Week 1 has been crazy and exhausting but off to a fantastic start! Jetlag is almost beaten, although I ran on coffee instead of sleep for most of the week. Monday was taken up by classes. Interesting, but both classes together made for a long day.

I feel like my life has been taken over by bodas (motorbike taxis)!
(View from the back of a boda, except usually there is a lot more traffic on the road)

In addition to being the quickest form to transport in Kampala, I am interning at a start-up microfinance organization that loans motorbikes to drivers, who use them as taxis to earn a living. The organization is called Tugende,“Let’s go” in Luganda. The loan system revolves around the “drive to own” philosophy; once the value of the bike has been repaid the drivers own the bikes but in the mean time they are using them as taxis to earn a living.

Boda drivers eke out a modest income from their work, often barely enough to make ends meet, so saving up to buy a bike outright is difficult, many drivers choose to rent their bikes, making payments to a landlord on a weekly basis. Owning a bike makes it considerably more profitable and drivers can then save towards other goals like building a house, buying a plot of land, or paying for their children’s school fees. This is the basic premise of the organization, run by an American man named Michael Wilkerson (aka my boss). If you want to find out more about Tugende then check out the website or send me an email!

(You may have to copy-paste it)

OK, so that’s a brief explanation of where I’m working while I’m here! I work with 3 American MBA students, 2 Uganda managers and the CEO, Michael, the office fills up fast when everyone’s there! Wednesday was a great introduction because it’s the day that we host info sessions for prospective customers and help them fill out applications. So in addition to the 7 staff, there are also about 30 boda drivers! It was definitely standing-room only. The rest of the week was more normal and I'm looking forward to the projects we have lined up.

There have been a few more nights at the bar since I got here. A big bottle of beer (I’m guessing it’s about a pint) goes for $2, which is also the standard amount if you have to pay cover on the weekends! When I get back to Vancouver I have a feeling it will be quite a shock. I also discovered the Uganda equivalent of a 4am McDonald’s run- the Rolex. No, it’s not an expensive watch, it’s actually cooked egg, onions, tomato and sometimes cabbage rolled up in chapati (flatbread) and served hot. Mmmmmm. Oh and it costs about $1.

Today was a bit of a relaxing day, since the rest of the group is in Kigali for the weekend, but part way through the afternoon Michael called to see if I wanted to come out to the launch of some of our new bikes. Drivers who had been waiting received their motorbikes, freshly painted and tuned up, so they can start driving them. The pure happiness on their faces as they received their bike could only be compared to a kid on Christmas morning as each man stood so proudly with his new bike. This really drove home the impact that Tugende is having and made me equally proud to be a part of it.
(Finishing touches!)

Tucked behind the metal shop kids found endless ways to play with the empty helmet boxes. What a great way to end the week. I’m really looking forward to the rest of my time here in Kampala.; it feels good to be back
(This little girl was absolutely adorable, she had a dance-off with one of the other interns)


Africa 2.0

After two stressful months of waiting on visa paperwork, on Friday morning I was on my way to the airport, bound for Kampala, Uganda. Two layovers and a touch-down later I was back in Africa. Landing in Kampala at night, the city looked like a sprawling cluster of dim lights in the dark- a far cry from the brightly lit cityscapes I left behind in Canada. But the view from the air is deceiving, when the sun comes up the city comes alive.

Let me back up for a minute and explain what I am doing back in Africa. Way back in January a friend was describing his work on development projects in Sierra Leone and Uganda and something just clicked. I had slowly drifted away from the idea of doing development work in Africa and all of a sudden hearing my friend talk reminded me of why I had wanted to do this in the first place and how happy it made me feel. So on a bit of a whim I looked into a pilot project a couple of master’s students form my department were starting. I would be with 8 other students from my university working part-time as an intern with a local NGO and taking classes at Makerere University in Kampala. Applications were submitted at the rest is history, leading to me being on that plane to Kampala.

When I stepped off the plane I took a deep breath and all I could think of was, “Mmmm smells like Africa.” The air was a little sticky with a faint smell of earth, exhaust, and something else (I personally think it smelled like maize, but that may not be the best description). It may not sound like the exotic jungle air people imagine, but for me it’s oddly comforting.

