Monthly Archives: January 2014

Expectation vs. Reality in Ethiopian Public Restrooms, Among Other Tales from a Day Spent in the Airport in Addis Ababa

…in which we discover a grave inefficiency in the Ethiopian public restroom system that cost a good man a sock, and how this is a sign and symbol for why our author so desperately wishes to return to living Brazilishly.

The airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia offers the most comically bad example of customer service I’ve directly experienced. Stupefying in its contradiction, really, since every Ethiopian I met in the US is hardworking and friendly. But inside the airport, it’s another story entirely; maybe it’s something to do with the collectively depressive atmosphere in the building itself? Dunno. We’ll leave that analysis to historians and shrinks. Before I get my whine on, let me say that I’ve never had a maid, always done my own cleaning and cooking, never ask others to do anything for me if I can do it myself, and go far outta my own way to be humble and simple in my daily matters. I’m independent and self-reliant to a fault. So it’s not like I’m used to having my gluteal cleft smooched in customer service situations. Don’t need it, don’t want it, don’t care. But in the Addis airport, they’ve elevated Hatred of Your Personal Comfort to a plateau I previously assumed only the Greeks occupied. But now, NOW, I know.

So without further ado, Honorable and Esteemed Judge Wopner, if it pleases The People’s Court, allow me to advance the accumulated evidence:

Exhibit A: There is but a single bank in international Terminal 2, and like all airport banks, it boasts an LCD screen with gargantuan red letters showing exchange rates for local and foreign currencies. Yet they offer no such service and stare back at you blankly when you stupidly shove dollars through the window and ask for some Ethiopian money.

Exhibit B; Three mini-mart convenience stores, side-by-side across from my gate, which respectively charged $1, $2, and $5 for the exact same bottle of water. Further complicating the scenario, the lackluster sales reps – who admittedly probably earn’t earning enough to make it worth their time to be terribly invested in my satisfaction – were wholly inconsistent in even the selling part of it. The $1 store sold to me two times in the morning, then turned up their snooty noses in the afternoon, my petition for quenched thirst at basement bargain rates denied! The woman at the register seized the bottle from my hand, replaced it to the shelf, and with but a single dismissive wave of her petite manicured hand ordered me to purchase my water elsewhere.

Exhibit C: Bathrooms that were being cleaned and thus closed from – God as my witness, I fibbeth not! – 9 AM ’til 2:30 PM when it was time for me to board the connecting flight to Dubai. And I don’t mean one bathroom, I mean EVERY ONE in the terminal, and all simultaneously. I pinched it in for as long as a man’s decency will allow, but dammit, ultimately something had to give. So I launched my own version of the Italian colonization of Ethiopia, barreling into the crapper, slamming the door shut and planting a flag, then assuming my rightful position atop the, um, “throne”… Only to discover after the fact, to my unequivocal dismay, there was no toilet paper to be had. Just a castaway spool. Without going into details, let’s just that I’m down one sock.

Yet behold, amigos, how how the worm has turned here in Dubai! How can a four-hour flight separate such different worlds? Your intrepid traveler would surely like to know. They could not be more distinct: Dubai’s airport offers a 24/7 Starbucks… Slick linoleum floors… Bathrooms where ass wiping doesn’t require resorting to McGayver tactics… Shower facilities… And Burger King, amigos, BURGER KING! And all with posted prices that do not require haggle! I merely have to keep my sanity until 7 AM tomorrow morning when I board the next and final flight back to Rio, that I might bring this jaunt full-circle and by late Wednesday afternoon begin anew to live Brazilishly.

This month-long African aside has been a riot, and assuredly for all the right reasons. I’ve experienced a new part of the world, I’ve done good work, I’ve met good people, and my eyes have been opened. But the circus, eventually, must draw shut its colorful curtains and strike the tent. It’s time to go home. Back to Rio de Janeiro, to the beach and sungas galore, and a stable diet not involving room service rice and chicken every friggin’ eve. It will also be good to get away from Ugandan Mountain Dew, since besides rotting my gut with all that sugar, I’m confident the high levels of Yellow #5 have rendered me sterile.

The Macabre Cottage Industry of Rwandan Genocide Tourism

SAM_3420Though I can’t attest to it being a national policy, my hunch is that Rwandan authorities correctly reason any money made on tourism from the 1994 genocide ought to fall into Rwandan hands. This is fair. After all, it wasn’t gringos who bore the cataclysmic and population-decimating brunt of that tragic national bloodletting. 800,000 dead in 100 days; innocent and hapless men, women, and children sliced to ribbons with machetes or pulverized into sawdust by the crazed men’s frantic bludgeoning; entire extended families vaporized from existence; the Tutsi ethnic group nearly relegated to the annals of history, dinosaurs for a post-modern era. And despite all its robust mountaintop proclamations of “Never Again” during the latter half of the 20th century, the West pulled out and played spectator while it happened. So if Americans and Europeans visiting Rwanda now want to see where it all went down, doling a few bills into local rice bowl for the privilege might best be understood as a justifiable tax for past inaction and omission.

Beyond ethical considerations, that Rwanda ought control its own genocide tourism industry is economically sound. Genocide tourism injects money – in the aggregate a considerable amount, depending on the time of year – into the local economy, directly and through forward/backward linkages. For example, a taxi driver takes you to a memorial site, you pay the fare, and then he stops for gas and lunch at a convenience store on the way back. He later uses the remainder of the fare to feed and clothe his kids, maybe even hits a local bar for a beer with the fellas. You were only responsible for the taxi fare, but the cash bleeds into follow-on purchases supporting local business. It is worth mentioning that this also relieves the Rwandan government of what would otherwise be an exacerbated unemployment conundrum. Jobs are good for stability, and stability is one concrete way to begin finally making good on cliché phraseology like “Never Again”.

All good. No reasonable person doubts that Rwanda controlling something so vital to both its history and economy is the right thing. But at the juncture where profit eclipses every last official statement about how the sites, memorials, and museums dotting the country exist to raise awareness, I’ve got a problem. Everyone knows nothing is free, and governments are hardly strangers to using feel-good public declarations as a loincloth veiling bottom-line motives. But still, it cannot always be about money. There’s a legitimate need for outsiders to know what happened in Rwanda, and crowding them for cash every step of the way will ultimately frustrate their appreciation of the experience and what they learn while having it.

SAM_3554I saw firsthand how the cottage industry of Rwandan genocide tourism functions, both its positive and negative aspects. My first morning in Kigali, I delicately informed hotel reception I wanted to see the local genocide history sites. A trusted taxi driver soon materialized. His name was Gabriel. I told him I wanted to go to Kigali’s international genocide museum. Like an apple pie with your McDonalds value meal, he upsold me to a few hours’ worth of visits to an assortment of macabre locations, including the Nyamata church massacre site (the infamous one former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited shortly after the cessation of hostilities) roughly 30 km outside the capital. Gabriel would act as tour guide as well, being a Tutsi male 11 years old at the time the killing happened and whose entire family, minus an aunt, was wiped out along the way. He would provide a narrative that was both equal parts informative and bone-chilling. For this he charged $50 USD, a steal when you consider the profoundly personal narrative Gabriel would provide.

SAM_3406We first visited the Nyamata church, a 40-minute drive from Kigali proper. A minor pseudo-strip mall town with a population now less than a tenth of what it was when the genocide began, there is nothing really to see here, with the obvious exception of the church itself. They allowed photos on the outside, but not the interior. This was a shame, since the outside is entirely unworthy of snapshots: it bears no resemblance to a church now, certainly not to the location where one of the most sickening displays of gratuitous violence in human history transpired. The exterior of the building now bears the resemblance of any renovated, sterile museum structure. But the inside is nearly as it appeared in 1994 when the slaughter abated, the walls streaked with dried blood and the filthy clothing and dust-caked shoes of the vilely murdered littering the floor and pews, all ironically overseen by a wall-mounted statue of the Virgin Mary.

