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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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Ten Days Alone In: Cuba

In November, Melissa went to Cuba.

Edith Zimmerman: Cuba! How easy is it to get there nowadays? Or, what was your progress?

Melissa: It wasn’t too bad, actually — I spent a lot of time on internet forums researching, but you just need to fly to a gateway city (I flew through Cancun), then either buy your ticket to Cuba at the airport or, as I did, buy tickets in advance from a Mexican travel agency that ran my credit card through Belgium. The difficulty lies mostly in the planning. Internet is sparse in Cuba, so it’s hard to get in contact with people or book any accommodations in advance.

And why Cuba? Did you know anyone there?

A few weeks prior, I was at a point in my life where I felt like I was just treading water. I was coming on 10 years in New York, hit the ceiling at my job, generally dissatisfied in the love department — I was just feeling stagnant and not terribly happy in general. I always wanted to travel more, and to Cuba in particular, and decided I had to do it rather than sit around talking endlessly about it or bemoaning the fact that I wasn’t. So I quit my job and booked a flight to Havana via Cancun.

I didn’t know anyone there, but that was sort of the point — to go somewhere completely on my own terms. There was, of course, also the allure of going somewhere I technically wasn't allowed, so I could feel like I had made some small act of defiance. I’d also always been enamored with the '30s and '40s, and I wanted to see this place that was trapped in time before it became untrapped — although perhaps that is the most cliche reason of all.

Where did you stay?

I splurged on an expensive hotel the first night, since I got in so late and I didn’t want to risk ending up anywhere too shady. The rest of the time I stayed in “casa particulars," which are basically extra rooms in Cuban households that the owners are licensed to rent to tourists.

In Havana I stayed with a couple who lived on the 5th floor of a building with incredible views of the city’s rooftops and ocean, and a particularly handsy lift operator. There was a boy they hired who would answer/open the door in the evenings; since I wasn’t comfortable doing the nightlife scene by myself, I ended up spending some evenings just hanging out with him over the kitchen table. That I didn’t speak any Spanish at all also posed a bit of a challenge, but we managed, and listened to a lot of pirated Adele and Phantom of the Opera from his MP3 player.

In Viñales, the most incredibly beautiful valley west of Havana, I stayed with another couple, Lidia and Juan. They didn’t speak a word of English (and again vice versa), but it ended up being more than fine. The actual town in the valley was tiny, and everyone lived in colorful little bungalows with rocking chairs on the porches. I spent every evening rocking on the porch with Lidia, Juan, and their dog, somehow managing to discuss everything from politics to family values with many hand signals and a lot of rum.

What was the room like? And I want to hear more about Lidia. [Melissa mentioned her specifically in an earlier email.]

This was the tiny bungalow with the rocking chairs — it was just a simple room with two single beds, and a small bathroom off the side. It’s funny how “hot” water can be a very loose description. Lidia, however, was a larger than life woman who enveloped me in a huge hug the first second I met her. I think she became a bit protective of me since I was traveling alone; she told me not to talk to strangers, had her friends take me around on horseback, proclaimed herself my “Cubana Mama," and we just ended up becoming very close while I was there. One day, she had gone to her father’s farm for his birthday, and in the evening she came back with a slice of the coconut birthday cake she had wrapped in foil and saved for me. When I left, we both cried a lot, and she wrote me a note to give my actual mother.

The translation comes out to something like: “Dear mother, congratulations on having a daughter that is so cute and beautiful. Here she has a mother and father that will never forget her. She has earned our affection as her real parents. Kisses, Lidia and Juan."

[!] And what about the truck driver / beach story?

I took a bus out to a pretty remote beach, Cayo Jutias, for a day; the only people around were mostly just the 15 other tourists who bussed in with me. I was walking along the shore in search of a lighthouse when I met a Cuban man on the beach. We just fell in line walking together; when I asked him if there was anything farther along the shore, he said something about “stars everywhere," drew a star in the sand, and said he would show me. In retrospect, it was obviously not the wisest decision to follow a strange man farther into a deserted area in a strange country, but … I did. And he said there would be stars!

Somehow I ended up walking with him through the water and fallen branches in some areas, and through small pine forests for about 45 minutes. At one point along the way, he pulled a coconut from a tree and smashed it against a tree to open it for us both to drink — ridiculous and delightful. We finally got to the beach, which was just an incredible expanse of beautiful crystal clear blue water and not a soul in sight. We left our things in the sand and waded in; the water was shallow to our knees for 40 feet or so until it dropped deeper, and in the shallow area there were just starfish — huge, bright red starfish every few steps. It was breathtaking.

