Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Save the Self-Pity for Stateside

Life goes on.

You can throw a person painful hospital trips, a humiliating breakup, chase them via killer hippo, give them a massive book of old Fantastic Four pages to color, and follow this with the uncertainty of having no income and the evaporation of free accommodation in a beloved national park… and the next day, that person wakes up and is still that person. In this case, me. And I’m still the same person I was the first day of September in the early afternoon in the humid air of Kampala, when I was zipping around town on the back of a motorbike and laughing with the Ugandan driver.

And another thing.

I’m still in Africa.

Which, I realized--after I crawled out of the melodramatic pit of despair on starting over that one goes into on these occasions of feeling alone in the world--is still pretty damn cool.

(Okay, my Gemstone editor had to point it out to me, but then I realized she was right. And people don’t read a blog on Africa to read someone’s whining about their breakup. They read it to read about Africa.)

Then another travel writer pointed out to me that “pushing 40” just meant I could live plenty more lives in the next several years.

On the verge of my next incarnation, I have some decisions to make. Thank you to everyone for your input on the “go home and take a responsible job or stay in Africa” question. I turned down the job, as nearly everyone said I should. Jobs are not a dime a dozen--any more than men I like are--but so what. I hate jobs. And money is just scraps of paper that we collectively agree to hallucinate some value into.

Bored with all this staring at the laptop, I made a trip to Tourist Information today.

My immediate plan is to choose one of the activities available in Swakopmund and get out of the house. See some dunes. Take some photos. More importantly, meet some people as my only interaction with other humans has involved doctors, the Tourist Information woman, and the man who runs the Internet café.

So what can I do? Ah, I can go to the cinema tomorrow night to see “Fantastic Four.” That’s a must, as I just finished re-coloring the old Masterworks FF yesterday.

I can go into the dunes near Swakopmund by horse or camel or by 4x4 tour. Horse is pricier but perhaps worth it. Camel is cheaper but involves dressing up in Lawrence of Arabia garb (uh… no). 4x4 is cheaper but less interesting. Hm, maybe I could face the world-famous Bedouins of Swakopmund after all.

There’s also the possibility of a guided trip to a tribal township, dolphin/seal cruise, or sea kayaking.

Sandboarding, quad-biking, and skydiving are available. I’ve done the first, am too chicken to do the last, and think that quad-biking might not be for me.

Then there’s some other things I want to check out. I think I’ve found a tenant until mid-November for my New Jersey home so I could do these things on a grand circle of the south (if I can deal with the economics).

-Luderitz. It’s said to be a Bavarian town on the Namibian seashore. Sounds interesting, but I’m trying to avoid all things Bavarian. “Don’t even eat Wurst.”

-Fish River Canyon and Orange River. Canoeing and rafting trips run here on the Namibia/South Africa border. Supposed to be quite spectacular. But probably not spectacular enough to spend hundreds of dollars for a few days.

-Shawn in Cape Town. I need to do some retail therapy in Cape Town and my Crazy Kudu leader (Shawn) from http://www.mariesworldtour.com “Crazy Like A Kudu” journal might be able to meet me there.

-pony trekking in Lesotho. Cheap and only a day long, plus a day in and out via Bloemfontaine on public transport. Wanted to do it last time but—oops--went up the other coast.

-from there, I could bus through Gaborone (Botswana) and pretend to be a lady detective like in the books, then bus up to Lusaka. With a little luck, maybe Zambia Tourism will show me something and I can write about it for http://www.GoNOMAD.com.

-then I could head by bus to Nairobi and stay put. From there—dammit--I am going to go to Jinja and I am going to raft the source of the Nile. It’s an hour from Kampala and I didn’t get around to doing it in 2001 or 2005--and I don’t care what it costs, or if it’s raining, or if my ex is there the same day and throws rocks at me--I’m rafting the f’ing Nile.

So who is coming with me?

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Now What?

Decisions, decisions.

My ticket to the US has me arriving at Newark Airport on October 17.

