Guys, I’m low-key mortified by how long it took me to actually share the second half of our trip. I’ve been insanely busy writing and revising and writing and revising *something else* since we got back and apparently nyet so great at balance. I’ll try harder. Onwards:
Once you cross from Rwanda to Uganda you can definitely tell you’re in another country– not just because we had to switch our driving to the left side of the road. Our rental Rav4 was actually from Uganda so it was already right hand drive– but we’d spent the previous week-ish re-configuring our brains to drive it on the right side of the road while in Rwanda and now had to do the opposite. Let’s just say I am still completely messed up by this, six months later, while driving in Denver.
Safari Sans Fence
Top priority for Uganda was a safari at Queen Elizabeth National Park. I’ve safari’d twice before (in Kenya and South Africa) but there was one very big difference this time around: THERE WAS NO FENCE.
I was very confused by this. Normally there’s some sort of gate or wall to indicate you’re now in a safari park full of coloring book animals– but here it was just a mangled road under extensive construction, a left turn, and then a baboon was just chilling on our little dirt road. I’m sorry, what?
We stayed in a one room hut (apparently very similar to a scene from The Crown– Queen Elizabeth was here when she found out she was going to be Queen) in the middle of the park. So hippos, elephants, warthogs, etc. were just wandering around. Before dawn and after dusk we had to be escorted by an armed guard.
When we first arrived and were walking our backpack-laden selves to the cabin I spotted a ginger cat just off the path.
“Look, a wild animal,” I joked– because I have a very sophisticated sense of humor.
I made the standard *come here, cat. Let me scritch your ears* sound. Strangely, it resisted my advances and hunkered into KILL stance.
“I guess it has to be aggressive to survive out here,” I commented– because I am very educated on animal psychology.
Later that night as we lay beneath our mosquito nets, listening to hyenas celebrating death in the distance, Alex was like:
“Babe. You know that cat we saw earlier?”
He pointed to a photo in our Lonely Planet guidebook.
“It looks exactly like this African Wild Cat.”
Before I could fully appreciate the depths of my ignorance and stupidity there was a scrambling noise on the outer wall of the cabin.
Alex: Was that you?
*scraping noise on the porch*
Me: Oh my god.
Alex: What have we done.
Alex: *sits bolt upright, whips his head to the right, then relaxes*
Alex: It’s just a mouse. It ran by on that ledge and disappeared up there.
*points above our heads*
So, not a lion. Not a hyena. We’re cool. I can chill with a mouse. But then I’m like–
Me: How big was it?
Alex: *spreads his fingers about six inches wide*
Me: *pulls my feet under my body before they’re devoured because THAT IS NOT A MOUSE THAT IS A RAT*
I quickly gave a verbal accounting of every horrifying thing I know about rats, courtesy of Game of Thrones, brutal lit fic, and African childhood memoirs.
Suddenly all of Alex’s questions end with right?
“It’s not going to mess with us, right?”
“They can’t see in the dark, right?”
We tucked the edges of the mosquito net around our mattress like a cocoon and did our best to sleep.
An Oliphant! No one back home will believe this
The next morning we were awoken by the call to prayer from a nearby mosque. I lay in the pitch darkness, thankful not to have died by rat, when I heard something outside the hut.
*burbling noise kind of like a hookah*
*munch munch munch*
Which can only mean one thing: elephants
I stood on the bed (because I’m not putting my feet on the ground in the dark NOPE) and peeked outside our canvas window. I couldn’t see anything in the darkness, but I heard the sound of shuffling footsteps drawing closer. Then a massive hulking shape cut through the darkness, followed by two more.
I began snapping photos to see what I could make out later by upping the exposure. By this point I’d forgotten about the rat and was now standing on the floor, looking out our front window. Slowly– but with this undeniable power– a gigantic elephant strolled right past our porch, tusks gleaming white in the darkness. It was maybe five feet away. It was eerie and awe-inducing and there was no way to interrupt the moment to take a photo.
The closest I can describe the feeling was like being in Jurassic Park, hiding behind a Jeep while a T-Rex stalks by. Except this T-Rex sounded like Darth Vader and was prowling for delicious leaves.
My favorite topic of discussion
As soon as we climbed into his safari vehicle, our guide asked where we were from.
“OOOOH. You like Trump?”
Alex is polite, like “ehhh…” but I’m like–
*grabs back of seat*
*pulls self forward to look into the man’s eyes*
“NO. We do not like him at all.”
He began driving, but added: “All the Americans I meet say they don’t like Trump, so I always wonder… how did he get elected?”
It was tempting to dive deep into answering that question, but part of the lure of travel is to temporarily escape thinking about our country’s troubles.
Here comes a lion, oh yes it’s a lion
Queen Elizabeth National Park has a lion tracking program, so I got to fulfill a bucket list item and see a male lion in the wild. 20% of the park fees go to a nearby village (where our guide was born) to provide money for infrastructure and schools (since it was their land in the first place…) and the fee we paid to track the lions goes into a fund to compensate the villages when a lion inevitably kills one of their goats or cows. Otherwise the villagers will poison them via the carcasses in retaliation. In one year alone they managed to kill 11 lions this way. Not good– but can you blame them? I’m glad they have a process in place to try and mitigate both sides of the issue.
