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.


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.”


13/2 – 22/2 Two weekends ago I spent some time hanging out with some of the new education PCV’s in Masaka. Initially, I didn’t plan to eat at Frikadellen, but I ended up partaking in the 30,000/= buffet and from what I can remember it was definitely worth it. We spent the rest of the Ndegeya Bonfire Circlenight drinking, hanging out, and eventually dancing at the local club Ambiance. For some reason, four of us decided to share a bed in an extremely small and hot hotel room filled with mosquitoes and the stench of alcohol. The next day we sluggishly made our way to the pool located in one of the neighborhoods near Plot 99. Honestly, this weekend was going according to plan: I wanted to go out dancing, eat some good food, and spend the hungover Saturday swimming in a pool. In the evening we headed back to Ndegeya PTC where PCV’s Eric and Elyse hosted us for dinner. The last time I was at their house was almost one whole year ago, and their house is still as beautiful and posh as I remember it. After dinner, a few of us sloped up the nearby roads to the Ndegeya Art Community (Weaverbird Arts Foundation). It was founded 7 years ago by a Ugandan/Rwandan man who wanted to create a place where artists from Uganda and abroad could collaborate, hold workshops, and be free to express themselves in art. Every 3-4 months they would hold some sort of art workshop week where dozens of artists would gather together and live on top of the hill. The hill had a large grass clearing dotted with a bonfire pit, art houses, latrines, bathing areas, campgrounds, and sculptures made out of stone, brick, and recycled jerrycans. Since it was Valentine’s Day, not many artists had gathered for the meeting that weekend. This allowed us to have some more personal time with the founder of the movement. He told us that the meaning behind the art was to empower Ugandans, especially those in impoverished settings, to view art as something to help them in their lives. I posed the concern that many Ugandans view art as a detriment to survival since it would be viewed as a hindrance to daily tasks such as farming, tending to the children, cooking, fetching water, and everyday life. I felt that he wasn’t able to provide an answer that satisfied me, but I felt that I would need to spend more time there to better understand what he has done and accomplished with this movement. Most of the PCV’s left on Loucine Walking with Dr. JosephSunday, but I decided to stay another day at the cottage house at Ndegeya PTC. Man, it felt so comfortable being in a clean house where I could really stretch out, sleep without a mosquito net, shower, and eat homemade coq au vin since they had an oven. More than 15 months in-country, and I have come to appreciate the value of being comfortable. I left for Kampala on Monday, and did the usual routine of eating out at the fancy food court in Acacia Mall. I mean where else could I get decently priced and decent Indian, Turkish, Chinese, Ugandan, and American cuisine all in one area? I spent the night at the New City Annex just like old times, since I was told that a Peace Corps vehicle would pick me up early on Tuesday morning. Honestly, I assumed that I would just be going up to Lira in order to film an interview with a retired Ugandan colonel, but it turns out that I was voluntold to film promo videos of each region of Uganda with the Country Director. Personally, I am extremely glad that our country director is making an effort to personally visit the PCV’s in the different regions, because this was a complaint over the past few years. There is always some sort of disconnect between PCV’s and PC Staff since one group has trouble really empathizing or seeing the reasoning behind the actions and decisions of the other group. I also Benjamin Ferraro Stone Quarryam excited to be able to participate in such a cool project, but felt that I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I stepped into that air-conditioned Peace Corps vehicle that Tuesday morning.  There is another issue at work here that Peace Corps uses volunteers to fill needed staff positions and tasks. In my case, I provide free videos for Peace Corps without any payment. I have heard the arguments of both sides: on one hand we are volunteers and can accomplish the 3 goals of the Peace Corps through various means, and on the other hand the true experience of a Peace Corps Volunteer involves the integration of being at one’s site. In my case, sometimes I don’t even know where I stand anymore. It felt weird travelling in a nice vehicle with air-condition. I felt separated from both PCV’s and Ugandans by glass and cool air. There is a prevailing attitude that many well-intentioned Peace Corps staff don’t understand what many PCV’s endure because they have the luxury of private vehicles, access to clean food, access to running water, and the resource availability of Kampala. Regardless, I really enjoyed taking pictures and videos at my fellow PCV’s sites in the West Nile region, namely the towns of Arua and Maracha. First of all, it was hot as balls from 9am – 5pm. I felt fortunate that I lived in Central where the temperature of a 24 hour span varied from chilly in the night to hot in the afternoon. We visited primary schools, demonstration schools, NTCs, PTCs, a hospital, a honey organization, sexual health center, and an organization for orphans. Journal Entry: “I’m still so impressed with my fellow PCV’s and the hard work that they do. I’m still so frustrated by the bureaucracy here. I can see that there’s a lot of opportunity here, and in so many places, but those in charge of these opportunities don’t utilize them for what they’re worth. It’s all about saving