Two Months Backpacking Africa

Wednesday, November 30, 2011  at 6:58 AM
This post marks the two month period from when Chris and I entered Africa--it's crazy for me to think that we've been exploring this new place for two months already!  To celebrate, I made a list of funny things I've noticed while we've been here...

backpacking africa
1. Our tan lines have truly reached the ridiculous stage.  Since Chris and I wear basically the same thing every day, plus we're in the sun every day, it doesn't matter how much sunscreen we slather on--the tan lines are bold and bizarre!

african papaya
2. The fruit here is always new and interesting.  I really like papayas, however the papayas here are not the small ones I saw in America--no, these ones are (on average!) the size of an American football, often larger!

expensive africa cereal
3. Pricing is wildly all over the place.  This is an EIGHTEEN DOLLAR box of Kellogg's cereal, while we usually purchase lunch for around $1 USD for both of us.

street vendor rwanda africa
4. Street vendors are very persistent, which can be annoying until the exact moment when you want something, then it's like "hey!  Chocolate-covered zebra-shaped wafers, that's exactly what I'm looking for!" or even "hey!  A matching three-piece wicker lawn furniture set, that's exactly what I'm looking for!"

Cooking Lunch
5. Things I no longer take for granted at any place we're staying (including entire towns): electricity, running water, internet access, garbage control, developed roads, kitchens that are more than a fire and ATMs.

sunset lake victoria kisumu kenya
The sunsets here are so pretty--here's to more fun in the upcoming months in Africa!
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Impressions of Kabale, Uganda

Monday, November 28, 2011  at 6:58 AM
Kabale is a small town in Uganda, close to the border with Rwanda.  It is quiet, dirty and boasts no memorable monuments or views.  So why did we enjoy our time there so much?

uganda restaurant couchsurfing 
With our CS host at an awesome restaurant!

1.      Our Couchsurfing host was great and took us to this AMAZING hole-in-the-wall restaurant.  This restaurant was down a series of small, unlit, muddy roads, in the bottom of a relatively-empty hotel, and at first glance the prices didn’t appear that great.  Suffice it to say that it wasn’t a place Chris and I would have found or chosen to eat at on our own.  After assurances from our host, however, we decided to give it a try, and we were so glad we did!  We gorged ourselves on grilled pork (the flavor!  The tenderness!), potatoes, plantains and cabbage, plus drinks (a beer for Chris, a Stoney—a tasty local ginger ale—for me), and the total was less than $10 USD total.  Fantastic.

bats in trees uganda
Trees!  Full of bats!

2.      Trees full of bats.  Yes, that is correct, there were huge trees that were filled with bats in Kabale.  I had never seen bats in the daytime and this was an exciting experience for me!  We camped out below the trees at dusk and watched as the bats took off in the growing gloom.

All in all, a great experience for our last town in Uganda.  Next stop—Rwanda!

bats flying night uganda
The bats all flying into the night
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Adventure Back to Civilization in Uganda

Wednesday, November 23, 2011  at 6:58 AM
hiking rural uganda
A hike we did on one of our last days in rural Uganda

Getting to the rural village had been an adventure itself—bus, then motorcycle, then boat, then an hour’s hike—but leaving the village proved to be its own brand of trickiness as once we arrived in the village we discovered that instead of having a tidy sum of cash, we were practically out.  This nasty surprise left us with few options for leaving the village, as there were no ATMs (the closest ATM was back in town).  Even though we took a boat when arriving, the village was (thankfully!) not on an island and was in fact connected to the mainland, albeit by a long and wiggly road. 

A quick conference with our Couchsurfing host reveled that walking was possible but would take upwards of eight hours, making it not my favorite option.  Hitchhiking would be unlikely due to the lack of cars in the poor Ugandan farmlands.  The boat required payment upfront, making it impossible for us to return in the manner we came.  Seeing our growing commitment to walking, our host told us that he would ask around and see if there were any other options.
mist uganda morning
Early mist, the morning we left the rural village

There was one, which is how we found ourselves sliding down steep, muddy trails at 5:30 in the morning as we headed towards a rendez-vous with a car.  Lucky for us, our host knew someone who was driving back to the town and would let us pay at the end of the trip (after we found an ATM).  The early morning mist clung to the damp trees and wound around our feet, concealing the churned mud from the heavy rains the night before.  The small, four-door car had only six seats, but that didn’t stop eleven people from cramming in—apparently we weren’t the only ones who wanted to go to town that morning!  With a jerk and a moan, the car started the long bumpy journey down to town.  Cramped and thrown about as we were, Chris and I were still thrilled with our luck—no eight hour walks today!

