Pre-Conservation Camp, Kisoro

24/8/15 – 29/8/15

I am inundated with emotions right now. I just finished editing together my group’s COS (Close of Service) slideshow which showcases photos and videos from almost two years ago when we first met each other in Philadelphia for staging on November 11th, 2013. I am clean, comfortable, and resting here in Bruce’s apartment in Kisoro as we gear up for Conservation Camp. The past few days, I have felt like I have been playing house; Rachel and I have been cooking ridiculous meals in a kitchen with a faux-marble countertop, doing daily errands, and lounging on couches in a living room.

Bunagana - Uganda DRC Border

Bunagana – Uganda DRC Border

We endured a harrowing night bus ride which included blasting dancehall music from 8pm – 5:30am inside the darkened bus, babies crying, and chilly wind blasting through the windows. We got into Kisoro while it was still dark and Jax, Bruce’s counterpart, picked us up and brought us to Bruce’s house. Over the course of several days we prepared for the coming weeks. Rachel prepped the shirts, water bottles, certificates, and plans for Conservation Camp events while I worked on the COS slideshow video for our COS Conference next week.

Hill WalkingDuring the day, I would ride Bruce’s bicycle around Kisoro town. As the warm sun hit my skin and the wind rustled through my sweater I felt as if I was back home in the United States. I would just bicycle a few minutes to pick up cauliflower, onions, green beans, butter, milk, cheese, and other cooking ingredients. At one point, Jax brought us to this hill purportedly where Churchill dubbed Kisoro the African Alps. We called it Churchill’s Hill, but the locals called it Munari Hill off the dirt road from Kamugoyi Village in Kanaba District. We also hiked up the gorgeous hill behind Golden Monkey Guesthouse where one can see Mt. Muhabura and Lake Mutanda. This time however, we continued walking up a nearby, steeper hill and made our way down a ridge bounded with trees and steep slopes on either side. It honestly felt like a new adventure.

This past week has been so much of a blur, and I can’t believe that we are about to start Conservation Camp. During this camp, local Ugandan youth will learn about sustainable methods to start conservation projects in their community as well as learn life-skills and leadership methods. There will be 10 counselors: 5 Ugandan and 5 Peace Corps Volunteers. My role during this camp is to capture moments through both photographs and video, as well as cook dinner for the PCV’s during camp. The menu consists of sushi, stir-fry, pastas, pizza, sautéed veggies, and cabbage slaws.

Winding Kisoro Roads

Winding Kisoro Roads

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Developing

3/7/15 – 6/7/15

I went searching for a set of speakers that I could attach to a computer or iPhone so that my students would be able to hear the audio whenever I play a video clip in the computer lab. Rachel accompanied me to Ntinda in Kampala where one of the Ugandans helping out with the filming during the Let Girls Learn video told me I could find a set of solid speakers. Rachel and I wandered around the suburban-like Ntinda neighborhood until we saw a sign with the words “Speaker Forum” pointing inside a three-story building. I got excited because I was finally going to get these speakers for both my computer lab, as well as bring them for the 4th of July celebration in Fort Portal. The derelict inside of the building with its dark corridors and signs promising free Wifi and barbecue nights made me feel that I was a soon-to-be kidnapped victim from a Peace Corps themed Taken movie. Rachel and I ended up at a room filled with couches and Ugandans sitting behind a desk.

I quizzically asked one of the receptionists where I could find the speakers, and she told me that I was in the correct room. It turns out that a “Speakers Forum” meant human speakers and not the ones that attached to a stereo and audio jack. Dismayed, Rachel and I tried a furniture store next door run by whom we thought were two Lebanese men, but who actually turned out to be two bros from New Jersey/New York.

Me: “Do you sell speakers here?”

Not Lebanese Man: “We only sell furniture here bro. Where are you guys from?”
*Said in the most American bro accent

Me: “I’m from Luweer…. I’m from Maryland.”

Rachel: “And I’m from New Jersey.”

Not Lebanese Man: “Cool, my girlfriend lives 45 minutes away from New York City.”

Me: “…”

Rachel and I depart and decide that the best course of action on this Thursday night is to get happy hour gin and tonics at the Bistro.

I am glad to say that many of my adventures involve crazy situations and mishaps in Kampala prior to traveling anywhere. We stayed with my embassy sponsor after one of the most harrowing private hire rides through the dark abyss of the taxi park area, the bright red light district, and the traffic of the tank hill neighborhood. I couldn’t keep track of the number of times I thought we were going to hit a boda, be hit by a boda, or just careen off the side of the road. Fortunately we made it to the house in one piece, and had a traditional dinner of cheeseburgers and apple crumble for dessert.

On Friday morning, we left the comfort of my embassy sponsor’s house for the craziness of the taxi park area. I purchased a set of non-human stereo speakers at the Shoprite on Entebbe Road before heading out to Fort Portal on a taxi. I have come to realize how easy it has become to bother me these days. As we were about to enter one of the taxis, I rolled my eyes and laughed when the conductor of the taxi offered to put my backpack on the roof or in the back of the taxi. Rachel reminded to be nice, especially since the conductor was just trying to help me. After a cramped ride filled with much yelling, breast milk splashing, and emotional swings we arrived in Fort Portal where we greeted dozens of other PCV’s at the Sweet Aromas bakery and the Dutchess restaurant.

This 4th of July weekend filled me with a myriad of emotions. I felt so content to see PCV’s who could understand me and have a good time with me without me having to explain myself. I realize that I don’t even need to explain to other PCV’s why I feel a certain emotion or do something weird, because they too know that I am working through my own issues and emotions at any given moment. That first cup of coffee at Sweet Aromas, that first bite of olive pizza at the Dutchess, that first hit of shisha at the Forest bar felt so refreshing and wonderful.

Fourth Portal 2015

Fourth Portal 2015

The entire day of Saturday the 4th will remain in my memory as a particularly beautiful day. We started it out by doing yoga together on the lawn of the YES Hostel, followed by some ab workouts. After showering, we set up the speaker system and proceeded to drink bloody mary’s with Old Bay, mingle with PCV’s from all cohorts, and eat some Ugandan barbecue. Apart from the beer pong and dancing, I remember sitting on a chair facing the rolling hills of Fort Portal and witnessing the sunset in an auburn sky while my closest PCV friends surrounded me. Life literally felt as if it couldn’t get much better than this.

Interdependence

Interdependence

As the festivities ended, I began preparing my work as a PCVL, Peace Corps Volunteer Leader. One of my duties is to visit PCV sites in the Fort Portal region in order to assess whether these sites would be a good candidate to continue hosting a PCV after the ones in my cohort departed at the end of this year. The goal is of the Primary Literacy Project for us education PCV’s is to have an incoming education PCV from the cohort arriving this November work as the “carrier” PCV after our work as the “starter” PCV. It really is cool to know that so many of our projects involving libraries, clubs, and positive behavior systems can be continued and grown even after we leave.

As a PCVL, my visits to my friends’ sites have shown me just how much development can occur in as little as two years. AsCanon Apolo CPTC little as I feel I may accomplish here, I realize just how much of an impact we have in our communities and schools. I often hear those cheesy stories about how a simple greeting to a neighbor inspired that neighbor to become an English teacher, but I sometimes wonder what our pupils and students will remember from our classes. Saying hello is just one small facet of our day, and we have a direct impact on our students’ learning. This weekend of fun, reflection, and work has reminded me not to give up just yet. There is still work to be done and there is still time to develop.

The Eventful Road to Masindi

1/6/15

The trek to visit PCV Rachel in Masindi always sucks because while it is physically near to my site, there is no direct route from my site or nearest taxi park to Masindi Town. Once I arrive in Wobulenzi Town by bicycle, I have to take a taxi about 17km north to the Luweero Bus/Takisi Stop junction where the street vendors peddle their roasted gonja, beef, chappati, and cold drinks. In the past I’ve attempted to take a takisi that the conductors promised would take me to Masindi, but in actuality spends 4 hours taking me to the Kafu junction that should have only taken me a little bit over an hour’s ride. This time around, I decided to take my chances by waiting for a bus that would either bring me directly to Masindi or drop me off at Kafu 115km north of Luweero. Fortunately, a Ugandan man working for IRF (International Rescue Committee) picked me up for a ride. He told me that he worked for an American organization dedicated to aiding Sudanese refugees in Kiryandongo District directly north of Masindi District.

I shared a lot about the values of Peace Corps, my work, and the basics of the Federal Government with him. He also explained to me that while he is from Kitgum, he doesn’t like to share that fact with Ugandans whom he meets as a safety precaution due to some lingering hostile tensions between the northerners and the western/central Ugandans.  At one point we were stopped by traffic officers, but I talked ourselves out of a ticket by speaking in Luganda. He dropped me off at the Kafu junction, where I squeezed into a 4 seat-sedan with 7 other Ugandans. I don’t even get surprised anymore when I see two people sitting in the driver’s seat. I still don’t know how drivers can do that.

We were stopped halfway between Kafu and Masindi by more traffic police who had the most recent passengers leave the Long Masindi Roadcar. The head police officer kept threatening to arrest the driver of the car whose excuse was that he was giving me and this old lady a free lift. After the police officer let him go, he attempted to collect money from me and the old lady. The police officer reprimanded him for lying and then gave me and the old lady a lift to Masindi Town. Along the way he asked me if I had my passport and I retorted that I didn’t have to show it to him. We went back and forth debating whether or not it was legal for him to demand my passport, and I threatened to call the Inspector General of Police, Kale Kayihura. Instead I called a Peace Corps staff member and asked if I was supposed to show him my passport. I was informed that I had to show him a legal form of identification that could or could not be a passport.

I gave him my driver’s license and Peace Corps identification card which upset him because I could have forged them. His argument was that I could be part of Al-Shabaab and forge my forms of identification as opposed to a passport. I had him show me the Police Act of Uganda, Chapter 303 The Police Act that states with some examples:

Part V.

Power to inspect licenses.

No liability for action done under authority of a warrant.

24. Arrest without a warrant.

A police officer may, without a court order and without a warrant, arrest a person if he or she has reasonable cause to suspect that the person has committed or is about to commit an arrestable offence.

27. Search by police offiers.

Whenever a police officer, not being lower in rank than a sergeant, has reasonable grounds for believing that anything necessary for the purposes of an investigation into any offence which he or she is authorised to investigate may be found in any place and that that thing cannot in his or her opinion be otherwise obtained without undue delay, the officer may, after recording in writing the grounds of his or her belief and specifying in the writing, so far as possible, the thing for which search is to be made, search, or cause search to be made, for that thing.”

In the US, we have judicial review and the concept of precedence whereas in Uganda the vague wordings in the police act grant police officers unbelievable power over the populace.

Unfortunately, he was right in the sense that any cause or any possible cause to suspect something in the future is grounds for inspection of one’s property. Probable cause is met in Uganda if any police officer has reason to suspect that one may at some point in the future break the law. I surmised that this gave the police unlimited power since they could legally find anyone guilty if the mood suited them. This also meant that inept police have unlimited power, since the police man attempted to search for the police act on his cracked iPad, but he kept clicking on an advertisement and refused to let me help him.

I mean, in the end I made it to Masindi Town in record time. It irks me because the ride from Masindi to Wobulenzi Town only takes 2 hours. Whatever, at least I got some new knowledge and another good story out of this trek.

The Futility of Dust

18/5/15 – 21/5/15

I spent the past week travelling with Loucine, the Peace Corps Uganda Country Director, to Gulu and Kitgum for a continuation of the regional site visits. The idea is to create a 5 minute promotional video of each region of Uganda so that when the new Peace Corps Education Trainees arrive in November they will be able to get a taste of what the different regions look like and what Peace Corps Volunteers have been doing in those regions.

I started off by biking to Wobulenzi from my house and waiting by the side of the road for the Peace Corps Vehicle to pick Homeless Man Wobulenzime up. In the meantime, I hung out with the resident homeless Ugandan man on the street. I gave him a piece of my homemade bread that I baked the day before, but the Ugandans who were seated next to me didn’t want any. In my opinion, I assumed that they didn’t want to eat the bread that this homeless man was also eating. As I looked around the trading center, it struck me how different poverty was. I mean, compared to many people in the developed world many of the Ugandans in or near this town are living well below the poverty line. However, I think that sometimes we tend to lump entire countries and cultures into the stereotyped image of a poor and third-world nation. Many of the Ugandans whom I know at least have a roof over their heads, enough to eat every day, and the mobility to travel or celebrate a wedding or graduation event with a bit of saved money.

Pupils LearningBefore I could get too deep into this reflection, the Peace Corps Vehicle arrived and picked me up. The ride was relatively smooth all the way up to Gulu. In the land of the Acholi’s who speak the Nilotic language Luo, we visited PCV’s who worked in mainly primary schools. I was very intrigued to see the work done with literacy and reading interventions with the education PCV’s. One of the volunteers worked at a primary school that used to serve as the school for the children of inmates and the prison staff, and eventually became a general primary school for the surrounding area. It’s really funny how the prison inmates are treated here in Uganda. They all wear bright yellow outfits, and are allowed to roam free outside of the prison walls during the day where they work as free day-laborers, farmers, carpenters, and electricians before returning back to the prison at night like good little boys and girls.