But I don’t feel ready to go home yet. I haven’t written the book yet but I’ve been collecting a lot of good stories and experiences. I haven’t figured out how to shoehorn today’s experiences into a book about traveling from Cape to Cairo in 2001, but that’s a detail that I will get ironed out in rewrites (and more rewrites). I tend to think living in a place provides better story fodder than whisking around the continent.

I have been considering extending my stay. I was wondering… what is it like in Mozambique? Malawi? Lesotho? Kruger National Park? I wouldn’t mind renting a place in Nairobi (my original plan before H.M. got the job in Uganda).

Unfortunately, these plans have costs.

1) $100 to change my ticket from Africa to London (it’s a frequent flyer ticket).

2) $200 to change my ticket from London to Newark (this is a normal ticket, paid for in bump vouchers).

3) A few hundred dollars in traveler’s insurance, which would need to be extended.

4) The costs of paying for my Jersey City apartment. I’ve had a tenant who covered costs, but he moves out tomorrow.

So if I were to stay in Africa, I would need to somehow get a tenant that I trust into my apartment. If the Jersey City costs are covered, that helps a lot as it costs much less to live or travel in Africa than to live in Jersey City, where I pay mortgage, taxes, maintenance, phone, utilities, health insurance, blah blah blah.

I have been toying with the idea of going back on the road versus renting in Nairobi or Cape Town. Both have their appeal. And it took me four years to get back to Africa, so I’m unlikely to be back any time soon.

But yesterday a new wrinkle presented itself.

A job offer. One that starts in mid-October. Editing children’s books at a company I worked for previously. Easy commute, mediocre pay, and a job that isn’t difficult. It’s a freelance three-month assignment.

Now the decision-making must begin in agony. Life is not about paying bills, but one must occasionally be realistic.

And perhaps it is easier to write a book with a structured 9-5 job. Life as a freelancer means constant hustling for work and prioritizing the immediate deadline emergencies. 9-5 means having evenings and weekends free.

Still… I don’t want to be working just to pay for my apartment, and I don’t want to turn 40 in April while treading water alone, just getting by for the sake of getting by. It would be nice to have a finished manuscript turned in and be working toward a goal or two instead of waffling around my place and wondering what to do next.

So that’s the question. What would you do? Bear in mind that I’m not rich but I’ve always managed to squeak by somehow.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Intro to Namibian Hospitals

I’d arrived in Swakopmund, Namibia, at around six on a Sunday night.

I’d rented a flat and moved my backpack in the next morning. It was a third-story walk-up. Apparently this makes it hard to rent. I got it cheap. Three stories is nothing to an ex-New Yorker.

I hadn’t even unpacked before I was back on my tour of African hospitals.

It was after-hours, so I was admitted through “casualty.” That’s the emergency room to us Yanks. I’d gone to the private hospital in a taxi and all I could think was how desperate I’d be if I was in Murchison Falls, five hours from Kampala. Herr Marlboro would have had to figure out something clever using his “Where There Is No Doctor” book and the saliva of a hippo.

A sympathetic German nurse admitted me and took my details. A South African doctor asked me a lot of questions. They both thought it odd that my emergency contact was four countries away and had a German name. I knew no one in Namibia.

The doctor gave me some pink pills and strict orders to lie in bed for two days before visiting him in his office. This visit cost me about $47. Everything in southern Africa is much more expensive than in Uganda.

The rest of the week, I was bored out of my skull and getting very tired of the view of the opposing wall across the courtyard outside my bedroom window. Family and friends called a few times but I wished I knew someone who could bring me food. Instead I flaunted doctor’s orders a few times and gingerly walked to the supermarket.

On Friday, I had to search for the doctor. His office was on Breite Strasse and Kaiser Wilhem. Only problem was that someone had renamed the German streets with Namibian names. My guidebook had an old map, and that is how I learned that my new flat was on Bruecken Strasse, no Libertina Amathila.

The doctor had forgotten who I was, but after a reminder, he gave me a clean bill of health. Almost clean. I was to take it easy for a while and he wanted me to come back for a “procedure.” No thanks. I’ve had enough medical attention in Africa to last me forever.

Over the weekend, I wandered past Konditoreis, Fleisch Markts, the Brauhaus, the Bahnhof, and assorted Kirches. I could buy eight different kinds of wurst, locally brewed beer, broetchen, or a stewed pig knuckle. The beach offered a respite from the constant barrage of German signs.

