Monthly Archives: December 2009

Goodbye ’09

I find myself planning my life even while I am living it. You see my life resembles the window of one of those fashionable and international shop windows, although Winnipeg proves to be a bit of a blip on the scene.

Trendy Shop Window

Johannesburg  London  Hong Kong  Tokyo NewYork Strasbourg  Montreal  Winnipeg  Port of Spain Kampala

So what is next? And why I am plagued by this interminable inner moving mechanism that ticks and tocks and winds itself around the nerve endings of my brain even when I am perfectly installed and still?  The plan is to stay here for 4 years, to move out of our little box house, eventually, and move into a home with a garden and a gate that opens onto a street where it is permitted and possible to go for a stroll. In this shiny future there is also a car that works, and all my worldly belongings, that will have travelled from the distant shores of a storage facility in Montreal, will be safely installed. I am not one for sitting calmly and waiting, rather I am plagued with a disease called impatience and it is a nightmare for those who live with me. Perhaps this ants in the pants syndrome has arisen as a consequence of all my moves. In any case, change can’t come fast enough for me. I want it all, and I want it now.

The whole world seems to be reflecting on the past decade, it seems we have a habit of looking back when we reach some milestone, or just a year with a zero at the end. I find it all quite nostalgic and since I am connected through my beloved Pomme ( yes, I name inanimate objects) to the Big Shiny West I have been reading all sorts of reminiscing and prophetizing about the cusp of this new decade. (I have also been reading about all sorts of trends, movies and recipes that make me hungry for shops, cinemas and restaurants, but that is another story.) If I look back to the year 2000 I am immediately transported back to a time when I held a crying baby adorable Princess in my arms. The past ten years have seen me embrace two careers, a photographer and then a teacher, and seen my little girls grow into little women. I have lived in three countries and made extraordinary friendships, travelled through the Caribbean, the States and discovered Africa. I cannot fathom for one moment what the next decade holds, but I am convinced that there will be adventure, discovery and a great deal of movement.

So as this year and decade draws to a close I wish for Peace, both outside in the world and inside myself. I wish to spend more time with people I love, visiting those that are so far away it seems impossible. The most shocking thing is that within the next 10 years both Princess and Trooper will leave home, but that is a thought that I will push to the nether regions of my mind.

While you pause for thought and perhaps look back on the decade that was, have a laugh and look at how these people do it.


Wishing you and yours a wonderful and peaceful 2010. Fill it with discovery and purpose.

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Rainy day fantasies

My first African Christmas has come and gone and I have now taken to my bed. It is the only seemingly cosy place in this box I call my home. Kampala has been drenched with rain for 3 days now and my mood seems intent to match the weather. I can’t help wondering what we would be doing in Montreal or Trinidad. So since I am struck with boredom on a rainy day in a dusty (now muddy) city I have decided with the utmost of self indulgence to ask myself some pertinent questions.

What would I do in Montreal today?

Well there are a number of choices, among them a zippy toboggan ride down Murray Hill, an ice skate on Beaver Lake, a wander through the tempting shops down town, perhaps lunch or coffee at a cafe on St. Denis or even an Imax film. Of course there is also the option of a visit to a museum of gallery. Even in the snow Montreal has a wealth of offerings, and combined with the richness of friends who live there ( although they are all away this week) it is easy to see why Montreal continues to be my favorite city in the world.

What would I do in Trinidad today?

Well, a lot less, to be sure, but assuming the sun is shining a trip to Maracas beach is a good bet. There would also be some walking and even staying home in our sun drenched happy house would be quite blissful.

What would I do in London today?

Assuming my wallet could bare it what wouldn’t I do in London today? Aside from the fact that there is always my sister to play with, there is a multitude of shops in which to covet things and museums in which to gain some inspiration and joy. There is also always Waitrose where I could walk up and down the aisles while drooling and clutching my wallet like a deprived tourist let out of Africa on a day pass.

What do I wish I could do today?

