Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Africa and the quest for gold.

I am a pretty adaptable person, and I've gotten used to tons of local customs that the average bear might not have been down with. I am now a world class heckler, despite loathing the custom with every inch of my being. I chewed chat with the locals in Ethiopia, despite the bitter taste and long duration of the "ritual". I ate cow stomach in Palissa, despite it's wet laundry smell and texture. I ride boda bodas hands-free, despite visions of flying off at ever pothole.

However, there is one custom that I will never get used to. It grosses me out in such a basic, fundamental way that despite the regularity of it's appearance, I can't help but cringe each time I'm confronted with it. Yell at me for being culturally tone deaf, but if I never see another Ugandan pick their nose it will be too soon.

I'm not talking, a casual wipe here, or a flick there, or even a kid exploring his nasal cavity. I mean, grown adults, shoving half of their finger up their noses, prying out disgusting gobs of phlegm and then flicking that phlegm in any odd direction.

They don't just do it when they think no one is looking. You could find yourself in the middle of talking with someone (say the dean of a university, or a member of parliament) when, without dropping the conversational thread, they push their finger up their nose and wiggle it around. With authority.

Even worse, some of our interview subjects go at it while we're in the middle of an interview. As casual as you or I would run our hands through our hair. It's really unnerving and nearly pushes me into uncontrollable giggles every time. Which can be inconvenient when discussing abject poverty with someone who is living in abject poverty. Not exactly the time for a chuckle.

I guess you never see anyone here rearranging their crotch, as is the fashion in the United States. But I wish the good old American value of using tissues and privacy to extract clingy boogers would cross the Atlantic already.

Not to mention, it makes me very wary of shaking peoples hands.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Boda-Bodas in Action


One of the parts of our trip that I have been most excited about was returning to Pallisa, the small rural town in Eastern Uganda where I spent a summer 5 years ago. I was a little nervous to go back – I wasn’t sure what I would find when I got there or if any of my friends would still be there since I didn’t have current phone numbers or e-mails for them and only had a vague recollection of where their houses are (road names and physical addresses don’t really exist in a town like Pallisa).

When Erin and I arrived in Pallisa most of the town was exactly as I had remembered it – one long paved road with lots of stores that sell exactly the same things. For such a small town there’s an over abundance of photocopy/stationary shops and a few supermarkets that sell staples like soap, toilet paper, etc… and not much else. The scenery of the countryside surrounding Pallisa is exactly the same in any direction – miles and miles of red dirt roads with lush green fields and banana trees against the bluest sky you’ll ever see.

When I was in Pallisa before there was only one hotel in town – the Country Inn, which is where I lived for the summer. The Country Inn was my oasis during that summer. Living in such an isolated town by myself I frequently felt out of place and homesick and the Country Inn was comfortable, private, clean and had a friendly staff to come back to every day.

Even at that time the Country Inn seemed wildly out of place in a town like Pallisa. The owner Charles is a successful lawyer in Kampala and he built the hotel in an effort to reinvest back in his community and attract tourism and business to Pallisa – it was a really noble idea. The reality of it though is that Pallisa isn’t really on the way to anywhere. There are no tourist attractions and the business people have no reason to come here when there are plenty of bigger cities with at least equal or better accommodations. So for most of the summer that I lived there I was the only guest at the Country Inn. I always wondered if the business would be sustainable in the long run, without anything to attract customers, but I really hoped they would find a way to make it successful and help to improve the local Pallisa economy.

When we arrived this time, the exterior of the Country Inn was pretty much the same. But I immediately knew that things were different when we stepped inside the lobby. The interior was dingy. It wasn’t completely run down yet, but it looked like time stopped 5 years ago and there was just an overwhelming sense of neglect, like an old haunted house. The walls were grayer with random wires poking in and out.

One of the things that stood out to me when I was here 5 years ago was how professional the staff was – there were always overstaffed for the amount of business they got, but everyone did their best to stay busy and keep the place in tip top shape. I was always impressed by the quality of service and could tell that everyone on the staff felt proud to be working there since it was obviously one of the most modern and sophisticated operations in Pallisa. This time, the staff was friendly enough, but a little indifferent and even a little confused by the presence of actual customers. Its hard to sustain enthusiasm in an obviously dying business.