On Sunday, desperate to get out of the house after a “classic Fantastic Four” coloring marathon, I decided to go for lunch in a restaurant. Maybe I’d try the pig’s knuckle.

But on Sunday, everything in Swakopmund is closed.

“Just like Germany,” I thought. “Well, except for that African woman walking down the street with the basket on her head.”

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Arriving in Swakopmund

I felt guilty as I threw away the can my pasta sauce came in.

“Someone in Uganda needs this can,” I thought.

But I wasn’t in Uganda. I was in Namibia, in the south of Africa, where people use store-bought items and not makeshift cans that can fashioned into lamps or containers. In Namibia, you can just pop down to Pic’n’Pay and buy all the cans you want. At least in the Germanic tourist destination of Swakopmund you can.

I’d arrived on a hot minibus the night before and rented an apartment after a night in the Desert Sky Backpackers Lodge. The minibus pulled a trailer and was mechanically sound; other than that the only difference between a Ugandan minibus and a Namibian minibus was that the passengers bought snacks at the gas station mini-mart instead of from a kid shoving meat-on-a-stick through the window. And the soundtrack had changed. In Uganda, I’d usually hear sickeningly sweet ballads about Jesus. In Namibia, I heard a rap artist accusing America of coming to Africa with a bible in one hand and a gun in the other.

The Desert Sky Backpackers, like the Chameleon Backpackers I’d stayed at in Windhoek the night before, was homey and cheap and private. I’d had a single room with shared bath in each and each had cost $20. In Swakopmund, I’d unpacked and headed straight to the laundromat, which I’d been daydreaming about for months.

I’d last been in the Swakopmund Laundromat in 2001, when Shawn—the group leader for my Crazy Kudu safari—had actually thrown in my laundry with his own. I’d felt a little funny that Shawn was washing my underwear, especially since we had a little flirty thing going at the the time, but he rightly pointed out that he’d been doing his laundry anyway.

In 2001, the strange little Germanic seaside town of Swakopmund had charmed me with its slice-of-Europe mixed with African culture. In 2005, its prices threw me into a panic.

Swakopmund had thrived while I’d been elsewhere and prices of food, real estate, and anything touristy had skyrocketed. I paid more in restaurants than I did in New York, so I was quite happy to take the keys to my new apartment that featured a fully equipped kitchen. I immediately stocked it with decaf coffee (I’d managed to quit caffeine during my food poisoning bout) and sweet chili sauce.

I was homesick for Uganda, for H.M., and for hippos. What had I seen in this clean resort town where everything worked, where soda came in plastic instead of in returnable glass bottles? Now I knew exactly what Luc, H.M.’s French-Bavarian friend who’d visited us, meant when he’d pined for Uganda upon his return to Munich.

Or maybe Swakopmund wasn’t the same without Shawn showing me the town. Maybe I’d get some real work done for a change. I ate my pasta at my laptop and admired the setting sun that went down over the Chinese restaurant across the street. And beyond were the dunes, and beyond that, the Atlantic Ocean. It wasn’t a warthog, and it wasn’t a hippo flicking shit on the walls of my home, but it would have to do.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Leaving Uganda

"Golly," I thought as I glanced around the Johannesburg airport departures area. "There sure are a lot of white people here."

I was not staying in South Africa—I was in transit to Namibia—but the contrast to East Africa was stunning. Just yesterday, I'd hopped helmetless on the back of boda-bodas, which had zipped me through the diesel-choked roundabouts of Kampala. Now I was tempted from all sides by gourmet coffees, $6 sandwiches that had actual lettuce on them, and bathrooms where the taps emitted hot water.

Herr Marlboro had driven me to Masindi the morning after the hippo had charged us. We’d checked our e-mail accounts, eaten an English breakfast at Traveller’s Café, and returned all the beer and soda bottles left by the endless stream of guests that came to Murchison Falls. He’d left me at the minibus taxi to Kampala. He was returning to the main Murchison gate where we’d left workers laying stone onto the base of the decorative faux-elephant-tusk gateway. They’d hadn’t even said good-bye—they were used to me coming and going to Kampala. Celsius had reacted the same, with a smile and a shrug. I was always leaving, but I always came back.

