UGANDA

I walk out into the sunset evening air. The hills around are deliciously green. I’ve come to Uganda partly because there is lush rainforest here, different from the savannah in most of East Africa. I'm also crazy about primates.

I easily find a taxi to take me to the hotel I booked. We drive along a two lane highway as it gets dark, until we pull off onto a dirt road with lots of potholes. The hotel isn’t anywhere near where the map says it is. No one has heard of it. I guess it doesn’t exist. He takes me to another place, quite a nice place, but not cheap,at $30 a night. It’s nice to hear the sound of crickets again and feel humid cool night air.

The next day I explore Entebbe, the upscale area of the capital, Kampala, where I find myself. There are almost no cars even in this part of Uganda so the only method of transportation is by boda-boda, citizen motorbike taxis. It seemssketchy to trust a random guy that just pops out of nowhere on his motorbike, but that’s the only way to get around. I go to the mall where there is a really beautiful coffee shop, open on the sides to the trees, and happily drink a cappuchino. Then I go to the zoo where I meet a really nice young volunteer who takes me around to show me where the animals are hiding, and gives me inside information about them. He’s funny and speaks excellent English. There's a pair of lions who sleeps with their paws touching. There are some beautiful owls, a lovely species of jackal I’ve never seen, and a serval cat.

Then I take a boda to the botanical garden which has some really beautiful big trees. From there I pick up my stuff at the hotel and take a shuttle to Jinja, a nearby town famous for being the source of the Nile and boasting some of the best white water rafting in the world. I'm hoping to meet some other backpackers there that I can travel with, as it’s supposed to be the place all travelers go in Uganda.

It’s Sunday night so there shouldn’t be after-work traffic but it takes many hours to escape from Kampala. The streams are white and viscous with pollution and dust from the unpaved roads. I feel for the people of this city.

Before Jinja we drive through a large protected forest I hadn’t heard of before, called Mabira Forest. I open the windows, thrilled to hear the intense buzzing of forest noises and smell clean air. I’m happy to arrive at the hostel outside of Jinja, and greeted by a very sweet older lady. I’m disappointed to be the only traveller, but on the plus side I get my own room instead of a bunk bed. It’s clearly a devout Christian place as there are Bibles everywhere. I guess most of Uganda is devoutly Christian.

The WIFI doesn’t work so I have no access to the outside world. The next morning I walk to the town center to look for a SIM card. It is not a pleasant place. The streets are falling apart and choked with motorbikes, the sidewalks are falling apart and choked with stalls and huge crowds. It’s blisteringly hot. I am the only foreigner around and get unfriendly looks. The people here are so different from in Kenya. Bald heads tend to be the style, while in Kenya they opt for unique hairstyles. Luganda, the language most people speak in eastern Uganda, sounds quite harsh to my ears, though it's Bantu language like Swahili. I learn a few phrases. The syllables don’t seem to be as compatible with English as Swahili is, so their accents are more difficult to understand than in Kenya.

I go to four ATMs before I find one that works. Just crossing the streets is a sweaty endeavor. People are roasting meat sticks on the street corners, which adds to the tropical heat. When I go into a cellphone shop to get a SIM card, the guy looks immediately at my breasts with a sneer and a leer. 30 seconds later I wonder why I didn’t just walk out. After more time in the country I would come to notice that most Ugandan men I interact with look at my breasts, but most do it sort of haplessly, whereas this guy does it in a condescending way. But now it’s too late, as I’ve already started the process of getting the sim card. I have to fill out a form and he takes a bunch of pictures of my passport and he messes it up 3 times so I need to fill out the form several times. Every minute someone walks in and hands him a rumpled bill for him to put money on their mobile account.

There’s no where to stand in the tiny shop as people are coming in and out. The other guy behind the counter apparently can’t do anything to help with all the customers, so he literally picks his nose. I am squeezed into a corner sweating while the men who come in all eye my breasts. Finally the guy calls in another guy who knows what he’s doing. This guy exudes a competent air, and I beg him to stay. I’ve been here an hour already. He tells me the other guy will help me. Great.

An hour later, I have working data at 3G speeds. I go back to the hostel and now at least I can send some texts to see about getting on a white water rafting trip. The three companies I contact say there are no trips planned. I don’t know if the low level of travelers is normal for this time of year but as a solo traveller it makes things very difficult. Even if I can find one other person it will still be about $140 bucks for a half day rafting trip which seems like a lot.