My return to the Country Inn left me feeling sad. I don’t think I was surprised by what I saw; actually the Country Inn looked exactly like I thought it would when I imagined my return to Pallisa. And even in its current condition the Country Inn is still a fairly nice hotel by Pallisa standards, but its fairly easy to project what the Country Inn will be like in 5 or 10 more years, if its even still around. Pallisa seems to be one of those places that’s stuck in a never-ending cycle of poverty. Its hard to imagine how a place like that can really lift itself out of this cycle and make progress.

On a side note, while we were in Pallisa Erin and I did catch up on some tv watching since there wasn’t much else to do after dark. One of the shows that we watched was E!’s Dr. 90210, which is one of my guilty pleasures at home. For those of you who haven’t watched it, its basically a reality show that follows rich plastic surgeons and their whiny wives as they deal with the trials and tribulations of living in Beverly Hills. It was very surreal watching a show like that in Pallisa and viewing the over-the-top American culture through the perspective of someone here. We were sitting with people who struggle to put food on the table and watching obese American’s paying exorbitant amounts of money to have their fat sucked out. Both experiences are pretty far removed from my everyday life, but for a Ugandan I can only imagine that the doctors of Beverly Hills must have seemed like they were from Mars.

Finally, if you’ve made it this far into this epic post, I’ll end on a brighter note. We were actually able to find my friend Stella’s house (after some hunting and help from a few friendly neighbors) and had a nice visit with her. Seeing Stella was like a breath of fresh air. She is an extremely smart and capable woman who has really persevered and been very successful. She is still working for NACWOLA (National Community of Women Living with AIDS). Despite the fact that they no longer have funding to pay her a salary she continues to volunteer her time to provide support services to HIV positive women in her community. Her children are also growing up to be really outstanding young people. Her daughter Genevieve wants to become a doctor and is becoming a very bright beautiful young woman – she also has some of Stella’s spunk! Erin and I both agreed that her 3 sons – Paul, Michael and George - were the most obedient children we’ve ever met. They all have a very easy-going and fun relationship with Stella and seem to really enjoy one another’s company. When I was here before, Stella had taken in two teenage orphans whose parents had died of AIDS. After I left the boy and the girl actually got married and continue to have a close relationship with Stella.

One of the evenings that we were in Pallisa Stella cooked us an amazing meal of really delicious local foods and also invited Anna, one of my other NACWOLA friends. I’m constantly amazed by women like Anna and Stella who face such tremendous obstacles in their lives and continue to have a positive outlook and the strength to persevere. This year Anna traveled to India and Stella traveled to Zimbabwe on behalf of NACWOLA and it was really interesting to hear about these experiences from their perspectives. It reminded me again of how lucky Erin and I are that we’re getting to see so many new places and meet so many amazing people on this trip.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


I have no idea if this will work... here goes!

OMG IT'S WORKING! how exciting. I've attempted to upload pictures before, and it never works! So, anyway. Per my moms request. Here's me today on a boda boda. Let's see if I can do more!

YES! this is really working. Here is me feeding giraffes on our last day in Kenya! They are slobbery with long black tongues and are constantly drooling. They remind me a lot of my friend Alfonso!

So it turns out I grabbed Lisa's camera instead of mine, so I only have pics she took... we have identical cameras. NO JOKE. So these might be of only me. But we can do her tomorrow (that's what she said)!

This is this guy in Nairobi who we visited who makes wire toys! It was for a Ten Thousand Villages assignment. We visited at his home and took a ton of pictures! He had a tiny baby. Which I enjoyed.

Here's Lisa and I at Lake Nkuru (Kenya), where we saw a billion flamingos in one lake (it smelled exactly as you'd think it would)

This is what we rode around in for three days for our safari in Masai Mara! Sweet ride.


Look at those hippos! Safaris are kind of boring. You just drive around and around looking for things that are really hard to see, and every once in a while you see them. Seeing them is cool, but driving around is really boooooooring. To pass the time I would try to imagine the animals singing pop songs. Ostriches singing Justin Timberlake's SexyBack is pretty amusing during an all day bus ride.

Paul on a boda boda today in Kampala!

OK, I'll post some movie pics, cos Lisa is our official still photographer, so she has a ton on her camera! We're off today, but tomorrow we meet with one of the basket weavers at her home, to get a sense of her space. Monday, we start a run of shooting that should last pretty much until we leave, with maybe a few days off here and there...

An example of the amazing baskets that Uganda Crafts sells.