Not this time, but I didn’t have the heart to say so.

After a 40-minute wait, the minibus was full and we pulled out of the taxi park. I scanned the dusty, crowded roads of Masindi for the white DED Toyota pick-up or for a white, blond man but they were gone.

I’d read and heard dire warnings about traveling in minibus taxis—or “matatus” in Swahili—in Uganda. The majority of minibus drivers I’d encountered, however, had been polite (if aggressive) and safe-enough drivers.

Not this time. The driver took the 40-kilometer dirt road out of Masindi at frightening speeds. I don’t know how fast we were going because the speedometer didn’t work. Neither did the fuel gauge, the front seatbelts, or the front passenger door—which was slightly charred and opened only from the outside. And it was raining.

We reached meat-on-a-stick junction, where we turned off to Kampala after a full-on assault by eager meat-on-a-stick sellers. I was relieved to be off of the dirt road, but now the driver felt the need to drive even faster. The passengers all shifted nervously and exchanged glances. Not only the mzungu was nervous.

There are several police speed traps on the Kampala road, and the driver always managed to slow down just in time. He’d also pull his non-working seatbelt across over his shoulder and hold it in place with one hand. He always muttered to the passenger in the front seat to do the same. Each time, the passenger looked apprehensive but followed orders. Uganda has a mandatory seatbelt law.

Whenever we’d hit a pothole—and there are many on the Kampala road but still fewer than in Jersey City—the driver would veer to the far right and then speed all the way to the left without lifting his foot off the gas.

About 40 minutes outside of Kampala, we ran out of fuel. It was still raining. The driver got out and disappeared, carrying with him an empty yellow plastic vegetable oil jug.

A second minibus pulled over. Anyone who could fit jumped ship, but I had too much luggage. Those of us left behind sat bored in the rain. Everyone had already read my newspaper that I’d bought in Masindi.

The front seat passenger read all the driver’s personal papers and then dug around in the glove compartment for a while.

I was wondering when to cut my losses and flag down another minibus when the driver reappeared with the vegetable oil jug full of fuel.

Even after he used an empty water bottle to tip fuel into the tank, the minibus did not start. The driver pumped the accelerator and ground the starter. Finally, it grumbled to life. We drove through the rain to Kampala.

I’d enjoyed living in Uganda. It was fun to improvise—making a shower curtain at H.M.’s place using my dollar-store rain poncho and some clothespins, faking both successful and unsuccessful baked goods recipes using whatever local goods were available and surprising park workers with them, learning to cope with washing laundry in a plastic bin, and boiling nasty old dish sponges for re-use—and I’d miss the smell of charcoal in the countryside (but not the diesel in the city). I’d gotten used to the ever-present red-brick color that permanently lived on my shoes, evidence that Kampala is not built merely on seven hills, but on seven muddy hills.

But in spite of my love for Uganda, I was quite looking forwarding to using a washing machine.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Hungry Hippo

I was in the pick-up on my way back to Murchison Falls, having permanently checked out of my Kampala accommodation. Herr Marlboro was at the wheel and had been exhibiting signs of anger at me, brought to the surface by an unexpected recent event. We drove silently, communicating in strained, monotone sentences.

“Pull over,” I said excitedly, breaking the tone with sudden enthusiasm.

He pulled up at a fruit and vegetable stand, where I wandered about buying tomatoes, pineapple, potatoes, onions, and bananas from pleased sellers.

Happy with my purchases, I got back in the truck. H.M. turned the key. Nothing happened. Well, something happened. Smoke rose from the fuse box under the hood.

The vegetable sellers watched as H.M. opened the hood and took out his mini-Leatherman. He discovered that someone had used a “bridge” and it had burned out. He was able to disconnect a cable that we later discovered charged the alternator, and he used that for the starter. We were able to drive.

Unfortunately, we would have no lights. We stayed in a rickety hotel in Masindi as all the good ones were full. It was hot, H.M. had a stress headache, and I had a dream that I took a St. Bernard puppy for a walk and it got eaten by a snake.