Shop. I am in need of some serious retail therapy and even a frustrating walk through a big shiny shop full of lovely things I can’t afford would be sweet indulgence. Of course, to assuage the pain of unrequited love I would need to buy at least one fabulous thing that I shouldn’t. At this point I would predict that it would be shoes.

I also wish I could go for a long walk around a city park. It doesn’t need to be the country at all, and I would prefer not to don wellies and outfit myself as if heading out for the great hunt. No, a city park that would end up at some shops with a warming cappucino would suit just fine. In fact, a brisk walk in a chilly climate would be good as long as the warm and soft scarf could be unwound with relief at the end of it all.

I also fancy a matinee movie in one of those cinemas where you stand, hand on chin, and take a good few minutes to choose what you want to see. One of those cineplexes showing more than 21 films would be grand.

So there you have it. A trip down fantasy lane! Fun while it lasted.


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Safari Day 6: Chimps and time to go home

We woke up before sunrise in anticipation of our chimpanzee tracking expedition in Kibale Forest. A candle lit breakfast awaited us in the dining room of the lodge and we ate facing the crater lake, watching the sun rise as we sipped our coffee.



Kibale forest is home to the greatest number of chimps in Eastern Africa. There are also 13 other primate species, 4 of which are nocturnal. The ride from the lodge to the Forest took about an hour and passed through tea plantations, and crater lakes that sat still in the morning light as thick as skin on warm milk.

 

A $200 walk through a forest is an enormous amount of money but for the chance to see chimps in the wild it is money well spent. With two guides and a couple of Dutch travellers we set off at 8 am, trousers tucked into socks, rain jackets on and plenty of water in our possession. I walked through thick sludgy mud, camera in hand, across twisted roots, careful not to trip and land in an undignified and muddy heap on the path. Tracking it certainly was as we stopped at intervals to listen for the call of chimps or to observe knuckle prints, still fresh in the mud. Chimps sleep in nests, a different one each night and they feed predominantly on figs so we walked head up looking skywards for any dark shadows or moving shapes in the trees.



(this is a baboon.)

(these are the tracks of Chimp Knuckles. We knew we were on the right track!)

(Twisted and creeping tree root.)

(Chimp nest.)

(these are the figs that are sucked and then thrown on the ground by the feeding chimps.)

 

The sounds in the forest, as we walked in silence, were a cacophony of bird and monkey calls and as the heat took over from the coolness of the early morning the air became filled with the fresh but sticky scent of figs, warm mud and life pulsating all around us, Butterflies darted about, stopping on moist leaves, red berries and the odd splash of colour in the form of a flower. Suddenly our guides told us to look up and there almost 50 metres above us were 10 chimps, some grooming on a branch, but most happily eating figs and throwing down the remnants below as we dodged the fat fruits like soggy pelants. We hoped and prayed that at least one would come down, at least a bit closer to us, but since they were happily feeding and were still cool up high in the trees there was no reason to come down and put on a show for a few tourists eager to see them up close. Unlike monkeys, chimps cannot jump and despite being able to swing happily between branches they come down to walk, or run from one tree to another. The closest we got to them was when we had to move aside quickly to avoid the splash from their pee. And pee they did! They suck fig juice most of the day so there is a lot of liquid to dispose of and any unsuspecting person below would find his or her shoulder or even head wet from chimp pee. After waiting some time in vain for them to come down we left for another corner of the forest where there were reports, via the guide’s walky-talky of other chimps in trees. We found two large males contentedly sitting as high as they could sucking figs and enjoying the view.




 

After 3 and a half hours of walking, tracking and craning our necks we knew that this was as good as it was going to get. I think that the lions of Ishasha used up all of our luck for this week. The glimpse I got of the chimps was enough to make us want to return for another try, another time.

 

It was back to the lodge for a last languorous lunch before the 4 hour drive back to the dusty world of Kampala.

