox in response to the blog. If I include one, I have to include them all. If  I quote my mom, then I have to have a dad quote, and then I’ll feel awkward and like I’m playing favourites if I don’t include Dax and Kiley. Then there’s Suzanne, and her sister Jo, Kay, Connie, Heidi, Kelly W. Leslie, Wendy G., Mag, Jann, Kristyn, Jules (not me), Wendy M., Rona (of course!), Rodney, Sass, David, Carol, Karen, Carol (another one, I’m not repeating myself), Kim & Kim (not together), Steph, Lynne (and Al who gets the postings read to him by Lynne on drives up to the houseboat)…I’m forgetting important people here—Farrah, Kaitlin, Chantal, Martine, Pamela, Toni, Nunavut Michelle, Karen of way west Queen west (the Nunavut of Toronto), Karin, Martha, Kathleen, Babysnooks, the ever-breeding Twitter population, Andie, my Body Blitz fan club, Rose, Nancy, Corie, Denny, Jennifer Aniston (oh, are you still paying attention?)…

Thank you to all my dedicated and drop-in readers for your rallying cries, support, chides, type-o alerts and genuine blog love. And a special thank you to my parents for not cutting me off the Christmas card list for all the Torti secrets that I have spilled.

The moments we most remember when we look back are the ones that made us feel more deeply than usual. Feel pain, feel elation, feel despair.  There’s a Feist song I like that says, “I feel it all, I feel it all…..my wings are wide, my wings are wide.” So great.—Staci Frenes

And so another year begins, with wings as wide as an albatross (that’s a 2.4 meter wingspan).

 Join me?

Categories: Polyblogs in a Jar, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | 7 Comments

Bravery?

Jane and Jules, chimp lovers

On the weekend, two friends remarked on how brave I was to go to the Congo. Brave? I was blinded by a passion that didn’t even allow me to consider any ill-fated consequences. I had an opportunity to work with chimpanzees—after hearing that, my mind was already in fast-forward, mentally packing my bag and visualizing my Jane Goodall moment.

When I decided to go to Costa Rica and volunteer for three months at age 20, I was also commended on my bravery. Again, it was a selfish indulgence. Live in a jungle hut and pick bananas off the trees for breakfast? What could possibly go wrong in the jungle? Where do I sign up?

I’ve made a lot of questionable decisions over the years. Again, I blame it on the blinding passion. Like the time I hitchhiked to Clayoquot Sound, BC, to stand on a logging road blocking the path of the trucks ready to level another stand of trees.

My ‘bravery’ can also be blamed for my enthusiasm to have a pint at the most bombed-out bar in all of Europe. Who wouldn’t want to do that? As I sat in the pub across from the Opera House in Belfast, Ireland, I was sure that after 33 bombings, surely a 34th couldn’t happen. Not while I was there. Not on my watch.

Scrappy, the dog who dodged a bullet

In Uganda I stood strong (‘bravely’) as Debby and I had a gun pointed in our direction by a Ugandan Wildlife Authority guard. The guard was ready to shoot Scrappy, one of the dogs from the Jane Goodall office. When Debby remarked on the guard’s ignorance in shooting a dog in front of a young child, the barrel of the gun was suddenly a little too close for comfort. But shoot Scrappy? The guard would definitely have to shoot Debby and I first.

But still, it was ‘bravery’ that made me walk (at incredibly high speeds) away from the corrupt police who wanted to confiscate my camera in Entebbe.  They had guns too (sawed-off shotguns in fact), ready to be used if necessary—however, I could barely hear their threats over the THUMPTHUMPTHUMP of my heart. Was it worth being shot in the back over a stupid camera? On that day, yes. I had a really nice sunset shot from Anderita Beach and a cool picture of a Marabou stork in a dumpster.

Steph commented that I was brave to stay three nights in Nairobi by myself after missing my flight to the Congo. To me, there was no other option. I had heard all the horror stories already—the missionary couple who were attacked with machetes, the brutal carjackings and the bombing of the American Embassy. These highlights were pointed out on the Nairobi tour with my hired driver.

When I think back to my time in Costa Rica, it was clear and present danger on a daily basis. Our group was situated near the Panama border and we passed by drug-runners with flour sacs full of marijuana on a daily basis. We avoided eye contact and both went on our merry, separate ways. Except the drug-runners had AK-47’s slung over their shoulders and machetes on their hip. I had a Swiss Army knife that I couldn’t open at the best of times.

Last week when I told my mother that I had booked a trip to Venezuela there was a gasp. Naturally she was nervous that I was taking off on another four month sojourn. When I told her it was just for a week, she resumed breathing and said, “Well, don’t get yourself kidnapped down there because they want gazillions of dollars in ransom.” Nice.

And this is when I had the flashback of the drug-runners and ‘missing persons’ in the jungle. Locals often disappeared and the mighty Water Tiger that lived in the Cuen River was blamed. I’d put my poker chips on the dudes with the flour sacs.

And it all led to this– the night in the jungle that I didn’t feel very brave at all. I was imagining my story as a Reader’s Digest Drama in Real Life feature. Mostly I hoped I would live to tell the story to someone, anybody.

Jungle Jules, circa age 20

Our volunteer group of 12 lived in a hut with a tree bark floor and palm frond roof. There were no walls. Twelve of us lived in a space the size of a North American living room, with mosquito nets strung about the ‘ceiling’ like a massive spider web. Wild boars lived under the hut and made horrific screaming sounds in the night that sounded like women being murdered.

We had been together since early December, and all threads of patience had been completely frayed. In one exasperated moment, I hid Alex’s drumsticks in the palm fronds because I was visualizing a homicide due to his incessant drumming. Every Sunday we had a meeting to discuss our feelings which basically evolved into a Lord of the Flies-esque scenario. We could barely tolerate each other anymore with such close quarters, paralyzing body odour, Chihuahua-sized mosquitoes and drumming.

Our group was motley—with reps from Costa Rica, Canada and Australia. We had already split into Survivor-type alliances (and this was way before Mark Burnett created the show that would hook millions of viewers all these seasons later). Rachel from Prince Edward Island was my go-to girl, and we often shared our hidden stashes of Oreos, bathtub warm beer and just-discovered orange trees with each other.

