Nile Waves

16/10/15 – 18/10/15

Nyege Nyege – Luganda, (noun) The uncontrollable urge to move, shake, and dance.

I will be hard-pressed to achieve the highs that I did during this weekend. It was honestly one of the most fun weekends that I’ve had during my Peace Corps service. The Nyege Nyege music festival was held this weekend at the Nile Discovery Beach about 1km off from the Nile Brewery Stage near Jinja Town. The venue consisted of large swaths of open campgrounds, a large grass main music stage, a smaller side stage in ruins by the Nile, and tortuous pathways connecting the venues disparate parts together. After many weeks of being sad and down at site, I was looking forward to this weekend. I had saved up a lot of my money in order to purchase food, drinks, and camping materials for the music festival.

Festival Ruins

Festival Ruins

I arrived at the venue around 11am on Friday and setup camp in a secluded corner of the campgrounds where we used the surrounding trees to hang our hammocks and make a physical boundary for all the PCV’s who were staying. As the day progressed, the number of PCV’s in our camp grew to about 15. Despite being in Uganda, the music festival had good facilities: the showering section consisted of bamboo stalls with 20 liter jerrycans positioned on top with showerheads attached, there were two working toilet areas, food stalls from Kampala (sushi, brownies, sandwiches, tacos, hot dogs, and barbecue), and of course festival clothes booths.

Over a year ago I camped in Mabira Forest with other PCV’s for Burning Ssebo and now I was once again camping with Main StagePCV’s and about 600 other people. The music consisted of an eclectic ménage of traditional tribal music, reggae, rap, acoustic, and edm. Artists came from all over Africa and the UK. During the day we would wander around to other campsites and swap stories or share some food, beer, or coffee in exchange for other goods. On Saturday morning I partook in an offshoot of Afrikans Yoga called Smaitawe Yoga. Compared to the Yoga predominantly practiced in the United States, this version of yoga was much more free-flowing and primal. The focus was on the hips and groin area and revolved around the elements of air, water, fire, and ground.

Even more-so than Vinyasa, the movements were all about the flow and freedom of expression in its directive rather than strict postures and holds. For example, instead of warrior 1 we would be instructed to take a pose similar to warrior 1 and then undulate our hips in a circle as we imagined the vibrancy of fire. To an outsider, the moves of Smaitawe Yoga would seem very sensual and suggestive.

It was rainy season, so as soon as it would rain we would all rush back to our tents and cover them with tarps since our cheap tents from Nakumatt weren’t waterproof. Despite the mud, the humidity, and the dirtiness that comes with a hippy dippy-like music festival I absolutely loved it. My mood pre-festival could not be compared to my mood now after the experiences at the Nyege Nyege Festival. I had always wanted to attend a music festival during my Peace Corps service, and I was fortunate enough to go to one by the banks of the Nile with my best friends and some new ones as a PCV.

I will remember hanging out on the hill overlooking the main stage as hot Ethiopian or Eritrean hot dog vendors made Nutella crepes, I will remember sheltering 11 PCV’s in a small tent during a rain storm, I will remember going wild surrounded by PCV friends as an African dj played a remixed version of Avicii’s Levels, I will remember female rappers with mad flow on the main stage, and I will remember how much I will miss being able to have experiences like this one.

PCV Ssebo Nnyabo Photo

PCV Ssebo Nnyabo Photo

I have around 50 days of Peace Corps Service remaining, and it’s hard to believe it. Now I feel ready to make the most of my remaining time here and I owe a large part of that to the waves of joy and kinship that I felt during this weekend. During a heart to heart talk with one of the new PCV’s on Saturday night, he told me, “This may have been one of the best nights of my entire life.” I just smiled and leaned back in my chair as I stared at the stars in the sky and thought that many of the nights of my own Peace Corps service have been the best nights of my entire life.

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.”

I See Fire (Christmas)

22/12/14 – 25/12/14

I was a bit sad after leaving the Duchess, because I was really looking forward to hanging out with some of the PCV’s there for a birthday celebration. I think that there was some stress and emotions involving a hike the next day and who would be sleeping where. So Ravi, Godfrey, and I set off to chill at the Mountains of the Moon hotel. It literally felt like a nice hotel in the United States. The scenery was beautiful and there was a hotel lobby with luggage service.

