Africa! An Email Journey Through Paradise, January 2003

A voyage of self-discovery and to raise funds for AIDS relief in Uganda, Rwanda and South Africa, and to save the endangered mountain gorilla population. Oh yeah, climbed Kilimanjaro for Mom, too.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Monday, December 18, 2006


We are so fortunate. What do I have to complain about? Please consider going to and for just a dollar a day, keep a child alive. Share your love with a stranger a world away. We are all Family. One.
Thank you, Alicia and Bono for the poignant song, video, and passion to use your heart and position to make a difference.
It is our obligation.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2005

It's a Small World After All [tick tick tick...suspense!]

Hey All-

Now I get to give you the inside dope on TravelGuard travel insurance. I'll see how they help me out with my earlier flight home. I leave Kampala on the 7th and will be in Arusha on the 8th, where I will try to move my flight up for a medical evacuation. Isn't this fun? I would do just about anything for a good email.

Check out this article sent by my pal Eric:

So I choose Africa to have an SF outbreak. Small world-Peter Ruane in the article is my old doctor from LA. So tomorrow, I'll hang around Kampala at the guest house, check email, and then head off on my 17- hour bus ride to Arusha, where I'll try to change my flight. Think happy thoughts.

It's a small world after all except when you're trying to get home from Uganda...


Uganda Go Rwanda More Time!

6:45 PM Red Chilli

Where was I, before all the sturm und drang of my last email? Oh, yeah…


After Bwindi, we left for Mount Gahinga Camp at the border of Zaire/Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. This was supposed to be a ‘day of leisure after a five hour drive.’ I’ve since learned to multiply times two any estimated travel time Matthias gives me.

Ten hours later, we pulled into Mgahinga Camp. This was even more luxurious than Bwindi. Instead of tented accommodations, I had my own hut complex, or banda, made of teak, pumice, with an en suite shower/toilet. All this overlooking volcanoes, Lake Mutanda, amid lilies and hummingbirds and beautiful gardens.

Again, I was the only person here, and the service was impeccable bordering on pandering bordering on Zaire/Rwanda…

At night, I returned to my banda to find a lantern lit, a charcoal heater placed within, and a hot water bottle warming my bed. It just dawned on me that I hadn’t told you that much of my time in Africa has been cool. Odd, being so close to the equator, but it’s the altitude.

Again, the landscape was surreal hills, terracing, and a chain of seven volcanoes in a row.

This was very rural, very poor Africa. I saw two kids of about ten playing. One was wearing an infant’s jumper, the kind that snaps at the crotch, as a shirt—it ended mid-torso. The other wore an extra large sweatshirt, more holes than shirt, as a dress.

On our way to camp, we got a flat, which caused people to come out of the woodwork to come and gawk at us, or more specifically, me. They’d most likely seen white people driving by, but I think that they’d never had one get out of a vehicle in their neighborhood. I was an instant source of fascination, amusement and terror. And I know that they’d never seen tattoos before. The one person who could speak English said, “You have pictures!”.

Back to Camp.

I was up and on the road by 7:30 in order to get through the border and to the Parc National des Volcans for our 9:30 trek time. At the border, we had to get “an assistant” as Matthius called him—in other words, a soldier with a rifle sat next to me for our 45- minute drive to park headquarters—a stretch of highway apparently known for banditry/rebel activity. Hutu, what ya do?

As we traveled, there were loads of people everywhere-in the streets, in fields. Rwanda is one of Africa’s most populated countries.

It was an uneasy feeling having a soldier with a rifle pressed into me in the Land Rover. And I also acknowledged a certain wariness to this country with it’s uneasy history with the machete-Dian Fossey and crew, and nearly a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus met their fates via machete.

As we drove into the park, children thrust out their hands and yelled, “Give us money!”—no smile, no wave. I noticed this phenomenon in Bwindi and Lake Bunyoni—anywhere near the where well meaning, short-sighted tourists had dropped coins and chocolates before.

In truly rural Africa (which it seems most of Africa is), kids are happy just to wave and smile and shout, “How are you?” to show their usage of English. It seems only in the true tourist corridor has a culture of begging developed.

After we arrived at PNV, Volcanoes paid for my trek permit, a not-insignificant 250 dollars. (Thank you, Volcanoes!) I met two guys from Manchester, UK, and our guide, and we set off to find our group (lucky?) 13.

I had been told that Rwanda would be an easier trek and we’d be done in three hours.

Fat chance.

