The lawn of the hostel looked sharp and brittle when I woke up, and it felt like I counted every individual shard of grass while waiting for Free Morning Coffee. Alex was still in the room “trying” to get out of bed; every once in a while I would go poke him in the ear to make sure he didn’t fall back asleep. Lady Slumber must have been more enticing than my summons; I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone invent so many new ways of saying “Please leave my presence, you scoundrel.”
After what seemed like a full term of Reagan’s presidency, some workers finally brought out big vats of hot water, stacks of cups, and a wicker basket of beverage supplies, which mostly consisted of Instant Coffee tins and sugar. I’d never had Instant before, and was excited for a new experience, so I mixed up a fat cup of grounds and raised the mug to my eager lips. One large gulp later I was back at the table, drowning the foul concoction in sugar and feeling for the first time a great gratitude towards even Camp’s translucent java. I thought I could maybe force myself to enjoy the process, going so far as to take my time sipping through the jittery alchemical funk. I think it was better by the end of the cup. Or my taste buds just melted off…
Alex and I started back towards the main bridge over the Nile, the one we’d driven across on our way into town, backpacks now filled with water, snacks, sunscreen, and my trusty 175-gram flying disc. Just before the highway shot out into thin air we saw a little gazebo on the bank to our right, sitting next to a road that led onto a jut of land between two channels of the river; that road crossed the other side of the highway to enter, on our left, the peninsula that was, unfortunately, guarded by three heavily armed men.
Choosing the path less ammo-d we hiked up to the gazebo for breakfast, spreading bread with peanut butter and honey above the warped little bench seats. Flower bushes surrounded the wooden structure, a swirling carousel of pastels. The P.B. and H. were all-natural and made in Uganda (standard here, country full of hippies apparently), and they tasted rich and earthy where we sat in the middle of the floral panorama; the bouquet in the air made us feel like we could taste the very blooms the bees had visited before delivering us their profit, and we savored every bite until the bread was gone and the road begged us on.
The ground as we walked formed a kind of flat-topped ridge, a long, thin peninsula with steep sides and a leveled head. The morning sky looked distant but deep above us like an endless blue dome hung somewhere far out in space, held steady by the molten brass tack of the sun.
As we topped a little rise we came upon a golden-grained meadow, spattered with moss-cracked concrete patches, themselves covered in Honda-sized chunks of rubble. Set a little further back to the right were two cylindrical storage tanks, bombed out and big enough to hold a high school dance inside. With deference to the armed men nearby we didn’t enter the structures, but we certainly did stick our heads through the portholes in the sides to harmonize into their echoing and surprisingly dry innards. We might have sang The Star Spangled Banner, but don’t tell anyone I told you that; to be honest the amber-waves-of-grain/old-farm-elevator feel of the ridge top was utterly transporting. I felt like I was in Iowa—even more so when we cut a little path through the two-meter grass, enveloped suddenly in dry summer cricket noises and the smell of toasted plants—for the first time in a month I felt the edgeless ease of total familiarity.
Comfortable as it was, part of me didn’t want to leave the prairie, but great lessons are rarely learned in comfort (Bilbo certainly didn’t want to leave Bag End)—so we hitched up our trousers and kept hiking. Only, we couldn’t keep hiking long, because suddenly we hit the rather uncomfortable barbed-wire fencing and hired guns that demarcated more forbidden territory, in this instance the dam maintenance equipment at the tip of the jut. Fortifications stretched from bank to bank, glittering and impassable.
We turned back through the grain, headed down the road past the gazebo, and crossed the bridge over the Nile to see if we’d have any better luck on the other shore.
Across the river a road led off upstream, away from the city and Lake Victoria. It cut first through the closest thing to a “village” that Alex and I had seen yet, a tight yet crazy-angled growth of concrete and timber and mud and thatch, with footpaths snaking off in every direction and firepits sprouting throughout. The rush of the dam just downstream filled the whole settlement with surreal white noise, as though everyone here lived under a giant Bose headphone. The roar grew as we turned down a dirt road running between the edge of a field and the tall fencing of the dam’s power transformers, and we could barely hear a thing as we approached the River’s edge.
A mist hung in the air over the water at the town’s bottom, a complement to the noise of the dam, slurring the atmosphere around us. A tangle of rapids rushed down out of the concrete outlets, eddying into little susurring pools along the banks. Five or six young people were washing their bodies and clothes in one of these still spots. Their naked torsos were tinted windows in the bright surface of the water. They smiled up at as and waved, teeth flashing the same color as the freshly washed t-shirts drying on shore. We waved back; they laughed.
We kept moving along a foot-trod path on the banks, back up towards the town. Weaving between homes, and wondering exactly what the penalty was for trespassing (and for that matter, what exactly constituted trespassing), we tried our best to keep in the middle of the path; sometimes this was about a foot from houses on either side. People were sitting out front of their homes cooking or listening to radio pluralize. Most gave us unreadable looks, neither smiles nor frowns; maybe curious, maybe accusatory. Some children waved, but not with the laughing joy of Kampala. We walked quickly.
