How NOT to visit Rwanda

Gorgeous Rwanda landscape
Gorgeous Rwanda landscape

May 24, 2010- I make it across the border into Rwanda in one piece, which is no small miracle considering the state of the mountain roads between Bwindi and Cyanika. I doubt they’re much to write home about ordinarily and last night’s torrential rain really did a number on them. There were landslides all over, plus huge mud craters and fallen trees. The view of the rice terraces, however, is absolutely breathtaking.

Rice terraces and giant road craters
Rice terraces and giant road craters

Immigration is relatively painless and I’m handed off to my driver on the other side of the Rwandan border. He keeps asking me if I know I have to “pay some money” to go track gorillas tomorrow. I can’t seem to get him to understand that I won’t be doing that- I’ve already gone gorilla tracking in Uganda, after all, and I’m sure nothing is going to top that experience.

The first thing that strikes me as we set out to Kinigi: the roads here are phenomenal. They’re PAVED and everything. I feel like I’ve just rediscovered civilization.

Rwanda

My plan for my only full day in Kinigi is to hike to Dian Fossey’s grave at the Gorilla Cemetery in the Karisoke Research Center. When I wake up before dawn, the temperature has plummeted overnight and it’s pouring rain. Not normal pouring rain, either- Africa rain, which is different enough that 80s bands wrote songs about it. It really is a spectacle when the jungle skies open up. I’m running a fever, and my aching joints let me know there is going to be no soaking wet 12 mile hike happening today. Here’s a sad fact about trying to be Indiana Jones when you have an autoimmune disease: sometimes your body just says no, and there is no appeals process. I’ve exhausted myself into a flare up, and I’m not going to be able to do the cool thing that brought me to Rwanda in the first place. To say I’m disappointed is an understatement.

Although I can never quite shake the guilty feeling from “wasting” a day of travel, I have to admit- I end up spending most of the day under the covers, letting the torrential downpour on the metal roof of my little jungle cabin lull me into the best sleep of the entire trip, and that helps immensely.

Rwanda
Note: this is not my little cabin, but isn’t the landscape incredible?

The rain lets up before dinner and I decide to take a walk around what passes for downtown. This idea is short lived, as I am immediately set upon by a group of schoolchildren asking for money, trying to touch my hair, and asking if they can have my camera. Normally in a situation like this you would just ignore the kids, keep walking, and they would move on. Not these kids. I’m too sick to put up a fight, so I just turn around and go back to the resort for another nap.

Rwanda

Rwanda

Dinnertime- not everything on the awkwardly translated menu makes sense, but I think I’ll try the “baked chicken with cheese”. The kitchen lady shakes her head “no,” so apparently I can’t have that. Instead I order the “spaghetti maman mia,” whatever that is. (Turns out that it’s awful. That’s all you need to know.)

It gets colder. I convince myself I have pneumonia. I’m so cold I talk myself out of showering just so I don’t have to get undressed. The pile of dead bugs in the shower helps me convince myself.

I can’t stop daydreaming about waffles.

The power doesn’t stay on for more than 45 minutes at a time. This is bad news for anyone who wants to watch television, but as the resort only gets one channel that plays the same four music videos on repeat, I’m not upset.

I do eventually discard the pile of dead bugs and take a shower to warm up. (I know this was bothering you.)

The rain is back in an astounding downpour. It beats so hard on the metal roof that it drowns out all four African music videos. (Don’t judge me, I’m going a little stir crazy in this tiny hut.)

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The hotel grounds during a rare non-rainy moment.

The power goes out again, so there’s (obviously) nothing to do but sit on the restaurant’s covered patio with a lukewarm Primus beer and watch the rain. An American couple comes running in out of the rain, saunters up to the bar, and starts speaking loudly and slowly in Spanish to the English-speaking African waitress. She looks at them exactly the way you would look at anyone who did this. I guess Spanish and Swahili are interchangeable if you’re an idiot. On behalf of Americans everywhere- I’m so sorry.

Also, the chicken curry? Definitely NOT chicken.