I let Gabriel know I wanted to get photos. I’d spent 20 years hoping to make it to this exact venue, and now that I was there, I’d be damned if the opportunity to capture the moment passed undocumented. He told me it was not a good idea. He was not personally opposed to it, but should the guards or minders in the vicinity catch me doing it, they’d confiscate the camera or, minimally, demand a manual review of the pictures and delete anything taken inside the church. I asked him why all the fuss. Even KISS – a machine that guards its copyright and any money-making ventures attached to it rabidly – allows you to take handheld and cell phone photos in its concerts now. If Gene Simmons can relax, what’s with the Rwandan authorities? Gabriel told me authorities feared photos taken could later be sold for profit, a profit that would remain outside Rwandan.

 

 

I asked Gabriel if he could think of a way around it. He spent the following hour making calls to people he personally knew in the ministry of tourism, but the best he half-solution he could muster was an unreasonably gargantuan bureaucratic hurdle: I’d have to personally visit the ministry… Seek exceptional audience with a particular staffer… Fill out a special permission slip… Submit it for approval… Then wait for approval… And they didn’t open ‘til Monday, two days later. At any rate, there was no way to tell how long it would take to obtain approval. In a system seemingly designed intentionally to filibuster and thwart photographic endeavor, I didn’t fool myself that even the most articulate and heartfelt explanation would meet with understanding and a speedy resolution. Really, this seemed a torturously long avenue to obtaining blessing for a handful of personal pictures. I took the added measure of speaking directly with the guards and offering to make a grander-than-average “donation” to the site if they’d let me take photos. They refused. I offered to put the “donation” directly into their hands for, of course, onward passage to the ministry. Still they declined. I explained in detail to them my plan to educate and sensitize peers, colleagues, and family back home about Rwanda’s history. And thrice they denied me. I squeezed off a few shots while no one was looking anyhow, and made a mental note of the ones I’d get if afforded a serendipitous return trip to Nymata.

SAM_3547I returned the next day. This time, though, I flew solo. I took a local bus to Nyamata then walked the two miles to the church. This was no small feat, given the haranguing I withstood once in Nyamata, assailed by every moto-taxi driver and unoccupied tour guide within what felt like the national radius, all of whom made compelling – but ultimately failed – arguments about not only why I needed a ride to the site, but sadly predicting that my second-hand experience of the Rwandan genocide would never be complete unless I were accompanied by someone speaking to me broken English and charging another 50 dollars for the luxury. I politely declined. Once I made it to the church, I was relieved to find no guards or minders. The gates were open and I was free to enter. I spotted one tour guide with two white women, otherwise the facility was abandoned. My lucky day. But as I made it to the church’s busted rusty gates, the sole guide present intervened, stepping into my path and testily interrogating, “Excuse me, but don’t you need someone to help you?” No thanks, I don’t. He would not let me pass. “Don’t you know the rules here? Why don’t you want a guide?” I asked him if he was the police or site authority. He answered no. I asked him if there was a regulation against me touring the building alone. He again answered no. So I asked him what the problem was. He said there was no problem. I asked him why he was blocking me. He said he wasn’t blocking me. I informed that he appeared to be, and that this suggested there was a problem. Through very clearly gritted teeth, he stepped aside and I passed.

SAM_3423Once inside, I found an isolated vantage point in a corner of the cathedral and starting snapping way. I had perhaps a two-minute window in which to accomplish this, as the guide was hung up outside completing his initial tour of the exterior for the tourists under his auspices. Once they entered, he fixed a hostile gaze upon me the remainder of the time we were both there. He knew what I was doing. Now, was this on the same criminal level as pilfering nuclear secrets, and did I have anything serious to fear? Not even close. But did I want to stick around too long and risk being confronted again or, even worse, guards actually showing up and demanding to review my camera? Absolutely not. So after getting what I came for, I exited the building with all haste and returned to the Nyamata bus terminal and ultimately Kigali.

If the available literature, both from the government itself and independent sources like Lonely Planet, say a specific museum or memorial site is free and open to the public, then it should be so. One ought not have to explain to aggravated, over-zealous minders why one has arrived without the services of a tour guide if not required. One should not be barred from taking photos of a non-professional variety, should not be forced to pay (or feel compelled to offer a “donation”) for the opportunity, and should not live in fear of a camera being confiscated. You have invested significant time and resources to get there, you are clearly using a handheld point-and-shoot non-industrial digital camera or cell phone, and you’re hardy a professional photographer anyway. The lackluster and uninspired quality of your ceaseless array of martinis-with-cheesing-colleagues photos on Facebook is testament to that fact. So it’s hard to imagine you converting your genocide memorial keepsake photos – admittedly macabre though they are – into anything beyond mere educational tools for friends and family back home. Though I could never possibly relate to what happened to the Rwandan people, I’m truly sorry it did.  I’m sorry we in the West did nothing to stop it (though whether we could have, short of a full-scale invasion, will remain a question of history). But, please, reconsider the obstructionism and occasional bullying. It’s unnecessary, leaves a bad taste in the mouths of well-meaning visitors, and considering the billions of dollars Western governments consistently contribute in aid to the Rwandan people, a few photos is little to ask in return.

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The Rwandan Machete Excursion: Definitely Not Living Brazilishly

…wherein we learn how the throwing of metal horns broke the ice and led to a memorable encounter between a wayward American and machete-wielding Rwandan possible genocide perpetrators; and a brief treatise on how collectivist cultures have been unfortunately usurped by governments to instigate the commission of unspeakable horrors.

I arrived in Kigali, Rwanda on an exceptionally late-night Ethiopian Airlines flight out of Kampala, Uganda. Pulling into the cheapest hotel I could muster (and by cheap, I mean it has Wi-Fi yet, in a seeming contradiction in technological terms, offers not a solitary power outlet in my room) and slept until 8 AM. I awoke to the sound of straw brooms, dozens of them in the aggregate, their syncopated brushing cadence crooning a soft chorus on the streets below, the melody wafting thru my open window and, for some reason I can’t explain, giving me the ticklish feeling of a Q-tip digging deep in my ear.

Chatting up hotel reception before heading out a few minutes later, they informed me that on the final Saturday of every month, all Rwandans are compelled to clean their public spaces. They mandatorily labor from 7 to 11 AM in a government-mandated program known as muganda, taking to the streets and tidying the sidewalks, parking lots, common gathering places like plazas, and anything else not considered private spaces. Local commissars oversee (read: compel) the participation of members of every community. If they sleep in, feel lazy, or for some other reason simply aren’t particularly civic-minded, community members are fined 5,000 Rwandan Francs (roughly 8 USD); and if too poor to pay, the commissars see to it that a make-up cleaning session is rapidly arranged, and again local authorities are there to ensure compliance. Indeed it is true: gas or grass, but nobody rides for free.

Rwandans are quite serious about this cleaning business. Nothing was open, there were no cars roaming about, no moto-taxis whizzing thru the melee and haranguing me to take a ride, no casual strollers, nothing. Just people cleaning, dutifully and diligently. I began walking up the street, marveling at the silent industry of it all, when I came to an embankment at roadside. It overlooked a vacant lot that was full of people, around 40 Rwandan men with machetes striking down a considerable overgrowth.

They labored, their faces adorned with supreme concentration and submission to the task. They perspired, striated muscles tensing with every downward blow, knuckles knotted like stones atop fingers airlessly clutching their instruments. The men were bringing down their machetes with a fury and vengeance I would not normally have associated with removing weeds from a vacant lot. Maybe it’s just me, but I tend to take things like yard work with less gravity. But these men, no. They didn’t fatigue, and what’s more, their movements were in perfect union: the wavelength of their brutal and incessant synchronized rhythm was not dissimilar to heart cells coming together in a petri dish and gradually assuming the same beat.

