Monday, 19 November 2012

At the end of things...

It’s a rainy Tuesday morning in Kigali.  This isn’t all that special.  But what makes today different is that it’s my last morning in Rwanda.  At 4:45 pm, I get on a plane and fly back to the States.  Of course, I have to go through the Nairobi airport, so Africa might not let go of me quite that easily.
It’s been 25 months, almost to the day, since I last set foot on American soil.  Right now, the USA doesn’t feel real.  Real is red clay roads and endless banana leaves.  Real is foggy mornings and afternoon thunderstorms.  Real is the old mamas that grab my hand and won’t let go, the children that hug me in the marketplace, people that stare, people that smile, people that greet, people that shout, people that beg.  Real is eating an entire pineapple for dinner. Real is a clear night when I can see the stars forever or a cloudy night when it’s too dark to see my hands. Real is watching the mold grow on my ceiling and the pieces of mud brick wall that fall on me while I’m sleeping.  Real may or may not be the rat that I think lives in my rafters.  I’ve never seen it, but there’s something squeaky up there.
I can’t neatly sum up what the last two years have meant to me.  If this were a movie, the critics would likely praise its artistically ambiguous ending, while the audience would leave full of popcorn and lingering questions.  The good and the bad, the amazing and the heart-breaking, went so hand in hand here.  It was little good things like finding perfectly ripe bananas at the market and getting them back to my house unsquished, or little bad things like stepping in a puddle on the way to school and having to feel ashamed of my dirty all day.  It was amazing things, like my students telling me, “Teacher, now we have confidence to speak English,” going to a baby-naming ceremony and watching the father hold his daughter with so much love in his eyes, or walking through my village and not feeling out of place.  It was the heart-breaking things, like going to a friend’s brother’s funeral where even the priest cried, listening to my neighbor scream with night terrors all during genocide memorial week, or a close friend at site telling me that she was recently diagnosed with HIV and simply saying “bibaho” (it happens).
I’m leaving Rwanda a different person than when I came.  That much I know for certain.  When I get on that plane this afternoon, it won’t be the same person that got off a plane 25 months ago.  But I’m looking forward to finding out what that will mean back in America.  So friends, for the last time in Rwanda, thanks for coming with me on the journey.  Let’s meet up for coffee.  I’ve heard rumor of a magical place called “Starbucks”…

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Pants on Fire!

A recent break-through in the field of stress management promises stunning results for the often beleaguered and overwhelmed Peace Corps volunteer community.
In the past, researchers and psychologists have advocated the therapeutic benefits of tranquil indoor activities such as knitting.  But new evidence has cast doubt on the efficacy of such endeavors, especially in equatorial climates.  As one Rwanda PCV reported, "Knitting is very calming.  I have 27 sweaters.  Then I step outside, and I have 27 personal saunas."  Researchers have found similar pitfalls for hobbies such as origami, recreational plant cultivation, and bagel making.  Determined to find a solution to the growing problems of tedium and frustration, researchers took a hint from early man.
"Fire,"  states one researcher.  "Fire revolutionized life on earth.  Just think of all the myths surrounding its creation.  We thought, if fire could help our first ancestors in so many ways, why not put a modern twist on it?"
Project Prometheus was officially launched in Rwanda last month, and the results thus far have been promising.  One volunteer, who wishes to remain anonymous, has agreed to give her testimony under the name PCV Smith:  "Well, I was going through kinda a rough patch a while back, when I heard about this experiment.  I looked into it and thought, why not?"
The premise for Project Prometheus is simple--some might say primal.  In the project's proposal, researchers state: "life is often filled with situations beyond our control.  Why not burn away your troubles?"
PCV Smith agrees:  "I had my doubts.  But the first time I tried it--wow.  Burning up my trash, watching all the useless crap I've acquired in my life fade away into ashes...yeah, that felt good."
PCV Smith entered Project Prometheus at Level One, which comprises burning paper and cardboard.  Within days, researchers sensed that she was ready to progress to Level Two--Plastics.
"It was great," she admits.  "As a kid, we had a woodstove, and my parents always told us not to burn plastic.  This is like a belated teenage rebellion.  And it makes pretty colors."
This is, in fact, one of the purported goals of Project Prometheus: " allow participants a safe place to dispose of their physical, personal, and emotional with sexual promiscuity, you run the risk of getting burned, but at least there won't be an embarrassing rash."
Of course, there are critics of Prometheus' methods.  Greenpeace recently launched an online "Chain Prometheus" campaign, citing the environmental damage caused by recklessly burning plastics.  And doctors remain skeptical about whether or not the project's short-term mental health benefits will outweigh the harmful effects of repeated smoke inhalation.
Despite these naysayers, Project Prometheus has found a home in over 20 countries.  And PCV Smith has no intention of quitting:  "I'm almost up to Level Three--Batteries.  There's no stopping me now!"