Hey, did you know there is an hour time difference between Uganda and Rwanda? Somehow I miss or forget this until about an hour into my frantic meltdown the following morning when (I think) my driver is an hour late picking me up for the airport. I am convinced I will miss my flight and be stranded in Rwanda until I die. *cough* Sorry about that.

45 minutes until boarding and there is a commotion at the security checkpoint. A rather large African lady is having her bag searched and is, from the sound of things, fairly unhappy about it. The officer running the X-ray machine took a big can of olive oil hair spray out of her bag and is questioning her about it. Three more officers arrive to consult. The lady has crossed her arms and is tapping one foot rapidly. Someone produces a notebook and asks her to fill something out. Ah, the ubiquitous African notebook.

Olive Oil Hairspray Lady is not giving up without a fight. She texts someone and goes back to the officers to ask if she can have it back and take it somewhere. They give it to her and she leaves, abandoning her luggage next to the security checkpoint. No one seems to care. She comes back because she forgets her passport and boarding pass.

Ten minutes later she returns without the hairspray. Now they have to bring the notebook back and scribble out whatever she’d written. The next three passengers through the screening checkpoint are allowed to keep their water bottles. Water must not be as dangerous as olive oil hairspray.

Twenty minutes after my scheduled departure time there is still no airplane outside. There are no signs or screens or anything to advise about delays, so I ask one of the security officers for an update. “Just wait,” he says. The African passengers occasionally glance at their watches and sigh.

Thirty minutes later, our plane, a DHC-8 that doesn’t look much bigger than the model airplanes I used to build as a child, has arrived and we board. My seat, 10A, doesn’t exist. There are only 9 rows of seats on the plane. Someone else has seat 12D, but there is no row 12 and no seat D. Apparently Rwandair seat assignments just come out of a bingo draw-tank. The flight attendants seem incredulous that we’re asking where to sit. There’s a lot of hand waving. “Just sit anywhere.”  This feels like an accurate representation of my short time in Rwanda.

I had to choose between a 40 minute layover or a 6 hour layover in Entebbe. This is Africa and nothing is on time, so I choose the 6 hour. The earlier flight is gone by the time my model airplane lands, so I congratulate myself on my excellent choice. And promptly throw up. It wasn’t the smoothest flight, sorry.

I order a Coke and a burger at the only restaurant open in the airport. Don’t do this. It’s the worst burger of my life. I think there are rocks in it.

So there you have it. In summary, I did pretty much every single thing wrong when visiting Rwanda, and I don’t feel I did the country justice at all. I barely left my hotel, I disliked the food, I was mistrustful of the people, and illness prevented me from taking part in any of the adventures I had planned.  I look forward to returning to Rwanda one day and having a much better trip, now that I’ve already done all the things you shouldn’t do.

Rwanda

Burma in Photos

“What does Burma have to give the United States? We can give you the opportunity to engage with people who are ready and willing to change a society.”  – Aung San Suu Kyi

Many of the people who stumble on this blog may never have thought about traveling to Burma, or even know exactly where it is without glancing at a map of Asia. That’s OK, it’s a big world. Here’s a gallery of some of my favorite Burma photos that just might make you want to visit.

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Ruled by the moon and the spirit of the tiger

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Beautiful, isn’t it? But don’t say I didn’t warn you- if you visit, you’ll fall in love.

 

 

The Widow Who Opened My Eyes

Sometimes it’s the smallest, most insignificant moments that change our lives forever. I’ll never forget the older lady who sat across the table from me in my arrangement office all those years ago. She wore a tidy blue skirt suit and had her hair in tidy, well-sprayed curls. Her jewelry was conservative and her makeup was tasteful, but smudged, because she spent most of our meeting looking down at her lap and crying silent tears.

Her husband had just died, and I am a funeral director.

I’m sure she thought I was helping her that day, and I was, but when she opened up to me about her life she helped me in a way that I will never be able to repay.

Her life had been as tidy as her hair and her clothes and her pearl jewelry, so she came to our meeting well prepared. The funeral was pre-arranged and had been paid for many years ago, because that was the sensible thing to do. She knew how many copies of the death certificate she would need to handle the business end of her husband’s death, and she had already called the church and ensured that her pastor would be available to conduct the funeral service later in the week. Plans had been made for her two adult sons to fly home from out of state.

