Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Elephants - a non-ruminant hoofed mammal

There is no describing one's first encounter with an elephant in the wild - their natural habitat - unpredictable, determined, protective, powerful, and yet gentle animals.   It is certainly a time when one tends to feel insignificant!

We were convinced that this elephant was communicating with us.  He was a young bull that seemed to be leaving a few times but then would change his mind, turn around to look at us and return - stayed by the tree as long as we stayed in the channel. 

This elephant kept looking at us, making eye contact, as we quietly sat on the boat in the river not far from where he was standing. He would start to leave and then come back as though he wasn't yet finished with us yet, as though he wanted to know more about us, to communicate further. It was one of those animal-human/cross species moments when both sides are wondering what the other side is thinking. He never made any aggressive moves, nor did we, until he finally decided he had had enough and slowly lumbered back into the bush. I could have stayed there much longer just looking at him and being "wow'ed" by his grandeur, the largest living land mammal on Earth.

One of the things that intrigued us was the thousands of butterflies we saw on safari.
Pretty little gold and black butterflies, white butterflies everywhere! This is the time of year that their presence is most obvious and they had a grand fondness and penchant for "elephant pies". Mmmmmmm....

Notice the lifted leg and the ears held back...not a good sign from an elephant!  It was time for us to move on!  But, wait... notice all the butterflies?!

So...I just tried uploading more elephant photos and was told that I had reached my allowed capacity for photos in general - elephants or anything else.  Doesn't seem fair, does it?!

I will have to see what my next step will be...  Stay tuned!


Monday, July 23, 2012

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Our first early morning drive into the grasslands was quite rewarding, revealing hyenas, kob, cape buffalo, monkeys, elephants, warthogs, tons of beautiful birds, and three lions in the far distance.    Little yellow weaver birds and their straw-colored nests are found everywhere, especially in trees and vegetation along the water and are always found in clusters. Kingfishers dart in and out of holes along the mud banks and African eagles perch on branches along the channel waiting for a fishing opportunity. Storks are quite large and easy to spot and the cormorants gather in large groups and are always seen facing in the same direction, a typical bird behavior.  Seeing these creatures in their natural habitat truly never gets old. 

The African crested crane was not as social, numerous or as easy to see as some of the other birds but was certainly a joy when we did! Nature has a way of putting things together creating these stunning spectacles of color and grace.

The soil here is more sandy and browner than it was in South Africa where it was a much redder earth, yet much of the vegetation is similar.  Because the lodge is located on the water and is up on a plateau where the hippos and elephants roam, the frequency of the trips to the water's edge of these behemoth creatures have cut paths in the hills that lead down to the water.  You can see evidence of this while cruising on the lake all along the coast.

A small fishing village is located along the lake, as well.  Homemade boats and nets are used to catch tilapia and other fish  and all fishing is done at night.  Because of  the presence of so many hippos, @ 2,000, the tilapia population has decreased making this once very lucrative pursuit not as profitable as before.  A constant stream of people can be seen hiking up and down the hills with jerry cans to collect the water they need for drinking, cooking, and washing.  Laundry is done in this lake, as well, but with no chemical additions being put into the water in the process.  Naturally, all laundry is hand-done by slapping the wet clothes against rocks and scrubbing them manually.  These wet clothes and fabrics are then stretched out on the ground to dry in the sun or hung on fences, trees, bushes, and, sometimes, clothes lines, too.

The cruise revealed another wildlife member not seen on game drives - the crocodile.  They are quiet, yet well-respected, reptiles among the fauna with most smaller animals understanding they are part of the circle of life and conduct themselves with caution.  Crocs can be seen sunning along the beaches of this lake among birds, elephants, hippos, and cape buffalo or quietly slipping into the water to disappear and lie in wait for their next meal.  We did not see anyone swimming.
Elephants were a constant sight and we saw all ages of these pachyderms eating, grazing, walking  and munching their way through the grasslands.  However, I have so many photos of them I am going to dedicate one post to just elephants.  It is impossible to pick just a few photos to share!

