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Alone in Uganda

Wan Lee recently went to Uganda.

Edith Zimmerman: Wan, you went to Uganda! Wait, no — you’re still IN Uganda. Why there, and how did you get there?

Wan Lee: Indeed, as I am typing, I am in Uganda! I ended up here as a result of a funny series of events. In 2011, I was starting my masters thesis in international development, and I needed to decide on a topic to research. I came up with some general ideas of things I liked, and one of those things was beekeeping, since I used to do some hobby beekeeping and loved it. Beekeeping also happens to be a sustainable development initiative by a lot of NGOs (non-governmental organizations), so I cold called/cold emailed (does that even make sense?) 4 or 5 organizations that specialize in rural development and beekeeping to see if they would link me to some participants and interviewees for my research.

The only organization that really got back to me was based primarily in Uganda. So, I guess out of necessity and a lack of choice, I ended up buying my plane ticket and zipping off to Uganda to do some field research. I did my field interviews for about 3 weeks and spent another 3 weeks traveling around the country before returning to grad school. When I was last in Uganda, I met lots of great and friendly people here, and through some connections, I landed my current job, which is working with an organization that – surprise – specializes in beekeeping and rural development! I’ve been living and working in Uganda for a little over a month now.

What was the flight like?

Oof, the flight! I guess it depends on where you’re flying from. The first time, I was flying from New Zealand (my grad school was in NZ) to Thailand to Kenya and then to Uganda, and that was probably a good 30+ hours of traveling. The first leg, from Auckland to Bangkok on Thai Airways (which is a nice airline) was pretty memorable. This man next to me must have had some sort of flight phobia, because he proceeded to drink 10 or so glasses of red and white wine to calm his nerves. They were the mini flight glasses of wine, but even so … the guy was smashed. The flight attendants had to cut him off and man, did he put up a racket! Eventually, he gave up his quest for more wine but started to fight with me over the armrest. He wanted it up so he could take up his seat AND the middle seat AND then slouch all over me. Because I value my personal space and don’t like to being drooled on, I insisted on it being down. I did get my way, but he ended up dozing off and slouching all over me anyway. I was so, so furious and I tried to shove him off my shoulders and even gave him a (light) kick to try to rouse him, but no luck. Ooowee, that guy! I think he was still asleep when we landed.

I was glad to get off that flight, and — after — took Kenya Airways from Bangkok to Nairobi. While there were no drunkies sitting by me, the flight was still … interesting. Apparently lot of East Africans travel on planes much like they travel on vehicles in county. This means they shove as much luggage and goods as possible in the compartments and in any spare room that remains, including between their legs. The woman sitting next to me had two or three boxes of electronics wedged between her legs for the entire flight (I know, I know, safety hazard, right?!), which made it difficult for the window seat passenger (me) to access the bathroom. Oh well! Makes for good stories, I guess!

My most recent flight from Newark to Uganda (Air Brussels) was pretty great. It was still 20+ hours of travel, but I had a very pleasant and not insane time watching tons of movies, having nice chats with surrounding passengers, and just relaxing mostly.

Where are you right now?

Right now, I’m in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. I’m here to do some work, but usually I live in a smallish city in the west of the country called Hoima.

What’s it like there? (Is that too broad?)

Kampala is really cool. I really like the city. It’s a pretty bustling metropolis with lots of people of many different nationalities. It’s like many other cities in that it’s got movie theatres, malls, cafes, clubs, and is just plain fun.

But, unlike some cities, it’s definitely “organized chaos” in many ways. The other day, I was trying to find a taxi-bus (called matatus here) from the main taxi park to another part of the city. There are signs indicating where the matatus go, but they can be pretty hard to see when you’re walled in by vehicles, so you have to weave through this maze of matatus and just ask random people, “Where can I get a taxi to …?” Eventually you get to the taxi you need, but yeah, eventually! That seems to be how things run in Uganda: things get done and people get where they are meant to be … eventually. Since visiting and living here, I’ve found that patience and a sense of humor go a long way!

Did you know anyone there before you got there?

The first time I went to Uganda, no, not really. I had one Ugandan connection that the organization set me up with to help me out with field interviews. I was a little worried because I emailed this connection and didn’t get a reply for more than a week, and so, out of anxiety, I called his Ugandan number on Skype. He seemed nice on the phone, but as we were ending the conversation he sort of hung up on me before I could say “goodbye.” I remember thinking, “Oh shit, he hates me for some reason, I have to work with this guy and he’s the only connection I have in Uganda. Oh no, what I am getting into?” Everything did turn out fine and it also happens that Ugandans usually try to keep their conversations on the phone really brief to save on phone credits. Classic cultural (is it cultural?) misunderstanding!