But on January 20th? I was looking out for number one.

My loft condo in Alto Cuen, Costa Rica

The Cabecar chief of Alto Cuen had generously offered his own hut to us for the duration of our stay. He also pointed out an abandoned hut a 10 minute walk into the rainforest that we could also use. We decided that one hut would be for cooking and sleeping, and the satellite hut would be a place for reading, writing and siestas. Library voices only. It was a perfect retreat. On the days when the rain pounded down and bounced off the ground, a book, a sleeping bag and some secret chocolate balanced the world.

We were a gruelling 12 km hike from the closest village. The trip involved six tricky river crossings (one of our group members nearly drowned on one occasion when we hiked in with horses. Her backpack caught on the rope that we were using to cross the rapids when one of the horses was startled and moved downstream. Alice was trapped in the current with the weight of the pack on her. But that’s another story). Our trips into ‘town’ were planned for every third week to pickup canned goods, flour, mail and chocolate.

On that January day in 1996, I told Alice I was going to the satellite hut (the “Summer House” as we began to refer to it), with a crappy Costa Rican blueberry chocolate bar stuffed in my bra. I had received some mail from home and was eager to tear into the letters.

The path to the Summer House was like a page out of a fairy tale. Brilliant orchids, butterflies bobbing about in huge clouds of bright yellow and crimson wings, verdant vines snaking up trees, processions of carpenter ants marching along, toucans crash-landing into the palms—the awe of living in a virgin rainforest never escaped me.

I ate my chocolate bar in painfully small rations. Our diet consisted of rice and black beans, oily mackerel, glue-like oatmeal, yucca (which when mashed had the consistency of Vaseline), plantain and bananas. I read my mail, twice probably, licked the chocolate bar foil clean and had a cat nap.

I slept longer than anticipated and awoke with a start at 5:55 pm. I quickly slipped on my rubber boots and turned on my Petzl head lamp and headed off to the main hut. Living on the equator and in a valley, it was completely dark at 6:05. There was no dusk, just day and a very dark night.

(Direct journal entry follows, recounted with a lot of swearing after the ‘event’)

I should have changed the batteries in my Petzl. Oh well, I continued on. And on.  And on. Hmmm. Didn’t recall it taking so long to get to the other hut. Hmmm. No orange tape on the tree to signal the turn in the path. Hmmm. Where the FUCK was the path?

I was totally fucking lost. Self-talk: Don’t panic. Going to die, but don’t panic. The roots and vines were closing in on me.  I turned off my flashlight to preserve batteries while I contemplated my life so far.

–More cursing—

I decided to yell.

“PHIL? ANDREA? TIA? SHAYE? ANYBODY?”

Long pause.

A million deafening crickets. No voices. I was listening so hard I was hallucinating voices.

“PHIL? ANDREA? I’m lost in the woods!”

My voice was getting shakier. My legs? Could I feel them? My heart threatening to have an attack. I had a sudden revelation. Not only was I lost in the woods,  I was lost in the JUNGLE. In Costa Rica! In an indigenous village! I was hollering in English and they speak Cabecar and a little Spanish. I was fucked. Think Spanish. Think Spanish. Una cervesa. El gato es en la bano (The cat is in the bathroom—I knew that phrase from Spanish class would come in handy!).

DESCULPE!” That was it! Help! I remembered how to say ‘help’ in Spanish. I begin yelling desculpe. I developed an instant sore throat from yelling. (*I later learn when recounting my story to the group that ‘desculpe’ means ‘excuse me’ not ‘help me. So, I was in the middle of the $&%* jungle yelling “EXCUSE ME!”)

 I looked at my watch. 6:17. Everyone was having dinner, clearly not missing me.

The Bosque

I shouted some more, not willing to take any more time to think of the complete scariness of my predicament. I was so far from the hut that NO ONE could hear me? Then I remembered the Spanish word for forest—‘bosque.’ I holler “El Lost-ay in the bosque!”

Long pause.

They always say to hug a tree and stay in the same spot when you are lost (THEY were obviously not lost in the jungle in short sleeves with malaria-laden mozzies looking for bare skin landing strips).  Blah, blah, blah.  I convince myself that I can find my way back to the path.  Experiencing extreme denial of not being lost, I walk for a few more minutes. I thought I was lost before? Now I was reallllly lost. In the exact middle of fuck-all Costa Rica. Or Panama for all I knew.

 A million eyes were watching me. The whistle that they put on the Suggested Items to Pack list would have come in handy at this precise time.

I went back to yelling desculpe. I yell desculpe until I am hoarse—finally I hear a sound in response. Kind of an “AYE.” I respond with my urgent desculpe and AQUI! (here), hoping I’m not attracting a randy drug runner with gold teeth.

“Excuse me here! I love squash. Do you like green carpet?” Who knows what I was yelling. The voice grew closer. I turned on my headlamp (that I turned off, figuring I might be spending my night in the jungle. Thought I might want some battery power for when the jaguars attacked me). I started walking towards the voice. Did I say walking towards the voice? I was running. Totally bushwhacking. “AQUI! AQUI!”

The voice belonged to a Cabecar man and a woman with a baby in a papoose. I began explaining my Lost-ay in the Bosque story in caveman Spanglish.

I’d been found, but was at a loss. Where did I belong? I pulled a pen and a letter from my pack and began to draw the village church. “Jesu Christo?” I asked. I printed Reto Juvenil (Youth Challenge, the name of the group I was with). No response, they probably couldn’t read. I drew the soccer field. “Octavio?” We’d been working with Octavio, one of the prominent community members on the construction site.

No se.” (I don’t know).

The woman with the papoose took my letter and walked away. The man followed. (I was definitely not sticking around the jungle by myself!) I followed them, stepping on their heels in fact. “Octavio’s casa aqui?” (Octavio’s house here?). There was a grunt response. I was never good at small talk, but kept trying. “El bosque es mucho neigre a la noche.” (The forest is very black at night). No grunt. Nothing. We walked quietly and quickly in the dark.