We had dinner on the patio overlooking the lake and channel accompanied by a welcome breeze,  the pretty little yellow weaver birds, the low guttural grunts of hippos and the roar of lions.  This lodge is pleasantly quiet whose international occupants are groups of people looking to explore the area, enjoy the wildlife, and discover a little bit more of Uganda and, perhaps, themselves.  These groups consist of a wide range of ages, as well, all searching together for some new memories to share.
Tomorrow we start our journey back to Kampala to spend our last night in Uganda before our flights home on Tuesday.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Saturday, June 23, 2012 - Headed to safari 
I really didn’t have any trouble falling asleep last night after our busy day, despite the generator noise, only to be awakened by the barking dog about 3:30 AM.  Funny thing is we don't see many dogs here.  Pets are a luxury few can afford.  BTW - here is a view from my balcony - an inside view of the outskirts of Masaka and, of course, the storks!  These are not the storks that deliver babies!  They are generally referred to as garbage birds and, because of what they eat (absolutely anything!), are so toxic that not even the natives can eat them so they are pretty safe!

Hakuna matata - still no electricity this morning and no generator either, although I did hear them struggling to get it going.  So, I used the light of my laptop screen to navigate around my room to finish packing and to take a shower.  In my infinite wisdom, I figured that taking a shower in the pitch black in this bathroom with all of its lurking dangers (hot water, cold water, wet floor, no sense of location  - you get the idea)  was not a good idea so I carried the laptop around bringing light wherever I went in my little Masaka “home“. 
Today we leave for Myewa Lodge and our safaris.  We gathered all 15 suitcases and assorted other bags and then had to arrange them on and in the jeep with enough room to accommodate the 6 of us and Ronnie, our driver and guide, for our long journey to our safari lodge.   I am looking forward to another adventure!
Our ride to Myewa Safari Lodge took about 6 hours.  We traveled one road through countless little hamlets consisting of the same stores, the same activities, the same level of poverty.  Then again, this is poverty based on my standards.  Understand that the people living in these areas have never known or, perhaps even seen, anything other than their environment and everyone is living in the same conditions.  Their homes are either mud constructed huts, brick and/or scrap material construction, or storage containers and all are very small.  There are a few homes made from scrap wood, as well, but wood is mostly used for burning to cook and the charcoal produced from that is bagged up and sold.   These piles of charcoal are also playthings for children...

These villages have no - or very limited -  running water or electricity and live most of their lives out of doors.  Naturally, there is no refrigeration and raw meat can be seen hanging under tarps or sisal canopies waiting for the customer to come and have a piece cut off  for purchase.  Water is collected in yellow jerry cans and is a daily chore done by all ages.  If the cap is missing from the jerry can, a banana is placed into  the hole to prevent the water from spilling out.  You will see small children carrying smaller cans and bicycles laden with as many of these cans as can be accommodated.  Riding the bike at that point is impossible so people must push these heavily burdened bikes up hills and back to their homes.   There are a few homes with glass windows but, for the most part, there are no windows.  As mentioned before, doors can either be wooden, metal or fabric or missing altogether.   Little children are everywhere.

Another common sight is women bent over at the waist either gardening, cooking, cleaning, washing babies or caring for them.  Their days are  busy and never-ending as they, too, may be collecting wood, bananas for matoke and banana leaves and even walking their children to school.  The latter is not as common as one would think.  I never saw any men doing this work...

We passed a parade on our way to Myewa.  It was a Rotary Parade consisting of youth involved in their programs.  One sign read "Peace Through Service" - loved that one! 

We passed countless little villages and hamlets filled with people going about the daily business of their lives.  Tomatoes, potatoes, and other vegetables for roadside sale neatly arranged in pyramids, stacks of rainbow colored plastic bowls, chairs, and tubs were available, clothing, mattresses, baskets, homemade red bricks and always...always...people carrying jerry cans of water and gatherings of boda-bodas sprinkled with a few goats and steer.

Among some of the other things seen along the road for sale are coffins...handmade and stained simple boxes for the burial of loved ones for those who can afford it.  It was a strange and disturbing sight and I asked Ronnie about it as we saw them quite frequently.  He told me that, in fact, there used to be many more "coffin stores" and that they have been decreasing, as of late.  During their civil wars, the Age of Kony, and the generally unsettled political environment these coffin stores were everywhere, out of necessity.  There was an acceptance of their presence that went unnoticed by the Ugandans but that was not lost on us.  The fact that you could easily walk up to a roadside stand and purchase a coffin being sold amidst clothing, raw meat, pineapples, jerry cans, bananas and baskets where countless little children were playing was a scene that will not be forgotten.  We did see a coffin being purchased and placed on a bicycle to be taken away.  It brought to mind the general practicality of this event - the impersonal nature of it being done so publicly.  Again, a far cry from our reality.