Shooting on Friday, when the artisans come to sell their baskets to Betty (she's the one in the pink). I'm awesome at holding the reflector.

Here's Dorothy, who we're visiting tomorrow. We did this series of slightly slow motion portraits in front of the brick latrine. They look really awesome, if a bit "allergy commercial". The women were so excited about doing them though, which is an excellent sign of things to come!

Here's us shooting them.

This was our first interview with Betty. We shot it against a white wall... mistake? I hope not!

Here's Betty. She is really great. So smart, and funny and an amazing business woman. She made us the most amazing meal the day we interviewed her. It was EPIC. Like 15 different dishes.

I just think this is a cute picture. Paul and I are working really good together, so far. He is the yin to my yang.

Well. I am so glad that worked. I tried to do this once before, and it was such an epic fail I couldn't get back on the internet for a few days after. Because I was so FRUSTERATED! I hope when I hit "publish post" it actually works. Fingers crossed...

Thursday, May 21, 2009


Paul got here Tuesday, and brought with him an amazing amount of gear. A whole SUITCASE full of drives, and another one full of more drives. And that's not even including the camera. We met him at the airport with a sick sign that read "UGANDA WELCOMES THE HONORABLE PAUL B. YEE". We made it in Pallisa, a small (so small) town we stopped in on the way to Kampala. Lisa used to live there so we visited with a friend of hers which was fun. But since there wasn't much else to do there, we spent a lot of time watching satellite TV and making the sign.

ANYWAY, filming went well yesterday. Betty is really comfortable in front of the camera, and has picked up on how things are going to work over the next few weeks. We have a really loaded schedule already that includes visiting her mom and some of her 28 odd kids (10 biological), visiting artisans, and seeing how these amazing baskets are made! Yesterday we did a long interview and she showed us around her compound. This included hiking up a huge hill which wasn't easy for her (she's disabled from a childhood disease) or for Paul (he fell flat on his butt, but very gracefully).

She also had her family cook us lunch, and it was the best yet in Uganda. I have to say, I'm not a huge fan of Ugandan food. In Pallisa we had our choice of beef or chicken, neither of which was very palatable. Lucky for us, Betty grows all her own food on her land and her family rarely eats meat, as they have access to so many fresh fruits and vegetables. While I don't think I'd ever go searching out matoke (steamed plantains... sort of the consistency of mashed potatoes, but with a sour flavor), she served up the best I've had yet.

Today we have the day off... which is good since it's been storming all morning, but we'll be back at it tomorrow morning... 6AM!

from point a to point b

After arriving in Mbale, Uganda on a 10 hour overnight bus ride from Nairobi, Lisa and I emerged bleary eyed at the bus stop in search of transportation to our hotel.

We looked to the left. No cabs. We looked to the right. No cabs... but a suspiciously large group of boys on motorcycles. And so the boda boda makes it's first appearance on our African adventure. Ubiquitious across Uganda, but for some reason not seen (by us anyway) in Kenya or Ethiopia or Tanzania, the boda boda is a little motorbike (or bicycle) with enough space for the driver and one (or 2, if squished) passengers. Never helmeted, and never approaching a speed less than that of light, or a bullet, bodas are the ride of choice for tons of Ugandans.

Boda bodas originated on the Kenyan-Ugandan in the 1960s and 1970s as a way to get between the two border posts without going through the hassle of vehicle registration. The boda boys would shout "boda-boda" (border border) which is how they got their name. In Uganda now there are an estimated 200,000 professional bicycle boda boda drivers, and 90,000 professional motorbike boda boda drivers.

When riding a boda (after negotiating a price, which usually equals about $1 USD no matter where you're going) ladies who are not prostitutes generally sit side saddle, while men sit in the safer, "cowboy" style, straddling the bike. The women often do this while carrying groceries, baskets, or even more terrifying: babies (as usual... women doing all the work and hard stuff and men enjoying the ride, I swear it seems to be an African theme, don't even get me started).

Our first ride in Mbale was notable as we both had to carry our giant (GIANT) bags on the bikes with us. Lisa's wore hers, mine was tethered to the back of the motorbike using a thin piece of rubber. Halfway there the rubber snapped off hitting me in the face (ouch), but more importantly, leaving me to keep myself and my giant (GIANT) bag on the speeding motorbike of death. Luckily, we got there in one piece... but the fun wasn't over yet!