Another PCV was working on involving the schools of the surrounding districts to take part in the My Language Spelling Bee for Luo while another volunteer worked with blind pupils who took their exams using Braille books specially printed by the Cheyanne and Brailleschool’s Braille machines. The interesting dynamic about Gulu is that it has many municipalities and resembles a small grid-city system with 4-way intersections at every block. Due to the influx of NGO’s and other refugee organizations in response to the rebel activities years ago, a large western population consisting of expatriates and travelers exists in Gulu. This in turn has led to an increase in the quality of hotels, restaurants, cafes, and other amenities that travelling and working expatriates would enjoy.

I travelled to Comboni Samaritain where we stopped by the Wawoto Kacel Cooperative Society Limited which consisted of people living with HIV/AIDS, disabilities, and single parents to sell handmade and hand-woven goods to travelers as a way to provide a means of sustaining their livelihoods. We ate the best traditional food at Mama Kristina’s restaurant shack near Sankofa Café. Mama Kristina is this big Ugandan woman who operates a small restaurant business inside her shack where she cooks local dishes such as: lakoto koto (ground and fried simsim/sesame seeds), malakwang (pasted sour greens), fried beef, rice, beans, Odii (ground and roasted g-nuts and simsim), fried fish, and Bo (another green). It was one of the best local meals that I have eaten in this country, and many other Acholi and visiting Ugandans would agree because her stock runs out around 2pm.

Weaving at Comboni

Weaving at Comboni

Mama Kristina's Restaurant

Mama Kristina’s Restaurant

Aside from great Luo, Indian, Ethiopian, and Café food, I even got a chance to experience the expatriate life when I played a game of Ultimate Frisbee at the Acholi Inn field. Man, it just felt so good to run and play a competitive sport again. I missed that feeling of letting loose and just giving it your all. After the game, I hung out with one of the PCV’s and her Ugandan boyfriend at one of the traditional restaurants. One interesting point of discussion was that this Ugandan worked at the Invisible Children organization and at one point was also one of the Invisible Children. Out of respect for him and his girlfriend, I won’t share details, but he had to go through some very violent and scarring events during his time as a child soldier.

Currently he works as a videographer and media point person for the organization and shared some of his interesting viewpoints. I was told that the organization was very familial and a lot of the proceeds from donations went to the families of those Ugandans who worked in the organization, also the promotional videos about child soldiers didn’t tell the whole story. Like any good video or documentary, the narrative was specifically crafted with anecdotes that didn’t tell the whole story. It left out a lot of the more graphic and violent parts. However, as a whole it is a good organization that supports its main message.

The next morning as I was walking past the prison and through Gulu Town, I saw one of the cleaner women sweeping the Village Ellendust off the road. The rising sun illuminated her silhouette, and with every sweep of her broom the dust would swirl around her. I almost felt that her effort was self-defeating, because the dust would simply settle around her as she continued on with her endless task. I moved on past this futile task, and continued onwards to the Iron Donkey café where I would meet up with Loucine. That morning, Loucine was slated to attend what would have been the final court case of Danielle Gucciardo who died when struck by a drunk driver in Gulu back in April 2013. However, even two years later justice hasn’t been served. The Magistrate in-charge of this case conveniently decided that she wouldn’t show up for the scheduled court date.

What struck me the most was that even with the backing of the US Ambassador, the media attention, and the weight of public opinion against this driver still wouldn’t lead to a guilty conviction. There is a reason why mob justice exists, and that’s because of how difficult it is to go through the arduous process of court cases. Last year, even with all of the evidence against him the driver was not convicted; the reason being that he was drunk when he killed her and thus was not in control of his actions.

We spent the last two days of the trip going into Kitgum where we met the PCV’s over there. We visited a child care primary school, another prison primary school, a MercyCorps branch, and Uganda HipHop Culture. One of the most interesting things at the child care primary school was a book project by PCV Mary Williams. When she arrived at the school, she discovered a lot of books in the school’s library that did not respect or reflect diversity. Many of the books were not culturally appropriate, such as a picnic day, the beauty of Barbie and her white skin, an Aboriginal princess, or books that Ugandan pupils couldn’t relate to. Fortunately, a generous donor sent over a box of multicultural and diverse books showcasing the beauty of one’s skin color, picture books primarily featuring African-Americans, or stories featuring sub-saharan African characters.

One of my favorite sites was PCV Leah Walkowski’s Northern Uganda HipHop Culture Site. The members of this organization focus on reaching out to local Ugandan youth about HIV/AIDS through hip hop dancing, beatboxing, rapping, and dancing that would appeal to the youth. They regularly do HIV testing and seasonal male circumcisions. One of their coolest projects by the Kitgum youth was an HIV Song warning youth against the dangers of HIV performed by the members of Northern Uganda HipHop Culture (NHUC) in conjunction with StraightTalk Uganda with the lyrics in being both English and Luo.

https://www.facebook.com/nuhculture

Artists: Lil Nicha, Black MC, Kim, and Benny

Once again, I was exhausted after this week. All I wanted to do was just sit down alone in my own house and teach my students. I feel like I’m racing towards the end of my service, while also being stuck where I am right now. There is already so much to do, and I’m trying to accomplish it all before the end.

Hiking Mt. Elgon

3/4/15 – 6/4/15

I felt very fulfilled after this Passover and Easter weekend. On Friday I did my usual journey to Kampala where I met up with Rachel at the Kamwokya Taxi Stage in the New Taxi Park. We made it to the Peace Corps office as the DMO (Director of Management and Operations) was pulling out of the office parking lot. She quizzically asked us why we were in Kampala and Rachel stated that she was bringing in quilts from Piece by Peace. I just remained silent as she drove away. I picked up my tent from the Peace Corps Volunteer lounge and Rachel dropped her quilts at the office where staff was working on the upcoming Youth Technical Trainings. As I entered the office, they told us that Kampala was still on strict lockdown due to the possible terrorist attack as notified by both the British and U.S. Embassies. As a result, we technically shouldn’t have been in Kampala.

Rachel and I quickly departed the office, but not before I accidentally sat in a swivel chair and knocked down a dry-erase board and glass wall clock that shattered on the ground. We sojourned to the frenzy of the Ugandans in the Bus Park and obtained tickets to Mbale. Honestly, after battling a few dozen Ugandans who bull-rushed a ticket vendor for the next available bus with two backpacking backpacks and a tent, I will never be upset when waiting at the DMV with a numbered ticket stub. The ride was uneventful in that it started to storm halfway through the ride and one of the passengers complained that the bus kept stopping to pick up people along the road who were headed to Mbale. This sparked an interesting debate where many of the passengers and bus staff took a stand against the complaining passenger. Personally, I would have endorsed this complaint except that I didn’t want to be kicked out of the bus.

By the late evening we arrived in Mbale and made our way to PCV Cindy’s house where she was hosting over 10 other PCV’s. The plan for the weekend was that on Saturday we would share a Jewish Passover Seder Meal with the Abayudaya. From what Rachel told me, the Abayudaya (“People of Judah” in Luganda) was the group of converted Ugandan Jews who resided near Mbale, read the Torah, and observed the high holy days. Half of the PCV’s at Cindy’s house were Jews who wanted to attend the Seder Meal and the other half were those who were interested in sharing in such an experience. I had also organized an overnight hike on Mt. Elgon on Easter Sunday with my fellow tutors at Luteete PTC, Masters Joseph and Dan.

It started more than a month ago during lunch at the PTC when Master Joseph asked me about my bike ride to Fort Portal. When I told him how much I enjoyed the scenery of western and southwestern Uganda, he told me that I should also see his home region of the east, especially Mt. Elgon. He also suggested that I bring my friends. As a result, he contacted his old friend from secondary school named Richard who lived near an Mzee (old man) who lived on a village high in Mt. Elgon National Park. Many phone calls later among myself, Rachel, the Abayudaya Rabbi, Cindy, Master Joseph, Richard, and the Mzee it was decided that the Mzee’s village on Mt. Elgon would host us Sunday until Monday. Other than that, there were no other details.

On Saturday evening we took a private vehicle to the Abayudaya Village where we met up with Abayudaya Arrivalsome other Ugandan Jews, a Jewish NGO volunteer, and an Israeli named Daniel Goldberg (a very unique name as I was assured by those PCV’s not in the Jew Crew). It was quite interesting to hear the history of the Abayudaya during the Seder Meal. A few decades ago when the Christian missionaries were in the Mbale area, the local chief disagreed with the New Testament of the Bible and told his community members to follow the Old Testament only. The ensuing congregation was proto-Judaism, because they intended and attempted to follow the rules of Judaism, but didn’t have the skills, training, or materials to do so. There was a drop in congregation members during the reign of the anti-semitic Idi Amin but through the contact of an Israeli diplomat and Rabbis from the United States several of the Ugandans were officially converted to Judaism.

The main leader behind the main Jewish community in Mbale was Kakungula who had himself circumcised. Right now there are 7 remaining villages where Judaism is practiced by native Ugandans. The Rabbi who presided over the Seder Meal actually lived in Israel for some time where he learned Hebrew and became an accredited and ordained Rabbi.

Seder MealThe community looked like any other Ugandan village, except that there were a lot of Stars of David and donated Jewish books from Jewish communities (mainly tri-state area and New England) all over the United States. The Seder Meal went by quickly, and the prayers were sung in Hebrew with a Ugandan dancehall track playing in the background. All the meat was Kosher and we followed the traditional format of Seder Meal. Personally, I felt that this was such a cool experience because I had never attended a Seder Meal, and I had never expected that my first time would be in Uganda with the Ugandan Jewish converts. Contrary to popular belief, the Abayudaya are not a lost tribe.

Takisi stuck in mudEarly the next morning we packed up our bags and all got into a privately hired takisi headed towards Mt. Elgon, along with Masters Joseph and Dan. Master Joseph lived in the Mbale region and showed us his house and nearby cliff that gave us a panoramic view of Mt. Elgon in the distance. He told us that years ago, the hills and cliffs of this region provided the Ugandans with refuge from the northern Karamajong tribes who would raid the villages. The locals would hide in the hills and roll down boulders upon the raiders until they left.

The takisi wound its way down forest paths and over foot bridges that crisscrossed the River Sironko after reaching Budadiri town. We continued down towards Bugitimwa but our takisi got stuck at Kiguye trading center due to the mud from the onset of rainy season. Interestingly enough, we were a bit concerned about mudslides since in the past few years a few hundred people have died in this region due to mudslides from the torrential downpours. After a break of fresh chappatis, the takisi got out of the mud and continued on a tortuous and harrowing road of muddy banks and deep puddles of brown goop that made us hope that a nearby PCV would cushion our fall if our takisi were to careen off one of the hairpin turns. Fortunately, a few kilometers later we arrived at Buwodeya town and collected ourselves at the Butina Primary School that was started by the Mzee.

Most of the community gathered to see us as we sat down to watch a small greeting from the Bugitimwa Primary Schoolpupils at the school. The pupils performed three song and dance numbers with the words “My name is ____insert name here____, welcome our visitors!” as a mentally challenged older woman danced in front of them. Soon enough we continued our hike through the wide roads of the town, and then upwards. The road was still wide enough for a car to pass through, but steep enough that we needed to put in constant effort to make it up the slope. About 30 minutes up, the path became much narrower and we ventured into the forest.

The path was very muddy from the rains of the previous day, but every now and then a jutting rock would allow us to clamber onto dryer ground. I couldn’t believe that we were exploring an area that Hannah Fallingno non-Ugandans had ever seen before. The hike was splendid, and we kept crossing over small streams and bridges. At one point, one of the PCV’s in the group fell on a stepping stone in a stream and instead of helping her we all decided to take photos as I yelled, “Why are we taking photos?!” Fortunately, Rachel, being the most coordinated person on the hike, slid down the banks of the stream to hold the fallen PCV’s hair.

About two hours later, we were greeted by a village set upon a hill. On either side of the hill were deep valleys bounded by even larger hills. I felt like I was in a hidden valley and all I could think about was how much I wanted to each ranch dressing in that wide open air. Of course the southwest will always remain gorgeous to me, but this area was unseen by western eyes and so different than anything else that I had seen. I wondered how difficult it must have been for the villagers to walk all the way down to the stream from their hill and then bring that water back up the muddy paths. Even though the entire village stopped working in order to silently gather in a crowd and stare at us, there were no catcalls or jeering. No one even called us Muzungu because most of them didn’t even know what they should call us. Even as PCV’s we were in literally uncharted territory.

Kusi VillageThe Mzee and Richard told us that we were in the Masaba sub-county in Kusi Village, which is part of the Zesui Parish. Richared further told me that this place could be located on Google Maps by searching Bukanguye Catholic Church.

They greeted us as honored guests with meals of roasted goat, steamed yams, irish potatoes, another variety of yams, beans, and the local dish called Malewa. Malewa is pasted bamboo shoots. They first steam the bamboo shoots and then cook it with ground g-nut paste. It tasted a bit like bland creamed spinach. After lunch, I hung out at the top of the hill where the village’s sloping farms ended and the adjacent game park began. I just felt so amazing relaxing in the tall grass where the cows grazed and as the sun set. I felt as if I was back in a field or park in Maryland during early fall when the sun was still warm but the wind was cold enough to warrant the wearing of a sweater.

Confession: During the group picture, I was moving everyone’s things out of the shot and accidentally kicked a bottle of water at a child’s face.

