01 June 2011

So Many Things

The problem here is that the internet doesn't seem to care how long it's been since I've done my Doogie Houser on this blog. At home, my internet has been painfully slow and erratic at best and non-existent the rest of the time.

But now we've got rioting and another trip to the borehole and a lesson on how to jump a car in the village with no jumper cables and Filipino soap operas and a forest that was impenetrable until we arrived and more. So, here we go.

(Sidenote, before you start reading: I wrote all of this over the course of about two weeks. So, just be warned that this one is long. I really should just start writing shorter ones more frequently, but I haven't gotten into that yet -- maybe I just want to be sure that you're really committed to this blog. It's like a test of how much you really want to know what I'm up to.)

A little while ago, I said that these things didn't happen after the election: rioting, unrest, violent government crackdowns, basically all of that exciting stuff that was happening pretty much everywhere else in the world. What I forgot to say was this: yet. As in rioting and unrest didn't happen, yet. Because between then and now, well, that's exactly what happened.

Around the beginning of April, about a month before Museveni's inauguration ceremony, people were growing increasingly unhappy with the cost of fuel and food and all of that stuff that constitutes the "cost of living." So, the opposition leaders -- the number two candidate, three-time runner-up in the elections, Kizza Besigye, and others -- organized a Walk to Work campaign. They were going to leave their houses in the morning and walk to their offices (where they would do whatever opposition politicians do once they've lost another election), most likely joined by their supporters along the way. It was supposed to show, I don't know, solidarity or whatever with the people. It was all supposed to be peaceful, could have gone on relatively quietly, except that, then, Museveni decided not to let it. Besigye and a few other leaders were arrested less than an hour into their walks. I forget what the grounds for the arrests were, but they were, well, there weren't any, I guess, really, but the arrests were internationally denounced, and everyone was released the next day, vowing to do it all over again.

I was in Kampala at the time, enjoying a dentist appointment and a (positive) test for schistosomiasis, and I left on the day of the second scheduled walk. Despite the arrests, everything was relatively calm and there were no worries about getting home or getting caught in anything. So I was on the bus, headed out east, and we'd made it out of the city proper into the suburb ("suburb" as in just outside the city, not as in "Issaquah, Washington" and "cul-de-sacs" and "parks") of Mukono. The bus slowed down, and I looked up from my book to see that we were surrounded by riot police -- black helmets, black flak jackets, black canisters of tear gas, black automatic rifles --  running alongside the bus. Curious, I stuck my head out the window, naturally, as one does when they may be driving into a riot, and saw that our bus was at the front of a long, slow-moving traffic jam while the riot police and green-uniformed, red-helmeted military police cleared makeshift roadblocks of bricks and logs and boulders and two-by-fours with nails sticking out of them from the road in front of us, and then I saw the crowds along the side of the road start to disperse. Quickly. People starting running and pushing and I watched one man try to get into a tiny, glass-enclosed butcher stand and I watched the butcher refuse to let him in until the guy shoved his way in and then was immediately shoved back out. And then I saw the hazy gray cloud of tear gas they were all running from and I pulled my head back into the bus and slammed the window shut as we drove through it. Then I looked out the windows on the other side of the bus to see, driving along next to us, a massive armoured personnel carrier, with a soldier standing out the of top, manning the giant machine guns and what I'm going to go ahead and call rocket launchers. And the whole time, I was just bummed that I didn't have my camera. But as we passed the tear gas, we hit the end of the road blocks and were off, and I was home a few hours later, where there definitely was not any rioting.

Things continued for a while, just like that: walk-arrest-release-repeat. Then it all exploded, turning into walk-arrest-riot-don't release-riot-release-repeat. There was tear gas, rubber bullets, truncheons, riot police, and then there were live rounds and people were killed and people rioted more or harder and tires and pallets of wood were piled in the middle of the streets and burnt and hundreds were arrested and Museveni said he thought he'd be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize some day, for some reason and Besigye had to be flown to a hospital in Kenya after he was pepper-sprayed at close range and was temporarily blind and this led to a rumour that he had died which led to a whole new explosion of rioting. Exciting!

But, so, then Besigye called, from his hospital bed in Kenya, for an end to the rioting, and people kind of stopped talking about it and Peace Corps stopped putting us on Standfast for eighteen hours every week and it all sort of just... stopped. I guess.

To be honest, I kind of have no idea what's going on now. Oh, but I did hear that Besigye did come back from Kenya, on the day of Museveni's inauguration, and there were thousands of people there to meet him at the airport, thousands more than were at the inauguration, and, I heard, they pushed his car from the airport in Entebbe all the way to Kampala and, I heard, it took eight hours to cover the thirty-some kilometres, but no rioting or anything. But those were just random facts from random people, so who knows? Not me, anyway, I don't really get a whole lot of news out here and haven't been able to be on the internet much lately and so I generally have no idea what's happening in the world outside of little Ngora District, where life was utterly unchanged by the whole thing.