First stop was into the city to drop off my bags and then to meet the rest of the group who were out at a bar (as you do on a Saturday night in Kampala). It must have been the jetlag but I had an amazing time and managed not to even feel tired until my head hit the pillow sometime in the morning. Since then I’ve been adjusting to life in Kampala, getting over jetlag, and even managed my first day of classes (coffee was VERY necessary). The accommodations are great,, I share a house with four other girls and everyone seems to get along great, we even do family dinners.

(This is home)

There will be more pictures and stories to come, but don’t count on any regular communication… wifi is anything but reliable here- TIA (This is Africa).


Connecting the Dots: Student life and Southeast Asia

After taking a two-year break from blogging, I'm back! Now it's time to fill in the gaps between Sierra Leone and today:

I returned to Canada from Sierra Leone in March 2011, spend some quality time back home before moving across the country to attend university in Vancouver. It was the fresh start I needed after an amazing and exhausting year of travel. The ocean air and mountains were a welcome change, not to mention an incredible group of people that have become some of my closest friends. What Vancouver lacks in sunshine it certainly makes up of in warm, friendly people. After a great year I needed to scratch my travel itch, so I took off on a whirlwind trip to Southeast Asia with one of my friends from university.

Five weeks flew by as we zigzagged through Thailand, Laos, Malaysia, and Cambodia. In hindsight, four countries in five weeks may have been a little too ambitious, but we managed to hit many of the highlights and still find some hidden gems. Malaysia was definitely my favourite with beautiful beaches, amazing food, and fun cities.

Thailand was a great place to start and get adjusted to the oppressive heat. We temple-hopped and got our first taste of true Thai curry, before taking one of the longest and most horrendous bus trips I have ever experienced into Laos. At the time it seemed the a better option than the fast-boat of death or the 3-day slow boat down the Mekong river, maybe now not so much. Laos was a mix of beautiful colonial buildings, jungle hiking, yummy food, and of course a touristy-excurision into Vang Vieng. The string of ramshackle bars along the river has closed since, somehow this doesn't surprise me.

The view is stunning though! From Laos we flew to Malaysia where we finally got to relax on the beach and take-in some of this incredibly diverse country. We parted ways in Malaysia, as my friend had to return to Canada a week earlier than me. So what did I choose to do with the extra time by myself? Add another country to the list!

I flew to Cambodia for more beaches, history, and temples. After touring the Angkor Wat temple complexes for a few days I feel like I may not need to see another temple for a long time.
Yes, I did the obligatory "get up at 4am to see the sunrise over the temples" thing... and it was worth it.

After five quick weeks I was back in Canada and ready for a rest.

It was back to student life in the fall, and even now it feels like September was just yesterday. Vancouver grew on me over the next 12 months and at the end of two years I feel like I can call it home, making it even harder to leave again. So here I am, packing for my next trip, although this one will be considerably longer... and worthy of another blog post!


The Wild West: Sierra Leone

"Nature is by and large to be found out of doors, a location where, it cannot be argued, there are never enough comfortable chairs." -Fran Lebowitz

As the plane hovered over the endless forests and spiderweb of rivers of the West African landscape, all I could feel was anticipation welling up inside of me. I mentally begged the pilot to turn around, "Take me back to Kenya where life is comfortable and I at least know what I'm doing! (or at least I think I do)" Of course the pilot did no such thing and before I knew it we were touching down in Monrovia, Liberia, the last stop on this VERY long journey from Nairobi to Freetown. Monrovia's main international airport is little more than an airstrip surrounded by a few sheds and a lot of UN equipment and tents. Welcome to the wild west of Africa. As we took off again the anticipation bubble burst, and was replaced with solid resignation. "Here goes nothing." Finally touching down in Freetown all the disembarking passengers eyed eachother up like hawks. The look was the same between everybody and we filed off the plane, "What are YOU doing here?" I got a few extra glances because I was the only young, foreign woman getting off. In total there was: a military/ex-military from somewhere in Eastern Europe, a couple of American diplomats who were clearly more practical than most (probably a return visit), a young Western European (possibly Italian) or American guy who I'd pick for a journalist or some kind of writer, and finally an older woman who was likely doing missionary work in the country. Flights and waiting around in airports gets pretty boring after the third layover in a day, so people-watching to the rescue! I assure you I wasn't staring.

