Sunday, March 7, 2010

Mbale, Uganda

Friends: For the first time since I acquired my deluxe Katadyne water filter in 1989 for my ride down the length of South America, I have met another touring cyclist with the same pump--a German by the name of Ingo who goes off on his bike for months at a time almost as frequently as I do. I've been desperate for years to meet a person such as Ingo, who could perhaps explain some of the pump's idiosyncrasies, why sometimes it pumps so easily and other times it takes a while to get it going.

Though I brush the filter clean after each use to remove the filtered residue, Ingo revealed that I haven't done it aggressively enough over the years. The filter has built up a layer of plaque that has made pumping water a genuine upper-body workout. Ingo could immediately tell by the color of my filter that it needed some hardy treatment. He took his rough edged cleaning implement and removed the layer of plaque I didn't realize was there, returning the filter to its original light sandy color.

The pump would now work with ease if I hadn't worn the cylindrical tube the plunger is pushed through, preventing it from getting the suction it needs. I thought I simply needed to replace the o-ring on the plunger, as I did in Venezuela several years ago, but unfortunately it was more complicated than that. Ingo and I alternated several parts of our respective filters before we pin-pointed the problem. I won't be able to use my filter for the remainder of this trip, but as long as Ingo and I stick together, I can use his filter, and when I replace the filter after this trip I will have great filtering pleasure to look forward to in the years to come. Solving my pumping problems is just one of countless things I'm sure to learn from Ingo in the days to come.

We met yesterday afternoon at the Crow's Nest Lodge and Campsite overlooking Sipi Falls, a series of three waterfalls, with the longest over 300 feet. The third and final of the falls, a giant spout of water that shoots out over a cliff side, most certainly warrants the adjective "spectacular." It is considered Uganda's premier waterfall and justified the 32-mile side-trip from Mbale to reach it, even the final seven-and-a-half mile brutally steep climb, the longest and most demanding of this trip. The falls lay on the backside of Mt. Elgon, a near 14er, the second tallest mountain in Uganda right on the border with Kenya.

Mt. Elgon is a stand alone hunk of a mountain and long extinct volcano that bears a striking resemblance to Mount Ventoux, the legendary Tour de France climb in Provence that has provided the stage for some of The Tour's most dramatic moments including the death of the English racer Tommy Simpson in 1967. It provided the finish line for the penultimate and most anticipated stage in last year's race. As I cycled past Mt. Elgon it stirred many memories of my three climbs up Mont Ventoux over the years, including this past July. It also had me thinking about my next reacquaintance with Ventoux in two months when I'll pass by on my way to Cannes.

I am particularly looking forward to my ride to Cannes this year as it will be via Bordeaux rather than Paris, as I will be accompanied by my two American friends who have homes in southern France, first linking up with Julie in the Dordogne and then Craig in the Cevannes. Julie will join me for the twelve day movie marathon, while Craig will just stop by to check out the opening of the extravaganza and then return to his summer home in Notre Dame de Rouviere.

It will be great to have a couple of travel companions. I'm presently enjoying the company of Ingo, a 42-year old who has been touring Asia, Africa and the Middle East on extended bike tours since l996. His first trip was an ambitious six-month tour of the Himalayas through India, Kashmir, Pakistan, China, Tibet and Nepal. He was inspired by a slide show given by the legendary German cyclist Tilmann Waldthaler, a man now in his 70s, who has written 17 books on his travels, and someone I just learned about shortly before this trip.

Ingo has built up quite a resume himself. Another of his six-month trips was a ride from Nairobi to Cairo. He enjoyed Ethiopia so much he's returned twice since. He also took six months to bicycle from Istanbul to Cairo. In 2004 while in Sudan he encountered a South African cyclist riding the perimeter of Africa whose book I read last year in Cape Town. Ingo didn't realize he ended up writing a book about his journey. He told Ingo, as he said in his book, that Algeria was his favorite of the 33 countries he biked through.

This is Ingo's first time in Uganda. He's two weeks into a three or four month trip that he hopes will take him to South Africa for the World Cup. He's flying a German flag on the back of his bicycle, the first time he's flown his national colors on a bike tour, as a gesture of solidarity with the many German fans who will be attending the competition. The horizontal black, red and gold stripes of the German flag are the same stripes as the Uganda flag, just in a different order.

I was taken aback to see Ingo did not have Ortlieb panniers, the German-made Rolls Royce of panniers that I wouldn't be without. He explained, "I come from the part of Germany where the people are cheap." He's riding a mountain bike that he bought used for 70 euros just before this trip and has a 15-year old tent that, like his canvas panniers, isn't entirely waterproof. But he's not cheap when it comes to water filters and cameras.

He has a hefty 3D camera that he recently spent 500 euros on to have repaired and relensed. He supports his travels with odd jobs and gardening and giving slide shows. Travel slide shows are quite popular in Germany. Reinhold Messner, the great mountaineer, is in tremendous demand on the circuit. Ingo said he even had a show in his small town near Stuttgart, and it was packed.

