In the period of 4 days I’ve been in 3 different countries, something that I’ve never done before in Africa, but something I didn’t do by choice. Due to entrance restrictions in Ethiopia I had to pass through Kenya for a flight to Addis Ababa, where I have been for almost two weeks now. I’m already starting to think Ethiopia may be my favorite country in Africa so far, but this post is primarily about eastern Uganda and the lovely time I had there hanging with US Army, hiking in the mountains and meeting a lot of great people on the way.
My time spent in Arua, Uganda with Marcy and Tom, my Couchsurfing Peace Corps hosts had come to a close after a lovely time but I was ready to move and had a long journey ahead of me. Because Peace Corps folks tend to be well connected and know the ins and outs of their countries and travel within it pretty well I got connected with a man who delivers newspapers to various parts of the country and got a with him. I did pay for the ride, about the same as a bus would have cost, but this was faster and far more comfortable. After talking to the other locals in the vehicle to make sure I was paying the same price as them, I was put into the front seat (white privilege again) and we set off west towards the town of Gulu with only minor cattle inconveniences. (and once again, check out the horns on some of those bulls!)
Crossing the Albert Nile. When the driver saw I was taking a bunch of photos to get a good one, he even stopped the car in the middle of the bridge for me to get a clear shot, try getting service like that from a bus!
After four and a half hours in the front seat of the private van, including a few stops to deliver newspapers, I arrived in the town of Gulu. The driver took me straight to the place to catch a public mini-bus and we arrived right on time. They stuffed my bag in the back, held the rear door closed with a frayed piece of rope and I set off for what would be an extremely cramped two and a half hour ride between Gulu and Lira. Here you can see 5 people sitting in a seat made for 3, but that’s pretty typical.
Just like my arrival in Gulu, I arrived in Lira just in time to catch the next leg of my journey, a dirty, run-down bus with broken windows and unattached seats. This leg would take me nearly five hours from Lira the rest of the way across the country to the very small town of Moroto. For those of you doing the math at home, that is three different vans/busses, driving from the western border of Uganda near Congo to the eastern border near Kenya, and a full twelve hours.
It wasn’t comfortable but god damn it was beautiful. The western part of the country is pretty flat; small rolling hills at best. The eastern side along the Kenya border on the other hand is also primarily flat and rolling, but with stunning hills, rocky cliffs, streams, ponds, lush green fields and little mud hut villages with their cows and goats tucked between them. The road was one of the worst I’ve ever been on, but I simply didn’t care, the scenery overrode any complaints I could possibly have. I was in the very back of the bus, the worse possible place for bumps, and was running back and forth between the right and left sides of the bus, sticking my camera out the window like a stupid tourist and snapping away. I’m not ashamed to admit I took literally 500 photos on the bus journey (though I ‘only’ kept about 150). This wasn’t without its perils however, as the abysmal rode took its toll on the bus and on my body. There were times I was hanging out the window with my camera when we hit a bump, sending my head smashing into the window frame above, times when we hit bumps that bloodied my shins on the seats in front of me and yet other bumps that caused the entire bench seat to fly off the frame, leaving me in a twisted pile and bleeding from yet another place. I simply didn’t care, I was in love with the scenery.
See what I’m talking about?
Like nearly every bus in Africa, we stopped in most of the towns along the way and with every stop came the food and drink sellers. The man in front of me offered a huge chunk of cassava, but I politely declined, I wasn’t in the mood for eating.
I would love to get to the top of this one…
From the bus I watched the sun set behind the eroding mountains, the barefoot children playing soccer and the stick and mud compounds that appeared occasionally along the road and by about 9pm had arrived at my destination, the small town of Moroto.
The reason I came here in the first place was that I’d been told this part of Uganda was beautiful, unique and remote, and I found it to be every one of those things. When I met a US Soldier who was based in the area back when I was in Jinja, I suddenly had an interesting contact and yet another reason to come.
This is an area that has a volatile past and has only recently been open and safe for not only foreigners but for the Ugandan government as well. Full of the Karamojong, a pastoral tribe whose lifestyle consisted of cattle raiding and often murder in the process, with no respect for national borders or laws, the people were dealt with by military force, including bombing raids and forceful disarmament of the people. I’ve been told first hand stories of the military coming under fire by Karamojong, who had tied themselves to the underside of cattle within a herd to take shots at the military, and in response the military opening fire with machine guns, killing the entire herd of around 150 cattle in order to kill the 5 or 6 Karamojong who were hiding within it. In the relative peace and safety that has resulted from these often repressive tactics, the floodgates have been opened and NGOs have poured in to this incredibly poor and undeveloped region. I wanted to see it for myself.