As if we hadn’t had enough road drama for one trip we had one more bad experience on the way home. Driving with our driver through the dark about 2 hours from Kampala we hit and killed a dog. Almost immediately myself, Trooper and Princess burst into tears and by the time we sse stopped at a police block, minutes later, the back seat of the car was a scene of misery.

 

I didn’t think it would be possible to bond our family even further but this trip has tightened the bonds between us like moving up a notch on a belt. It has been a trip of memories, extraordinary sightings, disaster and joy. The adventure will continue as we plan to spend the eve of December 31st in a tent on the Delta of Murchison falls, a place where animals roam wild and we will sleep amongst them with nothing between us but a thin sheet of nylon.

 

Oh Africa.


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Safari Day 5: Rainy days, vanilla and bubble baths

I am not sure what woke me up first, the birds or the fiery itching of the tetse fly bites circling my ankles like an unwanted anklet.

Once awake I was anxious to open all the curtains and windows to see the view. Outside our room was a small balcony, with day beds and cushions, positioned perfectly to gaze at the morning view of the valleys below. Unfortunately, this balcony being under the thatched roof, a perfect home for a sparrow’s nest, the day bed of my choice was scattered with bird poop and a plentiful supply of dog hair, generously donated by the lovely, yet flea infested, dogs that live here. I have been to flea hell and I will ever return.

The morning was spent on a hike to the vanilla plantation with our guide, Steve, who helpfully pointed out the medicinal properties of all the plants. shrubs and beans we passed on the way down the valley.

(cocoa bean.)

(Vanilla pods.)

Once we arrived at the vanilla plants he explained the 4 month painstaking operation that leads to the vanilla we find in the grocery store.

(vanilla drying.)

Finally we met Lulu, a lovely English woman and cousin of the owner of the lodge, who has been running the plantation since 2004. She supplies all the organic vanilla to Ben & Jerry’s, Tesco and Waitrose in the UK. I had no idea what a procedure it was to grow and prepare vanilla. The pods, after being washed in boiling water for 2 minutes, exactly, have to then be laid in the sun for precisely 3 hours each day, then lovingly wrapped in wollen blankets, everyday for 4 months. The whole place smelt wonderful and I left with dreams of Creme Caramel and Creme Brule swirling in my head.

Sadly half way through lunch the rains come and there was no better way to spend the afternoon than napping in my four poster bed, lulled by the sound of cross wet birds, followed by a steaming hot bubble bath.



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Safari Day 4: Tsetse flies and Crater lakes

I am covered with the painful bites of Tsetse flies. The irony is that, while they used to cause the dangerous Sleeping Disease, now they prevent any chance of sleep while I am up most of the night with the sensation of legs on fire. Sleeplessness has forced me to reflect on the past few days.

While Sunday December the 13th was surely one of the worst days of my life, December 15th was one of the best. What was remarkable and moving about the experience of seeing both lions and elephants up close and in the wild was that there was an eye to eye connection between us. We were the only car and therefore only humans for miles around and as we approached the tree the male lion looked at us directly. He knew we were there. We knew that he knew and we knew that we had disturbed him, not a lot, but enough to make him get down from the tree.  Once he was down and let out an irritated roar that seemed to express irritation that his nap had been interrupted, one of the females watched us. At one point she looked me straight in the eye. I imagine she was saying “yes, I know I am beautiful and extraordinary, now leave me alone to sleep.”

Elephants cannot see well and the large male that approached the car ahead of the others knew we were there but couldn’t actually see us until he came close. At that point he stood and looked directly at us. I cannot express in words the feeling of looking into the eyes of a wild animal, who not only acknowledges you, but knows that you are no real danger to him. All the animals that we passed on our two safari drives were extremely curious and stood and observed us in pretty much the same way that we were observing them. On more than one occasion there was a direct eye to eye connection. Yet none were as powerful as the moments that passed between us and the elephant and between us and the lions.