Oh, but I did hear that the world is supposed to end in, as I'm writing this, about ten minutes, so maybe none of this even matters! I can't believe I'm spending my last minutes on earth blogging for you people! You're welcome.

For about a week before I went to Kampala, water in town was, as they say, over. And that means, yep, going back to the borehole. After making my trip to the farther away one (that's not far at all, unless you're carrying ninety pounds of water), I looked out my window one day, and said to myself, "Oh, hey, idiot, there's a borehole right there, about three hundred feet away." So, with the water over, I did my usually irregular bathing and washing of dishes in hopes that the water would stop being over until it was clear it wasn't coming back any time soon, and then I went to the borehole.

Oh, I also bought a bike. It's just like what ninety-nine percent of people in Uganda ride -- a heavy black one-speed cruiser, the design and materials for which probably haven't been updated since when bikes first went from those silly ones with the giant eight-foot wheel in the front; for example, there aren't brake cables, there are steel brake rods, and after my first multi-hour ride on it, the hard plastic seat made my butt so sore that it was painful to sit for a few days afterwards. And while the emblem says that it was made by the Roadmaster Bicycle Company of Kampala, Uganda, everywhere else on the bike it says, clearly, Made in India. It also came complete with a bell and a rack on the back.

This is important to the story.

Because I went to the borehole with both of my jerrycans strapped onto the rack on the back, feeling all smug and local and integrated. It was about seven pm when I went over there, getting dark, and looking like it was going to rain. But, again, I tried to wait and to not be that white guy, and since there were only like six or seven people in front of me, I was good and I waited for a while. And then I started to realize that those six or seven people in front of me all had about eight or ten jerrycans to fill up. But still, when a guy came over to me and said that he was going to move me to the front and fill my jerrycans, I said, No, I can wait. And he said, No, it's ok, and I said, No, it's ok, these people were here first, and he said, Are you sure?, and I said, Yes, thank you, and he said, Because these people will be here until 10:30, and then I said, Ok, let's do this thing. Because as much as I don't want to be that white guy, even more than that, I don't want to sit at the borehole for four hours. I'm not going to be that white guy, either.

So, we filled my jerrycans, I pumped the water for a while until they told me I wasn't strong enough, as per usual, and then, still feeling rather smug and local and integrated -- slightly less than I had been before, but still feeling pretty good -- I went to put the jerrycans onto the rack of my bike, planning on saying thank you after I had gotten them all strapped on, rehearsing in Ateso in my head, Eyalama noi! Eyalama aswam! Eyalama akipi! -- Thank you very much! Thank you for the work! Thank you for the water!, when a woman yelled out, "Amusugut, no 'thank you'?", making me now look like the worst kind of white guy.


So, I said my thank-yous, which now sounded forced out of me, and left. And I made it about ten feet. It was completely dark at this point, because power was also over, and so I stopped and went to pull out my phone, which has a flashlight on it, holding my bike and my ninety-pounds of water upright with one hand, reaching into my pocket, losing my bike and my ninety-pounds of water and sending it all crashing to the ground in front of everyone.


Trying to ignore the uproarious laughter I imagined coming from everyone at the borehole behind me -- though I didn't actually hear any, I have to give them that, I'm sure they were all saying, "Sorry, sorry," but sounding like, "Soddy, soddy," the way everyone does whenever you do anything like that, slip or fall or knock something over, though I generally assure them that I forgive them and it wasn't their fault, though this is just amusing to me and confusing to them -- I unstrapped the jerrycans and a woman ran over and helped me right the bike and get them strapped back on, and I thanked her before she could ask for it -- no, that's bitter, she wouldn't have asked for it, she was nice -- and I set off again, but not before a man suggested that I take one at a time, and I assured him that I could handle both.

So, now I'm walking the bike and the jerrycans across the muddy, rutted field between the borehole and my house, in the dark, and -- guess. I bet you can't guess what happens next. Ok, I'll tell you. I made it about halfway across and then -- did you get it? -- the bike slipped in the mud and I dropped everything again. Only this time, I tried to hold them up and save myself at least a little bit of pride, forgetting that, oh yeah, I was in a slippery field of mud and I wasn't going to be able to hold them up and save myself at least a little bit of pride because I was going to slip in the slippery field of mud and I probably now only weigh fifty pounds more than the bike-jerrycan-combo and so instead it was going to pull me over so that I fell on top of it in the mud.


Picking myself up from on top of my bike in the mud, the woman came running over again, and she brought a friend with her, and I think I was probably just standing there with my head hung in shame when they got to me and told me that they wanted to help. I let them. Or, well, they weren't asking, really. It was more like they were just telling me that I needed help and that's why they were there.

So they unstrapped the jerrycans from the bike and popped them up onto their heads and carried them the rest of the way home for me while I followed sheepishly behind with my bike.

Awesome. This is my life.

(Really, though, that part was pretty awesome, or super nice of them at least, so...)

