Sometimes I wonder if maybe I should keep happy truths such as this title to myself. I don't wish to sound spoiled or a braggart. Maybe I should say simply, "I saw gorillas." I actually debated, but in the end I decided this blog is about my travels as experienced by me personally; a series of mini autobiographical accounts of episodes in my life. And if I'm to convey the full import of this day's events properly, then you should know how important this day was to me. So ...
When I decided on Uganda as my next travel destination, the first thing I knew I wanted to do outside the UWEC was see the gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest ... one of the last places on Earth where gorillas still live in their natural habitat. There are three habituated groups in Bwindi (gorillas that have been conditioned to tolerate human presence). When I found out how much it costs to do this activity, I had to take a step backward. Whoa, Nelly. But I decided it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; who knows if I will ever be in that neck of the woods again. In my financially unsavvy mind, this is exactly what credit is for.
So … because of the financial burden, I decided to place my trust in a fellow I “met” on couchsurfing and with whom I had arranged to live at Lake Bunyoni during my independent travels. He claimed to have a different, backdoor method of securing me a permit than the traditional $500 flat fee, and that it would cost me more like $350. He came to Entebbe once during my month there and we met and I hesitantly gave him $200 deposit to secure my trek. … Well, after that, my FB friend who books gorilla treks and safaris for tourists expressed skepticism at the legitimacy of this, and as I tried to keep communication with my couchsurfing friend via email, all kinds of fishy-sounding delays and excuses came in for not yet having placed my deposit. Finally, I decided to accept that I’d misplaced my trust. I told this guy that I would accept the loss of my money, but to please come straight with me if he was going to keep it for himself so that I could try to obtain a legit permit elsewhere. It was more important to me to get the opportunity to see the gorillas than to get that $200 back. He insisted all was good, no worries, I’m set to go tracking.
So I’m staying with him, and the day arrives for my trek. He told me the night before that his contact at Bwindi texted him that the other people signed up to trek that day had all canceled, probably on account of the rainy weather that had prevailed all that week, but that I was still good to go, it would just cost me more money since I was the only one. Having been nickel-and-dimed nearly to death over the preceding few days, again my stomach turns at the sound of this unusual fishy news. But at that point, what can I do?
When my friend actually got up at 5:30 a.m. on the day of the trek and his cook and boatman, Bruce, handed us a sack lunch, I started to feel a little better. Even if I was going to be swindled for a fortune, surely he wouldn’t put on this charade if there was no real chance to trek. It’s a half-hour boat ride to where we could pick up a car to drive 2 hours to Bwindi. In absolute darkness, we stepped into the boat. Bruce started the motor and we puttered through the lake. Bruce obviously knows it and its narrow channels by heart. There is no electricity around the lake until you reach the far side and no light on the boat. The sky was clouded over. So I’m not exaggerating … we parted those cold waters in pitch blackness.
The drive to Bwindi was excruciatingly slow. There was a heavy fog, the road was very curvaceous, and my friend was not adept at taking the corners. So we crawled along through the fog. Already running late, he then tells me his brakes are barely working and he needs to stop to find out who can fix them. (“Now?” I'm thinking … “Really?”) So we stop at a lady’s house he says he knows. He gets back in and says he will pick up a guy on the way to Bwindi who will fix the brakes while I am trekking. We continue.
Finally the sun begins to thin the fog and we turn off the rare nicely-paved highway onto a dirt road. But now it’s only ½ hour before I am supposed to be at the park. He picks up speed to a rather alarming rate on the narrow rocky path laden with pedestrians and livestock who are sent scattering to the edges ahead of our honking horn. I’m somewhat confident now that he is truly trying to get me there in time for something. Sure enough, we stop and pick up a guy along the way. And we arrive at the gate ½ an hour later than planned, but in the nick of time for the rangers to still accept our arrival.
Still, despite the slightly epic travel to arrive here, I remain worried that I will get to the desk and be told I’m not registered to go or that it’s going to cost me thousands of dollars. So, it turns out that yes, I was the only person to trek that day – highly unusual. And in the end I believe it cost me more than $500, but less than $600, so nearly the same fee as a regular permit. I was thinking to myself, well I went through all this anxiety and stomach-aching to try to save money; I could have just bought a regular permit to begin with, and was feeling just a wee bit sour.