Outside the airport my volunteer coordinator, Collins, was waiting with a couple other guys who are part of the organization I was working for. First impressions of Sierra Leone, were favourable, not too drastically different from Kenya, people generally wore less clothing, looked less healthy, and the public transportation was... less than roadworthy, but the mini-buss drivers still ignored all road rules, people stopped to look at the whiteperson, and the land around me wash lush. We took a ferry across to the main city of Freetown, before heading out to the suburb of Wellington where I would be staying. The most obvious difference between East and West Africa, though, was the climate; what I considered unbearably hot in Kenya, would have been pleasant here. The heat and humidity were immediately overwhelming, and when I arrived it was already dusk. Canadians were not made for this kind of heat.

The next morning I found out just how hot it actually was. Temperatures generally sat at or above 35C with a humidity of 60-80% on top of that, making it feel more like 40-something. Imagine living your life in a sauna. The air is hot and sticky, simply moving elicits a downpour of sweat from my forehead. The sun just made all of this even worse. Why didn't anybody warn me about this?! Oh well, I'll survive and just drink a lot of water.

I lived in a compound that encompassed several smaller houses built around a courtyard/common area. I was introduced to everyone in the compound and started working on remembering names and faces. Everyone was very kind and so pleased to have a foreign volunteer there with them. The women generally did all the cooking, the men were either working, or socializing during the day. In the evenings as washing was being done, people would often sit outside on wooden benches and listen to the sound of a crackling radio report the latest BBC news on regional and international issues. Everyone was very concerned about the Libyan conflict, especially because Libya has been a large contributor to that country's development. I imagined it would be similar in some ways to going back in time 100 years in Canada.

Here's a little background about Sierra Leone to give everyone a better idea of the country's past and put the present into context. The Republic of Sierra Leone was declared an independent state in 1961 after decades of British colonial rule. This year will be the 50th anniversary of independence and there is evidence of this everywhere in Freetown. The small country (about the size of New Brunswick, or Ireland), boasts resource exports including palm products and the infamously troubled diamond industry. Its climate is one of the hottest and wettest in West Africa with a rainy season that stretches from May until September-October. It's situated 8 degrees north of the equator, on par with Venezuela and Colombia in South America. The population is religiously divided, about 60% of Leoneans are Muslim, 30% are Christian, and the remaining 10% follow traditional religious practices, although secret societies (cults) remain very popular regardless of religious beliefs. Surprisingly (to me) all the religions get along with very little tension between them. Children are even taught that regardless of the religion that they were raised with, they can chose whichever religion suits them best. There are many tribes within the country, all get along amicably, and most have their own languages, but English and Krio (a variation of English brought over by freed slaves from the Americas in the 19th century) are national languages. In the 1990's to early 2000's the country was thrown into a violent civil war that destroyed much of the infrastructure that had been built since independence. The conflict that had spilled over from neighbouring Liberia, pitted the RUF (Revolutionary United Front) against the government, both claiming to represent the best interests of the people, but resorting to violence to prove their point. If you want to see Hollywood's take on the civil war, "Blood Diamond," starring Leonardo DiCaprio will fill in the gory details. Today, the country is still feeling the effects, struggling to rebuild infrastructure and push forward with development.