I check out the source of the Nile, even though I suspect it will be one of those tourist attractions that is pointless, just another place on the river. In fact that’s how it is and you pay $10 to walk down the steps through the gauntlet of trinket booths to the river just to say that you have seen the source of the Nile. A group of selfie-taking Chinese are the only other tourists. It’s nice to be by the river though. I decide to leave the next day and stay in the Mabira forest where they offer a canopy tour.

The ride to the forest is through a huge palm plantation; no one seems to know how to get to the place and there are many little roads through the plantation that look like agricultural pathways. Finally we make it, and the forest is beautiful and full of colobus monkeys. I’m so glad to be in a dense forest, and there are hiking trails for miles. The canopy tour is really fun. It’s a little nerve wracking to make the initial climb, up metal studs that are set quite far apart for short-legged people like me, but I make it and the views are worth it. There’s a beautiful pristine creek flowing far below.

I enjoy talking with the two guides, both very cool guys. The conversation, as always, turns to my single childfree state. One guy snorts, "Huh, here if you decided not to have kids, you would just be totally worthless! Who will take care of you when you’re old?"”

“I answer, "Well, in my culture, there is no guarantee your kids will take care of you when you’re old, anyway,” I say. “There are too many people in the world, so I figure I’ll do the world a favor and take care of my own self when I’m old."

There are some other tourists at the camp, a hippie Canadian couple, so I enjoy their company and we go for a hike. We see the sunset in a huge natural clearing with swallows swooping across the big sky. A waterfall thunders in the distance. In the evening I walk in the dark to the couples’ campsite to join them by their fire, when I start feeling sharp painful pinpricks all over my body. There are things crawling inside my clothes! I cry out with surprise at each bite. The caretaker and the Canadians come out to see what’s happening. With their flashlights they see a thick insect line about 2 inches wide and an inch tall, moving fast like an ant river. Fire ants! Gross. It takes me 10 minutes to find all the rest of them on my body. From then on I scan the ground wherever I go.

The next day I relax in the forest then take public transport to Fort Portal, the colonial town in the west of the country. It’s about a 6 hour bus ride from Kampala to Fort Portal. The bus station intensely hectic. The bus though is comfortable as each person has a whole seat. What makes the ride unpleasant is the guy lecturing loudly from the aisle. He’s speaking Lugandan so I have no idea what he’s saying but he’s holding some kind of pharmaceutical product. I’m inclined to think that this is a random occurance but when he finally sits down, another guy gets up into the aisle and starts holding forth. I really don’t like his vibe, it’s like the fiery sermon of a preacher, he keeps jabbing his finger violently in the air to illustrate his points. The speech is very loud and unpleasant and goes on for hours. At one point my water bottle falls from where I had wedged it to the side of the seat in front of me and bounces off my knee and falls out the window. The guy next to me rolls his eyes and says, “Muuu..zungu…” Muzungu is the word for white person. When we stop in the major towns, people jostle to sell us snacks through the windows.

Once we escape the city, the rolling hills are mostly deforested, and the smoke in the air from trash fires casts an unpleasant haze. The villages all the look the same -- concrete square buildings painted with identical garish bright advertisements. But as we reach the western region, purgatory slowly gives way to paradise. I heard that in the western part of the country, around Fort Portal, even young children know to pick up plastic bottles. And indeed, the land gets cleaner and cleaner the further west we go. More houses are crafted out of traditional wattle and daub, and arranged in more natural shapes, rather than concrete blocks. As we climb in elevation, the air gets cleaner too. Such a fine line between purgatory and paradise! The country is beautiful ... all it takes is care pride and some attention to beauty.

Indeed the vibe in Fort Portal is different. The various ethnic groups in the West speak languages that sound sweet to my ear, and people seem happy and friendly. It’s the first time since I’ve been in Uganda that I see people smiling and laughing. Fort Portal is a nice town with wide boulevards and clean air and clean streets. The hostel is a very nice place in the outskirts, with nature sounds and hammocks and really nice staff. I make friends with a tourist couple from Turkey and Sweden, and with the two local guys who work there. One of them has dreads which is an uncommon sight in Uganda as many people don’t have hair at all, even the women, so I apologetically ask him if he knows where I can find some ganja. At first he says he’s not sure but I notice him watching me chat with the couple and after a while he seems to have sussed out our vibe and comes back to tell me I’m in luck: a friend of his has just arrived who has the best selection in the country.