face, building ones self-image, and very vague promises of far-reaching pipe dreams. A lot of self-aggrandizement. In many ways and times the wonder and initiative of the pupils an students are quashed by the rote inactivity of the administrators in power. I need to take more initiative and advantage of the resources at my Bee Natural Assembly Lineschool. People want things, boreholes, fences, internet, and so any things but how willing are they to work to make them come about? I am still so intrigued how sometimes adults here almost ruin the imagination of children. Pure wonder is hard to come by here. I go back and forth between not wanting to be staff and feeling like staff, but being constantly reminded that I am a volunteer. I am pulled in so many different directions. I understand that in certain cultures there are differences. But are some differences better than others, such as time management, gender roles, and societal structures in hierarchy. I mean what do we mean as a long-term goal of development? What does development really entail? Does it mean that we want developing countries to be like developed countries and share their ideals? What does it mean to rally empower people to do things in a culturally-conscious way? It’s a big mess and its not our job to fix every problem, nor is it our job to just leave and ignore all problems. Of course money alone does not solve the problem, but it can definitely help. And who am I to even have this discussion? In this air-conditioned car, I feel comfortable and as if everything is nearby. But it makes me feel so removed from PCV’s because part of service involves the hardships of dealing with the transportation and accommodations of the host country nationals. Almost that guilty feeling of not being one of them.” Maracha Primary School“If I give you a cow, do I feed your cow for you?” ~Emily Lamwaka, Peace Corps Education Progam Director Site after site, I saw what PCV’s were doing. Some tasks were successful, and some seemed impossible to overcome and it all depended on the site administrators. More than one primary school didn’t have the resources to provide pupils with lunch. In one instance, one of these schools was resource rich due to a nearby stone quarry but didn’t bother to sell the stones as an income-generating activity to provide lunch and build fences to keep livestock away from the school. Fortunately, for every four inept administrators there was at least one person at each school who was dedicated to really empowering the students by whatever means were available. On Friday, we left the West Nile and made our way to Lira to interview a retired Ugandan colonel. We found him near Café Path on Wan Nyaci Road. One of the GHSP Peace Corps volunteers ran into him at one of the stationary stores in Lira, and he told her that several decades ago a Peace Corps volunteer saved his life. On Friday, he shared his story in full. This man was born September 20th, 1940 with an education background that brought him to Russia. In the late Lira Colonel Portrait60’s, he joined the army and the military academy where he was commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant and posted in Masaka. He and his squad mates heard about the news of Idi Amin’s coup against Milton Obote on January 21st, 1971. During the coup, Amin’s people were killing the ranking officers and officials of Obote’s military. He had to flee home, and a Peace Corps Volunteer who was teaching at the Aga Kan Secondary School sheltered him for two weeks. She would go to Tropicana Hotel to check on the situation of the coup. Eventually, she told him that it was too dangerous to keep him at her house. She disguised her as a student, and drove him in her car towards Kampala and then to Lira. When they got to Karuma bridge that crossed the Nile River, they saw Amin’s soldiers slaughtering captured members of Obote’s soldiers. They let the Peace Corps volunteer pass through since they were still on friendly terms with the “whites” and didn’t recognize the lieutenant. There were so many dead bodies on the bridge, that she had to drive over them. When they passed over the bridge, they stopped at a trading center to drink beer due to the shock at the Meeting the Colonelbridge. She asked him to drive the rest of the way up to Lira. They bid farewell to each other, and the Peace Corps volunteer boarded a bus headed back to Kampala. It was the last time that they saw each other, since the Peace Corps volunteers were evacuated from the Uganda. At this moment in his story that he got a little teary-eyed. He explained to us that she was more than just his friend, but his girlfriend. Of course she was the side-dish in the relationship since he was already married to another woman, but still this Peace Corps volunteer risked her life to save his. The rest of the story revolves around his narrow escapes from Amin’s soldiers, his time spent as a refugee in Dar es Salaam, and his fight to retake Uganda. I will be working on editing together his story, and at the end of it he shared with us his dream for the youth of Uganda: to know their history and not care about the mindless politics and instead care for each other so that mindless slaughter can be avoided. The next day as we drove across the Karuma bridge in our air-conditioned car, we all fell silent as we reflected on what occurred there 44 years ago. Instead of flowing blood and dead bodies, all that we could see were the rushing Nile underneath us and the balmy breeze of your typical Ugandan afternoon. In some ways this country has improved, and in other ways it has remained just as impoverished as it used to be. Now more than ever, I believe that it’s experiences like that Peace Corps that make me feel privileged to work alongside my Ugandan brothers and sisters.

