Monday, February 15, 2010

Mbara, Uganda

Friends: After several miles of riding my brakes on a rough stretch of wash-board dirt road in Queen Elizabeth National Park, I heard that dreaded screech of metal scraping metal on my front wheel, indicating a worn-out brake pad. Though it had been several trips since I had replaced the pads, I thought I had more wear left in them than 250 miles, but Uganda has demanded an excessive amount of braking.

The many villages I pass through all have a series of big-time speed bumps, some a lone mountain of a hump and others a tight set of five that are so jarring I must pass over them at a crawl. A town can have a dozen or more of them. Occasionally there is a dirt track around them for us bicyclists, but that too requires considerable slowing. There is rarely a sign warning of the bumps ahead, so I must remain quite vigilant, especially on high-speed descents. It could be curtains if I hit one of them at 30 miles per hour. With villages every five miles or so, the speed bumps are cutting my daily average speed by a mile or two, and also prematurely wearing out my brake pads.

But I do have spares, so when I heard that metal screech I immediately stopped to replace the pads. As I did so on the lightly traveled road, both of the drivers who passed stopped to ask if I needed help, then warned me that I shouldn't linger long as lions and elephants roamed in the park and could appear at any time. I wasn't overly concerned, as a pack of gazelles calmly grazed nearby, and I had also passed a few buffaloes and wart hogs quietly going about their business. The buffaloes allowed me to take their picture, but the wart hogs were a bit jumpy, scampering away before I could get off a shot.

There was a rare, highly-welcome, cloud-cover, so without the sun beating down on me, I wasn't in as much haste as I might otherwise have been to complete my repair. I was attentively trying to match up the number of spacers my previous pads had and also give them the proper forward tilt. The fresh pads were fat enough that I had to let out a little of my brake cable.

Job completed, it was a few miles to a series of hippo pools. The hippos were elsewhere, nor did I spot any when I crossed over the Kazinga Channel connecting Lakes George and Edward. It was possible to take a two-hour cruise down the channel with the guarantee of much wild-live spotting, but only if there were enough customers or if someone was willing to fork over the equivalent of a full boat load.

I had yet to see another Westerner in the park, or seen any hanging out in Karese, twenty miles away, where I had spent the previous night. In fact, I had not glimpsed a single tourist since arriving in Uganda and only a four-some of backpackers in Fort Portal, so I didn't care to risk biking 15 miles to the boat launch. Despite half-a-dozen significant National Parks, tourism seems to be at a minimum in Uganda, or else those tourists who spend thousands of dollars on full-fledged safaris have escaped my notice, perhaps being anonymously transported by the over-sized land-rovers with tinted-windows that occasionally drive by. Ordinarily, outfitters plaster their vehicles with decals promoting themselves, but perhaps they prefer to remain low-key here.

Evidence of free-spending tourists though was flagrantly thrown in my face after I exited Queen Elizabeth National Park and proceeded towards Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. For the first time children along the road clamored "Give me pen" and "Give me money," evidently corrupted by free-giving tourists. I hadn't had a single such request in 250 miles, passing through regions unvisited by tourists.

And those making the demands weren't being nice about it. When I stopped at a water pump in one small village I was immediately descended upon by kids wanting/expecting/demanding some thing. An old woman grabbed my arm and insisted I give her some money. But those weren't the worst of it. Along this stretch there was an occasional extra-surly, older, teen-aged boy who snarled, "Give me your money," as if they were an outlaw in training, not wanting a simple coin but all I had.

It hearkened me back to South Africa, and was most unsettling. Fortunately, there was enough pedestrian and bicycle and motor-cycle and car traffic, that I wasn't in such isolation as I had been in South Africa. But still, an occasional kid made a run at me, perhaps just to give me a fright, and succeeding. I didn't take them lightly, as they posed a legitimate threat to make a grab at my pocket or knock me off my bike, as happened to me in South Africa a year ago. I was near the Rwanda border. There were quite a few Rwandan refuges in the vicinity who had fled the country in fear of reprisals for being part of the genocide of a few years ago. Some were outlaws who could be desperate.

A day later though, when I was back in regions unfrequented by tourists, and away from the border, Uganda regained its tranquil, idyllic ambiance. I know it can be a dilemma for tourists, who have so much, to resist giving to the seriously impoverished, but it greatly alters the behavior of those they give to. It was quite a contrast bicycling through Laos shortly after it had been opened up to travelers after decades of isolation and how unwanting people were compared to bicycling through Nepal and Morocco and Lesotho with kids running after me or alongside me desperate for something having grown accustomed to tourists dispensing trinkets. Those kids in Laos were so cute it was hard not to please them with a treat of some sort, but then they would be turned into wanters, seeing a white person and expecting something from him.

One of my premier converts to the bicycle, Dwight of, is presently repeating my Southeast Asia tour through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. He had a wonderfully charming experience in Laos of treating all the kids in a village to ice cream, buying up the entire stock of a guy pushing a cart. It was a nice gesture of generosity that all those kids and the vendor will long remember, but I wonder if now all those kids will be screaming, "Give me ice cream," the next time a Westerner passes through their village. Kids in Lesotho, who were accustomed to tourists giving them candy, beseiged me with screams of "Give me a sweet." The roads were so rough and steep they were able to run alongside me for ten or fifteen minutes keeping up the chant, growing increasingly insistent and belligerent.

I had heard from two different well-traveled touring cyclists over the years that Uganda was the favorite country they had biked through. Things haven't changed too much. Other than the stretch between national parks dotted with safari lodges, the locals have been most kind and gentle other than a few feral youths with a wild-eyed look of desperation wanting to grab whatever they could. One tried to snatch an energy bar I had on my lap as I sat on the porch of a small grocery store drinking a soda. A pack of three noticed I had an extra pen laying on a table as I ate lunch. They demanded it. I told them it had run out of ink, but they still wanted it. When I offered it, all three immediately pounced upon it, fighting amongst themselves as if it was a morsel of food and they hadn't eaten for days.

I'm presently headed back to the shores of Lake Victoria after a 200 mile detour to the western fringe of Uganda and its string of wild-life preserves. I will be crossing into Tanzania soon, largely through untouristed areas, so I anticipate continued goodwill.

I passed into the southern hemisphere just before Queen Elizabeth National Park. Two large upright concrete circles marked the line. I had breakfast at the Equator Lodge shortly before it. It hadn't opened yet, but there was a woman sweeping the floor. I asked her if it was possible to have some fried eggs. She said that it was. That is becoming a common occurrence.

The occasional village restaurants ordinarily serve not much more than matoke, a mush of bananas fried up. Its generally not ready until lunch time. Happily I have yet to encounter a restaurant not willing to cook up some eggs for me, even if it requires having to go to a nearby store to buy them. Village restaurants are frequently unmarked, only known to the locals. When I asked a shop owner this afternoon where I might be able to get a meal in his village, he said there wasn't one good enough for me. I said all I wanted was some beans and rice. He took me two doors down and there a lady served me a banana stew with slices of baked pumpkin on the side that were quite tasty. When I polished off the pumpkin before the bananas she brought out more.

I'll be staying at my second hotel of the trip tonight. Neither has cost more than four dollars. The camping is just too iffy, and it is a virtual necessity to shower after not being able to douse myself at all during the day.

Later, George

1 comment:

Yonder Vittles said...

those speed bumps sound like a real drag george.