Friday, July 11, 2008

Thursday, 7/10

Lots of interesting noises in the night. In fact, when we got up, we were told that elephants had crossed the river and were nosing around near Steve and Cort's tent. We had a great breakfast and got on the road to Lake Mbarara, an 8 hour drive (including an hour stop for lunch). As we left Ishasha, we encountered a lone elephant who was crossing onto the other side of the road. He seemd indignant that we had appeared when we did, so he let loose a trumpet blare that surprised us. We stared each other down for a long minute, separated by a drainage gully that would have been difficult for a 6 ton animal to negotiate (although certainly not impossible). He decided to call our bluff and charged…about 15 feet before pulling up just short of the ditch. We got it all on video which we will post as soon as we have access to broadband. A moment or two later, as we pulled away, he trumpeted again and ran parallel along the road/ditch as we accelerated, calling us out! What a blast! We got threatened by an elephant!

We made it back to the paved Kasese Road thankfully in only two and a half hours, and stopped briefly at a Kyambura Gorge where chimpanzees live. This is a 350 foot chasm through which a river runs - we know this as we could hear it although it was completely blocked from view by thick vegetation. This type of natural beauty would attract thousands of visitors daily were it in the U.S.; here, for us, it was just a ho-hum bathroom stop!

We stopped about 2 hours outside of our destination for a nice lunch and a quick upload of blog text and photos at an internet cafe, then back on the road. We pulled into the park area, passed through the gate, yet were still an hour away from the Mihinga Lodge. Along the way we snapped pictures of bush bucks, cob, zebras, water bucks, and others. Our reunion with the other group was festive - a celebration, like dear old friends. Everyone had a dozen different stories to tell everyone else. That is it in a nutshell; this trip has been fabulous experiences to the tenth power. We related our encounter with the bull elephant, Kate talked about being surpised by warthogs emerging from a water culvert, Cindy befriended a lonely baboon, and the other group had seen three leopards! Some of us lounged by the pool while others completed a nature walk. We met for an elegant dinner by candle light, then down to the campfire to trade stories. By now we are planning our professional day on Thursday and how we will tie as much of these experiences into the curriculum. What an education though! At around 11:00 we were escorted to our tents by guides with flashlights. The accomodations here are spectacular - please have a look at the pictures. Nature's symphony lulled us all to sleep, played to us throughout the night, and woke us at dawn. Some of the sounds we have learned to recognize: "That's a colobus monkey!" but most are still unfamiliar and exotic. Coffee is served to us at dawn on our decks overlooking the valley!

This morning we are off to Entebbe Airport, departing Entebbe at 10:40 p.m. Due to arrive Boston at 10:25, Northwest Airlines flight 59. See Ya!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Wednesday, 7/9

We departed the Mweya at 8:00 after a fine breakfast and spectacular view. Our trip to the Ishasha Wilderness Camp would take about four hours depending on the roads. As we left the Mweya, we encountered a mother elephant and her adolescent standing guard over their fallen child/sibling. It was quite touching, as they formed a protective ring around the body and stood vigil. "They will remain there in mourning for up to two days" our guide informed us. As the mother swayed back and forth, the surviving calf stood erect, almost at attention, without moving. Twenty minutes later, we turned onto Ishasha Road, a tortuous washed out dirt strip that is considered a main road but resembles a gully in many spots. The 80 kilometers took us nearly 6 hours! However, shortly after turning onto the Ishasha, we noticed two Land Rovers like our own approaching from the south. This mini convoy skidded to a halt and out jumped friends from the other group! It was a hug-fest in the middle of a washed out dirt gully in southern Uganda…how often does that happen? "Wait until you see the Mweya!" we told them. "Wait until you see the Ishasha!" they replied in unison. "Wait till you see the tree lions!" they added. "Wait until you see the hippos and warthogs!"we countered. Suddenly, our self-absorbed middle-of-the-road celebration was interrupted as 28 elephants crossed the road one by one about 50 yards away! We turned and watch in stunned silence. Wow!

But we had schedules to keep, and miles to go before we sleep (slept?). We quickly said our temporary good-byes ("See you tomorrow night!) and off we headed in opposite directions. By now, our friends are enjoying the spectacular view over the Kazinga Channel connecting Lakes George and Edward just as we did for the last 2 days.