Over the last 15 years, though not a farmer myself, I’ve developed somewhat of an expertise on the art of the machete. I’ve been to enough places and seen enough folks in action with this most ancient of cutting tools that, indeed, I can distinguish chicken crap from chicken salad. And let me say here and now that I didn’t even see machetes move so fast in El Salvador over a decade ago, when the country was still largely agricultural and folks there, even the ones choking the country’s too-densely populated urban centers, toted machetes around as a matter of daily course. The Rwandans had practically taken flight, their rusted gray blades a helicopter propeller’s blur in the crisp morning air.

I don’t have to spell out for you what the sight brought to mind. I’d assess that most of the men there were between 30-40 years old, which means the ones on the greater end of that spectrum would have been sufficiently old enough in 1994 to participate in the three-month enduring Hutu genocide of the Tutsi ethnic group, which killed roughly 800,000 people while permanently disfiguring and displacing scores more. This extermination campaign effectively cut Rwanda’s population by a full tenth. In Kigali alone, mass graves hold the mortal remains of 259,000; and I use the word “remains” loosely, since in many cases the corpses were first so brutally hacked, then left to rot so long – accordingly subject to the rapacious appetites of stray dogs and birds of carrion and a quadrillion predator insects – that by the time the killing came to a halt and the bodies were recovered and catalogued, little often remained but a femur or cranium for a man, woman, or child who just three months prior had been a breathing human being. I will also add here that while I’m not an expert in tribal or ethnic distinctions on the African continent, my understanding is that Hutus are shorter and darker than Tutsis. Quickly glancing over the lot and the men slashing about in it, I concluded that they certainly fit this admittedly stereotypical description. And so it was entirely likely, therefore, that a number of these men were low-level genocide perpetrators.

I observed them for five minutes collectively bludgeoning the ground (if this sounds like a short period of time, then I invite you to have a go at five minutes of unabashed machete work yourself) before one of them stopped and looked up. He didn’t even say a word. Yet he did not need to make a sound, for I clocked off a mental “3 Mississippi” before all 40 had stopped and began staring at me as well. It was like a human version of a YouTube video going viral, a meme spreading thru the group, without a word being spoken betwixt them. So if the rhythm of their machetes was locked in unison, so too were their stares a group endeavor. It was so sudden that I barely had a chance to register that I now had, from my vantage spot on the embankment, the absolute and undivided attention of this entire lot of machete-wielding men. I didn’t feel threatened; that’s not my point. They were merely stuck in a bout of compulsory labor and braking to gawk at the muzungu, who was likewise gawking back at them.

At an impasse, and cognizant that one of us had to blink first in this impromptu staring contest, I did the first thing occurring to me: took off my shades, threw up metal horns and greeted them with a hearty, “Hey dudes!!!” And I was greeted in return with a friendly whoop that exploded from the group all at once. A few of them tried throwing metal horns back at me, even, and I saw one of them gingerly correcting another who was doing it with the wrong fingers; he’d given me an Aloha sign instead. And so channeling the late Ronnie James Dio, the ice was broken by metal for this brief and alien moment, a wayward American and a band of machete-wielding possible genocide perpetrators. They did not return to work. They waited – as did I – for what would come next. So I threw them a “thumbs up”, and the whole group threw one back simultaneously. Both their timing and delivery were impeccable, evincing the same group cohesion they did with the chopping, staring, and metal horns.

Officially out of hand gestures, except for throwing up my middle finger (and I was NOT going to do THAT), I shrugged. One of them, near the middle of the mass, held up a garden hoe and said something in either the local language or Swahili – I’m unsure which – and his gestures and broad grin suggested he was asking me if I wanted to clean at their side. I’m in. I sprinted down to the lot, seized the hoe, and began. But they were chuckling; I was not sure why at first, since though I’m certainly no master gardener, I’m sure I know how to handle a hoe. After a moment, one of them spoke to another in French and I thought I heard the word “woman” in the mix. So now this had become a yardstick for masculinity, with a hoe being a lesser tool and the machete being the surefire barometer of a man’s fortitude. So I put down the hoe and pointed at a machete, and they commenced SCREAMING with what I could only describe at a sort of joy; did I pass the test, whatever it was? I bade them back up, and began hacking for all I was worth at the grass in front of me, praying to God that I didn’t cut off my own foot in the process of illustrating the size of my my macho. A few men who were coalesced in my most immediate vicinity scrutinized my technique and began offering advice. Though I did not understand a word they spoke, they touched my right arm, used their hands to attempt correction of my striking position, and made me go slower, guiding my motions. One of them, his own fearsome machete resting on his shoulder whilst he smirked, finally intervened, making me step aside and observe him as he hacked the bejesus out of the brush before us, demonstrating how it’s done. Just standing there, I could feel the wind generated by the force of his machete strikes raining down. At that precise second, a single thought occurred to me and it was this: can you imagine being on the business end of that? And the second thought that occurred to me was that, sadly, it’s quite possible a number of people found that out the hard way.

Eventually, the activity stopped and we all stood around in a circle, awkwardly smiling and making repeatedly failed attempts at communication. A young-ish guy, probably in his early twenties, approached me then, materializing in the group as if dropping from the sky, greeting me in passable English and even using the word “cool” in his opening sentence. He was dressed like any young American hip hop fan; both his brow and clothing were dry, so I divined he was simply a passerby who saw the scene, assumed he’d at least get a chance to practice his English, and came on down. Finally dispensing with formal niceties, he asked me if I needed help, if I was doing okay; I responded that I was fine. Then he, sensing that perhaps I’d benefit from an explanation of everything happening, began. I’m paraphrasing here, but the essence is accurate: “The president said we must avoid what happened in the past. Rwanda needs to be unified. Now we just have one major political party, and the opposition is very small and doesn’t matter. Since President Kagame controls the whole country [note he didn’t say whole government, but whole COUNTRY], he can get things done with no problem. Rwanda is very small and we are efficient people who follow orders well. So when he said we must work, and said we must clean, we know we must do it without question.” I had previously heard that for numerous reasons, Rwandans are methodical about following instructions from authorities. Now I was beginning to see how that manifested in real time.

At this point, two drunken men broke crashed the scene. They were messes, reeking of alcohol, and judging by the unfavorable odors seeping seemingly their every pore, I’m inclined to believe hadn’t bathed in a fortnight. Laughing and staggering, they each took to one side of me, and began jutting their hands into my pockets, saying something that included the English word “money”, for all intents and purposes rifling me for cash. The assembled machetes fell deathly quiet silent at that moment, assumedly sensing trouble. No smiles, no talking, just watching and waiting. I pushed one of the drunks away and stepped back from them both, gingerly smiling to keep things cool but telling them to stop. This was a pucker-factor-ten moment; I didn’t wish to piss off a group I assumed would side with another Rwandan over me. But I also could not let lushes lay hands upon my person and try to yank cash from my shorts, since what good would it achieve beyond showing me to be a lamb, intrinsically vulnerable to other wolves amongst them?

Enter a savior: my new twenty-something friend said but a few quick sentences to the drunks, speaking in hushed tones and, judging by the nodding heads around me, to the general agreement of all present. The two men immediately laid off, backed away, and smiled. I asked him what he said to cause such an abrupt change in their posture, and in his slow and accented drawl he explained, “I told them you are a visitor in our land and they are showing indiscipline. And this is bad.” That was all it took to stop them. Then two cops materialized out of nowhere, grabbed the men by their arms, and hastily led them away. To this, my friend said, “They will spend 3 days in jail to learn a lesson. The police will punish them.”

