Helmet Hunting

Mom, Dad, grandparents: You don’t need to read this one.

Before coming to Africa I vowed I wouldn’t get on a motorcycle. There were enough other ways in which I would probably die and I felt no need to add a new one.

And if, for some strange reason, I would ride one, it would be with a helmet. Duh, I don’t ride a bicycle without one.

Well, plans change. One day in the first week of the trip, our tour guide informed us we’d be going to a lake. He then introduced us to our mode of transportation. A young, unhelmeted boy sitting on a wannabe motorcycle. “We go?”

Since then, I don’t want to tell you how many of those little things I’ve ridden.

Three people on one boda has become the norm, but I’ve been on ones with more.

At some point, I could no longer tell myself I wouldn’t ride bodas. When my mother said she’d pay for it, I decided a helmet really was pretty important.

So off I went. I stopped in Katwe, just south of Kampala, where I was told all the motocyclers buy spare parts and helmets (the few who have). I entered the store and as handed a very light, plastic-y thing. “Hmmm… do you have anything better?”

“You want a good one?” she asked, somewhat surprised.

“Um… yeah.”

“We don’t have. You go into town.”

I was directed to the street in which helmets were sold, near the taxi park. The taxi park is one of the least relaxing places to walk in, and I am constantly dodging curious men and comments like “ohhh, mzungu”, “I love you,” “Come here baby”. This time though, I was hot , sweaty and on a mission, so when one held on to my arm and said in a deep voice, “Mama… hello” and held my arm, I lost it completely.

I swung my arm away from his grip, and with a disgusted face yelled, “fuck off!” As I was walking away, I remembered I was in a bad area of a crowded African capital. And I had just told a big black man to fuck off.

When I reached the area where helmets were sold, I learned that they were charging around 20,000 shillings, meaning 10,000 post-bargaining, meaning four dollars.

I’m cheap and everything, but I am willing to pay more than four dollars for a motorcycle helmet. I WANT to pay more than that.

I picked up one helmet. “Which company makes this?” I inquired. He lifted the helmet and looked at the sticker on the back. “Ah, this one is made by XL.”

Tact is not my forte; I laughed in his face, thanked him and walked out.

In the next shop, I changed my question. “Which country makes this?” The man shook his head. “It is from no country. It is from China.”

I snooped around and was led to Verma, the best store in Kampala. There was a big price difference (presumably to cover the cost of having 50 useless empoyees – the one helping you, the one helping the one helping you, the one giving the form, the one stamping the form, the one putting the helmet on your head and the one throwing out the box) but it felt good to think my life was worth more than four dollars.

So if you’re still reading this, Mom, I have a helemt and that is why it’s okay to go on motorcycle safaris.

Motorcycle Safari

When you do safari with your Dad, you have a guide, a chef, a 4 by 4 and a general feeling of safety. Those days are gone. This time, when I wanted to see animals, I had to do it a little differently.

Some people do safari with private jets. Most people do it in jeeps. We drove into and through the safari the way we drive everywhere else – on a boda.

Did you know they had a branch in Uganda? 😉

A boda-boda is a Ugandan crossbreed between a motorcycle and a piece of crap. The word originted with bicyclers who used to take passengers from “border-to-border”. This morphed, in a typically lazy Ugandan fashion, into “boda-to-boda”, then “boda-boda” and finally “boda”.

So on our little boda we have our little driver, my not so little self, my friend and our definitely not little bags. Somehow we all get on. The real miracle is that somehow, we stay on – most of the time. We leave the town of Sanga and the road soon turns to dust, the potholes get bigger and more frequent, and groups of people are replaced with herds of horny cows. Cows with horns.

We reach Lake Mburo National Park’s gate. There’s a thirty dollar entrance fee and I didn’t even want to go to his place. Haven’t I seen enough animals already? I get off and try to bargain but the closest I get to reducing the cost is an offer to sleep with the park workers. Which I turn down.