We dropped our bags in our tents and bamboo shelters and we continued to hike down one side of the hill in order to make for a jutting rock structure in the distance called Mt. Zesui. Even though we were in Mt. Elgon National Park, we were still allowed to wander around since Richard had made a deal with the local police officers and park officials of the Uganda Wildlife Authority since we were the guests of the locals. After hiking for more than an hour, we felt that we weren’t that much closer to Mt. Zesui and it was getting dark so we headed back across the ravine-like valley.

I can still remember the cool wind upon my skin as the sun set beyond the curtain of hills that Sunset over Elgonmarked the beginnings of Mt. Elgon. I couldn’t believe how perfectly everything had come together and what a wonderful surprise this adventure had become. Master Dan swore Cindy and me as honorary Kampala scouts and gave us scarves with the colors of the Ugandan flag. What made this even cooler was that Master Dan is the brother of my homestay father in Luweero.

The night was spent huddle on the dry side of our tents that was covered by the extra tarp that I had brought since our cheap Nakumatt-bought tents weren’t waterproof. In the morning, we were greeted by over 15 children staring at our tents. We sung a few Peace Corps camp songs for them, wrote the village thank you letters, and paid for the food, guards, and guides.

We made it back down Mt. Elgon without any incident and rode the takisi back to Cindy’s house Mt. Elgon Group Village Shotwhere we chilled and made a gigantic Mexican feast. As I sat there among friends with the cool winds heralding the onset of a fully matured rainy season, all I could think about was how perfect that weekend was. I mean during some weekends in Uganda I feel as if I spent most of it partying with PCV’s and spending a lot of money on an experience or adventure. Or in other cases I spend it too local in the village or at a Ugandan event where I am the local celebrity. During this weekend, I felt as if I had the marriage of both worlds. I felt that even though I was with other PCV’s, I was also willingly immersing myself in Ugandan culture and sharing these experiences with my teachers who were sharing their homes with me.

As I rested my tired body and soul down in the tent on Monday night in Cindy’s courtyard, all I could think was that I wouldn’t have spent Easter weekend any other way.

The Adventure

7/3/15 – 26/3/15

I have finally found some time to sit down and write a blog post about my experiences during the month of March. This month marks a turning point for me, because I truly feel that everything that I am headed towards the end of my Peace Corps service. In a little over 8 months I will be flying away from Uganda and gonging out at the Peace Corps office. This blog post, will be devoted to the adventure of Alex Bansleben and Marvin Roxas who journeyed to the far western and southwestern regions of Uganda in order to destroy the One Ring of Mt. Nyiragongo.

Saturday 7th – Sunday 8th

I arrived in Kampala in order to participate in a meeting of the Geography Club of Uganda. We Geo Club Dinnerstayed at the New City Annex and purchased the ingredients to make a huge three-course dinner at the house of the Director of Programming and Training. The meeting involved discussing the issues regarding LGBTI issues in Peace Corps Uganda both as a support system and how allies could lend their own support to other PCV’s. At some point, I raised a concern regarding what the response should be if another Peace Corps Volunteer stated that he or she did not support LGBTI PCV’s. This sparked a healthy discussion where PCV’s and allies bounced around ideas regarding how one should respond to the person in question. Some people said that everyone was entitled their own opinions, while others stated that they would debate that person. However, it was unanimously agreed upon that the person who did not support Geo PCV’s should not be attacked, especially since he or she is voicing an opinion and should also not feel victimized.

The three-course dinner consisted of:

  • Lettuce Salad and Pumpkin Soup
  • Tomato and Basil Pasta, Black and Tan Pasta, Alfredo Pasta, and Pasta Salad
  • Lemon Squares topped with Mint, Gooseberries, and Kiwi Slices

After dinner, I received a call from my friend Alex who had gotten on an overnight bus from Nairobi to Kampala. That night a lot of us went out to the clubs and we got back to the Annex around 5am.

Monday 9th – Thursday 12th

Four hours later, Alex arrived in Kampala. Fortunately, Alex took the Modern Coast bus which dropped him off right in front of the Annex. I ran out to meet him and he dropped his bags off at the Annex.

We headed to Prunes for brunch and catching up. Honestly, I hadn’t had a lengthy conversation with Alex for over 4 years and I didn’t know what our common interests were. I shared with him the basics about how Peace Corps Uganda worked and about my work here, and he shared with me his work as a consultant at Accenture. This would turn out to be a theme throughout the duration of our adventure in Uganda and Rwanda. Every now and then we would share something with the other that helped explain how our personalities and experiences since high school drastically changed us.

We napped a bit back at the Annex, and then headed down towards the taxi park area so that Alex could buy some kitenge from the vendors and get them made by my favorite tailor. Alex bought some kitenge, which is Congolese fabric, from some Congolese vendors with whom he spoke French. We then brought the fabric to my favorite tailor who agreed to make them into button down dress shirts and regular t-shirts. We continued towards the Gaddafi Mosque, which was closed since it was past 6pm, so we hurried to grab a small dinner at the Acacia Mall area with other PCV’s. It was at this point that Alex was introduced to the bluntness and openness of PCV’s that night. The conversation revolved around vibrators that female PCV’s brought or had surreptitiously sent to them. I explained to Alex that PCV’s chiefly talked about three topics: poop, sex, and other Peace Corps Volunteers.

Alex and Village ChildrenThe next morning I brought Alex with me to the Peace Corps office because I had a PCVL meeting concerning the site development process. The procedure was being personalized for the older education PCV’s in-country in order to make it more personalized and give PCV’s a voice in sharing why they would like a future PCV to continue the work that they had started at their sites. The meeting ends in the late afternoon, after which Alex and I take a private hire down to the taxi park and then take a taxi back to Wobulenzi where we purchase produce from the local market. We make it back to my village where all of the village children immediately run up to him to stroke his leg hair and hold his hands.

As we prepare for dinner, Alex takes out some of the gifts that he brought: a Kindle, incense, acne facial scrub, books for the students, and some money that would go towards a needed project. We chill that night with the incense and some fennel steak dinner.

Journal Entry:

“It’s interesting hearing the different perspectives that Alex has and brings here from the US. Like some offhand comments or responses about how he “gets it”. Or it’s the weirdness of being around someone whom I still have to explain everything to rather than the silent solidarity of knowing the life that we live here, like other PCV’s…”

The next day we get up and prepare for a day of teaching and local exploration. We start off withAlex Teaching teaching a division lesson to Year 1 students. Afterwards, we gather them outside to hold an HIV/AIDS session with them where we explained the biology behind HIV/AIDS, exposed the myths, and demonstrated the fast rate of HIV transmission through unprotected sex. Afterwards, I brought Alex to the nearby hill where I can get internet access, and then to the Kabaka’s Palace. We grabbed a rolex from a chappati guy in Bamunanika and then walked to another hill that overlooked the majority of the sub-county. As the sun set and I chilled up there with Alex, I found it hard to believe that I was embarking on this journey with an old friend whom I haven’t hung out with for almost half a decade.

On Thursday we sleep-in, pack up, and head back to Kampala and stay at the Fat Cat Backpackers. We check out Acacia mall and I show Alex the Definition store and Nakumatt. We meet up with PCV Wayne Wong who shares how some other PCV’s whom he met at a Malaria Conference in Senegal remember me from the weekend spent in Kigali, Rwanda last August during the Guma Guma event. Funnily enough, later that night we meet an NGO guy who went to University of Maryland College Park and now works in Gulu. I still find it crazy how regardless of where we go in the world, we will somehow meet someone with whom we have had shared experiences.

Friday 13th – Saturday 14th

We spent the day walking to the Gaddafi Mosque, which was very grand to say the least. I found it Gaddafi Mosquehard to believe that there was this gigantic, public mosque whose carpets came from Morocco, mahogany handrails from the Congo, and funding from the benevolent to many African countries but his own, Gaddafi. Apparently, so many African countries other than Libya are huge fans of Gaddafi because of the money that he so generously shared with them in order to build things such as this mosque, which is also the 2nd biggest mosque in Africa. After climbing the tower with a  spiral staircase and walking barefoot on the plush Moroccan carpets, we met up with PCV Ravi Sahai and walked towards the Kasubi Tombs of the Kabaka.

This UNESCO World Heritage site is the location of the past four Kabaka’s tombs as well as his tradition grass-thatched round house. Unfortunately, the main house was destroyed in a fire five years ago, and the perpetrator has still not been apprehended. The tour guide shared with us the history of the past four Kabaka’s. We heard stories about the many wives of the Kabaka, how one of them was assassinated by Idi Amin’s agents, the dissolution of the tribes of Uganda, and the eventual reinstatement of the tribes under the current Kabaka with the collaboration of Museveni.

Kisubi TombsWe passed by the other ceremonial straw houses that housed actual families. Each house had a modern-day fire extinguisher attached near the front entrance. However, one of the most intriguing parts of the tour was a mud hut that was over 100 years old. I mean the tin roof was repurposed from scraps that the British colonizers discarded, and the mud was packed and repacked through the years. After arguing with the receptionist in both Luganda and Runyoro we were able to receive the price of an East African Resident, while Alex had to pay the full fee.

We took several taxi rides back to Acacia Mall and bought some whiskey to pregame for the night. That night, we pre-gamed at Fat Cat and then danced at both Iguana and Cayenne until around 6am. I had planned to go out to the clubs in Kampala this Friday since it was the COS (Close of Service) conference of the PCV’s in the CHED (Community Health, Economic Development) cohort that would be leaving Uganda within the next three months. By the time I got back to the hostel, a random Pakistani man was sleeping in my bed so I just crashed on the bed/couch in the common room. There were a few funny stories from that night, but the most memorable was when we were entering Cayenne and the bouncers stopped one of the guys in our group from entering since the dress code stipulated that all men wear long trousers and he was wearing shorts.

Conversation:

Us: “Okay how much do you want us to bribe you to let him in?”

Bouncers: “We don’t accept bribes.”

Us: “Okay, can we talk to your manager please?”

Bouncers: “The manager will not want to talk with you or accept your bribe. This is why Uganda is not a great country; because of corruption and bribery.”

Us: *sarcasm* “Oh yes, we definitely agree that by not letting in a man with short trousers is making Uganda a worse country”

Us: *one of the girls and the guy in shorts switches pants so that the guy is wearing the girl’s capris and the girl is wearing his cargo shorts* “We’re ready!”

Bouncers: “Okay, you can enter now.”

A few hours later in the morning, I wake up in the common room couch and am probably still drunk. I eat the breakfast provided by Fat Cat and pack up my things in preparation for the journey to Fort Portal. Wayne Wong decides to tag along for a few days. We go to the Barclays in order to withdraw some money that we then converted into $US in preparation for our eventual sojourn into Rwanda. We take a taxi from the taxi park to Fort Portal. I kept pointing out to the equally as hungover Alex the places where Ravi, Godfrey, and I biked during our bike journey.

Jenna's Pit LatrineWe met up with PCV Jenna Marcotte at Sweet Aromas bakery, which had changed spots from the last time I was at Fort Portal during Camp Kuseka. Now it was located near the Kasese Road. It was here that we bought the One Ring at the local Indian Store. The goal was that Alex would eventually destroy it in the fiery pits of Mt. Nyiragongo in the DRC during his trek later that week. In the meantime, we shared a dinner together of the best pizza in country at the Duchess restaurant.

I can still remember feeling the cool, slightly damp air of the night breezing through the open windows of the private hire as we headed towards Jenna’s site at Kazingo. In the middle of the journey, Jenna pointed out the fire on one of the nearby foothills of the Rwenzori’s that signified the beginning of farmers clearing the brush for farming since rainy season was soon approaching. Jenna’s house was one of the most comfortable houses that I have ever stayed in as a PCV. Even though there wasn’t any running water or electricity, I felt like I was at home. The best part was that the house got very cold at night.

Sunday 15th – Tuesday 17th

We left the Rwenzori foothills of Kazingo and went back to Fort Portal. Wayne Wong and Alex wentNyakasharu Setting Up the Tent to reserve a taxi headed towards Mbarara while I rushed to the market to purchase some produce for our stay at Dave the Cave Nyakasharu Eco Lodge. The lodge was located about 3 hours south of Fort Portal a little bit after passing Kasese and Kyambura. We arrived at the eco lodge and were welcomed by handful of other PCV’s who agreed to come here to preemptively celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and hang out with me and Alex. We were located near a crater lakes, and the place was called Dave the Cave because the Ugandan owner is named Dave and the eco lodge overlooked a crater lake and a small cave.

Alex, Wayne Wong, and I set up our tent and hung out with the other PCV’s. What struck me the most from this place was how organic everything felt. I mean I’ve been to other eco lodges and other ecotourism sites in Uganda, but the energy and passion that Dave had was infectious. As I was cooking tomato sauce in his kitchen, he urged me to pick some fresh basil, oregano, parsley, and rosemary from the nearby demonstration garden. Later in the day, as the golden sun set behind traditional dancers and drummers, PCV Hannah Long and I walked down the dirt road that skirted the eco lodge and led to Dave’s garden.

I couldn’t believe how vast and expansive his garden was. We walked through the garden and Rosemary in Gardenpicked fresh: rosemary, coriander, parsley, oregano, arugula, iceberg lettuce, romaine lettuce, spinach, thyme, sage, turnips, beets, radishes, carrots, tomatoes, husk tomatoes, leeks, celery, gooseberries, broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant, cucumbers, okra, and various other vegetables and leafy greens that I hadn’t seen in over 16 months. Dave stated that he wanted to inspire other Ugandans to utilize the rich soil and grow a variety of plants and produce to both consume and sell at the markets.