We swam together and chatted in broken Spanish for a few hours — about guys, food, the States. He was a truck driver — every day he would transport a truck of fishermen to and from the water where they would fish perched on inner tubes. It felt so natural and of the moment to just be there with this stranger, laughing and not thinking anything of it, and just have that be that.

Afterward, we walked back and drank questionable rum while watching the fishermen come back from the water one by one with their haul.

What did you spend most of your money on there?

Food and shelter — not much else since I couldn’t bring anything back. Oh, I actually did end up bringing back a peso cigar that I wrapped in a sweater in my luggage. The minute I got to New York, I dumped everything in the laundry machine, because I'm neurotic like that, and I ended up putting my contraband through a lavender-scented wash cycle.

What's the first meal from the trip that comes to mind?

The first night in the fancy hotel, I'd gotten in so late that I didn't want to venture out to find food, so I tried the hotel/restaurant buffet. The price at the door was scary expensive, though, so I turned to leave, planning instead to fall asleep in my room eating Clif bars, but the host took pity on me and let me in for half price.

It was a huge banquet-style room with a very elegant buffet spread and chefs manning the stations, mostly empty except me and a few Chinese businessmen. The presentation was beautiful, replete with silver serving platters and such, but the food was less so — mostly lukewarm pieces of under-seasoned pork and some sad, mushy carrots. The old grandpa manning the fish station was really kind to me, though, and came over to my table repeatedly to talk and make sure I was well-fed. Between that and the host letting me in (and food aside), it was a pretty comforting welcome meal after hours of travel.

Did you have any unexpectedly intense moments with other people? Sitting and talking with someone when things just came out really straightforwardly?

Language was definitely a barrier to being able to open up to people, so … perhaps just many, many emotionally naked moments/conversations with myself?

There were many moments where I felt really lonely, scared, and dumb for even thinking I could do the trip on my own. Sometimes I’d just want to stay in for the night and read, and I’d have to will myself to leave the house … because who goes to Cuba to read in their room alone?? So it really made me give myself little pushes, and forced me to be a little more open. In the end, I was never wanting for amazing experiences or random company: Cuban ice cream with a French-Canadian investment banker, meeting an Ethiopian boxer, being stood-up by a Venezuelan tour-guide of teenagers from Denmark, swimming and drinking with the Cuban truck-driver and fishermen. (Listing them like that makes them sound like action figures or baseball cards.)

In a strange way, I couldn’t have even imagined before that I’d be a person capable of having these kinds of stories. So, I don’t know — it was an eye-opener in a lot of ways.

Are there still a lot of '50s or ... '60s-era cars there? (I am now nervous this is a stupid question!)

Yes! They call them almendrones, or “almonds,” and most operate as taxis/buses along set routes. They’re a beautiful sight to see and it’s a wonder that they're still running. I only rode in them twice, as you have to hail them along the route and I chickened out usually — all the drivers are tough Cuban James Dean-types. The first time I hailed one, I was going to L Street, so I made an “L” sign with my hand. The driver laughed the whole way, making Loser signs on his head to his friend in the passenger seat, while the old woman sitting in the back with me gave me a furious scowl.

Did you dance?

No, I wish I did; it’s a big regret. Everyone dances, and asking you to salsa is a universal pick-up line in Cuba. I was just too shy, and I regret it. The last day I was there, I saw some teenagers hanging out along the Malécon, the waterfront/seawall, with a boom box just moving and contorting their bodies in the most amazing ways … I do really wish I had danced.

Did you lose anything?

I didn’t lose anything physical, but at the risk of sounding very cheesy, I lost a lot of my inhibitions and shed a lot of anxiety. The truck driver was actually not the only strange person that I rashly and stupidly followed into a potentially questionable situation that I emerged from unscathed and better for it.

I also lost a cute Venezuelan man somewhere — he drew me a very bad map to where we should meet for a drink at midnight. I couldn’t find the bar and no cellphones (!) so I ended up wandering back and forth along the windy Malécon alone in a very dramatic way. When I returned to the house, the man I stayed with huffed, “That never would have happened with a Cuban man.” Missed connections international?

GAIN anything?

I’m going to risk another terrible metaphor here and say that I gained back a lot of trust in people. Living in New York for so long, I realize that I often default to being skeptical and very cynical in general. Perhaps it was that everyone I met in Cuba was so genuinely kind and seemingly mostly absent of ulterior motives, but I somehow became a little less jaded.

If you close your eyes and picture one moment from the trip, what is it?

The starfish beach, undoubtedly. Floating on that water without anyone around, I felt more at peace than I ever have.

Previously: Biking and Camping Alone Along the Pacific Coast

Melissa is a graphic designer based in Brooklyn.

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