The capital city of Freetown was a true dose of crazy, that made everything I had seen in the Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and even East Africa pale in comparison. The streets wind up and down through neighbourhoods that look like villages within the city. Downtown, there aren't many distinguishable landmarks for a confused foreigner like me to orient myself with, luckily I was always with someone from the volunteer organization who had no trouble navigating. Everything was very crowded, and there was barely enough room to walk between the man-powered carts, motorbikes, mini-buses, cars, massive trucks, and of course locals weaving their way through it all carrying baskets, or other items (like 2 x 4's), on their heads. Ducking and dodging my way through the city I was faced with another problem: the sidewalks. The sidewalks were almost scarier than the streets; built over a concrete drainage gutter, the cement slabs I was walking on would occasionally bounce, wobble, or simply not exist, with exposed metal rods in their place. YIKES! Amid all the craziness I did catch glimpses of the traditional colourful fabrics, and a variety of street vendors selling everything from designer knockoffs to chickens out of a cooler. This is a whole different dimension of crazy.

The school I visited in Wellington occupies an older house that has now been converted into a two-floor school for about 135 children between the ages of 3 and 12. The kids learn all their basic subjects and while I was there, were also preparing for a school-wide sports day. The teachers don't have access to many resources: copies of the curriculum, textbooks, and other simple materials are in short supply. This is the case for most of the schools across the country. In government run schools, the situation is even worse, with teachers often going years without receiving a salary, which is to be paid by the government. Regardless of what they have, or do not have, these teachers genuinely care about their students.

In Wellington, I started learning a few practical "Salone" (Sierre Leone) things, like eating rice one-handed. I didn't pay attention when one of the women in the compound invited me to eat with her, and I immediately starting making a ball of rice tossing it from one hand to the other. Ooops, I forgot that the lady I was eating with was Muslim, so I should only use my right hand out of etiquette. In case anyone feels the urge to try this, it's not as easy as you may think! There is a specific method, but despite having someone to show me how to eat properly, I still ended up with rice and sauce all over my face and hand. The other people living in the compound thought it was hilarious, but I was very proud of myself regardless. I also went to fetch water, and was strictly warned not to carry the full 20L jerrycan on my head like everyone else was doing. Winding my way through the hills and houses for the short 5min trip, I dutifully carried the plastic container on my hip, inciting laughter and lots of pointing and staring at the silly Upoto who didn't know how to carry water. It would have not been as bad if I was a man, not knowing how to carry things on your head would have been somewhat more excusable. I made it back without spilling and was greeting with applause.

After a week in Wellington I headed out to the village of Kambia-Makema
(Kam-bee-ya/Ma-kay-ma). Small might be an understatement, but it was still one of the largest villages in the chiefdom and home to the Paramount Chief (who represents the chiefdom for matters in Freetown). Village life is best described to someone from the Western world, as basic. Each morning families get up before dawn and start preparing for the day's meals, pounding rice and maize flour or making a trip to the grinding mill. Water must be fetched for cooking, and plants set out for drying. Then children will go off to school from 8am until 2pm, before coming home to help prepare the evening meal and do household chores. At night people often sit around the remains of the coking fire as the children are put to bed. Electricity may have been spotty in the capital, but out here it was non-existent. The closest electricity access was a local market about 15km away. I was so thankful my cell phone had a long battery life!

Visiting the schools was an interesting experience. Corporal punishment is alive and well here in Sierra Leone, and is a part of daily life for children. I was once told, "How can we teach a child to listen if there is not punishment?" The parents and teachers know that development organizations and mission groups working in the country don't approve of their methods, but to the locals it's just another outsider trying to tell them what to do. This subject gets especially sensitive when it has anything to do with the family. Female enrollment in schools also shows evidence of a two-tiered approach to education in the home. After grade four the number of girls attending school significantly drops to the point where in a class of 60 grade nine students , eight of them were girls. Girls are still expected to help around the home and parents don't see the reasoning behind sending them away to school where they won't learn the practical tools they need to raise a family or look after a household. A lot of girls also drop out because of early pregnancies and poor access to any form of birth control. This issue also affects elementary grades (usually 4-6) because many girls don't start school at the same age as their male peers, and may be delayed several years. It wasn't uncommon for me to find girls my own age in 5th of 6th grade. Like in Wellington, access to school materials was difficult but they made the most of what they did have. One of the schools in the village was even top ranked on the national primary exams for the entire district, proving that a lack of materials, and class sizes often exceeding 60 are no barriers to education.