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Raiders of the Last Chalk

Indiana Jones has nothing on the kindergarten students at my school.  Well, he has a jaunty hat, but the "babies" have spiderman pajamas and Disney princess dresses.  It's really no contest.  And when it comes to persistence and a keen eye for chalk nubbins, these babies could put even the most accomplished treasure hunter to shame.
The Scene:  A dusty late morning.  The sun hangs high in the sky, lazily burning off the last of the clinging fog.  The air is calm, the children are in the classrooms, a lone dust-devil whirls its way across the dirt playground.
I sit beneath the awning, correcting exercises.  Then I hear it.  A squeak.  From the corner of my eye, I see the rusty sheet-metal gate swing open.  They come through in twos and threes, arms linked, quiet voices whispering in each other's ears.  They see me.  Across the playground, our eyes meet.  Somewhere in the distance, a goat bleats.
They are sly, these babies.  With a wisdom far beyond their four or five years, they know a direct assault cannot succeed.  They stand to the side, a huddled mass of mismatched clothing.  I can sense their determination from forty feet away.
The group breaks.  Three little girls approach.  It's a charm offensive.  They move toward my desk, eyes widened in feigned innocence, an innocence betrayed as they steal furtive glances at the almost empty box of chalk beside me.
They greet me.  We shake hands and exchange "good mornings."  They know I am the keeper of the chalk.  They know they must prove their worth.
The first girl steps forward.  "Wampaye ingwa!" she demands in a resolute voice.  Slowly, I remove a piece of chalk and hold it up to the light. We examine it together.  It is a good chalk--still snow-white, not yet worn smooth by too much use.
I break it in half and draw a heart on the desk.  I hand her the chalk.  She makes a blob, a more anatomically correct heart than mine.  I let her keep the chalk.  She has passed the test.
The next girl approaches.  "Gooda monini, fine teacha!" she stutters with nervous enthusiasm.  I break the chalk in half again, and toss it up in the air.  She reaches out and deftly catches it.  I let her keep the chalk.  She has also passed the test.
The final girl comes up to me.  Our gazes lock over the remaining stub of chalk. 
I speak first: "What is your name?" 
She stares at me blankly.
I continue:  "What is your quest?" 
She stares at me blankly.
I continue:  "What is the airspeed velocity of an African swallow?" 
She stares at me blankly.  I give her the chalk.  She too has passed the test.
The babies fade into the banana trees, clutching their hard-earned chalk triumphantly.  Emboldened by their victory, they will no doubt raid again.  And I'll be waiting, with the last of my colored chalk, and a few riddles up my sleeve.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

What is the meaning of this?!

Family vacation.  Two little words that strike fear and dread in the heart, but also trigger fond memories of long summer days and even longer road trips.  Family vacation in Rwanda? Well, that is another case...
Family vacation kicked off the afternoon of August third when my older sister, Margaret, arrived in Kigali via Ethiopia.  Her flight was on time, and on a continent where time is relative, I took is as a good sign that my relatives were able to arrive relatively on schedule.

