I love when I get to use the word “sidereal” in proper context. It’s one of my favorite words. Lake Bunyoni afforded me the pleasant verbal treat of nightly contemplation of this word. But let me back up just very briefly … This was my swanky accommodation in Queen Elizabeth National Park. I’m standing on the porch of my room to take this photo.
Subsequently, this was my accommodation at Lake Bunyoni. I'm in no way implying that 5-star luxury trumps rustic charm. I'm merely pointing out the abrupt change in my lodging.
How did I end up here? Through couchsurfing. So this was my second hook-up with a fellow couchsurfer. But our time together was a little more involved than an evening of pizza and beer. He invited me to stay at his place on Lake Bunyoni. I arranged for 4 nights (actually originally 5, but ended up cutting it back). You’ve read about Mathius already as the fellow who ultimately helped me achieve one of my life’s ambitions in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. He used to work in the Ministry of Tourism. He quit a number of years ago and bought some land around Lake Bunyoni, where he grew up and where his mother and assorted extended family still live on their estate. (His mother, incidentally, was recently attacked by bees and she nearly died, as many people do. She was in hospital 3 weeks and her health has never fully recovered. I met her; she smiled meekly and extended a friendly hand; it was obvious she was extremely weak.)
On his new land Mathius built a small school and terraced some land for farming, recruited a teacher and a couple helping hands, and now feeds and schools some of the local children, many who have been orphaned by the AIDS epidemic. More about this soon, coming in another post. (By the way, there is a prominent campaign throughout the country to educate the public and prevent AIDS with radio ads and newspaper ads, street signs and billboards advocating the use of condoms. Also, a similar campaign advocating the use of mosquito netting to prevent malaria.)
Mathius decided to board me at the school “compound,” as he calls it, rather than at his home. This was quite fine. So my room was a tiny thatched mud hut (“banda”) with just room enough for a bed and nightstand. The bed was on such a slope that in the mornings I woke with all of my covers having slid off one side of the bed. Rustic but charming. There are 3 bandas on the grounds, he and the teacher slept in the other 2. He left out one tiny detail when extending to me his invitation to stay with him. We arrived at the compound via puttering motorboat at night in pitch darkness and driving rain. Having spent the previous 20 minutes on the lake surrounded in blackness should have rung the bell in my head, but I didn’t process it until we landed and scurried up the hill to the common hut where a campfire was burning in anticipation of our arrival. As we ran up the hill, Mathius pointed off into the dark where the toilet was. No electricity, no running water.
If you know me, you know this is OK as a general rule. I grew up backpacking on a regular basis, and have stayed in other “rustic” accommodations void of amenities many times. It is nice, however, to be forewarned of this condition rather than discover it only upon arrival. But whatever. Part of the adventure. I hadn’t, however, taken a shower on the morning I left the 5-star swank at QENP because it was an early wake-up call and I figured I would simply shower when I arrived at the lake. Now I faced the prospect of another 5 days without one.
The following morning it was chilly and raining steadily, and not pleasant for much. A short distance across the lake is an island with a fancy tourist resort on it. The proprietor had come over to talk to Mathius about something, and his boatman (for a putter boat …) and I were shooting the breeze as he spoke good English. He mentioned I could come over and check out the resort for something to do in the inclement weather. So Mathius and I both went over and had a few beers with the proprietor. But first, the boatman showed me around the island and was telling me of their accommodations and amenities (presumably for me to tell my friends about when I got home). He mentioned that they have hot water showers in each tent. I squealed and asked, “Do you think I could come over and take a shower one day?”
He asked the proprietor after we’d circled the island, but Mathius pointed out the next few days we had planned activities to begin early in the morning, so my only real option was to take one right then and there. I protested slightly that I had no toiletries with me. Everyone said, “There is lots of soap, no problem.”
“What about shampoo?” I asked. I was met with vague stares … “Sham…poo?”
“Yeah, you know to wash my hair with.”