I smoke some joints with him and his friend who is a great guy, a brilliant professor at a local university, and indeed has several strains of decent green weed! I get high off a few puffs as I haven’t smoked anything this strong in months. We have a great conversation about politics, history, and culture. The professor tries to convince me that Uganda’s poverty has nothing to do with colonialism and everything to do with corruption. I say that having more women involved will help. He chuckles good-naturedly and says Ugandan men will never give up their power over women. The conversation turns to polygamy and forced marriage, both rampant in Uganda as they are in Kenya and Tanzania. "Don't you see that forced marriage is lifelong rape, but with your family supporting it, the people who are supposed to care about you offering you to be raped for life?" He doesn't seem to get it. I like him though and we exchange numbers to spend more time together later.

He asks me what I would like to see in Uganda, and I tell him I’m interested in any vestiges of traditional culture: music and medicine. He says there are some Bata people -- the short statured people we call Pygmies -- living nearby, but they are somewhat aggressive and you need to spend quite a lot of money buying their crafts in order to visit them.

The next day the Turkish-Swedish couple and I take a tour around Fort Portal on motorbikes. We see the palace where the king of the Toro kingdom spends part of the year holding court. They describe the pomp and circumstance of the all-male court, which rules on local disputes. When I learn that the kingdoms of Uganda go back to the 13th century, I understand that patriarchy has been entrenched here for a long time. It seems like patriarchy and agriculture arrived in the same cultural wave; perhaps there was never an agricultural civilization here that wasn't male-dominated, so attitudes are very entrenched. Women have played little part in public life for a long time here, unlike in Kenya where it seems that women had some power at least as medicine women and seers. Tribal people have been oppressed for some time, as well. The Bata pygmy people for example, who are the most ancient indigenous inhabitants of this land, have been subjected to horrific atrocities by government troops here as well as in neighboring Rwanda and the Congo, which share similar culture. Some men believe that they will gain supernatural powers if they rape Bata women. Others just want pygmy land and view them as inferior, so they exterminate or enslave them as forest guides. So, so sad.

We cruise through some pretty villages and see some lovely little lakes, most of which you can’t swim in due to bilharzia. We hike down a steep path to a waterfall around which a tiny patch of forest has been preserved. It’s not hot in the Fort Portal area due to the high elevation, so hiking is pleasant.

We pass a school where they're singing and dancing. The kids look so happy, which makes me so happy too. In the video you can see they've spotted me too-- "Muzungu!"

The next morning the couple wants to go together to do the chimp walk I’ve been looking forward to since coming to Uganda. We leave early in the morning for Kibale forest near Fort Portal. This forest is incredibly beautiful. We’re briefed and in groups of 8 set out into the forest on foot. It’s all flat terrain and the understory is easy to traverse so it’s not strenuous. It’s an ideal temperature and there are no bugs, snakes, or really any other animals aside from us and a few baboons and the chimps! The chimp population in this forest is huge, many hundreds, though only some of them have been habituated to humans. It's apparently rare that a group sees no chimps. It costs $150 for several hours of guided walks. By contrast, it’s $600 to go on a gorilla walk in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in the south, or in Rwanda its $1500! The guides here in Kibale are all excellent; I really appreciate how they encourage respect for the animals -- we are required to speak softly.

At first we only see them high up in the canopy, and we can hear their guttural calls. When we encounter some on the ground, though, I appreciate the guides less; I wish they wouldn’t let people get so close. I feel so sorry for the chimps surrounded by gaping humans. Some lounge in the forest, a furry leg casually stretched out, head resting on a furry elbow.

Once in a while the forest breaks out in epic shrieks and we realize that we are surrounded by dozens of chimp beings! Then we're blessed to get a sighting of the troop’s alpha male, which is rare, our guide tells us; he's a busy guy with a lot of responsibilities.

I feel really conflicted about the burden on the chimps but it has been amazing to see them! I get dropped off at Kibale Forest Camp. This camp, at $30 for a safari tent, is one of the few affordable lodging options inside a protected forest in all of East Africa. Mostly, lodging inside protected forests are luxury rates. It has a comfortable bed that looks out on lush vegetation. I relax and enjoy the paradise all afternoon and then go for a guided night walk to try to see bush babies. You shine a flash light and look for the glint of eyeballs. I’m the only one on the tour and after a while of wandering in the bush without seeing them, I just want to sleep so badly, that I ask him to take me back, but the guide is so hell bent on seeing a bush baby that he ignores my request. He cares more about his success in finding one than in making his client happy. I'm exhausted from waking up before dawn for the chimp walk. When I finally get back to bed I pass out within seconds.