So I’d been on the streets of Kigali for fewer than two full hours and already felt I’d unlocked the key to explaining the genocide. First, a culture favoring collectivism, with tremendous peer-pressure to act according to specific behavioral guidelines, especially when anything involving the tribe or kin is at stake. Second, a bizarrely uncommon efficiency built into Rwandan culture, by which they are able to achieve results incredibly rapidly. Third, a strong individual work ethic which, when injected into a group context, focuses group members to the extent that they get tunnel vision and see task completion to be the only worthwhile goal, without necessarily questioning the task itself or the methods by which it is being completed. And fourth, a top-down institutional capacity sufficiently robust to compel community members to carry our orders to the letter. The combination of these fou can be applied for social good like collective cleaning, or for social evil like the Tutsi extermination in 1994.

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The Practice of Child Sacrifice: Unexpected and Insane Sidebar from Living Brazilishly

I’m a happy guy, and I’d wager that people typically come away with the impression that I’m more buoyant than average. But since childhood I’ve been inclined toward macabre subject matter in film, books, and music. Even in pre-school, I colored black into the rainbow during a class activity, my teacher promptly admonishing me. I didn’t comprehend her disapproval; in my 5-year old universe, rayon in the rainbow was perfectly sensible. And as the saying goes, it was all downhill from there.

Interest in the sinister side of our earthly experience manifested – as will happen – in my pre-teen years when I began listening to metal, and by the time I was fourteen I’d become a full-throttle death metal nut. I’m from a supportive family with reasonable parents who let me listen to whatever music I liked. My folks only asked that I understand the difference between art and reality. That’s a no-brainer for any metal fan I’ve known. None of us would want someone carrying out the sort of activity you hear about in a Cannibal Corpse song.

The sad part is, there is a sick reality in which some people exist. And it’s everywhere. It’s not restricted to a single place, time, or group of people. History shows that the world over, some folks simply live on a bizarre different plain, and their values aren’t the same as yours and mine. They are thankfully a minority, but still: remember what the cops found in Jeff Dahmer’s Milwaukee apartment?

So the week I arrived in Kampala – a city sufficiently modern that they even have Mountain Dew – I was reminded of this fact by a newspaper article entitled “East Leads Uganda in Child Sacrifice”. Which, as you’d imagine, piqued my interest for all the wrong reasons. Are we to believe that the northern, southern, and western regions of the Ugandan nation likewise have peeps who engage in activities of such perverse suffering? And the east just happens to be taking the statistical lead? And why does the east do better than the rest: is it sheer talent or conviction propelling them to the front of the pack? There’s no way around it, this stuff is insane. It also occurred to me that while metal bands frequently sing about this stuff as a matter of routine course, and all we metal fans throw up horns in approval of The Most Brutal Lyrics EVER, this stuff truly is no laughing matter and, honestly, we probably shouldn’t be treating it as entertainment, even though we do so with no ill intention. It’s probably for the same reason that the majority of the gangsta rap purchasing public in America is middle-class Caucasians; they are intrigued by a reality that most (unless you’re Enimem or Vanilla Ice, of course) will never have to live, like a kind of intellectual or artistic tourism. But in Uganda, real kids are being cut to real pieces, and that’s wroth keeping in mind

After the article, I kept my eyes open for anything related to the topic, and was frankly floored by how rapidly I found myself surrounded by information tidbits related to child sacrifice. It’s as though the gates were opened and the information flowed forth onto my daily radar. To be fair, it’s not just Uganda. The world in general is a tough place for children. Not everyone gets the “level playing field” upbringing and opportunities that come from simply being randomly whelped by yo’ momma in the United States, Canada, or another developed industrial nation; and even in those places, there abounds a plethora of youth that doesn’t carry a light load in life. Ever been so southeast DC? Los Angeles’ skid row? The Mississippi Delta and many parts of Alabama or Arkansas?

But when you add the complicating, exacerbating elements of being born in a place like the Ugandan countryside to the mix, you’re staring dumb and defenseless into the grill of a downright combustible situation, the kind of place Pat Benetar referenced in the song “Hell is for Children”. Look at the poverty into which most of the kids here are born, even ones in the supposedly “better off” urban zone; the near-total dearth of education and onward employment opportunities; the lack of adequate health care for the overwhelming majority of the national population, resulting in a high infant mortality rate, massive HIV/AIDS infection incidence, and a life span on average of 54 years. Think about that last statistic. We’re still a full decade from official retirement age at 54 in the United States, and most folks will tell you that’s when you enter the best years of life. Don’t we all joke that mid-fifties are when it’s time for a second puberty, a mid-life crisis, a new Porsche? Not so in Uganda. You’re born into a fight-or-die scenario and it doesn’t shift even marginally more into your unfortunate favor even under optimal circumstances most of the time you live. So you get the impression that even when their parents are doing their absolute best, the striking multitude of Ugandan children don’t have reasonable expectation of a brighter tomorrow.

An additional consideration ought be voiced for little girls born into these places. The countryside practice of genital mutilation comes to mind as a gender-specific detriment girls here face from the time they leave the womb. Recently, reports have been numerous on local radio shows in Kampala about the practice of female relatives using coconuts to smash the breasts of girls once they hit their teenage years. The rationale, apparently, is to make them less desirable to men, thereby reducing the possibility of teenage pregnancies. It is hard for any reasonable person to understand how this short-sighted and brutal technique makes anything better whatsoever for the child in question, the community she inhabits, or the overall Ugandan nation. And national leadership’s near-total silence on the theme can only be understood as a tacit approval of it. Then again, this ought come as no shock: even the president here recently stated of homosexuals that “even with legislation [referring to a recent draconian anti-gay bill passing through the Ugandan Parliament] they will simply go underground and continue practicing homosexuality or lesbianism for mercenary reasons. […]. You cannot call an abnormality an alternative orientation. It could be that the Western societies, on account of random breeding, have generated many abnormal people.”

So a few days ago, I had to interview a Ugandan man as part of my official duties. He came calling for a tourist visa, and would be traveling to the United States to a known university that had invited him to present a paper about the practice of child sacrifice in the Ugandan countryside. Fascinated to meet someone on the “good guy” side of the divide – and to be sure, most Ugandans ARE on the right side of history in this case – I asked him things related to his job, already planning to approve his visa but assuming his endeavors were predominantly within the academic realm. I assumed he used solely words on paper to affect a change in people’s thinking, but that he wasn’t on the “action” side of the equation. All good, since anything to fight child sacrifice is noble and worthy, since it all has the potential of changing minds and drawing awareness to the issue.

But how wrong I was. Borrowing a page from Quixote’s “hazanas, no palabras” (actions, not words) playbook, this guy also has a hardcore side: he goes undercover to infiltrate child sacrifice shrines throughout the countryside, documenting those responsible and, tragically, the children who are on the business end of the knife. With all gravity he said to me, “Believe me, I could tell you some stories.” He then proceeded to reconstruct an abbreviated version of the laundry list of horrors he’d personally witnessed in the course of his labors, and told me of the specific things that had happened to the “fortunate” survivors featured in the two info pamphlets I included at the outset of this posting: tongues cut out, heads machete-whacked, though somehow saved last-minute and spirited away prior to hearts being carved from torsos. You can’t make this stuff up. It’s insane that this sort of stuff happens in the world, but outstanding to see even one person taking a stand against it.

