30 August 2013

Muzungu in the Mist

My R&R in Uganda has come and gone and it was, in a word, amazing! Perhaps not surprisingly, Uganda was in many ways quite similar to Congo but infinitely more relaxing, if not for the reasons you might expect (lack of work and armed conflict spring to mind, though that was certainly a welcome change). Perhaps the most striking differences for me were how much more obviously wealthy it is (this is all in context. With ‘wealth’ I am referring to the abundance of cattle, full service gas stations, and tarmacked roads), and the use of English as the lingua franca. Though I was surprised at how difficult it was for me to kick the habit of greeting everyone with ça va. 

I only spent one night in Entebbe before setting out on safari. Entebbe is a lovely little town on the shores of Lake Victoria and is about 45km outside of Kampala. I stayed that the guesthouse preferred by my colleagues (after the troubles in Bunia last November, they were evacuated and stayed there for more than a week) and ate dinner at a local pizza/Indian fusion joint on the shores of the lake. Though it was not more than a 10 minute walk, I ran into the owner of the guesthouse on the way back. She was so concerned about me walking alone in the dark that she actually drove out to fetch me, making an educated guess on my destination based on where everyone else in my team eats. We are communally creatures of habit. When I protested that it really wasn’t necessary, she observed that getting roughed or having my back taken would not put me at full strength for my trip. True words, Madame.

At promptly six am the following morning, I left for Kampala to meet my tour guide (for a vacation, there were an awful lot of early mornings). Gordon seemed pleasant enough, though our lime-green Mystery Machine managed to break down before we were even out of the city.
As I was waiting for Gordon and the two mechanics he enlisted to fix the fuel pump somethingorother, I passed the time by listening to PSAs for prostate exams as told by the tragic tale of the near-do-well John and his long-suffering wife. The ad concluded with John’s imminent death, the announcer gravely intoning that 50 per cent of people (people, not men, I was amused to hear) who get tested late for prostate cancer die. Statistically speaking, 100 per cent of them die, but I shouldn’t quibble. There were also good ones for mosquito nets and fighting disease in banana plantations. Welcome to Uganda!

It was a long drive to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, in the south west corner of the country (apparently, I should have just grabbed a boat from Goma), giving Gordon and I a chance to get to know one another. When I explained that I’m living in Congo, it seemed to invite him (and indeed, any Ugandan to whom I was speaking) to heap vitriol on his neighbors. The Congolais can’t cook, but apparently will eat everything including snakes, doges, and in some cases, people. They are beggars and dirty and lazy. The army is composed entirely of cowards. That they have such a rich country and are so poor just highlights their incompetence or stupidity or idleness or all three. Only one young guide I spoke with had anything positive to say, noting that Congolais are on the cutting edge of the music scene and make great dancers.

When they weren’t scornful, they often expressed a rather shocking naiveté. Congo? Is there still a war there? Well, that depends on how you define it, but lets’ go with yes. I haven’t seen the UN helicopters in a while. They are still there, too? Sweet fancy pants, yes. It’s the largest mission in UN history, and it just got bigger! Even people back home know about the Intervention Brigade! And how is the war going? I honestly have no idea how to answer that, but I’ll go with sucks for pretty much everyone (on a related note, two UPDF battalions accompanied by battle tanks actually entered Congo the last weekend I was in Uganda, and folks were still asking if there was a war going on. People. Your army just invaded! I think this level of apathy would give most Americans a run for their money).

Likewise, sharing my profession yielded all kinds of advice and suggestions and project ideas. Gordon himself inquired why I don’t suggest to Obama to step aside and allow the AU intervene to fix Congo. I…there are so many amazing assumptions inherent in that question that I didn’t know where to begin. Obama is also, apparently, the rudest US president ever, on account of his failure to his is distaste for Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, in addition to being a huge hypocrite for killing Qaddafi. When I protested that President Obama did not, in fact, kill him, Gordon amended the comment to allowing Qaddafi to be killed, but suck to his guns (this defense of Qaddafi struck me as trés bizarre. Sure, Qaddafi and Museveni have been frenemies for a while, but the man supported the LRA for years. Then again, at one point Gordon dismissed the north as just full of poor people, so perhaps he could care less about the horrifying things the LRA did).
There was money in the banana stand (it's the main cash crop in the area)
At some point, our discussion turned toward domestic politics. Gordon fervently hopes that Museveni will continue his 27-year-long presidency for the next 5-8 years. Although he admitted that, sure, Museveni’s government was perhaps corrupt (he justified this with the Uganda proverb ‘a man eats where he works’), and yeah, some people he may be hard on (like the opposition, civil libertarians, and the entirety of the queer community, and really any gathering of more than three people, but I suppose you can’t please everyone), but he has brought the country so far! Gordon expressed a rather profound fear of civil war, opining that only Museveni was powerful enough to prevent it. But he was concerned that Museveni seems to be positioning his son to take power upon his retirement/death, and that didn’t strike him as the right course.