The next day I'm invited to lunch with a family of French people. I hope to visit them in eastern France someday. Next I go to Semuliki national park. There is no public transport and I can’t find any other tourists to share transport so I have to take an expensive private car; it’s almost 100 bucks for the ride which is a little over an hour from Fort Portal. I am the only person at the camp, another rare budget place inside the gorgeous rainforest; for $15 I have a round concrete cabin with a decent bathroom. It’s not clean but it’s clean enough. I consider staying here for a few days and catching up on my writing, but they don’t have electricity during the day, so that won’t work. There’s not much to eat so I have to plan my meals in advance with the ladies. I usually just ask for whatever they are eating: goat meat and matoke (corn meal mash). I arrange with them to find a guide to go for a hike the following day, as guides are required. As usual it’s just me.

We start the hike early the next morning. The guide is a bit morose but that’s okay with me. We walk through mostly secondary forest and see some famous hot springs which are unpleasantly steamy.

We encounter no primates or other wildlife or even many birds, but the forest is beautiful.

When we reach the Semuliki River, we pause to eat our packed lunches. The river is beautiful and on the other side is the Congo. Due to the brutal war there, of course, tourists don’t go, except for expensive guided visits to the Virunga national park.

In the evening I enjoy a smoke and yoga on my little porch in the jungle and contemplate my plan. Solo travel in this part of the world is really expensive if you want to get to parks and see wildlife, and has exhausted my resources. After 3 months of travel I feel personally exhausted too. Just doing the research to figure out where I want to go and how to get there is a lot of work. I feel almost ready to return home, with a stop in Cairo to pick up my extra bag and take the horse tour of the Saqqara area.

I start looking at flights, which always makes me a little nervous. I see that there's a window of expensive flights home from Cairo starting in 4 days, until the end of the month, so I either need to hurry back in a few days, or hang out for another 2 weeks. My options are limited by having extra luggage. I’m not ready to hurry back so I plan out 2 more weeks of things to do. Usually I don’t plan ahead, but at the end of a trip I plan every day in order to make sure I don’t end up with too many days in one place but not enough time to go somewhere else. I come up with a plan and sleep on it, then the next day I commit and buy the tickets. I’m going home in 2 weeks!

I take an excursion to the nearby town where I've heard there is a Bata (pygmy) village. I hike along the road, and some nice and jolly young guys walk along with me. In the town I ask around where I can find the Bata village, although most people want some cash in exchange for their answer. I find the Bata. Here I am with the King. He is apparently the only living Bata who is the same height as they used to be before recent generations of the women have all been raped by men outside the tribe, so at this point they look like anyone else.

I pay a dollar for each photo and I buy a traditional percussion instrument from them, some small gourds on a string, for $10. This isn't enough to buy me a traditional dance, which they ask $30 for. I don't have that much with me. They are not friendly, but not unfriendly either.

Here is an example of a traditional Bata dwelling.

The village looks quite traditional, and is pleasant, though sadly, the people are clearly very poor.

The next day some tourists show up with a vehicle and offer to drive me back to Fort Portal. They are older Brits, one who grew up in Zambia and one in Kenya, so they speak Swahili. They own a large piece of land in Zambia where they run a lodge, and tell me about the unique bioregion there. I’d like to make it to Zambia one day, where hiking and walking safaris are an option.

They drop me off at the bus stand where matatus, the public vans, leave for Rwenzori national park. I've organized a two night trek into the Rwenzori Mountains, otherwise known as the Mountains of the Moon. I’m not sure whether the van drivers always put me in the front seat because they think it’s an honored seat for a visitor, or because it’s the seat no one wants; you sit in the middle between the driver and the other passenger, and the driver elbows your leg every time he shifts, and the heat from the exhaust makes the seats hot to the touch. I decide from now on to spend an extra dollar or two to get the whole front seat to myself. The guy next to me is sweet and friendly so we chat. He is curious about how things are in my country. Do we use matatus? No, not vans really, buses, and in bigger cities, metros. His eyes widen when he considers the idea of underground train stations.

I arrive in the town of Kasese at sunset, and strap my big bag to the boda motorbike for a very long ride on rough dirt roads. I arrive at a lodge deep in the mountains near the trailhead for the park. I meet my trekking companions, two young Israeli girls fresh out of the army. They seem nice. For the three of us we have a whole team of porters to carry our food and cooking equipment, a cook, and two guides. It’s about $300 for the 3 days, including sleeping at the cabins along the trail, which seems expensive when you’re used to hiking for free. I don’t know if I would have gotten it a lot cheaper in a larger group, but this was the result of some hard core bargaining and shopping around. Most people pay a lot more, with the more expensive company, and I hear they get way better food and coffee.