These young cubs are with their mother and aunt, who have to keep them safe from the male lions (above) who are trying to hunt them down and kill them. The park veterinarian was with us and said “ They do not think ‘let us form a strong coalition,’ they only want to fight. They are stupid lions.” He and our guide also casually discussed the various men, women, and children they’ve known who have been killed by lions. So that’s horrifying.
Did I mention there was no fence?
My Very First Government Bribe
If you ever need to bribe someone in Uganda, the proper wording is “maybe I can buy you a soda,” which translates to “how about I give you some cash and you let me do this thing I want to do.”
We first learned this phrasing after discovering our $80 park admission was only good for 24 hours, which meant it would expire halfway through our second game drive. I would have timed things differently if I’d known this, but our guide was like: “It’s okay, I have a friend at the gate. If you buy them a soda, no problem.”
A soda in this situation cost 50,000 shillings— the equivalent of $14.
Later, we decided to go for a drive in our own car (because air con) and headed toward the foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains, aka “Mountains of the Moon,” which is the tallest mountain range in Africa.
45 minutes into our drive, we came to a permanently installed security roadblock that didn’t look passable.
Alex: I guess this is where we turn back.
Me: Let’s just see what happens if we ask.
We drive up.
Cop: Hello, how are you? (This is what everyone says— they’re super polite, it’s rude to not greet someone before speaking). Where are you going?
Me: We’d like to get closer to the mountains. *points*
Cop: *looks unsure*
Me: Is that okay? We just love mountains.
Cop: …maybe if you buy me a soda.
20k shillings (a little over $5) later, we were on our way. He even gave us directions for the best way to go. Sadly, the paved road eventually gave out and we’d had enough off road driving back in Rwanda, so we turned around. There were no other cars up there, so maybe it’s not even a thing.
When we drove back through the checkpoint all five of the officers just smiled and waved. The idea of encountering a police barricade in rural Uganda sounds intimidating, but most of the other times they just waved us by before we even rolled our windows down. At one point we were asked for our Ugandan licenses and were so flattered they thought we’d actually have such a thing. We ended up exchanging names and pleasantries, then continuing on our way.
Encountering Missionaries in the Wild
We wrapped the trip up by spending some time on the shores of Lake Victoria– Kampala by day, though we stayed in Entebbe so it would be a bit more chill. Our guesthouse was along a tidy little tourist-haven on the beach. That’s normally not our scene, for reasons. But it was a nice way to wrap things up.
Once we settled in, the sound of drums compelled us to wander over to a beachside pizza place that looked delicious, but shortly after we sat down I was like “oh my– mission trip kids.”
Alex: How do you know?
Baggy and overly immodest T-shirts: ✔️
18 young white earnest faces: ✔️
17 of them have their hair in French braids: ✔️
Wearing baggy colorful pants you buy in the market that tells everyone within half a mile that you’re a tourist: ✔️
They were joining in on the “traditional dances”, snapchatting and Instagramming and I could just *feel* the comments.
“Wow, you went to Africa! Was it so exotic and scary?”
People’s cluelessness frightens me sometimes. Because no, the only thing scary about that situation was how bad they were at dancing. Aside from me and Alex they were probably the sloppiest looking people in Entebbe. This is a thing. You can play Spot The American by looking for someone ill-kempt and LOUD AS HELL who breaths by talking non stop even when they have nothing to say.
I’m not exempt from any of this. When we had lunch in Kampala it was embarrassing because everyone else looked so sharp while I’m over here in yoga pants, a $6 cotton shirt from Target, faded thongs I bought in 2007, and hair that hasn’t been brushed in two weeks.
It’s true you shouldn’t be conspicuous about your relative wealth when traveling to certain places. Sometimes I flip my wedding ring over for that reason. But it’s also true that you can travel all the way to the opposite side of the world and leave with an inaccurate impression of the people and place you just visited– simply because of how you were taught to think of it before you even got there.
Growing up, I heard many a missionary story about far-off places like India and AFRICA “where they don’t value human life one bit.”
“Because they aren’t Christians, which means they don’t care about life.”
The proof for this?
“They just drive crazy all over the roads and there will be people on the side of the streets and they don’t even bother to miss them, it’s just luck that they don’t get run over because who cares? There’s no respect for human life over there.”
A statement like this comes from someone who is intentionally missing the point. Someone who only wants to see what supports their existing assumptions.
I’ve traveled around India. I’ve been to five countries in Africa (which, reminder, is a continent). Many places are densely populated. Not everyone can afford a car. People walk on the side of the road. Drivers have an entire elaborate way of using their blinkers and horns to communicate with everyone about whether it’s safe to pass, etc. The drivers are TEN THOUSAND TIMES NICER in East Africa than in my quaint little bubble in Denver.