Peer Support and Science Fairs

Peer Support and Science Fairs

31/7/14 – 3/8/14

Once again it was another tiring weekend. I left site on Thursday July 31st in the afternoon to get to Kampala. I get there later, and meet up with Rachel Belkin near the New Taxi Park and Bus Park. The goal was to do some errands associated with the Peer Support Network (PSN) group for Peace Corps Uganda ( and with Peace by Piece ( Peer Support Network is a group within Peace Corps Uganda dedicated to supporting volunteers, creating merchandise, forming media projects, and acting as another support system for Peace Corps Volunteers in-country. Peace by Piece is an organization in Masindi that was started by a Peace Corps Volunteer a few years ago. It empowers the local tailors in Masindi by creating opportunities for them to sell kitenge merchandise such as: satchels, bags, dresses, and quilts. The items are of a higher quality than those sewn by the average tailor, and the proceeds go towards growing the tailors’ business.

As a member of Peer Support Network I had to pick up a special order from a kitenge tailor, make another special order,Screen Prints and then meet up with the t-shirt screen printer near the Old Taxi Park who would be able to make jpg’s into wearable t-shirts. I got two proofs printed out: a black shirt with PCV UGA written on it in the style of RUN DMC’s logo as well as a beige shirt of one of our legendary, older PCV’s riding a gorilla. Rachel had to mail 5 kitenge quilts to the founder of Peace by Piece, but the post office was already closed. It was a hilarious site to see us two muzungus carrying huge bags of kitenge on our head as we walked from the crowded, pickpocket-filled Luwum Street area (the street between the New and the Old Taxi Parks) to the slightly less crowded Kampala-Jinja Road. Honestly, we joked about being two old, Jewish grandmothers since we planned out our day in the city where we would mail some quilts, order specially designed fabrics, meet the nice young man who screen printed t-shirts, and then find a nice place to sit down and order some coffee.

Rachel and I boarded a takisi headed towards Kisementi near Acacia Mall. We got off and made our way to the other hotel frequently used by Peace Corps Volunteers known as City View Hotel. It was so much more luxurious than the New City Annex where I normally stayed. City View Hotel had a nicer, tiled room, a fan, and most importantly a personal bathroom for each bedroom unlike the shared ones at New City Annex. We meet up with Mary and share a room with her before having dinner at Casablanca, an Ethiopian restaurant. I was surprised at how close City View Hotel not only to Acacia Mall, but also to some nearby restaurants as well as Bubbles O’Leary club.

The next plan was to eat some gelato at the mall and drink some rum with it. I wanted to do it old school style and drink the Captain Morgan rum out of a paper bag in one of the restaurant spaces of the mall, but it was way too classy to do that. So we made our way back to the hotel where we drank the rum, shared some stories, and watched YouTube videos with my data since I bought the 1Gb for 2,500/= Orange Internet bundle from midnight to 6am. I watched so many videos and downloaded so many things that I’ve wanted to download for the longest time.

On Friday Rachel and I walked from the hotel to the Peace Corps Headquarters on Kololo Hill which was past the Chinese Embassy. My business there concerned taking stock of the PSN T-shirts that left there by the older members of the group, dropping off the kitenge bags, as well as withdrawing the money from past T-shirt sales so that it could be used to create more merchandise. Incidentally, I also had Peace Corps Volunteers who were chilling at the office to model some of the T-shirt styles for me.

