Sunday, June 29, 2008

R and R in Uganda

Since my travel agency was unable to get me on a flight home until Sunday night and the travel planned from Kitgum to Kampala was on Friday, I faced the prospect of two days off with no plans.

I wanted to go to Jinja where they have the whitewater rafting into the source of the Nile and Lake Victoria for my two day break before returning to Amsterdam. I didn't bring any good travel clothes since I originally only came to Kampala for a conference. The idea of white water rafting or bungee jumping in a skirt didn't seem too smart and I couldn't see any shops nearby that sold cargo pants or shorts, since I was staying in the middle of a suburb. I asked the Ugandan staff at the MSF house (since no expats were around) the best way to get there. They insisted that I should take a matata. I decided to do it since it wasn't really obvious how I would hire a car and I didn't have a telephone to make any arrangements and the phone in the office was locked and inaccessible.

On line, and courtesy of a 10 year old Lonely Planet sitting in the office, I found a nice guesthouse that promised solitude and bird watching on the banks of the Lake Victoria. Since every morning since I had arrived in Uganda, I had been woken up by loud rooster crows, dog barking, goats bleating, and cows mooing - I was very much looking forward to a little R and R in a garden cottage with a “Balinese style bathroom" by the lake.

After a hair raising journey on the Matata crushed in with 13 other passengers, the one sitting next to me carrying three large boxes of glucose biscuits, I decided that I should hire a car for the ride home. Ugandan mini buses are scary! I was on the flip down seat next to the door and could clearly feel every pothole taken at 7o miles an hour. We swerved around large petroleum trucks, flew past cows in the road, and darted in and out of traffic for an hour and a half.

The Guesthouse seemed very close according to the map from the website. It was not. I ended up taking a moto taxi that assured me he knew where it was but got us lost indeed. We finally got here and the guesthouse was LOVELY. The main house has a large sweeping garden and there are little garden cottages tucked into the outskirts of the garden, all with a view of the lovely Lake Victoria.

I took a shower in the almost Balinese style bathroom (still had a roof which is NOT Balinese) and there was no hot water. No matter. The little cottage I rented was lovely with beautifully decorated interior and lush gardens all around. I sat on the front porch and read for a while. I went up to the main house to have some drinks and the staff was lovely and sweet. I had dinner and went back to my cottage to sit on the front porch, look at the stars and the moon reflected on the lake, listen to the birds, and drink a beer. Instead, the crappy Ugandan guesthouse right next door and over the fence behind my cottage, which I had not noticed before, turned on VERY LOUD rap music. They have no one staying there so it was the owner and his friends drinking beer, getting louder and louder and louder. From 9pm until 11pm, I tried to read and ignore them but all I could hear was the same crappy faux reggae song over and over. It was as if it was right in my bedroom. The stars were out, the lake was there, the crickets and frogs were singing but all I could hear was their crappy music. Between songs, I would try to shout “Turn down your music, please!" but to no avail.

I finally went to sleep at 11pm. I had set my alarm for 10am so I could go see the falls and get back to Kampala in time but I shouldn't have bothered. at 7am, the music started up again, rudely dragging me from my sleep. I looked over the fence, and there was no one there. This time it was the radio so every ten minutes, the songs (with extremely loud and thumping bass lines) were interrupted by Lingala being shouted over the song in a shrill manner. I went up to the main house to complain. A lovely older Ugandan man hung his head and said “there is nothing we can do, it is another establishment". Surely we can ask them to turn the music down! "They will refuse and will just shout at us. We have tried several times". I decided to go over and take matters into my own hands.

He accompanied me. We walked into the grounds- there was an abandoned dried swimming pool, some tables scattered around the yards, and a big pile of beer bottles sitting by the stereo. The stereo was screaming away and the control was inside the dining room. There was no one to be seen. We called out hello! Hello! We knocked on the doors. We walked around looking for someone. I wanted to go inside and just turn off the music. The older man stopped me. They can cause problems for you! He said - they may accuse you of taking money from inside their establishment and call the police. Can't we call the police on them for disturbing the police, I asked? It's 7:30am on a Sunday morning! No, they will not come. He then informed me that he was sure they were inside hiding from us. INFURIATING!

Thwarted, I went back to the main house to eat breakfast and stew in my anger for 2 hours. Its 9:30 now and I can't hear the thump thump thump of the music. I think they may have turned it off. The gardens are quiet again and I can hear the birdsong. If the owner of this establishment can't deal with her crappy neighbors trying to make a quick buck with a hotel, she's going to lose all her hard earned business investment. I was paying $75 a night to stay in a quiet tranquil cottage in a garden overlooking the lake. If I wanted a loud rowdy establishment, I could have paid $20 and stayed at the backpacker hostel. I feel bad for the lovely older Ugandan man who tried to help me and the sympathetic Ugandan staff who apologized to me several times. However, I don't know that I would recommend anyone staying here until they take care of their neighbors. What a pity.

Sitting on the banks of Lake Victoria

I'm sitting at Gately-on-the-Nile's computer in a lovely colonial villa overlooking Lake Victoria in Uganda. After four days in a sumptious resort on Lake Victoria in Kampala at a conference, I then took a 10 hour car ride up to the North to Kitgum, Uganda - near the border with Sudan. Coincidentally, this was the site of my last mission for Refugees International in November 2006. After a long and grueling trip back to Kampala and a "Nile Special" night out on the town, I'm reveling in the tranquility and beauty of Jinja.