The most disturbing thing about our car crash, more so even than the two thousand dollars it will take to fix the problem, was the attitude of the people who came to watch the aftermath of the crash. My girls are only 9 and 12, yet they have seen a side of human behaviour that many people never witness.. I can’t help but imagine how it would have been in Canada, where I know that people would have run over to help, offered us assistance and probably even invited us into their homes. Men would have eagerly rushed over to see what they could do and would have grouped together to push the car  over to its rightful stance. There would have been no discussion of money, only concern for our well being. I know that many will say , well what can you expect when these people have nothing and they regard you, due to the colour of your skin, as richer than they can ever hope to be?  Well I reply that in that case something is rotten in the state of our relationship with each other. When the inequality between people is such a divider that it stops us from seeing each other as members of the same human race, I despair. Those people had no compassion. They had been taught, somewhere down the line, that we deserve none. Yet how many people in the Great Shiny West, who have never stepped foot on this continent are more than happy to open up their wallets and show compassion by helping poor Africans in need?

We are nothing more than a walking dollar sign to them and it might be the prevalence of aid that has turned these people into victims with no pride.

We left the Wilderness Lodge at about 10 am once our driver arrived to take us to our next stop, the Ndali lodge. The drive was in the region of about 4 hours north through Queen Elizabeth Park, a little more since we needed to stop at a garage to have the brake pads attended to. To approach the lodge it is necessary to climb up a steep mountain past villages where men and women sat chatting beside large piles of drying corn and past boys pushing heavy bicycles laden with matoke. ( This is a member of the banana family and the staple food of all Ugandans.)  Finally we reached the very top where the lodge sits on a ridge, one side facing a crystal clear crater lake, where we sat and enjoyed some lunch, and the other side, where the cottages face, an undulating valley of lakes, mountains, tiny villages the size of dots, and finally in the misty distance the sharp peaks of the Rwenzori mountains. The stunning contrast between the two views had me flitting between the two, camera in hand for the first hour of our visit. Like a soft patchwork blanket in shades of green the valleys are spread like a feast below the little infinity pool. It was a scene of calm bliss.

This is a region famous for its crater lakes. These were formed eons ago by volcanos and today they look like silver pot holes from a distance. I have longed believed that there is nothing more soothing to the soul than the ability to look as far as the eyes can see. Nothing obstructs this fabulous view and the changing lights helps the view transform, especially in the hour before sunset. Much of that hour was spent in the piping hot bath, complete with window and view, that I gratefully climbed into at around 6pm. I love a good hot bath, and a bath with a view is one of the joys of life.


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Safari Day 3: wildlife bonanza

There is no finer way to be awoken than the gentle call of a man telling us that our coffee is waiting outside. The girls had hot chocolate and we had hot coffee while we gently wiped away the sleepy dust and prepared for breakfast. The birds were having some major debate between their nests and the river was running wild and furious. To perfect matters even further two elephants were frolicking and tousling in the river, quite obviously revelling in the refreshing cool water.  After a breakfast of fresh pineapple and poached eggs we were ready to climb aboard the safari truck, once again.




Morning in the park is different from sunset. The animals all seemed frisky and we were greeted by a spectacular flock of crested crane. We crossed our fingers for lion but didn’t hold out too much hope after the few cars we passed told us that they has seen nothing. The amazing thing about this park is that most of the time we are all alone. 3 vehicles is considered a traffic jam. After three hours of driving we were heading back to camp after an wonderful morning of elephant sightings and we were slightly disappointed about the lack of lions, but still feeling satisfied with our first safari experience. All of a sudden, my eagle eyed husband spotted something in a tree. Could it be?

