Friday, April 30, 2010

Oli Otya!

Today I arrived in Uganda. After traveling for two days through Chicago, Amsterdam, Nairobi and finally Entebbe, Uganda, I am finally here. And I am tired, to say the least. I think all of the anticipation and stress involved in the preparation for this summer (GMAT, MBA application, quitting job, HELP training, team building, recruiting and fundraising, just to name a few) had made me kind of desensitized to what I was really feeling about this experience, I mean, I’ve been excited, but I haven’t really felt anything real. It’s just been a crazy whirlwind since HELP offered me the job on New Year’s Eve. Maybe it just didn’t really seem real, Africa is so far away… that is until I was standing in the Nairobi, Kenya airport, literally, peeing into a hole in the ground in the “water closet,” and about 2 hours from my final destination and home for the summer, Uganda. At this point there was no turning back and the saying from the movie Blood Diamond, “TIA” (This Is Africa) all the sudden took on a whole new meaning, and I was still in an airport! At this point I think all of the nerves kicked in and that combined with the overwhelming aroma of all of my un-deodorized brothers and sisters, was doing a number on my stomach. I also remembered how I hadn’t officially coordinated a ride from the airport when I arrived in Uganda. You see, due to the volcano Elyusdfodksjdkdull (that’s just a guess) my original flight, which would have had me arriving with my fellow country director Nicole Luscher, had been cancelled. In addition to missing my long-awaited 6 day tour de’ London, I now was arriving solo, and about 2 days behind Nicole. Because of our conflicting flights among other things, we had never formally arranged my transportation. I had emailed her my itinerary, but she hadn’t responded yet. While in Amsterdam, I checked my email one final time but still hadn’t received word from Nicole. I like to live my life by “worst case scenarios” and my plan in this instance was to wait at the airport for 2 hours and then catch a taxi into the capitol, Kampala, and get a hotel and find an internet café. I thought this was a good enough plan and it had tided me over until I was on the last leg of my trip. As I de-boarded my Kenya Airways flight and entered the Entebbe airport through doors beneath a sign welcoming me to the “Pearl of Africa” I had very little desire to pass through the customs check, retrieve my very overweight suitcases ($125 in fees) and sit on a curb. Relief took on a whole new meaning when I walked through the customs clearance to see a tall blonde Mzungu (the Ugandan term of endearment for white people) waiting for me. Tears welled up in my eyes for about 5 seconds (I’m not a huge crier, so this was big) and I have literally never been so happy to see anyone in my life. Just for reference, Nicole had only arrived 24 hours earlier, hadn’t slept much more than me, and gotten up at 5 a.m. to make the 3 hour trip back to the airport to get me. I love her. Seriously. I was amazed how much she already seemed to know, paying for our parking, buying me breakfast (a Coke) and navigating our way to Lugazi where she had arranged our first partner meeting with Dr. Nyombi, the landlord for the 2009 HELP team.
But before I get carried away with the rest of my adventurous first day in Africa, let me share some first impressions.
  1. Uganda is far more beautiful than Kenya (sorry Kenyans, maybe the airport wasn’t a fair indication??) But Winston Churchill had it right with his “Pearl of Africa” assessment. This place is BEAUTIFUL, literally from the minute I stepped off the plane I was in love. The red dirt roads are lined with tea fields, groves of banana trees and sugar cane plantations. The contrast is so striking and quite the scenic backdrop for such an impoverished nation.
  2. If I die in Uganda, it will be in a traffic accident. Seriously, drivers, pedestrians and cyclists alike are straight up nuts. There is no protocol for passing, pedestrians definitely DO NOT have the right of way, and there are people. Everywhere.
  3. Ugandans are very proper. Quiet, polite, good natured. They greet you by saying "You are welcome," and they repeat it several times in any conversation.
  4. Ugandan children are beautiful little chocolate drops, and I want one. No, I will not steal one like the missionaries in Haiti, I’m just saying.
  5. The cities, infrastructures and such, remind me a lot of Guatemala. I seriously kept regurgitating Spanish. Maybe that’s just my only reference for 3rd world living, or maybe I’m just retarded; I may or may not have said “Gracias” to a woman in the Amsterdam airport who looked at me like I was the dumbest American she'd encountered to date. But I seriously keep getting caught off-guard when I see a sign or billboard in English.