It is without a doubt the prettiest boda ride I’ve ever had. Savior (yes, that is our driver’s name) dexterously maneuvers us across rivers, around holes, up hills. We see lots of animals. Motorcycle parts fly off. Passengers almost do.

We reach the campsite and I try to bargain a little more. This is getting out of hand. At least we can dump our heavy bags, and continue the journey feeling balanced and free. Not like we’re three people on one little boda.

Another indefinite lapse of time, and we reach a stunning lodge which is way above of my budget (Dad, I miss you). We go horseback riding and see the whole zebra-gazelle-bushbuck crowd.

Unfortunately, I don’t know how to ride a horse. So instead of telling me what to do, the guide communicates with the horses. He tells his horse to take it easy and sticks my horse right behind his horse’s butt, commanding him to follow.

Unfortunately, his horse has a tendency to stop short and swing in all directions (my horse follows suit, and the last one to fly all over the place is me).

It happens again! I clutch the reins hard and yell. “Whoa!” And then I see that his horse had nearly stepped on a giant cobra, and then I really yell whoa.

From this moment on I’m thrilled I’ve paid the stupid 30 dollar entrance fee to the park. I had wanted to see a snake since arriving in Africa. Now I had almost fallen on one!

After our horseback ride, we get back on our boda, which feels painfully similar to riding a horse. Very soon after setting off on the journey back, day becomes night.

Did you know that buffaloes are one of the most dangerous animals to humans? And did you know they charge at night? And that when their young ones are with them, they are even more protective than irritable than usual?

The driver’s feeble light shines on a pack of buffaloes that are just a few meters ahead.

It is night.

They are with their kids.

And there are about fifty of them crossing the dirt path on which we are driving.

And so, behind two others, I am on a creaky motorcycle at night, in the middle of a safari in the middle of Africa, watching my highly-unqualified-as-a-guide driver toot his little horn at a pack of buffaloes.

I feel somewhat exposed.

But we make it to the Lakeside restaurant, bid Savior good night and arrange for a dining ranger to drive us back to the camp. Driving back (feeling very cozy and safe behind doors) we see a HUGE blob of blubber. Why did the hippo cross the road? Oh my G-d!! A cobra, buffaloes and now a monstrous hippo walking around? I’ve never seen one out of water; this day is insane!

Just as I’m squealing with excitement, two spiky porcupines scuttle past. Now I was really thrilled – talk about a well spent thirty bucks!

We reached the camp and as I stepped out of the shower I noticed some sparkly dots. Then I understood that they were four shining eyes, which must have been attatched to two big animals. So I stood and stared at them staring at me  – and before my impatience took over and realized I couldn’t go to sleep or even walk out of the shower – I was all at once in awe, fear and love with nature.

Chimping and Pimping

I’m cheap. Well, not always, but on month four of traveling, having had no serious job in the past and certainly no prospects for the future, I decided it was time to watch where my money was going.

So bargaining has become my second favorite sport, and I’ve gone to a number of clubs for free, but every now and again I stray from my frugal ways. And so last week on my big trip west, I convinced myself that it made sense to pay 150 dollars to go chimapanzee tracking. People pay 500 dollars to track gorillas, so I kind of figured I was getting a bargain.

We were told we’d walk for an hour or two, have a mind-blowing hour hanging out with the monkeys (sorry, the primates) and trot happily back to a satisfying lunch. Which, of course, would not be included in the price.

But let’s not forget who we are. We are the girl who had to get a rabies injection on her first full day in Africa. We are the girl whose camera, wallet, keys (and almost ipod) got stolen in less than a month. We are the girl who fell into the sewer five minutes before going to crash a wedding. If that’s the way a chimp tracking day is supposed to look, that’s obviously not how it’s going to happen.

We started at 11. I was with a friend from Uganda, a friend from Tanzania and a guide. Oh, and gum boots. I had forgotten about mud, snakes and rainforests, and wore sandals – so I was given a not so new pair of rain boots to put on my bare feet. As you read, bear in mind that my feet are chafing, sweating and smelling throughout the story.