This was also when I began to keep a running tab of the number of times someone needed to confirm that I was traveling alone or had no boyfriend. By the end of the trip, it had happened least two dozen times. In the interests of full disclosure, I counted in this tally the times someone told me that I needed a man and the many occasions Gordon propositioned me, including: explaining how, if we were to end up together, he would make me eat meat (one of the many reasons we never will, I responded); whenever he referred to us as lovers or suggested I sleep in his bed; the time he offered to sell me to someone for 37 cows (the man demurred – here, we use goats, he explained); and the numerous instances he flat-out asked me to marry him. I did not include the references to how common it is for whites to marry Ugandans or how he was looking for someone, and, say, wasn’t I? I have to admit to being a bit flattered by the 37 cows quote. On the first day of our trip, when Gordan was flirting with a waitress, he suggested that she send his mother two cows, and then she could have him. That I was worth so many more was very complimentary.

Sporadically throughout the trip, Gordon also gave me Swahili lessons. Msichana – girl. Mvulana – boy. Wewe ni mzuri – you are very beautiful. I’m wasn’t sure how much use these will ever be, but decided just to go with it.

Not a moment too soon, we arrived at the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (a UNESCO World Heritage site!), home of the mountain gorilla. The name is an entry for the redundancy department – Bwindi means impenetrable.
The line between farmland and national forest is so clearly drawn it's hilarious
And the eve of my trekking expedition, lest it seem like all I’ve done was gripe about my driver, Uganda already rocked my socks. The ‘camp’ at which I was staying welcomed me with a roaring fire, fresh juice, and tea with warm milk, while the tent had indoor plumbing and a glorious view. And these were the budget accommodations! As I took a shower ‘under the sky’ in a rainstorm, I have to admit that, in that moment, I thought I could stay in Africa long-term. I fell asleep with a hot water bottle against my toes and rain lulling me to sleep overhead.

I woke before dawn to prepare for my gorilla trek. The camp manager handed me a bag lunch on my way to the pre-trek briefing (a juice box and sandwich. I felt like I was seven). I was assigned to the Kyaguliro Group, which is currently being observed for research purposes, and given a litany of instructions. Don’t go closer the seven meters to the gorillas, though they are likely to wander closer than that to you. When do, stay still and be calm. If they get aggressive, do not panic and do not run. Adopt a submissive attitude and back away slowly. Do not mimic the sounds of the gorillas. If you take video, do not play it back in their presence. Do not make eye contact. Do not use a flash. Do not cough around the gorillas. Got it? Got it. And then I was off with park ranger Israel and German tourists Ursula and Constantine (as well as two armed ‘escorts’ who were apparently there to scare off forest elephants.We were hiking for not too much more than an hour when we met up with the tracking party. We climbed a bit further and heard some low noises of grunting and shaking branches, and suddenly found ourselves in the midst of gorillas!
I cannot begin to capture the amazing feeling of watching a blackback make coy eyes and play the diva as he pulls a vine off a tree or seeing three babies tumble with one another among a tangle of roots or just standing still and listening to them converse. It was surreal. So, in lieu of trying more than I have, I’ll just offer lots of photos and some statistics. The family had two silverbacks, four blackbacks (as the adolescent males are known), seven females, and seven babies. The youngest wasn’t more than a few months and the family was very, very protective of it.

