Friday, February 12, 2010

Fort Portal, Uganda

Friends: There are several daily English newspapers in this former British colony. One front page headline proclaimed "Heat Wave Continues." Flying in from Chicago's sub-freezing temperatures, just about any short-sleeve weather would seem hot and take some adapting. I'm happy to learn that I have possible cooler temperatures to look forward to.

Though Uganda straddles the equator, this land-locked country is entirely at an elevation of over 3000 feet, somewhat moderating the heat, but not lately with consistent temperatures in the 90s. It is a matter of concern and a topic of conversation among the locals. I've ridden in worse. But this has been more of a challenge, as its not so easy to come by water.

I've had only one river and not a single lake to take a dip in the past 200 miles.  Though I'm making a circumference of Lake Victoria, the road along this strech is some distance from it. Tap water is a scarcity. Most people in rural areas get their water from the town pump. There is usually a line of people, each with several containers as large as five gallons to fill. It is rare to find running water at a gas station or village stores or restaurants. Such places will generally have a yellow five gallon jug that I can extract some water from to put through my filtration pump, but not enough to spare for me to pour over my head or soak my shirt, as I otherwise would in such temperatures. It has made keeping my body temperature down a challenge.

But people are generous when I ask for water. At dusk one evening when I was in need of water, I encountered a couple of young teen-aged boys with a trio of five gallon jugs and one of three gallons, almost 150 pounds of water, lashed to a bicycle they were pushing up an embankment to the road. I asked where they'd gotten their water. They pointed off in the distance. They realized there was too much of a crowd for me to wait with the sun fast setting, so they generously offered some of theirs.

The paucity of water also makes it difficult to wash clothes. When I have stopped along the road in a patch of shade, I can frequently smell the approach of another before I hear them. It also makes me overtake slower bicyclists with a little more vigor. There's no chance that my nostrils would allow me to draft.

As I adapt to the heat and regain my touring conditioning, I have been trying to limit my time on the bike to one hour intervals. Pushing on at times has seemed like penance. There have been occasional afternoon patches of cloud. It is a cause for celebration whenever one blocks the sun. It makes a considerable difference. At times I've kept pace with the shadow of a cloud as it drifts along, as if I were drafting it.

The hilly terrain has been as draining and punishing as the heat with one long seven per cent climb after another. But I know I will soon be in tip-top shape and can lose myself to the joy of being on my bike in a distant land experiencing all the novelties it has to offer without having to worry where I'm going to find the energy to keep myself in motion.

I am still figuring out how much I need to eat and drink to sustain myself. I am drinking as much as I can, yet can go from dawn to dusk without making water. The heaping plates of local vegetables are initially filling, but leave me hungry all too soon. The meat I have seen, not more than a stringy glop of beef, has been less than appealing. I may have to start trying to eat more of it than I have been. At one small restaurant when I asked the waitress if she had a menu, she said, "No, just my mouth." After reciting the menu, when I declined the beef, she said, "Okay, no meat, just food."

Though English is universal, I often have to strain to understand what someone is saying, as people tend to mumble and are extremely soft-spoken, barely speaking above a whisper. They are so kindly I had no concern my first day out of Kampala of finding a place to camp despite seeing how densely populated the countryside was, knowing that if I had to ask to pitch my tent on someone's property, they would surely say yes. There were just rare patches of small forests and orchards for wild camping. When dark approached I was closing in on a fairly sizable town, and it looked as if I would have to put my theory to a test.

On the equator there is not much of a twilight. When the sun begins to set, it gets pitch dark fast. When I saw an older guy sitting outside a shack of a general store beside a house, I asked him if I could camp there. He nicely told me that he didn't think it was safe, and suggested I try a church a kilometer up the road.

I had no problem finding the church in the middle of the town just at dark. The reverend was off at a meeting, but his 20-year old son said it would be fine to pitch my tent just behind the church facing their house. They had no running water. The toilet was an outhouse. After I used it, the young man awaited me with half a glass of water to pour over my hands. In the morning he offered me a bowl of water so I could give myself a more thorough wash.

Churches and schools are in great abundance here, some linked together. The country is 80% Christian, with half the Christians Catholic. Uganda was the first country in Africa to receive a visit from the Pope. The population is 10% Muslim. I was awoken my first night in he country at 4 a.m. by the Muslim call to prayer. Idi Amin was a Muslim. When he fled the country in 1979 after seven years in power, it was Muslim countries that offered him refuge, first Muammar al-Gaddafi in Libya for a short spell, than Saudi Arabia, where he spent the final 25 years of his life, dying in 2004. His dream was to be buried in Uganda, but Uganda didn't want him. His vice president is an ailing 88-year old, still in the country, upset that he is ignored and neglected.

By my third night in Uganda I was far enough out of Kampala the terrain was less settled. Rather than agriculture, there was open range with grazing cattle. The camping wasn't matter-of-fact, but about 45 minutes before dark I came upon some unfenced countryside with patches of trees and bushes. I was weary enough to stop a little early, willing to take the risk of someone passing by on the way home.

Not long after I set up my tent I heard the mooing of a cow. I feared the approach of a small herd accompanied by a shepherd. My first reaction was to be prepared to greet the shepherd with "Ni-how," still conditioned to being in China. But this small herd of a dozen or so was on its own. The cattle had huge, swooping horns. I was nervous as they passed my tent that one might turn his head out of curiosity and give it a slash. None did, though a couple shot off a jet of urine.

It would be nice to sleep in as I gain my conditioning, but the first couple hours of the day are pleasantly cool and make for the best riding of the day. I need to be up and at it with the first hint of light. I try to eat as much as I can as I break camp, so I'll have the energy to bike for a couple of hours before having to stop to eat, taking full advantage of the early morning cool.

When I arrived in Fort Portal yesterday afternoon, all Internet in the town was down. Deferring my Internet time to the next morning was just as well, making it a rest day of a sort. I had a good night's sleep and shower at a campground/hostel outside of town run by an older Englishwoman. I was her only customer for the night. The night before the only ones there were a couple from Ireland.

I am now on the fringe of a series of national parks with abundant wild life. Diane Fossey's mountain gorillas can be visited at Bwindi Impenetable National Park. It costs $500 to search them out and then spend an hour with them in the wild. They have become human-habituated. It is said to be an ultimate experience hanging out with them. Much as I would like to, I don't think I will be reporting on that. Five hundred dollars is more than I will spend on this trip, other than for visas and air fare.

Later, George


Julie Hochstadter said...

George, thank you again for sharing yor experiences with us back in cold Chicago!

stephen said...

Oh yeah George! Hopefully you start finding that water becomes less of a challenge, sounds a bit difficult! Agreeing w/Julie here...the heat sounds nice right now as it is snowing right now in Telluride. Keep on truckin.

joe said...

Bottled pop or beer can be a good source of safe fluids, you may even find something cold? But I don't know if it would compromise your budget or technique.
May the wind be at your back ( especially uphill),