Rachel Looking OutAs a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uganda, I have come to learn that one of the biggest frustrations in-country can be the lack of organization. It’s understandable that that happens in a country where the infrastructure is not as structured as a developed country. Unfortunately, that also translates to the Peace Corps Office since the staff has to work with the existing infrastructure in-country. Sometimes from emails, text messages, and other announcements I wonder whether everyone is on the same page or not. I like to sometimes think that working in the Peace Corps Office would be like being a character in The Office or 30 Rock. I mean, I can just imagine waking up in the morning and getting to the office late because of a traffic jam on the main roads, trying to get a driver to pick up an extremely sick PCV in a remote village, talking to the ambassador about a potential threat, emailing out a new policy to PCV’s who won’t receive for at least a few days since not everyone has internet, changing someone’s site due to a security threat, evacuating PCV’s from an area brewing with tribal conflicts, early terminating a PCV who was caught riding a boda, attending a meeting with the Country Director, planning the Peace Corps 50th Anniversary Celebration, processing new PEPFAR Grant information, and planning out the swearing-in ceremony of the soon-to-be PCV’s. So I can understand why it’s always so hectic in the office.

At the office, I met with one of the Peace Corps Uganda staff Ven who informed me that my translation of “Oh the Places You’ll Go” into the 9 different languages currently spoken by PCV’s in Uganda was on its way to completion, talked to the head of training Mary-Anne who informed me that I could attend the new group’s swearing-in ceremony, talked with a current PCV Jim about the status of the grants for July, and met up with another PCV Meital who asked me if I could help out with a media project for the Peace Corps 50th Anniversary Celebration.

Rachel, being very patient, chilled in the PCV lounge until I was done my errands at the office. The next goal on our checklist as Jewish grandmothers in Kampala was to mail the 5 quilts at the Post Office. We decided that our best bet was to hitch a ride with one of the Peace Corps vans that was headed towards the Kolping Hotel where the GHSP Volunteers were finishing up their training. We picked up the GHSP Volunteers at Mulago Hospital where they were given a lecture and presentation.

We were finally dropped off at Kolping, where Rachel and I took a takisi to the Post Office. Rachel mailed off her quilts to the United States, we ate some hidden soft serve ice cream, then travelled to Lugogo Mall where Rachel had to register for another Barclay’s card since she had lost hers in the previous week. During that time I uploaded photos at the Café Java’s. Our final goal on Friday was to make it to Masaka by 6pm in order to join up with other PCVs at Frikadellen where we would eat a delicious buffet dinner of barbecued meats, tomato soups, fried cheese sticks, salads, and chocolate cake. By the time we finished our penultimate errand at Lugogo it was 4:30pm, so we rushed back to the New Taxi Park where I picked up the two screen printed T-shirts from the T-shirt guy. We boarded a coaster (a larger takisi except that everyone has his or her own seat) around 5pm.

The problem was that we were extremely hungry since we didn’t eat any substantial food all day in-preparation for ourKabukunge PTC Science Fair Welcomedinner at Frikadellen. We arrived in Masaka and subsequently Frikadellen at 8pm, so we totally missed dinner which was alright since we bought a ton of street food. A bunch of us PCV’s then made our way to Alaina’s house, which was past Nyendo at the Kabukunge PTC. I slept so well that night because I was exhausted.

Saturday was hectic, because it was the day of the science fair at the Kabukunge PTC. Alaina had been working hard all of Term 2 in order to get this event together. All of the PTC students were taught how to put together a science project utilizing the scientific method. The students were then told to come up with a project, state a hypothesis, perform an experiment, come up with research to support the results, and then present the science project to the parents, teachers, faculty, and Ministry of Education and Sports (MOES) representative who came.

It was really cool to see the PTC Students engage themselves in higher level thinking and hands-on science that is rarely taught here in many Ugandan PTC’s There were projects concerning how light travels, seed germination, oxidation, water purification, gravity on an inclined plane and various other topics in science that would not be out of place in a middle school science fair. Even though the students where in their late teens, it felt refreshing to see them presenting Light Science Projecttheir projects in English and showcasing what they had learned. However, the science fair itself was a stressful day because not everyone in the school administration was supportive of Alaina’s project. There were definitely some teachers and staff members who were helpful, but not everyone provided the assistance that she needed.