uganda farmlands
Goodbye Ugandan farmlands!
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The Typical House in Rural Uganda

Monday, November 21, 2011  at 6:58 AM
 uganda house
A typical Ugandan farmer’s home—mud walls built around a brick or wood frame, a tin roof (generally preferred over the traditional straw roof), a separate building for the kitchen (seen at the lower left here) and another separate building for the toilet, called a latrine

clay bricks uganda
Bricks are made by hand from local clay and sand

cactus fence uganda
Fences surround the compound (the name for the house, kitchen and latrine) and are often made from living cacti

rural uganda
Since Uganda lies right on the equator, the sun rises at 7:00AM and sets at 7:00PM every day, all year round—this is the view from the front door of the house we stayed in
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Bussin' It

Saturday, November 19, 2011  at 3:30 AM
Written By: Chris Coulon.

*A note to the reader: Danalynn has jumped ahead of me by several days.  This post is our journey from Kampala to Southwest Uganda.

Our journey from Kampala began with a nice relaxing wait in front of the central post office, enjoying the sunshine and the early morning passer-bys.  However, if you were to ask Danalynn it was an hour delay on a stuffy bus that was slowly filling with diesel exhaust; to which I might respond that she was just delirious on these “alleged” fumes.

In any case, we did at some point manage to get going, we couldn’t be too late; we had an appointment with the all o’clock traffic.  By midday we were breathing exhaust free air for the first time in nearly a week and enjoying the scenery along the way.  The journey traditionally takes roughly six hours by car; however, we decided on the cheaper/slower/safer option of the Posta bus.  The bus gets you where you need to go and packs the added bonus of stopping in just about every town and village along the way to deliver mail (oh and the drivers on average are more sane).  As a result, our trip ended up being somewhere around 9 hours, but who’s counting?  In preparation for our long journey we systematically dehydrated ourselves because we were unsure whether or not the opportunity to relieve ourselves would present itself (it’s always good to plan ahead).

Ugandan Valley
The view from our bus rounding a corner in the hills

The trip turned out to be great.  We discovered the best way to see Uganda is by traveling via bus (assuming your diver is mentally sound).  In nearly every town or village we stop, the bus was swarmed on either side by food vendors.  The specialties are dependent upon the region, so as we travelled the foods changed.  About two hours into our trip we decided it was time for breakfast.  So, I stuck my head out the window and bought a kilo of fried cassava.  A little later we decided it was time for four grilled plantains and a grilled beef shish-kebab.  Nearing the end of the trip we splurged on a kind of dry heavy bread/cake for our afternoon snack.  All in all we spent a grand total of 4000 Ugandan shillings ($1.35) for our day’s pampering.

Ugandan Roadside Village
Passing through one of the many villages along the way

For me the trip turned out to be a perfect balance of scenery, eating and reading.  Anytime that I got bored of one, there were plenty of the others to fall back on.  (One of the benefits of a wife with easily provoked motion sickness is that Danalynn never seems to want to use the kindle on these trips)  Our journey took the upwards route, as we began to ascend to the highest part of the country and the Verunga volcano range (setting for Michael Crichton’s exciting jungle story “The Congo”).  The highlands of Uganda are the banana producing capital of the country.  We begin to pass extensive groves of bananas, plantains and East African Matoke trees.  In one field we observed a line of nearly 30 people (mostly women in brightly colored dresses) swinging hoes in a uniform line, plowing the field.

At some point several hours into the trip, a worried looking mother rushed from her seat at the back of the bus to the front dragging a boy.  It became very clear that the boy was about to relieve himself whether the bus stopped or not and the lady thought it imperative to give the driver the option of having it on his bus or off.  The bus screeched to a halt on the side of the road and most of the bus, seizing their opportunity, rushed off in a mad dash.  Men, women and children took little to no heed of usual social norms as they filled the adjacent field.  Modesty is best left for places possessing consistently available toilets. 

Ugandan Countryside
Some of the countryside

The last excitement came to us in the afternoon, roughly two-thirds of the way through our journey.  As we made our way up a hill next to a town the bus sputtered and died.  This was not a good sign.  It is frequent that buses break down and only more frequent that you will receive no refund when it happens.  The whole bus remained silent with an air of apprehension.  The driver’s attempts to turn the engine over come to no avail.  Several minutes went by before fifty people silently willed the bus engine to kick and we slowly limped up the hill to the town.  Luckily after an hour and a half of waiting something was done under the hood and we were rolling along our way once again.  We have to hand it to East Africans, from what we’ve seen in Kenya and Uganda, they have a knack for keeping old, run-down and oft abused vehicles alive, if only just barely.   

