Saturday, August 26, 2006

Drunk Flying and Subsequent Central American Adventures

Just want to start this post with a shout-out to all the long time readers that I met for the first time at Katie’s wedding. It was great to meet you. I hope you all had a good time.

I returned safely from East Africa and in time to make the wedding, no coups or other disaster this time… The wedding was great. I had a pastel dress, pink nails and a French twist. Most of you wouldn’t even have recognized me. After the wedding, I stuck around long just long enough to have a couple Bloody Marys and then headed south to meet my roommate in Belize. The goal was to spend a couple days diving and poking around Mayan ruins before heading over to Indiana to don my red dress and drinking shoes for A&E’s wedding…

I arrived in Belize City after an unnecessarily arduous flight with a four-hour layover in Dallas. (Security in JFK is off the hook. In Dubai coming back from Dar es Salaam, I went through with a liter and a half bottle of water and an entire toiletries kit. In New York they call the bomb squad for a tube of toothpaste and half finished Snapple.) And it is a good thing that I had four hours in Dallas. It took me two and a half hours and two terminals to find a salad that didn’t have some kind of deep fried animal product on top of it. (Airports are up there with shady horse farms and India in the rankings of places that I don’t eat meat.) I eventually convinced the guy at the Asian food stand to give me just carrots, broccoli and fried noodle, but not before he tried to add fried pork, chicken, beef, etc…

Upon arrival in Belize City, I immediately bought a ticket to the island of Caye Chaulker, a backpacker hangout and diving mecca off the coast. I had an hour to kill officially, of course I actually had more because the plane was late, so I headed over to the airport bar. There I joined not one, not two, but THREE sets of honeymooning couples at the bar, also waiting for their flights. (You can tell the new couples because the girls all have “wedding nails” and the guys are fiddling with their bright shiny new rings.) The bar was run by this midget, Jet, that had been selling rum punch and beer to honeymooners for forty years. He wanted $5 US for a Dixie cup of rum punch. I asked him if he thought he was in Manhattan. We bantered back and forth for a while before I finally agreed to buy one. He walks over to the bar (which inexplicably had a bottle of Listerine on the top shelf…) and stops. He looks at me and says, “you know what? I like you. You are a pain in the ass.” He drops two ice cubes into the cup, fills it with dark brown rum and throws in a splash of juice. The drink was the same color as the bottle of rum. It was so strong that I could barely drink it, and I can usually do turpentine shots without wincing. So I had two of these while waiting for the plane and was already flying high when the eight-seater finally showed up.

Now Caye Chaulker is only a fifteen minute flight from Belize City. It actually is a “by request” stop, meaning that the plane to San Pedro will drop you off if you ask them too. Like a city bus. I asked the pilot if I could be the co-pilot if I promised not to kick the pedals. He said okay. One of the honeymooners was a nervous flyer and just about dropped dead when he saw (1) the size of the plane, (2) that I was the co-pilot, who he knew had just spent 90 minutes at the bar… But it all ended well and I hopped off with my backpack and went to meet Dennis at our cabana - which was only accessible by walking along the beach. Caye Chaulker was pretty small place. No cars. You walked everywhere or took one of the golf cart taxis.

Next day we did a bit of diving. Nice, warm water, lots of fish… grouper, sea turtles, sharks… The day after that we decided to go out to Blue Hole, a deep collapse crater 60 kilometers out in the ocean. It was a really cool dive. You descended in a free fall where you couldn’t see the bottom, only sharks circling in the murk. You drop through the sharks (they are only Caribbean reef sharks – not really dangerous – but a little unnerving when the swim within inches of you.) When you reach the maximum depth of the dive – 140 feet down – the water gets crystal clear and there is a deep overhang with huge stalactites to swim between. It was one of the best and most eerie dives I have ever done.

After that it was back to the surface for a couple more dives and then back to shore. Next morning we began the long trip across Belize and into northern Guatemala to see the ancient Mayan city of Tikal. First we took the “ferry” to the mainland (some guy with a big open motorboat) and then got on the bus. The trip was long and slow and meals consisted of cheap corn chips bought along the roadside at the border. We arrived on the outskirts of Flores – where we would be spending the night – just in time to get caught in a dead stop traffic jam caused by student protests. We ended up walking, taking a minibus, and then walking again before we finally got to Flores and a place to stay. We ate dinner and crashed. We had signed up for the 3:30 am departure to see the sunrise in Tikal.