The water in my tap came back shortly after that, and, a few days later, I remembered something, and I said to myself, "Oh, hey, idiot, remember that one time you got water from the lady with the giant rain-tank who's only one hundred feet away?"

And so I started going to her again whenever the water is over, and since returning there I've had two twelve year old girls ask my marital status (Single, ladies!) and, last time, when I was carrying my jerrycans home, I had not one, but two people -- within a distance of a hundred feet! -- tell me that I am strong.


(Sort of. I rode my bike past that borehole the other day -- keep in mind this is now, like, two months later -- and a woman saw me coming and totally started cracking up laughing. And, knowing what she was laughing at, I had no choice but to do the same.)

And there ended all of my trips to all of the boreholes for the rest of... ever.

Fortunately, now we're in the middle of the rainy season, which means that water is over a lot less often than during the dry season. I, for one, love almost all parts of the rainy season. We get these unbelievable monsoon-like downpours that usually don't last more than thirty or forty-five minutes, but when they come I can put the plastic basins I use for washing dishes and clothes outside and they're completely full in less than ten minutes. And they're at least six inches deep. It's a lot of water coming down. I have a ceiling now, as opposed to my first place, which just had the tin roof, so it's not quite so deafening, which is kind of nice, and which I kind of also miss.

One night recently, the wind started slamming my metal shutters closed, repeatedly, banging them against the bars so they bounced open and then banging them shut again. The power was out and so my house was only lit by close, bright flashes of lightning -- though it hadn't started to rain yet, the wind is always the indicator that it's coming soon -- and, as I ran between the two windows, bolting the shutters closed, battening down the hatches, seeing, across the street, the lit charcoal and bright orange embers of someone's cooking fire go flying down the road, I realized that I didn't have any water in my jerrycans for dinner. So I went outside to fill them at the tap, the wind howling, and the lightning close and frequent enough that I didn't need to take a flashlight, and I felt like I was in Twister. I was holding my jerrycan between my legs as it was filling to keep it from ending up in the next district over and it was pitch-black when the lightning wasn't lightninging everything up like massive spotlights, and it went pitch-black and I couldn't see anything and then spotlights and I could see all the outlines of the buildings and powerlines and trees that seemed to be thanking their roots for keeping them in one place and then pitch-black and then spotlights and people were running down the street, headed for home or at least cover and then pitch-black and then spotlights and a pig was standing right next to me, had come out of nowhere, startling me so that I kicked out at it before it was pitch-black again and then the pig was gone when the spotlights came back on. I started filling the second jerrycan when it started to sprinkle a little bit and, by the time it was halfway full, I heard the roar of the rain on the tin roofs but still just a few drops were coming down on me, and I thought, That's weird, and then there was a new, huge gust of wind and before I could turn off the tap and put the cap on my jerrycan, it was torrential and before I could make it the fifteen feet back inside, I was soaked. And so I went got down to my boxers and went outside and bathed in the rain, lit up by spotlights and plunged into darkness.

But I gave myself major good-Peace-Corps-hippie points for bathing in the rain and then handwashing my clothes the next morning in the water I'd collected. (Combine that with the fact that I've started making my own granola and digging a garden and I'm only a few short steps away from having to care about stuff.)

The rainy season does tend to knock the power out on a pretty regular basis for anywhere between ten minutes and a week straight, recently. I'm going on 24 hours right now. I really can't complain about that, though. Lots of volunteers don't have power at all. And when there's no power, it's super romantic, because every dinner I have, with myself, is candlelit. But, to be honest, I would totally complain about not having power during the dry season, when it hovers around 85 degrees in my house at night. This is another reason that I love the rainy season. It's finally cool enough at night that, when the power's out, I can leave the windows open and actually sleep in my bed as opposed to sleeping in the pool created by my own sweat when the power's out during the dry season (because I bought a fan as pretty much my first and most important purchase when I got to site). And there are even days now that I'm not near-constantly sweating, as it gets down to a brisk 75 out. Properly chilly.

(Sidestory: When the power's out, other issues can arise, as I discovered a couple nights ago when I was getting ready for bed with only one candle lit in the corner. I started to brush my teeth, and after about thirty seconds, I started to wonder why the toothpaste tasted so bad. And then I started to wonder why my lips were going numb. And then I realized I was brushing my teeth with anti-itch cream that you use on bug bites. And then I wondered if that stuff was poisonous and I read the back label and found that it advised me to call the poison control hotline immediately if consumed, but that was just going to be way too expensive of a phone call, so I just gave myself a little pat on the back, a little congratulations on at least making it this far, and I hoped that, if I did die, no one would figure out that it was from brushing my teeth with anti-itch bug btie cream.) 

However, the things that I don't like about the rainy season come along with having the windows open all night. Because that's when the bugs come.