Ugandan Creek
Rays of sunshine over a Ugandan creek

Regardless of our enjoyment during our day’s trip it was a relief that evening when we finally disembarked, and what better way to stretch our legs than an evening stroll across town to explore our new surroundings. 
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Preparing Food in Rural Uganda

Wednesday, November 16, 2011  at 6:58 AM
rural uganda farming by Danalynn C
Every house has several small fields where food is grown.  Common crops are plantains, beans, peas and cabbage.  Farmers will buy and sell among each other so they have food all year round, but most crops are not cash-crops.

rural uganda farming by Danalynn C
This man was rowing his dugout canoe across the lake to refill his supply of rice.

rural uganda farming by Danalynn C
Days begin early, usually with working in the fields.  Food, water and farming materials are always carried on top of the head, even when maneuvering the steep, slippery, narrow pathways.

rural uganda farming by Danalynn C
Most of the day is spent working the fields, whether planting, taking care of growing crops, or harvesting.  This woman is working in a field of flowers which are used to make insecticide—this is one of the few cash crops that are cultivated.

rural uganda farming by Danalynn C
After a long day of work, it’s time to come home and prepare dinner over a wood-burning fire.  In the evenings, the valley is filled with smoke from the fires.

rural uganda farming by Danalynn C
We helped our Couchsurfing host prepare dinner most nights—here, Chris is tending the fire (it must be watched constantly to keep it at the right temperature for cooking the food) while our host checks to see if the rice is done

rural uganda farming by Danalynn C
Eating dinner by candlelight—potatoes, plantains, a slice of avocado, shredded cabbage and beans, a feast!
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Snaps of Kampala

Monday, November 14, 2011  at 6:58 AM
kampala uganda by danalynn c
A normal intersection—the lack of lanes, traffic lights, and regard for any traffic rules leads to intersections being hazardous places for pedestrians and drivers alike.

Kampala is a buzzing blend of African, Indian and Chinese culture.  While we were there, we sampled Indian-style rice pilaf, enjoyed Chinese food (ginger beef!) and, of course, ate our fill of the traditional Ugandan matoke (the main staple, similar to mashed potatoes but made from matoke bananas). 

kampala uganda by danalynn c
From a shop balcony, watching a man load up his share of plantains to sell for the day.

kampala uganda by danalynn c
A small eatery close to our Couchsurfer in a neighborhood outside of downtown Kampala—we enjoyed huge plates of beans, peas, rice and matoke for under $2 USD per meal

We stayed in Kampala for about a week, dividing our time equally between a downtown hotel ($6/night) and two different Couchsurfing hosts.

kampala uganda by danalynn c
Watching the sun rise from our Couchsurfing host’s house.  Glass shards are commonly embedded at the top of walls to serve as a deterrent for would-be climbers.

kampala uganda by danalynn c
A main street in downtown Kampala.  The bridge leads unwary visitors to a labyrinth of shops, eateries and vendors, with a huge matatu/bus yard beyond.

However, after a week we were ready to move somewhere with fewer people, less exhaust and more trees!
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Kampala Nights

Friday, November 11, 2011  at 10:25 AM
Written By: Chris Coulon.

After two weeks on Rusinga Island and nearly a week in the small town of Kisumu, Kampala seems like a packed metropolis.  If anything it appears to be even busier than Nairobi, with its packed streets teeming with voracious vendors and pedestrians alike.

Our first few days are spent in the jam packed center, where the town never seems to sleep.  We find cheap accommodations ($6 a night) including a simple bed in an otherwise empty room with one unlighted toilet to be shared among the other thirty guests on our floor, but at those prices it’s hard to complain.  Our first days here are spent meandering the many alleyways, trying different street foods and at one point literally stumbling into a big demonstration for Uganda’s opposition party.

Our boots caked in Kampala mud from the rains the previous night

Fortune has graced us yet again, and on the evening of October 30 we find ourselves at a lively Halloween party for the Kampala couchsurfing community and all their current guests.  Over thirty guests found their way to the party, many are foreigners currently living in Kampala and more than a few are Ugandans themselves.  Many of the guests wait until they have arrived before donning costumes as Halloween is a relatively new concept here, but that does not deter one Polish man from travelling half way across the city on public transport dressed as a woman. 

Our local "restaurant" caters to people and chickens!