When we returned to the eco lodge, we chilled by the nearby bonfire and ate fried local fish from the crater lakes. That night, the temperature dropped to the low 50’s, and I was freezing in the tent even though I was bundled up in several layers worth of clothing. In the morning, we hitched a ride with a truck driving Ugandan who was headed past Kalinzu Forest where Alex, Wayne Wong, and I paid 50,000/= to go chimp trekking. We had woken up before the sunrise, and by the time we got to the forest, the air still felt damp and cool from the night’s chill.

Chimp TrekkingI took in a deep breath, because the air smelled so earthy and fresh. One of the chimp trekking guides led us deeper into the thick forest. About 45 minutes into the journey, we came across an adult chimpanzee at the end of the road. As we approached him, he scampered away and we continued to trek him. About 30 minutes later, the guides stopped in a small clearing and pointed out several chimpanzees swinging from the branches of the nearby trees. We saw a mother and her chimp swinging from branch to branch. We even heard the distinctive roar/cry of the chimpanzees as they swung from the boughs of the overhanging tree branches.

At some point, the guide suggested that we head back to the base. On the way back, we departed the forest clearing and entered into the rolling green fields of a Majani Tea Plantation. It’s sites and days like this that still astound me; seeing the countless tea plants that stretch far into the distance as Ugandan field workers snip the fresh tea leaves into their baskets. We then took a Tea Plantationvery crowded private hire sedan to Mbarara and then onto our next stop at the Bishop Stuart PTC where PCV Stephen Elliott hosted us. The stipulation was that we could stay if we tossed the Frisbee at the nearby field, climbed his water tower, and drank beers with him. Naturally, we agreed that this was well worth the price of lodging for the night. If the night at the eco lodge felt like winter and the morning in the forest felt like spring, then the afternoon at Bishop Stuart PTC felt like the end of a solid summer’s day. The sun was shedding its golden rays down the suburban-like streets of the tutors’ housing. And a warm breeze wafted by us as we sat on Stephen’s cement porch.

We bid farewell to Wayne Wong on the morning of the 17th. Alex and I took a taxi on the Mbarara-Kabale road headed towards Kabale and he took a taxi headed back towards Kampala. It was at this point that Alex started to notice the different landscapes of the southwest. He continuously Kabale Elephant Manstated that this was such a beautiful ride, and I told him that it would only get better. I helped Alex print his visa papers for his eventual hike in the DRC, and then we bought straw elephants from the elephant man in front of the Indian grocery store. Let me explain this a little bit more, within the space of less than 100 feet on the main road of Kabale there is an Indian store and usually this old man in a wheelchair with a hand crank that he uses to roll his wheels. Whenever he sees non-Ugandans pass into the Indian shop he would yell “ELEPHANTS!” and plunge his hand into a black cavera and display handmade, straw elephant figurines to sell. I had heard stories about this man, and Alex and I bought two elephants from him.

Conversation with Elephant Man:

Elephant Man: *sees us* “ELEPHANTS!”

Me: “How much?”

Elephant Man: “10,000!!!!”

Me: “No, 5,000!”

Elephant Man: “Yes!” *He then displays the straw elephants from his black cavera where he stores them*

Indian Man: *Talking to Ugandan store workers in very Indian accent* “You bring for me fifteen eggs!”

We took a pit stop at PCV Carl Mulhausen’s house at the Kabale NTC where we also met up with PCV Paul Benz. Carl shared his own experiences climbing Mt. Nyiragongo in the DRC several decades ago when he was a PCV during the reign of Idi Amin. He recalled that his experience climbing that volcano and hearing the perpetual roar of the lava inside the crater would be one of the most amazing and memorable experiences of his life. I got excited for Alex, and was definitely jealous that I wouldn’t be able to join him on his journey to destroy the One Ring.

By this point it was the late afternoon, so Alex and I quickly found a taxi headed towards Kisoro that took about 2 hours to fill. However, it was worth it because we saw the sun bursting forth from the clouds that surrounded the Virunga volcanoes of Kisoro. Even though I had seen this view before, it still felt very epic to witness the winding road with hairpin turns and steep drops that led to sloped farmlands, elevated lakes, and towering hills and mountains. If I thought that this was gorgeous, I couldn’t imagine what Alex must have felt witnessing these views for the first time in his life. By the time the sun had hit the horizon, our taxi arrived in Kisoro and we met up with PCV Bruce Haase at the Coffee Pot. We had burgers and turned in for an early night.

Kisoro SunsetIf there was one thing that I was beginning to learn from Alex’s visit, it was that he reminded how amazing my life was here in Uganda. At one point he told me that my life here was not normal. I guess that after 16 months I forget that what I do on a weekly basis here is not normal, at least by American standards. Hearing about the sites that I was used to seeing on a semi-regular basis reminded me of how much I loved my life here. It took having a part of home come to visit me in order to remind me of how life-changing my Peace Corps experience is. It’s very easy to get used to the ups and downs of day-to-day life here and to forget that living in such a unique environment with the opportunity to see both great and terrible things is not the norm. As Ugandans would about us, we are used.

Saturday 18th – Monday 20th

Alex and I woke up early in order to see the sunrise at the hill with the gorgeous view of Mt. Alex and Lake MutandaSebinnyo and Lake Mutanda. We filmed a few scenes of us with the One Ring. Once again, I felt weird about Alex visiting these sacred places of my Peace Corps service. Whenever the various stages of my worlds collide, I can’t help but notice just how different all of me and my friends have become. We took our photos and met Bruce at Traveller’s for their 10,000/= breakfast, which includes bacon and cheese. We quickly packed up back at Bruce’s house, and made our way to the border at Cyanika.

Alex had to pay a $30 visa fee ever since they mandated that persons with American passports must pay a fee to acquire a visa at the border with Rwanda. Fortunately, Bruce and I sweet-talked Virunga Mist Beerthe right people at the border office and explained to them that we were East African residents, so they gave us the Interstate Pass which allowed us to travel to and from Rwanda for free. From Kyanika, the taxi driver drove us on the other side of the road to the transit town of Musanze. We chilled here at the French/Italian bakery and restaurant called La Paillotte with their amazing Boulette (meat balls), baguettes, and Virunga Mist beer. Honestly, that beer was one of the best that I’ve had during my Peace Corps service. It’s a darker beer, but not as dark or as filling as a stout and still refreshing enough with the taste of oats and barley.

Lake Kivu PierWe took the afternoon taxi to Gisenyi where we stayed at the Discover Gisenyi Hostel near the shores of Lake Kivu. While the town seemed very local and small, the lakeside felt very serene. I could have thought that I was on vacation in a small, European beachside town or Riviera. From the manicured lawns of our European beach chalet, we could see Rwandans doing flips off of a stone pier into the clear waters of Lake Kivu and then walking back onto the sandy shore. That night, we have dinner at a local restaurant, with food that resembles Ugandan food but tastes a bit more flavorful. Also thanks to the Belgian colonizers, the Rwandans know how to bake bread in many of the towns as opposed to Ugandans who mainly adopted tea time from the Brits.

Journal Entry:

“It’s interesting at this point in the journey, because I feel like we’re past the awkward stage of meeting and hanging out since high school, but I feel that we have vastly different personalities and interests and ways of approaching situations. I think it also has to do with the trouble of understanding how life is here in the Peace Corps.

But now on our coaster ride to Gisenyi from Musanze, I feel giddy. I’m excited with the prospect of new adventure and experiences.”

As the sun set, we could see the far off Mt. Nyiragongo in the DRC shrouded in clouds like Mt. Doom itself.

Thursday 19th – Friday 20th

During these two days I chilled at the lakeside chalet hostel and chilled by the lake. I even took a dip into the clear waters because the staff assured me that there was no schistosomiasis in the water. In the meantime, Alex took a boda from the chalet 1.6km northwards to the DRC border. As I chilled safe in Rwanda, he prepared for his sojourn to the mountain of doom in the DRC, and here is his story:

Alex’s Story:

“My heart was pounding as I approached the border called La Grande Barriere.. I mean all the stories on any international news site would tell you about the problems regarding rebels and disorganized governance in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Both Anthony Bourdain’s No Entering GomaReservations and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness painted a very bleak portrait of this center of Africa. I’m sure that not many people would ever do what I am doing right now. When got to the border, I had my bag searched and a nurse checked my WHO card to ensure that I had received all of the required vaccinations. I then had to hand over my passport to the border officials along with a visa confirmation explaining that I had registered for a visa a month earlier online through the Virunga Trekking website. In total I had paid $250 for the park permit and trekking, $105 for the visa into the DRC, and about $23 for transport to the Kibati Patrol Post from the border crossing.

As I waited for the officials to process my visa, I met some other travelers who would join me on my hike up Nyiragongo. Even though I had spent my summers in French Switzerland, I was glad that my other companions also spoke French. After the officials stamped a visa into my passport, I boarded the Virunga Treks jeep and they took me and my new companions through Goma town towards Kibati Patrol Post. It was such a new experience to see this forbidden part of the world. As an American with two passports, US and Italian, I always believed that travelling anywhere in the world was an easy task. However, it always gave me a rush to know that I was treading on land that few people would ever have the opportunity or will to traverse.

Blackened GomaThe developed part of Goma town looked nice compared to most other towns in Uganda. However, once we passed into the neighborhoods, the color scheme of the entire environment changed. Instead of the brown of dust and dirt, the villages surrounding Goma were all black. Fences of black and dark red volcanic rocks were built by enterprising villagers, and the houses and huts looked like log cabins that wouldn’t have looked out of place in northern United States. Some of the houses had the traditional tin roofs while others had brick shingles. Even the cloudy sky cast a shadow on an already gloomy-looking town. But what struck me the most from this journey was the reaction of the people.

In Uganda, people were always friendly and willing to wave at you if you waved at them. In Rwanda, it required a bit more effort to get them to wave back at you. However here, some of the villagers would just stare at us, throw stones at us, give us the finger, or ask for money. Only a select few of them greeted us when we said hello in French or Swahili. Every few minutes our jeep would pass by a United Nations vehicle with blue helmets riding with their rifles. Apparently, the nearest rebel group was only 11km away from Goma. We also kept passing by what looked like an elongated, wooden bicycle that the villagers used to transport jerrycans of water, livestock, and sacks of food.

We approached the Kibati Patrol Post and consolidated our supplies for the trek. Some of my Congolese Guardscompanions hired porters for $12, but I decided to carry my own backpack up and down the mountain. Our Congolese guides and armed guards explained to us that we would be reaching an elevation of about 3400m and that the trek would take about 4-6 hours including rest stops at designated intervals. There were also 12 hidden, armed guards stationed at various points along the path who would protect and alert us if any rebels got too close.

The trek up was definitely miserable at points, but the harder it got the more worth I placed into this experience. We first started on a path that led straight into the heart of the Virunga Park forest. It steadily climbed upwards at a slight, muddy gradient until it gave way to broken up Rain on Volcanic Rocksvolcanic rocks that sloped at a steeper gradient. About two hours in, we left the forest behind and were clambering up steep volcanic rocks the size of baseballs and stretches of slick volcanic outcroppings as the rain started to pour. I felt miserable going up, because I knew that both my body and my backpack with my sleeping bag was getting wet.

About 4 hours into the journey, our guides stopped us and told us to look at a small fissure in the ground overgrown with trees and plants. He explained that in 2002 the lava from the volcano welled up here and then overflowed down this face of the volcano where it pooled in a small crater and then reached Goma town and eventually Lake Kivu. That explained all the black volcanic rocks and black dirt in Goma Village. As I turned around to look at Goma, I couldn’t believe how high up I was. I could see a green, football pitch-sized crater below me and Goma Village in the far off distance as if it was a small lego town.

At this point, we were approaching the clouds. We passed through another stretch of steep forest View above the Cloudspaths, and then made our way to the last stretch of clearing, which consisted of small volcanic crags that acted as stepping stones. The path ceased at this point, and each one of us chose his or her own path up the last 100m of the climb. During this stretch of 30 minutes, the clouds parted from the blustery winds and the clear skies greeted our final ascent. Behind us lay what looked like the Savannah and the lonely towns of Goma and Gisenyi hugging the eastern side of Lake Kivu.

The guides told us that we were to choose a small cabin built near the crater of the volcano where Sulfur Cloud Sunsetwe could place our things and sleep when night came. The cabins were literally just planks of wood nailed together to keep rain and wind out, and inside each cabin was a heavy-duty tent designed as an extra layer of protection against the harsher elements of wind and mist. Outside, everything was bathed in a golden glow as the sun set behind clouds of both water and sulfur. Everywhere I turned was a gorgeous and breath-taking view. It feels hard explaining how amazing it felt to be up there at what felt like the end of the world. As I approached the crater, I could see a reddish glow beyond the emanating sulfur clouds. I will never forget that perpetual rumbling of the lava in the crater that reminded me of an ocean wave that was forever crashing down on the surf.