First, the beetles. The one pictured in the last post. They really are that big. Like golf-ball sized. And they're attracted to light, conveniently enough, and they fly. Fortunately, they fly terribly. Like drunken Kamikazi fighter pilots, they take off, do a couple confused loops, nose-dive into the walls, and then fall to the ground, landing on their backs where the slowly move their legs for several minutes until they're able to right themselves and do it all over again. So they're pretty non-threatening. I always know when they're right outside my house by this buzz-smack-pause-smack sound, or the loud clang when one of them takes on my metal door. A couple other PCVs and I recently invented the new game of Kicking The Beetles While They're Down (And Extra Points If You Get Them Airborne). It's fun. But I've had a few of these guys fly into my house at night. The first time, the fella in the picture, he flew in and knocked some dishes off of my kitchen shelf. I was in my bedroom and jumped up to see what was the clatter, and watched him walk off the edge of the shelf and land on his back on the floor. So, I leapt into action, grabbing a bowl and covering him with it, figuring that I would, as worked out so well in the Termite Incident of 2010, deal with it in the morning. Then he started moving the bowl across the floor, rattling it, getting ready to flip it off at any time. Not content to let him force me into dealing with him right then, I filled a pot with water and put in on top of the bowl, and held him in place like that, listening to the occasional, rapid-fire tick-tick-tick-tick of his wings on the bowl. Then I decided I need a picture. So, I decided I'd just wait until he died under there so I could get one. (This is normal, right? Or am I just totally weird? I mean, you've gotta entertain yourself somehow when you're left alone for several hours each night in two small rooms, often in the dark. Right?) I felt good about this plan. Then, I heard him still occasionally going nuts under there the next morning. And the morning after that. And for several mornings after that. After about five days of this, I took some Bop! Insecticide (With New Approved Formula) and sprayed it under the bowl and left him to breathe that in. The next day, I checked on it again, and it was on its back, not moving, and so that's when I took the picture. But right after I did, it slowly starting moving its legs again. It was still alive after about six days under the bowl, one spent breathing in insecticide. Impressive, yes, but I still threw it out after that. I'd gotten what I wanted.

Second, the mosquitoes. I've had clouds of them inside my house recently. There are so many that I can hear them constantly, that high-pitched dentist-drill sound. All the time. I employed Bop! again, spraying it all around the room, and they all beat it to the window, bouncing off the curtains in attempts to escape the fumes. I pulled aside the curtain and, for a solid five seconds, they flowed out, and then it was startlingly quiet.

Third, the white ants. These are large-ish sized ants with big, diaphanous wings that come out of their tall, conical hills at night, a day or two after a big rain. They're also a beloved snack. You catch them, remove the wings, fry in oil, add salt, and enjoy. They're pretty good, but the legs get stuck in your teeth like mango fibres and they're not quite as tasty as the termites. They are also, of course, attracted to light. So I was lying in bed the other night, late, like 2AM, because it was Friday and I didn't have to get up early in the morning, watching a couple episodes of my new favorite tv show that I'm slightly embarrassed to love and am not going to mention the name of because of this -- cough-Glee!-cough -- and I had my kitchen light still on, as well as the outside security light that's above my door. At one point, I looked over into the kitchen to see about a hundred white ants flying around my kitchen. So I got up out of bed, next to the open window, and found myself face-to-face with a middle-aged Ugandan man. If it weren't white ant season, and if I didn't have an outside light that was on, and if I didn't know that people collect them between midnight and three in the morning, this would have been disturbing. As it was, it was mostly just awkward as I waved to him while wearing only my boxers. I think he was more embarrassed than I was. But the white ants are harmless, mostly just annoying when they drop their wings all over the floor / when their wings blow in the open door, and I turned off the kitchen light, told them to show themselves out, left the outside light on for my intimate new friend to collect his ants, and went back to Glee. I mean, went back to... what's a manly show on tv these days? Ice Road Truckers? Is that still a thing? Let's say I went back to that.

Here is a short lesson on how to jump a car deep in the village without jumper cables, a technique I learned when I was on my way home from Kampala -- the same day as the teargas and riot police -- and I was hitchhiking from Kumi to Ngora because I had missed the last taxi of the day by about twenty seconds and we had to make a pit stop in the village to pick up an old woman, who, I'm sure, had no idea where I had come from or why I was also in the car, and take her to the hospital outside of town.

Step 1: Open the hoods of both cars and look at stuff in there for a while. Feel free to point at things, also.
Step 2: Remove the good battery, Battery A, from its car, Car A.
Step 3: Remove the dead battery, Battery B, from its car, Car B.
Step 4: Place Battery A in the battery-spot (?) of Car B.
Step 5: Start Car B.
Step 6 (and this is the most important): While Car B is running, disconnect and remove Battery A, thus blowing the mind of that random white dude who's hitchhiking with you who had no idea that a car could run without a battery.
Step 7: While Car B is still running, replace Battery B into the battery-spot of Car B and connect the cables, while your random hitchhiking white dude waits nervously -- excitedly? -- for one of you to touch something to something else that it shouldn't be touched to, giving you a massive shock and letting us see your bones like in a cartoon.
Step 8: Replace Battery A into the battery-spot of Car A and you're on your way!