Fortunately, about 8 of us PCV’s were there to help out Alaina by helping set up, judging the projects, and taking videos and photographs of the event. I personally promised to take pictures and videos of the science fair for her. The day was slow to start, and there were some mishaps along the way. For example, the representatives from the government and school administration were late, which is par for the course, and other than Alaina no one else knew what the schedule was. Lunch was served around 5:30pm, which was early since the meetings were cut short.

The initial plan was for the current PTC principal to give a speech, followed by a presentation of the best science fair Metal Fire Rodprojects, followed by the retired PTC principal to give a speech, followed by the presentation of certificates, followed by another closing speech. I felt bad for Alaina, because it was stressful enough coordinating this large event, and even more difficult when the schedule that she had planned was changed last minute by the administration who wanted things done their way. Emotions started to run high when the principal of the school then told Alaina that she “failed” because she didn’t present the certificates out to the students at the correct time.

However, this is the Uganda that we live in, filled with pomp, flair, circumstance, and sometimes not much actual substance. There are just too many facets to focus on and not enough time to address them all. In order to relieve some stress, we all celebrated that night by going out to the local club in Masaka called Ambiance. The next day was dedicated to making it back to our respective sites.

Just Being

March 18, 2014

This past weekend I visited Masaka for a Saint Patrick’s Day Weekend Celebration with some friends. As usual I packed up on Friday morning and biked the 11km stretch to Wobulenzi where I dropped my bike off at the police station and then boarded a taxi headed to Kampala. I met my friend Rachel there and we had lunch at Broods Bakery. I don’t know if I ever mentioned this place, but it’s near Nando’s Pizza smack dam in the middle of Kampala near the large Barclay’s Bank. It’s actually very interesting navigating in a place where there are no road signs and everything is navigated by remembering where to turn based on landmarks and what the locals say. This bakery is frequented by urban Ugandans, PCV’s, and NGO’s alike. Broods Bakery is a Dutch Bakery that bakes some of the best bread that I’ve eaten in-country. It actually reminds me of the bread that I would eat when I lived in Germany and the Netherlands. On the packaging for Broods it even states that they have outlets in Amsterdam and Hague. As usual, I treat myself with a Ham and Cheese sandwich on a multigrain loaf. It just tastes so fresh and clean and filling and not fried or filled with a meat sauce like everything else that I’ve eaten here. It also seems to be the place where many PCV’s happen to meet up and bump into each other when passing through Kampala.

As we were walking back to the NewTaxiPark, we stumbled into the Green Shop. I remember Rachel saying, “Marvin, look it’s the Green Shop!” At first I was a bit incredulous because I had been to a place called the Green Shop before and it was located on one of the cobblestone streets of Amsterdam. However, this Green Shop in Kampala was a secondhand clothing store with shirts, pants, dresses, shoes, and all different types of clothes that were all 50% off the original prices of 3,000/= to 10,000/=. The quality was also better than the clothes usually sold at the open air stalls during market day. We both ended up buying some green clothes for the Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations. It’s actually funny now when I think back on clothing drives back in the United States that will be sent to Africa. Even in the poor villages in Uganda, many Ugandans have clothes that are worn out that have obviously been donated from other developed countries around the world. But most of the clothes go to market stalls where they are resold at a fraction of the price, and that is where most of the Ugandans get their clothes. If they’re lucky, then even a nice dress shirt or pair of slacks that would have cost upwards of $50 can be sold for 10,000/= here.

Plot 99 GazeboWe make our way to Masaka where we meet up with our friends by the Good Samaritan grocery store. Friday night was a chance to let loose and celebrate with Guinness Beef Stew, Shepherd’s Pie, mashed potatoes, beer games, and dancing at Club Ambiance. Then on Saturday we met up at Plot 99, which is the other big restaurant apart from Frikadellen that serves Muzungu buffets. We had reserved the place, which like Frikadellen, is located on a hill with gazebos, tables, and tire swings that overlook Masaka. At Plot 99 if you reserve beforehand with 8 or more people you can order a buffet of your choice. They offered Chinese, Mexican, Italian, and Ugandan. Of course we ordered the Mexican buffet, which turned out to be more like a family style meal where plates and bowls of food were brought to us and we served ourselves. There was more than enough food to make us full.