When the clouds cleared, we could look down into the crater where we saw these sheer cliff dropsMt. Nyiragongo Lava Lake that led to a lower level of the crater, which led to another lower level of the crater, which finally led to the lake of lava itself. Even though we were far away from the lava, we could still feel a remnant of radiating heat from the lava. As night came, the lava lake became much easier to see. All I could do for hours was gaze at the lava and listen to the never-ending rumble and roar of lava explosions. The pool of lava was forever changing with the solidified rocks on the surface of the lake forming and re-forming into different shapes. At some points the surface looked like a fractured mirror, spider-web, penises, or even the Eye of Sauron himself. At some point in the night, I took out a bottle of white wine which was chilling in the winter-like air. I shared the bottle with my new companions, and as the clouds whipped around us we listened to Ed Sheeran’s I See Fire, Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire, and Howard Shore’s Breaking of the Fellowship.

Sulfur SunriseYou know, I felt alright with my life up there. I really believe that I was on a true adventure of a lifetime that I would never forget. That time spent on the volcano felt almost spiritual. Something had changed within me and I knew that when I descended from this mountain that I would never be the same again. The night got darker and deeper, and I retired to my cabin where my sleeping bag kept me warm throughout the night. Funnily enough, all I could think about was how delicious the burrito Marvin told me about at Meze Fresh in Kigali would taste.

I set my alarm for 5am since the guards told me that the sunrise would be at 5:40am. As I rose, I heard my other companions join me to witness the sunrise. Even though I felt miserable, slightly hungover, and cold I was happy to witness a new sunrise on Mt. Nyiragongo. Behind me, I could see Goma illuminated by the fires of a thousand villagers and the intermittent lightning of a far-off storm cloud. And in that moment, I made my decision to destroy evil for good and I threw the One Ring into the fire chasm from whence it came (even though I technically bought the ring in the Indian Store in Fort Portal with Marvin and Jenna’s help). The sun rose and as the clouds whipped around our feet they covered the lake of lava and I bid farewell to such a beautiful view.

The trek down was uneventful in that it rain the entire way down and we were all soaking wet, muddy, and ready for our next meal and warm shower. We made it to the Patrol Post within 3 hours since we didn’t stop for a rest, and the jeeps took us back through Goma. On the way back, I bought a Simba beer from a local shop, because I wanted to know what it would taste like. I re-entered Rwanda without much trouble, and met up with Marvin and Bruce back at the hostel.”

When Alex told me his story, I was beyond jealous and knew that before I left for the United States that I would do this trek. In the meantime, it felt nice to relax by the lake and chill with Bruce. We ate a local lunch at the bus park, and then took a bus to Kigali. One of Alex’s companions joined us on the coaster back to Kigali. Her name is Josie and she shared her story with us: She wanted to visit Rwanda ever since she was 14 and had volunteered with the Sisters of the Good Shepherd of Quebec where she had worked in Haiti, Madagascar, and then in Rwanda as a peanut butter factory worker rabbit farmer, and then as a teacher. She shared her knowledge of Ikinyarwanda with us and explained why most of the towns had two names. For example, Gisenyi was also called Rubavu because after the genocide the government wanted to rename all of the towns so that they could put the past behind them. As a result, many of the towns in Rwanda other than Kigali have two names.

We picked up a wheel of local Emmentaler-like cheese at Muhoko trading center, and continued on our coaster ride to the semi-developed city of Kigali. We had booked dorm beds at the Mamba Clubhouse in Kimihurura neighborhood near Papyrus Club. We ate a well-deserved burrito with nachos at Meze Fresh, chilled with some Rwandan PCV’s, and passed out in warm dorm beds after an even warmer shower.

Saturday 21st – Wednesday 26th

Honestly, after Alex’s adventure on Mt. Nyiragongo I felt that nothing could top that experience forRz Manna Bakery the duration of our trip. As Alex went to visit the Genocide Memorial Museum, Bruce and I hung out at different cafes in Kigali. We started at Rz Manna where we could eat authentic baked goods ranging from cinnamon buns to croissants and jelly doughnuts and waffles. Bruce and I then continued to the MTN House where we swapped stories over a French press of Lake Kivu coffee at Bourbon Café on the third floor. I felt so relaxed hanging out here with a good friend over some good coffee after an already-packed adventure.

We met up with Alex at Hotel des Milles Collines, and got dinner at a French restaurant called L’Epicurean near our hostel. The fact that I had the pleasure of eating Chicken Cordon Bleu is something that I will not forget for as long as I live in the village.

Early in the morning, Alex, Bruce, and I arose and got our shit together to reach Uganda by the early morning. We arrived back in Kisoro by 10am where we bid farewell to Bruce. Arriving this early gave Alex and I more than enough time to reach Kabale by noon and then arrive at the Byoona Amagara docks. Instead of paying for a motorboat, we decided to just paddle a canoe to the island for free. Chilling at Lake Bunyonyi was perfect, because it was just so quiet and relaxing after almost two weeks of constant traveling. I pretty much just napped on the docks, napped in the café area, and in my cozy bed.

We spent Monday night in Kabale town at PCV Amanda Throckmorton’s house. Alex and I broughtLeaving Bunyonyi over a kilo of live crayfish along with the remnant of Muhoko, Rwanda cheese in order to make a black and tan crayfish mac ‘n cheese. That was a good night to talk about experiences, because Amanda asked Alex about his adventure up Mt. Nyiragongo, which started a conversation about the adventures that we have in our 20’s that define a large part of who we become. She shared her own experiences and adventures in India and Myanmar that helped define a part of who she is today. Of course, it didn’t hurt that we were discussing this over a full box of wine each.

Tuesday was literally one of the worst travel days in-country. It took 12 hours to get from Kabale to Masaka after waiting for over 4 hours in total and then squeezing in 24 passengers in a 16 person taxi and then forcing everyone to get off into another one in the middle of the road leading to Masaka. By the time we reached  Wandegeya PTC where PCV Eric Chu hosted us, it was already 9pm and we were exhausted from sitting in a crowded taxi all-day. This was the last homely house of the adventure before I had to say goodbye to Alex. Out of all the PCV houses in Uganda, Eric’s house felt the most comfortable with the cool air, fully-stocked kitchen, and clean sheets on a guest mattress.

Wednesday was our last day together. We celebrated it by picking up Alex’s shirts from the tailor and purchasing more rolls of kitenge for him to bring home. We then stopped by the 1000 Cups café where Alex bought coffee to take home with him, and then we registered for his last night in Uganda at Fat Cat Backpackers. We had hoped that it would be the Wine and Cheese night at the Bistro, but instead we just got three gin and tonics during happy hour and then bought a 1.5L bottle of wine, hummus platter, and various cheeses, meats, and bread from the Nakumatt deli to have our own wine and cheese night on the rooftop of Fat Cat.

Under the influence of our last night together, Alex and I swapped pictures and reminisced about our journey that took us through different climates, time zones, and seasons. At some point, the Peace Corps Safety and Security Officer called and informed us that a terrorist attack might occur at a muzungu-heavy area in Kampala according to the US Embassy. As a fitting end to any adventure, it was raining at 6am Thursday morning when the private hire picked Alex at Fat Cat and drove him to the airport. And this adventure came to a close.

Journal Entry:

“How can I go back to “regular” life after these experiences? It’s just so many thoughts and memories that have shaped who I’ve become today. I don’t know whether to cry or not concerning all of the feelings and adventures that I’ve gone through in these pat two weeks and how they remind me of the stages of my life that brought me this far. Even though I wasn’t there, I feel that the roar of Nyiragongo will resonate within me for the rest of my life.”

Ride to the Fort

17/12/14 – 22/12/14

Back at Shimoni I was discussing with one of my best PCV friends, Ravi, that I still needed to raise about $7500 more in order to cover the cost of building and furnishing the ICT/Computer Lab at Luteete PTC. One of the things we discussed was how difficult it would be to raise the rest of the money through social media alone without offering some sort of incentive. I thought about what I should do in order to motivate people to donate money to this cause. As a result, I came up with the idea to bike ride and have people back home pledge money for kilometer or mile biked. After training, I stopped by the Peace Corps Office and talked to the Country Director and the Director of Programming and Staff in order to ask for their advice.

I was told to put together an itinerary detailing the route that I would take over the course of specific dates. They also suggested that I would receive their support and blessing if I found two others to bicycle with me in case of emergency and chose a route that wasn’t too dangerous to bike that close to the holidays. In Uganda, public transportation goes gumbles* during the holidays.

*Note: Gumbles is a fake, adjectival word that means crazy or nuts.

I quickly asked me Ravi and my Ugandan neighbor, Kato Godfrey, to accompany on my 300km (200mile) bike ride from Luteete Village to Fort Portal. I still had to type up the itinerary and proposal to the Country Director, borrow an extra bicycle for Godfrey, plan out the route, figure out where we would be staying, and when exactly we would be undertaking the venture.

I returned to Shimoni for some language and cultural sessions. During this time I was able to get both Ravi and Godfrey to agree to this venture, mapped out a route from my village to Mityana and then to Fort Portal on the Fort Portal Road, received the go-ahead from the Country Director, secured an extra bicycle for Godfrey, and asked some PCV’s along the route if we could stay with them. There were so many things that could have halted the start of this fundraiser, but everything somehow came together.

The original plan was to leave December 16 and make it to Fort Portal by December 20; however, the plans changed at the last minute in order to allow Ravi and I to have an extra day of preparation. Therefore, we changed the departure date to December 17.

Ravi arrived at my house on the 16th with his bicycle. The funny thing is that he lives in Butiiti which is one the Fort Portal Road about 40km east of Fort Portal. So the majority of the ride would bring him closer to his own home, whereas I would be biking away from my home.

We did a final packing checklist of: clothes, toiletries, water bottles, bike tools, patch kit, extra tubes, electronics, granola, maps, and money. Our dinner that night consisted of rice and tikka masala cooked with ghee to give us that extra fat.

December 17, 2014 (Luteete to Mityana, 60km)

Ravi, Godfrey, and I left Luteete at 7:25am. The weather was misty and cool. Instead of taking the Wobulenzi dirt road to the main Kampala-Gulu Road, we went by the southwesterly route towards Kalule. At one point, another Ugandan on a bicycle yelled, “This is not America” to us, which made me laugh because that was a new phrase that I haven’t heard here. We pause for some water at Kalule, and figure out that it takes us an average of 1 hour to bike 15km on the dirt roads. After crossing the Kampala-Gulu Road, we make our way through the Nakaseke and Wakiso sub-county dirt paths to Busunjju. It started to get really hot and dry since it was the middle of dry season. We had a few problems with Godfrey’s bike, because the PCV whom I had borrowed it from had a relatively small frame and Godfrey was much larger than her.

Dirt Roads

Dirt Roads

At some point past Mwera trading center, a random man ran towards my bicycle and pushed me. I almost fell off of the bicycle, but steadied myself at the last moment. I was furious and told the man to come back to me. He warily kept walking away until he disappeared into the bush and matooke trees surrounding the dusty trading center. I yelled at him to return and apologize to me, but all that I did was attract the attention of the trading center residents.

Conversation (Translated):

Me: “I’m not leaving until he comes back.”

Residents: “But he has already gone away.”

Me: “Where has he gone?”

Residents: “There!” *Points to the bush and matooke trees

Me: “I am very upset that he pushed me.”

Residents: “Ah, but he is sorry. Forgive him.”

Me: “I want him to come here and say sorry himself.”

Residents: “But he has already gone.”

Ravi: “Marv, let’s go.”

Me: “Okay, you let him know that I am going to call President Obama and tell him to send the police here to find him and arrest him.”

Residents: “Oh, he is sorry. Forgive him.”

Me: “No, I would have forgiven him if he himself came here.”

To be honest, it was pretty funny remembering this conversation. My goal was that by shaming him, he would think twice about pushing someone on his or her bicycle trip. I have started to realize that a year in-country I have started to lose patience with people much faster than when I first arrived. I want people to be accountable for their own actions and take responsibility for what they do. I think that I’m starting to understand what Loucine told me a year ago in Kulika: “To hold people to high standards not high expectations.”

At some point the dirt road turns into a paved road, and we purchase some bottled water in this trading center called Semuto. Once again, we continue on dirt roads until we hit Busunju, which lies on the paved Hoima Road. We get lunch at the Trust in God restaurant, which was okay by village standards. The rice, greens, beef, and g-nut sauce were solid and they allowed Ravi and I to take naps on the benches in the eating area. We also ordered plastic bags of passionfruit juice, which would also be a staple of our journey.

Arrival in Busunju

Arrival in Busunju

After a groggy awakening, we continued the last 28km leg of our first day’s journey to Mityana. We ran into some trouble during this part, because my back bicycle wheel lost air pressure. I assumed that the valve was leaking, so I pumped some air into it. When it started leaking again I changed the entire tube, and assumed that the problem was fixed. When that tire started losing pressure, I started to get worried. What if we didn’t make it to Mityana before sundown?

Ravi and Godfrey suggested that we once again take the new tube out and check to see if there were any punctures. Sure enough, we found a small thorn in between the wheel and the tube. Fortunately, Ravi brought a patch kit with him and we patched up the small hole. During the course of this incident we lost an hour of sunlight, which gave us less leeway in terms of making it to Mityana before it got too dark.

The patch held, and we biked up and down the dusty trails. At this point, the dust had penetrated every single pore on our bodies. The sweat didn’t help either, as it caused the billowing dust left in the wake of passing cars and bodas to cling to our skin. Whenever I wiped my brow with my forearm I could see this brown ooze coalesce that consisted of sweat and dirt. I am pretty sure that I breathed over a full cup of dust during the course of this day.