This day, while amazing, was seven hours of the most difficult, hot, at times frustrating and exhausting hikes I’d even done. It rivaled Kilimanjaro. If we hadn’t been three youngish guys in good shape, we wouldn’t have seen the gorillas.

We hiked straight up a volcano for two hours--through fields, bamboo stands where you really needed to be hobbit sized, all the while vines wrapping around your feet and head like snares, bamboo spears stabbing legs, packs, head, dinner plate sized buffalo poops, stinging nettles tickling through trousers, and thorny stemmed handholds.

We hiked extremely quickly, gaining almost 6,000 feet in two hours. We came into a clearing and were told that we were fairly near the gorilla group, and that we shouldn’t run if charged, that we would stand our ground. No problem.

We doffed our daypacks and awaited the 10- to 15- minute hike to see group 13.

Or so we thought.

A blood curdling scream, a huge black arm through bamboo three feet away, and rushing sounds. A scene from ‘The Gods Must Be Crazy” ensued, as I jumped, caught my foot on a vine, leapfrogged over the head of one trek mate and landed on a rifle—all done at Keystone Cops pacing.

First test- Don’t Run.

First Test- Failed.

I didn’t know we were only two stalks of bamboo from the silverback. It seems 13’s regular silverback had recently died and the new guy wasn’t as habituated as the other. Because of intensely dense growth, our guide said our hour wouldn’t start until we could view the gorillas.

We followed 13 for about three hours, and were mock charged at least fifteen times-- one time he actually brushed one of the guys.

While thrilling (and yes, I did learn to stand my ground), I felt that this was not an entirely stress-free encounter for this particular group. In Bwindi, you could see that the gorillas and their best interests were strictly adhered to. In Rwanda, because of our guide’s desire to please us, I felt the gorillas had to have been stressed out. I mean, we were with them, following them, being charged, being screamed at-- for almost three hours.

I voiced my concern, but the guide said, “No problem. New silverback. Keeps running.” I asked if he knew how to say, “Sorry for disturbing you” in mountain gorilla. He smiled and looked confused.

It took us two hours to hike down-an equally exhausting and frustrating trek through bamboo- off cliffs (we had to jump off a 10 foot drop) and nettles and thorns.

We staggered back to park headquarters seven hours later, exhausted, sunburned, dehydrated, and famished. I split my packed lunch with the two guys at 3:30.

Was it a good experience?

It was a wild, difficult experience. And it made me want to make sure that Rwanda stays true to its commitment to low stress gorilla eco-tourism.

The next day, Matthias said we had a 6- hour drive to Kampala, so I applied my 2x theory. Worked like a charm—12 hours. On the drive we had a flat, no brakes, and refilled the radiator 8 times—so, for Africa, pretty uneventful trip.

As I’m a bit obsessed with all things legs of late, the trek activity and heat wasn’t so kind. My leg looked like a C minus kielbasa where my sock had cut a Great Rift Valley through the edema in my ankle. (I looked, but didn’t see hippos or giraffes in the aforementioned valley.) The next day, the swelling was gone, so it looked very Rameses the Great withered—if I’d just done The Eyes (some of you know those eyes…) I’d have been the complete picture.

Back to present.

I bought my bus ticket to Arusha for the 7th. I’m really sorry I wasn’t able to get a firsthand report on Pangaea’s work in Uganda, but I think I should get the leg looked at. I kind of feel like I’ve let you, my Pangaea donors, down. When I get home, I’ll try having a chat with Barbara Lawson, Uganda’s program director based in San Francisco, so that I can fill you in on the important work you’ve helped fund.

I’m going to sort of miss Kampala. As I was walking up the hill to Chillis in the late afternoon amber light, past the Nakasero Soap Works with its smell of canned frosting, toothpaste and stomach acid, I had realized I had settled into a pretty laid back Ugandan lifestyle.

Off to bed now, belly full of Bolognese and “Night Listener” by Armistead Maupin for a little taste of home (he even mentions 18th & Castro).

Oh-- that reminds me--- there are a slew of shops in Uganda called Shop Dot Com—all empty. Now I really felt like I was back in the City by the Bay.

A couple of headscratchers:

Speedo Electronics (hydraulic lifting & enhancing?)
Pretty Unisex Room.

Oh, Patrick, you’d have liked the walk I did at Entebbe Botanical Gardens today. (The Gardens were home to Weismueller Tarzan locations and where Idi Amin used to draw his water from, because he thought he was going to be poisoned.)

Big Spider Walk.

Big. Spiders. Everywhere.


post-gorilla bliss Posted by Hello