My final days at Murchison were not pleasant. Instead of enjoying the view of the Nile and the hippo eating grass at night, there was the tension and arguments that are typical of break-ups. MariesWorldTour.com, with its lovely romantic evening on the Nile with H.M. where we first met, played out its final chapter on the verandah on Tuesday night. It wasn’t a very nice ending.


I got up early and made breakfast for H.M., as one does when faced with co-habiting with someone right after everything has gone to hell. This set a more normal tone, but I was still surprised when he invited me on a game drive later in the afternoon. Celsius was at the northern gate and needed a lift, after having had to host his father’s funeral. His father had been killed by rebels north of Pakwach a few weeks ago. We could have a game drive en route to the gate.

We loaded up on camera gear and off we went. But it was the middle of the afternoon and we saw nothing save for a few gazelles.

We picked up Celsius and the others who were also hoping for a lift, and headed towards the ferry.

A hippo was eating grass in broad daylight at the ferry landing. H.M. took his digital Rebel and headed over. This hippo seem habituated to people so he got closer than he would have normally, as the hippo is the number one killer in Africa’s animal kingdom. It is vegetarian but has four-inch teeth and can run at high speeds. It seemed safe enough so I followed suit with my film Rebel.

The hippo was covered in fresh scars and deep wounds. Perhaps it had been involved in a territorial dispute or in a fight with a lion or crocodile.

“Click, whirr” went our Canons.

Then, through my 70-300 mm Canon zoom lens, I saw the hippo stiffen and look up. His face changed from “I like to eat grass” to “I will kill you, tourist.” He charged, but not before my film Rebel had a shot of angry hippo.

H.M. and I both ran for our lives, straight to the truck. We were lucky to have a good 50 feet on the angry hippo as he could easily have outrun us. As we were both about to leap up on the pick-up bed, the hippo slowed down and returned to eating grass.

Celsius was laughing at us from a distance. We joined in, full of adrenalin. We didn’t really think the hippo could have killed us as we had been pretty close to the truck. But all the statistics of hippo deaths were running through my head as I ran and thought “stupid, Marie, very stupid.”

For a moment, all the tension of the past week was forgotten and we laughed together as we crossed the Nile on the ferry.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005


“No, not that bump, please don’t drive there.” I was sending mental instructions to my boda-boda driver. “Not this bump either, aieeeee!”

I was miserable and sicker than the proverbial dog. I’d woken up two nights ago with diarrhea, vomiting, fever, joint pain, and a host of other less-than-pleasant symptoms. I’d thought briefly of Peter, the night clerk on reception, whose office was next to my bathroom.

“No one should have to listen to this,” I thought, also recalling writer Peter Moore’s description of his girlfriend’s illness in Central America in his book, “The Whole Montezuma.” He’d discovered that she could make Donald Duck noises with her butt (apologies to my Gemstone/Disney comics editors).

But there was no time for regrets between my frequent visits to the bathroom that night.

Did I have malaria? Every faint flu-like illness must be treated with great seriousness in Africa. Especially as I was on doxycycline as a prophylaxis, and this would mask most symptoms (not that anything was masked at the moment).

I spent the day as a sick day should be spent—lying on the sofa in front of the television. I was treated to an inane soap opera called “The Bold and the Beautiful,” Oprah re-runs, and “Growing Up Gotti.” My stomach looked like those bloated stomachs you used to see on kids on those Sally Struthers ads about sponsoring an African child.

Finally, there was nothing left in my system save a little flat Coke that I’d be consuming. I was able to drag myself up the road to a tiny, rundown clinic in Bbunga.

“I’d like a malaria test please.”

A slow, bored Ugandan man poked my finger and dropped the blood on a slide. He went into the lab and gave it to an older man who was busily playing computer solitaire. The door shut and I sat on an old chair in an unlit waiting area.

“You don’t have malaria.” The younger man came out with a piece of paper stating with a handwritten statement saying exactly that. I paid 2,000 shillings (about $1.20) and slowly, painfully began the short walk back to my accommodation.

I felt better already. I’d had brief bouts of food poisoning before. But could this be giardia?