Continuing on with the eventfulness of the day, my front wheel rubbed against the Ravi’s back wheel and I crashed Falling into Dustinto the dustiest ditch known to man. I am also pretty sure that there were some nettles there, because I felt all scratched up from the mini crash. About 10-20km away from Mityana, depending on which bodaman we asked, we passed through this odd trading center called Kyaterakera.

As we entered into the center there was this bible-thumping Ugandan who was yelling at anyone who passed by him. At one point I think that he was talking about Chinese people and how they usually owned chickens. Another crazy man approached me after I had bought some bottled water for Godfrey, and told me, “Oh thank you for the water.” I explained to him that the water wasn’t for him, and he continued to follow me around and call me JaJa (grandmother in Luganda). Then a younger man with a cool accent comes up to me and starts conversing with me about where we are from. He introduces himself as a Nigerian named Christopher who works as both a hustler and a chapatti stand ownder. As he’s talking to me, the bible-thumper gets nearer to us and the JaJa man gets closer on the other side. At one point the JaJa man looks at me and then his shutter shades that were resting on his forehead slide down in front of his eyes which surprise him as he stumbles back.

So here I am laughing at the situation as JaJa man is clearly drunk, high, or just affected by decades of dust inhalation, the bible-thumper is attempting to convert us to his own Chinese/chicken version of Christianity, and our Nigerian friend is telling us about his hustling business and his successful chapatti stand. Behind me, I see a group of weird children approaching us so I just decided to take off and continue the last leg of our journey to Mityana.

Tea PlantationThis last stretch of dirt road hills was gorgeous. Our roads bounded fields of tea plantations that stretched off into the distance. We kept asking bodamen, Nnyabos, and stall vendors how far Mityana was and we were given estimates ranging from 10km to 2km. At one point a woman told us that we were 6km away and after half an hour of hard biking we were told that we were only 8km away.

As it got dark, we finally made it to the tarmac roads of Mityana. We saw giant lights illuminating the night sky, and saw these tiny insects flying around. I had forgotten that we were in grasshopper season. Giant floodlights were pointed towards the sky, and grasshoppers (enseneni) were attracted to them. Slanted tin sheets were placed by the light source, and then the grasshoppers flew into the sheets they would slide down into a catchment basin where workers would peel off their legs and fry them for consumption and sale.

Grasshopper "Enseneni" Collecting

Grasshopper “Enseneni” Collecting

We made our way to PCV Robin’s site on the top of Kololo hill near Busuubizi PTC. Man, we were exhausted after our first day of biking. We showered off the thick film of dust, and partook in a delicious dinner prepared by Robin. Even though our bodies were aching, it felt good to have succeeded in our first day of biking.

December 18, 2014 (Mityana to Mubende, 80km)

We shared breakfast in the morning with both Robin and the soon-to-be PCV, Joshua, who would be taking over her site after she COS’d. Robin suggested that we visit the Nakayima Tree in Mubende when we got there. All of us seemed taken to that idea, and we agreed that we would discuss it with our PCV host in Mubende when we got there.

We departed from Robin’s hill, and after 15 minutes of biking we met the tarmac of the Fort Portal Highway. Godfrey’s On and On You Will Bikebackpack started ripping, so we stopped at a trading center to get it re-sewn. While it felt nice to be biking on a real road, the challenge now was that the stretches of hills seemed endless. It literally felt like hills on hills on hills. At some points, the grade of the hill was too steep and we would rest by walking our bikes up the hills.

We had lunch at the hottest, smallest restaurant in the world called Shifa Hotel in Kalamba Town. Imagine the volume of two phonebooths placed side-by-side, and you would still have more space than this restaurant. It didn’t help that there wasn’t any cloud cover and that the food was cooked by the doorway so that any breeze that blew through consisted of hot oven air. We ate our fill of meat and beans and I was able to ferret out some bagged passionfruit juice. I had asked one of the Ugandan duka owners if she sold any passionfruit juice. She responded that there wasn’t any left, so I walked up to her fridge and told her that I wanted three of them. I guess that she forgot to take inventory of her stock.

I was talking with Ravi that our bicycles represent our personalities. Mine was short and squat, Ravi’s was sleek with a big butt, and Godfrey’s was black and slightly disgruntled (mainly based on the PCV who lent it to us). The rest of the 40km to Mubende NTC was characterized by choice napping patches of grass, hills on hills, and me telling off Ugandan men who called me muchina (Chinese Man). Right before the sun set, we arrived at the Mubende NTC sign which heralded our destination for the day.

Roads and HillsPCV Brent welcomed us to the NTC campus and his home. I was extremely sore after two straight days of hard biking. Brent was a very gracious host and had bottled water, sodas, and beer ready for us. The dinner that night was a feast consisting of teriyaki beef, a fresh salad tossed with Ranch Dressing, stir-fried broccoli, and rice. It was very interesting staying with Brent, because we were his first guests. Most of the PCV’s in our cohort hadn’t heard anything from him in months, and it was very refreshing to hear him tell us how much he loved his site. He shared his exploits concerning his initial foray into mushroom farming and how the local community could use it as an IGA (Income Generating Activity).

December 19, 2014 (Nakayima Tree, 0km)

We woke up to a breakfast of toast, potatoes, and fried eggs. We washed our clothes and set them out to dry. We pitched our idea to Brent that we should take the day off and see this Nakayima Tree in Mubende Town. We didn’t know anything about the tree except that it was connected to the local religion of the Buganda Kingdom. We were dropped off by one of Brent’s fellow teachers near the New Town Hotel up the hill overlooking Mubende Town. We followed the road that wound itself around the hill, after a 20 minute walk we entered into a clearing with a gigantic tree in the middle of it. The tree’s leaves resembled oak tree leaves, and the trunk had grown to more than 20 feet in diameter exhibit buttress roots that extended from the ground. A local community of Ugandans set up small dukas, pit latrines, and cooking stations around the clearing that supported its caretakers. This community is called Boma Village.

Overlooking Mubende

Overlooking Mubende

Nakayima Tree

Nakayima Tree

After paying 5000/= and then 4000/= more for a guided tour, we found ourselves walking around the 1500 year old Nakayima Tree. Each side of the tree represented a different aspect of the pantheon of local Buganda spirits. The story goes that Nakayima, who was married to King Ndawula, was protecting the tree against some tyrant. She walked and disappeared into the tree, and became one with it. Someone tried to cut the tree down once, but that person died in an accident so the tree is protected by the spirit of Nakayima.

Immensity

Immensity

Tree Rooms:

Maama Nabuzana: prepares the cooking, takes care of the children, and represents fertility as witnessed by the offerings of pots and jugs filled with water placed by the base of the tree.

Nakayima Room

Child Tree: Food for children, they are allowed to eat it if it hasn’t spoiled yet, otherwise the insects eat it

King Ndungu: guides the hunters, his symbol is smoke

King Kalisa: brother to King Ndungu, he feeds everyone on earth

Maama Kiwanuka: like lightning and thunder she brings good things down and brings the bad things up and away with her

King Mukasa: lakes and rivers

Similar to the Tanda Burial Grounds near Mityana, the belief goes that Ugandans must first dream about the Nakayima Tree in a vision and then will come here on his or her own accord. Even though a woman in a far-off village dreams about fertility but has never heard of the Nakayima Tree, she can still dream a vision about it and be guided to Boma Village on the top of the hill near Mubende. Also similar to the Tanda Burial Grounds, everyone must remove his or her shoes before walking on the sacred ground near the base of the tree.

Ravi, Brent, Godfrey, and I participated in a blessing ceremony at the base of the tree with a Jaja dressed in very colorful and ceremonial garb. We all sat by the base of the tree and presented offerings of boiled coffee beans wrapped in dried banana fibers shaped like samosas. She started chanting in Luganda, wishing us good health, many children, a car, safe travels, and money. We then handed over our pods of dried banana fibers to her and she opened them for us. Without breaking cadence from her prayer, she asked for 2000/= and we placed it in the basket along with the boiled coffee beans that she gave back to us after opening the banana fibers pods. We then ingest some of the coffee beans, and I instantly start choking and coughing on one of them.

Jaja

While I was thinking whether a Nalgene bottle would be appropriate to bring out during this ceremony, I heard her choking on one as well. So she halted her blessing in order to spit the remnants of her coffee bean out, and continue the prayer. The ending of the prayer involved each of us standing up, touching the trunk of the tree, then touching our face, and walking back down. It sounded simple enough, but we kept screwing up the directions. Apparently we weren’t supposed to turn around after touching the tree, but instead back up without turning. This caused some confusion as Godfrey was translating to us: “Come as you are!” An exasperated Ravi retorts with, “I am as I am!?” Meanwhile Brent and I are laughing and the Jaja is still praying, oblivious to what’s going on around her.

The ceremony ends, we all shake hands with the Jaja and wander around the tree. We collect some seeds to plant our own versions of the tree, and I pick up a leaf that I press into my journal. At this point in the day, it’s the late afternoon and we are very hungry since boiled coffee beans do not make a good enough snack. We eat a late lunch at Agnes’ Restaurant on the Mubende Main Street, and purchase the produce for the night’s dinner.

We also eat well that night. We share sodas, beer, and stories over a dinner reminiscent of the night before except that in lieu of beef we have grilled chicken sold by the Mubende street food vendors.

December 20, 2014 (Mubende to Kakabara, 65km)

We had an early breakfast at Brent’s house, and I prepared some last minute homemade granola using some oats, oil, and honey over the stove. The majority of the day was overcast and the hills were less daunting than the second day of biking. The air was much cooler and we transitioned from the Buganda Kingdom to the Butooro Kingdom. At this point, Ravi took charge in the translating since his learned language was Runyooro/Rutooro and mine was Luganda.

Butooro Dancing

Butooro Dancing

Since the road was much more level than previous days, we made good time and arrived in Kyegegwa by lunch time. There was a traditional Butooro dance at one end of Kyegegwa Town, and as I stopped to take some photos two men came up to me and told me to pay them money. I laughed at them and told them that I would not pay them money. The crowd sided with me, especially as I greeted them in my basic Rutooro and told them my Rutooro pet name, Ateenyi (Guardian Snake). I continued to watch the dance, which I later found out was being performed in the honor of a local religious leader called Bissaka who would “bring all religions together”. Still, Bissaka couldn’t assuage the annoyance of the two men who repeatedly asked me to pay them to watch the traditional dancing. I still refused and they told me to leave and never come back. I smiled and extended my hand to shake their hands. One of them dumbly extended his hand to shake mine most likely out of instinct, but pulled it back at the last moment and turned his back on me.

Since we were making good time, we continued biking past Kyegegwa to find a trading center/town that was closer to Ravi’s site in Butiiti so that the next day’s journey wouldn’t be too difficult.

Journal Entry:Eucalyptus Grove

“I’m enjoying this grove/glade of eucalyptus trees in the afternoon for a short break. We’re 2/3 of the way through our journey, which is incredible to me. I love that ideas like this one can become a reality. Looking at the map, it’s hard to believe that we’ve traveled as far as we did in the past 3+ days on bicycles with everything loaded in our backpacks.

After resting in that small grove, we got stuck in the rain for a few minutes and found shelter by some nearby dukas. By the evening we found ourselves in the sprawling, urban village trading center of Kakabra. After talking to some locals, we set down our things at the Nu World Leisure Center, which felt safe enough by village guesthouse standards. I mean sure the pit latrine door wasn’t connected to the hinges, my mattress was awkwardly slanted upwards (I firmly believe that there was a dead prostitute underneath my mattress), the blanket made me itch, and there were condoms and candles covered in cobwebs on our windowsill but it felt very comfortable after a long day of biking.

Nu World Leisure Center

Nu World Leisure Center

We explore the trading center for a few minutes, because it literally took a few minutes to explore the town. Dinner at one of the local restaurants held a surprise for us. There was a bottle of Hershey’s chocolate syrup served with hot milk that tasted like home. I smiled thinking about the journey that this syrup bottled made all the way from the fields of Pennsylvania to a wooden shack restaurant in Kakabara.

Journal Entry:

“In undertakings as long as this one, it’s a bit hard to remember that there is a life not involving a bike ride. That is abnormal, even for life in the Peace Corps.”

I believe that I have to explain this last entry. I guess that by this point, I was getting used to the routine of having to bike these long stretches only to reach a hill by the time exhaustion set in and then enjoy gliding downhill until the next challenge presented itself. I became used to biking, and my immediate goal was first to make it to the top of the nearest hill, make it to the next trading center, and make it to Fort Portal by the 22nd.

December 21, 2014 (Kakabara to Butiiti, 56km)

We had a quick breakfast of oatmeal and bananas courtesy of Nu World Leisure Center’s hot water flask. The journey was relatively uneventful, except that we passed by the cool looking Matiri forest reserve. At some point before Kyenjojo, my right knee starts hurting to the point where every single pedal causes me intense bursts of pain. We take a lunch break in Kyenjojo just in time for me to rest my overworked knee. Ravi purchases food at the market as I take a small nap in the shade of a mosque-like building.

Hills Before ButiitiI press onwards for about 10km more until I make it to the turnoff to Butiiti PTC. After a 1.6km ride through dirt roads, we arrive at Ravi’s house where I feel right at home. The afternoon is spent baking some coffee spice cake, drinking Java Coffee, and doing some extra laundry. Aw man, I wish that I could just bottle that feeling of feeling the cool afternoon breeze as the warm sun sets and I wash our dirty clothes. It was also nice knowing that the last stage of our journey would only be 40km.