We arrived at 1:30, and were enjoying a nice lunch by the river when a family of elephants came down for a drink. Our guide Martin tells us that typically these beasts require 45 gallons of water daily…they had at least that much while we ate! In any event, we reconvened at 3:00 and headed out to find the lions. We traveled over rough terrain for about 90 minutes when finally Pam shouted "There! Over there! A cat!," and sure enough, there were six cats splayed out on the thick limbs of a Ficus Africanus. As we approached, they yawned and looked at us with bored disinterest. Later Cort noticed a tail hanging from a distant tree (courtesy of Pam's binoculars)…Martin thought it might be a monkey, but it was a fully mature lion, mane and all, bored senseless by our attention! We've pretty much seen it all now, with the exception of a leopard. Stay tuned though…we still have a day. Anyway, love to you all and see you soon.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Tuesday, 7/8

Another fabulous day in Africa! It was still dark when we departed the Mweya Safari Lodge, headed out on a game watch. The spacious and comfortable Land Rover (seats 7 comfortably and we were only 5) had it's roof raised so that we could stand and keep a sharp eye out for game. Things began slowly - the first photo we took was of the rising sun, coming up through clouds that resembled mountains, so it looked like a red orb spewing out of a volcano. After one or two false alarms, we spotted a water buck; an elk-like creature with ringed horns and powerful shoulders. It is hard to believe that such a magnificent animal has anything to fear. In fact, it wasn't the least bit spooked by us, although it was quite accommodating, standing to get a better look at us, and in turn giving us a better look at him. Warthogs began to appear everywhere, then cobs, then an elephant and her calf! And we hadn't even left the compound yet! Soon we did though, crossing over into the open savannah where animals abounded. In the distance was a hippo! So far from water we pondered? Martin tells us the will range up to 5 kilometers inland of water. We happened upon a couple of carcasses that were stripped relatively clean, but there remained evidence that this was a relatively recent kill (i.e. there was still meat on the bones and the internal organs were splashed off to the side!). We did not take photos.

On the way back, we encountered several elephants: some young 'uns and a couple of adults. The largest who was in the road, ambled over to the side, let loose some gas, bulled into the bush, turned around and called for an adolescent that we hadn't seen. Undoubtedly Dad said "Come along, nothing to worry about. It's one of those beasts that's full of humans." Pam has it on video which we shall try to post.

Back to the lodge for a late but delicious breakfast, followed by some rest for the weary. At 3:00 we were on board the river boat which took us up and down the channel for unbelievably close looks at hippos, cape buffalo, crocodiles, and a dozen or so elephants. The elephants I must say are the most magnificent creatures of all. Several of them were on a graded cliff making there way to the summit, having bathed and drunk water. Imagine pushing 6 tons of weight up that hill! Hippos and cape buffalo appear to get along quite well, both enjoying the water in close quarters with no squabbles at all. We came upon a fishing village, shelter high upon a hill with open rolling landscape down to the river, where kids bathed (some au naturel) in the presence of hippos and buffalo. Wait a minute! I thought they said these were dangerous animals! Hard to figure, but a surreal scene nonetheless. Back in the lodge at 5:30 with our spectacular view from on high of the lake channel. Tomorrow early we are off to another part of Queen Elizabeth Park, where we will reside in tents and see lions sleeping in trees. Our thoughts are with you all, family and friends stateside and those in the other groups who are charting different paths. The largest group: Cindy, David, Debra, Gary, Linda, Kate, and Chris are due here tomorrow, and may be coming from where we are heading. Debbie and Katya we are unsure about their itinerary. All of us minus Barbara and Wayne (whom we will meet at the airport) will rendez-vous on Thursday night.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Monday, 7/7

Up and at 'em early today as the Wild Frontiers Land Rover was due to pick Johanna, Pam, Steve, and Cort at 8:00. Wayne and Barbara are off to other locales and we shall converge again in Entebbe on Friday. What a surprise that John, Joshua, Beatrice, and Moses appeared for a final good-bye (see pictures). Our farewell was surprisingly emotional; several of us were misty-eyed, blinking back at each other through the car windows. A fabulous trip up to Fort Portal then west/southwest on the Kasese Road. As we turned onto the road to Fort Portal, a road that we know quite well by now, we overheard an older woman say aloud, "Bazunga abaa kunda abaana." Our driver and new friend Martin (who claims to recognize over 700 birds by sight…and we believe him) interpreted the old woman's words: "There are the white people who love children." Editor's note: bazunga is an endearing term, not disrespectful in the least. A touching and fitting sentiment on our final pass through town. Just north of the equator, Johanna asked to get out as nausea had gotten the best of her. About 12 miles later, she was out again with stomach woes. After finishing her business, she hopped back in and cheerfully exclaimed, "I bet I'm the only person in recent history to have thrown up on both sides of the equator within 20 minutes!" We laughed and cheered and marveled at her spirit. It never dampened her enthusiasm about the beauty that was rolling by throughout.

We pulled into the Queen Elizabeth National Park at about 1:00. You should see this place - in fact see the photos that we hope to post. A five star hotel in the middle of the African savannah, replete with internet access which will allow us to post these entries (although at a much stiffer rate). Warthogs graze around the grounds like tame animals. On our walk we encountered elephant tracks, other evidence of elephants, warthogs everywhere, maribou storks, a Ugandan kob (like a gazelle). As we write this blog, we are high on a cliff on a deck with a pool, looking out at hippos bathing and yawning. In the distance are the Ryenzori Mountains, looming at some 17,000 feet. This is the beauty of the African continent.