The sky had cleared completely by the time my ranger guide and I set out. The first thing he said to me was, “You are very lucky! Usually there are 8 people on a trek. You are the only one! This will be very good for you, you’ll have the gorillas all to yourself.” I immediately brightened up. And apparently, I learned, with the traditional permit, it was unlikely that you would be given a trek all to yourself. You have to wait until there are 7 or 8 people in the group. Same way they operate public transport … you only leave when it’s full.
My guide was pleased with my ability to keep up with him at a good pace. “You’re a good walker!” he said to me several times. We found the gorillas sooner by at least a couple hours than it would have taken with the typical group of 8. In case you’re wondering how impenetrable the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest really is … I refer you to my guide with his curved machete, walking in front of me like Captain Hook. The trails were muddy and slippery and sometimes so overgrown we weren’t even stepping on the ground. The guide kept in contact with the actual trackers who had gone out early in the morning to find where the gorillas were and direct us over walkie-talkies. So at some point, at the tracker’s direction, we had to leave the trail and head overland. The gorillas were down in a ravine, so we headed straight down a steep slope, my guide hacking our way through. This was seriously an adventure in and of itself. This is the hillside across the ravine; we came down through that exact same density of forest. It's hard for me to know if you are sufficiently impressed by how difficult it is to make your way down that slope.
My guide stopped abruptly and told me to put all food and water away and get out my camera. Then I heard the tracker in the bushes. We took a few more steps and my guide parted some leaves with his hook, and there they were! My first gorilla in the wild:
The first sighting included 3 gorillas and I couldn’t believe how close they were to us. We were literally right on top of them.
So now let me list all the lucky things about my experience as pointed out to me by my guide who was very pleased for me.
(1.) Quickly reached the gorillas. And after the allotted hour was up … all permits are good for only one hour of viewing … we got back to the park entrance quickly. This was good because (2.) It was clear sunny skies for precisely the period of time encasing my trek. Sun broke through as I began, first rain drops fell as I walked back into the base camp. (3.) I was taken to see the one group of gorillas that was completely habituated. (4.) Typically people only see one silverback; I saw two. And they are seriously impressive fellows. If one of those guys started running at me, I would pee my pants and probably faint. There's really no way to capture their heft and gravity in a photo, or even a video. (5.) The gorillas are usually more hidden among the impenetrable forest and the typical photo op involves only various body parts of the gorillas -- their heads or backs or arms; my gorillas had bedded down areas in the ravine and stretched out their whole bodies in full view. Can you spot the gorilla below? This is the more typical scene:
(6.) I saw both the eldest member of the group, at 38 years, and the youngest member, at 3 months. (7.) When my hour was up (shortest hour of my entire life), I got bonus time because just then a gorilla toppled part of a tree nearly on top of us and came ambling down to sit just in front of us. My guide and tracker let me stay another 5 minutes to commune with this fellow.
(8.) Above all, being the only person allowed me unimpeded photographic access, without 7 other people vying for the prime shooting spots (or indeed, given the thick cover, vying for any shooting spot), and unprecedented “communion” time with the gorillas. Nobody else there making noise with their voices and their rustling clothes and their clicking cameras. Just me. My guide and trackers were silent and I spent as much time with my camera down as with it up, just silently soaking up the presence of these amazing creatures. The guide told me I can look them in the eyes except if one is charging … then absolutely do not do this. I watched them groom each other and move their ponderous weight through the thick brush; munch munch munch on the leaves; young gorillas climb up the trees; and most precious of all, the mother suckling and cuddling her 3-month old.
First glimpse of the baby suckling. The mother is extraordinarily large. The guide says no one here has ever seen a female this large; she is the same size as a male. In the fourth photo, I love the baby's little feet sticking out underneath the mom's arm. Presumably the toddler beside her is her child also. And then, mom is exhausted ... "what a day!" she's saying with her hand over her brow.
It almost makes me cry now to think back on how cool it all was, that hour that passed in a wide-eyed minute. Quite an incomparable experience.
Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda.