The waiting area at the airport is designated by a quasi-official rope barrier.  I disregarded this, and lurked casually on the other side.  Through the clear glass doors, I saw my sister arrive, try to exit, get pulled aside by the customs agent, have her illegal plastic bags confiscated, and finally make it out.  Obviously, the Howells do not come from a long line of even semi-successful smugglers.

After getting settled in at the hotel, we headed out to explore the town.  First stop?  The cafe at Simba supermarket to get African tea.  African tea is one of the things in Rwanda that is always guaranteed to contribute vastly to my happiness.  It's very simple--Rwandan tea, whole milk, and fresh ginger boiled together and served hot.  At Simba, you also get a cookie.  This too contributes to my happiness.
African tea was as safe bet.  One of the major themes of this vacation was: "Do you think that has gluten in it?"  My mom and sister recently learned that they have gluten allergies, which meant that family vacation was dominated by talk of wheat, and the graphic detailing of its effects on the digestive system.  I'll never look at a loaf of bread the same way again.  But on the upside, I got a lot of left-over cookies.

Next, we went for a wander through the back lanes of downton Kigali, counting stacks of neon colored mattresses and the number of vendors who tried to sell us airtime.  It's a proven fact that the number of MTN hawkers that approach you on any given day is inversely proportional to your actual need to buy airtime.  Eventually, we found our way over to the ibitenge mecca, a warehouse filled to bursting to room after room of printed fabrics.  Margaret immediately began scheming up craft projects.

After a much-needed afternoon nap, I introduced my sister to the starchy wonder that is Rwandan buffet.  Starch is to go-to food staple here in Rwanda.  Potatoes, rice, sweet potatoes, cassava, plantains, pasta--at a nice buffet, you'll find all of these, plus some variety of unidentified meat, a vat of beans, and a vinegar-heavy cabbage salad.  The truly class establishments offer unlimited mayonaise.

The next day, we had plenty of time to kill before the parents arrived in the evening.  I, of course, was up at the crack of dawn.  Margaret managed to sleep in significantly later.  She is somehow not a villager.  By the time she'd finished dozing away the best hours of the day (Vacation Theme II: "Is Moog awake yet?" "Hahahaha"), is was lunch time.  I decided that we should trek out to Kimironko market and buy out the fruit section.  After living in Rwanda for two years, I think I've forgotten just how amazing the food can be.  Sure, there's only about fifteen things you can find at any given market (the market I go to never makes it past ten), but the fruits and vegetables are incredibly fresh and perfectly ripe.  As Margaret commented after taking a bite of the mango we bought, "I had a mango in Baltimore last week, but it was nothing like this!"  Rwanda has probably ruined me for tropical fruits.  But the apples here are crap.

Kimironko market is a sight to behold.  The produce section is open-air, housed under a lofted tin roof.  When you first walk in, the smell of ripe fruits and vegetables, cut with an undercurrent of dirt and sweat, can be overwhelming.  We threaded our way through the throngs of buyers and sellers, settling on mangoes, a pineapple, baby bananas, maracuja (passion fruit), and tree tomatoes.

Maracuja and tree tomato are what I affectionately refer to as "Bite and Suck" fruits.  First, you bite a small hole through the tough outer skin.  Then, you suck out the juicy, seedy innards.  This skill takes time to perfect.  More than one unsuspecting bystander (my dad included) has fallen victim to another person's seedy shrapnel.  When eating a Bite and Suck, proximity isn't exactly deadly, but it sure can get messy.

Finally, it was the evening, and time for the rest of the family to touch down.  Now, before I continue, a word about my parents.  They do not hesitate to call themselves "two old farts."  But for two self-described old farts on their first trip to Africa, they did amazingly well.  I basically made them live my Peace Corps lifestyle (with a limited budget, it was necessary), and they survived ten kilometer hikes, squishy buses, rainstorms, Rwandan buffet, limited ammenities, medieval plumbing, and moto rides.  There was the occasional threat to pee in a trash can (cough, cough MOM), but they took everything in stride.  I think they could better be described as "two old sharts":  they might be full of hot air, but there's some substance there too...