Another thing I was told as a wee evangelical lass was that when I grew up to become a missionary (obviously) I should never EVER buy an African mask because it would have a demon in it. You could become possessed by the devil just by touching it.
1. We bought three Congolese masks on this trip
2. THE ABOVE WARNING IS RACIST
It sets you up to fear and avoid learning about/experiencing the culture of the place you’re visiting. Instead of being curious, broadening your worldview, or understanding the history and practices of other people, you build a wall around yourself.
The message I received was clear: You should be afraid of These People and understand our culture is superior– the very best thing we can do is spread our way of life and way of thinking to them. Never value theirs.
Hopefully I’m wrong about those kids though. I hope their trip actually gave them an expanded understanding of the world and America’s place in it– as opposed to making them feel like they’d gone through some epic hardship for the sake of gracing other people with their glorious presence.
In the months leading up to our departure, people kept asking– since we were going to Rwanda and Uganda– whether it was a mission trip.
My friends, Rwanda is 94% Christian. Uganda is 84% Christian. America hovers around 75%. Maybe THEY should be sending missionaries to the States.
I went on mission trips to Mexico when I was a teenager. I was the only girl who didn’t French braid my hair, but otherwise I was just like the rest of them. Technically, we were there to do some basic construction (boy work) and put on a Vacation Bible School (girl work). I remember realizing it was a little stupid that we were acting out Jesus’s Resurrection in broken Spanish to the CATHOLIC children of the women who cooked and cleaned for us while we were using their orphanage like a hotel— because all the actual orphans were shipped elsewhere for the summer so we could sleep in their beds.
Even back then, when my brain and sense of self was a carefully curated evangelical construction, I couldn’t fail to realize our presence there had less to do with actually helping anyone and more to do with training us to become missionaries who looked at foreign countries in a certain (negative) way.
One year the director of the orphanage asked us to bring medical supplies and medicine because it was too expensive to buy there (Imagine! Total reversal since). They said they’d cover the cost, if we’d just bring it. But our church said no. Because that wasn’t the point of our trip.
This was an opportunity to actually provide for a need they identified– but it didn’t fit with what we wanted, so it didn’t happen.
I don’t have a beef with NGOs, religious charities, or anyone legitimately trying to meet a need. But when the AAA employee who processed our International Driving Permits asked if we were going on a mission trip, I just blinked at her at first.
“Well, I thought maybe you were going to help with all the poverty—”
Alex later told me he just kept his mouth shut and quietly counted down in his head 5… 4… 3… 2… because he knew this was one of the few things that will get me talking to a stranger.
I’ll distill what I told her into bullet points:
- It would be more helpful to just send the money you spend on organizing a bunch of unskilled laborers (teenagers, me, Alex). They have plenty of people who can do it better than us— what they don’t necessarily have is $$$.
- Visiting as a tourist and spending money actually helps their economy and creates jobs.
- Neither of us are in any way qualified to “help with all the poverty” and living in poverty isn’t some moral ill that People Like Us can swoop in to save others from.
- Both countries are coming back from incredibly difficult periods which were pretty much caused by foreigners coming in to colonize them under the guise of providing help, protection, or a superior way of life, so maybe let’s not do that again.
So no, Stranger Lady, it’s not a mission trip. Unless you count this conversation we’re having right now. Maybe YOU are my mission.
Back to America
Returning home was tough. Even though I like my life. A lot. (plot twist!) Yet people here say things like “well, time to get back to reality, eh?”
That’s not how it feels to me. Reality feels like waking up in an unfamiliar place with a full day of living in the moment, never thinking about the past or worrying about the future. Coming back to the states feels like crawling into that amniotic pod from the Matrix and plugging myself into the drudgery of day-to-day American life. I have SO MUCH TO BE THANKFUL FOR yet I struggle to act out this performative existence without feeling like I’m faking it or adhering to some false reality I’ve been grandfathered into.
It’s nice to be away. It’s nice to feel justified in skipping the news cycle, and to bask in the monstrous privilege of simply not thinking about things that don’t directly affect me. I know I can’t live with my head in the sand but damn if it isn’t nice to get away for a bit. We can always tell we’re back in America by the fact that everyone is scowling and complaining (and laughing at their own jokes…). Our country feels heavy. It feels divided. I don’t think many people realize it doesn’t have to feel this way.
We flew out of Entebbe at midnight, which meant we had one last sunset and nightfall on Lake Victoria. I feel like on paper I’m a person that’s fortunate to get to do a lot of things, but it honestly takes so little to please or entertain me. To sit near water as day slips into night? Yes, please.
I like the darkness. It reveals a layer of the world written in invisible ink. All the things we couldn’t see before were suddenly on display: Fireflies, stars, satellites, and trick-of-the-eye flashes of light from a distant island as the palms swayed back and forth in front of them. Sitting there with my passport in my pocket, it felt like all those blinking lights were a form of morse code. Like they were trying to tell me something.
I’ll let you know if I figure it out.
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