It was interesting to see the difference in Northern Uganda. Gulu has exploded into a typical NGO/UN town. Crowded and expensive - now the most expensive city in Northern Uganda - a sad side effect of Jan Egeland's forceful drive to turn the world's attention to Northern Uganda's forgotten crisis. The IDP camps in Kitgum, the most vulnerable of the counties, I would argue, are not as crowded, yet still shocking to see- a blight on the beautiful landscape. People have moved out but the team spoke of a tension in the National staff that is more palpable than before. Everyone is convinced that the LRA are back in town. Just hiding in the tall green grass waiting to abduct children, kill civilians, and wreak havoc.

I spent the night in Madi Opei, a camp about 1 hour north of Kitgum town where my organization runs a medical clinic with the ministry of health. It was so great to be back in the "bush" and sleeping in a mud tukul with bucket baths under the stars. Alyson, my sister, probably doubts our blood relationshiop when I send her emails telling her how happy I am to talk to the chickens in the morning when I walk to the outdoor shower. I love tucking myself under mosquito netting and seeing geckos run around on the walls. She belives that the Holiday Inn is roughing it. The Uganda team is funny and competent. The National Staff (I don't know why we segregate them) intensely committed and hardworking. I did what I was hired to do. Yet it wasn't the fulfilling experience that I had hoped for. I don't know why.

I guess my mind was clouded with concerns and fear for my father and sister moving in together in the midst of all of it. My father fell in April and broke his arm. His slow recovery prompted Alyson and I to decide that it would be better for him and bring us more peace of mind, if he weren't living alone anymore. Luckily, he agreed. I was able to find them a beautiful house in Columbia to move in. Unfortunately, right as Alyson was packing to move herself, she fell and broke her leg. My leave time had been mostly depleted by my five weeks in Sumter caring for my father as he recovered from surgery. It's been unbelievably frustrating and scary to be a six hour time difference away, hovering by the computer hoping for news from home.

My unexpected trip to the north of Uganda has been enlightening. I"m finally doing the work that my org supposedly wants me to do. I'm good at it. I like it. But it feels strangely unfulfilling when I long to be at home with my family. Work isn't enough anymore. At the conference, I made contact with old friends and put out the word that I'm looking for work. I think I need to be closer. I can always move back to Europe, right? I hope so. Either way, living in a city that I like is no substitute for being there for my family.

I met up with another section of my org's crew last night in Kampala. I was staying in my sections house in a suburb of Kampala all alone - six bedrooms and me! I have no telephone, I had no idea where I was, and was a bit frustrated and lonely. We went out for Thai food and then dancing at the expat hotspot. It was a faux Irish bar called Bubbles O' Malley or some such thing. Really gross. It was fun and exciting when I did it in Sierra Leone. In Uganda, the fact that I'm at LEAST 10 years older than all the silly aid workers and missionaries (?!) dancing with the beautiful young Ugandans out on the prowl made me sad. The old, desperate looking men dancing with young beautiful Ugandans disgusted me as it always does. Am I this person? I love to dance and it was fun laughing and talking with the Spanish section. I felt much more a part of the crowd than I usually do in the dire Eik and Linde where conversation is so forced and boring. Ops this, Ops that. Where is the joie de vivre for our jobs? I feel like headquarters is a refuge for grim, loveless, workaholics determined to wring some sort of meaning out a life in the field.

In the field, however, the joie de vivre is there. The laughing. The mixture of a motley group of people. But not in this bar. In Bubbles O'Malley (where the waiters wear tshirts that declare them Craic dealers), the stench of desperation sticks to the older people. For the young and hedonistic, risking it all on the battlefield and dancing it off in the capitol seems appropriate. Yet I prefer to go to bed at nine with my book most nights now. Not the party girl I used to be.

Anyway, I am enjoying the good food, the beauty of the setting, and the books I have snagged from the org's bookshelves. I can't be that different from my fellow co-workers if we all like to read the same things, can I? But for some reason, the fit is not there.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Sunny Sundays in Amsterdam

The sun is shining in Amsterdam. It's almost 75 degrees! After a crappy few weeks and months (returning reluctantly from South Carolina after taking care of my father who ws recovering from surgery, getting sick myself with a nasty upper respiratory infection, having dental surgery, and then hearing my sister fell and broke her leg while preparing for my father's move into her house in Columbia), I finally feel okay. Alyson seems to have the situation under control and some family members have offered to help her out while she learns how to use crutches (and deals with a broken air conditioner and a 100 degree weather June in South Carolina). I am going to make a presentation on sexual violence in Uganda and hope to be able to visit the DRC or Somalia briefly afterwards. And, I am enjoying my favorite day of the week, Sunday afternoon.

After going out with friends last night to a FABULOUS show, the West Hell Five, a "vegas grind jazz quintet" at a funky blues bar called Maloe Melo, I slept in (with a brief interupption to feed the monster Siamese some food to bribe him into letting me sleep). I'm listening to Lyle Lovett, with all the windows open and sunshine pouring into the house. There's a oven-roasted omelet with fresh mozzarella and basil from my balcony cooking on the stove. Sunflower seed bread is toasting and the coffee I brought back from Italy is percolating away. I've got plans to chat on the phone with my friend Bernice, my family, and then meeting my friend Esther for drinks later on. I'm going to go to the park and sit in the sun and read my books for a while. And then I'm going to make an early night of it and prepare for another week of work. But until then, I've got Sunday.