We walked and walked (15-20 minutes) into a jungle-y dead end. Excellent, now we were all lost-ay. But I heard voices. We were approaching a hut with glowing lanterns. MY HOUSE!! I could see Phil and Tomas by the fire in the kitchen. “WITABADA!” (‘thank you’ in Cabecar). I said this 10 times and shook the hands of my rescuers a little too firmly (Cabecar handshakes are a mere brushing of the palms).

I can’t even remember what my knight in shining armour looked like. The whole hour of lost-ness was such a frantic blur.

I returned to the hut and there were no excited faces or eager embraces. They hadn’t missed me at all. While I was having the most terrifying moment of my life, a near-death experience if you will, my jungle pals were playing gin rummy, drumming and eating my share of the rice and beans. They figured I was sleeping. They didn’t hear my desperate calls for help. I must have been in Panama for sure–all because I didn’t want to share my chocolate bar and wanted a bit of quiet time and personal space. I almost had all the personal space I wanted!

The following day this quote appears in my journal:

Security is mostly a superstition

It does not exist in nature,

Nor do the children of men as a whole experience it

Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run

Than outright exposure

Life is either a daring adventure

Or nothing

To keep our faces towards change and behave like free spirits

In the presence of fate

Is strength undefeatable.

–Helen Keller (1940)

Limon Naval Base, Costa Rica

On February 17th, 1996, our group was evacuated from the jungle by local military and flown to a naval base in Limon. The militia were doing emergency food supply drop-offs in the Astrella Valley due to major flooding of the Cuen River when they discovered us in Alto Cuen. The suspension bridge had been washed out and we had lost radio contact weeks ago.

Brave?

Let’s just say I’ve had a few experiences that have put my life in an altered perspective. It’s a daring adventure—or nothing. I’m with Helen on this one.

Categories: Congo Line: Once Upon a Time in Africa, Polyblogs in a Jar | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

Up in the Air, Elephants and Entebbe

By now all the rabid George Clooney fans have oooh-ed and ahhhh-ed over his schmoozy Ryan Bingham persona in Up In the Air. The Golden Globes are always a convincing force, pushing everyone else into the theatres to see the greedy award-grabbers like Avatar, The Hangover and Up in the Air for themselves.

So I went, because I like to be pop-culturally informed. If you are holding out for the rental so you don’t have to pay $12 for popcorn, there’s no spoiler here. Ryan Bingham’s life revolves around flying. In fact, being grounded leaves him unbalanced and twitchy. However, when love tempts him, he begins to reconsider his whole life. Maybe everyone else has it right. Maybe love, permanency and a home with a full fridge and drawers is attractive and natural. Bingham’s solace had long been the routine and simplicity of airline travel.  He had no baggage other than what he checked in at the airport. Or did he?

His motivational speeches on the absurd weight of the physical and emotional baggage that we carry turns as flat as an open Coke left on the counter overnight. His sister’s impending marriage reveals his estranged relationship with his entire family. When he meets his match in Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), Bingham re-evaluates his life spent in the sky, travelling 320 days of the year.

The movie should have convinced the audience that baggage is good. It represents a life well-lived, friends and partners well-loved, dogs, cats, the whole sloppy and gorgeous mess. 

So, why did I find myself in the travel section of Indigo Books minutes after the movie ended? Up in the Air reminded me of the anticipation that pulsates in airports. I wondered where I would/should go next. I pulled a guide book from the shelf on volunteer opportunities abroad and decided to play a game with myself. I let the book fall open to a random page, and decided that would be my next destination. I averted my gaze (to avoid cheating myself). I looked at the page that fate had opened to:  Thailand’s Elephant Sanctuary.

Because I’m a Switzerland when it comes to making decisions, I’ve decided this will be my new tactic. The 100-acre sanctuary is located 50km from Chiang Mai in the Mai Taman Valley. Many of the elephants are rescued in an injured state from poaching activity, as seen with one individual who arrived with only one tusk. Once rehabilitated the elephants are released into “Elephant Haven,” a 2,000-acre natural forest where they can live safely with the herd of 25 that has already found a forever home in the Haven.

Volunteers stay in bamboo chalets, collect fodder with machetes during the dry season and can accompany a vet on the “Jumbo Express.” Working elephants kept by remote hill tribes receive veterinary care during such missions. Mornings begin with car-washing the elephants in the river. Because they are prone to parasites and other skin conditions, they require a daily squeegee job. At noon, when the pick-up truck rolls in with papayas, pineapples and bananas, “you are covered in fruit pulp and elephant snot” in minutes. Awesome!

J.A.C.K. Lubumbashi, Congo

I walked home from Indigo in the spitting rain, inspired and imagining elephant snot. I went online and read more. I checked out the Tennessee elephant sanctuary again and made notes in my not-so-official Five Year Plan book. Then I saw a Facebook posting from PASA Primates in need of volunteers at the Drill Ranch in Nigeria, working with orphaned chimps and mandrills. I jetted off an email immediately for more details.  Then I received news that the J.A.C.K. sanctuary in the Congo (where I volunteered in July) has three more chimps arriving after being found at an abandoned captive facility in DR Congo. That made me want to fly back to Lubumbashi tomorrow.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I will probably volunteer more than I will work in my life.

It was just over a year ago that I watched Entebbe, Uganda disappear below me. The tears in my eyes made the few lights of the ‘city’ double. Landing at Schipol and taking the train into Amsterdam was a rude slap. Winter! That hospitable African sun no longer warmed my skin. I immediately forgot about the nuisance red dust that came with that lovely sunshine.

I rented Out of Africa the very next day. I looked at all 800 of my pictures on a regular basis and cried for the dogs and pals that I left behind. I missed the frenetic pace of the Tuesday night market. Having a warm Nile beer with a bowl of salty grasshoppers as the sun dropped into Lake Victoria. I wanted a Stoney Tangawizi (fiery ginger beer) and a rolex (an omelette with chopped cabbage and tomoato rolled into a greasy chapatti) from a shifty street vendor. As I ran in the sopping BC rain along McKee creek, I wanted to feel that stupid dust in my eyes and ears. I was sad to not be dodging scrawny goats and fleet-footed chickens and ‘boda-bodas’ (mopeds) with 400-pound Nile perch flapping on the back.  I missed Africa in an almost pathetic way. Like a heart-broken lover.