The only thing she hadn’t been able to sort out ahead of time was the obituary, and she needed my help. Her husband had been a very special man, and she naturally wanted the newspaper notice to reflect that, but she just didn’t know where to start. I’ve written hundreds of obituaries, so I started asking her questions about her husband’s life, hobbies, interests…special memories that might give us a jumping off point.

She continued to stare down at her lap for the longest time, until she finally looked up and me and said, “All he really ever did was work. He loved us so much and wanted to provide for his family, so he sacrificed everything he ever wanted to do in order to make money to support us. He wanted me to stay home with the kids and he wanted to send them to the best schools, so he just worked and worked. You’ve never seen such a hard working man. 60, sometimes 70 hour weeks weren’t uncommon. He missed so many birthdays and holidays with us, but he had a goal in mind. We always wanted to travel and see the world together; that’s all we ever talked about. All the places we were going to go once he retired. We would lie in bed at night and hold hands, talking about it. One day, we’re going to do all the things we’ve dreamed about, and it’s finally going to be our time.”

Her husband died two weeks before his planned retirement date.
They never took a single vacation.
They never fulfilled a single one of their dreams together.

Heartbreaking, isn’t it?
The entire time this poor woman was spilling her heart out to me, alarm bells and panic sirens were going off in my head while a giant neon sign flashed: THIS WILL NEVER BE ME!

I never told this lady about the switch she had flipped inside me, but I still think about her often, all these years later. When I know I’m working too hard, when it’s been too long since I took time off to travel, and most recently when I made the decision to retire from funeral directing to be a full time travel writer. I think about her small shoulders shaking under that blue suit as she cried for the death of her husband and all of their lost dreams.

Don’t be so tidy, folks. Working and planning and saving are wonderful things, but not at the expense of the things that you lie in bed at night and dream about. You can always make more money or make do with fewer material things, but lost time is never coming back. Don’t get so busy building your life that you never actually get to live it.

The world is incredible and full of beautiful, amazing things just waiting for you to go and discover them.
The world is incredible and full of beautiful, amazing things just waiting for you to go and discover them.
Don't postpone your dreams until tomorrow or next year or when the kids go off to college.
Don’t postpone your dreams until tomorrow or next year or when the kids go off to college.
What are you waiting for? Once you see how much beauty is out there, you'll never be the same.
What are you waiting for? Once you see how much beauty is out there, you’ll never be the same.

Bucket List #152, or… I am the Worst Gorilla Tracker Ever

When you need power in the middle of the jungle, you get creative.
When you need power in the middle of the jungle, you get creative.

So apparently I’m the world’s worst gorilla tracker. But I’m also pretty lucky, so I guess it all evens out. As I’m preparing to leave for my long-awaited gorilla trek this morning, I’m proud of myself for remembering to ask the kitchen staff for a packed lunch to take with me. But I forget another, slightly important, provision- um, water?

Note to potential future gorilla trackers everywhere: don’t assume your hotel staff is going to automatically provide everything you need. Seriously, who lets me go wandering around the planet without adult supervision?

There are only four other people in my group, apart from our guide, a young woman named Cathy, and the nice man with the AK-47 who doesn’t tell us his name and who is there, he tells us, in case we encounter poachers or if someone tries to endanger a gorilla in any way. He is not there, he adds, to stop any gorilla from endangering us, especially if we’re doing something to deserve it. Everyone laughs. He doesn’t.

Cathy warns us that some groups end up having to trek up to 8 hours through really dense, unforgiving jungle before finding gorillas. On rare occasions, they search all day and don’t see any. Gorillas are constantly on the move and never sleep in the same spot twice, so an advance team of searchers sets out every morning and radios back to the guides when they’re on the trail of a gorilla family. As usual, I am ridiculously lucky. We’ve barely started walking into the jungle when our guide’s radio crackles with the news that they’ve been spotted. We reach them in less than 30 minutes.