“Just wash your body,” Mathius said.
“But my hair is what most needs washing!” I said to a group of men with essentially no hair to speak of. More blank stares.
“OK, I’ll see what I can do with soap,” I said. “It’s probably better than nothing.” I followed the boatman toward one of the rooms. Just as I reached the door, the bartender, who had been in on the conversation, ran up and proudly produced a hotel-sized bottle half-full of shampoo with a dramatic, “Ta dah!”
“Yes!” I exclaimed with deep gratification. "Hot water" was a bit of an overstatement, but the water was warm and running. Good enough. Afterward, I donned my dirty clothes and it would be three more days before I worked up the courage to force a brush through my hair. I don’t know what your hair is like, but washing mine without brushing it beforehand and then letting it dry without having brushed it afterward results in something like the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest of hair.
The resort island and other morning scenes:
In the afternoon the rain let up and the school teacher (referred to by all as “Mistress”) took me for a walk. I asked her if I could go walk around and she said yes. So I started uphill on my own. I stopped and looked back down over the lake and saw her at the shore washing her bare feet. I walked up further and soon heard footsteps behind me … it was Mistress in dainty sandals catching up to me. I guess she thought I was asking her to take me on a walk. But it was for the best by a long shot that I tagged along with her, affording me glimpses into and interactions with the local villagers I never would have obtained on my own. Except for the hotel on the island, there are no tourist facilities over on this part of the lake, so a mzungu wandering around by herself would have been a bizarre sight indeed. Perhaps not even particularly welcomed.
The Mistress was a popular young lady, with many villagers stopping to exchange a few words with her. Her English was very limited, so few of the conversations were translated for me, and we had an extremely sparse conversation between the two of us, but that made no difference to me. She asked me a few questions about America. One of them was, “Is there a lake in America?” As with many questions posed to me in Uganda about my country, it seemed impossible to explain the scope of it all and I decided it was not important to try. In most cases it would only lead to confusion.
“Yes,” I said, “We have a few of them, actually.”
“Are they as big as this one?”
“Some of them are,” I said. Mistress contemplated this for a few minutes and then asked a question I was asked many times in this region, “Are there mountains in America?”
“Yes. In fact I live in them.”
“Are they as big as the ones here?”
“Yes.” At this answer, another contemplation followed with the distinct air of someone thinking: “Hm. Fancy that.”
The area we walked through was so beautiful and provincial in a way that made me feel like I was walking through a fantasy book … you know how so many fantasy novels are set in quaint countrysides of centuries past. (Why I felt a fantasy novel and not just a step back in historical time? … no idea)
Because it had been raining, the paths were mud and muck. Most of the villagers walked around barefoot, carrying their farming tools and sacks full of the produce they’d harvested that day (on top of their head, of course). My shoes and pantlegs were filthy, caked in mud. But Mistress in her neat skirt and low-heeled shoes was spit-spot clean. I was flabbergasted at how she maintained her little dress-shoes in such pristine condition.
At last we came to the hub of the area. It wasn’t a town, just a row of small wood and mud buildings along a portion of the path that wound around the serpentine lake. Unfortunately, rural Ugandans nearly always freak out if they see you bring forth a camera around them and literally flee your foreground with displeasure. So I couldn’t take any photos of the charming stretch of road where the villagers gathered in numerous social clumps.
Just as we were on the far side of the short stretch, Mistress’s heel suddenly detached from her shoe. She took it off and inspected the shoe; it was impossible to continue walking in and probably impossible to fix. But she put it back on and we turned around. She limped back into “town” and approached a boy sitting on a stool beneath the awning of one of these buildings. He disappeared and reappeared shortly with a key to open the door of one of the buildings. A girl went inside and dragged out several enormous burlap sacks bulging with unknown contents. Then, beneath the awning she spread out a sort of drop cloth and began emptying the sacks onto it. Scores of shoes came tumbling out of the sacks onto the ground. The girl and Mistress waded through it with their hands, looking for something appealing and then searching for its mate in order to try on a pair. It was a shoe store! What luck, I thought. Never in my life walking past that 80-yard stretch of little buildings in the middle of proverbial nowhere would I have guessed a shoe store existed.