I told one of the men on the bus I was looking for a place to stay, the cheapest I could find, and was lead past a series of wood shacks burning kerosene for light and through an unmarked door into a courtyard. Inside there were a few men drinking local beer and gin, the cheapest and strongest they could find, and watching a Chuck Norris movie on full volume. There was no running water, the toilets were locked so people were pissing in the showers, and the electricity only worked part of the time. When I asked them to unlock the toilet, they realized they didn't even have the key and had to break it off with a hammer. The room had a condom wrapper on the floor and was described by someone I showed it to as looking like a jail cell. He wasn’t wrong, but it would do.
The next morning I walked out of my room, locked it with my own padlock (I always travel with my own combination lock, hot travel tip here…) and went outside to buy breakfast. My usual in Uganda was a ‘rolex’, a sort of omelette wrapped up in a chapatti, and I had one made of two eggs and two chapattis. I’m a fat kid at heart. As I sat on the street outside this little wood shack and charcoal fire, being stared at by locals, I tried to take in the scene around me.
What I saw I can only describe as tribal. Maybe that’s not the politically correct way to explain it, but that’s how it felt. Yes, it was a (very small) town, yes there were concrete block buildings, yes there were a handful of cars and trucks driving past, and yes a lot of the people looked like any other African dressed in second hand western clothes, but a large number of people looked different in every way. They dressed in shawls and walked barefoot, their body language often looked sad uncomfortable in these surroundings, their facial structure looked different and their bodies very skinny, they were picking through trash, begging or buying only a single 3 cent samosa, some had elaborate facial scaring as marks of beauty. It seemed like the rest of the people in town tolerated them but didn’t accept them. I’ve never seen anything like it. Although I make a general rule of avoiding it, this is the first photo I’ve ever given money to be able to take (though it was only a few cents). I felt like I’d seen a lot of Africa, but now I was seeing Africa.
Downtown Moroto. I was off in search of a place to use the internet but was told it had gone out and may be back… in a week or two.
As I said earlier, this region only opened to foreigners recently, the government is doing very little and western NGOs have come in to fill the void. In the last few years the Dutch, Belgians, Germans, Americans, European Union and others have come to the region. While most of the organizations are here with good intentions, and a few even have decent methods, countless NGOs in Africa seem to be started by misguided ideals and ignorant people. If you have been reading my blog for a while now, you know I’ve heard the stories in practically every country I’ve traveled. They often fail but their signs are left behind; and when I see intersections filled with chipped, faded and rusting NGO signs, I often think of them as the graveyards of foolish white peoples bad ideas.
But again, I am ever hopeful, and a few minutes down the road when I came across this group of children ‘sledding’ down a pile of dirt, the smile returned to my face and I spent a few minutes watching them play. After they each took a few turns down the hill, I gestured to them I wanted to try as well, picked a choice piece of plastic to use, sat down, lifted my feet, accelerated rapidly and as I reached the bottom of the short dirt pile all the children were jumping up and down laughing uproariously. This is my version of important cultural exchange.
I continued my walk around town to check the place out and as usually happens to me, I started meeting strangers who wanted to talk to me and show me around. I first met a young guy and then an older local guide named Longona, who was drunk and quickly gave me his chair as a gift. The chair is a small thing, T-shaped, less than 10 inches in any direction and has a handle, they are something the pastoral people carry with them as the walk through the bush. In this area on the outskirts of town resided a lot of the different tribal people and Longona began telling me about them and inviting me to take a few photos, including this older woman with a large lip plug, a sign of beauty in their culture.