When we get close to the gorillas, we are told to take our cameras and leave everything else with the porters who have come along to hold our bags and, if necessary, push and pull out of shape visitors up and down steep jungle inclines. We take a short walk down an overgrown ravine and are standing in the middle of a gorilla family. The silverback of the family is asleep under a tree while the babies of the group play over his head.

Baby gorilla in the trees
Baby gorilla in the trees
I swear, they're in there.
I swear, they’re in there.
Babies!
Babies!

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After taking these few mostly obscured shots through the brush…my camera battery dies. I have spares- back up at the top of the ravine, in the bag my porter is holding. God, I’m an idiot.

Cathy is immensely sympathetic, and says it’s OK if I want to walk back and get a new battery. It would be a 40 minute round trip, and visitors are only allowed a maximum of one hour to view the gorillas. Not a chance, I tell her.

The gorillas take great advantage of my camera-less state and move right out into the open. They plop themselves in the middle of a tea plantation and contentedly sit there, posing for the group, for the rest of the hour. I would have been able to take amazing pictures, even with my basic little point-and-shoot.

But I can’t, so I just try to memorize every minute. Visitors have to stay back 30 feet from the gorillas, as our guide regularly reminds us. But no one tells the gorillas, so the curious babies continue to try to dart away from their mothers and check us out before being yanked back to safety. I step to the back of the group so I am not in the way of any of the other people, who are not idiots and who have brought ample photographic supplies. This turns out to be a very fortuitous decision on my part.

After a few minutes, I hear some rustling in the brush behind me. I don’t think anything of it until I hear the grunt and the acrid smell of male gorilla hits me at the same time. I turn in slow motion and find myself standing face to face with a blackback male big enough to look down into my eyes. He’s about two feet away from me, which is basically no space at all when you take into account that ohmygodthisisawildmountaingorilla.  Apparently this guy just woke up from his mid-morning nap to realize the rest of the family had moved on out of the forest without him, and he needed to catch up.

From somewhere really far away I hear the guide softly telling me not to move, not to panic, everything is going to be OK, don’t stare into his eyes and he won’t be bothered…

This isn't my gorilla, but he could have been. Look at those eyes. (Public domain photo)
This isn’t my gorilla, but he could have been. Look at those eyes. (Public domain photo)

Gorillas constantly make a low, guttural grunting sound in their throats. This isn’t necessarily threatening, but tell that to a 100 pound woman within mauling distance. We’ve already established that I’m an idiot, though, so I didn’t have the sense to be frightened. My gorilla (because he will forever be *my* gorilla) slowly tilted his head to one side and stared into my face. Of course you’re not supposed to look them in the eye lest they feel you’re challenging them, but again- idiot. Of course I looked him in the eye just the way he was looking at me. It didn’t last longer than a minute, but the impact has stayed with me forever. We had a brief creature-to-creature bonding moment and I will never forget it.

This is why they call it gorillas in the mist...
This is why they call it gorillas in the mist…

 

Into the Impenetrable Forest

May 22, 2010- It’s a long and somber drive from Queen Elizabeth National Park to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. My driver is emotional when he picks me up after breakfast, his voice catching as he explains why we saw no lions the previous day. “They have been killed, the whole family. Local farmers thought a lion may have eaten one of their cows, and set out poisoned meat for revenge. The entire pride is dead.”

I feel sick, and I can’t look this poor man in the eyes. I can tell he’s choking back tears, and there’s zero chance I won’t cry, too, if I look at him. We had planned to take another game drive through the preserve before heading to Bwindi, but I don’t have to tell him I don’t want to go.

The farmers who have killed these beautiful, endangered animals have broken the law, and theoretically could face fines or imprisonment, but they won’t.

The road to Bwindi

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We arrive on the outskirts of Bwindi before noon, and it is immediately apparent why the name “Impenetrable Forest” was chosen.

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

Unlike the rest of Uganda, Bwindi is dark and cool and misty. Even when the sun is out, it doesn’t feel hot and miserable. You feel like you’re in the middle of Gorillas in the Mist  and you wouldn’t be at all surprised if King Kong went swinging past your little thatched-roof hut any second.