Through a series of strange circumstances Danalynn and I spend two of our days in a small house to ourselves in one of Kampala’s suburbs.  Originally, we were supposed to meet our host the day we arrived in Kampala, but after realizing he forgot a digit or two from his phone number (three to be exact) we were unable to get a hold of him for several days.  On the second day we decide to find another couch surfer with a last minute request.  One good samaritan tells us that he is booked up with other surfers but we can crash at his brother’s flat.  We happily agree just to meet some new people, but on the way, we discover this “brother” is actually our original host that we have not been able to get a hold of.  So in the end we are shown to our original host’s place by his brother, and did not even meet the owner until our final morning, when we had a great chat with him for thirty minutes before departing.

Matoke and beans, breakfast of Ugandan champions!

Our last few days in Kampala were spent with a couple of American expats who now run an organization called UConnect, which strives to give access to computers and library archives for many of Uganda’s poorest students and in places often devoid of internet.  I was also tickled to discover our host belongs to, as he termed it, “a local drinking club, with a running problem.” We thought, “what better way to see Kampala then on a run with some of the locals?”  As such I found myself on our last night in town jogging 8 kilometers up, down and around the many hills of Kampala before ending at a bar where the club members zealously fulfilled the clubs true mission.
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Nomadic Cost of Living: October

Wednesday, November 9, 2011  at 6:58 AM
During the month of October, Chris and I ventured to a new continent: Africa!  Let's see what our first month in Africa cost us:

Transportation Total: $70.50

Housing Total: $50.00

Food Total: $119.00

Other Items Total: $442
-including $200 for visas and $110 for our safari

Total nomadic cost of living for October: $681.50

Check out how this month compares with the cost of previous months of traveling through Europe!

In the month of October, we...

Had our first day backpacking in Nairobi, Kenya.

Hand-fed giraffes at the Giraffe Center!

Experienced a Safari in the Nairobi National Park.

Traveled across Kenya via bus to a small island on Lake Victoria.

Experienced life in rural Kenya, complete with walking over an hour to get internet.

traveling by ferry Kenya Africa
Traveling by ferry across Lake Victoria
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Leaving Kenya

Monday, November 7, 2011  at 6:58 AM
Written By: Chris Coulon.

We rose early in the morning on our last day with Tom (our couchsurfing host in Kisumu) in order to catch our bus for the Ugandan border.  We are greeted with freshly prepared ginger Chai tea and toast. 

Memorable Quotes from Tom:
“Oh that fruit… that fruit is not kind.” 
-Tom’s response to Danalynn asking if she could eat some fruit off his trees. 
“It is good to be in Rome… but sometimes you do not want to be Roman.”
            -Tom laughing at us for not drinking his tap water.

Kisumu Tea
Heating up water for morning tea

After saying goodbye to Tom and his family we make our way to the matatu stand and then to the gas station that serves as the bus stand for Acacia buses.  Our ride to the border is to take roughly three hours and cost us a grand total of $7.00.  The bus is uncommonly comfy and even the day, much cooler than the previous week has been.

As we approach, the Ugandan border makes itself apparent with a mass of semi-trucks lined up for more than a kilometer squelching out exhaust and vendors everywhere.  Once off the bus we weave our way between inquisitive boda boda drivers and would be guides to get lunch with our last $1.30 of Kenyan shillings, we dine on chipati, sakuma-wali and crackers. 

Ugandan Border
Ugandan border, Busia Kenya

Crossing the border, the first thing that we notice is all the bright colors.  It seems every job here has their specific uniform in a certain color: boda boda drivers are all in pink, food vendors in navy blue and currency exchangers are all in a bright purple.  Even the Ugandan currency is a conglomeration of bright pinks, greens and blues.  It also becomes more noticeable that there are significantly more police and armed guards on this side of the border.  We come to realize later that it seems nearly a quarter of all people here are hired as police, military or security guards.  There are enough guns to keep an arms connoisseur amused for hours.  In addition to the usual hodgepodge of Kaloshnikovs, there seems to be quite a few hand-me down shotguns and some of the more interesting World War II relics including Mausers and even a couple American made M1 garands.  The weapons for most serve almost exclusively as a deterrent, as many don’t have more than a few bullets if any at all, not to mention some of them are in no fit condition to do more than decorate the local security apparatus. 

After wandering through the border town of Busia for an hour we manage to locate a small bus/van that will take us the rest of the 5 hour journey to Kampala for $5 dollars each.  As we make our way out of town we have our first run in with the UPDF (Ugandan People’s Defense Forces) or their national army at a road block, followed by a couple more several miles down the road.  There seems to be little more purpose in these road blocks than to search our van and its passengers, fishing for bribes.  Luckily, today, the military seems more interested in our bus driver than us and we scrape through all road blocks bribe free. 