The lodge I'm staying in is close to the park entrance. It's remote with the closest WIFI a few minutes walk down the road, and it's a steep hike up to my cabin, where I have the whole porch to myself, but look at the view!

I really like one guide, Enoch. He is the first Ugandan man I've met who doesn’t look at my breasts. (I haven’t asked other women whether this happens to them all the time too.) He’s a laid back and intelligent fellow. The other guide, Ema, seems nice but looks at my breasts every 15 minutes or so. I wonder if I should just say something.

Many people come here to climb all the way to the icy peak, but I am much too lazy and cold-sensitive for that. These mountains are absolute paradise, at least at the lower elevations, and from what I’ve heard they are intensely mystical all the way up. It’s like Appalachia squared: profoundly green, soft, and furry.

Unlike Appalachia though, there are no snakes or insects or harmful plants, and it’s a perfect temperature. There are prehistoric curling ferns and trees that look straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. Other trees are covered in mosses, which hang down or form large mossballs.

The trail is wide and clear, and the land is pristine except around the camps. We climb up into the wilds, shouting to hear each other over the rushing rivers below us.

Chameleons feel nice.

After a few hours, we enter into a different zone that doesn’t remind me so much of Appalachia. It’s like another planet!

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The forest floor in some areas is a dense carpet of colored mosses: white, pastel pink, tan; it’s so thick and dense that you could lay down and sleep comfortably with no mat. If you press your hand into the carpet, it sinks and leaves a perfect impression of your hand that will still be there the next day! It’s one of the trippiest things I have ever seen. It’s breathtaking.

One of the Israeli girls has hurt her foot and they decide they can’t continue on. I am disappointed as I like their company, they are intelligent and kind, plus, I don’t like the idea of being alone with the large group of men. I feel safe with them, it’s just a little awkward. The guide I feel more comfortable with has to go back with them so it’s just me and Ema. In the morning I walk along with him and chat politely and it’s fine, but generally in the wilderness I prefer to be alone. With the other girls I could trail behind a ways and keep to myself, but now that it's just me and him I feel obligated to stick together and chat.

The second day is more steep and rocky and strenuous. Now we can see the icy peak far in the distance. The views across the canyon are awesome. Some of the mountain tops have cool shapes, round and bulbous, like I imagine mountains in China. It’s still so, so green; you look across the canyon to the steep ridges beyond and every inch of earth is carpeted with green.

We hike all day and arrive at the camp, maybe the most beautiful place I have ever been. I have the cabin all to myself, which has an insane mountain view, while the team of men have their own lodging. It hardly seems real. I’m pleased that there’s a flat space in front of the cabin facing the view, where I can be shielded from the prying eyes of all the guys. I do a blessing there to the mountains and spirits of the land.

The guide tells me that I really need to walk a little to see the area just beyond the camp. Now we are walking on a boardwalk through the soft mossy forest, which is great because the area is so fragile and needs protection.

Then the boardwalk crosses a chasm with a river beneath; it’s super sketchy as the boardwalk isn’t very wide, there’s no handrail, and I wonder how often the wood is maintained. I walk one plank at a time, concentrating fully, breathing deeply, relieved when I’m safely on the other side.

Holy shit. We’ve emerged into a massive clearing, a valley of mosses surrounded by peaks. It’s the most surreal landscape I’ve ever seen. We are the only hiking group we’ve seen all day. There are no other humans around for miles. I ask them to leave me alone in the valley, and now, I’m the only human. I lay down on the spongy moss and meditate and make offerings to the spirits, until it starts to get dark.

I feel annoyed that even though I’ve asked the guide several times to leave me alone for the evening, he keeps stomping into my cabin unannounced to discuss the schedule for tomorrow. By the following morning I am feeling a strong urge to be free of the guide and the other men and be alone in the wilderness. There are no dangers whatsoever in this forest. Not only does the guide stare at my breasts, but he makes a loud clomping sound in his muckboots when he hikes. I prefer to walk gently and hear the bird sounds. So I get ahead of them and hike alone, thrilled to have space in the wilderness. On the way down I slip behind the guardrail so I can take a dip in the river. The water is so crystal clear and pure. It all comes from snowmelt springs high on the mountain, so it’s safe to drink right from the source.

