Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Globalfest with the Abdallah's

I took the Abdallah' (my Sudanese family) out to the Globalfest Pavilions on Sunday. I was suprised how many people they knew there. Other refugees from Sudan were there to support the Darfur dancers. They knew more people than me and have been in Canada only 5 months!! I met their community leader, Eisa and a few other people who I tried to impress with my tiny bit of Arabic. Ha Ha! "As-salam alaykum"

Mohamed liked the Spanish music and dancers the best, while Alawia and I were impressed by the Ukranian dancers who leaped and twirled in superhuman ways.

On the way home on the bus, I told them I would keep going downtown and make my way home. In their broken English, they managed to get me to understand that they really wanted me to stay the night at their house which touched me deeply. I had to decline their offer because I was working the next day. When their stop came, I shook Mohamed's hand, hugged Alawia and then Sayda, who held onto me so long, I thought something was wrong. But she happily waved to me after they got off the bus and I waved back giddily, so honored to be their friend.

Me and AlawiaSayda


The Abdallah's: Alawia, Sayda and Mohamed

Alawia and me

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Our First Bus Ride In Uganda

Bleary-eyed morning beneath my mosquito net. Where am I? Oh yeah...the hotel...Entebbe...we leave for Soroti today on the bus. My watch says 5:00 am. The cultural shift is slow. All this traveling has left me numb. 15 hour drive from Cape Town to Johannesburg, a night at the Midrand YWAM base, six hour flight to Entebbe, another night here in the hotel...

Last night we went to the hotel restaurant to get dinner. I had an orange Fanta. Orange Fanta = foreign country to me. Only, I just saw they've reintroduced it in Canada. In plastic bottles though. Not glass. Glass-bottled orange Fanta = foreign country.

And I had my first taste of a staple Ugandan dish (which I grew to love later). Matoke. Boiled, mashed, green bananas with a gray peanut sauce. It turned my stomach. I helped Josine eat her fries and stuck to my Fanta. When the waiter came back and saw the barely touched food, his face fell and so did my heart. I tried to explain that the traveling, the exhaustion, the heat, all made it difficult to eat. But it was no use. I crushed him. Oh God! I made my first cultural blunder in this country and wanted to crawl under the table. Spoiled North American child I am!

I open my guitar case to retrieve the swath of fabric that was extra protection for my guitar but will now be wrapped around me for the next leg of our journey. We girls can't be traipsing around in trousers. Noooooo....Trousers = hussy here. The fabric is from a trip I took to Togo once. It's blue and white tie-dyed and actually extremely comfortable. I'm already getting the hang of this. Like riding a bike and I think back to those days in West Africa...sigh...Uganda is a lot like Benin and Togo, except they speak English here. Yippee! So many memories, emotions, heightened senses are seeping back into me, like a comforting hot bath after a long, hard day. I feel my shoulders relaxing, my anxiety receding as I breathe in this humid morning air. At least for now, in this bleary-eyed morning, I am peaceful.

I join some of the other girls downstairs in the restaurant for our complimentary breakfast but I can't eat anything. It is far too early for food. The sky is still dark. I see coffee and make a beeline for it. Oh! Thank God for coffee!! There is also a cloudy white juice some of the girls are drinking. Pineapple they tell me, also bleary-eyed. Yum! I sit down content to sip my coffee and thirstily chug this amazing juice. I finish half the enormous glass before Paula looks at me and asks, "You know the bus we're taking doesn't have a toilet right?" Doesn't have a toilet? It's too early to think. Like the ignition of an old frozen car not wanting to turn over on a cold winter morning, my mind has trouble computing. But slowly it makes the connect between my empty coffee cup, the half-drunk glass of juice and the face of the girl who has shared this important little fact with me half an empty glass too late! Six or seven hours on a bus and no toilet? Surely they will stop for who can possibly hold it that long? Paula shrugs when I share this common sense out loud. "Maybe" she says unconvincingly. She's been to Uganda before. She knows how it works.

I start to panic. I'm the type of person everyone hates road-tripping with. The type of person who must go to the bathroom twice before the movie starts and directly after. I have a pretty intense case of 'hamster bladder.' I probably stopped us every two or three hours on the drive from Cape Town to Joburg. This is not good. I try to calm myself with positive self-talk. You'll be fine Nicole. Don't worry. The bus will stop. It has to!

Our taxi has arrived to take us to the bus station in Kampala, a 45 minute drive. I look at my unfinished juice with contempt and dash to the hotel toilet, willing all liquid out of my body. It's all I can do now. This is it. The journey begins and despite this minor anxiety, I am actually thrilled. Africa!

We get to the station and are reunited with one of our students who had left a month earlier to visit Rwanda. It is so good to see her! I'm so happy to know she is safe and we are together, that I barely notice the rickety, orange-dust-coated bus we are loading our luggage onto. I'm happy to point out, the windows open so at least we will get a breeze.

