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Thursday, September 19, 2013

Where the Sidewalk Ends

The end has come and gone...and it's weird.

I'm now officially an RPCV, a 'Returned Peace Corps Volunteer'.

Most of the time I don't even realize it, it hasn't really hit me yet. I don't know that it will until I'm further away from Uganda.

The last week, the week of my close of service (COS) was hectic to say the least. The same week Peace Corps Uganda held its All-Volunteer Conference, so of course things were crazy and unorganized. Most of the days I was in the office there was only a handful of staff to help out with the COS process. Luckily we have some good staff on hand and everything was taken care of in a relatively timely manner. Also luckily, I got my three stool samples in to the medical office in time...if not I would have had to delay my COS.

The same week there were many volunteers passing through to go to the conference and then later in the week returning through Kampala to go back to their sites. It was overwhelming saying goodbye to so many people, but honestly, I wouldn't have it any other way. I'm glad I got to see all my good friends that I'm leaving behind, especially the ones from my group who decided to extend. I really am proud of those who chose to extend and think they are doing a noble thing giving up another year for Uganda.

The week in Kampala was full of good food, mostly South Asian dishes.

I finally got to ring the gong signaling my official closing of service.

I still haven't cried like many volunteers have. I miss my friends and I miss the Ugandans I became friends with. I know eventually it will sink in because I know Uganda will always be a part of me now. There is never going to be a point in my life when I don't think back to my days in Rakai or my time roaming around Uganda trying to help or do something meaningful.

Thank you, Uganda...for all the ups and downs you have made my stronger and I owe you that.

As much as people may doubt it, Peace Corpa really was worth it to me.


Monday, September 2, 2013

The Silver Linings Playbook

I took on the challenge of directing a youth camp this term break. I actually took on this task after GirlTech Uganda in 2012, but it became more of a challenge over time. So many things were against the camp, with directors leaving the country, shifting the time from the May term break to the August term break, and the grant not going through when we sent it in, it seemed that GirlTech 2.0 was not supposed to happen.

Finally, things began to move forward. We had meetings, got the grant pushed through, and got the money. We organized and started making purchases and started working on the schedule and manual. Things were really looking up. Then, we had a meeting with the head teacher of our initial venue. Apparently they were having some issues with their students and were forced to send them home for some time to assess the situation. The head teacher hinted that there would be some senior students around when we were to hold our camp, about 300 girls in total. Initially we were not happy about this, but we went about trying to work through and figure out what to do. We organized ourselves and found ways around the problem and got to a final agreement. We all left the meeting feeling hopeful that things were going to work out after all. A few days later I was back at my site and I got a message on my phone from the headmistress indicating that the board of education decided the girls would all be brought back. I wasn’t really clear on what this meant at first, could we hold the camp? Were there going to be more girls than initially planned? Then I got a second message saying we could not hold the camp unless it was pushed back a week or two. I went into initial panic mode, we could not push the camp back because there were other camps to be held right after along with an all-volunteer conference for Peace Corps volunteers in Uganda. There was no way around this issue. The night and the few nights after consisted mostly of me stress eating American food and wondering what I would do with the extra two weeks at site if the camp was canceled.

Luckily one of my co-directors was willing to take the time to vet some new sites for the camp. Peace Corps was also helpful in talking to volunteers in the area and sending one out to vet the site. It took about three days but we finally found a new site. Unfortunately this meant we had to get the shirt design changed. Things were put on pause and now we have to get the ball rolling again. Thankfully things turned out okay. The bags and shirts came through, with a lot of hassle and stress. The mentors were all nominated, we got ten Ugandan and ten American mentors. We got 96 nominations for campers, and we took them all. Overall, things seemed to be going well again.

When the other directors and I met at the new site, we started moving fast. We bought the food stuffs, scrutinized the site and assigned locations for sessions and meetings. Over the first week we had to get so many things done. It was madness. There wasn’t a night I was in bed before 2 am. 

The Friday of that week, the Peace Corps and Ugandan volunteers came. That day was fairly hectic because we hadn’t even finalized or sent our manual yet. With that stress plus the stress of making sure things looked organized when everyone arrived, I was really getting anxious. Thankfully everything fell into place. The manuals were an issue, but people were able to work around it. We kept people as busy as possible until the early evening. At that point we had exhausted all the work that we could do and we were waiting for the manuals. Of course the printer said the manual would be ready by 2pm and we didn’t get them until well past dinner time, around 9pm.