We saw endless  beautifully maintained tea farms on our journey to Myewa, noting that tea is a significant money-maker for the country.  It provides employment and business opportunities for the people and tea leaves could be seen being carried along the road, in addition to the ever-present bananas.

We passed through the Albertine Rift Valley, a deep green and hazy depression resulting from tectonic forces from over 15 million years ago.  Here we would find lakes, lush plains, mountains and a merge of forests and grasslands that support a magnificent and majestic array of wildlife.  Across the valley we could see the beginning of the Queen Victoria National Park, where we were headed for our safari.

What a pretty little lodge we will be calling home for a few days!  The lodge is located right  along Lake Edward and Lake George connected by the Kazinga Channel in the Queen Elizabeth National Park, all extending from Lake Victoria.  In addition to game, there are 640 species of birds recorded, as well.  This is not an area where you will find zebras and giraffe but there is plenty wildlife to see.  We went on a game drive today after our lunch by the pool and were not disappointed.  We saw lots of kob and water buck, both male and female, birds, cape buffalo, warthogs, many elephants of all ages, a leopard and a lioness.  Joanna was the first to spot the leopard and Becca got a couple of great shots of the lioness, one showing her impressive teeth...the lioness's...not Becca's!   It is always a thrill seeing this grand and imposing wildlife in their natural habitat.  Thanks for this shot, Becca! 

This was the only leopard we saw and she was sitting right alongside
the trail when Joanna spotted her.  Truly a beautiful and elusive animal!
It was a good, good day!

Dinner was on the patio featuring a barbecue of beef, chicken, pork ribs and sausage, as well as a plentiful buffet of fresh salads.  There were little yellow weaver birds and assorted others sitting and watching us eat dinner, slowly making their way closer to the table...or ON the table - in the hopes of getting something to eat.  There were signs telling us not to feed the birds...but they were very small signs...

As I am writing this, I can hear the sounds of crickets and unknown creatures and really not much more…except for the roar of a lion in the distance, the grunting rumble of the hippos…and the sound of some loud growling and primal screaming pretty close by - like outside my door!  I have to assume that this is why they tell us to keep our doors and windows closed! But - these are wonderful sounds to hear as we end our day.

This is so much quieter than Masaka.  This Uganda is not noisy on an assaulting level  but one of quiet serenity, with birds chirping all day long and the sound of safari jeeps coming and going twice a day.  It is really a lovely spot to relax in, especially after our busy time in Masaka and Mbiriizi.  More safaris tomorrow...

Dorms at Mbiriizi

I forgot to share pictures of the dorms at Mbiriizi and know it is important for you to understand this beautiful place as much as possible.  While their sleeping arrangements are, again, quite different from our own, keep in mind that this is Uganda where many people sleep on the floor/ground in tiny, unventilated spaces.  The children who live in these dorms are orphans - who would be left to survive on their own or, perhaps, eventually taken in by another family... but they were not.  Sylvia and Mbiriizi have provided a place for them - a home where they have "family" around for comfort and support and security...and they reward Sylvia with countless smiles and hugs and songs of gratitude.  I was just lucky to be an observer of the impact one person can have on a small village in a faraway land...

The children in Uganda wear shoes either sometimes or never.  The shoes they have rarely fit properly,  are not on the fashion radar, are often pairs of different shoes altogether, or seem to be pretty inappropriate for equatorial Africa.  Needless to say, none of these things matter to these children.  Most prefer to be barefoot, anyway, and they are happy to have shoes regardless of style, fit, or appropriateness.  Now go take a look in your own closet and see what  you have.  Mine is filled with shoes I rarely wear, might wear, always wear, or never wear...oh...and then there are the shoes that I totally forgot I had.  Worlds apart...

Friday, July 13, 2012

Friday, June 20, 2012 -  Goodbye, Mbiriizi

Muslim call to worship again welcomes me to the day but... they were late this morning.   I wonder what happens if they don’t get going before the sun rises and if it’s the same guy who performs this ritual every morning.   I’ll have to see if I can find that out.