I enjoyed the most profound sense of serenity and joy for very nearly an hour (you only ever get an hour with the gorillas) when the rangers decided we needed a better view of the alpha silverback. We got to within the prescribed seven meters (and a bit closer, honestly) on a steep slope dense with undergrowth. We were more walking on a net of leaves than the ground itself, and our footing was both treacherous and pleasantly bouncy. That was about the time the silverback got…aggressive. There wasn’t any beating of the chest, but he started growling and then screaming, then bared his teeth, and finally charged us. I have to admit, had my traction been better, I would have beat cheeks (like that would have gone well, considering that even the recommended backing away was nigh impossible and gorillas are surprisingly speedy). As it was, I slipped a bit, causing the rangers to hiss to stay still. By the second charge, I had decided that, were I to die, death by angry gorilla was not such a bad way to go. Imagine the headstone possibilities!
We eventually realized that he was posturing to protect the baby, who was carried past us by his mother during the second charge. That was amazing on another level – being sandwiched between this adorable infant and furious papa. If gorilla trekking was not already on the to-do list for your life, please add them now.

On our way to Queen Elizabeth National Park the following day, we made a not-so-quick stop so that Gordon could pick up some shoes. In the process, he stumbled upon a park guide who needed a lift. In fact, almost the whole trip we acted as a taxi service for stranded guides and hotel employees. Not that I minded. It meant he spent less time talking about our pending marriage. And, often, the guides directed us to the best spots for animal viewing. This first time, the ranger in question worked in an area where lions are known to climb trees. Though we didn’t manage to find any, I so much wanted to see some that every rock or termite mound became a mane, every hanging vine or branch a lazy tail. We did make a stop at a tea estate, which was pretty spiffy.

When we finally arrived at the park, I was almost immediately loaded on a river cruise. It sounds more posh than it was. I was joined by a surprising number of birders. They were almost as much fun to watch as the birds themselves, one stalking the other stalking water bugs through the shallows. They (the people, not the birds) were outfitted with mammoth binoculars, but used camera photos. One actually held the phone up to the binos. I would love to know how that photo came out. Ultimately, I managed to turn my attention to the mammals I was supposed to be watching.

I was interested to discover that I have a here-to-unknown love of hippos. I could have watched them for hours, enjoying how they emerge from the water coquettishly, bashfully, only to start and snort water high in the air, as if mortified you caught them. Water buffalos, meanwhile, always seem to look either forlorn or disgruntled. There were village kids swimming in waters that housed not only the highest concentration of hippos in the world, but also Nile crocodiles and a variety of water snakes (the park was established well after the village, and now proceeds go to support their health, hygiene, and education). The guide on the boat observed the children and then felt the need to remind us silly tourists of us how extremely illegal this was.

Despite having told me the night before that we would leave at 7h00, Gordon arrived for me at 6h30. It was a good thing that I was already up and meditating (on him, nonetheless. That…isn’t as creepy as it sounds. I was going for patience and serenity). Also, he was deeply hung over. Happily for my olfaction, we were rolling with windows down. He explained that he had met up with several of his fellow guides for a beer, and might have had a few more than planned. He further apologized, not for being so slaboo, but for not inviting me along. Given that a) they almost certainly wouldn’t have been speaking English, b) his innuendos probably would have crossed a line, and c) his preferred drink is cold Guinness and Coke, I was unspeakably relieved that he didn’t. Although his driving improved as he dried out, it was still a bit erratic as we careened around a corner and into the middle of a herd of elephants. We skidded to a halt, startling some babies back into the foliage. An older elephant flapped her ears at us in gentle rebuke for our dramatic entrance. Watching them move gracefully, somehow noiselessly, in the predawn light washed away any lingering irritation I might have had with Gordon and return me, if only briefly, to the meditative state I had abandoned. It was too dark yet for flashless photos, and I didn’t want to scandalize them like that (having to flash them…get it? Sigh).