I had an appointment, so I was unfortunately unable to spend more time with Longona and learn more about the people but I said goodbye and hoped to meet again. I walked to Mt Moroto Hotel, the only decent place in town and one catering almost exclusively to expats and NGO workers and met with Master Sargent Saul Owens, the leader of the US soldiers in the group based in the town. It turned out the group of 8 were all based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord just south of Seattle, and that they were reservists, with Saul actually having worked as a driver for UPS in the Bothell area. He kindly treated me to lunch and we got to chatting about what exactly they are doing out here. Strangely enough, it sounded a bit like Peace Corps, as he talked about doing some community organizing, digging of pit latrines in rural villages and some passing out of supplies, not to mention having very little funding to do it all, haha. As it turned out, the group was heading to a school the next day in a village out of town and while I wasn’t allowed to ride in the vehicle with them he was happy for me to come to the village and see what they were here doing. Saul and I talked for a while longer; I met some of the other team members and hung out for a while.
Each member of the team has their own chalet on the hotel compound, plus another one that is a common/social area. This is the view of Mt. Moroto from their place, not bad eh?
As the sun was beginning to go down I said goodbye and took a slow walk back towards the town and my room, walking by a number of other NGOs and their projects, strangely enough including rehabbing a high school by the US Department of Defense but more commonly was the new library, a Danish refugee group and so on. By the time I actually got into the heart of town to get some food, the sun was long gone and I found a dirty little wooden shack to buy some ugalli and beans and greens from, which cost a little more than a dollar and watched the street life around me unfold. I then found a local bar where I chatted with two older men drinking cheap gin for a while and while everyone was welcoming, it was very clear neither where I ate nor where drank were used to ever having foreigners, something I get a kick out of doing.
You saw the other side of down, the ‘downtown’ area, this was my side of town, haha.
Saul and his team were heading out to the small town of Abim, about two and a half hours away by dirt road and I got a ride out with a local guy in a 4x4. Once again, the scenery was incredible and I was just enjoying staring out the window at the world around me.
As they described it, they are often working in real ‘National Geographic type places.”
Abim Primary School looked like most any other school I’ve seen in Africa, but today it would have a few US Soldiers and a few Ugandan soldiers to give the children something to be excited about.
The event began around noon, first with a group of students standing in rows and singing songs to welcome us as honored guests, then the head teacher doing some introductions and explaining that the students were picked based on having the most need in the school, then explaining how the bags were to be used only for school, and should they be sold or seen at market for carrying vegetables or something they would be punished… There were something like 60 backpacks to pass out, with an American and Ugandan flag and reading “US Mission Uganda supports young Ugandan leaders for a better future,” and included some random school books, a few pens and pencils and other supplies. The school administrator read names and the students would come up to receive the bags which were put on by the US and Ugandan soldiers.
I hate to say this because the guys were kind enough to let me tag along, but I have to be honest about what I saw. I know this kind of thing wasn’t the US Soldiers idea, it wasn’t from their funding, it’s not all they do out here and I know some of their personal feelings on development in Africa which don’t exactly mesh with this kind of project but I’m just going to say it; this is exactly the kind of ‘aid’ that shouldn’t be happening in Africa and is damaging rather than helpful. It was simply the ignorant and misguided ‘charity’ of a few people back in America who still believe hand-outs work, sending some cheaply made things to some poor kids in rural Africa, and having a few white people showing up in a village in fancy 4x4s, dropping off gifts and driving away. The whole thing was less than an hour. It’s no wonder so many Africans just see white people as Santa Clause, only in Africa to give out free gifts. It’s no wonder they ask for money and toys and candy whenever they see white skin. It’s no wonder they wait for hand-outs rather than working themselves, because this kind of thing keeps happening! The school probably has a few hundred students, and only a handful got backpacks. The others stood in a circle around those ‘lucky’ ones looking on jealously as another student waved a stick around to keep them from getting too close. The whole thing drove me crazy.
As things were wrapping up it began to rain, and soon the usual torrential African rains were pounding the area, flooding the road and turning the freshly graded surface into a muddy and dangerous soup. Although the driver was going slowly and carefully, the road felt just like being on ice, it was amazing. We ended up sliding into the ditch a few times, and at one point the truck did a full 180 in the middle of the road!
Hanging out back in town, at the guys rooms.