Well, today is Party Day and our last day at the school!  Today is the celebration of birthdays for all @1,100 children in the school! Since there are no accurate birth records available, this day is set aside each year to unilaterally celebrate these precious children.  It will elevate to an all day festival!  I was told by those who came before me that we will feed all of these children lunch in much less than 2 hours!  Details to follow!
We arrived to an air of excitement surrounding the school.  So much happiness, excitement, and joy is displayed by these little... and not so little... miracles as they anticipate the cake and the special meal they will be served and the community recognition of their arrival on Earth.  All of the children are brought to a common area and surround the table where the 3 cakes and decorations are displayed.  These children arrive in age order, from oldest to youngest, to allow the littlest ones to be in the front so they can see what is happening and each and every one of these children stands quietly and in order as all children arrive to begin the festivities.  Music is playing and a group of students is dancing as the crowd is encouraged to sing the songs we have become so familiar with - songs of friendship and love, sung with commitment and generosity each time the verse is repeated...and it is repeated many, many times!  Those dancing seem to have unlimited stamina and energy, as well as, voices that never wane or falter.  Each repeat of the song is like it's the first time they have sung it!

We proceeded to cut the cake and distribute it among the children but it was not to be the kind of birthday celebration to which I was accustomed.

When cake is served  at the school it is a very special day, indeed, and serve it we did to all of these Mbiriizi children.   At this point, I have to reflect on my own children's birthday parties and that of my grandchildren and friends. Recognition of these days is never missed, gifts, cakes and celebrations are all a part of it and many of these birthdays are celebrated for days...and in some cases, a week or more! This was obviously going to be a very different kind of celebration.  Assignment for youEnvision the size of a piece of cake given to your birthday child or to you on your special day. Traditionally, in our lives, the birthday person gets the first piece, and more if wanted, and there is little restriction on size.  You get to pick the flower or decoration that will be on your piece, and you had a say in its flavor and colors.  There is ice cream, perhaps some candy, plenty of food and snacks and friends and family to celebrate with you.  There are leftovers and discarded food.   And...There is avarice, indulgence, excess, and gluttony... accompanying the thankfulness and love. 

This birthday celebration is really more of a symbolic one for these children.   The amount of cake they are served is minimal, perhaps a small, very shallow tablespoon, and the children of Mbiriizi are happy for that, never once complaining or asking for more.   There is non-stop celebratory singing and dancing, a few short speeches and then poppers are released to the delight of all.  Keep in mind that this outside ceremony takes about an hour and a half, and the older children are standing this entire time.  While these children participate and sing, responding to speeches with clapping and cheering, they remain well behaved, respectful, and grateful.  This is a day they look forward to each year, a day when cake is served, and a big meal at lunchtime and a soda...a whole bottle of soda for each one of them.  And...There is gratitude, acceptance, altruism, benevolence, and generosity.  All around, there is evidence of caring for others.

This experience continues to teach me some hard-learned lessons.  I have learned to give more appreciation to simple things - fresh water,  open space, silence ... being alone, being with family and friends, feeling pretty secure in my future and feeling safe everywhere I go ... and some not-so-simple things - the value, ease and imbalance of our educational opportunities, unlimited possibilities, sacrifices made, countless and under-appreciated freedoms, and a voice that is free to be heard.  The list goes on.   Seriously, it is never ending and overwhelming.  But the single most valuable lesson these children have taught me is gratitude...or maybe it's respect...or acceptance...or resolve...or perseverance... they have taught me all of this and more.  Again...can't say it enough...Mbiriizi is life changing. 

After the wonderful ceremony of dancing and singing, colorful costumes, and dramatic performances where even the faculty got involved at the end, we served all of the children their birthday lunch - rice and beans.  It was a non-stop parade of hungry and expectant children, in age order, coming through to receive their piled high bowl of rice and beans and that coveted bottle of soda!  There were pails of rice, pails of beans, piles of bowls and cases of soda just waiting for them to celebrate.  In one hour and 40 minutes we served all of the children...over 1,000 of them!

It was a very humbling day, a reflective day, a day we didn't want to end.  It was a day that arrived much too quickly after, what I can only describe as "days of enlightenment" for me.  There are no words powerful enough to explain what is being done at this little school in Uganda, this sanctuary of hope and peace and refuge for the hundreds of children that live and attend school here.  There are not enough photographs to illustrate the love and commitment and dedication that Sylvia and Michele demonstrate in their many return trips to Mbiriizi to do even more, inspiring others to do the same.  Case in point: Doug and Becca have returned many times themselves and will be back.  You simply have to be here to understand - to feel the devotion Mbiriizi has for Sylvia...walk on the red dirt, be hugged by the children...receive a crowd full of smiles, in order to truly realize - to the core of your being - what a profound and powerful impact that Sylvia's Children has on this amazing school in a country of many challenges.