I also made some connections and got some phone numbers through Couchsurfing, which I’ve been a member of for a few years now. Yes! They have couchsurfing in Uganda, and I couchsurfed in Uganda! The people I contacted were great (hi Paul and Pauline!), I got to stay with them for a few days, and I’m still friends with them today. Not only did I have a really great time with my hosts, but also I got to have some in-depth conversations about Ugandan culture and life with them.

Who do you spend most of your time with?

Nowadays, I spend most of my time with my co-workers, who are all funny and great to work with.

But, the first time I was in Uganda, there were stretches of time during my field research when I was traveling alone and felt very lonely. Especially in areas where there were not many other travelers, I felt pretty isolated because most of the women I met didn’t speak much English (English and Swahili are Uganda’s official languages) and the men I met (not make sweeping generalizations but this was my experience) seemed to mostly have ulterior motives. In these areas, I kept to myself a lot and read and re-read my guidebook, since that was my main source of entertainment.

However, when I got to areas that had more travelers, I was able to meet a lot more people that I could talk to and hang out with Everyone I met was friendly, but some folks even got offered me places to stay and couches to crash on for free! At one point, I was walking through and camping in Kibale National Park, and at the end of the day, I set up my tent at A campground that also had huts to stay in. I met these two British girls who were on vacation, and they insisted I stay in their very comfortable hut that had a spare bed and a hot shower instead of in my little puny, cold tent. They were so nice! But yeah, I met lots of fun and generous people like that along the way while traveling solo. I sometimes wonder if I would have met the same people if I was traveling with someone else and wasn’t forced to approach other people for the sake of my sanity. I guess moments of feeling really alone and isolated were offset by moments of connection with such fantastic people, of which there were MANY, and some are now my friends.

What’s the food like — best/worst/most interesting?

Oh boy, Uganda has so many great things about it, but the cuisine is definitely not something I’ve written home about yet. It’s mostly been a mountain of starch (potatoes, cassava, rice, plantains, corn flour) with a little bit of meat or veggie sauce on top. There is some street food I like such as Ugandan samosas and chapatis (there is a large Indian population in Uganda) and goat or beef kebabs. Some highlights are the pineapples and grasshoppers. I’m convinced that African pineapples are the best in the world. Seriously, they’re so sweet and delicious and just YUM. And the grasshoppers I decided to try for the fun of it last time I was here, but they were surprisingly fantastic. I think they were fried with shallots, and they tasted like tiny pieces of crunchy, salty chicken (really). It’s not grasshopper season right now, but I’m excited for when it comes back around.

Weather?

The weather is nice and mild in Uganda. Where I live, it can get pretty warm during the dry season, but I think it’s rare for it to get above 90F, and the atmosphere is never really humid. During the rainy season (now) it rains in torrential spurts for about 30-40 minutes, and then dries off. It’s cooler and usually in the 70s. Today, in Kampala, it’s 70F.

Where do you live?

The city I live in, Hoima, is pleasant but can get hot and dusty. The area I live in looks quite village-y, with red dirt roads, grazing cattle, and crowing roosters. It’s a lovely and quiet place to work and live, if sometimes a little boring. I’m pretty busy with my job, though, and I get to travel for the job, which lets me to escape to livelier places like Kampala.

How do you travel around?

Traveling in Uganda can be exciting and extremely uncomfortable or at times, both. Unless you hire a private vehicle and driver, traveling is almost always very affordable. If I’m going between larger cities, I usually travel by coach buses, which are pretty timely and comfortable. They’re not as nice as the buses in the US, but they do the job and efficiently. If I’m going to villages, I usually travel by matatu. They’re decidedly less comfortable, since they stuff as many people (and sometimes chickens, as I recently experienced) as possible into the vehicle and travel on unpaved roads. It’s pretty hot and dusty and cramped in matatus. Within cities, the quickest way to get from point A to B is to be driven there by motorcycle, which is called a boda boda. Please don’t tell my parents! I’m not gonna lie, boda bodas can be fun and exciting, but they’re dangerous. I did recently buy a helmet to wear on a boda boda, so +1 for safer traveling!

Please describe the funnest night you’ve had there in recent memory.