I’m staying at the Buhoma Rest Camp and am lucky enough to score one of the coveted bottom-of-the-hill bandas with an amazing view of the forest and mountains. There’s a little private porch on the front of my cabin and it feels like I’m the only person on the planet when I sit outside, unable to see any of the other bandas or hear any human noise. The forest is alive with chirps and hoots and other unidentifiable noises, and I understand why the employee who checked me in cautioned me not to leave the door to my room open, lest I find myself with a chimpanzee or other uninvited guest making itself at home.

My utterly secluded "Monkey Banda"
My utterly secluded “Monkey Banda”

As with most places I’ve stayed in Africa, the camp’s restaurant is a large, open-air space with a thatched roof. This one has the added feature of incredible views of the mist-covered mountains. I notice at lunch I’m not the only person just staring out at the view, mesmerized. Today’s lunch options are either pasta *or* spaghetti with tomato sauce. I’m feeling wild, so I order the generic “pasta”. And wait. And wait. There is no such thing as fast food in Africa. I’m so hungry, I’d walk a mile for a can of Chef Boyardee and a candle.

Two hours later- I have no idea what that was, but it wasn’t tomato sauce. V8 mixed with spinach and grass clippings, maybe. I start obsessively daydreaming about Oreos.

As soon as the sun starts to dip behind the mountains, I take back every unkind thing I’ve said about the unrelenting African heat. I want it back. I’m freezing to death. I’m wearing everything I packed, wrapped in two threadbare blankets, and still shivering.

Showering here is an ordeal. First you have to let the water run long enough to get hot, but not so long you miss the 3.5 seconds of hot water you’ll get before it runs out. Then you have to fill up a handy plastic bucket iwth water and use it to drown the baseball-sized spider lurking under the wooden pallet that makes up the floor of your shower. Then, for good measure, take the random plastic pitcher that’s in there and smash the spider’s guts all over the floor. Do this while naked and screaming for maximum effect. Then, shower with flip flops on so you don’t step in spider gut slime. Once you finish all that, you’re free to scald your sunburned arms and scalp under the boiling water (no showerhead, naturally) and do a half-assed job of shaving in the dark while keeping an eye out for more “wildlife”. Don’t forget to save enough hot water for washing out your unmentionables- no laundry facilities for 300 miles!

Sufficiently clean and mildly traumatized, I make the hike up to the top of the hill again for dinner. Tonight’s offerings are: warm Bell lager, French onion soup, some kind of roasted pork something-or-other, and an unknown dessert. I’m ravenous, so it all sounds amazing.

I wonder if the other people in the restaurant think I’m writing some kind of deep “Snows of Kilimanjaro” shit in my diary all the time. Nope, just making lists of all the American food I can’t wait to gorge myself on as soon as I get home. Pizza Hut. Dunkin Donuts. Cracker Barrel macaroni and cheese. Non-instant coffee!

So, um, when has French onion soup ever been yellow? My hopes for the pork whatsit have fallen dramatically, and they weren’t that high to begin with.

I still really want some Oreos.

I hear a chimpanzee screech close outside the open restaurant walls and decide to stop whining. I am the luckiest person I know.

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Things I Love

A completely random collection of things I love, in no particular order.

 

Tiny details

Flowers left as an offering to a Ganesh statue in Bali
Flowers left as an offering to a Ganesh statue in Bali

Slow travel

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Luxuriating in an exquisite meal

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Smelling flowers

Exotic flora in Uganda
Exotic flora in Uganda

Listening to a stranger’s stories

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Watching a new city wake up

A chilly November morning in Edinburgh
A chilly November morning in Edinburgh

Bonding with animals

Edgar the affectionate manatee
Edgar the affectionate manatee

Old cemeteries

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Leaving my fingerprints on every corner of the world

Chinatown, Singapore
Chinatown, Singapore

 

What do you love? Tell me in the comments!

Why have a travel blog? Plus a holiday giveaway!

This post may contain affiliate links, which cost you nothing but help to support the upkeep of this blog. 