The interview made me feel blessed for a litany of reasons. First, though I’ll preface this by saying I’m not an uber-nationalistic guy, times like these make me feel fortunate to be American. Yes, we have our problems, but they’re nothing like THAT. Second, I’m in a job that gives me the capacity, even in a very limited manner, to combat this sort of thing: the consular officer who approves the guy’s visa so he can travel to the US and bring attention to the issue; the political officer who demarches local or national government about it; the public relations officer who gives a speech decrying the practice and condemning it with every iota of the collective spirit of the world community. Never a dull moment, even when elements of the day-to-day grind can sometimes feel frustrating or you’re dealing in dark subject matter you’d rather not. But approving this man for travel was one of the bright moments for me. It really doesn’t get any better.

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Uganda’s Anti-Gay Laws: One Aside from Living Brazilishly Which Merits Special Attention

…in which we learn of the true priorities of the Ugandan people, along the way illustrating the folly and pettiness of politicians who fashion themselves moral regulators of a population that is chronically under-nourished and, indeed, would rather eat a slice of a large pepperoni pizza than participate in officially-sanctioned hate-mongering.

Newscasts show there exist three things piquing the global public’s interest about this nation of 36 million right now: the conflict just over the border in South Sudan; Joseph Kony and his murderous, child soldier-enlisting Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA); and Uganda’s anti-homosexuality laws, which grow consistently more draconian as time marches back to the Dark Ages here. And this, for no reason any outside observer can grasp. What, really, justifies the exceptional volume of bile the central government here spews forth on this specific topic? A gay man never tried to assassinate the president, and I have yet to hear tell of a conspiracy involving a cabaret of sinister homosexuals ruinously bent on further fragmenting the economy and defiling Ugandan youth. In cruel fact, if the history’s spotlight illuminates anything, it’s that Uganda’s virile machos have been the parties responsible for the poor military and civilian governments folks here have tolerated, and they alone aptly account for the constant economic privation (not to mention occasional officially-sanctioned bloodshed; recall Idi Amin?) characterizing the Ugandan nation since its break from the then-dry and flappy colonial British teet in 1962. So I’m not sold on gays meriting so much scrutiny from the government in Kampala, when any blind man can see you public well-being here probably hinges on a complex of far more important issues.

And yet the Ugandan Parliament fashions itself a moral regulator and, as such, drums up laws governing bedroom behavior on a more-or-less frequent basis. They’re so consistent in this pointless endeavor, in fact, that an ignorant outsider might readily assess passage of such laws dominates the government’s domestic agenda. Wikipedia sums up the most recent round of legislation nicely:

“The Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Bill (often called the “Kill the Gays bill” in the media due to the originally proposed death penalty clauses) was passed by the Parliament of Uganda on 20 December 2013 with the death penalty proposal dropped in favor of life in prison. The bill must be signed by the President of Uganda before becoming law. The legislative proposal would broaden the criminalization of same-sex relations in Uganda domestically, and further includes provisions for Ugandans who engage in same-sex relations outside of Uganda, asserting that they may be extradited for punishment back to Uganda, and includes penalties for individuals, companies, media organizations, or NGOs that know of gay people or support LGBT rights. The private member’s bill was submitted by Member of Parliament David Babati on 14 October 2009. Same-sex relationships are currently illegal in Uganda—as they are in many sub-Saharan African countries—punishable by incarceration in prison for up to 14 years. A special motion to introduce the legislation was passed a month after a two-day conference was held in which three American Christians asserted that homosexuality is a direct threat to the cohesion of African families. Several sources have noted endemic homophobia in Uganda has been exacerbated by the bill and the associated discussions about it.”

Rights activists speculate that roughly 500,000 Ugandans are gay. That’s more people than many American cities, including Tallahassee, Biloxi, Greenville, Mobile, and Morgantown, among a laundry list of additional ones. That’s a lot of people, and they are spread throughout the country, like gay populations anywhere in the world, suggesting that like in the United States most Ugandans probably have at least one gay relative, know someone who is gay (even if closeted), and/or conduct some sort of dealing on a business or personal level with a homosexual, even if they are not wholly cognizant of it. And yet the statistics would have us believe that Ugandans are quite against homosexuality. Again, Wikipedia sums this one up succinctly as well:

“According to the 2007 Pew Global Attitudes Project, 96 percent of Ugandan residents believe that homosexuality is a way of life that society should not accept, which was the fifth-highest rate of non-acceptance in the 45 countries surveyed. A poll conducted in 2010, however, revealed that 11 percent of Ugandans viewed homosexual behavior as being morally acceptable.”

This may all be well and true. People will oft profess extreme political positions when prompted for an opinion. But I just had a personal experience here in Kampala that was not only laughable in the sincerest sense of the word, but directly contradicted all the aforementioned, in my admittedly pea-sized brain suggesting that Ugandans really don’t give a rat’s ass and, if asked what they really want, would more than likely just ask for food.

My second day in Kampala, as dusk befell the city, I passed two men walking down the street adjacent to my hotel. They were holding hands. The two moved slowly, stepping in unison, a notable sweetness in their pace. My admittedly pea-sized brain, which doesn’t make keen observations as quickly as others do, came to an iron-clad realization on this occasion, however: theirs was not merely the buddy-buddy handholding common to, say, Pashtun tribesman, rather ’twas parcel to an amorous bond between them. And you know what? Despite all this talk about Ugandans hating homosexuals, and all the laws enacted against them, not a damn person paid the couple any mind as they went about their quite openly gay way.

Today, I went to a pizza joint on the same street, and ordered a large pepperoni to go.  There are no laws here against ordering pizzas or toting them up to the street to one’s hotel, so I assumed that my hunger-satiating act would go disregarded by fellow pedestrians, as unremarkable as the cars driving by. Yet on the way back to the hotel every Ugandan man, woman, and child seemingly within a three-block radius balked to comment, gawk, or politely request that I dish them a slice.

The government here ought take note: honorable and esteemed ladies and gentlemen, your constituency just wants to eat.

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Inside Kampala’s Owino Market: Another Aside from Living Brazilishly

…in which we become cognizant that our muzungu adventurer’s only regret from the Owino market was the theft of oral hygiene products from his backpack; and of the indulgent fraternity celebrated over a Mountain Dew.

SAM_2881The Owino market in downtown Kampala is insanity commodified, or commodity insanified, or something sea-sawing fluidly between the two. Nubian bodies push, press, and swell toward buses, shops, and food stalls; boda-boda (moto-taxi) drivers bellow at potential clients; traffic jams ring the entire scene, Muslim women toting fruit-bearing baskets atop their colorfully-hijabbed heads; and all of this whilst the familiar odor of open sewage fouls the nostrils and is yet counter-balanced by the aroma of roasting chicken. This medley – the hallmark of markets the world over, but somehow special in Kampala – tantalizes your sense of life. Here you’re in a constant state of endorphin overload, the realness engaging your every sense.

In the Owino there are no name brands: no Starbucks, no Armani. They probably wouldn’t know what to make of the golden arches if they woke up to find them sticking out of their asses. No one is wearing skinny jeans or trucker hats or bug-eyed sunglasses. I strongly suspect the latest Britney Spears scandal would draw scant attention. No, in the Owino it’s just Ugandans, Rwandans, and Sudanese, Africans from the very heart of this still little-known continent, doing what they have done since that first market stall went up along some incipient trade route in the Sahara millennia ago: hawking and shilling every manner of random ware, jostling and haggling and hustling to carve out a livelihood and passing the time in incessant conversation with jovial passersby, compatriot marketers, and the occasional chatty foreigner.  In the midst of the Owino, amongst the Africans who populate it, you sense their economic survival instinct, one acutely honed by centuries of neglect (moderated by bursts of hyper-attentiveness in the form of abuse) from whatever national authorities happen to be running the show. These folks are natural salespeople and to watch them work in their element is akin to a form of high poetry, the calligraphy of this anthill of human interaction played against the background of tradition, intense color, and a ceaseless stream of broad, toothy smiles as only the Africans can do them.