It's as simple and as mind-blowing as that.

I'm a fan of English Premier League soccer football. This is handy because so is the entire continent of Africa. Specifically, I'm a fan of Manchester United. This is handy because I think more people in town know me as Man-U rather than my name. Or maybe that's not handy, just sad. Either way. I think it's funny. People I've never spoken to before, let alone discussed soccer with, have referred to me as Man-U. And I answer to it. I turn and look when someone yells out, "Man-U!" This probably doesn't help people to care to remember my real name. And why my name hasn't gotten around like that, I'm not entirely sure, but it probably has a lot to do with the fact that I have a Manchester United shirt but, for some reason, don't have a shirt that just says DANIEL.

Anyway. A few times before, I've gone to a guesthouse in town that shows the games. It's always a good time; there's usually about 75 people packed in there, watching and yelling at a 25-inch tv. At least that's what they used to watch and yell at. A couple weeks ago, I went in to watch Man-U/Arsenal, and, when I walked into the room with the tv, I laughed out loud in shock. Guffawed, if you will. Amazingly, they now have a shiny, new, 35ish-inch HDTV mounted on the wall. It's crazy. I may have to travel for an hour and a half (one-way) to buy peanut butter. And I may go to the bathroom in a big hole in the ground. But I can now walk two minutes from my front door and watch Man-U/Arsenal in high-definition. Development is a strange thing.

So, a few nights later, Man-U was playing again. I could have sworn that the game started at 8PM, and so I walked over about fifteen minutes early to be sure to get a chair. I walked in to the reception/bar area of the guesthouse, asked if they were showing the game, was told that they were, and so I ordered a beer and headed over to the tv room. When I walked in, there were only like five other people in there, and there was a Ugandan soap opera and/or sitcom (it was hard to tell which) on the tv. But since it was still a few minutes til 8, I figured that more people would be showing up, or that maybe not many people came to watch at night as on a Sunday afternoon, and that they'd change the channel when it was time. So, I sipped my Nile and tried to make sense of The Hostel, the soap opera / sitcom / 90210-type teen drama we were watching. I gave up on that after about a minute and then, just to make sure, turned to the guy sitting a few chairs down from me and asked if they were going to show the game. He also told me that they were. Unfortunately, he also told me that it didn't start until 9:45. Bummer. I looked at my mostly-full litre of beer and tried to get comfortable and enjoy what was on next. And I did. Because it was a Filipino soap opera, called Mari Mar, which was badly dubbed into English and, what with the talking dogs and all, was totally Homeward Bound meets The OC. In case you're confused, that means it was awesome. So, I didn't get to watch the game, but I can't say that I was totally disappointed.

I overheard this snippet of conversation on a taxi the other day when the guy next to me took a phone call: "Hello? ... Yes. ... Yes. There is a bag of beans. ... And there is a bag of poison. ... The choice is yours. Choose wisely." I may have ad-libbed that last part, but I think that's where he was going with it.

I did my laundry the other day, early in the morning before work, and I hung it up to dry and then went back inside to get ready for the day. About fifteen minutes later, I looked out the window to see a skinny, young, cream-colored cow with half of a shirt in its mouth, standing on two others it had already pulled off the line, stomping them into the mud. I ran outside, the cow gave me a shocked, caught-in-the-act look and started to run off and I bent down, on the run, and scooped up a rock, like a shortstop bare-hands a ground ball, and flung it at the retreating cow, getting the metaphorical out at first with a satisfying thwack! against the cow's butt. I know that the cows do this because they like the smell of the soap, but I couldn't help feeling like this time it was payback, since, just the evening before, I was playing soccer with some of the neighbor kids when I accidentally booted that same cow in the ribs with the ball. This was certainly more annoying than the chickens who've started coming into my house, but not quite as bad as the mouse that's started coming in at night and taking tiny bites out of every single individual piece of fruit or vegetable that I have. I'm not quite sure how to deal with that yet.

I started digging a garden last week. My organization has a plot of undeveloped land across the street from our office, and so they let me go at it. I bought a hoe and a machete and everyone is very impressed that I'm digging (which is what they call gardening, and which, I think, sounds much more fun). I'm working on a keyhole garden, which is basically a mound of dirt with a space in the middle for composting, and you plant around the sides of the mound. It's supposed to be good for growing more stuff in a smaller space, and for people who are sick or weak, ie: some people with more advanced HIV/AIDS, because they don't have to move around or tend to as much land-space as with a traditional garden. So far, I've dug up all of the grass and weeds and gotten rid of most of their roots in the space that I'll be using, so now I just need to build up the mound of soil and make the composting area and I'll be ready to plant. Unfortunately, I got an infection in my thumb, near the nail, which I'm pretty sure came from digging in the soil, and I had to come into the Peace Corps Medical Office in Kampala when it started to spread in a big red streak up to my wrist. So I haven't been out there in a few days, but my thumb is no longer looking like it will fall off, and I should be able to finish in a few days. Once I'm sure that I can do the garden right and get things to grow, the plan is to plant a few more around the district as training or demo gardens, and hopefully people will take to the idea and start using them at home. It's going to be a part of the HIV counselor training project that is starting to come into shape these days.