We hung out by the side of the pool, but it was overcast so we decided not to swim. Godfrey asked us about some physics principles, which Ravi and I were very happy to explain to him. PCV Emily arrived and we gathered together for yet another Indian meal at the Delhi Garden restaurant. After dinner, we headed over to YES (Youth Encouragement Services) Hostel. I was a very big fan of the place, since it had free wifi and a place for us to store our bicycles while we were away for the next few days.

Ravi iced me as I got out of the shower. I then uploaded a small update about completing my journey, and was very happy to see all of the birthday wishes from friends and family members back home. The next day, Godfrey departed to go back home as Ravi and I took a takisi headed down to Mbarara. We had to pay almost double the original cost of the ride since it was the holiday season.

PCV Rebecca at Bishop Stuart PTC right outside Mbarara was hosting Christmas for any PCV who wanted to come down there as well as for the trainees in the southwest. The celebrations involved reading the story of Jesus’ birth from the Gospel of Luke, singing Christmas carols, hearing the story of the Christmas Armistice 100 years ago, swapping gifts during White Elephant, playing a mandatory Ultimate Frisbee Game on Christmas Day, having a po sho snowball fight, playing Salad Bowl, and bonding with each other over missing our families and traditions back home. As per usual, Rebecca did an amazing job cooking sloppy joes for Christmas Eve dinner, and preparing stuffing, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, cauliflower and broccoli salad, roast chicken, and roast duck for 20 people.

Christmas Ultimate Frisbee Team

Christmas Ultimate Frisbee Team

For some reason, I just felt bipolar during the entirety of my stay at Rebecca’s place. At some points I was beyond excited to be hanging out with friends and making new ones in such a happy atmosphere. Then at other times I would get extremely frustrated or upset with something, someone, or even myself. As I type this, I find it hard to explain my frustration, anger, and irritation.

Po Sho Snowball Fight

Po Sho Snowball Fight

I found myself getting angry with random Ugandans who annoyed me. I got irritated by PCV’s who kept telling me that they were okay when they obviously were going through some trouble. I was frustrated with myself for feeling this way. In the middle of some of the Christmas celebrations I found myself wanting to get away and spend some time by myself.

Journal Entry:

“I don’t necessarily like who I’ve become or what I do or how I act anymore.”

I think that I was going through another one of those funks. However, as the one year mark approaches I find myself becoming more and more blunt and expressive in my emotions. My patience runs thin at times and I show it to many PCV’s and Ugandans around me. It’s not a very healthy thing for me, but it’s something that I am working through. It’s weird, because I never thought that my service in Peace Corps would make me act or feel like this, and when I do it makes me feel rotten.

But not everything was bad. When it was good, it was great and I loved sharing Christmas with PCV’s and trainees alike. I loved singing Oh Holy Night together with everyone as well as calling my friends and family members back home. I even got to double ice Ravi back after he iced me on my birthday. What really helped though was an after Christmas lunch/dinner yoga and meditation session where I was able to clear my body and mind of all of the stresses and thoughts that irked me.

Also, there has been one song that kept getting stuck in my head during the course of the week. It was “I See Fire” by Ed Sheeran, which was also featured at the end of the Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug movie when the credits start rolling. I just felt very inspirational and uplifting especially after the bike ride, reading Eiger Dreams, and the cold nights shared with good friends at Bishop Stuart PTC.

I definitely am going to have to work hard to keep my cool and succeed in this following year. In some ways, I am sad with how much things have changed since I’ve been in country, but in many ways I am very pleased with what I’ve learned and how much stronger I’ve become. And in countless other ways, I feel very blessed to realize all of the things, events, and people that I am thankful for.

”If this is to end in fire, then we should all burn together, watch the flames burn higher, into the night. Calling out father, oh, stand by and we will watch the flames burn all around the mountainside.”

~I See Fire, Ed Sheeran

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