Once we'd settled into the hotel, we continued the Howell family's love affair with Simba (Vacation Theme III: "Where should we eat?"  "Oh, let's just go to Simba.")  It also began what was to be a two week romance with the fried potato, more specifically, the French fry.  The advantage to having gluten intolerant visitors straight from the States?  Not only did I get their bread, but I got their mayonaise too.

Monday was safari day.  Rwanda has a small game park, Akagera, in the east on the border with Tanzania.  We left Kigali bright and early.  Out driver, Charles, picked us up at 4:30 so that we could get to the park by 7:00.  We were almost at the park entrance when Charles got a phone call: the south gate was closed.  So, after a harrowing 7.5-point turn on a bumpy dirt road, we headed up toward Uganda and the north gate.  Charles drove with typical Rwandan abandon, and at one point the side mirror broke off and went flying into the bush.  With the classic Rwandan gift for understatement, Charles merely remarked, "It was repaired badly."  As he ran down the road to find it, the rest of us waited in the car, watching smoke billow out from beneath the hood and wondering if we would ever make it to Akagera.

Rwanda might be the land of 1000 hills, but only three of them are in the eastern province.  The east looks more like the traditional image of Africa that most people have in their heads--long yellow grass, acacia trees, rolling plains.  Until I saw it, I hadn't quite believed reports that a place like that could exist in Rwanda.  I just assumed that my friends had wandered into Tanzania by mistake.

Eventually, we made it into the park.  Mom immediately went into bird-watching mode, although to her credit, she didn't bring a bird book with her.  Despite being one of the smallest and least visisted game parks in East Africa, Akagera was more than worth the trouble it took to get there.  We saw: monkeys, baboons, warthogs, giraffes, hippos, many varieties of antelope, water buffalo, zebra, and too many birds to count.  We visited Akagera during the height of the dry season, when everything was covered in a thin but noticeable layer of red dust.  The zebra weren't black and white, they were black and red.  Knowing the Rwandan obsession with avoiding the dirty, I half expected to find a squadron of women armed with brooms, hiding in the underbrush and waiting until nightfall when they could emerge and dust the animals.

The first third of my family's visit was a wild-life excursion.  Two days later found us trekking mountain gorillas through a rainforest rainstorm (Vacation Theme IV:  "Who's going to fall down next?").  We visited the Kwitonda group, who were as unenthralled by the downpour as we were.  We rounded a corner in the bamboo forest to see two huge silverbacks hunkered down, grunting.  The smell was a combination of wet dirt, wet dog, and other, less delicate, liquids and solids.  We hacked our way through the underbrush to the bamboo nest, where we met more silverbacks, as well as some mamas, babies, and youths.  The rain let up long enough for them to become active, crawling around the nest and coming out to eat, play, and inspect the visitors.  Throughout, our guides kept up a steady "conversation" with the gorillas by grunting a variety of friendly, non-threatening greetings.

Virunga park specifies that visitors much stay a certain distance away from the gorillas at all times.  However, the gorillas themselves respect no such boundaries.  At one point, my dad had to practicaly throw himself backwards into the bamboo to avoid getting trampled by an aimlessly meandering silverback.  By the end of our expedition, we all felt ten pounds heavier, thanks to the rain and mud permeated through our clothing.  We got back to the hotel for much-needed showers and lunch, where my sister accidentally ordered a mayonaise-filled pineapple.  Only in Rwanda...

