Published in The Post-Star (B1)
Four down, three to go.
As a senior in high school, I naively included "travel to every continent" in the "future plans" section of my yearbook profile. It seemed achievable, since of course I would have a fabulous job as a ... well, I didn't really know. As a professional traveler, I guess.
Earlier this month, I got my first taste of Africa on a vacation to Kenya and Uganda.
My college roommate, Jenna, lives and works in Kijabe, Kenya, a rural village about an hour northwest of Nairobi on the edge of the Great Rift Valley. She is the assistant to the director of a hospital run by CURE International, a Christian medical charity that works in developing countries to treat children with disabilities like clubfoot, cleft palate, spina bifida and hydrocephalus.
I started saving for a plane ticket almost immediately after Jenna moved. My friends all know that gaining an international zip code basically guarantees I'll visit them, even if I only saw them once a year when they lived within driving distance.
My childhood friend Courtney joined me on the trip. She teaches global studies at a high school in western New York, and fell in love with Africa after taking an educational vacation to Uganda last year. We left New York City for Nairobi (a 19-hour trip via London) for 10 days on April 6.
These are some of the highlights:
The night air felt wonderfully balmy -- around 70 degrees -- as we stepped outside the Nairobi airport, but I noticed that the locals were wearing warm jackets and hats. From their slightly sub-equatorial perspective, this was practically winter.
We visited an outdoor tribal crafts market, and came away with ebony wood carvings, brightly striped scarves and hematite jewelry. I knew that simply being a "mzungu" (Swahili for "white person") meant I would get charged extra, but enjoyed the game of haggling. Strangest deal of the day: a soapstone dish in exchange for my used ballpoint pen (the guy grabbed the pen and wouldn't give it back, so I really didn't have a choice). I turned down a similar offer involving my sunglasses.
Then we went to the animal orphanage in Nairobi National Park. The warthogs were ugly, the ostrich was goofy and the lions were magnificent, as expected, but the unexpected highlight was walking into the cheetahs' cage with their keeper to pet them. Apparently, growing up around humans had made them quite tame. They purred like overgrown housecats at our touch.
Potholes the size of wading pools had eaten most of the road to the Nakuru wildlife preserve, a dusty three-hour drive from Kijabe. We passed people plowing fields and digging ditches by hand, or walking for miles between towns with heavy bundles balanced on their heads. I bet they would laugh out loud at the idea of paying for a fitness club membership.
Our van had a pop-up roof that provided a vantage point for safely viewing the animals in the park. Baboons came the closest, often gathering on the roadside to watch us watch them. The rhinoceroses only allowed us some distant photographs of their departing backsides, but the zebras were more flirtatious, sometimes galloping across the road within yards of our van. The giraffes stood in shady patches, tugging mouthfuls of leaves off the trees, and looked mildly amused by our excitement at spotting them.
Flamingoes gathered by the thousands on the shore of Lake Nakuru, forming a bright pink ribbon visible from miles away. We walked along the beach and took photos as the birds poked at the sand in the shallows, seeking food and murmuring to each other. Their gentle cacophony sounded like a nursery full of just-waking babies.
I was expecting to rough it on this trip, and was surprised to discover not only indoor plumbing and clean drinking water in Kijabe, but high-speed Internet access. We stayed in a lovely home owned by American missionary doctors who were away on vacation.
A walk into the village outside the medical compound revealed humbler neighborhoods -- houses cobbled together from scraps of metal and wood; cement-faced shops with quirky handpainted signs like "Photocopy Hello Services Etc." and "Barbers Ghetto Haircut" -- but the kids running around seemed happy and healthy.
A man named Samuel came to clean the house, and we started chatting about U.S. politics. Like many Kenyans, Samuel was fascinated by Barack Obama, and knew as much (if not more) about the 2008 presidential race as the average American. He predicts that Hillary Clinton will lose the Democratic nomination to Obama, "because people would not like to have a woman in charge."
Some of Jenna's Kenyan friends came over for dinner. We ate chicken, ugali (cornmeal paste formed into a thick, breadlike patty), scuma (like shredded kale or spinach cooked with spices), and fish stewed in coconut milk. Following their lead, I ate with my hands, using the ugali as a utensil to pick up the scuma and fish sauce. Delicious.
We flew to Entebbe, Uganda today. Jenna's friend Sam (another CURE staffer) picked us up at the airport to drive us to our hotel in Kampala. Jenna asked what great plans he had to entertain us, and got a chilling response.
"The plan is to keep you safe," he said. "There are riots in the city. Three people have already been killed."
Sam explained the Ugandan government wants to sell part of a national nature preserve -- Mabira Forest -- to an Indian sugar corporation (not coincidentally, one in which the government owns a majority stake) that would cut down the trees and plant sugarcane. Many Ugandans were outraged by this move, and had organized a major protest in Kampala. Police broke their promise not to use tear gas and bullets, protesters broke their promise to be peaceful, and things got ugly in a hurry. An Indian motorcyclist was stoned to death; a journalist was run over by a car; shops were looted and cars were set on fire.
We were also 1)riding in a vehicle that had been donated to CURE by the government, and still looked official enough that the rioters might target us, and 2)nearly out of diesel, and had already tried three gas stations that were out due to a national shortage. Traffic was snarled by numerous breakdowns as people had no choice but to drive until they ran out of fuel.
Using side roads, we made it to Sam's gated house on the city's outskirts. He kept us there until things calmed down. When we drove through downtown that evening to reach our hotel, the streets were scarred with stones, broken glass and burnt debris, but a fierce rainstorm had dispelled the crowd. To my relief, we managed to find a gas station with some diesel left to sell.
The next day, the government-aligned newspaper blamed the violence on long-standing racial tension between blacks and Indians in Uganda, and focused on the death of the motorcyclist. They didn't explain how the other two victims were killed -- probably by police firing on the crowd.
After stocking up on more souvenirs at an outdoor market, we went to Mukono, a village just outside Kampala. Courtney's friend Nora lives there, and brought us to visit her daughter Comfort's boarding school. Uganda's public school system is so weak that parents must struggle to find the fees for boarding school if they want their kids to get a decent education.
We were quickly mobbed by children fascinated by our foreignness and fancy cameras. I was surprised at how simple the living conditions were, since "boarding school" in the U.S. is usually equated with wealth and privilege. Here, kids slept in bunks stacked three high in warehouselike rooms, washed themselves and their clothes in plastic basins outside, and all wore the same close-shaved haircuts and simple green uniforms.
Comfort was a shy, endearing 9-year-old who said she wants to be a doctor someday. I asked her what she planned to do on her upcoming school vacation. "Help my mother with doing dishes and sweeping the house," she said. (Note to parents: See what happens when TV and Nintendo aren't an option?)
Trips like this always remind me that even though I sometimes feel "poor" compared to my American peers, I'm rich by the standards of many others in the world. I could see it in the eyes of the African kids, and even in some of the adults'. They looked at us so hopefully, as though we might have superhero capes tucked beneath our sweaty T-shirts. I wish we did.