Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Arterial Walls part 2

I am hungry about 89 percent of the time.
Alex, on the other hand, rarely admits to being hungry at all, unless his mom is currently cooking kung-pao chicken.  Halfway across the world from any type of Black specialty, you can perhaps imagine my surprise when it was Alex, and not me, who suggested that the first two items on our pre-wander itinerary should be “find food” and “find a place to sleep.” 
The first of those tasks was easy enough, since there was a little restaurant with shaded outdoor tables just across the street from the taxi stop.  We found it almost empty, but the tall, pretty proprietress was willing to serve us after deliberation with her staff.  Only, there weren’t any actual options, just ‘lunch.’  Fine by us!  But, uh, any chance there are perhaps beer options…?
After enjoying this first encounter with both traditional Ugandan lunch (rice, mushy green bananas, and fish/beef in a thin broth) and English-dubbed Korean sitcoms (rice, mushy fake sentiments, and domestic violence/sexism in a thin plot) we set out to find accommodation free of lice, mushy floor residue and doors/windows with thin locks.  Our search led us first through the northern corridor of Jinja’s downtown, which is a scale replica of Kampala’s commercial districts: rambling rows of little cell-phone shops and tiny bars and printer places, interspersed with packs of idling boda-boda drivers, and smelling of half-garden landfill.  Then the quest turned us out of the center towards the river and into Jinja’s tourist district, one of the mainstays of the city’s relative commercial success.
Billing itself as the “Adventure Capital of Uganda,” Jinja attracts foreign travelers in large numbers every year.  These thrill-seekers come for adrenaline-pumping activities such as rafting, bungee jumping, and competitive tanning, not to mention the heart-stopping action of tropical-cocktail-with-a-little-umbrella sipping.  Most of the resorts we passed were well outfitted for this latter contest of livers, replete with authentic thatched-roof huts (air-conditioning included, of course) and well-stocked tiki-bars. 
Alex and I did not go into these places.
Instead we went into the cheapest spot the internet could conjure up: a European-style backpacker hostel with dorm beds for 7 bucks a night.  It certainly wouldn’t be the most Ugandan of experiences, but we haven’t met a Ugandan who does much travelling or hotel-staying, so we felt justified in going for rock-bottom prices—the hunt for best value constituting a totally authentic native practice. 
The place was well-hidden, tucked back into a neighborhood full of swank resorts and huge gated houses, and it took us a full couple of hours to finally sweat up to the front desk.  We were immediately shown the dorm (an entire bunkroom to ourselves) and just as immediately slapped down our cash, eager to start out towards our real destination: The Mother of All Rivers.  Filling our Nalgenes with rich, full-flavored Lake Victoria tap water (topnotes of rotting seaweed give way to lush tannins, with a distinctly arsenical finish...) we consulted the map we’d sketched off Google Earth and left in what seemed a likely direction.  We weren’t too worried, y’know—figure the Nile stands out a bit.

The first public space we found in all Africa looked like an accident.  The Jinja golf course rests on a plateau above the Nile, which river glides past to its east; to its west lies a big chunk of undeveloped land, strewn about with trees as though through the greenthumb of an 8th-grade gardener with pretty severe unmedicated ADHD.  The armed-guard-free space was a pleasant surprise, and we marked it for a little future Frisbee-throwing (some parts of our culture we’re not willing to give up just yet).  Eyes on the prize, however, we followed the greater temptation through this de-facto park, carefully stepping over turds of varying sizes (some grass-seed tiny, others about the volume of a soccer ball), and then skirting the northern edge of hole 9 to stand finally on a cliffside, towering over 6,650 kilometers of uninterrupted atomic motion.
I wish I could describe to you the feeling of looking out across that glittering expanse, framed by hills and sky that looked downright drab compared to its nuclear starscape surface, but the sentences (like that last clause) would come out all preachy and full of adjectives so I won’t try.  Suffice it to say that the most coherent sound in my head was a sort of slack-jawed garbling. 
Without a word between us Alex and I agreed to get closer to this juggernaut, to shake hands with a titanness.  The route downhill was steep and loose, constantly threatening to drop us down into the current and wash us through Sudan, so we picked our way carefully along the scorched-red dirt and the rows of crops.  I was amazed at the tenacity of farmers here, who will extend their fields down a 55-degree cliff if need be.  I tried very hard not to disturb any of their plants.
We had finally made it close to the bottom when I spotted a tree that leaned out across the shoreline a bit, promising a great view down into the water.  I knelt to tighten my laces and then started scaling, making it up to the first thick branch before I noticed the blood starting to drip down my wrist.  We wondered, after I got back to earth, exactly why this plant was so angry; is it really necessary to have enormous thorns that start at 7 feet up and can’t be seen from ground level, dude?  As we looked for a cool place to watch the flow of water, and as I wrapped a clean bandana around my shredded palm, we realized that every plant in the area was similarly adorned with festively sharpened ornamentation.   
Weaving our way through the barbed-wire vines we found a little shaded grotto to sit in.  By the time I cleared away the thorns, settled in, and took a real breath, I was realizing that I felt very much like an intruder.  It overwhelmed me how strange it was to be here, with my skin useless in this sun and my sweat too dehydrating for this heat and my knowledge too small to name these birds and my presence so unwelcome in this forest that shrieks of millennia of intruders with its million outraged thorns—I felt out of place; I felt, for perhaps the first time in Uganda, the weight of distance from my home.
Then again, all that might have just been the blood loss.
Alex and I sat there quietly for some time, just breathing.  I cannot tell you how long because I didn’t remember that I had a watch on.  Then, without speaking much, we hiked back up the hill, tossed my Frisbee among the public trees and turds, and started towards town to find another meal.

To be continued...


  1. Striking idea that you wouldn't miss the Nile at its source. I can't imagine finding that little stream to step across at Lake Itasca without a map and a sign- and the Mighty Mississippi is no slouch of a river.

    1. It was incredible, really. Easily as wide as the Mississippi at the Minnesota-Wisconsin border right at the source. The Nile makes any other river I've seen look like Minnehaha Creek...