I’m going to sound super lame here, but I haven’t had any fun, crazy nights worth writing about since being here, because I’ve mostly been in quiet Hoima. But, I did have a very fun few days when I first got here working on a project near Queen Elizabeth National Park in the west of the country. Our organization was collaborating with some farmers to build fences made of beehives to keep elephants from raiding the farmer’s crops. While building the fence overlooking gorgeous savanna, we got to see elephants nearby munching on some trees. That was really cool. My boss, co-worker, and I also got to stay in this super fancy eco-lodge (they put us up for free) that had amazing views of the park, and they fed us copious amounts of food. The room I had to myself also had a day bed, which I thought was hilarious because clearly you CANNOT nap in the bed you sleep in at night! Such a plebian thing to do!

On the way back from lodge to Kampala, I sat in the back of our truck for a few hours and relished the early morning air and lovely scenery as we drove through the national park and spotted a few Ugandan Kob (antelope creatures), cape buffalo, birds, and elephants. Then, we stopped at the equator for a pee, which is great because now I can say I peed on the equator.

What are better questions I could be asking?

(I think this has been great so far! I’m sorry if my responses are too long … I hope I’m not being boring!)

[You’re not!] What would you ask yourself?

I would ask myself: How much does a trip to Uganda cost?

Cost really varies in Uganda, depending on how you like to travel. Uganda does luxury really well and you can spend thousands of dollars on a trip here if you want to stay at fancy lodges and go on packaged tours. There are lots of things to see and do. (Mountain gorillas! Chimp tracking! Safaris! Trips down the Nile!) If I had the money, I would totally stay at fancy lodges and get driven around in a shiny Land Rover. However, I don’t, so by default I travel more like a local.

During my first trip, 6 weeks in Uganda cost me a little over a thousand dollars, not including airfare. This included all my accommodation (some was free, some I paid for), meals, travel in country, gifts for myself and friends, and fun stuff like white water rafting on the Nile and going on two safari trips. I think that’s pretty affordable, but bear in mind I’m accustomed to roughing it!

Airfare was pretty expensive from New Zealand, but from New York or the east coast of the US, I think you can get a round trip ticket to East Africa for around $1,200.

What would you tell people who might be intimidated by the idea of traveling alone there, or thereabouts?

I would say: I can totally relate to being intimidated by traveling in Uganda alone, but it can be done! And as a solo woman! If you want to do it, just do it! It’s great and don’t be scared away by stereotypical images or past issues in the country. Uganda is beautiful and really a place that should be seen.

Before I came to Uganda, I knew nothing about the country apart from watching The Last King of Scotland, reading about the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army), and hearing about Ebola outbreaks. All of which are, obviously, warm and welcoming introductions to the country, haha! I was a little worried about going alone but I talked to some people who had traveled there previously, and they said it was pretty safe and a great place. Even then, sometimes at night I would wake up in a cold sweat and think, “What the fuck? Are you crazy, Wan? You can’t go there alone. You’re going to end up like James McAvoy in that movie about Idi Amin.”

But, the words of other fellow travelers buoyed me; I swallowed my fears and just went. I’m so glad I did. I think if you take some precautions and stay aware of your surroundings (i.e. don’t go out at night alone, carry your bag and money near you, don’t be flashy with your stuff, carry a whistle or even some mace), you should be fine. Of course, Uganda is not New Zealand or Scandinavia, safety-wise, but it is reputedly one of the safest countries in Africa.

I’m going to finish with this anecdote I love to share with my friends about Uganda and safety:

When I first got to Uganda, I was in Kampala looking for an internet café. I was walking along the sidewalk, and I saw a sign for internet on a building, so I asked the security guard perched on a chair outside — who was armed with a rifle (all security guards have rifles here) — where the internet café. He said to follow him, and I agreed. As we walked up the stairs, I noticed the inside of the building wasn’t very busy and started to worry about my safety. I mean, I’m following this guy with a rifle in a quiet building up some stairs … it sounds like the beginning of a bad end, right? I remember this tight feeling in my stomach and getting really nervous. This anxiety obviously crept onto my face because the security guard turned around, looked at me, burst out laughing, and said, “Why are you fearing?!?! This is UGANDA!” At the time, I thought, “What?! Is this supposed to make me feel better? I don’t even know what to think! What he just said means nothing to me at all.” But, now I can understand why the security guard laughed and said that.

Are you ever coming back?

Yes! I plan on coming back to the US in a year or so. I’ve been living away for the states for some time now and I miss my friends and family and I kind of want to get a real job and settle down somewhere (gasp!).

 

Wan Lee is a gal from Kalamazoo, Michigan, but has called a few places her home since leaving the mitten state. Currently, she lives in Uganda working for Malaika Honey, where she gets to do things like build elephant bee fences.

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