SAM_2821

Before I went to the Owino, the hotel reception desk implored me reassess the plan. Minimally, I was informed, I’d lose my wallet, sucked into nothingness like the South Sudanese government under the duress of the current conflict. And anyhow, who ever heard of a white foreigner voluntarily going to the Owino solo, sans assistance? They informed me that were I to brave the market’s frothy human rapids, I’d be best served enlisting accompaniment in the form of a trustworthy local who knew the area. I would acquiesce to neither, though I understand such advice is just how things go in Kampala. A standing assumption exists that once you venture outside the hotel compound, thar be dragons. You are assumed to be hoofing giddy a bee-line to either Bubbles O’Leary (a local expat watering hole that I have yet to visit, and probably won’t); to one of the game reserves hours away in your tourist desire to get photos of yourself feeding chimps in the supposed wild; or to a nearby (and secure) craft market to purchase mementos for parents or significant others, like the uber-cheesey masks that everyone I ever met who visited Africa displays proudly on their wall.

The Owino isn’t a theme park, and for this I am glad. I didn’t come to Uganda to spend my time in air conditioned mall stores making purchases of Chinese products masquerading as authentic African memorabilia.  And the Owino likewise isn’t Somalia; people have what seems to be an unreasonable fear about what terrible fate might befall them in the market, but let’s be honest, you’re not fleeing the ready rifles of Al-Shabaab. Counting myself a man of fortune superior to most, I assessed I’d be equally safe, and set forth.

Getting there proved a task, beset from the start by human speed bumps, an exercise in how speaking the same language as another person does not equate to communication. The hotel taxi driver passively balked at taking me, coolly insisting that I visit another market where he was certain I’d find quality African crafts. I explained to him thrice that in fact ’twas not my intention to engage in any level of consumer culture that day, and in fact was more disposed to dealing in essences, which is why I sought the Owino for its very Ugandaness. And yet he persisted. I surmised his desperation was founded less on the fact that my safety was important to him, and more related to the fact that he receives a kick-back for any purchases foreigners make in the markets to which he corrals us. The vendors are likely his uncles. I got tired of explaining, still jet lagged as I was, and let him drop me off where he wanted. Once he departed and was out of eyesight, I inquired of the first the first traffic cop I spotted how to get to the Owino.

SAM_2870I finally made it. Beating feet through the market, I developed a gradual but solid grasp of the entry and exit ways of the Owino’s labyrinthine streets. Walking with purpose – it pays dividends to seem like you know what you’re doing – I spent the first hour just getting the market’s pulse, the ebb and flow of shoppers and vendors alike as they ricocheted off one another like human pinballs, only whipping out my camera to get snaps once I’d made one full walk around and had come out the opposite end near the Gaddafi Mosque. The photos (below) speak for themselves, and nothing I write here will do justice to what I saw. My sole complaint: I got robbed. As the soothsayers of the hotel reception desk foresaw, indeed, I was pick-pocketed. Yet the casualty being a small blue purse containing a toothbrush and paste, taken from the small pocket in my backpack, I was both relieved that I hadn’t lost more and that the culprit might be treated a fortnight of decent oral hygiene.

Despite the heist, my faith in Africa’s goodness remained intact, for an event transpired betwixt me and a Ugandan Every Man that made my heart swell with fraternal love for my African brothers. If you know me, then you know I love Mountain Dew. My fondest memories are all attached to this verdant life-giving nectar; with pleasure paths firmly rooted, sippeth I continuously of the beverage at every reasonable opportunity, for it enhances as it entrances. And yet there is no Mountain Dew in Brazil, where I’ve labored these three long Dew-less months before descending upon Uganda. So in the Owino, I came upon an ambulatory cold drink salesman, his Styrofoam cooler upon his shoulder and his brow moist with the sweat of midday sun. And he had in his possession an errant Dew, upon which I acted with silent industry after delivering the purchase price of 2,000 Ugandan shillings.

SAM_2847A random mall cop-ish security guard saw me enjoying my Dew and asked if I’d buy him one, too. I was reluctant to do this for someone I didn’t know, and in the Owino market of all hellholes getting out money for strangers is even less advisable. Perhaps it was a ploy, a clever chicanery that would result in more than toothpaste being stolen this time? But I must admit, I was intrigued, for he eyed my Dew with a benign spirit and parched lips. So I asked him why he wanted one. His response, and I’m quoting: “I find it refreshing.” And so 2,000 Ugandan shillings left my pocket with a velocity typically reserved for werewolf-bound silver bullets. Indeed, ne’er had a stranger in a foreign land spoken so poetically and truthfully to me about the need to slake the aridness of his throat. And we shared our Dews, this man and I, bonded in bubbly green fraternity.

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At What Price Virgin Undies: Negotiating Laundry Costs in Uganda in a Further Digression from Living Brazilishly

…in which you will be regaled with a chronicle of how the author got hip to the ways of local business dealings and saved himself 10 whole dollars; of how he represented America proudly in a haggle for the ages; and of how the situation taught him a valuable lesson in the petty forms of corruption which serve as the gateway to graver ones.

I am not a master negotiator. As a kid, I occasionally made a halfway-decent baseball card or comic book trade, but the FBI would not call upon me to speak with a hostage-taker; I’m afraid the ensnared innocents would end up in a pool of their own spilt crimson. I’m a good-hearted person raised in a household where fairness was a given, my parents investing considerable effort to inculcate my brother and I with the notion that “do unto others” were not words suited merely to idle banter. The passing of years has frequently taught me frustrating lessons about the ilk of folk who live in a state of incessant angle with relation to economic matters. This is the species of person for whom more is never enough, the whole of their earthly being seeming to thrive on outwitting another for the benefit of even a slightly bigger helping at the table. Indeed, they’ll steal your fingers when shaking your hand. But after a week in Kampala, I’m finally doing business in a manner commensurate with the local standard, hoovering up the tricks of an ancient art form: the haggle.

On Thursday, I needed to do laundry. Whereas at home I love doing laundry and relish the weekly therapeutic experience of washing, drying, and ironing, when on the road my spirit turns sour toward tasks so mundane. Indeed, when laundry’s Bat signal flashes brilliantly against the night sky while on a trip, I find myself asleep at the wheel. But I was desperate: nothing remained in my wardrobe but an errant left sock and a lone clean boxer brief. The latter stared at me from the profoundest recesses of the chester, imploring me to provide a remedy to her extreme solitude. Simultaneously, I was angered to fisticuffs, though admittedly only with myself. Whose fault is it for sandbagging ’til the last virgin undies were at risk of being soiled? Fatigued with this absurd game of undergarment chicken, I commenced war-gaming my laundry options.

First, I could utilize the hotel service.  Convenient. But consider the wash prices here at the Serena Kampala: dress shirts $6 each; tee shirts $5 each; underwear $3 per pair, same for socks. Indeed, my laundry bill would have run to nearly $100 at those extortionate rates. American taxpayer, ye ought be proud of your faithful overseas representative, for he cannot readily countenance those prices even though his travel orders allow for their timely reimbursement. Second, I could go to a colleague’s house locally. But that requires scheduling and coordination; now firmly ensconced in my late 30s, I’m simply not able to engage in that degree of headwork on a weekend. Third, I could find a place in walking distance of the hotel: drop off, pick up, pay. As luck would have it, I chanced upon such a service one day prior, and it seemed a respectable and well-frequented establishment, judging by the full racks of pressed and dry-cleaned garments. Thus I gathered my belongings and, forging my jaw solidly in defiance of skid-marked drawers, stomped down the street to the laundromat.