In order to get back into town, after we stowed our giant (you get the picture) bags, we had to flag down a bicycle boda boda. As it turns out, bicycle boda bodas like me just about as much as I like them. The boda boy that was carrying me had a lot of trouble getting started (Lisa contends he didn't know what he was doing, I think I was too much woman for his bike). He couldn't quiiiiite get us balanced, so we'd lurch forward and then tilt over... and repeat... and repeat... and repeat. By the time we'd gone a few meters we were pretty much the best entertainment in Mbale, judging by the crowd of Ugandans, laughing behind their hands. I eventually jumped off and found a stronger, more experienced boda boy. But I've vowed to never get on another bicycle boda ever again... a promise I've kept so far.

Now that Paul's arrived, we've been taking seperate boda bodas to and from the matatu (mini bus) park (previously, Lisa and I would save 50 cents by piling onto one, but it's much less enjoyable). It's super fun (especially since Lisa and I have abandoned all illusions of ever riding like "proper ladies" and sit "prostitute style" instead), if slightly terrifying. In Kampala, there is always tons of traffic, but the boda bodas don't really heed by any rules. They swerve through moving and stopped cars buses, and trucks, drive on the wrong side of the road, and take steep, off road shortcuts... in short, it's a BLAST.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Uhuru Highway & Soft Rock

Two random observations about Kenya:

1. I love the vendors on Uhuru Highway leading from the Nairobi International Airport into town. Nairobi, like most major cities, is plagued by awful traffic. The two times that we've ridden into town from the airport we've gotten stuck in the mid-afternoon rush hour, which basically means that we sit on the highway without moving for at least an hour. The cars usually don't have AC here and people also don't like to keep the windows down (sometimes for safety reasons, sometimes just because), so its usually sweltering hot inside the vehicle. Many vendors in Kenya have realized that this highway is a jackpot for sitting ducks who have time to spare and maybe even a little extra money. There are a few of the vendors you might expect offering cold beverages and snacks to weary travelers. But most of the vendors come with all sorts of random assorted items that look like they were picked up at the dollar store. Some of the best offerings the last time we rode into town were as follows: a 4-foot tall orange inflatable teletubby, a blue camouflage pillow case, an assortment of international flags (including the American and Kenyan flags) and a plastic shaving kit. Its hard for me to imagine anyone driving home from the airport and realizing they've just gotta have an orange inflatable teletubby, but it must happen or else they wouldn't still be standing there.

2. The Kenyan people share my love of soft rock music (mostly from the 80s and 90s). I have yet to enter a Kenyan airport, supermarket, restaurant, bar or other public establishment without hearing at least one song by Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey (sometimes on a lucky day both). Beyonce is also very popular and, in fact, Erin and my main mode of transport in Lamu on the Kenyan coast was a little motor boat named Beyonce.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Cautious Adventurers

Erin and I may be the most cautious adventure travelers to traverse Africa. Neither of us is particularly daring when it comes to risk-taking adventure sports. If you've ever swum in the ocean with Erin or me you probably know that we both have an aversion to swimming with ocean critters. We've probably watched too many Discovery Channel Shark Weeks.

On our first snorkeling trip in Lamu Erin didn't even get off the boat (though she did assume the role of the great provider by catching a fish for lunch). And I made it into the water for about 15 minutes before I started getting visions of being eaten by a shark and swam back to the boat.

So this morning when we embarked on a dolphin tour off the coast of Zanzibar I don't think either of us actually thought we would make it into the water. We were the only ones on our boat to spend $2 extra for the life preservers (and no, they don't come standard with boating in Kenya or Tanzania). When our boat pulled up next to the dolphins everyone else aboard hopped off and started chasing after the dolphins... Erin and I stayed put on the boat. But by the third jump into the dolphin colony Erin and I finally got up the nerve to dive in with the dolphins.

It was AMAZING. You only see a few dolphins on the surface, but if you look down you can see huge bunches of them swimming along just beneath the surface. I think I lasted less than a minute in the water -- enough to see it, check it off of my life list of experiences and scuttle back to the safety of the boat. Erin lasted about 10 seconds longer than I did before hopping back into the boat. But the important part is that we both SWAM WITH DOLPHINS!

Erin keeps telling me that we're going to go shark-cage diving in Cape Town ... we'll see if either of us makes it into the cage...