That afternoon I also bought my flight ticket to Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia. As I mentioned earlier (or rather, complained about), Ethiopia requires visitors to fly into the capital and getting a visa ahead of time and arriving by land is nearly impossible. Because I see no reason for this policy and perhaps cynically assume it is simply to get more business for their national airlines, I made a point of flying with Kenya Air instead of Ethiopia Air. The flight to Addis ended up being $170 less from Nairobi than from Kampala, so I’d be heading all the way to into Kenya just to catch my flight. Talk about a pain in the ass…
After another night drinking cheap beer with locals in a wooden shack, I woke up to go for another wander around town. As I said earlier, this area part of the country is very poor and the people digging through trash heaps are ample proof of that. I mean, imagine just how poor a person must be to dig through the trash of a poor African town, there isn’t going to be much to find…
I began talking with a man who was walking down the street, and after two somewhat sickly and skinny looking women said hi to me he mentioned how they were in town from the villages, and that prostitutes here won’t let men use a condom. Sickly looking indeed.
I was actually on my way to meet Saul again to go on a hike with him, but I took the long route and made a few stops on the way. One place that caught my eye was the town library, funded by the Northern Uganda Social Action Fund Project (World Bank). The library had its pluses and minuses. On the plus side, there were a better than expected range of books roughly arranged by type (children’s, fiction, science, etc), adequate chairs and tables and a decent building to house it all with a staff member on hand and one patron reading. On the minus side, many of the books, for example, a random collection of algebra books, are unlikely to ever be used and smelled of an institution or publisher shipping off unwanted books to Africa for a tax break; but more importantly was the guest log, which showed the place gets very few visitors. Still, I was happy to see the town had a half-decent resource like this library and I hope people will choose to utilize it more and more.
As tends to happen, a local guy joined me on my walk and began to chat and tell me a bit about the town, which was nice. As we neared the hotel where I was meeting Saul we passed a sort of neighbourhood made up of mud and grass huts. It was only about 11am, but as is often the case with men around here, my ‘guide’ was already drunk and reeking of homebrew alcohol. As we neared the end of the area, he walked towards three men sitting around drinking from a plastic bucket which what I knew was another type of homebrew alcohol. He needed to keep drinking.
I don’t think he intended me to, but I followed him towards the hut and the men sitting and drinking. I introduced myself to the three men, one deaf, one overweight and the third claiming to be some kind of chief of the area, and all drunk on not only the bucket of millet beer but on cheap packets of vodka and gin that can be had for a few cents. Once the older men had drank the contents of the packets, they would simply throw them on the ground, where the kids, only a few years old, would pick them up right in front of the adults and suck the remaining drops of hard alcohol out.
Every day you see groups of men sitting around under trees, in roadside shacks or outside their homes drinking, often as early as 8am. When this is the example set, and then the children are able to freely drink the remnants of the adults’ alcohol from morning to night, it’s no wonder this is a nation with so many alcoholics, such low productivity and so much dysfunction.
I knew exactly what I was walking up to when I headed towards these huts but it is still is one of the most outrageous and offensive things I’ve seen. I wanted to slap those men in the face, to shout at them, to explain how they were seriously damaging the lives of these children’s lives before they even had a chance to get started. But I knew it wouldn’t do a damn bit of good. I shook their hands, said ‘have a nice day’ and walked away, down the rutted dirt road.
My spirits improved when I got to the hotel and met Saul to go on our hike. He and his team often hike around on Mt. Moroto, and he knew a great trail and swimming hole at the top. My recent lack of physical activity had me feeling awfully lazy, so I was thrilled to have a partner to go on a day hike with.
The path to the top and over the other side is one used by local people simply as a transportation route, as these are still somewhat nomadic people and took us an hour and a half, up steep switchbacks and to the saddle leading to the other side. The mountain was beautiful; full of green grass, twisted trees, black and grey and red cliffs and some wonderful opportunities to have stunning campsites all to ones self. I wish I could stop saying “if I had more time…” but if I did, I would have loved to spend a week hiking and sleeping in this area.
Besides the scenery, the other highlight was the small stream running between the hills and carving the stone, one drop of water, one grain of sand at a time. This stream and the resulting ponds it has carved out reminded me of something out of a fantasy movie, otherworldly in its beauty. The obvious thing to do was to strip down to my underwear and jump in.
After staring at some tadpoles just starting to get their legs and some huge aquatic bug I caught, I redressed to check out the view over the other side and onto the plains to the east. Wow.
On the hike back down, as we looked over the small town below, we discussed how cool it would be to take a photo from this same position every month for the next few years, as a way to record what I think is the inevitable explosion of growth and development in this town. Someone should get on that… Back in town I found this awesome moth and realized how I never fail to be amazed by the incredible insects I’ve come across here in Africa.