And then my friend Heidi reminded me of all the things I had casually forgotten about when living in Africa. Travelling as a videographer with World Vision, she spent the last two weeks in Entebbe, Gulu and Kampala. I was thrilled to tell her about each place—what she had to eat (pizza at Anderita Beach, Nee’s green curry at the Gately) and how the sunsets would catch the sky on fire. My only warning was about the darling vervet monkeys who were prone to stealing bananas from your hand, or anything else that they assumed was edible.

Taxi??

And I think I mentioned that Kampala was a zoo, but I didn’t want to be like a movie reviewer with a spoiler in the first sentence. I did send a photo of the Kampala taxi park as a subtle warning though. It’s a football field of ‘matatus’ (mini-van taxis), each with a horn which is blared in response to other blaring horns. Just like barking dogs, one starts, and the rest join in. But Heidi had been to Zambia, she knew the drill.

The flight to Entebbe alone is enough to cause exasperation in any sane person. Sitting upright for what seems like 108 hours is the first hurdle. Sleepless and rattled by disappearing time zones, you arrive in the vacuum cylinder that is Entebbe. It smells like one big armpit. The skeletal dogs you pass by are like a non-stop Humane Society commercial with some achy Sarah McLachlan song cooing in the background.

The dust begins to blow, the sweat begins to drip until you feel like you’ve taken a dip and are stuck wearing your wet swimsuit for the rest of the five hour car ride.

Heidi’s first post mentioned her exhilaration in finally arriving in Uganda, despite the cold shower (yeah, I forgot about the frequency of those too). She was looking forward to sleeping on her single bed with the lumpy foam mattress. I nearly spit wine all over my laptop screen. I remembered the foam mattresses well. They make you sweat so much that when you wake up, you think you’ve pissed the bed. And then there’s the mosquito net to wrangle with.  If they are hung from the ceiling on a hoop, there is a fantastic chance that by morning, there is a huge gap somewhere in the netting and 500 malaria-carrying mosquitoes are trapped inside the net with you.

Heidi’s Twitter-ed dinner reports were the most dramatic (and realistic). I think after being in Entebbe for four months, I had become used to the starch intake. A typical lunch or dinner would include: matoke (steamed green plantain), potatoes, yams and rice. Served with, as Heidi eloquently described it, “chicken parts.”

Yes, there were always mystery parts. I think I had part of a goat’s stomach in some broth once. But I conveniently forgot about the stench of fish for sale on the sidewalk in Kampala. The body odour that permeates all air molecules. There were several matatu rides where I had to do a lot of self-talk in tandem with my iPod and The Killers at a deafening level.

And then there was the internet and electricity issue. The patchy communications home made my mother routinely WRITE IN CAPITAL LETTERS. In Entebbe, the power went off in the airport as soon as I arrived. The luggage carousel was halted, but speech was not! The airport was alive with the raised voices of wilting missionaries and UN workers and Tilly-hatted tourists in safari suits fanning themselves as they complained to anyone who made eye contact.

I forgot about the crappy internet connection. I forgot about the stretches of three or four days without electricity. And the hurried cold showers that accompanied them.

When Heidi returned to Nashville, I relived my return home. Clean sheets, clean surfaces, meat without flies on it, ice cubes, soap! Deodorized people! No one yelling “Mizungo! Mizungo! Give me money! Mizungo, buy this!”

And I had space. I have probably only yelled twice in my life, and not even at a dog the other time. However, when I was flying out of Lubumbashi in July I had to yell against my will. Maybe it was more of a really loud voice than a yell, but, the man behind me had his passport pressed into my back. His jacket was practically slung over my shoulder and I could feel his hot, stale breath on my neck. I could feel myself cracking my own molars, trying to resist an eruption. “STANDING CLOSER TO ME DOES NOT MAKE THE LINE GO FASTER.” I erupted. It happens to the best of us when travelling.

And this is another blessing of North America (besides meat without flies and reliable wi-fi). We give each other personal space. It’s an unspoken rule that doesn’t exist everywhere in the world.

But, if we don’t travel and put ourselves in unfamiliar landscapes, how do we ever appreciate laundry detergent, $5 coffees and toilet seats? Or being served chicken instead of chicken parts? Distance from comfort, family and friends refines gratitude.

Public washroom in Kampala, Uganda

Even though I was reminded of all the nerve-fraying aspects of African travel, I am still halfway there in my head. I can always come home to a toilet seat and pocket-coil mattress again. It might be time to rent Out of Africa again. Apparently I miss corruption, using 500 Q-tips a month, parasites, starch and riding in matatus with 19 people, 6 chickens, blaring gospel music and an oily car-engine half on my lap.

Doesn’t everyone?

“Once you have travelled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.” –Pat Conroy

Heidi’s World Vision Zambia footage featuring “All the Days” by Jann Arden:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PYidUQIY0r4

Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand: http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/

Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee: http://www.elephants.com/

The Drill Ranch in Nigeria: http://www.pandrillus.org/projects/drill-ranch/

J.A.C.K. in Lubumbashi: http://jack.wildlifedirect.org/

Categories: Into and Out of Africa, Passport Please | Tags: , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Why All the Talk About Africa?

It was past midnight last May when I was waiting for an epiphany. I had been dreaming of hummingbirds biting me, which I learned later was a sign of restlessness. I had no idea at that time that such restlessness would see me flying to Africa in September.

The semester at Douglas College had just drawn to a close, and I was wondering what I could do to marry my interests of creative writing and my passion for animals. A colleague had landed a cool copywriter gig at the Telus World of Science in Vancouver. That’s when I realized that there were broader possibilities out there—and I Googled the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI).

I scrolled through the job postings and randomly applied for a position designing an environmental studies-based curriculum, despite being totally unqualified. I thought of Peter Mansbridge and his early days, working as a clerk at an airport in Manitoba. The airport announcer had called in sick, and with no short notice replacement available, the supervisor asked Mansbridge to announce a delayed flight. A local radio station manager was in the wings, heard his voice and recruited Mansbridge on the spot. He was shuffled to CBC radio’s northern service shortly thereafter. This is how things happen.