Know what I love to do, almost as much as I love to have random bucket list adventures all over the globe? Encourage other people to have their own. When I’m getting to know someone, I like to skip right past the usual, “What’s your favorite color?” and “Tell me about your family!” stuff. For me it’s all about the, “What’s on your bucket list??” And as soon as I find out, I’m all about encouraging you to fulfill your dreams.

Bucket list-ing in Indonesia
Bucket list-ing in Indonesia

So that brings me to why I even have a travel blog in the first place. I’ve been traveling and checking things off my own list for years without one, and maintaining a blog is actually a lot of work and expense. But I LOVE to encourage people to follow their dreams. Love it. It breaks my heart when someone tells me they have a dream they’ve given up on. If you’ve always wanted to go to Ireland/ learn Swahili/ sail to Fiji but you’ve given up on it ever happening because of time or money or kids or whatever, please don’t tell me- I’ll cry.

I think everyone has a bucket list, even if you haven’t set it down on paper or told anyone about it yet.

Swimming with dolphins... check!
Swimming with dolphins… check!

I hope reading about my adventures (and misadventures) encourages other people to remember their dreams and goals that they may have set aside and make some of them come true. If you need to save money, save money. If you need to arrange for childcare, do it. There are things you’ve been putting off that won’t wait forever, and eventually you will run out of time. I’ve been a funeral director for a long time- not to be morbid, but I promise you there will come a day when someone you love will be sitting in an office just like mine, telling someone like me about how much you loved wine, and wished you had taken that girls’ trip through Napa. Or how much you loved Greek food, and wished you had made it to Santorini. Or maybe you’ll make some of those dreams come true, and we can talk about that instead.

So…! That brings us to the fun part.

Let’s win some free stuff.

As my holiday gift to you, my awesome followers, one of you is going to win a $50 Amazon gift certificate that you can use to get you one step closer to checking off your own bucket list. Maybe you need a Bucket List Journal to start making your list. Maybe you need some new luggage, or an airplane pillow, or some extra memory cards for your camera. Whatever it is that will inspire you to make your dreams come true, make it happen!

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Gift card shown is for illustration purposes only- actual prize will be in the form of an emailed Amazon code, so you don’t have to wait by the mailbox!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

 

Sunrise on the African savanna

May 21, 2010- Queen Elizabeth National Park. My driver and I are in the park well before sunrise, while the animals are still waking up. What an amazing sight, to see the sun come up over the African plain with herds of kob, waterbuck, and buffalo slowly grazing for their breakfast. Absolutely unforgettable. A hyena and some warthogs dart out of the bushes and run in front of our car, too. And after two hours of searching, the icing on the cake: one massive tusked elephant glides between the Acacia trees.

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I snap a few pictures of him and then put down my camera and just stare at him until he disappears off into the horizon.

My driver circles the park over and over again, occasionally stopping to talk into a radio with other safari drivers. No one can find the lions that are usually present in this part of the park. He knows I desperately want to see them, so we keep driving. The sun is high in the sky; it’s almost noon and most of the animals are taking shelter from the midday heat. We meet up with several other safari vehicles near one popular watering hole and all of the drivers get out to form a huddle. The other vehicles are full of other tourists who look as bedraggled as I feel. I’m glad I’m not the only one who can’t handle the equatorial heat.

The huddle of drivers breaks up and mine returns- do I want to keep searching for the lions? No one has seen them. He looks desperate. No, I tell him. I know as well as he does that they won’t be hanging out in the middle of the day, in this heat. I’m ready to head back into the shade myself and nap until the sun begins to relent. He looks relieved.

As we leave the southern sector of the park, a fat little savannah monitor waddles his way down to road and I squeal at my driver to stop. He stops, and so does the lizard, long enough for me to take his photo before he scampers off into the brush. He looks just like Monte, the pet savannah I had in high school, who loved to perch on my shoulder and listen to Elvis Presley.

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By 5 p.m. there is a wicked storm blowing up over the Great Rift Valley, driving away most of the flies and oppressive heat. I venture outside my banda after a much-needed nap and find that the safari camp is still empty. I eat dinner in the large open-air restaurant alone again. This place is starting to feel kind of creepy in a Shining sort of way.