At the end of the final performances given to us by the children, Geofrey  bestowed upon Joanna and me our new African names.  Everyone who comes to Mbiriizi gets their new name at the end of their time there.  I took this as a sign of acceptance, an acknowledgment of our involvement in helping Mbiriizi, a heartfelt gesture of gratitude from the children and the adults in this little school in Uganda.   My given name of "Vernoy" is difficult enough for some people to comprehend and was something not easily recognized by my new African friends.  My last name just added more confusion.  Applying to my name the Ugandan tradition of putting the last name first created a mystifying situation when it came to my name - totally perplexing, indeed.  They really were not certain which of my names was first and which was second.  So, they decided my first name was "Paolini" or "Paoline", morphing to "Pauleen"...or "Maureen" depending on who you spoke to!  You can see where this is going...although this personal name confusion is not unusual for me and totally accepted.  Love that I now have an African name and love that it came from  people who have come to mean so much to me, who have had the power to leave an indelible mark on my soul and who will now occupy a place in my heart for eternity.

Before we left, Gloria had to have her nails done.  After all, it was promised and promises cannot be broken.  The long lasting effects of the caring and the pampering  - being the center of attention and the recipient of simple unbridled kindness and love  - are evident in Gloria's smile and in the sparkle in her eyes.   She is feeling just fine!

Pulling out of the school grounds we were followed by crowds of running children, children waving and laughing, grinning from ear to ear and chasing the jeep to the gate.  Irresistible...no wonder once you are here, you must keep coming back.

We had dinner with Bridgette and Bruce, the owners of the school in Tekera.  We went to a local restaurant known for its catering to the young, international crowd, Cafe Frikadelin. Many of the people there were finishing up mission work, time spent in orphanages, building homes, and assorted other humanitarian efforts.  The food was good and a change from the hotel's fare and they had an interesting gift shop.  Naturally, Joanna and I spent some time in the shop.  After all, there were all those empty suitcases to fill.....somebody had to do it!  :)

We are off to Myewa tomorrow but first...

About that bed netting - the truth is, I have not yet developed a strategy in dealing with it.  I suppose it could be considered a bit romantic in an African Queen sort of way but some might look at it as a restricting, yet diaphanous and dreamy,  claustrophobic entrapment.  At this point, I might stand in between these two perspectives. 

By necessity, it is a voluminous amount of white gauzy fabric draping around the bed preventing those pesky mosquitoes and other flying creatures from feasting on you as you sleep.  I am happy about that, btw, and appreciate that the amount of fabric allows for general freedom of movement once ensconced inside.  But when trying to get out of bed, this never-ending amount of netting prevents any spontaneous “jumping out of bed”.  That is definitely out of the question.  If you are not quite awake, you find your feet wrapped up in the extra netting on the floor, twisting around your legs as you struggle to free yourself.   This must be what a fly feels like in a spider web.  Also, in those half asleep moments when you feel a slight tickle on your leg, for example, and suddenly decide it must be a bug of some sort... or perhaps a python...  you may find yourself  squealing while kicking and thrashing around slapping the tickled area to find that you just brushed up against the netting.  Then, you just hope no one has heard you! 

We have been fortunate to have had electricity all week but now, electricity is out.  Therefore, tonight is "generator night".  Right outside my balcony is the generator, ground zero as it were, to this loud, invasive rumble of the running motor supplying us with electricity.  Michelle gave me her Bose headphones  to wear to muffle the sound but I was afraid I just might choke myself  during the night with the wire so I opted out of that luxury.   The visual is pretty hilarious, though.  Me with these big headphones on, loose wires around my neck and head, climbing into the netted bed (which, of course, caught on the wire...) and then actually laughing out loud at what I must look like.  I was a bit self-conscious to say the least about what I was doing so I decided to live on the edge and put up with the generator.  It was not that bad, really, and I was tired so I invited the comfort of sleep to be my friend!  Zzzzzzzz...............