Chimp at Ngamba Island Sanctuary, Entebbe, Uganda

With an urge to do something bigger and stretch my mind into a downward dog of its own, I sent off the application with my beefed-up resume and then looked for Uganda on the globe. At that point, I had no idea where in Africa it sat. The curriculum designer position was for six months, beginning in July. When April and May rolled by, I assumed that the position had been filled.

During the last week of June I received an email from JGI Uganda. A posting that my skill set would be better suited for had become available. Would I be interested in editing a book on the tribes and totems of Uganda? As soon as possible?

It’s no secret that I find great difficulty in decision-making. Choosing between the coconut curry stew and the lemongrass chicken at New Saigon is agonizing. Do I want a skim latte or a mochacinno? A Sidekick or a VW Golf? How was I supposed to make a snap decision like going to Africa, as soon as possible? Sending off an application in May was cerrtainly spontaneous, but my nature is to brood, fret, think, re-think and create pro and con lists as thick as a phone book. God, really? Me? Uganda? I hadn’t told anyone about applying for the job…

And then I was there (after much see-sawing), from September 2008, to January 2009. The Tribes and Totems of Uganda project was a fascinating project, and the pile of 500 submissions from local elementary students soon narrowed into a comprehensive collection. The learning curve was exactly what my restless self needed. When I roared through that assignment and found myself with two months left in my volunteer stint, Debby Cox, then director of JGI, asked if I could draw primates. I guessed yes, I probably could. My days were soon consumed by designing a colouring book on the primates of Uganda. When an employee of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Foundation came to visit, I was suddenly drawing the primates of Rwanda to be used in a colouring book format for them.

I was in my element, drawing bushbabies and monkeys all day. What could be more fulfilling? Well, I will find out this July.

On safari in Queen Elizabeth Park (Uganda) at Christmas, I met Chantal Jacques, co-director of J.A.C.K. (Jeunes Animaux Confisques au Katanga—Young Animals Confiscated in Katanga), a refuge centre for orphaned chimps confiscated by the Ministry of the Environment in the Congo. Chantal was interested in hearing more about my work with JGI and we exchanged emails as our tour groups were heading in different directions. What I didn’t expect a few months later was her email asking if I might like to visit the Congo in July and volunteer for a month.

This decision came quicker, yes. Yes!

Mac, at Ngamba Island

The opportunity to volunteer at J.A.C.K. will allow direct contact with the chimps, unlike my JGI experience. Chantal has pre-warned me of early mornings, preparing milk for the chimps. The house where I will be staying has no water (yet), electricity is dodgy, and Internet connections are patchy at best. And there is no postal service. Did I really want to come?

I was already knee-deep in my Congo research. Reading the refuge blog pulled me in even further. I have learned that the refuge has nearly insurmountable barriers to conquer. The Swahili word for wildlife,“nyama,” is the same term used for “meat.” Great apes and primates continue to be killed as a food source in the lucrative bushmeat trade, and as ancestral custom. One Congolese tribe believes that crushing and cooking the bones of an ape will allow the child who drinks the powder the strength of the chimpanzee that was killed. Infant chimps are smuggled by members of the Congo Army, high ranking Congolese and by request for expatriates wanting a darling little pet. Ten chimpanzees usually die for every baby taken as the family struggles and fights to defend the infant from poachers.

Franck and Roxanne Chantereau, co-directors of J.A.C.K. estimate that chimp trafficking in the last 10 years in the Congo has resulted in the death of over 4,000 chimpanzees. Still, chimps are found being sold for small change on roadsides in Lubumbashi. J.A.C.K., a self-funded NGO was started in April 2006 in response. The refuge, located in the Lubumbashi Zoo, was created to provide a safe space for orphaned chimps to live, as they wouldn’t have the ability to survive in the wild.

Education is key focus of the the refuge, and their accessibility (no admission fee) helps expose locals to the consequence of poaching, eating bushmeat and smuggling. There are plans to build a visitor’s centre with informative displays showing the correlation between local lifestyle and the impact on the future of chimpanzees in the Congo, where 40% of the remaining African population lives.

Even though my parents and partner aren’t exactly doing cartwheels about me travelling to the Congo, they see the lure. Of course they worry that I will pull a Meryl Streep and become an Out of Africa story, deciding to stay, buying myself a nice coffee plantation to live on. But that was Karen Blixen’s story, and I have my own to write!

* To immediately transport yourself to Africa, check  the “Into and Out of Africa” category on my site. Here, in chronological order, you can travel with me all over again beginning with From Your African Correspondent, Jules Torti (September 20, 2008) to Stories From Across the Water (January 23, 2009), which was posted shortly after my return to Canada.

For more information on J.A.C.K.:  http://www.jackdrc.org/

J.A.C.K. Blog:  http://jack.wildlifedirect.org/

Jane Goodall Institute Africa programs:

http://www.janegoodall.org/africa-programs/programs/uganda.asp

Categories: Into and Out of Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

From Your Africa Correspondent, Jules Torti

September 20, 2008

Where do I begin when everything is so radically different from the landcape I have come from? There are familiar aspects, like dogs underfoot. Here at the Jane Goodall office there are five: Levi, the white rhodesian ridgeback, Tinker (black lab who brings sticks smaller than cigarettes for you to throw to him), Scrappy (the true African dog with ears perked up in a manner that resembles a bird coming in for landing, and Buster and Beevis (two pups in guard dog training). There are also two cats, Pops and Juwa, who are probably wondering what the hell they did in their last life to deserve the company of five dogs.
The office (where I also live–enjoying a one minute commute down the stairs to work) overlooks Lake Victoria, which is the cichlid capital of the world, if you are a fish hobbyist like my bro. I’m wondering how I can bring back some cichlids for him with the 100ml liquid restriction with the airlines.
My housemates are Carol (from Boston, but without a Boston accent as she is of Ann Arbor, Michigan blood), Mary-Lou (from Australia, all 6’4 of her), and Aura, who reminds me of Katherine Hepburn–or is it Audrey? She is known as Mother Superior, and is currently on Ngamba Island working at the chimp sanctuary.
Life on the equator means the first break of sunlight is around 6:20 am, and by 7:15 there is a blackness in the sky that Toronto will never see! There are a few solar powered street lamps, but these seem to be a mile apart.