Upon arrival, I was attended by Sarah, a Ugandan vixen whose stunning physical attractiveness and pleasant disposition were counter-balanced by the heaviest thumb this side of the Great Rift Valley. She weighed my goods, confidently declaring them at 4 kilos. The charge, she said, was 10,000 shillings per kilo, running the cost of my total load at 40,000 shillings, or $20.

Me: “When will they be ready?”

Sarah: “Tuesday”

Me: “But you said it only takes two days. That’s nearly five.”

Sarah: “It’s two business days. Today is Thursday, but it’s late and doesn’t count. Tomorrow is Friday, so that’s one. We are open Saturdays but don’t wash, so that doesn’t count, nor does Sunday. Monday is the second business day. Then Tuesday they will turn the clothes into us so you can have them by 4 PM.”

Me: “Friday, Monday, then Tuesday… You sure that’s not three business days?”

Sarah: “Yes.”

Me: “Do you offer express service?”

Sarah: (Realizing a fish just swallowed the hook) “Of course. It’s double the charge but you can get your clothes back tomorrow, ready for the weekend.”

Me: “So it’ll cost me 80,000 shillings [$40 US] to get them back in one day? That seems excessive, especially when you’re using the same washing machine and doing the same service, and I barely have any clothing in the first place. And isn’t $40 the current minimum monthly salary for most Ugandans?”

Sarah is unmoved. She just smiles. And waits.

Me: “Well then I’ll leave just half the load with you. I will find a way to wash the rest of them on my own.”

Sarah: “Well why don’t you leave me the whole load, but I’ll enter it into the system as 3 kilos. So you get all 4 kilos done, but you’re only paying for 3. If you do express service, it’ll only cost 60,000 shillings [$30], so you’ll save 20,000 [$10].”

And so a face-saving deal was struck, both parties essentially content with the arrangement and receiving a tangible benefit for their strenuous intellectual efforts. But what struck me about the end game was the nature of Sarah’s compromise: it wasn’t about offering a discount, which is the standard price incentive to keep customers happy. Instead, it was a deal based on the fabrication of the actual amount of work being done, a textbook exercise in book cooking. It seemed to me that such is the gateway drug to heavier forms of corruption. And it likewise occurred to me that clean underwear is not worth the initial high-bar premium charged for them here.

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Uganda Adventure Installment #2: Of Bribes and Men

…in which we learn how stupid a gringo withdrawn from his accustomed element can actually be; how his folly resulted in a public exhibition of lack of street smarts and, to a lesser extent, low-grade financial catastrophe; and how for the first time in his life he really, really wants foreign women to leave him alone.

My bags arrived at the airport in Entebbe on Friday evening, though ye who hath faithfully eyed my recent scribblings already know that ’twas Saturday morning before I made it to Idi Amin’s old stomping grounds myself. Upon setting my fatigued dogs to the linoleum floor in the Entebbe airport terminal, my overriding concern was locating said luggage. This was accomplished with ease, to my relief. Two very pleasant young Ugandan women at the lost luggage desk had prepped it for my arrival, promptly retrieving it for me to inspect when I presented the claim.

Then they requested I tip them for keeping the contents safe. Easy enough. As it was clear following inspection that all personal effects were present and accounted for, so overjoyed was I that, indeed, the thought crossed my mind to place gratitude’s silver in their palms before they’d spoken even the first word about it. And yes, I KNOW it’s their JOB to protect my bags, and they shouldn’t get paid extra for doing so. But this isn’t the US, where people accept dictums about good work being its own reward. I have zero problems demonstrating my comprehension of that fact, as long as I don’t look like a tourist fool in the process.

Yet it is precisely at this point where the negocio grew tricky. I went into it with a pronounced disadvantage. Having never paid a protection fee to anyone for any reason, how much is enough? What quantity exhibits goodwill yet avoids the setting up the next muzunga for financial ruin when he crosses paths with this dynamic duo of Samsonite-pilfering black widows?

Thus, dumb-assedly KNOWING the only result would be getting fleeced, I sent my first fumbling cannon ball across the bribe bow: “Just tell me how much people normally give you in a situation like this.” And they did: smirking disbelievingly and exchanged an anticipatory glance betwixt themselves, they named the price at 50,000 Ugandan shillings, just short of $25. When I produced the exact quantity of cash from my pocket and laid it with a smile on their desk, their disbelief augmented by orders of magnitude, eyes bulging at my wholesale willingness to accept what locals know is 10 times the normal “tip” in such a situation, if one is paid at all. I didn’t even haggle. But to be honest, I didn’t care. That’s what two days of flying, nutritionally-impoverished airport food, and no sleep will do to you, my body and spirit weakened to the point of outright submission. As the saying goes, I was just happy to be there.

They asked me to write and sign my name into a ledger confirming my receipt of the bags. I did so. They asked for my passport to confirm my name, jotting something in their notes. By the time I got to the hotel and fired up the free WIFI an hour later, I’d already received a Facebook message from one of the ladies, who had searched me out, offering to be my tour guide in Uganda. Call me paranoid, but I sense a marriage proposal shant be long in arriving at this point.

I reasoned that perhaps she was merely overly-aggressive, not representative of local norms. But then at the nearby Garden City Mall yesterday afternoon, I spent two hours repelling the invasive glances of local women who sized up this pale-faced foreigner like a rack of prize beef. I began to surmise ’tis not necessarily my effervescent personality alone attracting this attention.

My grasp of how pushy they can be crystallized while departing the mall and walking back to the hotel. A woman I’m assuming was a prostitute appeared out of the proverbial nowhere, grabbed my arm and demanded I follow her. No thanks, I don’t want AIDS today. To the acute entertainment of passersby, who chucklingly gawked at my misfortune, this lady of the Kampala eve subjected me to mobile harassment for a full city block, snatching at my shirt and laying hands upon me in a manner not dissimilar to the Bon Jovi song, before ultimately letting me go and cursing my roundly as she slinked back to the place from whence she appeared.

This may be the first time I’ll utter such words, but I promise you I do not utter them carelessly: ladies, please leave me alone.

Below: images of the trip.

 

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An Aside from Living Brazilishly: Uganda Adventure Installment #1

…in which we learn of Brian’s bogus journey, resulting in an insufferable evening of involuntary refuge on the hot plastic chairs of the international airport in Nairobi, Kenya. This, whilst being pricked and bled dry by malaria-ridden mosquitos, and falling into the temporary good graces of the VIP lounge caretakers, utilizing his last shred of charm, to allow use of their WIFI, thus constituting our intrepid traveler’s only bridge to the outside world during this time of egregious despair.

Everything about this virgin trek to the motherland kicked off well, not unlike a first-round of a classic-era Anderson Silva octagon scrap. In fact, ’twas almost too easy. Getting out of Rio was cinch; Air France exhibited tender loving care to all us passengers, introducing me to cheeses and breads I didn’t know even existed, chasing it with cheap box wine upgraded to a biodegradable plastic bottle, but wine none the less. Upon arrival in Paris, I found a Starbucks at Charles de Gaulle and sipped haughtily at my vice-inducing beverage, my piddly will wont to do in the French capital and feel, if only fleetingly, if not high-brow, then at least solid middle-brow culture.

But then the unraveling began. I boarded the great sleek steel bird that would yank me from Paris and launch me into the skies over Sicily, then Benghazi and the Sarhara (which I could see cloudlessly from the window), onward over the Sudan following a course down the Nile, eventually to Nairobi, Kenya. From which point I would disembark and hop the final flight to Kampala, Uganda. It is true that the signs and symbols of tragedy are oft inscribed with nuance upon the stars, in a manner no soothsayer would interpret as a negative tea leaf. For on the plane to Nairobi, I sat next to a morbidly obese French child, who grunted lustingly for ever-more food and guffawed at every stupid joke made in Pixar animated film Planes, which they showed 4 straight times in the sardine-like economy coach. And my ass began to hurt in no small measure, as by the time this flight was accomplished, I’d spent the better part of 21 full hours in the air in the preceding 24. And the kid took up a great deal of physical space, so large his fleshy bandwidth, so unappetizing the hot dog-like fat rolls on his neck. Though no theologian, this denial of my space for the flight’s duration put me in mind of Peter’s first denial of Christ, albeit I am reluctant to cast my struggle for armspace with tubby in epic religious terms.