Just outside the park at Queen Elizabeth lie salt lakes where the locals extract salt from the water using one of two methods. Either they evaporate the water, or dig the rock salt up from the bottom of the lake. There are some rather interesting aspects to the "uniform," shall we call it, the workers must wear each day. It had never once occurred to me to wonder about the hazards of working in salty water. I have been inside the ancient and astounding Wieliczka salt mine in Poland, impressive beyond my already-high expectations in both its sheer size and its artistic interior, carved by workers who seldom ever surfaced from the mine. Supposedly, the air in the mine is actually a health benefit.
On the other side of the world, though, the impoverished villagers working the salt lakes in Uganda are plagued by numerous health problems. But let’s begin with a brief description of the lake. Villagers purchase plots of the lake to "harvest" (extraction by evaporation), just as one would purchase a plot of land for agriculture or livestock pasture. So different villagers have different-sized plots depending on their investment. They let several feet of water into their plot via a channel and let it sit stagnant. In the hot sun of the dry season, as the water evaporates, a film of salt soon evolves on the top. The villager then steps into the pond, waist-high in water, and skims the salt film off the top, collecting it in a sack. Easy as pie, really.
Plots on the salt lake.
In the rainy season, however, the villagers wane into destitution as the lake becomes too diluted with fresh rain water to be able to form a layer of salt. Kasim, my guide, tells me, “The only remedy is prayer. Pray for the rains to stop. Salt is their only source of income.”
The handful of structures on the lakeshore suffer constant corrosion, as do the bodies of the workers. Their skin becomes like crocodile skin and they suffer from dehydration. In recent years, as the government finally paid attention to the health issues, and they have started a campaign to educate the workers on the measures they need to take to stay healthy. A tourist cannot visit the salt lakes unaccompanied by a local guide. You stop at the tourist building, find the nearest adult or responsible-looking kid to go look for the guide on duty that day, wait in the sun for him to show up, and then he takes you around. The money you pay for this service provides the education and supplies the workers need to safeguard their health.
Waiting for a guide to show up.
So … #1: drink lots and lots of water to combat dehydration, and do not drink alcohol before or during work.
#2: if you are a woman, wear a tampon. Salt water consistently entering a woman’s nether-regions causes her serious health problems. Of this, I had no idea! So “they must pack cotton into themselves,” Kasim tells me. Part of tourist-generated money buys this material.
#3: if you are a man, first, if you are not already, you are highly advised to get circumcised. Salt water consistently hanging out in the folds of this nether-region causes unfortunate problems as well. But even so, the man’s treasures remain endangered by consistent exposure to salt water. So, the natural course of action became to fit themselves with a condom each morning, and part of tourist money buys the condoms. “But the condom was invented for another type of activity,” Kasim reminds me. So how to put on this part of the worker’s uniform each day? At first, the recommendation was to pleasure one’s self sufficiently to ensure a proper fit. But when this is actually part of your daily job, apparently the novelty wears off and the men looked for an alternative. Kasim then performed for me a reenactment of how the men stuff their entire package, balls and all, into a condom and seal the top with a rubber band. This charade was completely hilarious. I would love the opportunity some day to be playing charades game and to draw the card, “salt lake worker,” and perform Kasim’s rendition of stuffing my goodies into a teeny tiny bag.
The level of extra-marital promiscuity/sexual relations is quite high in Uganda. It’s been phrased to me as “the side dish.” You have your spouse – the main course – and then you sample the occasional side dish. One man told me that it can be a real problem when a Ugandan man dies, as suddenly two or three women besides the "formal" wife come out of the woodwork displaying their children they had with the man and staking a claim to his estate. One thing I thought about at the salt lake was that there would be no side dish activity going on during the work day!
Kasim shows me a bottle of the salt obtained by evaporation. And below that, slabs of rock salt dug up from the lake bed.
After this surprisingly entertaining tour of the local salt production, we went to another lake where the migrating flamingos were just arriving. Literally only the day before, the first ones fluttered in. Apparently, in a few more days, the lake would be completely covered by the flamingos’ annual Occupy The Lake movement – wall to wall feathers. What I saw were the first ranks filing in, reminding me of the March of the Penguins, where the emperor penguins walk single file across the snows of Antarctica. There was one line moving in from the right side of the lake, and one line moving in from the left. In the middle of the lake they met, and turned to walk toward the back of the lake. I don’t know if there was any sense to this choreography, or if they were just milling about in a coincidentally organized way. I would love to have seen the full mass of birds, but it was still cool to watch the frontrunners arrive.