The next afternoon it was off to Gisenyi, on the shores of Lake Kivu, up by the border with the DRC.  Kivu is one of the few places in Rwanda where you can get good fresh fish.  Sure, there are sushi places in Kigali, but it's hard to be anything less than suspicious about ocean fish in a land-locked third world country.  We took a five kilometer trek out to the penninsula, in search of a restaurant called Paradise.  Once again, I've got to give the old sharts credit:  they trekked up and down those hills in the mid-day muggy heat without any real difficulty.  I had warned them that they should train for Rwanda's hills and altitude, and they did--much to the amusement and confusion of the rest of the Yakima valley, my dad would put on long jeans and walk up and down a hill in the 90 degree July weather.  Well, it paid off.

After Gisenyi, it was time for the long-awaited visit to my village.  My family got their first taste of the squishy bus experience, as we piled into an International twegerane.  The road was windy, but thanks to the alarming squeak that our bus was emitting, the driver drove most of the way at about 20MPH.  So we were all able to enjoy the scenic beauty of Rwanda without the usual terror that accompanies that stretch of road.  Of course, the trip took about an hour longer than it should have.

I had decided not to make my family stay at my actual site, Rubona, for their visit.  My house is somehow not set up for visitors.  Instead, we spent two nights at the Catholic parish in the town about an hour's walk from my village.  It had electricity and mostly functional western-style plumbing.  Neither of these things exist in my village.  The town, Rusumo, isn't large enough to warrant paved roads, but it has its fair share of shops and restaurants.  I took my family to my favorite bar for dinner.  The waitstaff there all know me, and after we staked out one of the cabanas, the waiter came over, examined us, then exclaimed to me, "What is the meaning of this?!"

We ordered rice and beans, which the waiter promised would be ready in an hour (Vacation Theme V: "Yeah, they're just placating you.").  According to my family, I am not guilty of operating on African time, always telling them, "Oh, just fifteen more minutes," regardless of the actual timeframe.  I also apparently now stand way too close to people while talk or waiting in line.  One time, I picked my nose in public.  America is going to be a shock to the system.

My parents had expressed a curiousity to experience African church.  I decided to give them the full experience, and took them to the Pentecostal church near my village.  I go there occassionally with one of my colleagues from school, but I knew that our presence was still going to cause quite a stir.  The children's eyes nearly fell out of their heads, and the same can be said for many of the adults as well.

During the service, there was much singing, much dancing, much testifying, and of course, my parents had to give speeches.  My sister was spared from this quintessential part of Rwandan culture, much to her relief.  At the end of the service (and it only lasted three and a half hours, perfectly reasonable), the pastor presented my parents with an agaseke basket to thank them for visiting.

Next we went to my village, where my family was able to see where I've been spending the last two years.  They also got to meet my umukozi Alice, who had been excited for their visit for the better part of the last year.  It was the school holidays, so most of my coworkers weren't in the village.  We went to my school, and poked around the village, where we were enthusiastically greeted by the few villagers that were out and about.  The old women, in particular, were amazed by my mom, ogling her long gray hair and chattering in Kinyarwanda about how they couldn't believe that such an old woman would come to Rwanda (Vacation Theme VI: "Hey mom, you just got called an old woman.  Again.").

It was a hot, humid day, so after we took Fanta Coca at the shop, we went back to Rusumo for the night.  We were all exhausted from the ten plus kilometers of hiking, but I was slightly apprehensive about the next day--I suspected that it would be my family's first chance to take a real twegerane.  I was right.  When we got tot the main road in the morning, there was not a big bus to be found.  I've told my family enough about Rwandan public transportation that they knew what to expect, but no amount of knowledge can really prepare you for your first time on a tweg.  Fortunately, the convoyer was kind and put the four of us and our big bags in a row to ourselves; the rows in front and behind were each bursting with five or six people.  The road from Ngororero to Gitarama is one of the least traveled and least policed in Rwanda.  So of course, people drive with an imaginative lack of respect for speed limits and traffic laws.  I'm proud to say that none of the Howells vomitted on the bus, but we were all looking a little worse for the wear by the time we screeched into Gitarama.  Buses here are enough to test even the most iron of stomachs.