When I get down to the trailhead and sign out with the rangers, the guide is there waiting for me, glowering in rage that I’ve bucked his authority and hiked down alone. Fine, let him stew, I won’t let his rage affect my mood. The constant sound of a chainsaw does bring down my excellent mood, though, as does the sight of some virgin mountain side burning. This is community land, where they have banana plantations — but so much of the non-protected hillside has already been burned, and there are barely any banana trees or crops being tended. This forest is so unique in the world, and I wish every remaining acre could be preserved. In the end, the land owners would make more money by building tiny houses for tourists, than by planting one or two banana trees. Of course, it’s not my place to tell people what to do. But I wish with all my might they would preserve at least the oldest trees and invest in eco-tourism or forest gardens rather than slash and burn plantations for export.

The reason the Rwenzori mountains have so much preserved primary forest is that due to their high elevation, they were uninhabited until the previous century, when Bakonzo people immigrated here from the Congo. The Bakonzo people in the village nearby have a distinct look from other groups I've seen in Uganda. Many of the women wear traditional colorful clothes, which is the first I have seen that in my short time in the country. At the lodge I see a picture of the village healer and he looks traditional, so I book a guide to take me to visit him in the morning.

The guide, an awesome young woman who grew up in the area and speaks excellent English, walks with me down from the lodge to the village.

She tells me about her grandfather’s generation that immigrated across the Rwenzori mountains to this area from the Congo side due to population pressure. She tells me there have been quite a few deaths in the area lately and some people think it’s due to the abandonment of traditional beliefs and practices, like making offerings to land spirits and ancestors. I tell her that I would love to see people in all countries go back to ancestral practices instead of Christianity and the other father-God religions. She agrees.

But apparently the traditional healer is still popular, still in business. We enter his tiny healing room and wait for him. The dark room is full of magical items: carved wooden tools, a small carved round wooden altar, and animal skins. The healer, a slight, middle aged man who needs a cane to walk with an injured leg, comes and sits down. He takes off his t shirt and wraps animal skins around his neck, and on his head. He takes a sip of something out of a glass bottle and then sprays it out of his mouth first to the left and to the right. This is very similar to what South American shamans do when they open ritual space.

He sings a song while he tosses a pile of about 10 sticks onto this round wooden altar, which has a little bit of water in it. After about 6 tries, the sticks then land standing up on their ends. The guide translates that this is a good omen: good luck is coming to me. For some people the sticks never stand up at all. When someone comes to him with an illness, he sings to the spirits and then when he next sleeps the spirits show him in his dream the plants the person needs to take to get better.

I make some offerings to the doctor and thank him. From here I take my stuff and go the Queen Elizabeth National Park. It’s only an hour away but the landscape is so different, open savannah with no trees, only some large saguaro type cactuses. I do a boat ride on the river where we see many birds, elephants, and hippos.

Hundreds of hippos, actually. Many of them lounge in the water where a family of about 10 elephants are entering the water. They seem to be fine together.

There’s a group of Germans on the boat trip who invite me to come with them in their safari vehicle to their lodge. Along the way we do a game drive through the bush, but see no animals, except this guy on the main road.

The lodge that this man built on his family land just outside the park is very peaceful, right by a salt lake. The only sounds are the grunting of hippos. The local owner and the Germans are all intelligent people and we share a great conversation about how nationality shapes character. The two older men grew up right near the border with Holland and commute across the border daily so they have a unique perspective on that.

The following day, I have to make my way back to the capital. On the bus ride the guy next to me introduces himself and seems like a nice guy, but then I smell that he’s drinking really potent booze. He is soon raucously drunk, yelling boisterously to the people near us, who laugh and encourage him. He keeps standing up and shouting and then sitting down and knocking into me. I keep shrinking more and more till he’s monopolized half my seat but still he keeps elbowing me without realizing. Sometimes I cast glances over at our neighbors who look away somewhat guiltily but keep laughing at his jokes. There are no other seats on the bus. Finally he passes out but keeps slumping onto me and I have to nudge him over to move his dead weight.

When we arrive in Kampala the guy who was sitting behind me extends his hand with an apologetic look. He’s tall and handsome and young with glasses. “I’m so sorry, I don’t like to see visitors treated badly,” he says. I say he has no reason to apologize, although privately I think, it would have been cool if someone had encouraged my neighbor to be more mindful of my space, or offered to switch seats with me. Still his gesture really moves me, and I'm so grateful that he helps me find a boda driver to take me to the bus stand for Entebbe. In Entebbe I stay at an Airbnb whose kind owner, a retired American woman, takes me to the airport at 2 AM. I’m flying back to Egypt.

Next: My Final Week in Egypt