I watched some more Oprah and ate nothing. The night passed uneventfully. In the morning, I ate some plain rice and kept it down.

I’d made an appointment to see the new chiropractor at the International Hospital and already re-scheduled once. I’d go to see her and get my gut checked out at the same time.

I took the mini-bus taxi to Kabalagala and, not that anyone really wants to read this, but my stomach felt like a hot air balloon by the time I got there. I tentatively boarded the boda-boda, or motorbike taxi, and said “International Hospital please.”

The road sucked. It was dirt and riddled with potholes. There wasn’t a level spot in the whole 1.5 km distance to the hospital. Every time the motorbike bounced, I winced.

How the hell does an ambulance make this trip, I wondered.

I saw the chiropractor, and then attempted to see a doctor. This involved first sitting in a waiting area, then being interviewed by a young woman wearing a name tag that identified her as “health officer.” So she was a kind of screener, giving prescriptions to those with easy problems and figuring out who really did need to see the doctor.

She wanted me to poop in a jar and then hand it to a man in the lab. But I’d taken Immodium to get to the hospital. There would be no poop, plus how the hell does anyone get it into that tiny jar? I gave them the other stuff they asked for and then sat in the waiting area for ages.

Finally another young woman talked to me some more. She too nodded as I described my symptoms, and then said without a stool sample, there would be nothing they could say or do. I paid my bill, took the jar home, and bounced painfully on the boda-boda to the coffee shop to do some uploading. “A little gas is not big deal,” I thought. “I’m all better now.”

Au contraire, as I discovered mid-way through a BLT and fries. Oops. I visited two bathrooms before flagging down a boda-boda for the painful trip back to Kabalagala.

Peter again had a charming symphony that evening and night, while I had no sleep.

Disenchanted with my visit to the International Hospital, I took an Immodium tablet again the next morning and caught a boda-boda to The Surgery, a clinic that caters to expats and has all kinds of modern equipment.

I asked to see a doctor. I was let right in to see British Dr. Stockley, the head of the clinic. Again, I had the lack-of-stool problem, but he listened to my symptoms and suggested food poisoning as the culprit, and then gave me input on various other problems and malaria phrophylaxis questions. He gave me a few options, including “wait five days for it to go away.” I choose the one that involved a needle, instant gratification, and the fewest side effects.

A few minutes later, I found myself prone on a cot while while a nurse stuck an IV into my vein. She pumped two bottles of this stuff into me and it hurt as it went up the arm. But it worked.

Total bill for this prompt and efficient medical care: 68,000 Ugandan shillings. Only $37.

Friday, September 02, 2005

It Takes A Village

On my first day back in Kampala, I stopped for gas three times, in three different minibus taxis.

Minibus taxis and boda-bodas (motorbike taxis) always keep the bare minimum amount of fuel in their tanks. I am pretty sure this has to do with not wanting to give away fuel when returning it to the owner at the end of the day. The end result is that when on public transport in Uganda, you can expect a visit to the gas station as part of your daily routine.

On my second day in Kampala, I inadvertently rode the school bus.

I waved down the blue-and-white minibus taxi at my usual spot in Bbunga, on the tarmac road just in front of my accommodation at Aspen Place.

Minibuses legally hold 14 passengers, a conductor, and a driver. It is common to squeeze plenty more people in on local routes, especially if those plenty more are small children.

We stopped in front of a small primary school. A teacher gave some coins to the conductor and ushered about six uniformed children to the bus. The conductor got off and lifted the smallest children, who couldn’t have been more than 4-years-old, onto the first seat.

The kids were well-behaved and smiling. They all sat squished together. As their stop came, the medium-size kid squeaked.

“Mah-sow!” It’s the Luganda word for “stop.”

The driver pulled the taxi over and the conductor opened the sliding door. A mother was waiting in front of a three-walled butcher shop. She took her kids from the bus.

We proceeded on until the other kids squeaked “mah-sow.”

The rest of the children disembarked. Passengers helped lift the kids to the sidewalk. Several walked off together down a dirt road. The conductor took two kids by the hands and walked them across the street, before returning to his spot in our minibus.

It takes a village, I reckon.