Mostly, though, it's just been fun to be out in the field, playing in the dirt, doing something where I can actually see physical results, being completely dirty and drenched in sweat -- though it only takes about thirty minutes before my shirt is soaked, it takes a little bit longer to be covered in dirt -- and, since the concrete skirt around my house that acts as a porch looks out onto a relatively busy street and not much else, sometimes I just go out to the field where the garden is and sit in the grass and watch the sun set or the cows going by or the guinea fowls and talk to the two kids who live in a house nearby and come over to speak rapid-fire Ateso to me for about fifteen minutes each time I'm out there (most of which I can't understand, though occasionally I can get some important words and figure out what they're asking; so I've been able to explain to them that I don't have a wife and that's why she's not out there digging with me, and I've been able to tell them what I'm going to plant. They actually remembered my name too, although they thought it was Emmanuel, and not Daniel, but at least they remembered.) because it's nice to be able to sit outside, relatively unnoticed, somewhere with a view, and just hang out and lounge in the grass.

While I'm a little disappointed that I've been digging out there a lot and still haven't found any buried treasure or cursed Indian bones, I'm still happy about it. And once it's time to plant, I'm going with lettuce, carrots, cucumbers, and green beans, and maybe some tomatoes and bell peppers too. Maybe the infection is just the start of my thumb changing colors. (To green.)

Garden update: I got back from Kampala -- where I had a real, amazing steak for the first time since leaving the States -- all ready and excited to finish the garden. I went out there at 6:30 this morning, taking a thermos of coffee with me, like a man, and found that an area of about 50 feet by 12 feet of the field that I was digging in had been completely dug up, encompassing the area that I had already dug up, and almost all of the biggest branches of the two 35 foot trees had been chopped off and were strewn all over the field. This was not a happy surprise.

I was pretty upset because, 1: Gone were the branches that provided the majority of the shade, 2: Gone was all of the tall grass that I liked to lounge in, 3: I thought my counterpart had told someone to do this, thinking they were finishing most of the work for me, because she was afraid -- 'fearing' in Ugandan English -- that I'd come back and start digging and get another infection or something and had told me before I left that when I came back she'd find someone to dig the garden while I watched and gave directions, something that I was adamantly opposed to, not only because it's my garden and I want to dig it, but also because the thought of being a white guy giving directions to my black field workers just really didn't make me all that comfortable.

(Speaking of fearing things, this is an excerpt from a conversation I had in Kampala -- Other PCV: "So, you know how Ugandans are afraid of everything?" Me: "Yes, go on." It's weird and true. Because until I came here, I'd never seen children who are -- pretty much all of them -- absolutely terrified of puppies. Like, running down the street screaming while the puppy chases them, having the time of its life, terrified. I mean, I get it. People here went through and deal with a lot of stuff that would make you afraid of a lot of things. But still. Puppies.)

As it turns out, though, my organization had basically just decided that they were going to plant there instead. And so they dug up all of that land. That still doesn't explain why they chopped the branches off of the trees, but I couldn't be too upset, in the end. There's still space for me to dig my garden, I don't really mind starting over because it's fun and it's something active and productive to do, and I spent the morning hacking up the branches into smaller pieces with my machete -- which is a great way to take out your frustrations and a great way to guarantee that by the time I leave here, no small children will be able to tell me how soft my hands are again -- and clearing more brush than George W. So, I'm starting over, but that's ok. I am going to miss all of that grass, though.

What do you do when you padlock your metal door shut and then realize that you left your keys in the pocket of the shorts you were wearing earlier and what's a locksmith? First, you're happy that you always leave your windows open, pretty much any time it's not raining. Second, you're happy that you, randomly, have twine in your backpack. Then you MacGuyver together the twine, a tree branch, and a pair of cheap rubber flip-flops and pull your shorts and your keys through the bars on your window. Finally, you feel really good about yourself.

Now. Man Week.

I left my house at 9AM on a Tuesday and I got to Kisoro, in the farthest southwest corner of the country, just a couple kilometres from the borders of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, at 5PM the next day. That's twenty-one hours of traveling by bus, matatu, and small-car taxi -- a four-door, stick-shift, sedan with four of us (including the driver) in the front seats and, though I couldn't quite turn around to check, I think at least six in the back seat. But it was worth it.

Kisoro is green and mountainous and surrounded by big lakes dotted with mounds of green islands and a line of volcanoes -- the one who's name I can remember is Sabinyo, which means Old Man's Teeth -- that fanged up into white cloud cover and it's (relatively) cold, and seeing hills always make me happy now, and so does the cold, though it also just makes me really cold.