I returned to my jail cell like room, which might just be the worse place I’ve ever slept in Africa, reorganized my things and my mind and headed back into the town where I came across these young men playing their homemade board game. The game was set up like ‘Sorry’ but without the opportunities to bump other players, and given that it was solely a game of lucky dice rolls, most of the attention and effort was put into elaborate and aggressive rolling.
For dinner I returned to one of the small shacks I’d eaten at the day before and placed my order; ‘ugalli, beans and greens please.’ Although this order somehow managed to take nearly an hour to prepare while I sat by candle light, I didn’t mind because the young woman cooking it made for some wonderful conversation. She was around 16, an orphan, trying to save money for school and was exceptionally smart. She talked about the difficulties of being a female here in Uganda, her daily struggles to get by and her hopes for the future. While I occasionally prodded her for more information, she did most of the talking and it was clear she had a lot on her mind and probably no one to express it to. I was happy to be there to listen, even if for only this one time, and after being given the largest meal of ugalli, beans and greens I’ve ever seen, I thanked her for her time and her story, paid for the meal and walked out into the dark streets.
I returned to Mt Moroto Hotel after dinner because the guys were having a few people over, some western NGO workers, to play the game Risk on their flat screen TV and hang out for the evening. I haven’t played the game in years, so instead of suffering an embarrassing loss, I just watched and enjoyed the evening’s conversation.
Because I had an early bus to catch to the town of Nakapirirpirit two hours to the south of Moroto, I woke at 5am, staked out a good window seat and was treated to yet another magically scenic and slightly less bumpy bus ride. The 6am sunset, impossible to capture from a bumpy bus, first filled the skies with deep and rich blues, reds, and purples, then gradually shifted to yellow and orange as it illuminated the bush of eastern Uganda.
As the bus neared the town, Mt. Kadam filled the skyline and we bounced and rattled and belched diesel exhaust into the villages as we passed.
Nakapirirpirit, Uganda. You are pretty much looking at the entire ‘downtown’ here. No water system, no electricity, no pavement. Why someone bothered to build a two story building I’m not sure, it’s not like the town is crowded!
The reason I ended up in this small, practically off the map town in what is essentially the middle of nowhere eastern Uganda was the same reason I’ve ended up in similar places throughout my journey across the continent, CouchSurfing. Through CS I connected with Davide, a young Italian guy who has been living in Africa, mostly Kenya, for about three years now, and works for the Institute for International Cooperation and Development, an EU funded NGO, and is currently focusing on improving access to clean water for rural Ugandans. He is the only foreigner who lives in this town. Right away he brewed up a few cups of imported Italian coffee and after just a minute or two I could tell we would get along wonderfully.
Davide lives in a walled compound with a building that serves as the office and his home, a yard filled with plastic and concrete pipe for the water projects they do, another building currently under construction and a world class view. Because the town has no water or power, all water is collected rainwater from the roof and all electricity is provided by solar panels and a diesel generator when necessary. There is also a basketball size turtle that roams the property, at least until one of the locals steals and eats it.
After coffee, we went out into the town and Davide gave me the tour, pointing out the two restaurants the two bars, the handful of stands that sell chapatti and veggies and the ‘china shop’ that sells bread. It was a short tour. It didn’t take long to get past the row of ‘modern’ buildings to the edge of town where it returns to the classic round mud/grass hut. When I pointed out the brand new power poles and lines that ran along the road but obviously didn’t work yet, a young man walking near us overheard and said “The power will probably come on right before the elections.” He’s probably right though, the party in power gets things ready, then switches them on just in time for the voting, so people can see that they are making progress and will vote for them again. How long the power will work after that will be something to watch…
After walking a good while out of town we turned back and climbed down into a shady stream to cool our feet. We relaxed a bit and took some goofy pictures, then climbed back to the road when we heard a tremendous scream. A girl, probably 11 or something saw these two long haired white people climbing out of the water into the sunlight and was terrified. As she screamed and wailed, the look on her face was of pure horror and she turned to run away the other direction. After maybe 15 meters, she stopped and turned back to look at us again, and as she saw us still looking back at her, she would start screaming and running away all over again. This happened three times, and I thought it was hilarious, the best reaction I’ve ever gotten.
Near Davides house (well, in a town this small everything is near actually…) is one of the two bars where people go to watch soccer games and drink beer. The pool table, although far from level, is brand new and big news in the town. Afterwards we did a little ‘African bar hopping’ which consisted of walking to the other bar in town for a beer, then returned to the house to cook dinner and watch a movie projected on the wall.