Just as stress started to manifest acute we found the main road leading further upstream, and followed it, breathing slowly again, until we found another boulevard forking off towards the River. Tire tracks were sunk deep in the new street’s gravel bed, and no houses rambled along its edge. A forest sprang up thick and fast around as we picked our way downhill, draining the light and deadening the river’s rush. “no Trespassing no Photo” signs materialized to the right and left of the road. We fervently hoped they referred to the forest and not the road itself. A man appeared at the far edge of our vision then disappeared abruptly; we couldn’t see if there was a path he’d turned off on.
To our right now, within the forest, patches of more solid green started to flash, then sometimes a garden’s otherworldly color. Something was back there, behind the wall of trunks, some place with lawns and fountains and stands of flowers—some other world down here, in the woods below a village and past a dam, an unknown and unmarked garden, the sanctuary of some local nymph or deity (or rich person). Sunlight now only occasionally fluttered down onto our section of road, but the frames of glade hiding behind trees to our right were illuminated in a waterfall of rich light.
Leaves shook and twisted; once every strange while a bird would whistle some not-quite-major-key arpeggio, and then fall silent again.
Our path curved toward the right, and suddenly we caught glimpse of a faint brush of water at the end of the tunnel . The garden still lay next to us, mostly hidden; on our other side the brush was impenetrable. In front of us, standing width-wise across the path, blocking the entire path and bits of forest on either side, stood a full-grown bull.
His face was wrinkled and slightly lowered, cocked lazily in our direction as he watched us with both eyes. One huge horn looped slowly upward to a point somewhere between the sky and our foreheads, the other spiraled until it reached nearly directly into the bulls’ left ear, a few years away from seriously affecting his cognitive function. He stood there, tail brushing lazily back and forth, canvas flank pulled tight across our path to the Nile.
Now, most people know that cows are typically docile and loveable animals, much like big milkable puppies, but Alex and I found it hard to remember things most people know while facing the huge and thoroughly deranged-looking horns of the beast. We stood there, timid, until I decided to try moving slowly around his back side; just as I pulled level he shook his massive skull and I jumped back like bee-stung kid. Alex made fun of me nervously. The bull just stared at us, skin over his rear leg occasionally twitching, a titanic doe-eyed guardian set across the path by whatever creature haunted the garden through the trees. Would he charge? Would he kick? Was the demented horn some sign of violent mental instability? I looked at Alex, shrugged entirely chalantly, and moved slowly along the path, pushing aside brush behind him. His head twitched; I shuddered, but kept moving. Right leg, left leg, just past the swishing tail and—free!
We laughed a laugh of self-aware faux-bravado, and looked back at the guardian. He didn’t seem to care one way or another, but he did keep watching us.
My fear was resolving into the pleasant adrenaline rush of dangers overcome, each step bringing my attention out of my safety and into the brightening trees around us. I was looking up around the arch of limbs above us when suddenly I spotted a little simian shape leaping against the sky. We stopped, then sprinted quietly toward the landing point—right above our heads appeared the little opaque mask of a vervet monkey
Its eyes were shiny little slicks in the oily darkness of its face, surface-deep but expressive. It climbed toward us along a branch, watching intently; if we moved at all it would dart quickly back, but couldn’t seem to help moving closer in our stillness. It looked hungry, and stuck around as though waiting for some handout—it was caught somewhere on the triangular axis between curiosity, fear, and desire.
We stood there with the monkey for a long time, until it was clear that he would not be moving soon; the Nile begged us away to finally sit on a grassy bank sloping down into her gilded waters.
The knoll was in the shade of a tree, and as we sat a few locals came down to sit as well, enjoying a siesta or eating a little. Downstream a few hundred meters was a line of rocks and rapids; the trees of the garden to our right blocked the view upstream. Birds were everywhere, birds in a variety and concentration I have never seen before: snake-necked cormorants paddling on the surface, diving below for two or three minutes to fish, exploding all at once above the surface with the joy of a successful hunt; pelicans, gulls, and ducks perching on the rocks, lazy in the sun; kingfishers hovering 4 meters above the water, facing the wind with only their wings in motion; suddenly a little loop, then a theme park drop, falling a hundred times their body’s length into the water. They would rise mostly empty-mouthed, but when their furious assault found its target a fish half the bird’s length would surface, stunned, speared neatly on a surgical beak.
We sat and watched for an hour, maybe two; finally we felt we should abandon the (our) personal National Geographic Special to hike just a little further downstream before we had to leave to make dinner.
The road led us away from the river and up onto the surrounding hills. We passed by huge, beautiful homes; we passed by very few actual people. Just as we crested one rise for a view of the water we saw smoke pouring from somewhere on the oppostie bank. A fire was raging—even as we watched a whole tree erupted in dirty orange flames, blasting a dark halo out into the sky. The fire grew while we stood there, moving up and over the hillside from a little valley on the cliffs opposite.
The afternoon was moving on, and more people began walking here and there along the road; no one seemed to pay much attention to the inferno on the opposite bank. Indeed, they mostly just looked at us, looking. We stood there for a long moment, rooted in awe, watching a wild heat have its way with the hillside. It wasn’t until we were on the taxi heading home that I realized the strangest part to everyone around was not a forest fire burning down acres of hillside; it was us.