The next day the girls were arriving. Unfortunately it was pretty much a disaster. The first few girls came without a real problem, but after a few hours we found out that many of the groups missed connecting buses. They were stuck on the road, and then their bus broke down causing an even greater delay. They were supposed to come in almost at midnight, but some of the volunteers escorting them decided they should just stay the night in Kampala for safety reasons. This put a damper on the program for the day. Another bus of girls came in fairly late and we were forced to do a rush check in just as the rain was coming in. The day ended with a stressful meeting and I didn’t end up getting to sleep until 3 am only to wake up at 5 for the girls bathing rotation and breakfast prep.

Monday’s schedule was a little more put together. The girls who were stuck in Kampala came in one piece and eventually the day rolled on. There were some communication issues, but in the end I think the day went well and there weren’t nearly as many hiccups as there had been over the past few days. The sessions seemed to be a hit, especially ‘The Science of HIV’ where two science teachers acted out the parts of the immune system and a pathogen. They played three different scenarios, one with a strong immune system, one with a slightly weakened immune system, and finally one with a very weak immune system infected with HIV. It was so neat to see how the girls reacted and they really seemed to understand what this was representing. Then the science teachers has some washing detergent which they used to represent HIV and had the girls put it on their hands then shake hands. They then had a black light and were ‘testing’ for HIV. It was so cool!
David Huffman inoculating a GirlTech girl (photo by Patrick Glizinski)

Tuesday through Friday went by fairly smoothly. We had sessions on different LifeSkills topics, like reusable menstrual pads, financial literacy, assertiveness, and IGA development. The science sessions were very hands on, including a demonstration of different joints and bones using goat bones, a heart dissection using goat hearts, and a disease detective activity where the girls were given an opportunity to discover the source of a fictitious disease called ‘Dizzy Fever’.  The math sessions also varied, including tessellations, logic puzzles, and probability. Overall, the girls learned a very wide range of topics. This helped them develop their thinking skills as they were working on group science projects throughout the week. The projects were great, varying from explanatory projects on mountain development and static electricity, to hands on demonstrations on water filtration, composting, and making a dry cell battery from household objects! The winning projects were the volcanoes (first place), water filtration (second place), and making a barometer (third place). I really enjoyed seeing how invested the girls got into their projects. It truly warmed my heart to see how much they worked on it and to see all that hard work pay off!

Nitrogen girls dissecting a goat heart (photo by Patrick Glizinski)

 The week was amazing overall. To be able to see this camp succeed again was yet another highlight of my service. I am glad I got a chance to direct it and really have a long lasting impact on the youth of Uganda. Hopefully some of these girls take these concepts to their schools and villages and promote sciences there. I know the PCVs that worked at the camp intend on doing more with these topics and I look forward to seeing what they do in the future…
Drop Everything and Read (DEAR) with a Nitrogen girl (photo by Patrick Glizinski)


Friday, July 19, 2013


I recently began a reusable menstrual pads (RUMPs) project which I had been planning with Brick by Brick, an NGO in Kalisizo, for months. It was nice to finally have the project on the ground and not just see it on paper as something that might happen one day.

The first part of the project was a training of trainers (TOT) for teachers working at primary and secondary schools around Kalisizo. We have implemented the RUMPs project in three primary schools and one secondary school, so we held a training session for the teachers so they could be well versed in how to make these reusable menstrual pads as well as other subjects on reproductive health and puberty. The TOT went very well; all the teachers were very enthusiastic about learning how to create the reusable pads. We had 12 teachers total, 9 females and 4 males. It was amazing to see how much the male teachers embraced the project. I think one of my greatest fears was that the male teachers would be less involved, allowing the vicious cycle of gender inequality to continue. This TOT, however, really showed me that there is a potential for change and that even the older Ugandan men want this change to happen. They want their young girls to be empowered and want to give them skills to help them succeed in life.

Male teachers making RUMPS (photo by Griffin Smith)

So far we’ve done initial sessions with all the schools and will be beginning the second sessions which are about puberty and menstruation. The puberty sessions will be targeted to males and females. This is going to be a key area where the male teachers can make a difference. We want to teach both genders about the changes in puberty that occur to both genders, normalizing puberty. The male teachers have a real chance to change the young boys, preventing young girls from being teased just because their changes are more visible than the boys’. 