We pulled out the binoculars and confirmed that it was indeed lions and as a bonus the tree where they were lying was right on the track. We slowly approached, with warnings to the girls not to squeal or make any sound. What we discovered was not just lions, but two females and a male. Male lions generally never climb trees, it is too cumbersome for them as they weigh too much and are not as agile or lithe as their female mates. Here was a male in a tree and Dave, our trusty and informative guide expressed some amazement, having never seen this before. Once we came close to their tree the male spotted us and started to come down. At this point my heart started beating. It was one thing to know where he was but once he was on the ground and hidden by bush, he could jump out and chase us at any time. Our truck had no walls, doors or windows and we were highly exposed. With his foot remaining just above the gas pedal, Dave waited while I took photos from my perfect spot just below the lioness. After some moments observing and snapping away we drove off amazed and grateful for our luck.



On the way back to camp, with our hearts full, we came upon a group of 8 elephant bulls. We stopped for awhile to watch and as we did they slowly approached us until they were a mere 20 feet away. Before we knew it they were ambling with their heavy gait towards our car and before our widening eyes they crossed the road infront of us.

It was a privilege to have had such close access to magnificent wild animals and we returned to camp knowing full well that our luck had turned.



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Safari Journal Day 2: Police station drama and Safari drive

We woke up stiff and bruised but optimistic. We were ready to finally start our vacation and we knew that once the police and car towing was dealt with, the worst would be over.

Until you have spent 31/2 hours in a remote Uganda police station, you have not really been to Africa. The room was dusty and it smelt like ancient body odour. The calender that was stuck, slanted to the wall, read September and the paint had peeled and faded to some shade that may once have resembled yellow. The window was splattered with suicidal mosquitos and the roof was made of tin. The phone numbers of all the police officers were chalked onto the walls. Sitting amidst this was a traffic officer wearing the crispest and whitest suit you can imagine. To protect the seat of his super white pants he sat upon a handkerchief and with tongue in his cheek, like a school boy concentrating on his penmanship , he carefully wrote down what had happened. He was polite, yet slow and we waited patiently for the report to be filed. The commanding officer who had been on the scene the night before had the key to the car and we had to wait some hours before he arrived to hand it to us. The towing truck that was arriving , at great expense, from Kampala, would need that key to deliver the car back home and the car would not be released until the report was correctly filed and paid for. So there were steps to follow and no amount of wishing, pleading or hoping would speed this situation up.



The men responsible for the electricity pole that I had unfortunately hit turned up to get their compensation and we discovered that despite paying for the police report it would not be handed to us until the car was officially inspected in Kampala. Email addresses were exchanged with fingers crossed in hope that we would eventually see the report and once the midday sun was starting to roast us, and we thought we had seen quite enough of Kihihi police station for one life time, we were finally allowed to go. Dave, the hardy and patient manager of the wilderness lodge where we were staying picked us up and drove us away.

The lodge is a tented yet exquisite set of structures nestled amongst the trees on the banks of the Ishasha River. We were presented with an oasis of calm and serenity after the past 20 hours of scary and painful hell. Within minutes we could feel our troubles and the memories of the Kihihi police station melt away. It is called a wilderness camp for good reason and with 25 staff for 20 guests, every need is met and catered for. The sound of birds and running river accompanied our delicious lunch, eaten outside, with fine linens and china. The Princess Camper within me beamed. This was perfect. We were the only guests and once lunch was over it was only the four of us, with Dave, who piled into the Safari truck. By 4pm we were driving through the park looking, as far as the eye could see, at fig trees, savannah, Kob, Water Buck, Warthog, Buffalo, Topi, Eagles and the almighty elephant.


Ishasha is famous for its tree climbing lions. They hunt at night and sleep all day in the thick branches of the fig tree. There are only 28 lions spread over  the 18,000 hectares of the park and it is sheer luck to see them. The park is only a few kilometers from the Congo and often the lions wander over there and can’t be seen for many weeks. At one point on the drive we stopped by a river that shall forever, in my memory, be known as Hippo Soup. The Congo was near enough to wade to, were it not for the large and cumbersome Hippos wallowing within it.

We couldn’t find any lions despite some long drives around the favorite fig trees. Still, when we drove back into the camp, were were happy, lucky and spoilt.

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