Of course neither Dennis nor I had brought an alarm clock. We bought a cheap Chinese plastic piece of crap in Caye Chaulker – which didn’t work. Dennis woke up at 3:20. I will spare you the details of the ensuing dressing packing and leaving debacle. We made the bus. After a 50 kilometer ride to Tikal and a 45 minute hike through the dark – we climbed the temple steps to wait for the dawn. We sat on the top, surrounded by mist and jungle in the dark, listening to the disturbing calls of the howler monkeys out in the bush. As the sun rose and it grew lighter, we saw the tree tops and tops of the other temples fading in and out in the mist. The monkeys and parrots screamed and toucans flew through the sky. Really cool experience.

We spent the rest of the morning hiking around and climbing temples. More toucans and spider monkeys. Just before lunch we set out on what would turn out to be a hot and long and hot journey back into Belize and south to do more diving. Most of the time we road in the back of converted school buses across the bumping roads. Dennis and I gave into our adolescent tendencies and sat in the back – where all the cool kids were – just like middle school…
So now we are in Placencia – a tiny dot of land on the bottom of a peninsula sticking out into the Atlantic that is less than 100 meters wide at points. We had hoped to be underwater by now, but stupid tropical storm Ernesto has kicked up too much chop so we are beached. There is a chance we could get out this afternoon, but it looks like if Ernesto doesn’t want to take a cue from his namesake and visit Fidel and Raul right soon, we are done diving for now.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Just another day at the office.

So despite the fact that I work for the World Bank, my office is in the Ministry of Finance here in Uganda. The ministry is in a fairly large block of government buildings: foreign affairs, communications, courthouse, etc. are all here. About an hour ago I am sitting at my desk, completely absorbed in the exciting world of statistical analysis of poverty indicators, when there is an EXPLOSION of automatic weapon fire right below my office. I pause and wonder if they have overthrown the government, always a concern when working in sub-Saharan Africa. It is quiet for a while so I go back to work, vaugely wondering if maybe I should do some regressions to prove how bad Museveni's government is/was. If it had been a coup and some heavily armed person should enter my little office, I better have something to offer the revolution, no?

My office mate came back a little while later. He told me that it was nothing special. A prisoner had just escaped from the courthouse next door and they needed to get him back, which they did. Then he started laughing as he told me the entire cafeteria had hit the deck when they started shooting because it was right outside the windows. Ha ha, joke's on them! Anyway, happens once in a while, nothing to worry about, back to work.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Conquering the Elusive Giraffe

Many a year ago now, myself and three fellow Peace Corps volunteers set out on an ill-fated trip to see giraffes in neighboring Niger. Just about everything imaginable that could go wring did, and I never got to see any giraffes.

But this weekend I was redeemed! I booked a weekend safari to Murchison Falls national park in the northwest of Uganda. I had wanted to go last weekend, but I couldn’t get Friday off work, and besides the park is only about 20 miles from the Congolese border which would not have been the greatest place to be if the entire region collapsed into armed strife (again) following the Congolese elections last weekend.

So I blew off work on Friday and joined 15 fellow tourists in two vans for an eight hour drive north. The other people in my van were a group of four Israeli tourists, who were very happy to have picked this particular part of Middle Eastern history to take a six month vacation, a Canadian medical student, and teenage American aspiring wildlife photographer, and a Kiwi Blue Helmet working in southern Sudan (Kiwi Blue Helmet: a United Nations Peace Keeper of New Zealand-ish origin). The trip was basically uneventful, except for the tsetse fly store we have to transverse right before we reached the lodge. As tsetse flies have painful bites and are carriers of river blindness, we had to close the windows. But as it was boiling in the van with the windows closed, we would open them just a crack to get some air. Which was fine and dandy until we hit one of the crater-like potholes on the road (occurring every five to ten feet), which would bounce the windows open, letting in the some of the swarm that followed the van. We would then have to slam the windows shut and try to kill the ones that got in. I had two kills. I Kiwi Blue Helmet had none, which just goes to prove the conventional wisdom that UN Peace Keepers couldn’t hurt a fly.