Other sessions we plan to include are teaching the young girls how to make the RUMPs, teaching them about sexual health, prevention of HIV and STIs, nutrition, and hygiene. This program will last many weeks, hopefully ending at the end of the term.  I hope to be able to use this for my Special Project, allowing me to graduate in December. I think this project has real potential, not just for the young girls but for youth in general. By allowing the girls to make their own sanitary pads, not only will they be allowed to attend school during their periods, but they will be able to start small businesses if they want. They could make and sell these pads to their peers, allowing them to go further in life. 

I may sound naive, but doesn’t it take one small spark to start a fire? Who knows…this could be just the spark Kalisizo needs.

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Song is You

Family Visit Part II: Tanzania

Our flight was around mid-day on Monday, so we had an easy relaxing morning. I got to do some catching up with my e-mails and some projects I’m working on, including some planning things for GirlTech 2.0. Even with all the things I needed to catch up on, we still ended up at the airport hours early and had to play the waiting game. Luckily, the game didn’t last too long because our flight was early.

When we landed in Kilimanjaro International Airport, we were greeted by our driver, Frederick, from Predators Safari Club. The vehicle was the stereotypical safari vehicle you see on television and in movies, a while Land Cruiser with a pop top and the upward flowing exhaust. It was kind of exciting since all the safaris I had been on were in mutatu-like vehicles, more like vans than 4X4s.
Let me just say, these tour companies in Tanzania really know how to do a safari. Our vehicle had a fridge in it…I don’t even have a fridge in my house and I got one in my car on safari? That is crazy.

Our first stop was Kilimanjaro National Park. We got to the Tanganyika Wilderness Camp site, Kambi ya Tembo, just as the sun was going down, so we got to experience an epic sunset see throughout the park. The sun hid just behind Mount Mehru, with awesome rays of red and gold. On the other side, we had a wonderful view of Mount Kilimanjaro. In fact, our luxury tents were facing the mountain, giving us a very nice view in the morning at sunrise. The first night was spent enjoying the sunset and drinking some Tanzanian beers: Serengeti, Safari and Kilimanjaro (if you can’t climb it, drink it!). The dinner at the campsite was amazing. I lost count of how many courses we had, the food just kept coming and coming!

Mt. Kilimanjaro (photographed by Ankur Desai)

The next morning we woke up at 5:30 am to have an early morning game drive and a walk through a Masai village. The game drive was amazing; we got to see giraffe, zebra, impala, gazelle, and baboons. We even got to see a kudu, which is supposed to be really rare. Seeing the Masai village was also neat, though it was a little awkward because we were in the pen they keep their livestock in and there was hundreds of flies around. While we were looking around, the villagers sang for us. We then got to see inside a traditional Masai home, which was very small and dark. On the way out, the villagers sang some more songs and had some crafts for us to buy. Overall it was the stereotypical experience of culture, something I’m not really 100% fond of. Most of the time, I feel as if this is just another means for people to be exploited for money. I feel as though we’re just exploiting their culture and making them feel like it is something to show off for money, when in reality it shouldn’t be used as a means to get money but as a means of educating people.  I think the crafts were a good means of getting money and if I had seen something I liked I would have definitely bought it, but I don’t think tourists should be taken to these villages where they may be expecting some kind of tip (I’m not sure if this particular village did expect a tip, but it felt like they did at some points, at least to me).

After the game drive and village walk, we headed back to the camp for a wonderful breakfast (again, I cannot emphasize how awesome the food was at this place, breakfast was like five courses) and then left for Lake Manyara. When we were packing up the car to head out, the staff at Tanganyika Wilderness Camp all came out and sang for us. They sang the same song that everyone was trying to sell us in Zanzibar, the one that goes ‘Jambo, Jambo Bwana! Abhare gani! Mzuri sana!’ It was really nice of them and it seemed to make my parents happy, they couldn’t stop laughing and smiling the whole time. My parents even danced and sang with them at one point!

The drive to Lake Manyara was really long and fairly boring…I ended up completing all the levels of two free versions of Angry Birds on my dad’s iPad.

We arrive at Lake Manyara National Park around 5pm and headed straight for our game drive. This game drive was nothing short of phenomenal. We saw many buffalo, many different birds, a family of elephants, impala, gazelle, and a leopard! Now, my family might say the leopard doesn’t count since we saw it as it was going into a bush, so we just saw its midsection to tail, but I say it counts! During this game drive, our driver insisted that this wasn’t the best place to spot animals; he insisted we would see heaps more on the game drives in the Serengeti. We must have seemed skeptical because he made a view promises that he said if he broke his god would punish him. Here are the animals he promised us to see: lions (no less that 15), hippos (no less than 50), and zebra (no less than 500,000). Quite a hefty promise, I’d say.

We spent the night at Lake Manyara Wildlife Safari Camp, which was very nice. The pool there looked over the entire Lake Manyara National Park. It’s a shame we only had one night there, but Frederick promised that our days in the Serengeti would be much more exciting.

Dinner wasn’t as good as at the Tanganyika Wilderness Camp, but it was good enough. The site itself is so nice I suppose that makes up for anything else. A Masai tribe came and did a dance for all the guests at dinner. It was interesting to see how their cultural dance differs from others I’ve seen around Africa. The most distinct difference is a move performed by the guys where they jump straight up and down as high as they can. The interesting part is when they jump they are straight, like a plank, and they land flat on their feet, which seems rather painful. Some of them could jump really high too! Pretty impressive when you think about the fact that they are wearing sandals made out of old tires.

We headed out early the next morning for the long drive to the Serengeti National Park where we stayed at another Tanganyika Wilderness Camp site, Kati Kati Camp.

The first day of our Serengeti safari was beyond any expectation I could have had. We had to drive through the Ngoro Ngoro Crater to get to the Serengeti. The view of the crater was spectacular. The crater itself is huge containing grassland or savannah type area as well as a lake. The drive from the crater to the park entrance wasn’t that long in distance, but it took a long time because the road was quite bumpy. There were some points where when we hit a bump, I swear I was getting at least 5 inches of airtime. The scenery was mostly dry desert type land…it is the beginning of the dry season so it seems that there isn’t much green about, except at the entrance of the Ngoro Ngoro Park, where there seems to be a rain forest of sorts. Along the way we saw a few animals, including some ostrich, giraffe, and wildebeest. We also saw some camels but our driver told us they weren’t wild, that there were no wild camels in Tanzania. Once we got to the main entrance of the park, the game drive was on! Before we even got to the permit center, we saw two lions and heaps of antelope and gazelle. Once we got our permits and passed further into the park, we saw many more giraffe and gazelle. After that, it was just a matter of looking about you, there were animals everywhere. We ended up seeing at least 15 lions, probably more (scratch that off the list of animals our driver promised), and we even saw a lioness on the hunt! It was alone along the side of one of the paths so we stopped the vehicle and waited for a bit…best decision we ever made! After a few minutes the lion noticed a solitary gazelle wandering about and stalked it a bit. It then went into pouncing position, watching gazelle. Then, as the gazelle started to make a run for it, the lioness went for the kill! It was a mad dash, on one side for survival, on the other side, for supper! Too bad for the lioness, survival won. Apparently the gazelle are too last for lions; only cheetahs have the speed to catch them. We also saw an uncountable amount of antelope and gazelle, including eland, hartebeests, and impala. We also saw many hyenas, including some babies while we were heading to our camp site. We saw an entire family of elephants, even tiny babies which were so cute! They crossed the path directly in front of us so I got a good video out of that. We also saw three leopards! They were all in trees, but it was pretty impressive since they are quite the elusive creature. We finished off the game drive with some jackal, a bat-eared fox, and some more hyenas. 

Lazy Lions (photographed by Ankur Desai)

 Over all, I have to say it was a very impressive day. The best bit was definitely the lioness on the hunt. 

As I was videotaping the show, I was standing on one of the seats in the vehicle and the driver gunned it to try and catch up with the lion. Unfortunately, this caused me to lose my grip and my hand slid off the handle and caught on a sharp corner of metal on the vehicle causing me to bleed quite a bit. It ended up being a small wound, but the video ends hilariously, with a clear stumble and then ending on the floor. I did get the start and most of the progress of the hunt, giving me proof that I saw something very rare, something National Geographic and other videographers often wait months to be able to film!

The drive to the camp was beautiful, with a few sporadic animals. We got to see the beautiful sunset over the Serengeti. The sky was filled with rays of gold and pink and the clouds were lined with silver. It was a beautiful end to an amazing day. At least, that’s what I thought. Once we got to the camp site, I realized it wasn’t going to be as luxurious as some of the other places that we stayed at, which was fine. We were camping in the middle of the Serengeti so I couldn’t complain! That and there was a herd of zebra right outside our tent doors! That is definitely something special, something rarely experienced by anyone!

The second day started at 6:30 am as we headed out for a full day game drive.

The full day was pretty intense. We woke up at the crack of dawn to try and find some predators on the hunt. We saw at least 15 different types of animals before noon. We left the camp around 7 am and got to watch the sunrise along the Serengeti, which was beautiful. The initial part of the game drive was a bit slow; I suppose all the animals were still waking up too. After a few minutes though, the animals started coming out. We saw many antelopes, gazelle, and ostrich. We even saw more lions (eventually we saw at least 50 lions over the two days of game driving). There were some points where we were along with a group of animals and some points where we were surrounded by vehicles. At one point we were watching a group of lions and I looked around and saw at least 12 different vehicles. Another time we saw a lioness and her young cubs and there were at least 15 vehicles around us. Finally, there was a lioness in the middle of the track which caused a huge jam, with at least 20 vehicles getting stuck and having to go off-road just to be able to pass the lion. Of course no one wanted to just back up to make room for the vehicles that were leaving, that would’ve been too easy.

Two of the most exciting parts were when we saw lionesses on the hunt! The first lioness we saw was watching a group of gazelle. Eventually the gazelle started going further away from the lioness, so she had to get up and follow them. When they were crossing the road, the lioness felt this was the time to spring the attack, so she darted towards them. The gazelle all scattered in different directions in a panic, causing the lioness to run frantically trying to find the weakest one. Unfortunately, she did not catch one. The second lioness was similarly watching another group of gazelle. She was stalking them for quite some time, watching and following them as they changed their position. Unfortunately, there were at least five other vehicles watching which distracted both the lioness and the group of gazelle. A couple of warthog eventually came on the scene and scared away the group of gazelle, ruining all the hard work the lioness had put in to get supper.

One of the last highlights of the day was the amazing scene of zebra we ran into (not literally, we just happened upon them while driving in the park). We were driving around one of the larger hills and as we turned the corner, BAM! There were a group of at least 300 zebra staring us in the face. Some of them got a bit startled, but for the most part they remained where they were. It was so amazing seeing so many animals in one space, breathtaking actually.

Other than that, the game drive went similarly to the day before. We found some really rare animals, including a cheetah, and we found some not so rare animals, including impala. Overall, I’d have to say the Serengeti trumps any game drive I’ve been on before. Seriously though, I’m glad this was probably my last game drive-vacation in Africa because it set the bar pretty high. I don’t think many other game reserves could meet these kinds of numbers, especially in terms of predators.

The next day, we headed to our last stop, the Ngoro Ngoro Crater National Park. We stayed at the Ngoro Ngoro Farm House which was super swanky. Before I start on that, let me describe our last game drive in the Serengeti.

Our driver decided to take us on one last game drive the morning we were heading out. We went to a spot that was further out in the park, towards the black rhino sanctuary. We didn’t spot any rhino unfortunately, but we did see a pride of at least 20 lions, including a 10 year old male with a full mane. That was pretty awesome. We also got to climb some giant granite stones that were part of the old Masai villages, when Masai still lived in the Serengeti. We also saw three more leopards, putting our total at six for the whole duration at the Serengeti. After an hour or so we headed out of the park. We had lunch at the entrance and visitor center and then headed down the bump road to the Ngoro Ngoro Crater and our swanky final destination.

We got to the Ngoro Ngoro Farm House just after 3pm, so we had the whole afternoon and evening to hang around and unwind. My brother and I changed into our swimsuits and headed to the pool, where we were met with ice cold water and old folks swimming laps. We decided to get drinks and just hang out by the pool rather than swim. Eventually we headed back to our room, which was basically a house. Seriously, there were two beds in each room, a giant tub and an epic shower (boiling hot water, always) and even a fire place. We had a balcony that we shared with our parents’ room. Each building was split into two rooms, kind of like a super nice duplex. So we headed back to the room and had some drinks with our parents and relaxed on our back lawn. Yeah, that’s right…we had our own back lawn. RIDICULOUS. Eventually we decided we had to shower and get ready for dinner, so I took a ridiculously long shower with continuous hot water, probably the first time in a very long time (even at the other places we stayed at, the hot water often ran out after a shower or two). We headed to dinner, which was a buffet. Awesome pasta and mixed veggie dishes as well as a real salad were nice changes from the soup, rice and beans combo. The dessert table was also well stocked with cheesecake, chocolate brownies, and homemade ice cream, along with fruits and cheeses. I decided to try the cheesecake and chocolate brownie first since the ice cream was being replenished, thanks to the little children who decided to eat it all. The cheesecake and brownie looked really good. I took my first bite and was instantly reminded that I was still in Africa. FAIL. My mom and I were severely disappointed. We waited a bit and tried the ice cream, hesitantly. Luckily, it was good. I happily ate two bowls with some chocolate sauce, and my faith in the super swanky lodge was restored.

The rest of the night was spent digesting and revisiting adventures from the Serengeti…memories that will last a lifetime.

The next morning we headed out for our game drive in the Ngoro Ngoro Crater. We didn’t have to leave as early as when we were in the Serengeti, which was nice, but we still left fairly early.
We spent the whole day at the crater, searching for awesome animals, especially the elusive rhino.

Unfortunately, we did not find a rhino, but we did see some more lions (I think the count was up to 70 at this point) and we missed a kill by only an hour! If we had only stayed with the lions, we would have seen them take down a zebra. A part of me is kind of glad we didn’t see the kill though; I would probably have been a little wigged out by it. We also got to see probably 500 wildebeest and zebra. I don’t know if we ever got to see the promised 500,000, but we got to see at least 1,000 and that was quite a bit for me. There were so many points where we were just surrounded by zebra. I didn’t know if I should be in awe or nervous that they might make a group attack on the car.

Elephants and zebra at Ngorongoro Crater (photographed by Ankur Desai)

Even though we didn’t get to see the rhino, the Ngoro Ngoro crater was pretty cool. The views and the animals we did see made it worth it.

The rest of the day was spent hanging out at the farm house, drinking and just enjoying our last night together. Dinner was another amazing meal, stir fry and loads of amazing cheese. I must have eaten at least half a block of cheese. The dessert was not too bad this time. The lemon tart was especially lemony and the chocolate pudding was a little more brownie like than pudding like…it was also quite bland. My mom believes the cooks forgot to add sugar to both desserts. Luckily, the homemade ice cream was present again…yum yum yum, delicious!

The last day was spent driving to Arusha, where we had lunch at Shanga, a really awesome restaurant and rehabilitation facility for people with disabilities. The facility helps people with disabilities hone skills like glass blowing, weaving, painting, and sewing to create IGAs. All the IGAs are housed in the same facility, but all the items are on sale. They were fairly reasonably priced and we got to meet a few of the workers. It seemed like a fairly legitimate organization that really seemed to help improve the lives of people who made have had to live on the streets if they weren’t given this opportunity to further develop these skills.

We got to the airport and it was a little bittersweet. I was looking forward to getting back to Uganda to hang out with my PCV friends and go through the close-of-service conference, but at the same time I didn’t want to leave the family. When I landed in Uganda, I almost instantly got bitten by a mosquito and got stuck in a traffic jam on the way to my lodging. I definitely missed the luxury private drivers and not so hostile roads in Tanzania.

Oh Uganda…

Monday, July 1, 2013

In the Time of Butterflies

Family Visit Part I: Uganda

My parents came for a visit, finally. After talking about it for over a year now, they finally committed and came. Now, obviously I understand that things happen…life happens. But still. I’d like to think that I’m an important member of the family and deserve a visit too…just sayin’.

Anyhow, they came to Uganda for a week then we headed to Tanzania for a safari through the Serengeti. 

The days leading up to their arrival were full of anxiety and anticipation, to say the least. At first I was worried that I wouldn’t be any different, that we would all fall into the same habits and conversations that we usually do. Then I started fearing the opposite, that I was too different and that we couldn’t be as jovial and fun as we were before. My fears generally seem to be unwarranted though. There were times when I fell back into my old ways or times when I seemed to be a little out there in terms of observations and opinions I now have, but generally, I like to think that we got on just fine. I guess it helps that we had a very active two weeks together, rather than two weeks sitting at my site staring at the walls.

The funniest thing, which I was worried about most, was how open I had become about talking about my bowel movements and any illness I have experienced. I was worried that throughout this vacation I would make my family uncomfortable by my frequent discussion of my stool and its characteristics. Hilariously, one of the first conversations we had after my parents’ arrival was about poop. This eased my anxieties. 

The first night after their arrival we stayed up late, later than I anticipated, catching up. I got my dad and brother to have their first Ugandan beers, Nile Special and Bell. The next day they got to try Club, rounding off their experience. 

The next day we had a full day in Kampala where we went to see the Gadhafi Mosque, the Kisubi tombs, and the B’hai Temple. It was really great letting them see things around Kampala and also getting to see them myself. I hadn’t been given a chance to see the tourist attractions around Kampala, so it was nice to get to experience that.

On Monday, we woke up bright and early to head to Kibaale National Forest to go chimp tracking. The drive took a good eight hours, including a stop in Fort Portal for lunch. We stayed at the Kibaale Safari Lodge, where we had two very nice luxury tents (yup, I said it…luxury tents). Each tent felt like an entire house. Actually, one tent was at least 3 times the size of my house in Rakai.

The first night in Kibaale was uneventful; though we did run into the tour operator we booked the trip with, which was cool. My brother and I had our own luxury tent so after dinner and drinks we hung out on the balcony to see what we could spot. We even left out a banana to see if we could attract any animals. Unfortunately, this did not work. The next morning we woke up bright and early to go chimp tracking. The hike was not as extreme as my experience in Bwindi, but it was a good bit of physical exercise. We saw the chimps fairly quickly and were with them for about an hour. Most of the chimps we saw were on the group, either eating or relaxing. We got a number of good pictures and also got to experience a few chimps charging us or other chimps. It was really cool to see how they would climb up trees, even the thinnest of trees. Some of the trees they climbed on didn’t look like they were good support, but the chimps seemed to be able to stay on them just fine. 

Toti the Chimp (Photo by Ankur Desai)

After the morning tracking, we headed back to our lodge for lunch and a good break. The food at this lodge is spectacular, though it is a little heavy on the pepper. Maybe it’s because I have gotten used to a lack of flavor, but it seemed like the cooks went a little overboard on the pepper during the cooking process. After lunch we had a few hours to kill, so my parents took naps while my brother and I chilled out on the patio, trying to see if our banana would attract any late feeders. Later on in the afternoon, we went out for a walk through the wetlands. It was nice; we got to see many primates that we didn’t see in the Kibaale Forest. There was one point where we had to walk through the middle of the wetland area using a wooden bridge. I was a little nervous because it was 70 meters long. My past experience, these bridges aren’t always maintained efficiently…most of these types of bridges I’ve used have fallen apart leading to me falling through and injuring myself (never seriously). I was eventually the last one to cross, but at least I can say I did it without falling into the swamp area.

The next day we headed to Ishasha, part of the Queen Elizabeth National Park. There we were staying at another luxury tent accommodation, the Ntungwe Ishasha River Camp. Though it proved less luxurious than the Kibaale Safari Lodge, it was nicer than the places I’m used to staying at. We spent the evening relaxing and checking out the Ntungwe River nearby because one of the service men told us there was a chance to see elephants there! Unfortunately, over the time we spent there we were not lucky enough to spot any elephants at the river. The next morning we woke up for a morning game drive. We saw many herbivores, including the Uganda Cobb, Eland, and the Topi as well as larger animals such as elephants and water buffalo. We also saw smaller animals like baboons, birds, and warthogs. The family was slightly disappointed that we didn’t spot the famous tree-climbing lions, but our driver suggested that we’d have more luck on the evening game drive. He was almost certain in fact that ‘we could not fail to see them twice’. The evening game drive started off about the same as the morning one, where we mostly saw herbivores and smaller animals but we got a tip from another driver that there was a lion in a tree we had passed in the beginning of our drive. We rushed back to the tree and sure enough, there was a lioness in the tree! It looked very full; it seemed to have just eaten and was now relaxing and digesting its food. We sat with the lioness for a while looking out for any friends she may have around, but we didn’t see another lion. We went to another area of the park where there was a potential for more activity because of the water source, but we mostly saw warthogs and herbivores. On the way back to the accommodations, we saw a hyena! I was excited about that because it was the first time I had seen a hyena. We looked for the lioness in the tree again, but she had moved by then.

Tree Climbing Lioness (Photo by Ankur Desai)

The next morning we got to sleep in a bit because we were only going for a short drive to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The drive was only a couple hours, but the road was horrible so I didn’t get to sleep that much. When we got to Bwindi we hung out at the camp site and went on a short walk through the small town outside of the park gate. We did a little shopping and I got a Uganda Cranes jersey for pretty cheap ($8 when I would have gotten it for at least $15 in Kampala. There were some children doing the traditional dance and we watched them for a few minutes, but I never really like to hang around and watch because I know they’ll want money afterwards and I would rather give my money to them knowing it is being used for school or something (like paying for their school directly) or buy them a good meal. 

The first night was nothing short of hilarious. When my brother and I headed to our tent, we were bombarded by a throng of insects. We somehow made it into the tent but whenever we turned on the lights, the bugs would find their way in and attack the light and us. My brother went to try and take a shower and while he was taking a shower a praying mantis attacked him. It was crawling on one of the sides of the bathroom part of the tent and in my vain attempt to try and take a picture I was tapping at it. That just made it angrier…it attacked my brother even more (I could tell by the shrill sounds of his screams that it was not leaving him alone). After his short shower, he ran inside and luckily the praying mantis didn’t follow. Unfortunately, neither of us brushed out teeth so we had to venture back into the bathroom area. When I put on my headlamp to do so, in an attempt to avoid turning on the light and making the insects crazy, I thought I was playing it smart. Nope. Apparently that makes the praying mantis even angrier. As I tried to walk into the bathroom it flew at my face. I swear it was the size of my hand. Of course I screamed like a little girl and ran back out of the bathroom. We tried to tag team the sucker by using my brother’s small flashlight to distract him. For a while it seemed to work, but it seemed to be attracted to our toothpaste so it flew into the sink. It seemed to be slightly incompetent because it couldn’t figure out its way out of the sink area…apparently it forgot it had wings. My brother and I were thus prevented from using the sink so we spit into the bathtub (yup, there was a bathtub in a tent).  After a few seconds the praying mantis remembered it had wings and flew towards the bathtub, hitting my brother in the process. He screamed and jumped around, leading me to scream and jump around, causing a whole lot of noise. We probably woke up the rest of the town. The praying mantis landed on the edge of the tub and seemed to want to stay there so I quickly finished up and went back into the other part of the tent, rushing my brother to do the same. When he was finished he ran in and we zipped ourselves in, hoping to not have to cross that barrier before sunrise (we were working under the assumption that the praying mantis and other insects would go away by then). 

The next morning we headed out bright and early to being our gorilla tracking of the H group (Habinyanja). 

The trek was no joke. It was six hours long. When I did the Rushegura group, I thought that was difficult enough and that wasn’t even difficult, it was only three hours long. There were points where I was on all fours just straight up crawling up and down the mountain. I mean, come on…I can’t make up this stuff. It took us at least 4 hours to get to the point where the gorillas were. My mom and I were going slower because of the steep incline and our relative lack of ability to deal with oxygen depletion.  I was so proud that my mom made it to the gorillas, there were so many points where I thought I was going to give up; I had no idea what she was thinking about. I probably slipped and fell at least 15 times during the trek. My brother had an epic double slide down the mountain and my mom had a couple hilarious stumbles. I think my favorite fall was when I was walking along a fairly flat portion of the forest and all of a sudden I lost my balance and just fell into a bunch of bushes. It wasn’t on a slope, it wasn’t on a very treacherous path…it was on a level, straight portion. Hilarious.

When we got to the gorillas, we stayed with them for an hour. There was a silver back and two adult females. The silver back showed its dominance when we first arrived by grunting and false-charging. The females, on the other hand, were just hanging out and eating. Eventually the silver back got its fill of food and went to lay down with the other females and a few of the juvenile and infant gorillas. While the silver back was relaxing, the juvenile and infant gorillas were playing around, climbing up slim braches and breaking them. It was really cute to see the active young gorillas. At once point one of the juveniles was walking up to my brother and we’re almost certain if he hadn’t turned around to look, the chimp would have tried to climb my brother (my brother is about 6 feet tall…pretty giant for an Indian guy). We got about 5 or 6 feet from the gorillas at some points. I was a little anxious being that close to the silver back, but I figured the trackers and guides should know what they’re doing and they wouldn’t let us get that close if it weren’t relatively safe…right?

Baby Gorilla (Photo by Ankur Desai)

In the end, it was an awesome adventure and we were all really exhausted afterwards. We got back to the lodge and had some celebratory beers and just relaxed. Unfortunately, there was no hot water so I couldn’t wash the disgusting grime from the hike off me.  I’m glad we did a different gorilla group. I know I wanted us to have the easy group initially, and during the hike I was cursing the travel agent for getting permits for this group, but after the time we spent with the gorillas and the high level of activity from the younger gorillas, I’m glad we got this group. It was a lot more active than the group I saw the first time, plus it was just something different to experience. How many other people in the world can say they saw two of the handful of gorillas groups open to tourists IN THE WORLD?

The last night in Uganda was spent in Entebbe. We went out for pizza and then went to the beach for a bit, nothing crazy. Overall the week in Uganda was pretty great.

Now on to Tanzania!