The food that was prepared for me in the village was delicious, but I'm positive the diet would have caused me to have a heart attack before I was 30. In the morning it was greasy french fries with home made plantain chips (basically deep fried banana slices), with deep fried scrambled eggs and onions. This was topped off with an extra large mug of steaming hot full fat cream (made from powder). Lunch, if I wasn't convincing enough that I didn't need it, was usually a whole pineapple and whatever else they could try to fit on my plate. Then came dinner with enough rice to feed a family of four and a bean/fish/chicken sauce cooked in palm oil with a 1/2 inch think layer of oil still sitting on top. I was also brought a large, doughy baguette almost daily that I was expected to eat before it went stale. I certainly didn't go hungry! After a few days of this I was determined to make some changes, but no matter how hard I tried nothing was about to change how much these stubborn women thought I should be eating in a day. It didn't help that I was polishing off 3L of water a day because of the heat and humidity. With all that water in my stomach I barely had room for half the food they were trying to feed me! To not eat was very offensive and immediately everyone in the village would come knocking on the door to my room, demanding to know if I was sick.If nothing else the villagers certainly cared about me.

I was welcomed to the village by a throng of screaming children who stampeded towards me just trying to grab a hold of the Upoto. It was very strange when children would reach out and just try to touch my skin, it was so different to them they didn't know what to expect. I quickly got used to kids practically petting my arms and fingers just to learn what my skin felt like. Some of the local women started singing and dancing in a welcome dance tat I happily joined in, much to everyone's amusement. I discovered that the typical custom was that any time I passed someone I needed to go over and properly greet them with long hand shakes and a series of greetings in the local language of Temne. This meant that a walk that should take 5min often took 15 because of all the stops along the way. No one is ever in a rush here.

The day after my arrival I was formally greeted with a welcome ceremony where all the chiefs and elders were invited and sat on either side of me in throne-like chairs on a raised platform. Greetings were exchanged (with the help of a translator), which included several interruptions as the women burst into song and dance, and women from another village arrive beating drums and singing as well. The men seemed to take the hint, and when the women stood up, the men immediately cleared away all the benches and retreated to the back of the enclosure. This was an amazing cultural experience that not many foreigners would ever get to take part in.

In the village, I set up an endless schedule of meetings to try to understand how everything worked and what the villagers wanted out of the solar-powered study centre I was trying to set up. I think everyone was a little surprised by all the questions I asked, but they didn't seem to mind. I got my hair braided in traditional Salone fashion, and practised carrying buckets of water on my head. I also went to church one Sunday morning, that was an experience-and-a-half! I walked in to a small group of young men singing and dancing like they were possessed. I turned to my friend that had brought me with wide-eyes and said, "This is NOT like church in Canada!" I felt very out of place as the only woman, and of course the only white person. I was a little scared of what would happen next, and wanted nothing more than to turn around and walk right back out the door. Then one of the boys turned around and I recognized him, he was the Paramount Chief's 12-year-old grandson and was always around the house where I was staying. Abdulai gave me a wink and a smile, that gave me the confidence to walk up and sit down as soon as the song ended. The service was more of an attempt at conversion, than preaching to the faithful, with lots of loud interjections and plenty of occasions where everyone shouted: "A-men!" The preacher even compared me to Jesus coming down from the heavens (the developed world) to save Hell (Sierra Leone) to save the people. For anyone who hasn't had the opportunity, being compared to Jesus is not a particularly comfortable experience. After the service I decided to chalk it all up to experience and move on, quickly.

After about a week in the village I received a message from home that things had come up, and I needed to return home as soon as possible. It came as a bit of a surprise but also a relief in some ways, because I had been struggling to adjust to some of the intricacies of Salone culture. Within days I was sitting in the airport awaiting my flight. I was leaving Sierra Leone filled with just as much anticipation as when I arrived.

The ending may have been abrupt, but it was just another adventure to add to my collection that I've accumulated over the past six months. My head was spinning and it wasn't until a couple weeks after I'd gotten home that I truly took stock of everything I had lived on my travels. That will have to be another post.