Sunday, 7/6

Our day of rest, so we slept in a bit, and decided we would attend a church service on the Kasiisi campus. Wow! A three hour and twenty minute service replete with prayer, song, dance, speeches, an auction, gift-giving, culminating with a nice lunch outdoors under a tree. Standard protocol in these affairs include what we have come to call ambushes, i.e. you will deliver a speech in about 3 minutes so get ready. Both Steve and Barbara responded admirably this time. Barbara's was in the form of a prayer which was so good it could have been right out of the Book of Psalms. The auction was an experience, as we high-rolling Americans outbid each other for avocados, pumpkins, an 8 ft. stock of sugar cane, beans, ground nuts, a pineapple, etc. With every cry of "sold!" the drummer would do a triple beat like the kind that accentuates a Rodney Dangerfield joke, accompanied by an organ flourish. After church and lunch, into Fort Portal we headed to visit their Botanical Gardens. Home at 5:00 in a driving torrential hail and rainstorm, with our last dinner at the Makarere Field Station. Professor Kasenene and wife Lydia came for dinner and one last look at photos and final reminiscing.

Saturday, 7/5 (continued)

Life continues without our friends who are off to Bwindi to track the gorillas. Wayne, Barbara, Pam, Steve, Kato (field station manager) and Cort went into town for the afternoon (minus Johanna who was feeling queasy) to gift-shop and have a nice dinner. One of the highlights was that Steve took the fabric he had been given and had it made into a shirt, just in time for dinner at Mountains of the Moon. Fabric and labor at a cost of $6.50! We treated Kato to dinner also. Kato has been our driver, guide, and resident expert in all things Ugandan, so he has more than earned it.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Wednesday, 7/2

Today the most incredible thing happened. But let's start at the beginning.

We began at the Fort Portal area local outdoor market where thousands of vendors sit on the ground and thousands of customers amble by inspecting the wares and haggling over cost. Many of us purchased beautiful fabric (there goes that surprise), some bought bongos for about $3, and others paid 80 cents for two great beach baskets. It's enough to make one feel guilty; in fact some of us waived any return change as it seemed petty. We then proceeded to a hotel for lunch - Mountains on the Moon, a luxurious hotel with a familiar menu. The afternoon was basically free with the exception of a couple of us who had promised to go to Joshua's Fort Portal Secondary School. But wait, we had seen Joshua at the market where he explained he had to leave town, but would we please go by his school nonetheless? "Of course we would" we replied, although only two of us were firmly committed. Fortunately, those two convinced 7 more to attend, so we pulled up in the van in front of the school right on time at 3:00.

"Ladies and gentlemen, the moment we have been waiting for has finally arrived! Please welcome our American visitors!"

The cast iron solid gate swung open and seven of us (two had gone to run an errand w/a promise to catch up afterward) faced down thousands, yes 1000s of students, admins, dignitaries, et al. We were quickly ushered forward into the courtyard as the gate swung shut and the students behind us closed ranks. We were now surrounded! :)

"Rest assured that you are now secure!" the emcee boomed through the microphone. Many of us looked at each other wondering if our security was something we ought to henceforth be concerned about.

Music blared, people cheered and applauded - it was something out of a movie, like Chevy Chase and his family on an African vacation, suddenly stumbling into his own swearing-in as mayor of the town! We could only look at each other, smile, shake our heads, and accept again this adulation that has showered down on us since our arrival. We were treated to more dancing, although this time a bit more comical and risque. We were presented with gifts (it seemed to go unnoticed that several of our party were absent), and asked to sing our national anthem (again!). As we were singing, our two errand runners from several blocks away were asking themselves what all the noise up ahead was about. Students in the look-out tower (yes, they have a look-out tower) spotted our own Debra Dunn and Cindy Mahr and called for the gate to be opened, and they processed in to their own celebratory welcome! To say they were wide-eyed is a vast understatement. There is so much more here to say but time commitments preclude more detail. It is important to note that celebrations of this scale can pop up at any time in this country, so have your speech ready, make sure you know the lyrics to "A Star Spangled Banner," don't hesitate to show your dance moves (any questions, direct comments to Pam Bator), and be ready to be moved almost to tears and to incredible inspiration from moment to moment

Tuesday 7/1

Today was day two of our school visits. The children are getting accustomed to seeing us around but we are still applauded as we enter classrooms and can virtually engage anyone in conversation and get a positive response. As the novelty wears away, realism sets in, reinforcing our shared sentiment that there is a dichotomy at work here: poor teaching and learning conditions conflicting with a profound desire to learn on the part of the children and a deep commitment to save as many children as possible on the part of teachers and admins.

At night we were feted this time by Joshua Kagaba who had hired the obligatory dance troupe and percussion musicians. But there was one wrinkle this time - a tour through his plantation where we sampled sugar cane, cut free about ten ripe pineapples and some avocados that were so enormous as to arouse suspicion (was there a nuclear plant nearby?).