Godfrey, Ravi, and I all prepped dinner together. We made Ravi’s famous Eggplant Curry, Sautéed Potatoes, and Cilantro Chutney (since his Cilantro plant grew a ton during the wet season).

Eggplant Curry Recipe Outline:Cilantro

Sauté eggplant and green peppers with cumin, coriander, and paprika. In a separate saucepan sauté garlic, ginger, and onions with cumin, coriander, turmeric, paprika, chili powder, and black pepper. When the onions become translucent, add the tomatoes and a bit of garam masala in order to make a tomato sauce. When the sauce thickens, add it to the eggplant mixture and cook down for a bit.

Cilantro Chutney Recipe Outline:

Blend together two cups of fresh cilantro, a few tomatoes, 5 cloves of garlic, half an inch of ginger, salt, chili powder and lemon juice.

That was another amazing dinner, courtesy of Ravi’s signature recipes.

December 22, 2014 (Butiiti to Fort Portal, 40km)

It was my birthday! I turned 24 years old on the last day of the bike ride. Ravi prepared his famous German Pancakes and Java Coffee for our breakfast. We decided to take it easy today since the ride wasn’t too difficult nor long. As I chilled in the morning, I read Eiger Dreams by Jon Krakauer (yes the same guy who also wrote Into Thin Air and Into the Wild). Ravi had his book on his bookshelf, and I took some time reading it. While I had never done any bouldering, mountain climbing, ice waterfall scaling, donned any crampons, or rappelled down any canyons I came across a passage at the end of one of the chapters:

“Lying on a delicious slab of granite toward the evening, letting the warmth o the pink rock suck the chill from my dripping back, it dawned on me that it was my birthday. I couldn’t have picked a better place to spend it, I decided, if I’d tried.”
~Eiger Dreams, pg 115

Eiger Dreams - Canyoneering

Eiger Dreams – Canyoneering

24th Birthday Marker

24th Birthday Marker

On this last victory lap of 40k, I too would have to agree that “I couldn’t have picked a better place to spend it”. We passed by the Mwengo Forest Reserve, Kibale National Park, Kihininga Swamp (that curiously also has guided tours 8-12pm and 3-5pm), and the Tamteco Kamara Tea Estates. Honestly, the ride didn’t feel like it took that long, and a little bit after noon we arrived in Fort Portal. Ravi suggested that we walk up the hill that led to the main street, but I posited that we should bike this one last hill before we met up with our welcoming party at the Duchess. Man, it was such a relief to bike to the restaurant, hug some other PCV friends, and eat a well-deserved pizza and drink a few Nile beers.

I even got a dope Christmas present of a journal from PCV Jamie and a letter from PCV Jenna:

“Life is like a camera,Godfrey's First Pizza

just focus on what’s important

and capture the good times,

develop from the negatives

and if things don’t

work out, just take

another shot.

Wishing you the perfect shot this birthday!”

As I sat there and ate my pizza and watched Godfrey eat his first pizza ever, my mind drifted off. The thought that we had finished the bike ride was unfathomable to me. Every single pedal contributed to the overall goal, and with my buzz from the combination of dehydration and two Nile Special’s I couldn’t think. I just enjoyed the moment and the relaxation.

I think that after 300km of dirt and roads I was undergoing some sort of immediate withdrawal. I guess it’s just that I poured in my passion for biking and fundraising this computer lab and went through with this idea with my best PCV friend and my closest Ugandan friend. Now I was surrounded by loving and caring people on my birthday, but the focus was on the future and not so much on what had happened. That week of biking felt as if it lasted much longer than a week, but for everyone else life continued on pretty much as it always has.

My respect for Ravi grew tremendously during this journey. The Director of Programming and Training was right, I needed my two partners. I definitely would not have been able to make it alone, especially on the first day when I got a tube puncture. I mean, after one simple question my best Peace Corps friend agreed to bike ride with me in order to support me and my project. The same thing goes for my neighbor, Godfrey. He is very village and very Ugandan, and is my most trusted Ugandan friend. His open-mindedness and willingness to accompany and continue biking with me on this ride meant so much to me.

I would definitely say that this undertaking was a success in every way. We raised over $1500 for the computer lab, I bonded much more with both Ravi and Godfrey, and I understood just how much my friends and family cared about me and what I was passionate about.

“On and on you will [bike], and I know you’ll [bike] far, and face up to your problems whatever they are.”

~Oh the Places You’ll Go

A Year In… Somehow

19/11/14

Okay so this post is a few days late, but I finally made it back home after a week and a half of travelling and training. I am physically sick with some sort of cough (sennyiga) and I feel weary. I don’t think that I’ve ever really yearned for a restorative vacation as much as I long for it now. This past year has given me highs, lows, and everything in-between.

In the past year, I have seen a lot of good and learned a lot about living in a developing country. I think that I am becoming what I pledged I would not become when I was a trainee; jaded. I’m not bitter; rather, I am a bit weary. I know that it’s only been a year but I’ve started noticing that the wonders and disappointments are becoming less frequent and smaller in magnitude. I go through the day with a resignation that things may not turn out how I want. I am more comfortable accepting what happens during the course of a day and understanding that there is always more time, somehow.

I find it harder to empathize with the struggles of issues back in the United States, especially complaints lodged on Facebook.

“Blackout for 6 hours today made me miss the premiere of (insert name of tv show here). I’m pissed off at (insert name of electric/tv company) and I’m gonna give them an earful.”

“Bored with nothing to do today.”

“Life is so hard and sucks.”

“I can’t find the remote control for the tv, First World Problems.”

“No internet for a day… what hell am I in right now?!”

“There’s a mouse in my room and I can’t find it. Someone come over please!”

I think that I’ve actually shaken my head and laughed out loud when I read some of these statuses. It’s a part of my old life that is very foreign to me.

I think that I personally progressed through several stages since I touched down in Entebbe airport. At first I was marveling at the breadth and scope of what I was doing here. I was incapable and very excited at accomplishing tasks. Then there was the period where I decided to hunker down and really work as hard as I could. This gave way to disappointment when the things that I worked on didn’t turn out as I had hoped they would. I think that at this stage I am at the point where I am just very tired from trying and working as hard as I can, knowing full well that despite my best efforts very little might actually happen.

There is an emotional, spiritual, psychological, and physical weariness that I feel. Fortunately, I am right where I need to be on the Cycle of Vulnerability and Adjustment, which dips to a low around the one year mark. Two of the biggest issues at this point involve withdrawal and disappointment. While it is good for me to be realistic concerning how things generally occur here, it is not healthy for me to not attempt doing something simply because I believe that I will be disappointed in the long-run. To do so would stop my creativity and the possibility of pleasant surprises.

In times like these, I realize that I have to look back on the events that have happened in the past year to allow me to realize how I got to this point. I got to bond with my training group in Kulika. I transitioned to Shimonic Core PTC where I did some school based training and recovered from my first bout with Giardia. I lived in Luweero with the Semuddu family for homestay and learned some Luganda. I got sworn-in and moved into my house in Luteete. Thus began my life at site. I planted some grass, started teaching, met my trainers at Masaka, went to Gulu for the Northern HIV/AIDS conference, spent Easter in Arua, saw rhinos in Ziwa, spent welcome weekend in Entebbe, had IST back in Lweza, went to Northern Camp BUILD, hung out in the Ssese Islands, camped out in Mabira Forest for Burning Ssebo, rafted the Nile on 4th of July, talked in Nakaseke Radio Telecenter, organized getting t-shirts for PSN, trained as the Luganda satellite liaison in Mityana, helped out volunteers in Kabukunge, Wanyange, and Kisoro for video projects, chilled at Lake Bunyonyi, attended and led sessions at the All-Volunteer Conference in Lweza again, vacationed in Kigali, Rwanda, filmed video at Kasese Coffee Camp, MC’d the 50th Anniversary Celebration in Kisoro, represented PSN at the Ambassador’s house and at the US Embassy, hiked on the hills between the Virunga Volcanoes and Lake Mutanda, rode a cattle truck with cookstoves from Kisoro to Fort Portal, spent Halloween in a cave at Sipi Falls, finally traveled to the east in Mbale and hiked Wanyale Falls, and then helped out as a community integration leader for this most recent group’s training all while filming scenes for Oh the Places You’ll Go.

As I wrote this down, I realized that a lot of it has to do with places that are far away from my site. However, I spent just as much time at my site as I did away from it. Today one of my neighbors asked me if I even knew her name, and I was able to correctly answer it back to her. I understand now more than ever that this second year is crunch time. My biggest goals are to start working as a literacy instructor at the primary school, raising enough funds for the ICT Lab construction, and visiting other PCV’s sites in remote parts of the country.

In the adjusted, immortal words of most bodamen, first I rest, then I go.

At It Again

15/11/14

I’m back on the Kulika organic farm again for training a whole year since I first had arrived in-country. I feel more connection as a trainer with this group as opposed to the most recent HAG (Health/Agribusiness) cohort that arrived 5 months ago. I think that I am at the position that my own trainers were at back when I was a trainee and participated in all of the mandatory training sessions. Immediately I start to imagine how a lot of these trainees will turn out after having lived in-country.

But more on that later. Let me first explain how I got to Kulika again.

Last week I visited a few other PCV’s near the Jinja area to help out with taking pictures and videos at a Science Teaching Fair at the Wanyange Science Teaching Fair Lungs ActivityPTC. The goal of the event was to give several outstanding PTC students to teach biology lessons by demonstrating experiments to some P5 pupils at the nearby Mwiri primary school. It was so neat seeing their bright and shining faces as they marched in their yellow and khaki uniform. The fair started off with PCV Penelope having the pupils draw a vector for a disease. The catch was that the pupils had to be creative in the creation of this vector; for example it could have 100 legs, 32 eyes, be the color purple, and spread a disease that causes a swollen head and hands.

Most of the pupils created already known vectors such as fleas, mosquitoes, bed bugs, and other insects but few of them really showcased creativity outside of the norm. This sessions was designed to allow the pupils a chance to creatively express themselves as well as allow the PTC students a chance to find ways to foster creativity in the pupils. Then pupils were split into 7 groups. Each group went to a different station where a biological concept was explained and demonstrated through lecture, experiments, and activities.

The Activities:

  1. Hygiene- Singing a Bill-Nye the Science Guy song about washing hands
  2. White Blood Cells – Rock, Paper, Scissors turned into Antibody and Antigen game
  3. Lungs – Hula Hoop game
  4. Digestive System – Order of the organs and drinking upside down race
  5. Heart – Heart shaped sponge relay race
  6. Red Blood Cells – Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide race
  7. Muscular/Skeletal System – Arm pumps and raw chicken wing demonstration

Teaching MusclesThe fair came to a close as the students and pupils alike came together for a big group reflection. Pupils got to answer questions concerning what they learned during the fair as well as choose their favorite PTC student teacher. Similarly the PTC student teachers had the opportunity to choose their favorite pupil. The event felt very successful, and was a great way to combine content based instruction with teaching practice.

It felt good to stay over at Penelope’s site, since I had yet to really see any part of Eastern Uganda. Penelope’s site was located in Wanyange which was about 10 minutes east of Jinja. While at her site, she brought me to a quaint, Catholic convent called St. Benedict’s, which was located on the banks of Lake Victoria. It was one of the earliest times that I woke up in country so that I could make it to 7am mass. I also had the opportunity to see PCV’s Stephanie, Linda, and Josh who brought me around Jinja Town and the Jinja Market. During my second night in Jinja I stayed with Stephanie at her house, which had recently gained electricity.

My goal was to explore a bit more of the eastern region before I headed over to Kulika for training I felt that Penelope’s invitation to come and help at her Science Teaching Fair was the perfect excuse to travel to Jinja and beyond. My viewpoint is that many PCV’s travel a lot during their first year at site and explore specific areas and towns of Uganda in big groups during large gatherings and events. Then when the excitement settles down, they start to focus on seeing the same old people and staying more and more at site. Furthermore, there are a lot of cliques within Peace Corps. I’m not saying that cliques are bad, only that they are a natural occurrence after living through very high and highs and just as low lows with people who truly understand you in this country, this region, this village, and in this specific circumstance. I wanted to break a bit of the mold and spend my one-year anniversary doing something different and travelling to see other PCV’s in another cohort in order to see something new and get to know them a little bit better.

So on Wednesday I bid farewell to Jinja and boarded a takisi headed to Mbale. Technically, the takisi headed to Mbale was empty and I waited inside of it for an hour before taking another one that went most of the way there and then taking a connecting one to Mbale town. When I got to Mbale town I got some coffee at Cosmos Café, which was located on the second floor of storefront on Republic Street with Mt. Elgon looming in the eastern horizon. Mbale town reminded me a lot like one that you would see in an old western movie: there were the wide dusty road and saloon storefronts that wouldn’t have looked out-of-place during the days of sundance kids and cowboy vigilantes.

I met with PCV’s from the most recent HAG (Health Agribusiness) cohort group. Cindy met me at Cosmos and we made our way to Molly’s site, Cindy, Baby, and Kittenswhich was an orphanage that took in children from parents who died. I felt like a short-term volunteer when I got to the orphanage because I saw dozens of cute infants who were lying helplessly around the nursery area and just as many toddlers waddling and peeing around the orphanage/church compound. Molly explained to me that this site was the location of many short-term volunteer projects and mission trips where groups came in, took pictures, maybe even built a stove, and then left without having really accomplished anything substantial.

