Since I last wrote, so much has happened that I find it hard to fit in one post. Apologies in advance for the length, but I am still going to try! Because I had already traveled to the US for my brother’s wedding earlier in the year, I had decided to spend my 2 week holiday off from work in Uganda. The best part is that Nick came to join me during his break from school. The few weeks leading up to the break after Thanksgiving were filled with lots of field work with ACODEV to wrap up projects for the year and a weekend trip southeast to a town called Ibanda where I was officially inducted into Kasese’s Rotaract Club (branch of Rotary International for professionals aged 18-30). And then I eagerly headed to Kampala to pick up Nick from the airport…
Farouk, my Rotaract mentor, and me during the ceremony.
After the ceremony.
My admittedly overly-organized-self planned out lots of adventures around the country reaching the borders of DRC, Rwanda, and Kenya, which amazingly totaled 2,065 km/1,283 miles that Google estimates to be about 29 hours of driving. Phew! But as his first time in Africa and my first time at most of these spots, we were both grateful to have the opportunity to travel to so many new places together.
Kampala, Fort Portal, Kasese, Kabale/Lake Bunyoni, Mbarara, Jinja, Kapchorwa/Sipi Falls
In an effort to battle Nick’s jetlag (9 hr time difference), we spent our first full day on a boda-boda (motorcycle) tour of Kampala visiting the Gaddafi National Mosque; Hindu Temple; Baha’i Temple (1 of 7 in world, surprisingly another is in IL near where Nick lives); the Buganda Kingdom Palace, including Idi Amin’s torture chambers; craft markets; and ending the day with a stop at my NGO’s Kampala office to say hello to some coworkers.
Though there is so much to see in Kampala, I was eager to get out of the city and show Nick the parts of the country where I spend most of my time. So the next day we bused west and spent a night in Fort Portal before continuing to Kasese (see this older post to read more about Fort Portal). The highlights of this stop were staying in a lovely bed & breakfast with home cooked meals and having tea at Kyaninga Lodge whose tree house-esque architecture has breathtaking views of the Kyaninga Crater Lake. This is by far the nicest lodge I have yet to see in Uganda, and probably anywhere ever.
Then we finally arrived at my home! We spent a few days relaxing, exploring my town, stopping by my office, swimming at a hotel, on safari in Queen Elizabeth National Park & on the Kazinga Channel (finally saw lions!), eating local foods, visiting the market, and having an obligatory photo shoot at the equator. Since we were both battling some mild cases of upset stomach/Giardia (part of the experience, right?), the quieter days were very much welcomed.
When Christmas Eve rolled around, we took public transportation (an experience in itself) about 6 hours south of where I live to the Rwandan border to stay near Kabale at Lake Bunyoni, “place of many little birds.” It is Africa’s 2nd deepest lake and free of schistosomiasis, making it safe to swim in, a rarity. After a tiring yet scenic journey, we arrived at our tent overlooking the lake fully furnished with a bed, warm blankets for the cold nights, and electricity. Fancy camping! We spent Christmas Eve and Christmas eating tasty food (including crawfish from the lake), canoeing, swimming, exploring nearby islands, playing Scrabble & chess, and just being together. On Christmas evening we enjoyed a bonfire by the lake and later on some refreshing rain from under the safety of our tent’s porch. On our way back to Kasese the next day, Nick was elated to finally try “ensenene,” fried grasshopper snacks, from a vendor outside our taxi. Let’s just say he enjoyed them more than I do!
On our last day in Kasese, we hiked 2,100 ft. straight up into the Rwenzori Mountains (“mountains of the moon”) reaching Rucoochi Falls. For almost the entire trek up, we passed through our guide’s home village. In addition to paying the guides, the cost of the hike is directed towards development of the communities in these mountains. I’m continually amazed at how families farm on steep hillsides and carry water on their backs/heads up the mountains as we are panting up with light backpacks. But we were greeted with stunning views and many smiles and giggles after greeting the children with “Wabuchire,” meaning “Good Morning,” in Lukonzo. Arriving back at the base camp after the five hour hike, a perfectly timed rain shower cooled us down.
Our last big adventure was a 2 day, 1 night trip to the eastern parts of the country including Jinja, the source of the Nile River, and Kapchorwa, home to Sipi Falls. About halfway to Jinja, we stopped to take a 2 hour nature walk in Mabira Forest and learned about the native rain forest plants and animals, including monkey and green mamba snake spottings! After reaching Jinja, we stood at an overlook of the river where it was easy to spot the changes in water signifying water rising up from springs in the ground, the source of the longest river in the world (6,853 km). Later on, a speed boat trip into the Nile River/Lake Victoria provided an up-close peek where we could dip our toes into the water on a few man-made islands in the middle. Appropriately so, lunch included freshly smoked Nile tilapia and Nile beer (Ugandan favorite) on a river dock. And yes, that is a photo of us feeding each other fish eyeballs. I’m too stubborn to turn down a challenge, but it wasn’t so bad at all.
We finished the day journeying even further east arriving in the dark at Sipi River Lodge near Mt. Elgon National Park (bordering Kenya). Since my friends and I usually travel backpacker-style staying in cheaper accommodations, I had decided to take the opportunity to try a higher-end lodge. Great decision! The set menus for dinner, breakfast, and lunch that were included in our “full board” stay were divine. Freshly baked breads, vegetables from their garden, and really gourmet recipes. In the morning light, we saw that our banda was directly situated on Sipi River with views of one of the falls. Such a peaceful escape. After enjoying a quiet morning, we spent two hours hiking to the falls and really appreciating our iPhones’ ability to take panoramic photos! I’ll let the photos speak for themselves…
Though Nick’s flight back to the US was at 5am on Jan. 1st, we were still able to enjoy a delicious New Year’s Eve meal at Kampala’s #1 rated restaurant (according to TripAdvisor), Yujo. Miso soup, tempura, sushi, sautéed sea scallops, and chocolate sake cake! Yum. After toasting champagne to 2014, I less-than-enthusiastically returned Nick to the airport for his 24 hour journey to ice-cold Chicago. Though, sad to say farewell, I can’t think of a better way to have spent the holidays. With no major travel mishaps, lucky discoveries along the way, and finally introducing Nick to my home and community, it is a trip we will remember for many years to come (especially considering we snapped 1,750 photos!).
“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh
I can’t end without saying thank you to everyone for their holidays wishes, cards and packages! Though it was bittersweet to be away from family and friends from home during the holidays, it’s that much more special to receive a small surprise in the mail or catch each other on Skype/e-mail for just a few moments. I think of you all so often and can now officially say… I’ll see you later this year! I hope that 2014 brings new beginnings and a renewed sense of life, laughter, and love for everyone. Happy New Year!
“Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
“There are only two days in the year that nothing can be done. One is called yesterday and the other is called tomorrow, so today is the right day to love, believe, do and mostly live.” HH the 14th Dalai Lama