Monday, December 22, 2008

terminal one

i have a 7 hour layover at heathrow before heading to dublin for christmas, and the speed of the internet is astounding. i can't keep up.

also have a long story about my last few days on the continent, which involves 24 hours in a truck with a 21 south african boys, but don't have the sterling to do so here.

however, must include a story about my flight from nairobi. jomo kenyatta international airport is relatively small, and jessie (who was on the same flight) and i grabbed a coffee before heading to our gate. at a table behind me, i recognized a familiar face, but it took me a few minutes to place it. turns out it is one of the filmmakers of invisible children, the documentary that influenced me to choose this particular development program in kenya. needless to say, i approached him, thanking him for his film and all the rest.

more soon.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

circumcision season

for the past two days, jessie and i stayed in a village called sipi, nothing more than a dusty row of about a dozen buildings where one can buy washing-up powder, sugar cane, and petrol from glass coke bottles. it sits on a hilltop looking up to mount elgon and down onto other hills and valleys and then farther out into flat plains of eastern uganda. three spectacular waterfalls run through it, the reason for our visit. we checked into a hostel called the crows nest, offering the best views of the falls and the land below. there were 14 cabins, each able to house four people, but we were the only visitors save for a pleasant german couple who would leave the following morning. arriving on tuesday afternoon after a sweaty ride from jinja to mbale, then another from mbale to sipi, we took a walk through the village, stopping to order fried bananas at a local restaurant and bar that, to our surprise, sold cold drinks! after an hour and a half, the bananas came, as did the sunset, our cue to head back for the evening.

we sat at a table near the hostel's office, watching the largest waterfall, behind which we noticed a string of flickering, moving torches, far in the distance. we would later find out that this was a procession for a circumcision ceremony, one of several we witnessed in the streets of small ugandan towns on our travels. these parades of people march through the streets, whistling and chanting, waving cloth and sticks. they are led by the boys who are to undergo the cut, painted white with soil, fear in their eyes. they will be taken to a compound where they will stay for the night, recieving lessons from elders on manhood. they won't sleep, they are too scared. the next day they will be laid on beds and circumcised one by one, and leave the compound a new man, no longer a boy. this usually happens at age 12 or 13, joseph, our walking guide tells us, and in groups as large as 50 (even in tiny towns like sipi).

after a night of little sleep due to the winds that swept down the mountain, rattling the tin roof under which we lay, we set out for a 5 hour walk through the hills. we walked past thousands of coffee plants, banana trees, and naked children shouting "hallo!" as we made our way to the third waterfall. we went for a swim in a pool above the second (water as chilling as the irish sea), and dodged bats in a cave beside the first. after stopping to buy cold water from a stand in sipi, we retreated to our beds for a well-deserved nap. at dinner, we met a couple from dublin who had been invited to a circumcision ceromony the following day. they asked us to join them, but unfortunately it ended up not working out for them or us. by nine this morning, jessie and i were squeezing into a shared taxi, the last two passengers in the vehicle. it was meant to carry eight, the two of us made it fifteen. in mbale, jessie and i split up, her to kisumu via busia, and me back to jinja where i'm planning to relax for a couple of days, maybe volunteering at an education org with a woman from cork who i met earlier in the week. i shared my seat with two hens, a rooster, and a chick, who constantly pecked at me as the baby in the seat ahead screamed at the sight of my white face. this time it was 25 on a fourteen seater, i could feel the sweat gathering at the creases of my eyelids.

now i'm back on the nile, about to go for a swim with adam, alan, and david, a few street kids from the area who i met on monday. they've shown me where to jump to ride the rapids while avoiding any rocks. there is loads more to share about this week, from stories of slapping drunken expats to taking local food for a late dinner in a mud hut in bujagali, unable to see what i was eating even by the oil lamp on the slanting table.

however, the internet here has been incredibly slow, and there are people waiting to use it right behind me. that, and the nile is calling. i can't believe i'm leaving this part of the world on wednesday, that it's just a week til christmas. i'll be sad to go, but i can't wait to see all of you!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

kenya - uganda - kenya 28 novemba - 2 decemba

friday.

i leave my homestay in langata at 5:45 a.m. it is still dark, but by the time my matatu reaches the mbagathi way roundabout the sky is a light grey color. arrive downtown, i think i know where the akamba station is. drunks are still hobbling along the street, passed out on path in between rubbish bins and lamp posts. by 6:30 i meet cordelia, who has travelled overnight from mombasa, at the river road stop. we board the bus. the driver stands in the middle of the aisle.