Just like the last post, I have already put photos up on Facebook, so in case you haven't seen them here's the public link:




Africa: The Continent of Many Colours

"Motion is created by the destruction of balance." —Leonardo da Vinci

Each time I write a post I'm sharing a distinct section of my travels (even if this section is a little delayed...). Each has a beginning and an end that I can mark and usually find a title to go with it. The places are very different and each shift is like going back to square one, relearning how to adapt to the new set of logistical challenges of this new place. After five months this transition has gotten easier, and before I knew it I had seamlessly slipped into East African culture. The culture here is so radically different though, that I found myself missing the familiarity of home more than usual. Each time this happened I was quick to remind myself of all the snow and winter weather awaiting me back home in Canada. Nah, I'll take Africa thanks!

Landing in Nairobi, my body was still running on adrenaline from the last few days' adventures in Cairo. My first glimpse of the city left me wide-eyed in amazement; the sun was rising, turning the sky pink and illuminating a landscape of savanna-esque grasslands and gnarled, leafless trees, leading into the towering skyscrapers of the city. Hello Kenya! Nairobi, fondly known by locals as "Nai-robbery," is made up of many different neighbourhoods like most large cities. Each has its own reputation and "ethnic flavour," such as the rougher are of Eastleigh, where many ex-Somalis have settled, and many private enterprises are (allegedly) financed by piracy money. This area has great shopping for designer knockoffs among other things if anyone's interested. While I was in the Kenyan capital I had a bit of Canadian nostalgia as I visited Amanda, who has become a friend as well as my boss. It also meant that I got to see much more of the city through local contacts and friends, that I would have otherwise missed out on. There was the added bonus of getting to fuss over little Malaika (Amanda's 3 month old daughter), who is absolutely adorable, even when she decides to let everyone know she's having a bad day.

From Nairobi, it was off to the "outback of Kenya," in Western province. I visited Amanda's development project that she manages between being a new mom and running her own business that stretches across two continents. This was my first taste of village life in Africa, and I loved it! I stayed with two other volunteers for a week, and got to know the school, community and observe the lifestyle in this not-so-travelled area of the country. Here a village really means a collection of houses that share a common road, and maybe market area. Everything is spread out because it's still very agricultural and each house is on a separate plot of land. This part of Kenya is also at the heart of its sugar production, with large plantations employing many villagers to work in the fields. Western province also taught me a lot about the typical Kenyan was of life, which is best described in the Swahili phrase "Pole pole," (Po-lay, po-lay) meaning literally, "slowly, slowly." Everything runs on African time (much slower than its cousins, "Greek time," and "Arabic time"), which means that arriving 2.5h late to a meeting is perfectly acceptable. In development projects, this is where the volunteers come in. The introductions of the words "follow-up," "accountability," and "schedule," into daily vocabulary help set plans in motion that may have been in the works for months. The concept of saving-up towards a long-term goal is also a scarce commodity, so one of the challenges volunteers may face is to ensure that existing projects are profitable over time and money isn't squandered away in the short-term.

At the school, known as Tumaini, there are 135 students who range in age from 3 to 9-10 yrs. and are split between six classes. Everyone's favourite subject is phys. ed. where they can run around and burn off some of their very infectious energy. The second Stacey, Rachel (the other volunteers), and I arrived at the school we were mobbed by the most adorable children I've ever seen. They were all dressed in their blue school uniforms, shouting , "Mzungu! Hello!" (Mzungu = White-person). It only got worse whenever someone pulled out a camera, then of course they all wanted to see their picture... School life is basic compared to the many luxuries we've come to expect here in Canada, but every child truly values their ability to attend school and as a result puts extra effort into their studies. The classes sit together on wooden benches as the teacher instructs from the blackboard. The teacher's position doesn't come equipped with the wide range of materials and resources that Canadian teachers have access to, or even teachers in urban areas of Kenya, so these teachers have learned to become much more creative in their lessons so the children still learn the curriculum. By the end of the day I had enjoyed my fill of adorable, shouting kids, and I could see that the other volunteers loved it just as much as I did.