Cindy and Teresa had a very large house inside of a compound on the outskirts of Mbale town, and fortunately they loved having people over; they even had their house registered on CouchSurfing. So I spent my one-year anniversary in Uganda with PCV’s from the HAG cohort ahead of me while we enjoyed some red wine (courtesy of Uchumi) and some homemade Bolognese sauce (courtesy of OiLibya gas tanks and the giant indoor Mbale market). It was interesting hearing stories and inside jokes from an outsider’s perspective concerning their cohort.

The next day, Cindy took me on a hike to Wanale Falls. If you looked off in the horizon a little bit southeast of her house, you would see a sort of green mesa jutting up from the ground with a small forest surrounding it. The coolest and most confusing part of the mesa was that there was a waterfall smack dab in the middle of it that didn’t make sense because it was well above the normal height of the ground of the Mbale region.

The hike to the top of the falls took a bit more than 2 hours, but it was one of the more difficult hikes that I’ve done in Uganda because the slope wasn’t gradual. After walking through open green fields of grass, small trading dukas, and houses hidden in the forests, the path gave way to steep rock steps and muddy slopes carved into the structure of the mesa. When we were almost at the top, we encountered the wooden ladder made out of interlocked tree branches and logs that allowed you to scale a 30 foot rock wall. Then we made it to the top where a few Ugandan farmers lived and tended their farms using the water that flowed on the top of the mesa.

Open Field Path

Open Field Path

Climbing Rocks

Climbing Rocks

Climbing Stick Ladder

Climbing Stick Ladder

The view was spectacular. I could see as far as the clouds would let me and I had to just take it all in for a moment. My tendency is to take out my camera as soon as possible to capture to the visual side of a perfect moment, but sometimes I like to first close my eyes and enjoy the unadulterated moment in its entirety. I definitely got knots in my stomach as I sat near the edge of the cliff by the waterfall, because the drop was at least 400ft and I would definitely die if I fell. We enjoyed the moments, shared some stories, took some pics, and made our way down on the other side of the falls.

Top of the Falls

Top of the Falls

Ledges and Falls

Ledges and Falls

By the time we got back to the house, we were exhausted. Fortunately, the tap was back on so we had access to unlimited water to wash clothes, bathe, and refill the jerrycans for later when the tap turned off at sunset. Two of the PCV’s from the older group joined for a dinner of steak, mashed sweet potatoes, and creamed peas and carrots. It really felt like a good American meal after a long day of hiking.

This whole time I was dealing with what started as a tickle in my throat but then progressed to an annoying sore throat. Every time I swallowed it would hurt, and at some points I would just spit because it felt better than swallowing.

Then on Friday morning I took a bus from Mbale to Kampala. I had a few errands to do at the Peace Corps Office including: getting my flash drive back, receiving the translated scripts from Lukonzo into English for the Coffee Camp Video, getting my schistosomiasis test results back (negative), selling a PSN t-shirt, turning in my reimbursement form, and prepping for training at Kulika.

In the early afternoon, I finally decided to make my way down to the Busunju taxi stage to get to the Kulika training center. I got there before the training group returned from their field trip to Kamurasi PTC, so I set up my hammock between the two brick posts outside the main conference room. As I lay in the hammock in the same spot where I had lain in last year, I reminisced about my own training experience. I remember the sessions, the smell of the farm, the food, the staff, and how excited it was to be starting this experience. As the trainees trickled in, I started associating their individual personalities with people from my own training group.

It felt weird being asked so many questions all at once, and being seen as the expert in-country. Honestly, I still feel very naïve and clueless about many things. One of the trainees said that the trainers all looked rugged and seemed to walk differently. He said that it had something to do with how we looked as if we’ve been through a few struggles since we first arrived and that we walked with a certain confidence and surety. While answering the trainees’ questions, I definitely felt a sense of sureness and confidence with my answers and my actions. Most of the questions were very straightforward.

We had the Kampala tour on Sunday, which was pretty fun. We split up the trainees into groups of 4-5 with either a PCV or a Ugandan trainer to bring them around Kampala. It was fun rushing my group through Kampala in order to buy a Powermatic/Dr. Volt, exchange money, buy unlocked modems, purchase cell phones, get sim cards, and then meet up with some hungover PCV’s for lunch at Prunes. As we approached the table of my fellow PCV’s, I noticed a marked difference between my group of trainees and my friends. That was by far the funniest part of the day for me, because my trainees looked fresh, clean, and energized and the PCV’s looked haggard, bedraggled, and extremely hungover. Fortunately, I convinced the waitress to ice them with a Smirnoff Ice that I had bought earlier at Nakumatt. Overall, I thought that it was productive for the trainees to see PCV’s early on who weren’t trainers and get a more well-rounded perspective concerning PCV’s compared to the generally formal nature of trainers.

I also felt a bit more of a connection with this group than with the past cohort. I don’t know what the reasoning is. Maybe it’s because this group is an education group or that it is one year since I too arrived in Uganda as a trainee. I also felt as if I was able to bond with this group from the get-go. I answered their questions truthfully and with tact since I was also their trainer. I gave the survival ICT session, helped out with the basic survival skills, and assisted in the survival Luganda lesson. From this side of training, I could really see a lot of the disorganization and the reasoning behind the complaints that many of my trainers last year made. I no longer have the lens of newness and wonder with which I can view this world.

So on the last night of training Ellen, my fellow community integration PCV, and I hung out with the trainees as they hung out on the concrete dais of Kulika with wireless speakers, champagne, good wine, incense, Rwandan beers (Skol), and some good conversations. I’m a fan of this new group, especially since they’ve already started getting acclimated talking about the three eternal topics that all PCV’s talk about: poop, sex, and alcohol.

“Guys, I love this song; it’s the one that I had sex to the night before I left.”

~Education Cohort 3 Trainee

Caves and Waterfalls

31/10/14 – 2/11/14

I think that this past weekend signifies a paradigm shift for me. There were a lot of things that happened that elicited a change in how I live in Uganda. A lot of things that I am used to doing are becoming more than normal. The unknown is becoming less and less and the surprises are much less frequent. I believe that it is very fitting that I write this blog post the week before my one year anniversary in country.

I left site on Friday in order to attend the Halloween celebration hosted by fellow PCV Loren. The celebration was slated to take place in Mise CaveCrow's Nest Dorms of the ancestral Sabine king on the side of Mt. Elgon near Sipi Falls about a 45 minute drive away from Mbale. I arrived in Kampala and met up with some other PCV’s who were also headed to Mbale. We ate lunch at the Ethiopian woman’s living room restaurant, and then hopped on the YY Bus in the Bus Park. Compared to other bus rides, this one was ridiculous. It started raining once we passed Jinja and the bus driver decided to pick up speed.  We were zooming along the highway as the bus lights flickered on and off, which gave the on-flight (on-ride?) movies an ominous tone. The first movie involved two village kids who got into shenanigans, then there was a music video that showed scenes of fat Ugandans dancing, priests, cripples, genocide victims, livestock, and smiling villagers all to the tune of Ugandan dancehall with horrible signal-to-noise ratio (speakers are on full volume for the entire ride), and finally a movie called Bridge of Dragons involving a white action star who fights a Vietnamese general in order to save this other Asian girl.

We arrived in Mbale in the evening and checked into this hostel called Casa Del Tourista, and the rooms were carpeted! After dinner, our group met up with other PCV’s on the rooftop of this Indian restaurant called Nuralis. There were dancing, attempts at beer pong, attempts at jumping over tables, and updates from the PCV’s who decided to attend the celebration. I got back to Del Casa a little drunker for the wear, and finished my overdue VRF (Volunteer Report Form).

We grabbed a quick breakfast in the morning and took a private hire to the Crow’s Nest lodge near Sipi Falls. Now usually I’m pretty good at directions, but for this weekend I really had no idea where I was. I just enjoyed the ride from the wide and dusty roads of Mbale to the nearby foothills. Since I had never really been further east than Jinja before this weekend, every 10 seconds my friend Rachel would say to me, “Hey, this is the furthest east you’ve ever been!”

Crow’s Nest reminded me of Byoona Amagara on Lake Bunyonyi. You had the dusty/mildew-infested dorm rooms, the compost pit latrines, the café lounge area, and beautiful panoramic views of the ever-expanding horizon. In this case instead of a placid lake there was a majestic waterfall. A group of us got together for a hike to the three nearby waterfalls in the area. It was another beautiful hike through open farms filled with wild onions that drastically gave way to misty jungles damp from the spray of the waterfalls. As we got nearer to the waterfalls it felt as if there was a light drizzle all around us. I felt so cool and epic standing so close to those falls.

The First Waterfall

The First Waterfall

The Second Waterfall

The Second Waterfall

We got to see three waterfalls in total. I could tell that our guides had been doing this for decades, because they knew exactly when we needed to stop to take a picture, eat some white passionfruit, or let us pause and take in the scenery that was their everyday life. It’s a bit funny to imagine living as a Ugandan in these areas and wondering why muzungus would want to pay 20,000/= (more than you would make in a week) to traipse around your backyard. I think that a famous naturalist said that something no longer appears special or beautiful to you if you see it every day.

 

Looking Up

Looking Up

At the third waterfall, we were given the opportunity to walk down a sloped pathway that led from a cave behind the waterfall, to the pool underneath the waterfall. It felt epic slowly making my way through the sprays and mists. I had never been underneath a real waterfall before, and so it was a new experience for me to just close my eyes and let the water rush down over me.

Underneath a Waterfall

Underneath a Waterfall

As we finished our hike, we passed by a small restaurant that sold rolexes. When the woman told us how much she would charge us 3,000/= ($1.20) for the rolexes, we all simultaneously threw our hands in the air and exclaimed that she was severely overcharging us. After bargaining the price down to 2,000/= ($0.80), we all laughed because of how used we had become to the village prices of certain goods.

We got back to the Crow’s Nest and prepared for the night’s festivities by showering, pre-gaming, and putting on our costumes.

Costumes in a CaveCostumes Included: Peace Corps Care Package, a tree, a chicken, Space Mice, Mefloquine Dream, the princesses from Frozen, Abby and Alana from Broad City, Yoshi, the Nyabo who sells drinks and sodas at the taxi parks, a very bad Michael Jackson, a bumblebee, an Expatriate, Jesus, a barefoot and pregnant woman, and various other costumes.

I was put in charge of preparing the music playlist on a flash drive. I spent the next hour and a half compiling crowd-pleasing songs for the cave as I drank some gin. There were vans hired to shuttle us to in the cave from the Crow’s Nest. We were dropped off literally in the middle of a road and followed a muddy path that led to the large Mise Cave. There were about 30 PCV’s there in costume. To the right of the cave was the man in charge of cooking the whole roasted pig and to the left was the generator that powered the lights and speakers.

The food was amazing, and the glazed/roasted pork tasted just as good as any Lechon that I ate at a Filipino party back home. The food was good, the location was unique, the atmosphere was there, but the only problem was the music. The first set of speakers didn’t play the music from the flash drive because the button on the speakers that would allow the flash drive to play didn’t connect to anything. The second set of speakers only played DVD’s, and so the rest of the party was filled with the overly loud songs of Ugandan dancehall.

That was the unfortunate bit of it. Everything was there and everything was right except for a small button that would have allowed the music to Mise Caveplay. As a result, the Halloween celebration wasn’t as it could have been had the music worked out. Slowly-by-slowly we trickled out of the king’s ancestral cave and continued the celebration back at the Crow’s Nest. We hooked up some portable speakers to our laptops and iPhones and proceeded to dance to music that we knew.

I actually loved that last part of the night where we were all still in costume and chilling by the portable speakers with a waterfall quietly roaring in the distance. I enjoyed getting to hang out with more members of the newer group and connect with them in a way that I had never been able to do before.

On Sunday we hired a coaster to drive most of us back to Kampala. It was a fun, smooth ride since we weren’t taking public transportation. I made the decision to stay overnight in Kampala instead of rushing back home, since I needed to get some work done on the internet.

Chill Lantern NightThe other thing was that I felt stuck in a weird funk after the Halloween celebration. Usually after weekend celebrations with other PCV’s I feel some sort of closure as I travel back home. This time I felt as if there wasn’t any sort of closure. I realized that I had said hello and goodbye to some PCV’s for the last time before they COS’d. I think that it also had to do with the overall vibe of the PCV’s, especially those who were disappointed with the music. This trip also marked me crossing off the east as the last region that I had yet to visit. had traveled to Gulu and Arua in the north, Kabale and Kisoro in the southwest, Kasese and Fort Portal in the west, Kalangala Islands in the central/south, and finally Mbale in the east.

The unknown parts of this country were making themselves known to me. I have also realized that I am almost at the halfway point of my stay in this country. In literally one week I will be welcoming the new trainees into the country. I like to think that one of my resolutions for this coming year in country will be to make an effort to see other PCV’s in all of the regions of Uganda. When this school term ends and I finish helping out with PST, I aim to spend my vacation travelling to the different regions of Uganda and visiting more remote sites along the way. It would be a way to connect with those whom I don’t normally see, and reinvigorate me from seeing the same people and personalities all of the time.