We arrived in Nairobi with an overage of time to kill, but infelizmente the lackluster and uninspired agents of Kenyan Airways experienced a dickens of a time herding all of us off the plane, into the gate-hopping paddy wagon, and over to the proper terminal, at which point we were all forced to herd ourselves. It did not seem, on the surface, a task so difficult; but not having taken their Lean Six Sigma courses, the Kenyan airport authorities are none to skilled in the specializations required to run an efficient operation, or so became ruefully clear to me within seconds of hitting the tarmac. And this got ugly at the transfers desk, where I was trying to get my final boarding pass printed, gasping for the sole customer service agent assigned there to assist.

Now, let’s rewind slightly: why wasn’t the final boarding pass already printed in Rio? Very worthwhile query; let me assure you I also pondered thusly the same item. But in Rio they told me I could get it printed in Paris; in Paris they promised me it’d be taken care of in Nairobi upon arrival; and now at the Nairobi transfers desk, it became a real-time adaptation of kick-the-can but with considerably greater implications for yours truly. Namely, missing the flight and thereby spending the night in the airport. And the transfer desk agent’s response was literally: “You don’t exist in our system, so we’re not printing you a boarding pass.” This second denial inched me ever-closer to matrydom, and it started becoming hard not to pitch my battle to get to Uganda in epic religious terms.

Surely thou art merely cruelly joshing your Brianzinho, Kenyan amigos! My retort to the transfer desk official, a late-term pregnancy woman of no more than 22 whose name was ironically Charity, fell on deaf ears. I mention her name since, were I to be frank at this juncture in the retelling, I’d say Charity’s actions were falling well shallow of upholding her namesake, given the arc of her constantly rolling eyes, the dismissiveness of her voice, and her constant suggestion that I call my travel agency to “fix the problem”.

So I lose all sense of time, place, and context. I go straight to the bribe: what doth thou desire? What could put me in a plane tonight? I have now traveled three continents in 26 hours, 20 of those being physically on a plane, and not dissimilar to the protagonist in Edgar Allen Poe’s “El Dorado”, my mental and physical strength now failed me at length. Surely a woman in her stage of pregnancy might dine readily on chocolates tongith, hmmm? Might a 9-dollar bag of Hershey’s put my bald ass in a plane bound for Uganda this very eve, Charity? For I am American Diplomat in a state of Great Desperation, and I will do quite literally anything to ensure I am on the plane in 15 minutes when it leaves Kenyan air space. Kampala has now transformed to an oasis in my fatigue-besieged mind. And isn’t my President Obama a man with Kenyan roots, deep as the nutrient-rich Kenyan subsoil, after all one of you? And would not helping his lowly emissary, here to be found in such narrow straits, be to deny a long lost brother-done-good? None too givingly, Charity finally heard my petition and offered me the transfer desk’s cell phone to make some calls, since my own Blackberry was not functioning whatsoever.

I will add that as I provided these long-winded explanations, the other passengers, finding themselves in equally perplexing pickles, chuckled heartily and in unison. They, clearly far more experienced in the ways of the institutional culture of the Nairobi Transfer Desk, intuitively and experientially understood that I’d make no headway with any of this. And they found the fact that I would try naive, hilarious, and pathetic all swirled into the glaze of a single crap cake.

So I got the travel agency on the line. In Brazil. On a borrowed Kenyan cell phone in bad condition, with background ambient noise compliments of a) people laughing at me, and b) people verbally assaulting the transfer desk in hopeful remedy of their own situations, some of which sounded even worse than mine.

One would think that with the travel agency on the line, calm would quickly be restored, tempers sated, murders avoided. But that would be based on one’s unreasonable assumption that all emergency line travel agents are rational beings who, in fact, both desire to assist the wayward federal traveler stranded in his first hour on the African continent AND are technically savvy enough to do so. But no. It went something like this:

Me: “Hi, my name is Brian and I’m a government worker stationed in Rio de Janeiro. Your travel agency booked my ticket yesterday for a flight to Kampala, Uganda and I’m having some trouble, which is why I’m calling this emergency line after-hours. I am in Kenya right now (brief description of issue follows) and really need your help. What can we do?”

Her: “Ok, spell your last name for me.

Me: (Spelling my last name, each letter very deliberately)

Her: “Ok, let me repeat that to you… H… G… T… U… U… I… Z… R…”

Me: “No, NO! That’s NOT it. Ok, look, let me do this one more time, I’m going to yell it. I’m not yelling at you, so forgive me, This is just a very loud airport and a very useless phone.” (Commence repeat of last name spelling)

(Two more rounds of this and, miraculously, I believe she gets it right. Then…)

Her: “Sir, I don’t have your file here. Are you sure we booked your ticket? You don’t seem to exist.”

ME: “YES I’M F**KIN’ SURE!!! I GOT ALL THE WAY HERE FROM RIO DE JANEIRO ON THE TICKET YOU GUYS ISSUED TO ME, I’M LOOKING AT IT RIGHT NOW AND CALLED THE EMERGENCY NUMBER FOR HELP. I’M IN KENYA, AND I KNOW I DIDN’T TRAVEL OUT HERE ON AN IMAGINARY TICKET NOR DID I PAY THE $6,800 OUT-OF-POCKET JUST TO COME HERE AND PRANK CALL YOU ABOUT A PHANTOM FLIGHT AND WHY MY NAME OUGHT TO BE ON IT. So I need you to re-enter the spelling of my last name once more since I’m pretty sure you got it wrong and that’s why it’s not showing up. And by the way, can we do this quickly?The plane is leaving in 10 minutes.”

(We go through two more rounds of this. Finally, FINALLY, it’s ok and she locates my ticket.)

Her: “Oops, seems like we made a mistake. The very final portion of your flight, from Nairobi to Kampala, wasn’t officially released to the airline. Since it wasn’t released, it wasn’t issued. And since it wasn’t issued, you were not able to get a boarding pass, which is why you can’t travel right now. That’s all that happened.”

Me: “That’s ALL? Ok, look miss, I’ve already missed the flight. I don’t wanna spend the night in the airport sleeping on the chairs at the gate. There’s no a/c in here and the mosquitos are eating my bald ass alive. My mosquito repellant’s actually in my checked baggage, and I don’t know where that is at this point, either. When is the next flight to Uganda?”

Her: “Well which flight would you like to take? Any ideas?”

Me: “Sadly, no, I am bereft of ideas. Because, you see, YOU ARE THE FREAKIN’ TRAVEL AGENCY AND HAVE COMPUTERS WHICH, AS IF BY DIVINE PROVIDENCE, ARE SUPPOSED TO DISPLAY ALL THOSE THINGS, IMPORTANT STUFF LIKE FLIGHTS AND, YES, EVEN SCHEDULES. SO JUST TELL ME WHEN THE NEXT FLIGHT IS SO WE CAN GET ME ON IT AND FORGET THIS WHOLE THING EVER HAPPENED, can we please just do that, hmmmm can we?!”

It took an hour on the horn, plus the call dropping twice, to sort this out. But I am pleased to announce that now, at 3:15 AM on Saturday January 4, 2014, I have a boarding pass in hand and will proceed to Kampala, Uganda in a few hours. I can only hope, indeed pray, that I am not denied yet a third time. For how shall I rise after the metaphorical death a third denial would deal unto me?

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