I'd like to add a little postscript here ... Kasim asked to exchange email addresses and asked me to send him the photo I took of him, above. After I returned home, I did so. I never heard back, but wasn't surprised or disappointed ... I imagined his use of email was extraordinarily limited. About 6 months later, I got an email with the subject "from Kasim." I almost disregarded it as junk, and am so glad I didn't because it was Kasim writing me: "I just wanted to let you know that the flamingos have returned to the lake. Hope you are fine." I couldn't believe he'd remembered me and wrote to tell me of the flamingos! Was a bit touched.
When I returned to the UWEC after traveling, I hadn’t showered in 3 days and hadn’t peed in 14 hours, having nibbled strategically throughout the day making the epic trek from Kabale back to Entebbe. When I traveled to Fort Portal with my local friend, he briefed me on what the experience would involve -- taking a taxi from Entebbe to Kampala and a bus from Kampala to Fort Portal. And he advised me with some supremely helpful warnings. One of them is that I would have to “hold it” for the duration of travel. “Do you think you can do this?” he asked me. A feeling not unlike dread came over me.
Unfortunately, that day traveling to Fort Portal turned out to be the day I fell sick with intense stomach pains and nausea. Robert was a trooper helping me get through the day, buying me a plastic bag from a food vendor for a barf bag, and such. (that action was the result of me asking him if he'd be embarrassed if I barfed out the window of the bus; "yes," he said) Thankfully, I never had to actually use that but I felt comforted knowing I had one in my possession. But anyway, there was actually one pee break on the bus out from Kampala, about an hour into the trip. Robert had informed me ahead of time what this break would be like … if I’d been by myself, I would have had no clue why a stampede of people suddenly exited the bus in the middle of nowhere and ran into the bushes. This was the break: everyone ran down a dirt road lined with bushes and staked out a little spot in the bushes to relieve themselves. Too funny. China was funny with the rows of bare bottoms lined up in the bathrooms (holes in the ground) of the train stations. But this was a row of bare bottoms lined up along the bushes outside. Hopefully nobody lives down that road … doubt they’d appreciate a herd of people peeing along their driveway. Well, who knows ... “This is Uganda,” as everyone here is wont to say about all the Third World aspects. I suppose it might be par for the course.
When I told my friend that I’d ridden buses in Peru that had bathrooms inside them, and that long-distance buses in America had them, he was incredulous.
“Inside the bus??? You’re joking!” Then a few minutes later he exclaimed again, “Inside the bus? Wow, I can’t believe that.”
I get a kick out of telling him about some of the comforts of the world beyond his, because he is so wide-eyed with wondrous disbelief. He said, “One time a mzungu told me that on airplanes there is a television on every seat for every passenger. Is this true?” As if it was a fable or legend.
But I have my own questions that elicit bemusement and outright laughter. As we were traveling (and I’d noticed this earlier traveling to/from Murchison), I noticed that there were many roadside shops selling wooden bed frames. But that was pretty much the only woodwork and the only furniture besides couches I saw (sitting next to the road, gathering dust while on display …). Never any tables or chairs, which seemed to me a natural thing to make from wood along with the bed frames. So I asked if people in Uganda had tables and chairs inside their houses. I knew this was a funny question when I asked it, but that’s the beauty of having friends here – you feel OK asking the most ridiculous questions. So of course my friend laughed, but actually the answer was “typically, no.” These items are pretty far down on the list of priorities for the average Ugandan family struggling just to keep themselves fed. So a bed frame is the first and often only furniture they purchase. Other things like pots, pans, spoons, clothing, etc. take much higher priority than tables and chairs. In fact, my friend claims that in his rented room in Entebbe, the bed is the only thing inhabiting its 4 walls, plus a radio and small cooking stove (like a camping stove).
My one piece of personal advice to anyone traveling independently in Uganda, if you’re on a budget and have to make choices with your money as I do, spend it all on retaining a private driver ... sleep in shitholes and eat dirt (washed down with a Nile Special if you’re wealthy enough). Move over Chinese trains, Uganda is now my new source of transport anecdotes. Public transport here is doggone near one tick beyond the line of my personal tolerability index.