There are mango, avocado and coffee trees–and a thousand birds. Each morning I wake to the sound of a rooster programmed to cockle-doodle-doo at 4:30. Carol tells me the family buys the bird on Sunday, fattens it up all week, then eats it on Friday. So, the weekends are quieter, due to the rooster being roasted. The birds start a ruckus shortly after the rooster, and I am eager to match the bird songs with the bodies. One of the bird’s calls sounds like the “plook, plook” of a leaky faucet.

The hornbills zoom in and sound like kites taking a sharp cut in the wind, fish eagles (like the bald eagle) take the wingspan prize as they soar with wingtips reaching 10 feet, on the wind currents. The blue turacos are the most spectacular but I have a certain fondness for Uganda’s most loathed bird: themarabu stork. They look lheroin addicts with haggard bodies and jerky movements. They are so awkward, they are like the Bambi of the bird world adjusting to their wings and ability to fly. Their heads are bald, and they need a good bath, probably because they spend most of their life poking through the dumpsters.
The vervet monkeys are a comical bunch–and a few days ago, I was nearly robbed by a pack of them in a parking lot. For my birthday, I thought it only proper that I find some sort of African cake but, I haven’t been able to locate the Entebbe Costco yet (haha). So, for 400 shillings(30 cents?) I found my cake. I also bought some buns (from a shop that sold Ugandan sherry, cooking oil, lollipops, yarn, soap and that’s about it). As I cut through the Imperial Beach hotel lot I spied a great picture of monkeys sitting on the arms of a wheelbarrow. I pulled out my camera, zoomed in and felt a tug on my bun bag. I turned around to see a vervet monkey with his mightly little hands tugging at my bag.

Then, I was swarmed–it was the monkey bun mafia!! I pulled and pulled, and the monkey was actually hanging, suspended, from my bun bag!! The others edged closer, trying to intimidate me, but I stood my ground. It was my birthday cake, dammit!! Finally, he let go, but the monkeys stayed close on my heels, still plotting how to get my goods. Eventually they dropped off and clamboured up into the trees, Barrel of Monkeys style.
So, the cake. It tasted like bread. And the buns? Tasted like cake. I had made a sandwich and it was like fresh tomato and cheese on a donut. And, with no presvatives in this country, it crumbled apart like a taco. Carol informed me later that there are two varieties of bun: salt buns and sweet buns. I would have to check the ingredients.
My first market experience was a complete sensory massage. Every Tuesday, vendors congregate to sell everything from rat traps to knock-off watches, to pineapples and eggplants. There are heaps and heaps of second-hand clothes, apparently shipped from North America as Value Village rejects. There are winter parkas for sale, skinned goats, and rolexes. By rolex, I mean the ultimate Ugandan street food (although there are knock-off Rolex watches too). It’s a greasy cabbage and tomato omelette rolled up in a chapati for, about 75 cents. Carol insisted that we have a rolex, and street chicken. This was the ultimate test for my Dukoral, the travellers anti-diarrhea medication. I thought for sure I’d be shitting my pants in the night, tangled up in my mosquito net trying to get to the toilet. We sat at a table below the street level, just as night was falling. Kerosene torches lit the length of the street as crowds pushed along. Wild cats circled under the table as a young boy provided water for us to wash our hands. I wondered later where the water came from, but thougt, eating street chicken was the worst evil.
The market just hums. Many of the vendors sell the same produce (mostly onions, tomatoes, peppers, bananas, peas, limes, ginger), so there are great attempts to make their blanket area the most visually appealing. Tomatoes are stacked 4-5 high and the best eggplants are fanned out in front with open sacs showcasing tiny minnow-sized dried fish. I asked for four tomatoes, but was given 8–Carol told me that this is normal. “They always give you 3-4 rottten ones to get rid of them.”
The grocery ‘stores’ sell peanut butter, sardines, Cadbury chocolate, unrefrigerated eggs and bottled Coca-Cola. There are cassava and matoke (cooking banana) chips and even a local icecream.
On the streets there is constant motion. As they drive UK style (opposite side of the road), my morning runs have been a test of dodging bikes carrying six foot lengths of aluminum, sacs of pineapples, matatus (SUV taxi) honking horns, and boda-bodas (moped taxis) zooming by with 3 people on them. Women sit sidesaddle, sometimes there is a smiley kid in front, and everything gets transported this way. Yesterday a boda boda driver had a suitcase in the front, a rolled up duvet and a live chicken in his hand. A version of the African motorhome?
Poverty is very close at hand. The road I lived on has two 3-star hotels, a golf course, the zoo, and an AIDS clinic. However, turn off this road in any direction and there are mud huts, women sweeping dirt from the dirt in front of their homes. Fires of rubbish are burning, skinny dogs run along the ditches, and chickens run truly free range.
The roads are red, like burnt sienna of Crayola crayons. In the morning, the roads are dotted with kids immaculately dressed in school uniforms (bright purple, yellow and green, pink & red–they certainly make fine use of the colour wheel). With so many people all at once, it seems as though a concert or movie has just ended. Where did everyone come from, and where are they going? The kids yell out to me: “Mizungo! Mizungo!” I am a celebrity for my skin colour alone here. The men holler out, “America!” I like to think it’s because I look like Miss America. But, it is again my skin, white=America.

