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.
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.
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.
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 into 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.
This 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.
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 backpack 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.
PCV 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
I 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).
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
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:
just focus on what’s important
and capture the good times,
develop from the negatives
and if things don’t
work out, just take
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