Source of the Nile
Seems like every country in this part of Africa boasts of having the source of the Nile; this is the one coming from Lake Victoria

Uganda, unlike most of Kenya, is a hilly country at a relatively high altitude for African standards and as such the scenery is much more lush and green.  Cacti are quickly replaced by banana trees and even the occasional pine tree, which seem almost out of place in the tropical climate.  The small villages we pass along to the road here seem even simpler than the many that we passed in Kenya.  Mud huts make up the majority of the buildings here in the Ugandan countryside.

After a couple hours of driving, we pull off to the side of the road and our van is immediately accosted by dozens of blue uniformed food vendors, each attempting to shove their food through the windows.  There are shish-kebabs of beef, chicken, pork and liver, bags of peanuts, grilled plantains and fried cassava.  It is all delicious, cheap and the best part is that we don’t even have to get up to be served.  After several minutes (it seems the only reason for our stop is to appease the vendors) the van pulls back onto the road and we are on our way again.

We are happy when we finally pull into Kampala, unlike our first bus of the day, this one was little more than a van packed with 15 people and our packs have been on our laps for the last 5 hours.  We step out of the van into the rush and mass of people that is central Kampala and make our way down the street in search of a cheap hotel for the night.

Kampala Street
Busy street in Kampala
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Kisumu: The Just-Right Town

Friday, November 4, 2011  at 6:58 AM
Much like the proverbial Goldilocks, it was only after we went to Nairobi (too big) and Risunga (too small) that we found Kisumu (just right!).  Kisumu is a medium-sized city in western Kenya and, in sharp contrast to elsewhere in Kenya, appeared clean, cheerful, and bustling but not overwhelming.  The people there were friendly, not pushy, and there were just enough other foreigners so we didn’t get gawked at for being white while walking down the streets.

Favorite memories:

sunset lake victoria kisumu kenya
Watching the sunset over Lake Victoria as it turned the water golden

cooking kenyan food kisumu kenya
Making traditional Kenyan food with our Couchsurfing host

animal market kisumu kenya
Hanging out in a variety of parks (and watching an early-morning animal market!)

Not-so-great memories:

fish ugali kisumu kenya
Getting scammed at a restaurant and having to pay an exorbitant sum of money (for a grand total of $12 USD for a lunch, instead of $4 USD that we had been expecting).  This was partly due to our stupidity, however, as we didn’t check the price of the exact dish we ordered before we ordered it (so we couldn’t argue the inflated price)—lesson learned!

sunset lake victoria kisumu kenya
Narrowly missing falling into the gutters innumerable times.  This sounds silly, but the gutters in Kisumu are about five feet deep, one to three feet wide, and could also appear as random holes in the sidewalk—at one point we came across a three feet by two feet hole (it was about five feet deep) in the middle of our sidewalk.  No warning, no signs, just random traps throughout the city.  However, lucky for us, we never actually fell in one of these holes!  I don't have a photo of these crazy death-traps, unfortunately, so it's another sunset photo this time!

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Musings on Technology in Kenya

Wednesday, November 2, 2011  at 6:58 AM

reading kindle kenya africa
Chris reading the Kindle in the doorway of our mud hut in rural Kenya

Technology is a bit funny so far in Kenya, at least in the areas where we have been.  Even though almost every person has a cell phone, most of them at least somewhat fancy (many of the phones have cameras), the sight of most other types of technology is greeted with stares and incomprehension.  Bringing out a camera on the street may be ignored, but more often than not people will notice and remember that you have a camera—children in particular seem to want their picture taken and then will want to see it on the screen, and people of all ages won’t hesitate to ask you for a ‘snap’ or a print of a photo if you take one of them or with them.   

My Ipod (an original shuffle, very much outdated) is largely unrecognized and I am ever thankful that I made a case for our Kindle that looks like a regular book, so we can read it in public places without people realizing what it is (for the most part).  The main impact on me has been to make me feel somewhat reluctant to snap photos of everyday events—what I usually love taking photos of!   

Kisumu Kenya Africa Sunset
Admiring a sunset over Lake Victoria

The benefit, however, is taking away some of our reliance on technology and forcing us to use other means to entertain ourselves and remember our experiences.  I notice that I have been relying much more on writing down my experiences rather than taking photographs, plus my sketchbook has earned even more of my time.  It’s funny how different environments can provoke a change in activities that usually you might consider completely unrelated!
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