At noon I was still patient. I’ve gotten better, you know. By 1 I was starting to get antsy. Why hadn’t I made them agree to give us a refund if we didn’t see a chimp? We’d asked jokingly what would happen and they said we could get another shot. What the hell was I going to do with “another shot”? It’s not like I plan on hanging out in Ugandan forests the rest of my life.

When the clock inched toward two, I could see the guide was getting agitated. His tip was looking smaller and smaller. I cursed The Book (Lonely Planet East Africa) – it had said there was a 90% chance of seeing them in Kibale Forest. It said nothing about the other ten percent. But it began to dawn on me that ten percent meant that one walk in ten was a dud. And we might very well be that one.

We did see cool things. Twisted branches and lots of funky mushrooms. One of us would stop and take a picture, the next would take the same photo, and the third would too. It passed the time. But it didn’t help that sneaking sensation that we’d just gotten majorly ripped off. And I was starving (no, a bag full of nuts, oats, and a half kilo bag of yogurt do NOT count. I am a growing girl and I need lunch). At three o’clock we had some action.

Our guide who had gone ahead to see if he could find anything without three noisy brats disturbing him, came back running. “I think he saw one!” my friend exclaimed, and we all charged. Let’s take a moment to remember my bare feet and gumboots.

Thanks. We ran and ran and ran. We wanted to see a chimp. Now. But when we reached a tree (which looked to me just like all the other trees) we saw our guide had given up.

We were always just one step behind him. We saw chimp tracks. We examined chimp shit. We heard chimp cries. BUT WE SAW NO CHIMP. Disappointed, tired and me with a growling belly, we trudged on.

At four o’clock (when we should have been sighing after a good coffee after a good dessert after an enormous meal) the guide’s walkie-talkie cackled with the information that another guide had found the chimpanzees. He turned and faced us. He looked solemnly into our eyes and said, “They found them. But they are far. We will have to walk quickly and quietly” we nodded in unison, thrilled beyond words. There was hope!

We walked. Through thorny plants and long weeds, through water and mud and insects – and at around half past four, saw a very seriously-dressed safari couple (I’m sure you remember the type from my previous post). They were both looking up.  We looked up. And what did we see?

One pot-bellied chimpanzee reclining on a branch – playing with himself. He eyed us smugly and twiddled his ding-a-ling. Was this what they meant by genetically similar to humans?

“What?!?!?!!” I shrieked. “Is this it?” I looked at the guide. Where were the other 99 chimps? Why was he so high up on the tree? And why was he looking right at me and pleasuring himself?!

I looked at the girls. It didn’t take long for us all to howl with laughter. The chimp continued to stare and do his thing and I tried to convince myself that I had not just paid 150 dollars to see a masturbating monkey. Sorry – primate.

Chimp or pimp, it was money well spent, even for a cheapskake like me.

Can you see that little black spot in the distance?

Safari People

The cameras….

So you want to be a safari person?

First and foremost, you need a hat. It should be wide-brimmed and dopey and preferably have some ridiculously touristy symbol printed on it, such as the Tanzania flag.

You probably wear glasses but if you don’t you must have sunglasses.

You might want a balaclava or some other health-obsessed form of dust-protection. An airy, button down shirt is best, but again, something super-touristy will work as well. Or you could have your tour group’s emblem printed on it.

I am sure you’ve already bought yourself a pair of khaki pants (probably sweat-wicking, rainproof and have the ability to make you fly), but if you haven’t go do that.

The most important part of your attire, however, is a camera. Or should I say telescope? It is best if you can get a camera with a zoom that touches the animal’s fur, but if you can’t, you must make sure it is one that will allow you to count the number of whiskers a lion has. And x-ray vision.

 

With my little point and shoot, running shirts and flowery hat, I was a disgrace to safari people worldwide. I trust you will hold up the name better than I did.