We spent the rest of the afternoon chilling, and we eventually found our way to a pool. From what I have learned from the PCV’s living near Masaka there are two pools that are worth going to. One of them is larger and bland while the other is peanut shaped and is more hidden. The first pool was filled with insects so we opted to go to the peanut shaped pool which was located off of a path from Plot 99.

The rest of the evening was spent getting dinner from street vendors off a side alley where we purchased a crate of Street Food Masakabeers (Nile, Bell, Club, Tusker, and someone also got a Smirnoff Ice for some reason) for the evening. We drank and chilled that night and before we knew it the weekend was over and we headed back to our respective homes.

It’s actually interesting about how much we look forward to the weekend and meeting up with other Muzungus here as PCV’s. I would surmise that most of us would have initially thought that we would be super local and integrate so well into our community that we would not really need to hang out and be social with the other Muzungus. As it turns out, so many of us yearn for a reminder that our home exists across the ocean. I think about how some days the best conversation that I had was with a fellow PCV on my cell phone. I also think about how some people have said that some of their favorite days spent in-country were weekends when they visited other PCV’s. It’s funny because I think that the ideal image of the Peace Corps Volunteer is one who is wearing the local garb, fluent in the local language, effortlessly moving throughout the community, and content with life. I believe that there are those volunteers who exist, but for the most part many volunteers seem to yearn for the comforts of their old home.

Peanut Shaped Pool MasakaWe never seem to be content wherever we are. When I was back in the United States, all that I could think of was about how I would be living the dream in Uganda. Now that I am here, I think about how I want to use a real bathroom, watch a YouTube video, see my old friends, eat cheese, and explore an urban city. At site I look forward to the weekend, and then when it’s the weekend I can never seem to shake off the feeling that I will eventually have to return back to site and do work.

The biggest challenge for myself here in Uganda is learning how to just be. I have to learn how to be content just being present here in this very moment without reminiscing too hard about the past or looking too far forward into the future. What matters is the moment to moment interactions, because that’s what I’m living right now. When I go back to the United States I hope that my memories will revolve more around the moments spent with my local community: biking through the hilly pathways of the Luweero sub-county, teaching the neighborhood kids how to ride my bicycle, watching my Year 1 students teach their own lesson plans, having to pump water from the borehole everyday, and the normal routine of living in the Ugandan sub-county. Sure the weekends are fun, but the time spent in my community is when I truly feel like I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Homes and Rhinos

Homes and Rhinos

February 16th, 2014

I’m back home again after traveling this weekend. I traveled up to Masindi this weekend to visit some friends. On Friday morning I packed a bag’s worth of clothes and shipped off on the dusty road from Luteete to Wobulenzi where I left my bicycle at the police station and then took a taxi to Luweero and then transferred to a taxi headed for Masindi. Not counting the bike journey, the taxi rides and stopovers took about 4 hours.

I arrived in Masindi in the early afternoon. Masindi looks just like all of the other Ugandan towns that I’ve seen. It felt smaller than Masaka and had fewer two or more story buildings; however, it seemed to sprawl out in a more grid-like city system compared with the other towns that I’ve seen. I waited for my friends at the Barclay’s Bank and we headed over to Karibundi’s, which is both a guest house, a decent restaurant, and grocery store. While here, I was finally able to turn in answers to some of the required questions from the School Profile Tool that the Peace Corps education staff requires. This School Profile Tool involves me answering a series of logistical and qualitative questions concerning the workings of Luteete PTC. Since I have not yet bought an MTN modem for internet here, I can only send information through email on the weekends when I reach areas with a 3G connection.

We then headed over to Traveler’s, which is also a guest house/restaurant combo that serves Fajitas and allows customers to bring in their own alcohol to the restaurant. I met up with some Peace Corps volunteers from the Southwest in my education group as well as some Peace Corps health volunteers who also lived in Masindi. It was nice to get to sit down and share some stories from the time spent at our sites. One of the volunteers in Arua was sharing how his roof was made out of thatched grass and that sometimes he felt as if strong wind would blow it off. Another one of the volunteers near Bushenyi shared that one of the school nuns confronted him about his religion and that if he did not have one then Jesus wouldn’t save him and that he is on the side of Satan. Then another volunteer shared that she still didn’t have a permanent house or site yet, but was still hanging in there.