It was a great pleasure to have a night in my tent for the first time in over a week overlooking Sipi Falls. There are three campgrounds in the small town of Sipi. My plan was to stop at each and check if they had a selection of paperbacks for travelers to trade and to stay at the one with the best selection. The first one I stopped at, where I met Ingo, had seven books, one a book on learning Hebrew, a bunch of pulp novels and a novel by Nobel prize winning Gabriel Marquez Garcia. I doubted I could top that at the other two, but I still intended to give them a try, but after three hours of talk with Ingo I felt I owed it to the Crow's Nest to stay there, so traded my book of travel essays, "No Touch Monkey and Other Travel Lessons Learned the Hard Way," written by a young woman who was a graduate of Northwestern's Speech School.

Our three hours of conversation flew by in an instant. It will take quite a while before we run out of things to talk about. Ingo could claim, just as quite a few people I met in Kenya, that he had had an Obama encounter. He was part of Obama's largest crowd during his 2008 presidential campaign--200,000 people in Berlin. I had never met an Ingo before, though Ingo says its not an uncommon German name. Oddly enough it means "home" in Swahili.

Tonight will be my second night in the sizable city of Mbale. I was here two nights ago, partially drawn by Sipi Falls, but mostly to meet the Ugandan pen-pal of my friend Stephen, who I biked with in China three months ago. I had been in email contact with Stephen's friend Moses since before my trip. I last communicated with him from Kisumu letting him know that I would arrive in Mbale several days later. I hadn't heard back from Moses to confirm that he would be around or how to meet up other than to call him on his cell phone.

I arrived in Mbale late in the afternoon Friday, after having come 45 miles from the Kenyan border. I went directly to what passes for the town center in many of these East African countries, a three-story tall clock tower in the middle of a round-about. One of the ubiquitous cell phone stores let me use a phone to call Moses. Moses answered after a half dozen rings. After a few words I handed the phone to the saleswoman who could explain precisely where I was. Moses said to wait there and he would come for me. I didn't even have time to finish a banana before he arrived, having no problem recognizing me.

Moses had recently gotten a degree from the local Muslim college in IT services but was having great difficulty finding a job. Every position he replies to has already been filled. Part of the problem is that it is accepted practice to have to pay a hefty bribe to get a job. Moses is the fourth of nine children and has no such sources to draw upon. It was only through the great generosity of Stephen that he was even able to finish up his college studies. Stephen raised $700 for his final tuition and also sent him a lap top. Moses raved and raved about what a good friend Stephen was, even though they had never met and only came to know one another through a professor of Stephen's at the University of Colorado who spent a term teaching here in Mbale and connected the two of them.

I asked Moses if there was a place around that I could pitch my tent. He knew of no campground and strongly advised against wild camping. "When Ugandans see a white person they think he has lots of money. If you're alone camping, someone might try to rob you," he said.

Staying in a hotel didn't guarantee that wouldn't happen. The night before in the chaotic border town of Buscia, twice during the night I had someone aggressively jerk on the door to my hotel room to see if they could get in and grab something while I lay trapped under my mosquito net. Earlier that day a young man who cycled with me for a couple of miles followed me into a restaurant and sat with me at my table, even though I hadn't invited him, ordered a soft drink and left, leaving me to pay for it.

Before we sought out a hotel, we went to hear a high school brass band practice, something Lonely Planet recommended and that Moses acknowledged would be worth seeing. It certainly was. The ragtag 30 members of the band belted out a rousing array of music while they marched around the grounds in front of their school attracting a small audience of kids and passersby on the adjoining highway.

Then we went in search of a hotel. We tried several before we found one that was within my price range. One we shouldn't have even bothered to check out, even though it looked rather modest, had a UN vehicle out front. I had tried one such hotel before, and it's rates were not modest at all. Though Moses didn't know hotels, he knew the Internet. He took me to a place down an alley that I never would have found on my own with the fastest computers I had encountered on this trip.

I had hoped we could have dinner afterward, but Moses got sidetracked. As a Catholic, he had given up meat for Lent, though he said he liked meat so much that sometimes he had to have some anyway. He was proud to have come from such a large family and found it appalling that the Chinese are limited to just one child, though he thinks its equally appalling that the country has over one billion people. He found it hard to believe, though, that Uganda, a country the size of Oregon with a population approaching forty million people, is more densely populated than China and that this overpopulation is one of the reasons that there aren't enough jobs to go around for everyone.

Later, George


Stan said...

Another very interesting report from George on the road. Reading these stories is getting addictive! I get withdrawal symptoms when George skips a day.

stephen said...

Fabulous that you were able to connect with my friend Moses. I was really hoping that such a connection might be possible when you said that you were off to Uganda! Also glad to hear that your water pump will get fixed at some point...sounds like a couple of connections were made in Mbale. Can't wait to hear the full debrief on Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. Keep on truckin.