One way to amuse and distract myself while riding public transport after the paternal presence of my friend became a void in my subsequent travels, was to compose blog entries in my head to describe the host of personal inconveniences I was experiencing. The list would have been extensive, and, if I may say so, at least a little witty, but then I began noticing some strange events around me as the bus was making stops. Nearly every lap around me, in my row and the 2 in front (comprising a total of 11 seats), had a small child on it (and 2 older ones on the floor in the aisle), and I presumed this indicated a lot of parents were onboard with their respective children. But as adults started getting off at various stops, they collected children from all over the place before leaving. One time, the girl beside me who had been holding a sleeping child, held up the little boy to a woman who had extricated herself from the row to exit. I presumed the two women were traveling together and the one beside me handed her child off to her companion so she could also extricate herself from the seats. But no, the other woman held the child on her hip and got off the bus. The one beside me then turned to me and said, “I’m free!” In the end, there were only 3 mothers and they had farmed out their children to complete strangers to hold so all the seats could be filled with paying adults (as the bus conductor insisted).
Having gotten on at a midway point with only a few seats available on this particular leg, I had been stuffed by the conductor guy into the last available seat (“seat”), literally crammed into the middle seat on the back row. It was so tight that later when he came back to ask for my ticket, it was impossible for me to insert my hand between my thigh and the lady’s thigh next to me to fish it out of my pocket. As he saw me struggle in vain to find enough room in that back seat to accommodate one quite-dainty hand, he said, “It’s OK,” and moved on. If for some reason I had had a small hand glued to the outside of my thigh, I would not have fit into that seat. Anyway, add to that many other discomforts, but yet, I did not have to hold somebody else’s child on my lap for several hours. And this was obviously par for the course. Nobody was batting an eye over it.
Once in a taxi (which is a minivan used mainly for transport over short to medium distances) which was similarly crammed, two older children in the front seat were holding two younger children on their laps … again, I was to find out they were not related. The little girl on the lap was beside herself with boredom. She started playing with the stuffed rabbit hanging from the rearview mirror, but the taxi driver shooed her hand away from his talisman. Then she started putting her hands on the windshield, again to be shooed away. Then she played for an admirable amount of time with her fingers … don’t know what was running through her cute head while moving them up and down one by one, then all together, then clasping and unclasping, then waving in the air to no one. Finally, she took to staring at the mzungu behind her as a form of entertainment. I would have tried to play with her, but again, I was so smashed against the window, I literally couldn’t move.
So anyway, back to the beginning ... I knew the bus trip to return to Kampala from Kabale would be epic and void of bathrooms. Hence the dainty bites and sips carefully spaced apart, trying to keep my bladder empty. But it turned out to be even more epic than imagined, 14 hours to get from point A to point B, which is not super far in terms of road kilometers. But first you wait for enough people to buy tickets to fill up the bus before leaving, then stop after stop for exiting and entering passengers, then the palatial potholes to be navigated, the incessant speed humps in the road (as if the potholes were not sufficient speed reduction), the refueling stops for inexplicably long periods, the occasional stop beside roadside vendors to come up to the windows to sell you food which you have nowhere to pee out.
Actually the trip from Kabale was particularly interesting this way, because by the time we reached Kampala, most people had done their grocery shopping through the bus window. There were different regions that sold mostly one kind of food. So one time the whole town was buried in heaps of onions, everyone around me bought some bundles. Then another had bunches of bananas, another had cabbages, one potatoes, another sold exclusively milk in small jerricans. And the bus patrons, still imprisoned in their seats, pass money out the window as vendors pass the goods inside, arriving in Kampala with a virtual grocery cart of food beyond what they had bought to eat on the bus.