Western province also introduced me to the adventure of African public transport. I added a few new words to my vocabulary through many fun and fearful rides throughout the countryside. Here's a page from my travel dictionary:

Matatu: (ma-ta-too) A 14-passenger mini-bus that often gets crammed with up to 24 people and if you're lucky a few farm animals to make the ride interesting. Wooden planks are put between the seats to make more space, but people still hang out the door for short distances, or just pile on top of one another if it's a longer journey. Roofs are piled with any baggage that doesn't fit inside the vehicle (in a cartoon-like heap tied down with ropes), and the ceilings are usually padded to avoid possible concussions from the massive potholes and surprise off-road experiences. Matatus are apparently not subject to the rules of the road, and drive wherever they please to avoid the potholes (large enough to swallow a small car), oncoming traffic, and weaving motorbikes, this often means not on the road at all.

Piki Piki: (pee-kee pee-kee) Motorbike taxis that will go anywhere that matatus won't. They navigate mini-ravines and forest trails to deliver passengers to their destinations. Generally the drivers take pity on foreigners and go a little slower than usual, but once in a while I got a crazy driver to sped along at about 50kph, over bumps that sent me airborne off the seat many times. This is when the "holy shit handle" comes in handy for white knuckle rides. Drivers usually don't wear helmets, or provide them for their passengers (except in Rwanda). In Uganda they are called boda bodas and in Rwanda motos.

Kenyan cuisine was also something I got to try in Western. At the volunteer house we ate more traditional things, like ugali (oo-gal-ee), the local staple made of maize flour cooked with water into a mashed-potato type paste. We also had maize and kidney beans (so heavy!), matoke (ma-toe-kee) and green grumbs, which is boiled, mashed, green bananas and lentil sauce, which was all punctuated by copious amounts of "tea," the code-word for any hot beverage, and fresh mangoes. Yummm!

I knew I had to leave Western if I wanted to see other parts of East Africa, so it was off to Kampala, the Ugandan capital. Kampala is a big, crowded, and polluted city in the heart of southern Uganda, not far from the shores of Lake Victoria. The traffic has a reputation for clogging the cities roads for hours at a time and winding its way up and down the city's seven hills. I arrived at night and got a bit of a shock: the streets were dark and eerily lit by occasional ditch fires and roadside shops, because there were no streetlights. A harrowing piki piki ride later I was relaxing in a little slice of paradise surrounded by tropical gardens and great company at the hostel Amanda had recommended. First impressions of Kampala: it's HOT! Situated less than 100km north of the equator, even a leisurely stroll in the city was strenuous. I had never been this hot in my life!

The highlight of my time in Uganda wasn't actually in the capital, but a smaller city closer to the Kenyan border where I went bungee jumping over the Nile river. It was a spontaneous day-trip, and together with a friend from the hostel, we took the plunge, jumping from a 44m high platform above the river. There were many moments where I wondered what I had gotten myself into this time, but I had paid my money so I wasn't about to let it go to waste. The scenarios of: "3-2-1-Bung-" "No! Wait!" happened a few times, then I finally just closed my eyes and bye-bye platform, I was flying through the air with the river rushing towards my head. After my first bounce I realized that my arms were wet and the only conclusion was that I had not only touched the water, but gone elbow-deep in it! Several bounces later, and a lot of screaming, I was being safely lowered into a waiting raft, and all I could think was, "I want to do that again!"

Heading into Rwanda the next day was an adventure of another kind. At the border crossing I was politely informed that I didn't have the necessary visa, as the requirements for Canadians had changed last November. Oh. Now I needed to pre-arrange a visa for my stay, which would mean going back to Kampala and waiting for my application to be processed. A lot of pleading and reasoning later the border guard decided to take pity on me, and let me buy my visa at the border. (Travel rule: always carry cash when crossing borders, because you never know what could happen...) Once in Kigali, the capital, I encountered more challenges. I had changed about $5 worth on the border, and I couldn't get Rwandese Francs in Uganda, so I was expecting to just take some cash out of an ATM to avoid a bad exchange rate. Surprise! not a single bank in the country will accept Mastercard or Maestro cards, only international Visa cards are accepted. Oh. The only way I could get cash was to take an advance on my credit card, which could only be done during business hours at a single bank, and it was already closed for the night. Not the best situation, but not impossible, just another travel lesson learned, and re-learned: do your homework!