Our final destination for the day was Butara, home to the National Ethnographic Museum, the National Universtity, and the Nzozi Nziza ice cream parlor.  We made it to two out of the three.  The national museum has a wonderful collection of artifacts and art, although the picutre of "ancient" farming techniques look almost exactly like what I see in my village on a daily basis.  The ice cream parlor cream.  The university occassionally has blue-balled monkeys roaming the campus, but we chose ice cream over testicles.

With time winding down, we had just one more stop before heading back to Kigali for the last few days.  If the first third of our trip was a wildlife excursion, the last third was a museum extravaganza.  We spent one night in Nyanza, the former seat of Rwanda's monarchy and home to the King's Palace Museum and the Rwesero Art Gallery.  My family loved Nyanza, and it holds a fond place in my heart as well--I spent my first ten weeks in Rwanda there, doing training.

Then suddently it was time to say goodbye.  We'd done it--four Americans gone 'round Rwanda, and we'd emerged relatively unscathed.  Granted, both parents had to pop Cypro, my sister got an ear infection from the shower water (one more reason not to bathe, if you ask me), and I wiped out on the pavement and had a huge bloody scab on my knee--but we were overall unharmed.  No one had malaria, no ebola had snuck across the Ugandan border and liquified our innards.  So it was a successful vacation!

Despite the gathering ominous thunderclouds, my parents and sister made it out of Kigali on their respective flights with no problems.  They're still famous in my village.  When I walk by, one of the old mamas will often start telling everyone in earshot about their visit.

So that was the highlight of my holidays!  I have a months and half left in Rwanda, and then...America!  I finish my Peace Corps service on November 20th, and plan to fly out that night.  Getting home right in time for Thanksgiving?  After 25 months away, I can't think of anything better!

Monday, 11 June 2012

Cool Feats, Sore Feet

It was easy to play “Spot the Kenyan.”  In the crowd of participants milling around outside Amahoro Stadium, waiting for the Kigali marathon to begin, the Kenyans were the ones that looked like it was causing them physical pain to be walking, not running.  Everyone else looked like they were repressing the thought of the physical pain that they were about to inflict on themselves by running.  As I leaned against the wall, admiring set after set of well-defined calf muscles, I reminisced on how I, a dedicated couch potato, found myself in this precarious position.
Mostly, I came to ogle the ex-pats.  Kigali is an excellent place to white-watch, and last year’s marathon had no shortage of eccentric European, avid Asians, and questionable Canadians.  There was team Greece, named both for their nationality and the state of their slicked-back hair.  We knew they were Greek because of the Greek flag emblazoned across the front of their none-too-flattering spandex tanktops.  Had they actually moved faster than a casual Mediterranean saunter, they no doubt would have been weighed down by the pounds of gold bling around their necks and on their fingers.  They did not participate this year.
Also not making an appearance was the Flashing Fauxhawks, named for their speed, hairstyle, and lack of supportive undergarments.  Whatever styling product they used must be a state secret, because they all finished without ruffling a single hair on their painfully metro heads.
However, this year did feature the grand redebut of Naked Girl, this time with pants AND a shirt.  Perhaps, last year’s ensemble of a sports bra and booty shorts convinced her that there is never a proper public context for showing that much skin in Rwanda.
I participated in the relay.  In a perfect world, this would mean that each team member would run 1/4 of the marathon.  Unfortunately, due to various circumstances beyond our control, by the eve of the marathon, team White Rightning found itself reduced to only two runners.  We must have angered Thor with our blasphemy.  Still, we decided to persevere.  After all, we got a t-shirt.  Literally, A t-shirt—each relay team got one shirt to share between its four members.
Sunday morning dawn bright and hazy with the implied threat of afternoon showers and afternoon self-medication.  Sometimes the universe sends you little warning signs.  For example, being tired after walking thirty minutes to the stadium.  But sometimes, you choose to ignore those little warning signs.  For example, running in a marathon despite being tired after walking thirty minutes to the stadium.  Sometimes, you get what you deserve.
Caroline and I, the two remaining members of White Rightning, surveyed the track and discussed the possibility of each running half of the marathon.  We knew we were lying.  Instead, we ran the first two legs, then hobbled back to the Peace Corps office to take hot showers before the rest of the contestants finished.  We both agreed that this was a good life choice.  The best part about running in a marathon?  You can spend the next week lounging around without feeling even the slightest twinge of guilt.  And sometimes the weeks become months…but that’s okay too…

