Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Jinja, Uganda

Friends: Yesterday was International Women's Day, one of Uganda's ten official holidays along with Liberation Day, Martyr's Day, Hero's Day and the usual Christmas, Easter, New Year's and a few others. We didn't realize it was a holiday until Ingo went to the bank to change traveler's checks and it was closed. He was down to 4,000 shillings, about two dollars. I had plenty to spare, so we weren't marooned in Mbale for a day, and could continue on to Jinja, 90 miles further, once Uganda's second largest city, but now maybe its third largest, and a city full of banks and tourist amenities, as it is the source of the Nile.

While we ate a breakfast of banana, chapati, bread and hard-boiled eggs yesterday morning in our hotel room, we listened to the BBC news on Ingo's short wave radio. We were hoping for news of the Oscars. At 7:30 we learned the first two had been awarded, best supporting actress and actor. Ingo was quite pleased that the actor award went to the German-speaking Austrian in Tarantino's "Inglorious Basterds." He was also rooting for the German-Austrian film "The White Ribbon" to win the best foreign picture and also Sandra Bullock to win best actress, as her mother was a German opera singer and she speaks German fluently.

While Ingo went to the bank, I went to the Internet for the rest of the Oscar news and could report back that Bullock won, but not "The White Ribbon." Ingo had seen "Avatar" a couple of times, but didn't think the film that beat it out for best picture,"The Hurt Locker," had opened in Germany yet. The next day's Kampala newspaper had a front page mention of the Oscars and a full page of coverage on page 14.

With a late start and an Ingo flat tire and a couple of rain showers that forced us to take cover, we narrowly made it to a town big enough to have guest houses just before dark after 64 miles. It was a long day for Ingo. He's more comfortable with around 50 miles on his mountain bike, but he's a strong rider fully capable of pushing himself. He competes in triathlons and has run a two hour and fifty minute marathon, faster than Lance Armstrong managed in his first attempt.

At one point in the day Ingo commented, "I notice you spin faster than I do. You're like Lance Armstrong. I'm more like Jan Ullrich, pushing a bigger gear."

"Eddie Merckx calls Lance a sissy for spinning so fast," I replied. "Old-timers think its more macho to mash out the big gears. I used to do that, but it gave me sore knees. I don't think I spin as fast as Lance, I just do what's comfortable for me. My cadence now seems second nature."

Ingo has been very impressed by the quality of the Ugandan roads. The roads of Kenya were in surprisingly bad shape--"too much potholes," as Ingo put it. I thought it was maybe just the more isolated stretch I did along Lake Victoria, but Ingo said that was the case all over the country.

During our first rain delay we took shelter with two Ugandas also on bikes under the overhang of a hut. We asked about the national holiday. They said it was a day for women to relax and let the men do all their work--cooking and getting the firewood and water. They thought they deserved such a day. They were both returning from the town well with large containers of water. Uganda is unique among these East African countries in celebrating the day.

Despite all his travels over Africa, I've been able to introduce Ingo to two foods he'd never had before. One was the Ugandan national dish of matoke, a cooked banana paste that I had at least twice a day my first ten days in Uganda It is hearty, but very bland. Ingo carries a supply of spices with him. He intends to vary its taste in the days to come. His other new food, one I also was just introduced to over on this side of Uganda is jack fruit--a giant, heavy fruit, bigger than a pineapple, that dangles from big, bushy trees that look a little like mango trees.

The fruit weigh up to 20 kilos. They offer so much to eat, stands along the road and in towns sell small sections of the golden pulp for as little as a nickel. It is a bit sweet, and offers some juice, but not as much as a mango or papaya or pineapple. But they are a pleasant little treat. We were looking forward to some along the road the past two days out of Mbale, but there isn't enough traffic to warrant sales in such small portions. We could have bought one in its entirety, but even if we cut it in half, it was too much extra weight and extra food for us to manage.

Despite our different choice in bikes, Ingo and I seem fully compatible in every other respect, with no qualms about the most rustic of accommodations, and walking out of an Indian restaurant that was too much for either of our budgets, even though I had been craving the spaghetti that was on its menu and Ingo its variety of vegetarian fare, as he hasn't eaten meat since his first trip to Asia in 1996. We made do with street fare including a fried Nile Perch. A young boy in rags hungrily stared at us as we ate and was thrilled to run off with its skeletal remains when we were done with it.

We found a place to camp in Jinga and then found a bank that would exchange traveler's checks, though it took three tries. It was getting tense. Ingo says this is the last time he will use traveler's checks and will get an ATM or credit card for his next travels.

We then went to the source of the Nile, a wide outlet flowing out of Lake Victoria for a couple of miles until its first of countless dams along its 4000 miles to Cairo, a dam that we had earlier bicycled across. Lonely Planet warned not to take a photo of it, as it warrants arrest, though there were no signs saying so. We did notice armed guards at it though. The source wasn't discovered until 1858 by the Englishmen John Hanning Speeke, who was the first white person to even enter what is now Uganda.

Tomorrow we will bike along the Nile a ways and then head towards Murchison National Park and its famed water fall where the Nile is compressed through a canyon.

Later, George

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