I walk around to stretch my legs before the sun goes down. A signpost at the base of the safari camp hill indicates that the Congolese border is only 23 miles away. My driver had mentioned earlier in the day that the border was currently open, for the first time in years, and if I wanted to hop over and get my passport stamped, he could arrange it. I could visit the weekly market and check another country off my list, but in the end I chicken out. I haven’t done enough research on the Congo to make it an impromptu travel destination. (Note: I will always regret this!)

There is zero nightlife when you’re the sole occupant of a safari camp in the middle of Uganda, so I don’t feel bad about going to bed early. My driver will be arriving at the crack of dawn yet again, this time to take me the 5+ hours to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, home to some of the world’s only surviving mountain gorillas.

 

Giant cockroaches and the Equator

May 20, 2010- Really sad to be leaving Kibale Forest after breakfast- I’ve grown so accustomed to hearing my little primate friends in the trees outside my banda. I’m on my way to Queen Elizabeth National Park for some game drives and a stop off at the Equator. I don’t know what the monkey situation will be, but I’m eagerly anticipating some lion sightings. It should be an easy hour-long drive to my safari camp, and I’m looking forward to having the afternoon free for adventuring.

Five hours later, we’re still driving. Apparently the safari camp I’ve booked is so new my driver has never heard of it. He neglected to mention that when we set out. Finally, in frustration, he pulls up to the Queen Elizabeth Bush Lodge and asks if I wouldn’t just like to stay there instead? Ah, Africa. He finally consents to look at the map in my Lonely Planet guide (I’ve been offering it to him for at least three hours now) and stops for directions.

He’s obviously cranky when we stop at the Equator for my obligatory “look at what a giant tourist I am!” picture, but at least he doesn’t leave me on the side of the road.

Standing on the Equator!
Standing on the Equator!

It’s almost 2pm when I arrive at the Simba Safari Camp and, once again, I see no other tourists around. One of the employees tells me they have just recently opened and I’ll have the entire camp to myself for the duration of my stay. If you love solitude as much as I do, that probably sounds like a dream. It’s actually a little spooky once the sun starts to set, though. I’m out in the middle of the African savanna, it’s pitch black and absolutely silent. I would go into my banda, but there’s just one little problem.

One big problem, actually.

There’s a cockroach the size of a squirrel in my room.

No, I’m dead serious. It’s so big it probably drove here by itself. I think about going to find an employee to deal with it for me, but then I consider how that might be misconstrued (“Hi, I’m a tiny female here by myself, can you come back to my room with me?”) and decide… mmm, better not.

One hour later:  Leslie 1, giant cockroach 0.

Final tally of weapons thrown: 4 plastic coat hangers, 1 bottle of shampoo, 1 bottle of conditioner, 1 Lonely Planet guidebook, and 1 elephant-dung-encrusted hiking boot.

I doze off and on all night, but never really sleep. Partly because I’m worried about more rodent-sized insects swarming my room, and partly because even though we’re on the Equator, the safari camp has not seen fit to put air conditioning or fans in any of the bandas. At 6am it’s still dark but I step outside with a flashlight in search of a cool breeze. Instead I find a bettle the size of a tennis ball.

Giant Equator bug

I’m really hoping it was worth getting up at the crack of dawn to go on a game drive, and that I see more interesting things than horrifyingly giant insects. (Spoiler alert: it was, and I do. Stay tuned!)

African Adventure- from Hoima to Kibale Forest

May 17, 2010-  My African adventure gets easier and more enjoyable every day. Presumably the jet lag is lessening and improving my mood considerably. The ride to Hoima after breakfast is an easy one- a few small parts of the road are even paved. Wildlife is everywhere. On the drive I see countless baboons, vervet monkeys, one sweet black and white colobus monkey, Ugandan kob, Thomson’s gazelles, pigs, several roadblocks worth of Bunyoro cattle, and approximately six million goats. My driver laughs hysterically when I tell him how much I like goats. I tell him they should open a petting zoo here and tourists would pay to visit. He looks at me like I’m mocking him. I can’t convince him petting zoos are a real thing, and he changes the subject. He asks if I have air conditioning in my house, and I tell him yes. He marvels. He doesn’t believe me when I tell him I have it in my car, too.