I have fallen asleep due to the perpetual movement of being on the road several hours and the sun beating down on us. Tabea and Lucinda are also dozing next to me. The bus had to take a detour earlier because of road construction. According to a German girl we met on the bus who does this all the time, this will delay us another hour or two. Guh! I wake up to the familiar uncomfortable, burning sensation that my body gives me when it needs relief. Oh no little bladder. Not now! Oh God! I pray. I am actually praying now for a miracle; a supernatural enlarging of my bladder! I manage to ignore it another hour, distracting myself with the beautiful scenery outside. Banana and mango trees, mud hut villages, children waving as we pass...

Lucinda and I look at eachother knowingly. She probably also drank that gorgeous pineapple juice this morning, unaware we would be denied basic facilities on our bus. I am laughing inside. How will this play out? By this time, we don't care. A bush on the side of the road is all we're asking for. We are at bursting point and desperate. We discuss our options: find a cup or a bottle? Pray for a miracle like I have been already? Pee our pants? Make the extremely packed bus full of locals stop just for us white girls?

Lucinda gets up and grabs the arm of the conductor hastily. I don't hear what she says but the conductor speaks to the driver and a few minutes later, we have pulled over. Oh sweet Lord! Thank you! Thank you! Lucinda and I literally jump over luggage, chickens, and small children already hiking up our skirts as we disembark. Imagine if we had been wearing trousers!! Josine has taken this golden opportunity to join us. I don't look at the bus as I crouch in the too short grass. I pretend it's not there or I'll have shy pee and this is NOT a time for my pee to have stage fright! I know everyone on the bus is lobbying for a glimpse of the three white asses on the side of the road. We'll be a topic of conversation for days under the mango trees! I don't care! This is sweet relief! The three of us are laughing at eachother and the absurdity of the situation as we're crouched down with skirts hiked up. This will also become a great story we will tell over and over. "Remember our first bus ride in Uganda...?"

We quickly jump back on the bus, not wanting to aggravate the travelers by taking up their time. The rest of our team is snickering at us but we smile back triumphantly.

The rest of the ride goes by without incident. I lay my head against the window, smile contentedly, and wisely decline a sip of water from Tabea's bottle.

After this adventure, I learned to not drink a drop of any liquid from the night before a bus journey until arriving at our destination. Worked everytime!

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

African Stories: Boda Boda

Most of us know what it's like to learn to ride a bike. When we were kids, somehow we learned to balance and then ride off on our own. We may have even become so confident, that we rode hands off the handlebars or had someone ride on the handlebars with us.

Well, that was when we were kids. The day they told us about the boda boda in Uganda, I was both curious and anxious.

The boda boda is a bicycle taxi fitted with a cushion over the rear fender. A person is meant to, straddle the cushion if he is male, or sit "side-saddle" if she is a female. (Sometimes we disregarded these cultural rules for the sake of comfort and safety). Then you have to trust the guy riding the bike that he will get you where you need to go safely, without throwing you off. With his thin street bike tires, he must negotiate through dusty, dirt roads, other boda boda, traffic, including large transport trucks, matatu taxis, pedestrians and we must not forget to mention the random goat/pig/chicken/cow making its way into our path!

The first day we decided to take boda to the market, we stood outside the gate to our compound and waited on the road, having been instructed to call out 'boda' when we saw one approaching. In no time we had rounded up a couple of amused boda-taxis as we nervously explained our boda-taxi virgin status.

They were patient as we maneuvered ourselves to sit on the cushion and rearranged our skirts so they wouldn't get caught in the spokes. I greedily grabbed the sides of the cushion, white-knuckled as we took off. "You sit properly for me." he instructed. What? I thought to myself. But this would become a common command on the boda which I never quite knew how to obey. How many ways can you sit on a cushion on the back of a bike??

My boda just kept going, effortlessly riding through town amidst people and vehicles who only slightly obey rules of the road.

The breeze cooled my hot, sweaty skin and I started to relax, trusting my boda driver, no longer too afraid. The exhilaration of this new adventure was intoxicating! The sights, sounds and smells of Uganda all around me filled me with that out-of-body feeling, you know, when you feel like you are looking at yourself from above or when you are both dreaming and sort of conscious at the same time. I smiled stupidly as we sped along the road, past shops, tailors sewing clothes, music blaring in kiosks, the green and white mosque, surrounded by palm trees, the line-up at Stanbic bank, samosas and mandazis frying in the cafes, wafting out to the street, mixing with the sweet sweat smell of my boda driver..."I am in Africa!" I thought to myself, a thought that came pretty frequently the first few months, and even a few more times after that.

I realized pretty quickly that the boda was not only useful for getting me places, but gave me a few uninterrupted moments to "spy" on my new African world without being bombarded by curious passerby and blazing heat. I loved it!

We arrived at our destination too soon. We dismounted and paid our drivers the required 300 Ugandan shillings, about 20 cents. One of them tried to get more out of us, a muzungu tax, we began affectionately calling it. Muzungu=foreigner or white folk. Of course, the good people we stayed with had warned us about this so we shook our head no but offered them thanx and a smile. They reluctantly went on their way and us on ours, having proudly survived our first boda boda ride!