I could see other sacks inside the building; probably it was a mini department store and sold other items that were kept stuffed into sacks as well. Mistress was a long time in deciding, occasionally seeking my opinion, and meanwhile I watched a lot of life pass by around me. There were two little kids playing on the opposite side of the path. The buildings are set down below the path so that you descend down several stairs to reach the entrances. One of the kids, barely a toddler, was rolling around on the grass and eventually rolled right off the edge … bloop, just disappeared. I heard no cries of distress or pain, and thought maybe I should go over and check to see he was OK. But suddenly two chubby little hands clawed their way onto the grass and he hauled his body back up, utterly unfazed. Finally Mistress settled on a delicate pair of sandals with rhinestone flowers on top. And as we continued walking, she kept them just as clean as the other ones.
We walked quite a distance and came eventually to another similar but smaller hub of buildings and descended the steps into one of them. It was a small square room with long benches lining three sides and at the back it was cordoned off as if it were a bar. “What is this place?” I asked, wondering if indeed that’s what it was.
“It’s a store,” Mistress said. But I couldn’t see any items for sale anywhere. There were several calendars hanging on the wall, but none were the current 2012. She asked me if I liked “xxx” didn’t catch the name, but she was able to describe what I thought I had eaten for lunch sometimes at the UWEC … a thin purple-colored sauce. I replied in truth, “yes.” The proprietor and who I assume were her grandmother and daughter sat down with us and she handed over a huge mug of purplish liquid -- so I was somewhat on the mark (i.e., it was purple), but not quite … it smelled a bit like the banana liquor brewing in the drums at the crater lakes. Naturally I had to feign enjoyment while suppressing my gag reflex. Someday I would like to be looking in a mirror when I have this experience … I truly wonder if I’m fooling anybody -- if I manage a believable look on my face that says “yummy” instead of “god help me.”
We made it back to the compound just as our eyes were adjusting to the dusk. Time for the nightly routine of beer around the campfire with Mathius and his neighbor up the hill, a secondary-school teacher at a school somewhere nearby on the lake. Then dinner was cooked and served to us by the helper, Bruce, who always greeted me with the phrase, “Hi guy!” I presume he had learned that “guys” was a common slang phrase in America, to say “Hi guys.” And figured since I was only one person, it should be made singular to “Hi guy.” It cracked me up every time.
Then the evening’s discussion with more yummy beer (Nile Special) (this amenity in my book makes up for a lot of other deficiencies such as the lack of electricity and water). I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: I think one of the most valuable skills a traveler can have is the ability to stay up late and kick back a few beers. This was the only beverage offered me, we drank in comradery, and I would have missed a lot of interesting conversation if I’d conked out early. (I’ll share some of this with you later … I think you’ve read about enough for today.)
And finally the fire dies down, the neighbor disappears into the darkness, and I head back to my hut, carefully picking my footsteps down the slick muddy path, my pupils dilated to the max to bring in the light offered by the far away stars.
So when did I get to contemplate my beloved word? At my favorite time of night: The time when I have to get up in the middle of it to go outside to use the loo. I know you are skeptical, but truthfully, strange little me loves this aspect of rustic living, when it seems as if there is no barrier between me and the rest of the universe, no blue sky separating our view of one another. No matter how rainy it had been during the day, the sky always cleared late at night around the lake. I padded alone in the purity of a night bereft of electricity, past the wooden dock to the outhouse. And on my way back, I stopped at the dock to stare up at the Milky Way, to be bowled over at the thought of all those stars and all those galaxies marking the stupendous lengths of space and time that lead away from our tiny planet into the sidereal depths.