It was in much better spirits, then, that we set off for the remainder of the game drive. The sun was breaking through the cloudy memory of the early morning rain, kissing the green waves of the grasslands with fire. I saw all manner of assorted herbivores and birds – topis and impala and buffalo bathing in the salt lake, munching, playing, nursing. At one point, we heard the rumor of a lion and some 15 tourist vans and Land Cruisers and Range Rovers in various states of disrepair jetted to the same spot, only to be told it had vanished into a thicket. Gordon opined that someone had played a joke. It certainly had a sense of theatre of the absurd, watching all of those ungainly vehicles try to navigate around each other in the mud and muck, camera-laden tourists hanging out the top and swaying like dashboard hula dancers. But I loved watching the topi frolic and the water buck pace with stately grace. Though I had given up on lions I consoled myself that the entire point of this journey was really gorillas – everything else was icing on the cake. I had a few more elephant sightings and even some of my beloved warthogs (warthogs, for those who don’t know, are hilariously in person. In my mind, they are the absurdly pompous dandies of the animal world and I love them for that).
Then, just at about when we had decided we were hungry and it was high time to head back, what was that in the grass? A languidly undulating tail? Some black-tipped ears, perhaps? We stopped smartly, but she had disappeared. The guide in the car behind us – the only other one around, as the gaggle from earlier had broken up – didn’t believe that we had seen anything, but his passengers encouraged him to take a closer look so he pulled his Land Cruiser off the main track. Gordon wasn’t sure that our battered Mystery Machine would be equal to the task (it had been falling apart in bits and pieces throughout the drive, malfunctioning just about every time we left tarmac roads. The previous day, a particularly vicious bump had caused the cover to the glove compartment to completely disconnect and an empty Nile Special bottle to drop on my toes. Gordon claimed that the roadie wasn’t his, but I have my doubts), but these were my lions! I urged him to give it a go. And that is how we ended our morning with the magical charm of watching a mother snuggling with her eight-month-old cub (eight months was Gordon’s estimate, and while on the subject of doubting Gordon is still fresh in our minds, I at times wondered about the thoroughness of his guide training. Remind me to tell you about the plant he claimed was 100x more addictive than cocaine, or the herb that would magically make me crave meat – especially liver – and that he threatened to slip in my omelet one morning. Credit where credit is due, though, the man knew his birds. I think he was disappointed that I wasn’t more of a birder. It seemed to be a German thing).

I have found that I tend to value most that which is unexpected (like the unsung charms of Goma). I anticipated the majesty and grace of the elephants and lions. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t adore them, but the highlight of the day might well have been the unaccountably cool tour of the salt lake. Where they actually farm salt. The ground in this area is apparently super acidic and most of the bodies of water are naturally salt producing (among all kinds of other, more noxious things. One of the lakes is called ‘smelly’ in the local language, though they all smell like sulphur). The non-farmed ones make for great animal viewing – they go by the herd to add minerals in their diet and clean wounds. Meanwhile, the lakes also produce by the bucket load algae that is favoured among migratory flamingos. Some of the larger lakes, however, have been cultivated by the locals in some way or another since the 1400s. They build salt ‘pans’ along the lake shore by lining pits with grasses and wood and then fill them with water from the lake. They can only be farmed during the dry season, when sustained evaporation cases a thin layer of salt to form on top of the pan like ice. The farmer keeps building layers of salt crystal until it hardens and sinks, at which point they harvest and purify it (by stomping on it like wine grapes!) until fit for human consumption.
In the lake itself, the farmers dive down to the lake bed where salt rock has formed. This is gathered for industrial use. Where the plots . are individually owned like plots of land and are passed through families for generations, the lake divers are more or less unionized. Because of the astoundingly high salt content of the water, women are only allowed to work in the pans – the continual emersion of the rock harvesting causes too much damage to their fallopian tubes, apparently. As it is, they already have a worryingly high prevalence of miscarriages and the male divers have to wear condoms to protect their foreskins. They also suffer from near-constant dehydration and have to find alternate employment during the six months of the rainy season, when salt can’t be harvested. Somehow, though, the lake employs some 5000 people and they are actively fighting to preserve their way of life in the face of efforts by a large company to buy up all the pans and rehabilitate and old factory built by the Germans in the 1950s. It was like a super warped version of Erin Brockovich. My charming guide, Michael, pointed out to me that the like was shaped like bean of kidney, or a hornless Africa. Uganda exports its salt throughout the region and, for reasons unknown to Michael, China. 
You can see the rafts of rock salt being towed through the lake
By the time Gordon came to fetch me, the MM was no longer able to reverse. Only three days left to go!