The first night we were there, we went to a restaurant where you order pork by the kilo and it comes out on a massive metal platter with potatoes and cabbage and there are no knives or forks or plates. We ordered seven kilos. That's fifteen pounds of pork. That's how you start Man Week.

The next morning, we headed to Nkuringo, the village where our campsite was, just outside of Bwindi National Park, also known as the Impenetrable Forest, and the home of mountain gorillas. We hired a driver and left early in the morning, winding up from the valley where Kisoro Town is, up a rocky -- maybe bouldery is a better word -- road that curled around the sides of the mountains that rose almost vertically skyward, and the fact that people were growing crops on the sides of these mountains without terracing the land first was amazing and kind of unbelievable and seemingly impractical. But people did it, digging into soil that seemed to rise up directly in front of their faces, almost like they were planting on a wall, turning the mountainsides into patchworks of every possible shade of green, leaving no room for any other colors except the silver of the tin roofs reflecting the sunlight, the blue sky, white clouds.

Gunning the engine one more time, Nicholas, our driver, launched us up one last hill and into our campsite. We were greeted by a few staff members there, one who told us his name was God, and another who said, "Hello, I'm Adolf." As we set up on our mountaintop, we looked across the valley to the unbroken canopy of treetops that carpeted the mountains on the other side -- Bwindi. The valley extended off to the horizon, rolling mountains on either side, all the way to Rwanda. We looked over the tiny village of Nkuringo, a dozen small buildings, maybe, set along a winding dirt track, and, to the left of the village, down to the Western Rift Valley, flat, blank expanse of land stretching out until another range of jagged volcanoes rose up in the DRC -- the forbidden land, and I stared at it, knowing that we weren't allowed in making me want to go.

Low clouds, fog, rolled into the valley in minutes, turning the view into a solid wall of white, and it was hard not to picture, floating in with the mist, the gorillas, silverbacks and their groups, that we knew were moving around out there, invisible in the mist and underneath the broccoli-tops of the forest, like ghosts that we knew were there and couldn't see, but had to believe in because we'd been told. References to Michael Chricton's Congo were inevitable.

We sheltered ourselves from a few hours of rain, set up a guide for a hike into the forest in the morning, and then, when the clouds broke and shafts of late-afternoon sunlight shone through, tauntingly, onto the DRC, we spent the next several hours and a glass Coke bottle full of kerosene keeping lit a fire that would have gone out without constant tending -- blowing on the embers, rearranging the wood from teepee to Lincoln Log, chopping bigger logs into kindling and pouring kerosene on everything -- while talking about the things that guys our age talk about that can't be repeated here. Just know that we think we're really hilarious.

Back up in the morning and out of the tent, having slept in all the clothes I wore the day before and would wear again all day today, we set off, heading out to penetrate the Impenetrable.

We met with our guide, Ignacius, who led us across the valley, from our mountaintop down -- steeply down, prompting more than one or two, "This is gonna suck to walk back up," observations -- to the valley floor and the edge of the forest, to the camp where soldiers stayed, including the two that were coming into the forest with us, just in case. With one soldier leading and one bringing up the rear, both carrying machine guns -- though at one point, I noticed that one of them was carrying his by the clip, upside-down, so the barrel was pointing up towards his own head, and still he wouldn't let me hold it for a picture -- and wearing green uniforms and green caps and black rubber gum boots, we left the camp and entered the forest. Wait, no. We left the camp and entered The Forest. It deserves capital letters.

The trees grew closer together, the underbrush grew denser, the sky, which was bright white, covered with a layer of high clouds, became obscured by the canopy. We weaved through all of the green and growing things along what narrow bit trail there was and, after fifteen or twenty minutes, we came to a river. If the edge of The Forest we had just passed through was dense, the other side of the river was where it became, what was the word? Oh, yeah. Impenetrable.

We picked our way across a short bridge made of sticks, gingerly, because none of the sticks were thicker than my wrist, and because Ignacius told us to, letting us know that some of them were rotten. Fortunately, we'd all lost enough weight to not crash through. After the sticks, we graduated to a log, fifteen feet above the river and twenty feet long, to get across, and when we stepped off the log on the other side of the river, the forest floor dank and spongy beneath our feet, we felt it -- penetration.

It was as easy to understand how Bwindi got its nickname from inside its guts as it was from outside our tent on the other side of the valley. While it was solid broccoli carpeting from a distance, once you were inside, it was ancient, untouched rainforest and it was exactly what you would imagine that to be. There's no sky in The Forest, only a canopy of leaves laced together a hundred feet up. There's no horizon in The Forest, no distance, only trees, ferns, vines, overgrowth, often keeping you from seeing more than twenty or thirty feet in front of you. There is no trail in The Forest, we simply tramped through, assuming Ignacius knew where he was taking us, skirting along another obscene-angled hill, trying not to slip, being certain that if you fell, The Forest would swallow you and there would be no coming back, though, admittedly, being tempted by the prospect of becoming the gorillas' Mowgli, of becoming more gorilla than Diane Fossey, of finding Amy her rainwater drink, and we all slipped, even our soldiers, stepping on a wet, moss-covered rock that had been hidden in the bush, or taking a step forward to to discover that the ground there is a foot or two lower than the step before and now you're knee deep in leaves and vines and ferns.