The bus driver in whose hands my life was entrusted from Kabale to Kampala happened to be a homicidal maniac (apparently no background check required for this job). But he was having a bad day, for despite his best efforts, to my knowledge no pedestrians were killed. When pulling over to the side of the road to let vendors sell us food or to let passengers off, he delighted in driving directly toward the crowd gathered on the road. They would watch the bus wide-eyed for a moment, like the proverbial deer in the headlights, then at the last second get their wits about them to literally sprint away, fleeing for their lives in all directions. One time we passed an overturned bus on the roadside, the passengers appeared to have gotten out somehow, despite the bus being on its side. They were obviously miserable and awaiting help. Two minutes later our bus came to a screeching halt as it came within a centimeter of rear-ending the bus our driver was tailgating. (I was sitting in the front row, privy to all his techniques.)
The thing I loved best about this ride is that the passengers broke out into spontaneous song. Clearly they were songs everyone knew, so one person just started singing loudly and scores of other passengers joined in. Like when John Candy starts singing "Flintstones, meet the Flintstones!" on the bus in Planes Trains and Automobiles.
On this trip from Kabale I was accompanied by my friend with whom I’d been staying at Lake Bunyoni (with no electricity and no running water, hence the un-showered state). When we arrived in Kampala, he had retained the services of a private driver. So we exited the bus at a random spot along the street before reaching the city center where one can get mired in 2-hour long traffic jams. We stood there with my luggage and his tree branch laden with bananas and large canvas sack of potatoes ... watching the cars, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians pass by for about an hour before the driver arrived. But then it was posh driving back to Entebbe and to my home at the UWEC. As I closed the flat door behind me, luggage thrown inside, I starting singing, “I’m so happy to be home. I’m so happy to be home.” Then flipped on the water heater, stripped off my clothes, which left me still heavily clad in a layer of caked-on dirt and salty sweat. Probably nobody would have even noticed I was naked, encased in my dirt dress. haha. Anyway, blessed shower, water and soap, reveling in the luxury. Then fell into bed and slept without waking or even turning over until morning -- always the sign of an adventure well had, despite temporary discomforts.
It may be a little while before the next round of posts. If you know others who might be interested in these adventures, please share the website! Here are some more random scenes shot through the window of the moving bus ... small, if crooked, captures of life along the road.
You can read my handy list of tips for surviving Uganda's public transportation.
Uganda Wildlife Education Center - Entebbe, Uganda.
Enrichment for the animals at the zoo: I’ve received some witty little remarks on what this might mean … picking pockets and such. But no, enrichment is activities for the animals outside of their normal day-to-day lives that will challenge their sense of curiosity and intelligence and lend some playfulness to their lives. With such a small budget as the UWEC has, this is typically the first thing to be discarded from the budget when funds don’t meet the requests of each department (i.e. chimps, mammals, birds, hoofstock, etc.). If you subscribe to my blog (button on right) you’ve heard about some of the extremely low-budget methods we’ve used for the chimps. The keepers care about the intellectual health of the animals, but the funds simply don’t exist.
With the kind donations I’ve received from readers to support the UWEC, one of the things I bought was some clothes for the chimpanzees. It’s known that primates in zoos/centers are entertained by this material. Steph, the other American volunteer, and I went to market and bought some used clothes. The vending ladies of course were trying to pick out outfits to our size, but we had to explain we were buying clothes for someone else who was very large … we felt a little bad that the ladies were going to the trouble to match shirts with the skirts, but we didn’t have the heart to tell them not to bother, that we were giving them to a bunch of chimpanzees. … So the chimps have some nice matching outfits to play with.
The introduction of the clothing was a particular hit with the two youngest chimps, Nepa and Onapa. My two favorites, as it happens. (Matoke, the alpha male, is also a fav.) They had a blast playing with them, and later other chimps took up the clothes. But Onapa in particular was quite hysterical to watch. We were in stitches over his antics. You know when you’re extremely stressed or sad or anxious and can’t deal well with things, you go to your “happy place …” well, my new happy place is remembering Onapa and his skirt. Some photos below, but it’s hard to capture the energy and vibrant curiosity. Onapa is such a character anyway. He loves to put the clothes over his face and then walk around. I don’t know if he can see through the clothing or not, or if he likes to be blind as he feels the world around.
So the clothes were a hit; I plan to buy some more to keep in the chimp house for the zookeepers to hand out occasionally over time, when the current ones finally get destroyed. There are still recognizable remnants now, a little over 2 weeks later.