We then took a private hire ride back to one of the volunteers’ homes from the Ugandan who seemingly knows all of the Muzungu’s in Masindi. His name is Mustaffa, he has driven hundreds of Muzungu’s in Masindi, and his name was passed on to us from the older Peace Corps volunteers. We split up our group of 7 between the volunteer at the primary school and the volunteer at the PTC, chilled for a few minutes by candlelight since the power had gone, and then went to bed.

The next day was exciting because we went Rhino Trekking in the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary located about half an hour’s Rhino Trekkingdrive south of Masindi. Mustaffa organized the transportation for us in one of the taxi’s. The sanctuary used to be a cattle ranch until Rhino Fund Uganda received 2 rhinos from Kenya in 2002 and 2 more rhinos from Kenya and 4 from the USA in 2009. From what we were told by our guide, there are 10 rhinos in existence in Uganda and 8 of them are here in the sanctuary. After having paid $25 (or 62,500/=) the guide took us into the deep part of the sanctuary where we followed the path of trodden grass and poop to where the rhinos were resting.

The rhinos are endangered in Uganda because they’ve been poached to extremely low levels. 1kg of ivory from a rhino’s horn sells for about $62,000, which gives incentive to illegal game hunters.

Eventually, we happened upon three of the rhinos resting underneath a small canopy of trees. Our guide told us that one of the rhino’s was named Obama because his parents consisted of one of the USA rhino’s and one of the Kenyan rhino’s. He also gave us three tips to consider if a rhino ever charges at us:

  1. Climb a strong tree
  2. Hide behind a thick bush
  3. Run in zig-zags

However, the coolest segment of the rhino trekking happened when we saw the mother rhino which was as large as a small elephant. We also saw here baby sleeping next to her. Then as we headed back, a pack of 4 rhinos walked out of the trees and across the open areas where they could graze. Mustaffa, who had brought dozens of Muzungu’s to this sanctuary, informed us that this was a rare sight and that the rhinos usually rested in one place during the day.

We headed back to Masindi and picked up some food for dinner. I was very happy to cook for everyone. I even made a small adjustment to my peanut pasta recipe and used G-Nut paste instead which worked just as well as peanut butter.

G-Nut/Peanut Pasta Recipe:

500g pasta cooked and drained

3 heaping tbsps G-Nut sauce or peanut butter

¼ cup soy sauce

1 clove of garlic minced, or 2 tsp garlic powder

4 tbsp white vinegar

2 tbsp sugar

We slept early Saturday night because we knew that we had a long day of travel on Sunday. The southwest volunteers left early because they had about 9 or more hours of traveling. I walked with the remaining volunteers back to Masindi where we had lunch at Karibundi’s. I wanted to pick up some food items from Lucky 7 supermarket where they sold jars of Strawberry Jam and bags of dried raisins for 2,500/= each. I bought several for my kitchen back in Luteete and then hopped on a taxi that zoomed back to Luteete PTC in less than 2 hours.

And you know what, after having purchased my furniture, I felt that my place in Luteete PTC felt more like a home. I actually looked forward to going back to my place and staying there where I felt comfortable. I am still spreading my roots over here, and some of them are taking and some of them are stubbornly refusing to expand. But slowly-by-slowly this place feels more and more like my home in Africa.

Early Motivation

February 3rd, 2014

Today was an interesting day at site. It was the first day of classes for the Primary School pupils and the first day of Orientation Week for the PrimaryTeacherCollege students. I set my alarm for around 8am and set further alarms to wake me up for every 10 minute interval since I was slated to meet my supervisor, Mr. Othieno sometime this morning. I was a bit tired when I woke up since I had spent the weekend traveling to Masaka in the west for a Peace Corps gathering of central volunteers.

This gathering was organized by one of the volunteers from the previous education group who had joined us for FrikadellenChristmas in Luweero a few months back. It was my first time independently choosing to travel, and it was an awesome experience. I packed up my bags early Friday morning and spent 45 minutes biking the dusty 11km road to Wobulenzi where I met up with Mary and Rebecca, the two Nakaseke PTC PCV’s. I left my bike at the Police Station and took a Matatu, taxi, to Kampala for 5000/=. We arrived at the New Taxi Park about 1 ½ hours later and then took a Matatu heading to Masaka for 12000/=. As we took off towards the west, the landscape changed from dusty roads to a paved highway surrounded by open expanses of green fields. I noticed that everything towards the west was greener than I had previously expected, and as we crossed the Equator line we passed by many small stalls selling drums.