Goats!
Goats!
Ugandan traffic jam
Ugandan traffic jam

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I learn an important lesson on this trip: never, ever, ever get stuck behind a flatbed truck carrying bags of fish in the 100+ degree heat. Never. OMG.

We arrive at the Hotel KonTiki early enough in the day for me to wander around and take some photos. The grounds are beautifully landscaped and full of horses and cats and almost no other tourists. My room is the largest I’ve stayed in so far and there’s even a double bed that doesn’t seem to be made of cinderblocks. I revel in the luxury. There’s a huge bathroom, too- with a hole in the ceiling, so I’ll probably find a baboon in there later.

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A pre-dinner nap would be awesome, but apparently there is construction work happening on the other side of the building. Power comes on just long enough for me to charge my phone, then goes off again. Did I fail to mention the random power outages in Africa? Yeah, it’s a thing. Enjoy your electricity and hot water when you can, and never take them for granted.

The hotel restaurant is a typical open-air, thatched roof cafe serving a few random curries and rice (I opt for the veggie). An emaciated little cat immediately sits next to me and starts mewing pitifully. I give it a curry mushroom, which it doesn’t eat, but it doesn’t ask for anything else, either.

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By the time dinner is over it’s dark outside, but the construction workers are still going strong. They’ve cranked up the generator so I have some spotty power with which to charge my laptop. I turn on the TV to try to drown out the hammering, but it only gets one channel, a fuzzy British sports network.

May 18, 2010- I wake up before dawn, too excited to sleep any longer. Today I’m heading to Kibale, the forest with the largest number of primates in Africa. There are no paved spots on the road today- I feel like I may have dislocated something. I wonder if it’s possible to have permanent nerve damage from a sunburn. My left arm feels like it’s been smashed several times over with a hammer. Even wearing long sleeves and keeping the car’s tinted windows up as much as possible (remember how there’s no air conditioning, though? Yeah… that’s problematic) I can feel my skin searing.

Somewhere on the way out of Hoima I see a man and woman with a motorcycle, standing in a ditch on the side of the road. The bike was up on the front wheel and the man seemed to be lowering it back down to the ground. I assumed they had wrecked, given the state of the road, but my driver said they had just run out of fuel and he was trying to eke a few more drops out of the tank to get to town.

Little kids still yell and wave from the side of the road when I pass by. Apparently I’m just as fascinating to them as they are to me.

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Kibale may be famous for its chimpanzees and various monkey species, but I’m astounded by the butterflies. Great clouds of them fly up every time you take a step and they land all over you whenever you’re still. One big one keeps landing on my phone. He must be attracted by his reflection.

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I’m staying at the Primate Lodge, which is nice- I have a big private banda with stone floors and a nice little porch facing the jungle. I haven’t seen any other tourists here, either- it pays to travel in the off-season. I’m the only guest in the restaurant for lunch (a relatively edible ham sandwich and a blissfully cold Coke). Every few minutes I can hear things moving in the treetops and I cross my fingers that a monkey swings by to visit. On my way back to my banda I see a family of L’Hoest’s monkeys, one carrying a tiny baby.

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Torrential downpours seem to come out of nowhere in the jungle and the avalanche of rain, combined with my sheer exhaustion from the sun, knocks me out before dinner and I sleep all night. Did I ever mention it takes me a long time to adjust to being in a new time zone? I wake up when daylight starts peeking into my banda and discover something has eaten a papaya on my front porch in the night. Apparently I missed the monkey visitors I wished for.

After breakfast I hike my way out to the lodge’s famous treehouse overlooking the elephant wallow. Normally you can book the treehouse as your accommodation, and I would have, but it was closed for renovation during my visit. I climb up the steps for a great view of the jungle, though. No elephants here at the moment, but I hear one trumpet in the woods and there is fresh evidence of a recent visit. I can hear chimps hooting and grunting to each other in the woods nearby, too. I sit for at least an hour, in the middle of the jungle, just taking it all in.

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