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Backyard Saloon

Rwanda is full of salons (or “saloons,” spelling here being a bit of a free-form art).  They tend to have such entertaining names as “New Look Salon,” “Number One Superstar Saloon,” or “VIP Culture Salon.”  I do not frequent these establishments.  Instead, I usually cut my hair in the privacy of my own backyard. 
Occasionally, however, that privacy gets invaded.

One morning, as I was in the middle of giving my hair a much-needed shortening, Alice (the woman who fetches me water) came over.  It had never really occurred to me that my method of hair hygiene might seem strange to a Rwandan villager.  So it was with a combination of amusement and bafflement that I observed Alice observing me.  As my dull scissors lopped off each curl, Alice made the Rwandan signal of surprise: a low grunt accompanied by a slight widening of the eyes.  Then she started gathering up my fallen hair.  It’s probably a sign of how long I’ve been in Rwanda that I didn’t find that odd.  I just figured she was picking it up so as to prevent the hair from dirtying up the dirt in my courtyard.  As with most of my assumptions about Rwanda, this one was wrong.

That afternoon, as I was walking home, Alice’s young son came running out of the forest to greet me.  This was fairly normal.  But what was not normal was the pile of bright orange curls perched atop his head.  We exchanged polite “Good mornings,” and went our separate ways, leaving me to wonder just how many little pieces of myself were currently scattered around the village.

So now after cutting my hair, I deposit it safely out of site in my shower shack.  The birds there are constructing a palatial nest, and the orange accents provide a nice contrast to the otherwise drab, brown exterior.  I just hope they’re building a saloon for all their fashion-conscious, well-coiffed avian friends…

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Kapture in Kampala, Part II: The Ledge of Glory