Frikadellen FoodAfter around 3 hours, we arrived in Masaka and met some of our fellow PCV friends exploring the town before our meeting at the Frikadellen restaurant. In the meantime, we also met up with some of our trainers and volunteers from the previous education group at the Maria Flo hotel since they were having their MST, Mid-Service Training which happens to each group 1 year after being sworn-in. It was a bit odd seeing our trainers being trained themselves. We soon left to eat out at Frikadellen, which was a restaurant by the top of one of the hills in Masaka. Now this restaurant had an outdoor grill and seating area for dozens of guests if one reserved in advance. We sat down and began eating the all-you-can eat 30,000/= buffet consisting of tomato soup, fresh bread, cucumber salad, tomato salad, salsa, tartar sauce, Heinz Ketchup, fried cheese sticks, fish sticks, grilled chicken, grilled beef kebabs, guacamole puree, hot dogs, chocolate cake, and coffee. Now this may sound like an odd combination, but it was amazing to eat all of this food and taste these flavors that I have not tasted for such a long time. It’s funny, because even now I can still remember each flavor and think about how delicious it all was.

I also met some NGO’s at Frikadellen. There was a group of women from Denmark who was visiting Masaka as well as several Germans. I had the opportunity to use my German, although I was upset that I was having trouble expressing myself since I had been forcing myself to think more in Luganda. But I shared a really cool conversation with a Ugandan man who had lived in Germany for 5 years and could speak German. For a few minutes we talked and alternated sentences in Luganda and German which was really cool for me. It took me some time to get back into the groove of using my German, but it slowly came back to me.

Afterwards, we started chilling around the hotel with some of the older volunteers. I showered and started pre-gaming a bit for clubbing at Ambiance. I enjoyed busting out my moves with the local Ugandans and my volunteer friends. Funnily enough, it almost felt like freshman year in college again with all of the accompanying drama and shenanigans that I witnessed.

On Saturday I continued to explore Masaka and spent the night with two PCV’s, Eric and Elyse, who have a beautiful Elyse and Eric's Househouse about 1 ½ hour walk out of Masaka. Their house reminded me of a small, rural European house complete with running water, shower, toilet, sink, and a rustic-looking backyard with a football pitch bounded by a lush forest and a marsh. Sunday morning rolled about, and I set back to Kampala and then back to Wobulenzi where I picked up my bicycle and biked back to my home in Luteete.

And now that the weekend is over, I have to actually start working again. It’s been slow going, because I know that my checklist of things to accomplish is long and not feasible to finish quickly. I designed the furniture that I wanted for my house, and met with the local carpenter of Bamunanika. It was funny because there was a slight miscommunication where he told me that the bookcase that I wanted him to make would cost 500,000/= when he actually meant 50,000/=. I also have to start on my School Profile Tool questions which continues throughout the duration of my first three months at site. I also have to begin lesson planning for my classes that I will teach next week at the PTC. My answers to these questions must be sent to Peace Corps Staff members every week by email, except that my Orange Modem doesn’t work at site so I will have to obtain a new modem and sim card from MTN or Airtel. Even then I have to coordinate with the teachers whom I have not met yet concerning when I will be teaching the physics aspect of the Integrated Science course, as well as how to teach ICT without computers or a curriculum.

Taking a step back and looking at this list of things to do I now understand how I felt a bit disheartened earlier this morning. I looked ahead too much and felt the looming dread of ennui of living here for two years and having to plan when to pee and poop in a pit latrine, fetch water from the far-away borehole for my cooking and shower, when to do laundry in a bucket, and if I will always have the motivation or energy to keep on going. So I took a nap this morning after meeting and receiving the PTC Math and Integrated Science Curriculum books from Mr. Othieno and did what I do best, which was get my ass off bed and start doing the tasks on my checklist. And now, the house is clean, I have a plan for ordering my furniture, I will have enough money to purchase a modem for internet access, the electricity is working, I am somewhat clean from my bucket bath, I pooped, and slowly by slowly I am getting work done.