"do not, under any circumstances, take food or drink from anyone. you do not know if the person next to you is your enemy." and smiles at me and cordelia, who are in the front two seats. "now let's pray. if anyone would like to pray, please do. it's ok in your own language, it's ok."

we drive, we eat cheese & onion crisps and chocolate coconut biscuits, through the rift valley where women wash their clothes on the rocks near the rivers and men sell warm pink yogurt on the motorway. pineapples sit on the dashboards of lorries that pass us. 5 minute bathroom break in nakuru, i am sure to roll up my sweats before squatting over the pit latrines. the road from nakuru to busia, if it can be called a road, is brutal. there are holes and rocks and we can't see where we are going because the dust is so thick, but the bus driver soars through all of this. bumpy.

meet sarah, kevin, and jessie in kisumu. they dance disturbia in the street to ward off hawkers as we pull up to the stop, laughing. buy chips for 50 bob and a visit to the latrine for 5 bob, then back on the bus to the border at busia.

"irish don't pay." says the immigration officer when i hand over my passport and $50 for a uganda visa. immediately i suspect something is wrong. does this man not like irish people and knows i will need a receipt later in my journey to pass a police checkpoint? why isn't he pocketing the money i handed to him without knowing i'm not meant to pay? everyone else had to pay. i am wary of his honesty, something that has changed since coming to this part of the world. i do, however, have to pay for the toilet, 10 shillings here. men in bright yellow lab coats with purple collars ask me if i want to exchange currency. "i give you fair price." people walk through the gates at one side of the border and out the other, where no guards seem to be present. i wonder if you don't need a stamp on foot. street boys linger around the bus with their torn shirts and bottles of glue.

into uganda the road is much smoother and the land seems much greener and there are fewer plastic bags littering the ground and there are more naked children. men bathe in the pools of tea terraces as the sun sets. it is almost nightfall but coming into jinja i catch my first glimpse of the wide nile, illuminated by a crescent moon. i am peaceful, happy.

arrive at explorers' backpackers, check into dorm 4, and head to the bar hungry.

"kitchen closed, no food, try two friends, good food." the bartender tells us. "it's two minutes down the road. right, right, left, right. easy." two friends - wine, pizza, posh but cheap. we sing on the walk back to the hostel, in the dark, but feeling safe and happy. long day, good sleep.

saturday.

wake, have a great breakfast of toast and blueband (standard), fresh pineapple and watermelon, hard boiled eggs, and the ever-present tea and instant coffee. the cute kenyan who works at the front desk messed up our booking with nalubale rafting and had switched us from the two-day trip to the one-day.

"but your friend said you wanted the day trip. she told me last night to swap."

"no, we've always wanted the two-day."

"your friend, in the blue shorts there, she told me."

she's not my friend. of course, no worries, we've all become very patient, it will get sorted out. jane, who will be our guide for the day, sorts it out. she wasn't planning on a two-day but hops on her motorcycle to go get her things. john, our safety boat paddler, arrives in a colorful snail hat bought during his two years of factory work in milwaukee. that was before he decided he wanted to be a whitewater rafter. he gets us all into our gear, we hop on the back of a truck, and are on our way to the river. we see two crocodiles as we cross the bridge.

loads of people are washing clothes on the rocks at the push off point. local kids laugh as they try to buckle our tight lifejackets. a pair of boys shorts gets stuck to the bottom of the raft, we find them a few kilometres down the river. oops.

we float, we're briefed. how to paddle, what to do when we fall out, how to survive the deep rapids, how to survive the shallow. we practice. the water is a perfect temperature. safe?

"bilharzia is easily treatable." jane tells us.

"but aren't there usually no symptoms?"

no worries.

john is in the safety boat and ben and issac in the kayaks. they'll save us.

we pass the first couple of rapids with ease. "the next one is silverback, and it's completely unpredictable." we're told. "sometimes we sail right through and sometimes the fourth wave will hit us and it will tip the raft. just get down when i tell you to get down."

we go into it. i don't remember much after "get down!" but a wall of white and the raft trying to get past it. no such luck. the front of the raft flips over the back and hits my head on its way down. i'm under the rapid. i try to do what we were told to do, to curl into a ball until the water spits us out. i still have my paddle and i'm tumbling and turning, a "teddy bear in a washing machine (as jane accurately described the feeling)." my instinct is to paddle and kick, so i do. i finally break the surface and manage to get half a breath in. all i can see is white in every direction before being sucked back in.