It was even harder not to slip because we were looking for gorillas, for the elephants we'd heard lived there too (although that was really hard to believe; it seemed impossible that they could move in there), and Ignacius pointed out gorilla poop and I tried to get someone to touch it, to see if it was still warm, but no one would, and he pointed out a gorilla trail, a more distinct path than the one we were allegedly walking on, though where our trail ran parallel to the edge of The Forest, only a couple kilometres in, the gorillas' trail plunged perpendicular to ours, straight into the heart of The Forest, in a way that tempted you to try and catch them. We didn't catch them, though, and they didn't catch us either, but I'm pretty sure they were watching us from the shadows and the darkness between the trees.

Because, really, the way that the forest closed everything in so tightly around itself, and because the way that, on that day at least, where the sky was able to be seen and where the light was able to get through, it was dull, screened by those high clouds, and it seemed to suck almost all the color out of everything. Where, in the bright sunshine and sparkling blue sky on the drive up, the greens of the mountainsides and valley floors were, seemed to be, shimmering, infinitely varied in hue, in The Forest, under the dual canopies of high treetops and higher clouds, it was dark. Bright green faded to green shaded with black, vines and branches furred with moss that may have been vibrant and happily colored in the sunshine and the blue sky, were instead, hidden from all that, a dull pea-soup green, looking wearied, as if they had seen it all, over thousands of years, hanging from trees with black-green leaves, black branches lacing and meshing with their neighbours, and the brightest shade of green were the ferns but even these, almost as tall as me, only served to remind me that I was somewhere ancient and primal, somewhere that would swallow me whole, that would then only allow me to survive in a loincloth, a thin vine serving as a manly headband holding back hair that had grown long and matted over the years as I became one of Bwindi's own, moving through the overgrowth and with the mist.

We moved through The Forest until we reached the waterfall we'd be heading towards all morning, and it wasn't much after spending Christmas morning at Sipi, but the getting there was more than worth it. So we sat and had lunch there by the waterfall in the biggest clearing we'd seen in The Forest, and I wasn't allowed to hold one of the guns, and after that little break, we headed back. We'd penetrated as far into the impenetrable as we were going to, and so we went, slipping and sliding in the bush, back across the log and the river and the stick bridge -- which cracked on me at one point, but, fortunately, not all the way through -- and then back out into the valley where the sky was visible. We left the soldiers at their camp and went back up the mountainside towards Nkuringo, confirming our suspicions on how much it would suck to walk back up, proving ourselves geniuses, infallible predictors of the future, because it did suck, but we made it all the way up, back to the village where we bought bananas and water, and back to the campsite where we got hot showers and had MREs for dinner, and gave up on another fire after another few hours of rain, and went to sleep, tired from the penetration and needing rest for the twenty mile walk back down to Kisoro in the morning, rest that I didn't get.

I didn't get much rest, let alone any sleep, that night because I had... let's call it indigestion. And I was up and out to the latrine and back and out again, tossing and turning when I was up, and then I didn't get up for breakfast, and packing up all of my stuff was a chore. I somehow shouldered my backpack and we left the campsite, walking back down the winding, bouldery road we'd driven up, knots twisting my stomach as I tried not to get indigestion all over my pants. I was barely able to stay within a kilometre of the rest of the guys and was unable to negotiate a ride down that wasn't obscenely expensive, and so we walked. With no sleep and no breakfast and no water left in my body, we wound down the green patchwork mountains, then back up, then down again, and the lake came into view and disappeared again, and I left my indigestion in a couple places along the way, and somehow made it down to the lakeshore, twenty miles from where we'd started. I was rewarded with the unfortunately fake Brown Badge of Courage for my efforts.

We got lunch at the lodge on the edge of the lake, and were told that guys with the dugout canoes we were supposed to paddle across had decided they were tired and had left. So we took a slow pontoon boat across instead, and I was ok with that. The lake was glassy, with rounded green islands dotting it throughout, some with the Xs and Ys of leaves of banana trees, and the clouds lifted from the three volcanoes behind Kisoro, just for a minute, and kingfishers and hawks swooped around and nested on the islands, and then we were across the lake and back to town and ready to sit.

The next morning, Easter Sunday, heavenly shafts of sunlight split the clouds over the volcanoes and I begrudgingly had Rolex instead of monkey bread and headed the two days back home, and I got there feeling refreshed and like I had gotten exactly what I needed.

1 comment:

  1. That badge may be imaginary but you definitely earned it