Back to our day. We travelled first to our temporary home in Jinja where we are staying with Nicole’s childhood friend, Kimi. Another ironic/miracle story about our trip here. Nicole and Kimi grew up in BC Canada and Kimi came to Uganda 2 years ago and now runs a NGO called His Hope Uganda where she sponsors 92 children, 12 of whom live with her in Jinja. Do you know how nice it was to arrive here to a clean home, greeted by 12 beautiful kids and a bowl of Mr. Noodles (Top Ramen)? Heaven. Not to mention the view of the Nile that is outside Kimi’s back porch. We unloaded my things, greeted the children, and stayed home just long enough for me to manage to lock myself in the bathroom. There was no handle on the inside of the door, and no one mentioned that I shouldn’t close the door when I try and use the toilet. As I knocked and called for help, soon enough little brown eyes were peeping through the hole where the handle was supposed to be, and Uncle Eman came to the rescue with a butter knife that opened the latch. Hello, Africa I am here. After that little debacle, we jumped back into our rented Safari van so that Uncle Eman (Kimi’s trusted driver and friend, the man is a saint) could take us back to Lugazi (about 40 km away) so that we could meet with Dr. Nyombi to procure housing. Dr. Nyombi studied medicine in Russia and now runs a medical clinic in Lugazi where we met him. He took us to his property which we were surprised to see was a former night club and hostel, “Club Jordan”…surprise #1. After walking through the gates into the large commons area, we initially thought this place might actually work out. There was a pool table and many small café tables and the room was absolutely huge. The property then wound through a series of open air halls with individual rooms that each had a shower. I immediately thought of how nice it would be for our team of volunteers to have their own rooms and SHOWERS, until the distinct odor of mold wafted into my nose. Nicole, who is a public health major and I looked at each other with the exact same thought in our heads. 25 HELP volunteers, brain dead from toxic mold exposure. NOT ON OUR WATCH! However, we didn’t want to be abrupt or rude so we continued to follow Dr. Nyombi around this bizarre set up of a “home.” Finally, Nicole said to Dr. Nyombi, “My only fear is that the rooms are not properly ventilated since there is running water in each space.” I seriously wish you could hear her carefully annunciated Ugandan accent. As she said this, we both looked up to a big patch of 1970’s-couch-mustard colored mold literally crawling out of the ceiling…surprise #2. Dr. Nyombi quickly countered, “There is no mold here! This place is just fine, clean! It’s no problem! No worry!” Uhhhhhhh. Sure. We then ventured around to the back of the property to see the storage place. When Dr. Nyombi opened the door of the closet intended for a generator, an emaciated cat literally exploded from the room and leaped across our feet. Nicole reached back and grabbed my arm as I recovered from my heart attack…surprise #3. “The place needs a little cleaning, it has been unoccupied for a while,” Dr. Nyombi responded. You think?! Needless to say, in spite of the attractive price tag of $2 million Ugandan shillings a month (I still haven’t adjusted to the exchange rate!) we will not be making our volunteers sleep at Club Moldy Cat as I have dubbed it. Hopefully Dr. Nyombi doesn’t read our blog. We haven’t had the heart to break the news to him yet.
The rest of the day included returning to our sanctuary at Kimi’s in Jinja where I debated taking my first shower in 3 days and first bucket shower in Uganda, but those dreams were dashed when Kimi told us the water and power were out, probably for a couple of days. No worries. TIA. I was tired enough to lay my dirty self down and fall asleep by about 7 p.m. Slept through dinner. Slept through a rainstorm. Woke up feeling like a million bucks, un-tucked the mosquito net, and then took a luxurious bucket shower…the water and power were back on! With every shivering bucket of water I poured on my head I tried to mentally capture the feeling of being cool. Uganda is right on the equator. In fact there is a tourist spot where you can literally go through a gate and cross it. Needless to say, it’s hot. And when you’re packed in a taxi with 12 other Ugandans, it’s hotter. Cold showers might become my “happy place” around midday.

 Crossing the runway to board my flight to Uganda!
Lugazi is home to miles of sugar cane fields. They pride themselves in living in the sweetest town in Uganda.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Baby went to Amsterdam...

The silver lining to my delayed flight and canceled trip to London was a brief and solo stint in Amsterdam. I have never felt so uncool in my life tromping around in my chaco's amidst sleek Europeans in their cool sneakers, but I got to take in some great sights. I took a train to Amsterdam Central and spent the entire day playing both tourist and tour guide. Here are some highlights. Sans me, since I was my own photographer.
 What can you do in a 12 hour tour of Amsterdam? 
Bikes along the Grand Canal. Can I live here please?
Carnival downtown in front of Madam Tussaud's wax museum.
No time to visit tulip fields. These ones lining the streets will do.