I said it earlier in this post but I’ll say it again, the insects I’ve come across out here are amazing.
We were headed out to hike up Mt. Kadam in the morning and I was amazed to see a group of tractors with disks parked out on the street. Other than some of the big (white owned) farms I’ve seen way back in Zambia, this was just about the first time I’d seen tractors out here. As we picked up breakfast from one of the chapatti sellers, Davide explained this was the time to turn the soil, and a handful of wealthy people owned large fields in the area and could afford to hire a tractor for a few days to do the work.
One of Davides employees offered to show us the trail that would take us up the mountain, and walked with us for about an hour out of town and through the fields and explained to us how the fields get turned by those who can’t afford a tractor.
How it works is as follows: land owners pay villagers two ways for a days ‘digging’ as they call it. The first is with 3000 shillings, about $1.15, and the second is with a jerry can of alcohol. A 20 liter can of home-brewed millet beer is split between 10 workers, giving each worker 2 liters of alcohol worth another 2000 shillings. Yep. All it takes to get hordes of people to work in your fields is a little more than a dollar and to get them drunk.
Our goal was to reach the top, that rocky summit in the distance. After walking past a few remote homes and Davide asking for directions in Swahili, we found the correct path and figured we would see how far we could get.
At the base of the mountain, in the bottom of the valley, it felt like we had suddenly been transported to a completely different place. This part of the country is semi-arid, mostly dry brush and small shrubs, but here where it was cooler and wetter, it suddenly became jungle like. A picturesque stream ran between moss and vine draped trees, towering 40 meters above us while bird and monkey calls filled the air, it was breathtaking and Davide could hardly believe this was the right outside his dry, hot village.
After about two hours of scrambling up steep bush paths, and seeing one or two small shacks far off in the bush we reached an overlook where we took a break.
The town of Nakapirirpirit and it’s one road, far below.
We continued onward and upward, through a cool and damp forest and eventually came to a stream crossing where we stopped to rest. I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye and was shocked to see crabs in the water! Here we were, at an elevation of nearly 2000 meters, in a tiny stream in remote Uganda, and it was full of dark purple crabs!
We continued upwards for more than an hour, through what seemed to be constantly and rapidly changing flora, and eventually came across this little shack where we met it’s ‘owner.’ The man, barefoot, filthy, dressed in rags and with a huge and terrible looking wound on his arm he had tried to sew shut with some kind of cord, was up here picking a type of khat, a leaf with a mild stimulant effect popular in this part of the world. Once again using Swahili, Davide was able to speak with him and get some advice on which way to go and how long it would take, but by this point we decided it was best to turn around and head back to town, unfortunately failing to reach the summit but making what was probably the right decision.
The way back down was of course much quicker though just as beautiful. I thought this picture was funny and rather telling, western man checking his cell phone, African women carrying bundles of sticks in their head. In total, we hiked for nearly 8 hours, which was more than either of us had done in a while and were tired and sore, in a good way. This day hike was probably the highlight of my time in Uganda, it was really wonderful. Back home we cooked dinner, ate some pudding and went to sleep satisfied.
We were both pretty wiped out after the hike the next day so we basically sat around the house relaxing and using our computers, went out for a tasty lunch and watched another movie, Zombieland, that night.
My time in Uganda was coming to a close, so the next morning I boarded a bus headed south to the large town of Mbale where I would be able to catch an overnight to Kenya. I noticed two small blisters on my foot had become infected, but I cleaned them up, covered them with bandages and didn’t think too much about it. Once again, I found myself on a bumpy and somewhat uncomfortable bus ride, but once again the dramatic scenery made up for any complaints I could have. Everything was going well enough until we reached this muddy and rutted section of road, with a long line of overloaded trucks sitting and waiting to be able to move. Small 4x4s were able to squeeze past on the shoulder, but the rest of us would just have to wait for the procession to crawl through the difficult section. In the end we only lost about an hour here, but this kind of thing can sometimes turn into a day or more of lost time so I was pleased.
Six hours and one small bundle of khat later, “if you chew this, you work in the field all day and never get tired,” I was told (all I got was a bad taste in my mouth and a green tongue), the bus arrived in Mbale. I stopped at an internet café, could see and feel the infection on my foot growing worse, and boarded the overnight to Nairobi.