"grab on!" i finally hear, and issac is behind me on his kayak. i do as i'm told as he paddles out of silverback. kevin is behind us, floating along and laughing in delight. i think i was probably underwater for less than ten seconds, but it felt like forever.

after that, the rest of the day was easygoing. we paddled down the nile to the haven, an ecoresort looking out over the river and a grade five rapid, 'the dead dutchman,' where we would camp for the night. it is one of the more beautiful spots in this world, i think. we had a delicious lunch, sandwiches with homemade bread and cold beer. john and jane set up our tents and we had a lovely swim before a three course meal.

sunday

today the river is calmer. after the first shallow rapid we have a lot of area to cover, and our arms are sore from paddling. nothing but jungle and farmland that used to be jungle can be seen for miles on either side of the river. there are only 3 bridges over the nile in all of uganda, but plenty of river crossings where beds and bikes and cows are transported from one side to the other in tiny wooden canoes. at one stretch of the river we're told we can jump out as the saftely kayakers slice us a snack of pineapple. we float along, but at one point the current gets particularly strong and i drifted away from the boats. i washed up on a tiny island with a house on the middle of it. two blondes in bikinis sit on the beach and a man with sunglasses and a white tee walks out of the house.

"seems as though you've washed up on my private island!" he said to me.

i apologized and explained that the raft was just around the bend. "no worries." he told me, introducing himself as steve.

i later learned that he is steve fisher, a world-famous whitewater kayaker. he works most of the year, travelling to promote himself and shoot film, retreating to the nile for holidays and training time on one of the best rapids in the world (which we would hit next, concluding our two day 35 kilometre trip down the river).

the drive back to jinja was about an hour and a half, and my stomach was already in my mouth in fear of our next stop, the nile high bungee. back in jinja, we were picked up by an aussie bro who would take us to adrift, the base for the bungee jump. we had drawn numbers and i was to go second, after jessie, who was very brave to take the first dive.

it's about 150 feet over the riverbanks of the nile. i did not look down once. i sat in a chair and a man named richard strapped my feet into towels, so tight that i couldn't feel them. this was a good thing, i assumed. a man named gavin would coordinate the jump.

"you're going to take two hops, then shuffle towards the edge of the platform. hold onto the beam above you. don't think. don't look down. i'm going to count to three, and you're going to dive as far as you can away from the platform. the farther you stretch, the better your rebound will be."

of course, i was too short to reach the beam above me. i had to listen to gavin to tell me when to stop shuffling, as i couldn't look down to see where i was on the platform. i didn't think at all, only that jessie had survived and that meant i was likely to as well. i think i jumped before gavin called "3!" for a couple of seconds i felt nothing but fear and adrenaline. after the first bounce i relaxed and was able to enjoy soaring through the air. the hanging bit at the end was a bit sore on the ankles as all the blood rushed to my head, but i loved every second of the jump. the rest of the group fared just as well.

afterwards, we were taken to the n.r.e. bujagali falls campsite where we were fed and met a great group of overlanders from the u.k. who challenged us in jenga and dance offs (we won, clearly). it was great fun.

monday.

we relaxed, swam in the nile, took boda rides along the hilly roads of jinja, returning to the campsite caked in red dust. we slept well.

tuesday.

we wake, sarah, jessie, and i all squeeze on the back of a motorbike meant to seat two people and are driven to adrift for a sunrise bungee jump. an exhilerating start to a long day that would be spent on a bus to nairobi. i wasn't ready to go back, but i didn't mind the ride. i like to watch kenya out the window of a moving vehicle, where street kids dance and play instead of running after me shouting "mzungu give me money!" and where men ride their bikes along the road unaware of your prescence, not able to propose to me.

back in nairobi, i've had a rough few days. it's a long story that i won't delve into now, but i have relocated and am trying to settle once again. but it's thursday morning, and i'm feeling a hell of a lot better than i was on tuesday night.