When we last left or intrepid but increasingly annoyed heroine, her visa debit card had been heartlessly snatched by a greedy ATM machine and was being held hostage until the end of the so-called "Easter Monday" holiday.  What happened next is a tale of betrayal and redemption, the story of one woman's rise from poverty and rides on escalators.  And like most stories from this part of the world, it ends with vomit on a bus.
I wasn't sure what to do with myself on Monday.  My traveling companions headed up to Jinja for two days of adventures on the Nile; I decided to try to join them on for bungee jumping if I was able to get my card back in a timely fashion.  The common sense nodule of my brain whispered at me that this was unlikely to happen.  I ruthlessly suppressed it.
With very limited funds and no real idea what to do, I went into my default travel mode: aimless walking, people-watching, and caffeine abuse.  Although, caffeine abuse usually results in the walking being aimed toward finding a public toilet.  I have to say, the restrooms at the National Theatre are pretty darn nice, at least by my low and rapidly falling standards.
After a few hours of wandering, I found The Mall.  Even now, I can only speak of it in reverently hushed and capitalized tones.  There was a food court.  There was a movie theater and a bowling alley.  There was a store devoted entirely to lamps.  There was an escalator going up.  There was an escalator going down.  And next door, there was Another Mall.
That afternoon, I was faced with the classic hero's dilemma.  I was very hungry, but also very broke.  I would smell the fried aromas of the food court tempting me, even as I stood outside the National Theatre and read a poster for the musical adaptation of Twelfth Night that was being staged that afternoon.  My food hole was empty, but so was my culture hole, and I only had enough money to satisfy one desire.  I chose culture.  Ugandan traditional dance is nothing like Rwandan traditional dance.  Rwanda is all about the arms and the feet.  Uganda is all about tying a giant piece of fur onto your booty and shaking it.
Tuesday dawned bright and clear and full of the tantalizing hope of getting my card back and going bungee jumping.  The common sense nodule of my brain still under lock and key, I headed out to Barclay's and arrived right as it opened.  I was promptly informed that the ATM fairy had not yet visited, and that I should return at two.  I decided to come back at noon.
Twelve rolled around and found me once more at the bank, where I was told that I could not be given my card because the system was down, and that I should return at two.  At two o'clock sharp, I went through security for a third time, the common sense nodule of my brain quietly being bludgeoned to death by the paranoid fear nodule of brain.  Sure enough, the system was still d own.
So I waited.  By three, paranoid fear had been replaced by indignant annoyance.  I went once more to the ATM lady's desk.  The following conversation happened:
      "Is your system still down?"
      "Yes.  But we have your card."  She holds it up for me to see.
      "But you can't give it to me."
      "No.  The system is down."
      "Why is that a problem?"
      "When the system is down, we cannot photocopy your ID."
      "Can I go out and make a photocopy?"
Twenty minutes and one more trip through security later, I had my card back.  I resolved to never use a Barclay's AT again.  Fortunately, Kampala is a city of banks, and I quickly fond a KCB that let me use my card, no strings attached.
Obviously, the only thing left to do was go spend my new-found wealth at The Mall(s).  Specifically, at the food court.  It was a good afternoon.  By the time I waddled back to the hostel, I was content with my vacation.
On Wednesday, I decided to while away the morning at the Kasubi Tombs, a museum dedicated to Uganda's still-present monarchy.  Let's just say, it's good to be king.  Later in the day, I met up with my erstwhile traveling companions.  Of course, we went to The Mall(s).  Then we went bowling in our socks.  I choose to believe that my game would have been dramatically improved with the aid of proper footwear.  To cap off the night, we ate dinner at a Korean restaurant with a dizzyingly extensive menu.  I could have eaten the tofu all night.
The only buses going to Rwanda depart at night, so we had all day Thursday to hang out in Kampala.  We went to The Malls.  Steph convinced me that I would be a fool to squander this opportunity to go to the cinema, so we headed to the matinee showing of Man on a Ledge.  The plot is only slightly more complicated than the title might suggest.  Maybe this is merely a side-effect of not having been in a movie theater for 18 months, but I can honestly say that Man on a Ledge was one of the most riveting cinematic experiences of my life.
Suddenly it was night, and after a few minor misadventures at the bus station, we boarded the 10 p.m. GAAGAA bus to Bujumbura, via Kigali.  The roads in Uganda are not as well maintained as the roads in Rwanda.  There are many potholes and no noticeable speed limits.  I went airborne at least half a dozen times.  But maybe I should have stayed in flight, because during one particularly twisty portion of road, my seatmate vomited on my shoes.
Later, when safely back in Kigali, Steph and our channeled our inner monsters in order to text our feelings about the GAAGAA bus experience:
      - "GAAGAA coach had its license revoked in January because of to many fatal crashed.   I'm not that    surprised."
     -"I'm shocked.  I guess I can't read their p-p-p-poker face."
     -"They want your psycho / your vertigo stick / Gonna bounce until your neighbor gets sick. /   Gonna  vom on you / Vom vom vom upon your shoe."
     -"Eh eh, nothing else I can say.  So sit back down where you belong / in the back of the bus / where my thighs feel numb."
There was more, but it's now been lost to eh great inbox in the sky.  In the end, we made a solemn pact never to ride GAAGAA again.  Some puns are just not worth dying for.
So that was my relaxing holiday getaway.  Maybe one day I will return to Uganda, armed with an ample supply of cash.  But until then, it's back to real life in Rwanda...