Other than my broken seat that kept me in the reclining position, the bus was alright. I put on my headphones, set my 80gb iPod to shuffle and stared out the window, trying to ignore the girl sitting next to me. Why you ask? Because I knew what she wanted before she even started talking to me, a rich white man to bring her to America.
It began about an hour into the ride, when she finally worked up the courage to talk to me. I removed my earphones and made polite conversation while she flirted relentlessly. I showed her some of the photos on my camera, answered her questions about America and asked a few questions about her and so on, the usual stuff. This continued on and off for a few hours and eventually she bought me a 10 cent package of cookies. I didn’t want to take it because I knew what it might signal to her, but I was starving as I hadn’t eaten dinner so I accepted. She took this as a major victory, and the flirting redoubled. Sigh…. Eventually it got to the point where she was putting her hands all over my arm trying to hold me and I decided it had to stop. I said politely but firmly, “Please take your hand off of me” and she didn’t look at me or say another word for the rest of the ride.
The event that mattered to me however was the crossing into Kenya. I received my exit stamp for Uganda, and walked across the imaginary line separating the two countries, in what was yet another dark, chaotic, truck filled and disorganized African border town, literally my least favorite places in all of Africa.
When I reached the immigration officer I intended to get a transit visa, which I thought was $20 and good for seven days. The officer told me it was only good for three and because I was there at 8pm and my flight was three days later, I was four hours too soon to use the three day transit visa, I’d have to buy the three month tourist visa for $50 instead. I was still convinced the transit visa was seven days, and when he showed me a poorly photocopied paper from 2009 stating it was only three days, I still wasn’t convinced. If I could have, I would have waited around until midnight to get the three day he was trying to sell me, but I’d already exited Uganda and my bag was in the bus on the Kenya side. I didn’t have a choice. When I finally agreed to pay the $50 for the full three month visa, I did so thinking this guy was cheating me, and when he gave me the visa without my actually filling out the entrance form and gave me the visa without even writing my passport number on it this only supported my suspicions he was lying to me and pocketing the $50 I’d just given him. I left in a seriously bad mood, imagining how I was going to try and report this guy for corruption, but then I felt like a real idiot when I got online the next day and found out he was correct, the transit visa is only three days. I still have no idea where I got the idea it was seven from….
It was 5am when I arrived in Nairobi and I’d gotten maybe three hours of restless sleep. The streets were dark, filled with trash and roamed by what I imagined to be mostly people out this early for nefarious purposes. Nairobi has its advantages and charms I’m sure, but among travelers it’s not known as a very nice or a very safe place. To make things worse, my foot was hurting more than ever, swollen to the point where I could hardly get it in my flip-flop, dripping puss and causing me to limp through the streets with my bags looking like an easy target. I didn’t want to be here.
After visiting an ATM, yet another thing to make me a potential target, I was pointed to a restaurant that was open this early, climbed the stairs and drank cheap coffee as I watched the sun come up through the iron bars on the windows.
I’d written a few people on CouchSurfing to stay with in town but because I didn’t know my schedule until just before I arrived my requests were very last minute. I spent the day at the internet café, with throbbing pain now in my entire leg, waiting for a reply. If you know my good luck on the road, you already know something perfect is about to happen and once again, something perfect did. I received a message from a man named Vamsi offering to host me for my two nights in town, climbed on a motorcycle taxi, held on for dear life and limped the rest of the way down the road to his place, which turned out to be a very, very high end condo complex built to look like a Zanzibar style castle. I met Vamsi, put my bags down in my own bedroom filled with a four post queen-size bed, rich woods and soft fabrics and took a long and much needed hot shower, the first I’d had in a few weeks.
After cleaning up, Vamsi walked and I limped across the street to a hotel that had a restaurant, and while the food was very good I was heartbroken to find they didn’t serve beer. I really wanted a cold one after such a long and unpleasant journey, but I guess I can’t have everything in life. And hey, if that is my biggest complaint, I must be doing pretty well. Vamsi kept claiming he didn’t have any interesting stories to tell like I did, but he was only being modest. Turned out he is a big of a healthcare big shot, living and flying all over Africa, working with the World Health Organization, Gates Foundation, UN and so on, and had a direct line to the president of Liberia when he was rebuilding their health system from the ground up. Yes, he had stories.
Despite my state of exhaustion, I had trouble sleeping that night and sat in bed taking advantage of the wifi until something like 4am when I collapsed. To make up for that, I didn’t awake again until around 2pm. I had hoped to spend my two days in Nairobi exploring the city, meeting with some other CS people and generally trying to make some use of the fact I’d crossed into this new country for only two and a half days, but my exhaustion and the still terrible infection in my foot (which I was now on antibiotics for) killed those plans. I spent the rest of the day online, hopping around on one foot and eventually having dinner with Vamsi again at the same restaurant across the street.
The next morning I woke fairly early and had to pay $20 for a taxi to the airport. My savings for going all the way to Nairobi to catch the flight were dwindling rapidly, but in the end I think I still saved about $100. The taxi driver was friendly though and gave me a bit of a tour of the city on the hour long drive through the congested morning traffic, starting where he picked me up where the foreigners live, passing the downtown, through the slums where the ‘real Africans’ live and eventually to the airport, where I saw the long necks of giraffes sticking up not far from the runways. Weird city, man.
After checking in and using up the remainder of my Kenyan shillings at an airport breakfast spot, I climbed on the plane. I’ve made a point of doing my trip through Africa by land because that is the way to actually see and learn about the place, and this was my first journey by air in a year, the last time was when I flew from Dar es Salam, Tanzania all the way back to Cape Town, South Africa. It still bothers me I had to fly into Ethiopia, missing a section on my route up Africa but given the countries entrance requirements, of course I didn’t have a choice.
I will say however that the flight was extremely scenic though and gave me a view you can’t get any other way. Here are what I imagine to be some kind of salt deposits, somewhere over northern Kenya.
I landed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia just before noon, making it my 11th African country on my journey. For all the hassle of trying to get a visa to travel by land, entering at the airport was about as easy as it could be. Although I was told by the Ethiopian embassy in Kampala that the visa for Americans is $70 and good for three years (which sounded like nonsense) I paid $20, received the same three month tourist visa as everyone else with the clerks hardly even looking up to see my face, filled out the arrival card and was on my way.
I walked out of the airport in search of a SIM card, something to eat and a mini-bus to get me there. When the driver tried to charge me 200 birr for a 3 birr ride I told him to his face that he was full of shit (yah, sometimes I just get sick of it and stop being polite) and walked off, but things improved when I met a guy who lead me to a place where I got a typical Ethiopian lunch of injera and wat for 12 birr, just 65 cents. I then got a SIM card for my phone, called up my Addis CS host and made my way there.
Claudio, my host is Italian/Ethiopian. His family has been in the country for a long time and he owns a factory that makes wooden furniture. He lives on a compound that has the main house, and two separate apartment of sort, where he was hosting both me and another couchsurfer, Caro from Argentina who had been traveling and working in east Africa for a full three years now and was only days away from going home.
After getting settled into my room and chatting with Caro for a while, we set off for the evening. I was exhausted, but I was in a new city, in a new country, with another very cool traveler and there was a Friday night jazz show going on that sounded like something I shouldn’t miss. We mini bused (but out here they just call shared mini buses ‘taxis’) out to the Taitu Hotel, the oldest in Addis Ababa where we had pizza and beers before going to the Jazzamba Lounge next door that hosted the weekly concert. Entrance was fairly expensive, 80 birr (and beers were 50, as opposed to around 15 at local places!), but it was a fancy place aimed at foreigners and wealthy locals, plus the music was fantastic. The six piece band played for about two and a half hours and put on a great show. When the music ended we shared a private taxi with a few people to get home, and I fell into bed trying to process yet another country I could already tell was going to be something very special.
Ethiopia is an amazing place. It is so different from every other African nation I’ve experienced so far, with a tremendously rich culture, long history recorded in both Africans only indigenous written language and in the ancient churches that dot the country. I’ll have about a month to spend here before hopefully crossing into Sudan and in that time I have a lot planned. I’ve already had some interesting experiences in Addis, stayed in a small town with more Peace Corps volunteers and visited 700 year old churches. In the coming weeks I will be visiting Lalibela, the countries famous stone churches, visiting ancient mosques, having some very close encounters with hyenas, hiking in the Simian mountains and I’m sure meeting plenty of crazy people on the way.
Thanks for reading and safe travels.