After these initial mishaps. Rwanda got a lot better, with good food, clean streets, and European-style organization. This was a big shock for me to find in the heart of Africa. It was the beginning of the rainy season in Rwanda, so I grew accustomed to daily downpours and sporadic electricity. I paid a visit to the genocide memorial centre in the capital and learned a lot about a part of this country's history that I'm just a little too young to remember. The centre is beautifully designed and made a fitting memorial to those who were buried in the centre's gardens.

The prospect of travelling across the width of Tanzania to get back to Kenya had lost its appeal to me, so I opted for an impromptu 25h bus ride back into central Kenya. Two border crossings later I was in Kenya and headed for Lake Naivasha to do some, "safari stuff." There, I went to bed every night listening to the hippos grunting from my lakeside cabin. I cycled through Hell's Gate National Park on my kind of safari, where I saw zebras, antelope, gazelles, baboons, warthogs and even a couple of giraffes. I didn't see any elephants, lions or cheetahs, but maybe that was for better, since there was nothing between the wild and me. By the end of the day I was thoroughly exhausted, but happy and my camera was full of great pictures.

Next it was out to the Kenyan coast, and after another overnight bus I found myself sitting on the beach, looking out over the Indian Ocean. I enjoyed some time relaxing by the ocean with a group of British volunteers who were working with street kids in the nearby city of Mombassa. The seafood was delicious and my favourite were the whole fish seasoned and thrown on the grill. Seaside nightlife was a blast as we went for a night out, Kenyan style! If I could describe the atmosphere of the bar in one word it would be "raunchy," but as the only mzungus in sight we stuck together to laugh at the comedy act going on around us, and help eachother up and down the stairs made of sticks.

My last stop in Kenya was further up the coast to a small city called Malindi. I thought Kampala was hot, but Malindi was hotter! It was very humid here, making the heat more intense. I bought a chocolate bar (that the store kept in a refrigerator) and it had melted after an hour. Wandering around I practised my bargaining skills in the markets and wandered along the beach. The beach wasn't the typical pristine white sands with palm trees blowing in the wind. It had all of these things, but with a twist: the sand was covered in pieces of old driftwood and torn fishing nets from the many boats lining the coastline. It had a more rustic than tropical feel, it was a nice change from typical tourist spots. While I was there I took a day trip a few kilometers out of the city to the site of some old Islamic ruins. The Gede ruins are of an abandoned town, complete with many houses, mosques, and even a royal palace. What's left are a collection of half-walls and columns in the middle of the forest, and surrounded by massive trees. It was cool to be walking on an around all of these ruins, with no one fences or barriers, far more relaxed than anything you'd find in Canada or Europe.

Finally it was back to Nairobi. It was a bttersweet return, while it was great to be someplace familiar (yes, I would consider Nairobi familiar after a few visits), I knew that I was coming back to leave for something totally different in Sierra Leone. Travelling, backpacking, and staying in hostels has become so easy. This had been my life for the last, almost six months. Getting to a new city, figuring out how to get to the hostel/hotel and just taking it from there. I never knew who I would meet, or how each day would turn out, it was always a surprise. Navigating guidebook-sized maps and finding new ways to see the touristy things have now become regular occurrences. So has laughing over language barriers, sometimes even in English! Meeting new friends all the time who are doing the same thing, or something even more outlandish than I had planned for myself, was such a high point. I could never consider this work, at least not in the mundane, obligatory sense. It wasn't always easy, and more often than not, exhausting, but I wouldn't do it if I didn't love it, even the hard parts. It was so strange to think that this East African part of my adventures was also marking the end of travelling as I knew it up to this point. A lot of things were about to change, whether I was ready or not.


I have posted photos for this entry, but I put them up a while ago, so chances are if you're following my adventures you've already seen them. Here's the link just in case you missed them: