Monday, April 12, 2010

At 4:45am the day after Easter I woke up at St. Pauls to prepare for my 5:30 bus departure and subsequent 9 hour trek to Kampala. It seemed disturbingly quiet after the celebration the night before. Rwandans strike me as incredible peculiar people in the way which they celebrate holidays. In American we jump at any chance to have a party and drink. New Years Eve, Halloween, Birthdays, 4th of July, President’s Day, it really doesn’t matter what the occasion actually is, we just like getting together with friends and cutting lose. Except for Easter. Easter is like this unspoken sacred cow. You never see anyone inviting you to their “Insane Easter Bash” on facebook because we, as Americans, don’t find it to be appropriate. Easter is a day Christians who haven’t be particularly faithful church goers to go to church, spend time with their families, and share a quiet day thinking about Jesus, or gigantic bunnies breaking into their homes and leaving candy eggs around the house. Rwandans, on the other hand, completely shed their composure on Easter. Right after midnight they start the party, complete with drinking, singing, dancing and music. The entire process was reminiscent of frat kids getting behind their favorite university team but instead of screaming “ROLL TIDE” they were shouting the Kinyarwandan equivalent of “WOOOO!! JESUS CAME BACK DUDE!” Like I said; peculiar.

When we got to the bus station I discovered that the administration at Kampala Coach has failed to write down my reservation. They also failed to recall the reservations of Marta and Colleen. It seemed that one cannot actually call in to make a reservation with Kampala Coach (despite what you may read on the internet and their own website), but instead must show up the day before to buy your ticket if you desire a seat. I threw a veritable American conniption fit right in the center of their ticket office.
“What do you MEAN you’ve LOST my reservation?”
“No, I don’t want to take your 12:30 bus. I have things to do.”
“How could YOU let this happen? This is not how you do business.”
Eventually one of the owners came out and told me he would walk me to another bus line and find me a seat. Then he offered me a free breakfast. I was moderately consoled. We were still on a bus to Kampala at approximately the same time and the man seemed to understand that his employees had jerked us around. However, this new bus did not have reclining seats, we were crammed into the back, forced to sit next to this woman who only paid for one seat, but had an additional two little puke factories (or children as the case may be) half shoved on her lap as if they were hand bags as opposed to people who required their own space, and seemed to have the driver from hell who enjoyed hitting speed bumps and pot holes at 90 miles an hour. Frankly, I’m surprised we’re alive. But, I suppose the point is we are, and Kampala was well worth the ridiculous trip up and then some.

First of all, we stayed at a place called the Red Chilli Hideaway. This is supposed to be set up like a hostel but they’ve got some options that remind me more of a hotel. You can get single, twin, and double rooms in addition to a dorm and a camp ground where you can pitch your own tent (the cheapest option by far). Though financially advisable, we’ve got some interesting wildlife on the premises, including monkeys, so I’m not sure if I, personally, would choose that option. The cafĂ© here is completely legit and better than most of the upper range hotels I’ve seen in Kigali. You can get a BLT here. A for reals BLT. With bacon that doesn’t have the consistency of rubber or the taste of sawdust. In effect, the place gets my recommendation even if it is located a little ways outside of the centreville. The cost from the center of town by regular taxi is approximately 15,000 shillings. The exchange rate to dollars is about 2,000 shillings to 1 US dollar. This makes shopping exceptionally feasible. It’s a nice change of pace from Kigali where everything is double the amount you would anticipate paying in an African country.

It’s also incredibly easy to just use dollars in Uganda. I went on a rafting trip and they had all of their prices listed in dollars and charged my credit cards in dollars as well. That means I wasn’t hit with a conversion fee by my bank and made me all the more enthusiastic to be giving this rafting company my money. From what I can gather, there are two main companies for rafting in Uganda. There was my company (Adrift) and some other company (Raft the Nile… Or something like that?) and they are appropriate color coded blue and red respectively. This spawned a nearly constant flow of red vs. blue jokes. I really enjoyed my trip with Adrift and I didn’t find it to be expensive for everything that was provided. I went Bungee Jumping, White Water Rafting for 5 hours, had a free lunch which consisted of sandwiches, potato salad, a ton of beer, a BBQ provided at the end of the trip, and a free shuttle to and from my hotel. The guides were all very experienced, funny and considerate. I was the least lobster colored of my group by my guide continually forced sunscreen upon us throughout the rafting trip. The trip was also incredibly Veg friendly and never failed to provide vegetarian options each time there was a pause for food.

The day started with Bungee Jumping. It’s not required, and if you opt out of it you can simply watch all of the people who have clearly lost their minds throw themselves from a 185 foot platform from the safety and comfort of the lodge’s riverside bar. Nevertheless, I recommend being one of the crazy people that jumps. I believe the jump master is American (and way cute) and he makes the entire process seamless. As with most things like this, the hardest part isn’t the jumping, or the falling, but rather just the standing at the top of the platform. It’s hard not to have shakey legs while you’re standing over the Nile waiting to potentially throw yourself to your death. They count you down with 3,2,1,BUNGEE! And then you jump out away from the platform with your arms wide and fall for about 4 seconds. When the cord pulls you up you barely feel it. For an instant I forgot I was even connected to a cord. All of the tension connects in the rope instead of your back or knees and you lightly float up and down a few times before a boat comes out to collect you. I’m making it sound more relaxing than it actually is, but the point I’m trying to convey is that the experience is far from life threatening. People look at Bungee Jumping as this X-treme sport that only X-treme people sign up for, but I think it has the potential to be far more accessible to a variety of demographics. In short, you ought to give it a shot before you completely write it off.

Between the two, White Water Rafting was infinitely more terrifying than Bungee Jumping. The way Adrift introduces you to rafting is pretty much a “learn as you go” methodology. They gently brief you before each rapid but there were several times at the beginning where they intentionally flipped the boat or hit a rapid so you would pop you just do you would know what it felt like. I kind of liked it that way. It made the experience much more natural and properly prepared you for what falling of the boat was actually going to be like. Talking about it doesn’t cut it. I remember the guide quoting that you could be under the water for about 8 seconds and that it happened a lot so you shouldn’t panic. I looked to my left and saw my friend Colleen counting.
“One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand…”
By the time she got to eight I wanted to throw myself out of the boat and swim to shore. Eight seconds seemed like and really is an ungodly amount of time to spend underwater by force. Luckily, we were able to keep the boat upright all the way until the last rapid, which is aptly named “the Bad Place”. The last rapid is a level 5 rapid and the meanest thing I have ever seen in the form of water. We practiced flipping the boat over and floating below it at the beginning of the trip.
“Don’t panic,” the guide told us. “Panicking will only make it worse. As you can see, you can breathe under here. So, just relax.”
When we went down “the Bad Place” the raft flipped and I went under. At first I practiced taking the guides advice. Don’t panic. I relaxed a bit and tried to let the water take me through the rapids.

Has it been 8 seconds yet?
I need air.
Get me out of here.

I started to struggle against the current and popped up under the over turned raft. “Perfect! We can breathe under here.” I remembered.
Except that I couldn’t. Either I was spending too much effort trying to keep my head above water to catch my breath, or there really wasn’t an air bubble under the raft anymore.

I’m going to die.
How did this even happen?

I tried to pop out to the side of the boat, but when you’re underwater you lose your inner compass. Left, right, up and down completely disappear. I ended up under the boat again. I tried again in a different direction and found air. It was hard to breathe in, but I found it, and then my guide found me. He was trying to grab me and laughing at me. I probably looked fairly hilarious.
“It’s okay. I’m fine. Just let me float.” (I needed the space.) We had passed The Bad Place and I could easily stick my feet forward and float down the river. I stayed in the water for a really long time. Even after we had flipped the boat right side up again and were promised all the beer we could drink, I stayed in the water for a few minutes longer.

When we got to shore we hiked up a small hill and were served really delicious kebabs, tortillas, water and beer. We hung out at the top with everyone else and talked about how insane the experience was and after a few minutes we all pilled back on to our respective busses and were taxied home.

Today I’m rather sore, but feel practically invincible. Like, I might be able to stop a bullet with my face. I just threw myself off a platform attached to a rubber cord and managed to survive a class 5 rapid that I am convinced was particularly out to get me. I’ve never felt like more of a superhero and that’s pretty fabulous.

Happy Birthday to me!

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