During the week I am actively working on my project: to compile and edit stories and artwork about the tribes and totems of Uganda. The Jane Goodall Institute runs a program for kids called Roots & Shoots, and this book development is part of that. There were over 500 submissions from 40 local schools to sift through. The stories are dramatic, and some of the drawings quite comical. The lion seems to garner the most intriguing interpretations.
Ruth, our housekeeper provides lunches during the week that are wonderful, but leave me in a starch coma. The diet here is very soft–bananas, rice, matoke (mashed banana), eggplant, millet loaf–Wanda, my saviour is sending All-Bran bars in hope that I can have a bowel movement at least once a month.

sunbird

There is a calm here, of suspended time. Technology is ever-present (many Ugandans have cell phones pressed to their ears, and Big Brother Africa 3 has a huge following), but I have found pleasure in reading more and eating breakfast with nothing more than the scenery to read (part of me does miss the Vancouver Sun folded out though!). With early dark nights, it is easy to follow the pattern of the sun. Plus, I have yet to find the switch that turns the early morning birds off.
That’s my first week in Africa…the condensed version. It is difficult to communicate the vibrant colours and peculiar sounds and warmth of the equator, because it is so very different from the landscapes of my life so far. Aside from missing my gal and dog incredibly, the richness of this experience illuminates the reason why we live: to pursue our dreams and stretch our minds a little farther, into uncomfortable and new places. And, to share those dynamic experiences with those we love and find comfort in.

Categories: Eat This, Sip That, Into and Out of Africa | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Chumps and Chimps

October 13, 2008

So, it goes like this…
I decided to take the cheap (but hair-raising) matatu taxi into the capital city, Kampala (only a $1.50 for a near-death experience). The matatus are licensed to carry 14 passengers, but in no time we have 19. All I can smell is armpit, and there is Hooray for Jesus music blasting from the vehicle’s already blown-out speakers.
If we crash, I’m not going anywhere because I am so wedged between people and bags of eggplant, a generator and a greasy car engine-looking thing. I can’t even take a deep breath because there are elbows deep in my ribs on either side. The guy beside me has fallen asleep and apparently feels quite comfortable with his head resting on my shoulder.
The matatu driver honks at every person he sees along the way, even when there are no seats left in the taxi. He honks and abruptly pulls over in a cough-inducing cloud of dust for people walking in the opposite direction on the OTHER SIDE of the road. I want to punch him after only three minutes. It’s a never-ending scavenger hunt for passengers as people get on and off every few minutes. One thing is for sure: after world peace and an end to third world hunger, my only hope is that Ugandan drivers learn to drive with their steering wheels instead of their horns.
We finally arrive in Kampala, and my blood feels like it’s carbonated. I need a bath in Javex bleach for the unbleachables. The pants I have worn specifically because of a high security zippered pocket (for my passport), cling to me like Saran Wrap. I am sweating like I’ve been trapped in a phone booth overnight with six Sumo wrestlers and a mamba snake.
I jump on a boda boda(motorcycle taxi) to go to the Immigration building to have my three month visa renewed (the snotty airport official would only stamp it for one month when I arrived, despite the Ugandan High Commission in Ottawa already issuing it for three months). The boda driver weaves through the lanes of diesel-belching traffic, and I am quick to assume that he has a depth perception issue. I have my elbows so tightly tucked in behind me as I clench the back bar of the bike, I don’t know if they will ever un-tuck! There are no helmets for passengers, let alone for the drivers themselves. I see one driver wearing only the inner foam lining of a helmet. As I think about the fragility of my skull I try to ignore the giant wheels of the charcoal delivery truck towering above me, I notice that I am squeezing my driver’s ass so hard with my knees that he probably won’t have a bowel movement for a week. I am so focused on trying to keep myself small and to avoid the mirrors and bumpers of passing vehicles. It’s nothing but screaming brakes and incessant horns. Three times I wince, thinking, shit, this is it, we’re getting smacked. But, I arrive at Immigration (to meet a fate of a different kind) in one jittery piece, streaked with red dirt from brushing up against so many vehicles as we wormed through traffic.
Whew.
I enter the Immigration courtyard and see at least 100 people fanning themselves under a tent canopy. I immediately decide that if I have to wait in this line, I’ll just fly back to Canada instead. I ask where I should go to have my visa renewed and a cranky security official with a gun slung over his shoulder like a backpack grunts and points. I wait for an hour where he indicated and when I reach the window with my passport in hand, I am told to wait in another line twice as long. Women are standing so close to me that their breasts are pushing into my back. A guy in the next line is so close I can feel his breath on my neck. Finally, I turn to him and say, “‘standing closer to me doesn’t make the line go faster.” He edges back, but soon creeps forward again, and the papers in his hand are pushing into my spine–so I lean backwards and hear his papers crumple. It’s just a fucking herd of people, butting in and pushing. A Dutch woman politely asks me which line is for work permits, and the guy with the papers behind me steps boldly ahead of me when I turn my head to answer her. I assertively tell him, “hey buddy, it’s called a line-up” (and I instantly think of my ex-girlfriend Kelly, and her famous line that she used daily in downtown Toronto: “It’s called excuse me!” There are no excuse-me’s in Uganda, and especially not at Immigration.
Finally, I am at the window (again), feeling faint and damp in my hot pants. I tell the already sneering official that I simply need my visa stamped. She asks for my return air ticket. What?? I didn’t bring it of course, because, I already had the stupid visa, I just needed the stamp. She tells me that I’ll have to come back with my plane ticket. “Maybe on Monday?” I say “no way” and lie that I have traveled all the way from Masindi (4 hours away). We are back and forth in a verbal judo, and I am actually raising my voice (which I generally only do once a year in extreme cases). I had already sent a copy of my return ticket to the High Commission in Canada–and I had to show it at Entebbe airport. She did not need to see it. She tells me to come back after lunch (it’s now 12:10). I ask when lunch is over—“2pm.” Imagine!! She takes my passport, makes me fill out a form and instructs me to write a letter stating my case. She refuses to talk to me anymore.
I am spitting daggers by now, but walk to find somewhere for lunch. My appetite is for eating Immigration Officials head, but I settle for some chicken tikka masala and buttery naan bread in the sun. I am still mildly stewing, wondering my fate with immigration and a little angry with Africa as a whole. When I pay my bill, I realize that I have been grossly overcharged. I mention this to the server and he apologizes with a shrug and tells me that the menu is old, prices have gone up. I don’t have any fight left in me for overpriced naan bread, I need to save my fire for Immigration.
I walk back and there are lineups beginning to form already (which I’ve already explained doesn’t really mean anything). The window opens at 2:10, and it’s a new guy–asking for my receipt. “A receipt?” I was never given a receipt! I tell him my weepy story and he says I‘ll have to wait for the woman I dealt with to come back from lunch which will be, “whenever she decides to come back.”
It starts raining, so everyone is pushing to get under the awning. Twenty minutes later a woman running with a yellow plastic bag knotted over her hair tells me “ít’s coming,” –but this could be more rain, the apocalypse, or?? I wait another 15 minutes back in line, water splashing down from the roof spout, leaving me wet up to my knees. My woman returns from her lunch at a casual 2:45. She writes me a hasty receipt to go to Room 2. I go to Room 2 and am appalled by the non-filing system—there are a thousand sheets of paper stacked in a hundred piles on bookshelves that threaten to buckle and fall over. There are boxes and trays of passports. I want to cry, this is where passports come to die.
I hand in my receipt to the surly guy at the desk drinking coffee as black as oil and he hands me my passport immediately. I open it up and the visa looks the same–all that for nothing?? He shakes his head and flips the page, and I see the god-damned stamp allowing me to stay for 30 more days. Good grief, I can’t wait to do it all over again in a month.
The thrill of my week (Immigration did not register high on my thrill meter) was going to visit the Ngamba Island Chimp Sanctuary. It was the 10th anniversary, and my association with the Jane Goodall Institute allowed me to sneak on the invite-only red carpet list. A violent thunderstorm lit up the sky just before the boat was to leave the dock to take us 23km south to the Koome Islands. Lake Victoria was frothing with white caps, and the boat was delayed for an hour and a half. Carol and I found seats on the 30-foot “traditional canoe” with not-so-traditional Yamaha motors (travel time: 90 minutes). The boat was soon full of people and giant speakers that were balanced in the center. My mother would have climbed out of the boat at that point. Staff from the sanctuary passed out lifejackets (or, what were intended to be lifejackets—they looked more like nylon vests with shoulder pad flotation devices in them). I was told that I didn’t need one, “you’ll be fine,” and the last jacket was handed to a local. How would I be fine? Carol told me later that the majority of Africans can’t swim, so, even if I could only pull off a dog-paddle, “I’d be fine.” The equator invisibly splits the world here somewhere in the deep waters of Lake Victoria, making it an even 9,640 km to the North or the South pole. So, it would be a very special dog paddle indeed.