I’ve returned (to the UWEC) from traveling around the country a bit, and yesterday I went to watch the chimps at their afternoon feeding. They were particularly rambunctious, as if putting on a show just for me. The other 2 keepers and I were just laughing and laughing. My heart was swelling with affection for these guys. What will I do without my daily dose of chimpanzee? Enjoy some shots from the clothing introduction.
Time to discuss this in committee.
After surviving my first public transportation ordeal with Robert to get to Fort Portal, I signed on to a couple of private full-day tours of the area. Very reasonably priced for a guide all to myself.
While hiking through the hills and banana fields in the “crater lakes” area near Fort Portal, my guide, Cletus, explained to me about the banana fields, which feel more like banana forests. In this area the locals grow very miniature bananas, different than the kind one eats. They use them to make a liquor with. After picking them while still green, the locals ripen them by steaming them over a smoldering fire covered in banana leaves. Then they mash them and add sorghum to ferment into the final product. I believe I tasted this or something very similar at the SAB brewery in South Africa, where they let us experience the traditional liquor; it smelled quite wretched but was surprisingly palatable … if one were terribly desperate. So my guide took me inside the house of someone who happened to be in his yard and was brewing this liquor. There were several drums of this stuff fermenting inside a mud hut, and it smelled exactly like the stuff in SAB. It was a purple chunky brew, bubbling away in some scavenged metal drums, which were uncovered -- to let the swarming flies add a little protein, I guess. The smell was very strong. My guide said that when a man comes to bring the bride price for a bride in this region, he must include along with livestock and other gifts, several large jerricans full of this liquor. It’s consumed in many traditional celebrations. Another day when I had a different guide, I asked him if he ever drank that liquor. He said yes, but it’s very strong, so he doesn’t drink much. “Do you like the flavor?” I asked. He shook his head and laughed. “No!”
Robert told me about some of the customs of his tribe, and a baby naming ceremony involves the simple act of dropping 3 drops of this liquor into the baby’s mouth then proclaim the name. Then all the villagers gathered around to drink themselves a party. A right of passage into manhood is also quite simple: a boy must carry a huge clay pot of the liquor to his father, who is seated some distance away from the “starting point,” and give him a drink, then carry the pot back. If you drop it then you are basically ridiculed, perhaps you will have another opportunity in the future.
A couple other random cultural components of his tribe: If a women gets pregnant out of wedlock, their custom is that this child is given to the grandparents to raise. My friend was raised according to this prescribed custom by an assortment of family members. His parents, who were married after he was conceived, were allowed to bring him up in infancy until the age of 5, but then he was given to his grandparents to raise, then circumstances gave him to an aunt and uncle for a few years, then he came back to his grandparents. A bit of a jumbled childhood. The prescription for two people being caught in the act of incest is for the villagers to lock them inside a thatched hut, pile grass all around it, light it on fire, then stand outside with canes to give the a beating when they finally run outside to escape the flames -- out of the fire and into the frying pan.
But anyway ... these banana forests lie in a region called the Crater Lakes, outside of Fort Portal. A series of lakes have filled in volcanic craters (hence the reasonable name of the region). The first photo below is the lake depicted on the 20 schilling note in Uganda. You can recognize the tall tree on the lower right on the bill. It's a very scenic area.
While Cletus and I were walking through the fields in a valley, where they were growing Irish potatoes and peanuts and onions, we came across a small flock of gray crowned cranes! I couldn't believe it, this amazing bird just hangs out in the village fields. I had presumed they existed only in national parks now. But here they were free as a ... well, a bird.
Look closely at the boat above, if you didn't notice what an ingenious little bodge-job it is. A wooden box on the metal canisters to make a pontoon boat. People around here are perpetually inventive with their limited resources.
My day with Cletus through the crater lakes and banana fields also included a hike to a nice waterfall. It was a lovely day, all in all, though (a) I was a bit ill to my stomach, and (b) while Cletus was a nice guy, he asked me every few minutes if I was OK ... "how are you?" "are you good?" "are you OK?" ... and by the end of the day I just couldn't answer him anymore. He wasn't asking this on account of my illness because I didn't tell him I was sick; he was just asking to ask. Amusing, but eventually tiresome. But a minor point in an otherwise awesome day.