We arrived at camp and were shown to our tents. I got to share with Blue Helmet (who was, despite my constant teasing, an incredibly nice guy). We were given a stern warning that warthogs and hippos were common features inside the camp. Warthogs will find their way into any tent where there is anything edible. You are financially responsible for all warthog tent damage caused by edible things, including something as benign as an empty Snickers wrapper. Hippos were a bigger deal. They tended to feed on the grass in between the tents at night. Should you encounter one on your way to the bathroom at night, don’t approach it and climb a tree if it tries to approach you. (I don’t know about this. Hippos kill more people per year than any other wild animal in Africa. The trees didn’t look like they would support the weight of a healthy child, much less a full-sized adult with a determined hippo at the bottom, as hippos weigh as much as your standard SUV.) There was a poor older Dutch woman who was so scared that she insisted that a bucket be brought into her tent. Fortunately the rains had come recently so there was other grass to eat in places outside the camp. Midnight Hippo Bathroom Blocking is apparently a big problem in the dry season.

So Friday night Blue Helmet and I and a bunch of the other guests got rip-roaring drunk in the safari bar because there really isn’t anything else to do in a tented camp in the middle of no where in northwestern Uganda. We wanted a thunderstorm roll in across the forest and played guitar and drank Tusker, and just generally acted like colonialist frat boys.

This all caught up to us a few hours later though. After crashing in the tent somewhere around 1 am, somewhere before six am feel this blinding white light in my eyes and hear someone asking repeatedly if I am awake. Blue Helmet has his military issue flashlight two inches from my corneas. He is still drunk and thinks this is great. He jogs off to shower as I drag my bones out of bed and into my clothes. Blue-y and I had gotten a little too smashed and had forgotten to order breakfast for the morning. He had a couple of granola bars and a can of peaches in heavy syrup. We made do. Before you feel bad for us, we weren’t the most hard up of the previous nights drinkers. Xavier, an adorable little French 22 year old kid with a snaggletooth, walks over to us after we finish our breakfast and are hunkered down in the predawn light waiting for the van.

Xavier: Wot iz zis?
Blue-y: Its paa-ches, mate.
Xavier: Zwhere iz zit from?
Blue-y: New Zealand mate.

At which point Xavier picks up the can containing the remaining syrup and walks away contentedly drinking it.

The safari game drive itself was incredible. We saw herds and herds and herds of giraffes, a bunch of elephants, cape buffalo and warthogs, things of varying sizes with hooves, a small pride of lions enjoying something that was until very recently in its abbreviated history something with hooves, birds of every color, ill tempered monkeys, etc etc etc. We had one really big score though. We saw a leopard. They are almost impossible to see in the wild. It was sleeping up in a tree until our van and the pack of gawking people with camera hanging out of it, scared it down. It dashed off into the deep brush, and, as if to prove my theory that pintades (guinea fowl) are the dumbest creatures in existence, four of them dashed after it.

After the game drive I went back to the tent to crash. I was hurting a bit from the night before and wanted to grab a quick nap before the afternoon trip to the waterfalls. I had been asleep for about a half hour when I feel the tent shaking and hear a grunting noise. I think that Blue-y is screwing around with me because he knows how hungover I am and how desperately I needed to sleep. I sit up with homicide on my mind and look out the tent window. A warthog is trying to eat the grass under my tent. I could have unzipped it and slapped him on his porky ass. He eventually walked off and I went back to sleep.

The afternoon was a boat cruise up to Murchison Falls themselves. As we boarded the fairly sizable boat with somewhat questionable sea-worthiness, the captain pointed out the life jackets. This was a mere formality as it turned out because we saw hundreds of hippos and nile crocodiles on the three hour trip. As I mentioned earlier, hippos are huge and dangerous, and the nile crocs are 10-25 feet in length. Drowning would be the least of your problems if you happened to end up in the river.

After a far tamer evening, I spent my second night in the tent, and then headed out in the morning. We were supposed to do some hiking around the top of the waterfall, but it was pouring rain so the trip was brief. Although Blue-y and I managed to get our act together enough to breakfast this time, Xavier apparently had another long night. He took a beer along for the morning hike in the rain.

Then it was back to Kampala. On the way out of the camp, we drove though a big herd of baboons, using their big bare red asses to show us that they thought of us driving through their morning hang-out. We stopped for matooke for lunch, the staple meal of Uganda (it is green bananas, cooked slightly, then mashed into a paste. With enough salt it and the appropriate sauce it really isn’t all that much worse than some of the things that Mom boiled or microwaved for us as kids…) And then back to the city. Then back to work for my final week in Africa (this trip).