Mac

There are 44 rescued chimps at the Ngamba sanctuary. They have either been found trapped in wire snares or mantraps (made out of spring-loaded car parts sometimes weighing 12 kg that the chimps will drag around, usually dying from a slow death because they are unable to feed). Some are victims of the pet trade, or, orphaned when their mothers have been illegally poached. The chimps sheltered at Ngamba would never survive in the wild—chimp communities have strong blood, and they don’t allow new faces in without huge dominance fights which often end in death. Often, for chimps that have been injured in snare traps, they can no longer properly find food for themselves or climb to safety as they once could. At Ngamba, the chimps call 98 acres of natural habitat home. The electric fence that separates them from the viewing area is operated by solar-power (much like myself).
The chimps are fed daily by caregivers, which is what we arrive just in time to see. Bananas, carrots and jackfruit are thrown from the platform, and soon the word is out. The jackfruit is the most prized, although, Sunday, is quite partial to carrots. He soon has so many collected in his arms that he walks on his hind legs to a quiet spot to peel them with his nails. The chimps are fed at 11am and 2:30 (more bananas, avocado, tomatoes). At night they are given posho (a porridge made from maize flour). They sleep in an enclosure with suspended hammocks that mimic the nests that they would build high in the trees.

Sunday, peeling carrots

Watching the Ngamba chimps so closely while they feed is quite entertaining. Tombu hogs most of the jackfruit and bristles when the younger chimps enter his personal bubble. Others sit and simply hold up their hand if they want more bananas. Like, “here, toss me one.” However, one of the chimps becomes agitated with the whole scene and Stanley warns that he is going to throw stones. The chimp struts away, much like a macho guy flexing in front of the mirrors at the gym. His hair is on end, and Stanley points out the stones clenched in his hand. Sure enough, the chimp turns back around and charges, flinging the stones up at the platform as we scurry. He slaps the ground hard with his hand and cools down. In the wild, this is common behaviour. Chimps “display” by making themselves sound bigger than they are. They hammer on ironwood trees because of the great echoing drumming sound, they throw things (Jane Goodall tells stories of having empty kerosene cans pitched at her), they snap branches, and basically have a tantrum. We share 98.7 % of the same DNA with a chimp and it becomes obvious that they share our sadness, anger, agitation and joy too. They are affectionate with each other, holding hands, kissing, consoling even, but, they are also wild animals prone to natural instincts.
Visiting the Island’s vet clinic, I learn of the importance of vaccinations, not for my protection, but for the welfare of the chimps. If an employee or tourist comes down with the flu, they are evacuated from the island immediately. Because our DNA is so similar, chimps are susceptible to many of the same diseases that we are: the common cold, flu, and even polio. In Gombe, Tanzania where Goodall did most of her chimp observations, there was a polio outbreak in the 80s that devastated the chimp population. Chimps sadly lost use of their arms, their legs—some learned to somersault to get to places. They could no longer climb trees, and Goodall’s description of the outbreak actually had me sobbing as I read In the Shadow Of Man. Several chimps died from the outbreak that was believed to be passed on from humans. (Pfizer drugs actually donated polio vaccines that were slipped into bananas and eggs to help prevent the rest of the chimp community from falling ill.)

Lily Ajarova, the Executive Director of the Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservation Trust said, “the fact that there is a chimp sanctuary is proof of human failure.” Chimps face endangerment from many fronts: human encroachment, the bushmeat trade (seen more in the Congo than Uganda–yes, people actually eat chimps!), chimps being presented to foreign dignitaries as gifts and the mass burning of forests for charcoal (the primary fuel source in many villages and cities).
The hope is that one day sanctuaries like Ngamba Island no longer have to exist. That one day, chimps will find a safe haven in the forest where they belong.

Categories: Into and Out of Africa, Things with Fur and Feathers | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

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